This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.
“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” That’s what our guest lecturer, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, said to our preaching class over a decade ago. I’ve never forgotten her admonishment.
That’s not to say that I’ve always lived up to it. As a preacher, I will confess that I’ve uncritically repeated anti-Jewish ideas in sermons and writing without ever realizing they were anti-Jewish. It’s too easy to equate Pharisees with legalistic or hypocritical Christians. It’s too simple to buy into the theology that Jesus represented grace while Judaism represented law, that Jesus replaced an oppressive “Old Covenant” with a freeing “New Covenant,” substituting a relationship for rules.
It’s easy to portray Judaism as a religion obsessed with ritual purity—ignoring that the usual consequence for ritual impurity is simply not going to temple. As Dr. Levine told our class, “Being ritually unclean was generally not a big deal—most people were probably unclean most of the time.” Being ritually impure is an important part of life. Although handling a corpse might make you ritually unclean, burying an unburied body is an ethical imperative and an act of love. Having sex or menstruating might make people unclean, but it is a necessary part of being fruitful and multiplying. Judaism did not consider ritual impurity a sinful state! It was simply part of life. Conversely, one could be a jerk, fail to do justice and righteousness, and still go to worship—just as Christians do today.
Another version of this anti-Judaism says Jesus’ culture was patriarchal, but Jesus was a feminist, that first-century Jews were obsessed with money and privilege but Jesus, radical that he was, showed love to the poor and marginalized.
We often assume that for the Christian narrative to work, we have to make Jesus opposed to his own religion. Instead of locating him firmly within Jewish tradition, we make him an Other. The gospels themselves make it easy to do so: we read Jesus’ polemic against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, or about how “the Jews” rejected Jesus in John. Historically, it’s just as accurate to say that the early church rejected Judaism!
Dr. Levine’s recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, not only examines Jesus’ parables by placing them in a Jewish context, but also reviews some of the ways anti-Judaism gets perpetuated in Christian books, periodicals, and commentaries. Christians often rush to make parables clear-cut allegories with heroes and villains, to extract a tidy preachable moral from each story. Even when we take the view that parables are meant to unsettle, rather than simplify, we have very particular views about who is meant to be unsettled. As Levine says, “Clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are, unintentionally, repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes” (p. 20).
In the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), for example, we usually read with the assumption that the widow is a victim in need of rescue. Christian preachers often claim that in her first-century Jewish setting, she had no rights and was doomed to a life of poverty. Levine’s close linguistic reading of the text reveals that the widow is a dangerous woman: she desires revenge on an enemy, and the judge is afraid she will punch him the face!
Levine also gives us a view of biblical widowhood that is at odds with our usual reading of helpless victims in need of rescue. Although the Bible is full of admonitions to care for widows, and although biblical authors talk of society’s obligations to widows, widows clearly could own property—otherwise, why would villains be after their houses (Luke 20:46-47)? If they were helpless, why would Paul feel they needed to be regulated (1 Timothy 5)? In Jewish tradition, women without husbands are often strong protagonists who act decisively, like Judith, Ruth, Tamar (Genesis 38), and the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17).
It is not only our characterization of heroes and villains that reveal our anti-Jewish tendencies. When we describe Jesus’ audience as being offended by the lavish love of the prodigal Father, or indifferent to the suffering of Lazarus, or scandalized by a woman hiding leaven in bread, we reinforce the idea that his listening Jewish audience embodied everything wrong with us. (These are also sloppy readings of scripture, often contradicted by evidence in the story itself). By extension, we make Judaism into a broken religion in need of correction—a correction that can only happen through Jesus.
We don’t need to call Jews “Christ-killers” to promote anti-Judaism. Both conservative and liberal Christians, liberation theologians and evangelicals express this kind of anti-Judaism. It is perpetuated by Christians on both sides of the modern Israeli/Palestinian debate. It is deeply rooted in our Christian rhetoric. It means Christians in the pews seldom receive an accurate picture of either historical or modern Judaism, and that Jewish kids get bullied.
Here are some ways to avoid expressing anti-Judaism in our preaching:
- Refer to the “Hebrew Bible” instead of the “Old Testament.”
- Remember that most of what Jesus said about Pharisees and Jews of his day can be applied to committed religious people in any time and place. When Jesus talks about “Pharisees,” he often means it the same way that I mean “Christians” when I use it in this article—as a critique of a group to which we belong.
- Be careful about referring to “what Jews believe(d) or practice(d).” It’s often more accurate to say “some Jews.” Remember that like Christianity, Judaism has never been homogenous or monolithic. There are multiple ways of reading, interpreting, and living out Torah. In Jesus’ day there were at least four major Jewish factions, and even within those factions, people disagreed.
- Remember that real live Jewish people exist in your community. Christians often talk about Judaism as if it is in the past, or somewhere over in the modern state of Israel, and that it stopped developing 2000 years ago. Learn about contemporary Judaism in your own community.
- Take every opportunity to show how Jesus’ message echoes the major themes of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus did not invent concern for people at the margins, nor did he introduce an entirely new understanding of grace and sin. Connect what Jesus said to other Jews who lived around his time period, like Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
- Avoid attributing legalism, violence, or other negative qualities to the Jewish faith or the Hebrew Bible. It is not the case that Jews of the first century, or today, believe in stoning adulterers or disobedient children. Christians often assert that our “New Covenant” supplanted the Old. But Jewish parents love their kids, spouses, and neighbors just the way Christians do—imperfectly, passionately, and with a measure of grace. Jews manage to avoid stoning adulterers and disobedient children because they have a mature and nuanced understanding of how the Bible should guide their lives.
We do make definitive and distinctive claims about the person and character of Christ, and Christians have a unique theology of incarnation, atonement, and salvation. We do not need to stop lifting up the name of Jesus. But we need to learn to do so without denigrating—or making exotic—Jesus’ own faith.
“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” It’s a good principle for preachers to remember.
For further reading:
The Jewish Annotated New Testament Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine
The Jew Named Jesus by Rebekah Simon-Peter
Anti-Judaism in Christian Teaching and Preaching by Matt Skinner
6 Ways to Avoid Unintentional Anti-Judaism by William F. Brosend
Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintentional Anti-Judaism by Marilyn Salmon
Great article, I read it on Ministry Matters and keep coming back to it. Dr. Levine’s books have influenced me a lot, and your article does a wonderful job of hitting her major points. I’m pretty new in the ministry, going the Local Pastor route, taking Course of Study classes, and I keep wondering how to go about getting Dr. Levine’s perspective included in the Course of Study curriculum. It would go a long way toward fighting the rampant misperceptions out there, even if just one of her summary articles was required reading for a Hebrew Bible class. Do you have any idea who to start with in Nashville? Do you know anyone there, to kind of get the ball rolling?