As an attendee, I now continue my reporting of another presentation of the virtual conference held two weeks ago called “New Insights into the New Testament.” It was hosted by bestselling author, New Testament scholar, and historian of early Christianity Dr. Bart Ehrman. The following account is about Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s presentation, “Jesus and Women: Distinguishing History from Apologetic.” She is a recognized authority on this subject. In 2019, Dr. Levine had the honor of becoming the first Jew to teach the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
So, Dr. Levine is Jewish and a New Testament scholar with several published books to her credit, including The Misunderstood Jew. She is also professor emeritus of the New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. I know the affable and humorous Dr. Levine because she was the guest speaker at the two-day Zarley Lectures at North Park University in Chicago in 2001.
AJ, as Amy-Jill is often called by her friends, began her presentation with these two questions: “Why did women follow Jesus?” and “Why look at Gospel women?” She then rattled off the names of all women mentioned in the four New Testament gospels. They include several women with the name Mary. Scholars debate as to how many Marys there are in the gospels. We know for sure that one was Jesus’s mother and another was so-called Mary Magdalene. She has that name because she was from Magdala, located on the western shore of Lake Galilee.
The purpose of Dr. Levine’s presentation, indicated by its subtitle, was to show that sometimes there has been a difference between the actual history of some female character mentioned in the New Testament and a later Christian apologetic about her which misrepresents ancient Jewish culture. For example, AJ said, “Using negative Jewish stereotypes to say Jesus liberated women from their oppressive Jewish culture, that is all false.” She then asked another question, “Was Jesus a revolutionary or radical about liberating women?” AJ said she doesn’t think either.
Dr. Levine has an unusual history of being a Jewish New Testament scholar who has high respect for Jesus of Nazareth without believing he is Israel’s Messiah, yet she has had a significant ministry teaching Christians, even sometimes in their churches. One would expect that such a professor would be associated with either the Reformed or Conservative Jewish tradition here in the U.S. But no, Dr. Levine is a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, though she says she is regarded there as rather liberal. AJ also is involved in Jewish-Christian relations. She seeks to narrow the divide between these two faiths. One way she does this is to expose some faulty assumptions held of both Judaism and Christianity about each other. Interesting!
Dr. Levine often speaks about feminism. Since the feminist movement sometimes claims Jesus was a feminist, AJ said, “Jesus was not a feminist revolutionary.” For proof she cited the facts that of the twelve apostles Jesus chose, and especially among the inner three (Peter, James, and John), there were no females.
AJ then relates that during the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement explored the Jewish Talmud and cited only negative things it says about women and compared them to statements made by Jesus in the New Testament gospels, concluding that Jesus was a feminist revolutionary. She said evidence that women were not that suppressed in ancient Jewish culture is indicated by them being “everywhere in commerce to make money for the family.”
Concerning marriage and divorce, Dr. Levine cited Matthew 19 and Mark 10.10-12, but I admit I missed some of her points on this. In Matthew, Jesus provides for divorce due to adultery, but it is only about a man divorcing a woman. However, Jesus’s remark was prompted by a question Jews argued about, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” obviously referring to Deuteronomy 24.1-4. But only in the Mark text does Jesus indicate a woman could divorce her husband.
Dr. Levine then related another false stereotype about Jewish women of antiquity, “Women could not be accepted as witnesses in law or teach in synagogue.” She rebutted at least the latter by saying that from her study of the Talmud and other ancient Jewish literature, “I see no reason why women could not serve in leadership positions.” She then reiterated a major theme of her presentation, “Christian pastors and scholars try to find negative Jewish stereotypes to make Jesus look better.”
Dr. Levine said that the people around Jesus were single and celibate. That may be true; yet scripture indicates that Peter was married and had a mother-in-law (Matthew 18.14; Mark 1.30). Plus, the apostle Paul seems to have not been married since he wrote, “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas,” referring to the apostle Peter (1 Corinthians 9.5 NRSV).
Dr. Levine then wrapped up her presentation by saying “yes” to each of the following:
- “Jesus was a healer and an exorcist, but he was not the only one.”
- “Jesus was celibate.”
- “Jesus was an eschatological, apocalyptic preacher.”
Host Dr. Ehrman then directed a virtual Q&A from attendees. But I was not very attuned to it due to a distraction. One question, actually a statement, went something like this, “Mary Magdalene believed Jesus was raised from the dead but not that he was God as in the Nicene Creed.” I think Dr. Levine acknowledged that that was correct. I certainly believe that because I’ve written a large book about Jesus not being God, entitled The Restitution. AJ echoed what Ehrman and Goodacre had said earlier, that she did not like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” movie.
(Gibson and Randall Wallace supposedly are releasing a sequel to that flick this fall entitled “The Resurrection.)