It is no mystery that I am an academophile. I love school. I love lectures and information and learning things. So, when I get a chance to go to a lecture that interests me, I try to go. It helps if the topic is something that either confirms something I thought correct, or dispels something I believed incorrectly. Last night, I went to two lectures by Vanderbilt Divinity professor Amy-Jill Levine. She is an orthodox Jew who is professor of New Testament Studies. Wrap your head around that a moment. If you have ever gotten a Teaching Company catalog (“The Great Courses”), you have come across her name. She is brilliant, dynamic, funny, and a great educator. Imagine a shorter Jane Lynch with a New York accent, with black hair graying at the front and sides and brushed back so that the dark part almost resembles a yarmulke. She also has a view of the New Testament that I have never gotten before. I have known many great preachers in my life – some are Facebook friends of mine – and they all have a great knowledge of all things Bible, a hallmark of Church of Christ education. Where they often fall short, however, is a “uniquely” Jewish point of view of scripture. Most have (at best) a Greco-Roman point of view. They come by it honestly, as most scripture was written even after the Bar-Kokhba revolt from 132 to 135 (c.f. Bart Ehrman‘s research, et al). Last night’s topics were the parables found in scripture. Dr. Levine approaches them from an historical point of view first; she does not discount or deny the strength of the parables, but she does state that they almost certainly are not “true” – they did not happen, since most are told from an absurd point of view. The “mustard seed” parable is such an example. No one would plant mustard in their gardens in Palestine (it was against Jewish law), and neither does it form a huge tree (she compared its stubbornness to the dandelion and its size to scrub pasture-grass). Still, it forms the basis for theological understanding, since it can be interpreted many ways by many viewpoints.
For me, the skeptic, it shows how the New Testament is, at best, generally well-thought-out prose. Enough doubt has been cast on the mere existence of Jesus, let alone his divinity and the inspiration of the text, that the question of the supernatural (at least using the Bible as reference) is moot. But values are values, and the stories of Jesus share enough ethical theory with other religions, not to mention common sense itself, that the stories have merit from a literary standpoint. It is that reason, in a theological studies framework, that I find Dr. Levine so compelling. That, and she’s a hoot to hear speak.