Author Archives: Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine

About Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.

Common Misconceptions

In two previous essays, the author described common Jewish misconceptions about Christianity and explained the historical and cultural context that gave rise to Christianity. In the following article, Levine offers her opinions concerning some of the most controversial Jewish beliefs about Christianity. These essays first appeared in Moment magazine, and were also published in Best Spiritual Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Christians are not idolators. Statues and icons are like prayer tools: They are the means to the end, which is the worship of God. We may compare this to the kissing of a Torah scroll during a Jewish worship service; the scroll is not divine, but it is honored, and even “dressed” in such a way that an outsider might see it as an idol.non-jews 

Body & Blood

Speaking of errors outsiders sometimes make, consider the matter of what Christians call either the “Eucharist” (Greek for “thanksgiving”) or “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” Ask Christians if they believe they are eating the body and blood of Jesus when they take communion. Iron­ically, just as Christians from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children to bake matzah (a charge made by the notorious Nazi anti-Semite Julius Streicher and recently promulgated by some within the Islamic world), so in the early years of the church, Christians were accused by pagans of using blood in their worship services. Christians did not use blood, but they did use the language of blood.

While the idea of consuming blood is considered anathema in Judaism–it is forbidden throughout Jewish tradition–that Jesus might have spo­ken about bread and wine served at his last supper as being his body and blood is not completely odd, when seen in historical context. In the first century, animal sacrifice was a major part of religious culture. Both Jews and gentiles believed in the power of blood to cleanse sin, to honor or ap­pease heaven. Thus–in what is clearly a hyperbolic, extreme statement–Jesus, knowing he was to die, may well have spoken of his body in sacri­ficial terms.

Christianity’s Historical Context

This article first appeared in Moment magazine, and was also published in
Best Spiritual Writing 2003
(Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

The Judaism that developed in the late fourth century B.C.E. in the wake of Alexander the Great incorporated Greek cultural views, just as Jews have always been influenced by the countries in which we live. Thus, we find in the centuries leading up to the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E. an increasing penetration of Greek thought within Jewish communities. 

This synthesis of earlier Jewish tradition and new ideas is called “Hellenism,” and it is in the crucible of Hellenism, supported by the Roman Empire that gained control over Israel in 63 B.C.E., that Chris­tianity was conceived.

Hellenistic Influences

We can see the influence of Hellenism in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 mentions that a “virgin” would conceive a child who would be called “Immanuel” (the Hebrew means “God with us”). This verse is cited in the New Testament’s Gospel according to Matthew as being ful­filled by the birth of Jesus. Otherwise put, some of the attributes accorded Jesus by his earliest followers make sense when seen in a Jewish, Greek-speaking context. Actually, the underlying Hebrew is not “virgin,” but “young woman.”

By the early first century C.E., more than just Greek language had fully impacted Jewish life and thought in Israel and the Western Diaspora. Retelling their traditional stories in Hellenistic and Roman terms, many Jews began to think of their ancient heroes such as Moses and Abraham, as well as less well known figures such as Enoch and Melchizedek, as di­vine men. Moses and Melchizedek were attributed miraculous births; Abra­ham became known, along with prophets Elisha and Elijah, as a miracle worker; Enoch, transported into heaven, took on the role of future judge of the world.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria spoke of the man­ifestation of God on earth; he called this the “Logos” (Greek for “word”), which is the same term some early Christians applied to Jesus (as in the opening words of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word”).

Jesus Who?

In the following article, the author describes common Jewish myths about Christianity and explains why she believes it is important for Jews to learn about Christianity. In subsequent articles, Levine will debunk these misconceptions and put the development of Christianity in historical context. These essays first appeared in Moment magazine, and were also published in
Best Spiritual Writing 2003
(Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.Non-Jews

That many Christians have misperceptions about Judaism–views rang­ing from the slightly humorous (all Jews are smart, all Jews can read He­brew) to the blatantly obscene (Jews are children of the devil, Jews seek world domination) is common knowledge to us Jews. We would like our Christian neighbors to appreciate Judaism as a tradition of spiritual depth, profound practice, rich culture, and moral emphasis, and we would also like them to know that we Jews do not have horns, do not worship a God of wrath and law as opposed to a God of love and compassion, and do not spend much time worrying about the state of our immortal soul. 

But ignorance cuts both ways. It’s time for us to learn more about Christianity: not just its history of anti-Semitism, but also its theological depth and system of morality.

Why Learn More?

Most Jews know little about Christianity, and what we know–impressions often gleaned from benign mall decorations of elves and bun­nies to the spoutings of narrow-minded ministers convinced that they have a lock on heaven’s doors–is likewise often mistaken. Our errors range also from the harmless (thinking that “Christ” is a last name) to the horrifying (thinking that all Christians are anti-Semites).

Yet, in fact, since the birth of the Christian church, we have been ask­ing questions about this moment. Today, with the rise in Christian missionary efforts to convert Jews, on the one hand, and with the current congeniality of interfaith dialogue on the other, it’s time to revisit these questions.jesus

Learning more about Christianity helps us in at least two ways. Not only does this type of inquiry tell us how anti-Jewish attitudes developed within the church, but also, informed historical discussion enables us both to appreciate the traditions of our Christian neighbors and to en­hance our appreciation for the choices Judaism made.