Jewish New Testament Professor Amy-Jill Levine Has a Fresh Take on Lent

The Rev. Saroj Sangha of Glenmont United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md., holds a container of ashes on Ash Wednesday in her church’s parking lot on March 1, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Amy-Jill Levine has described herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist” and said that although she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, she is “often quite unorthodox.”

For one, Levine teaches both Jewish studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

And the professor has written a new Lenten study titled “Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” published by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.

“If I’m not a believer in Jesus, and I think these are fabulous stories, how much more so should somebody who’s a Christian find extraordinary meaning in them?” Levine said.

And as a Jewish historian,  she said, she “can point out meaning that perhaps Christians were not aware of.”

In her new book, Levine walks through several stories Christians typically read during Holy Week, or Passion Week, marking the final days before Jesus was crucified, according to New Testament accounts.

That week also marks the final days of Lent, the penitential season many Christians observe leading up to Easter, when they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Catholics and many Protestants, Lent began this week.

Author Amy-Jill Levine

Levine spoke to Religion News Service about Lent and risk and reading the New Testament from Rome, where she recently spent a morning talking to American priests on retreat about “why I think Jesus is wonderful.” In the coming weeks, she plans to present Pope Francis with a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament she co-edited.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your new study, you draw a comparison between Lent in Christianity and the Days of Awe in Judaism. Can you talk about that?

Lent reminds me of what are called the Days of Awe — the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish liturgical calendar. We think about what we’ve done in the past and what we should be doing in the future. We take time to repent. We take time to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing in the world and how we can do it better.

The month that’s the run-up to Rosh Hashanah is also a time of introspection. You make amends — because you can’t put yourself in a right relationship with God if you’re not in a right relationship with people in your life.

It’s kind of like a theological do-over. And I find that remarkably healthy.

Both in Lent on the Christian calendar and in parts of the Jewish calendar, the community does this together. So you’re not alone in the difficulties of assessing what you’ve done. You’re not alone in trying to figure out how to do life better.

How does delving into the history and literature of Holy Week make the texts more meaningful?

Anybody can read the Bible. You can just pick the text up and say, “What does this text mean to me?” And you make a profound response.

But I do think the more history we know, the more profound the reading experience becomes. In the same way, if you fall in love with somebody, you want to know that person’s background.

If somebody claims to appreciate the stories of the Bible, it seems to me they ought to try to know something about the context in which the Bible was written. If we talk about Jesus teaching in the Temple, which is part of Lenten readings, then it helps to know what the Temple was like. It helps to know that there are Roman soldiers who are in the area. It helps to know that there were pilgrims from all parts of the empire — many of them don’t speak the same language — rejoicing and celebrating this Feast of Freedom, and those are the folks who are listening to these teachings. If we think about Passion Week coming at the same time as Passover, it helps to know what Passover is and how Passover is celebrated. If we read Scripture and Jesus quotes a passage from the shared Scripture — what the church would call the Old Testament and the synagogue would call the Tanakh — it really helps to know what that Scripture is and what comes before and what comes after and how people read that text in the first century.

Is there a particular story in these texts that stands out to you?

I like them all, but I’m very much drawn to the story where, at the beginning of these events, Jesus is at dinner — he eats a lot — and a woman comes in and anoints his head with very expensive ointment, like Chanel. People complain, and they say, “Wait a minute, this is expensive perfume. You could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.”

And Jesus says, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” And then we stop because that’s a quote directly out of Deuteronomy, and you know the next line is, “And therefore extend your hand to the poor and the needy.” You always have the chance to do this, but, as Jesus goes on to say, “You will not always have me here, and what she has done is anoint me for my burial.”

And he goes on to say, “This story will be told in memory of her.”

The story is supposed to be told in memory of her, so how do we tell that story? And when we tell it, do we tell it about her? What was she thinking? And later on in the Gospel of Mark, when three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, did it not occur to them that this woman had already done that — that she got it right, that she understood what was going on?

Why don’t we have, on the Christian liturgical calendar, a dinner celebrating her? I think that’s the new feast that needs to be invented: We have a special dinner at the beginning of Holy Week and we tell stories about all the women who made this mission possible. How cool would that be?

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Source: Religion News Service