Alumni Profiles Series: Amy-Jill Levine
Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., a Duke Religion Ph.D. alumna (1984) and an elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has just been appointed Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International Seminary for Religion and Peace. In August 2021, she became University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies Emerita, and Professor of New Testament Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University. Prior to joining the Vanderbilt faculty, she was Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot Associate Professor at Swarthmore College in the Department of Religion. She is the author of many books, including Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi and The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. With Duke University Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D., she wrote The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently and co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament. With Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, she has written six children’s books based on biblical texts. Professor Levine is currently working on a book examining how the Gospels and their reception history can serve as resources for diagnosing and interrogating contemporary subjects, such as economics, healthcare, and gender.
What drew you to the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke?
In the late 1970s, the major person—pretty much the only person—who was looking at the New Testament in its Jewish context was Professor W. D. Davies, who was teaching at Duke. The only other Ph.D. programs to which I applied were at Brown University and Boston College because I’m from Massachusetts. I’m an only child, and my mother had been sick, so I thought if I could commute to graduate school, that would be fine. My mother, who had always been my biggest supporter, insisted, “You’ve talked about this fellow Davies, so see if Duke will take you, and we’ll work something out.” Duke University, God bless it, gave me a very generous fellowship. I moved to North Carolina, and I called my mother every night.
What professional plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
I wanted to earn a Ph.D. in New Testament and then teach Religion, and primarily teach New Testament, to Christians so that they would stop making anti-Jewish comments about Jesus and Paul’s first-century Jewish context. I also wanted to include the New Testament as part of Jewish Studies. I thought, “If I, as a Jew, can’t get a teaching position, I’ll take the LSATs and go to law school.” I received an invitation to teach at Swarthmore College, where, as part of a three-person Religion Department, I taught biblical texts, everything concerning Judaism, and everything concerning women. I earned tenure at Swarthmore and was happily teaching there–it’s a great school–when Vanderbilt University enticed me to join their faculty by making an offer both to me and to my husband, Jay Geller (Duke Ph.D., Religion, 1985), who was that semester teaching at Bryn Mawr.
How do you understand the relationship between New Testament scholarship and Jewish-Christian relations, and what has being involved in both meant to you?
Along with the fact that I find the literature and the history fascinating, what keeps me invested in Biblical Studies is that I’ve seen the Bible used to hurt people. There’s an old saying that the Bible should be a rock on which you stand rather than a rock thrown to do damage. I’ve seen it do too much damage, not only in terms of Jewish-Christian relations, but also in terms of questions of gender and sexuality, race, economics, incarceration, disability, citizenship status, and so on. As a scholar, I can bring my historical knowledge and my knowledge of reception history to provide readings that can heal rather than harm. We have a choice of readings—we can read a text in a malevolent manner and come out hating people, or we can read a text in a benevolent manner and come out being kind. I can show people how to read in ways that do not foster hatred. I also do not believe that people should sacrifice the particulars of their own traditions on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. We can stay who we are, but also be able to say, “I don’t agree with your reading, but I see how you got there. Moreover, I do agree with you on the following other things, and, therefore, we can work together.”
In terms of Jewish-Christian relations, the New Testament is Jewish history, and it is Jewish history that I did not learn in the synagogue. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Massachusetts, and the Hebrew School teachers were very good in providing historical information up to the Chanukah story. Then, like magic, we’re in the Mishnah. We went from the 160s before Jesus to about 200 C.E. I thought, “If I want to know something about first-century Jewish history—along with Josephus, Philo, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, what archaeology can tell us, etc.—the New Testament is a fabulous source. We should not read Jesus or Paul against Judaism. It makes more sense to read them within a Jewish context. Moreover, most of the New Testament is Jewish history, so I can tell Jews about their own history, and I can tell Christians, ‘You don’t need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus and Paul look good because that’s bearing false witness against a tradition that is not your own.’” People sometimes say, “AJ, you’re biased about that, you’ve got an agenda.” Absolutely! One can be biased and right.
Tell us about your name. You were Amy-Jill when you started at Duke, and now you go by AJ.
The reason I’m AJ and not Amy-Jill is that as I started to send out articles, I found I wasn’t getting the same responses as the men in the program. Already the name “Levine,” which codes as Jewish, was a problem for some in the New Testament field. Having two women’s names signaled another problem. One of my faculty members suggested, “Why don’t you go by your initials, and see what happens?” The gates opened up, so I started to publish under AJ. I would get invited to conferences and people would ignore me until I gave the plenary, and they’d gasp, “AJ Levine’s a woman?!” At a conference at SMU back in the 1980s, this fellow came up to me and said, “Oh, I thought you were somebody’s wife!” Assigned rooms for conferences, with shared bathrooms, sometimes proved interesting. That was the support I had at Duke—that people recognized, “Oh, this is a problem. Let’s see what we can do to fix it.” Thank heaven we don’t have to change our names in most venues today.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
I like sitting down and reading a real book that I can mark with a pen rather than reading something on Kindle or online. I like teaching seminars where students, who are in the class because they are interested in the subject matter and not there simply for the credit, are invested in the material, do the work, and argue for their own readings. I liked teaching at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute here in Nashville, something I was not able to do last semester because of covid, because my insider students pose questions and offer interpretations that I’ve not considered, and need to consider.
In the Spring of 2019, I taught a course on parables to 45 priests at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. This marvelously international group from India, Brazil, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Sri Lanka, Russia, the Philippines, and many more countries did not at first quite know what to make of this Jewish woman who was so interested in Jesus. It was great being able to talk with them not only about the parables in historical context, but also to work with them in discovering what these parables mean in their own contexts.
I’m also interested in preaching, the craft of homiletics. I try to encourage my Christian students to read like Jews and thereby to tease out multiple meanings in a text. Biblical texts, to function as Scripture and so to have relevance to today, have to mean different things at different times. Otherwise, we’d be playing first-century Bible land. Then, the question is: How do you sort out what are good readings from bad readings, and how do you determine what this congregation at this moment needs to hear?
I’ve been writing Bible studies for Abingdon Press, which is the publication wing of the United Methodist Church. It’s wonderful when people who have been going to church for 50 or 60 years say, “You’ve given me new ways of understanding the Sermon on the Mount or the more difficult sayings of Jesus.” I encourage my readers to wrestle with texts rather than pass them over. These difficult sayings include Jesus’ sayings about hating one’s family, his language of heaven and hell, and both his parables about slaves and his mandate that disciples take on the role of being slaves. How does slave language function today given our own history of chattel slavery? How do we understand the Christmas stories? How do we understand the Passion narratives?
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
That’s hard. I’ve had a lot of extremely good mentors. I was very close to my mother. She’s the one who told me to pursue my passion. She said, “I don’t care if other people think it’s silly that you want to get a Ph.D. in Religion. What? You, my Jewish daughter, want to study the New Testament? If that makes you happy, then, sure, and now what other books do you want me to get for you? Let’s go to the library.”
When I got to Duke, after I took my qualifying exams, Elizabeth Clark joined the faculty as a chaired full professor. I wanted to be Liz. Liz took me under her wing. She not only said, “Here’s how you look professional in the academy,” she bought me an interview suit. She explained, “Here’s how you respond to questions. Here's where you place your articles and your books. Here’s whom you need to read.” Liz modeled for me what it meant to be a woman in the academy, which, again, in the late 70s and early 80s was very different than it is now. When Jay and I had our first child, a daughter, we named her Sarah after my father and Elizabeth after Liz Clark. That’s how much I owe Liz.
After I graduated, Liz was also very helpful to me in getting grants. I asked her, “How do I pay you back?” and she responded, “Pay it forward—I helped you, you help other people.” I’ve taken that to heart. Liz just died on September 7th of this year. May her memory be for a blessing.
Finally, both my mother and Liz told me, in effect, “If you don’t trust yourself or if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, trust us.” That’s advice that I’ve given to my own students. When they sometimes have self-doubt, I tell them, “If you weren’t good enough, I wouldn’t be working with you, because I wouldn’t waste my time, so trust me.”
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
I have so many good memories of Duke! First year, before the Divinity library got renovated, the graduate students worked in the dark basement. In the wintertime, we had to wear coats and mittens. But I loved being there, with my friends and among the books. I remember, day after day, going to the library and finding all these wonderful books. I would look for one volume but then, seeing the books shelved nearby, think, “Oh, I want to read these, too.” It’s a cliché, but I was like a kid in a candy store.
First year, my advising committee put me in a Pseudepigrapha class with Jim Charlesworth. I hadn’t read much of the Pseudepigrapha, and I was scared. Everyone else in the class was male, and everyone was at least three or four years older than I. They all had master’s degrees; I had come into the Ph.D. program directly from my undergraduate work at Smith College. One of Dr. Charlesworth’s students, Jim Mueller, who became a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, looked at me and said, “You look a little scared,” and I said, “I’m scared to death!” Jim Mueller said to me, “Whatever Dr. Charlesworth says, just answer, ‘Fourth Ezra.’ That’s all you need to know.” Dr. Charlesworth walks in… he introduces the syllabus, quotes a text, and asks, “Does anyone know which text I’ve cited?” Everyone in the class looks at me, so I raise my hand, and he calls on me: I say, “Fourth Ezra,” and he says, “Yes, somebody who knows this material!”
I had heard stories about how rough graduate programs can be and how students climb over each other to be at the top. I thought, “There must be something at Duke, where students are taught to help each other rather than to sabotage each other.” That’s what I found in the graduate program, and to this day, some of the people I would consider to be my closest friends are people with whom I went through graduate school, including my husband.
David Orenstein, Ph.D.
Recent Ph.D. graduate, Religion
David Orenstein, Ph.D. graduated from Duke University in 2021 with a Ph.D. from the Graduate Program in Religion as well as certificates in Middle East Studies, College Teaching, and Teaching Writing in the Disciplines. His research concerns Jewish-Christian relations. David’s dissertation was written under the supervision of Professor Laura Lieber, Ph.D. and Professor Yaakov Ariel, Ph.D..