The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, by Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III
Reviewed by Michael Schiffman
Although I am not a fan of superlatives, I have to say this is the most enjoyable commentary I have ever read. I first became interested in it because of my familiarity with the authors. Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, was my supervisor when I was working on my doctorate. I have met Amy-Jill Levine, professor at Vanderbilt University, several times and spent hours in discussion with her. I find her viewpoints different and fascinating. I like reading books that cause me to think, and are not just repeating the same old material I have read in half a dozen other commentaries.
Witherington and Levine are both New Testament scholars, but come from very different viewpoints. Witherington comes from a mainstream Evangelical perspective, and his frame of reference reflects this. Levine is an agnostic Jew who teaches New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, and looks at the New Testament from a Jewish perspective, bringing a point of view to her interpretation that is not the evangelical standard fare. The way the book is written records, in a respectful manner, the places where Witherington and Levine hold differing opinions. This enables readers to gain perspective on the passage, and consequently, causes them to think through the passage and the various issues. In a sense, this is a scholarly approach that is perfect for a Messianic Jewish reader. We gain a Jewish perspective as well as a classical evangelical perspective. It also has echoes of a talmudic style of interpretation, expressing different points of view and leaving the readers to come to their own conclusions.
The tone of the commentary is more like a discussion with disagreement between friends, rather than a guru pronouncing truth from on high. The format enables the readers to listen to both views of the discussion and enter into the discussion as they consider the differing viewpoints.
This approach is seen in a dialogue between the authors concerning the virgin birth and miracles in general. Levine’s approach to faith and miracles is compelling:
For me, (Amy-Jill), when I read the Lucan infancy accounts, I engage in what is called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, I read Luke as the Evangelist would have any ideal reader read, and so I am moved by the narrative. I don’t have to believe that an actual angel spoke to a priest in the Temple or a virgin in the Galilee to see power and inspiration in the narrative. The text transports me to a different world, not one of my own, and in that world, miracles can happen.
Ben suggests that a category distinction between faith and history doesn’t much work, since when it comes to virginal conception or bodily resurrection, we are talking about something that happened in history. True enough, even credible evidence that something happened in ancient history doesn’t amount to airtight proof it happened, but then we have no airtight proof that anything happened in antiquity, and in any case, “proof” in the scientific sphere is one thing, historical validity and likelihood is another. Applying scientific standard of proofs derived from chemistry or biology or the like to historical evidence is a mistake, rather like trying to measure someone’s weight with a sun dial. Faith in the miraculous is not faith in faith; it is faith that various things happened in human history, and for that matter, still happen today.1
From these two viewpoints, I gain from Levine a grasping of the miraculous as I read the narrative. Reading the text of Scripture often involves reaching out in belief beyond that which is “normal.” I gain from Witherington the fact that the miraculous happened within human history, and has to be more than in the world of “belief.” I gain from both perspectives, and this broadens my understanding and might enable me to relate what is going on in the text more effectively to secular people who do not live in a world of belief.
One of the benefits of a commentary written in this format is that the authors model the value of mature discussion; holding different scholarly positions while holding each other in high regard and respect. Given the level of discord in our society, with increasing division and outright hatred for people of other viewpoints, their tone of disagreement represents a kindness and maturity sorely lacking and greatly needed in modern culture.
Some readers might be tempted to simply accept the evangelical viewpoint, as if they are voting for a position, but Levine’s viewpoint brings a fresh perspective that causes the reader to think outside the evangelical box.
I like Levine’s concept of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The concept articulates something that is necessary to belief itself. Belief, by its nature, is a choice. People choose to believe the Bible, and choose to believe in God. In the secular world, people choose to believe one political party or another, and when they can’t or won’t admit the truth, choose to believe lies. When a person chooses to believe something, he or she must suspend disbelief if there is to be openness to what they are considering. This becomes important when a person seeks to live out their faith in the world. For anyone to consider a faith message, they must suspend their disbelief to grasp what is being asked to be believed. We are, in fact, asking people to suspend their disbelief.
The authors, commenting on the text of Luke, address false notions and interpretations that are current in traditional understandings of Luke. For example, they point out that many commentators claim the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were considered lowly, the dregs of society, or unclean. The authors note that the text of Luke makes no such claims. They also address Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem looking for a place to stay and have the baby. They point out that the “inns” often had a large public room where people stayed. There was not much privacy, so there was no place suitable to deliver a baby. When the innkeeper said there was no place for them, he may have been thinking about privacy, and offered them a place in the stable, which, while simple and humble, would afford a woman in labor privacy. It is pointed out by the authors that this is a far cry from the traditional interpretations that depict the Jewish innkeeper as being only concerned with money and implying Joseph and Mary were too poor to afford the inn. As Levine observes, “one does not need to create an ugly picture of Judaism in order to derive a beautiful picture of Jesus.”2
It is this aspect of the commentary that is so important for Messianic Judaism as well as for all Yeshua believers. It presents a rereading of the text with a more positive view of the Jewish people and religion, while honoring the gospel story. Centuries of Christian antisemitic interpretation of the gospel have colored the message in an ugly way with the result that people who have never even met Jews look at them negatively. We respond correctly by saying this is not the gospel. This commentary addresses the antisemitic readings and challenges negative interpretations with more plausible explanations of what is happening in the text.
Within the commentary are discussions of contemporary issues touched on by the text. Levine points out that Anna the prophetess who sees Yeshua in the temple after his birth has no record of what she said, while Simeon is quoted extensively. She feels this reflects the idea that women should be obedient and silent. Witherington, on the other hand, sees the Lukan accounts as more egalitarian, in that Joseph is silent, but Mary is not.
In another side discussion, the authors discuss the birth narrative and the historical origins of the modern symbols of Christmas, including pagan sources. They observe that the modern symbols are a far cry from a first-century Jewish family having to bring their first child into the world under less than ideal conditions.3 They also contrast obeying the empire of Rome with obeying the God of Israel, and the role of the elderly in our society compared with Luke’s account.
The value of discussions such as these is to cause the readers to consider what was actually going on in the text and to reconsider their current practices, which is what should happen when a person reads Scripture. The authors observe,
To preach or teach this material requires an understanding of the message of the Gospel, apart from the tree and tinsel. It means understanding how Luke’s initial readers would have heard the gospel; to determine what the Good News is for today, we need to know something about what it was two millennia ago. . . . Readers whether in the past or today who seek to divorce Jesus from his Jewish context, or who impose anti-Jewish stereotypes on the text, do a disservice to Luke and to the Gospel message.4
One of the dialogues I found to be most important throughout the commentary is the ongoing discussion about the synagogue and how it is portrayed in the Gospel of Luke and the accusations of replacement theology in the interpretation of the Gospel. Levine claims the synagogues and Temple are presented as places that are hostile and negative toward Yeshua and his followers, intending, she believes, to encourage Yeshua-followers not to attend those places. She cites the patristic literature that interpreted Luke in that way to support her claim. Witherington, on the other hand, points out that Yeshua and his disciples continue going to synagogues and the Temple, as did the early disciples and Paul, with mixed reactions; some Jews accepting their message of Good News, and some rejecting it. He contends this demonstrates a lack of bias against Judaism. While he makes a good case for the synagogue and Temple not being presented as unsafe places, later actions by the church most definitely used these passages to make the case that Yeshua followers should definitely not go to synagogues.
For Amy-Jill, replacement theology coupled with the negative depictions of Jewish gatherings is part of Luke’s literary strategy. Luke, in her view, portrays the synagogue as a place to be avoided. Given Luke’s likely gentile readership coupled with the allure synagogues held for gentiles—from the God-fearers of the first century to the Judaizers of the second century to Chrysostom’s fulminations about his congregants visiting synagogues in the fourth century—the evangelist’s concern is by no means hypothetical. Ben finds this reading a caricature of Luke’s presentation, but not of the later anti-Jewish readings of Luke-Acts, such as Chrysostom and even some modern commentators. Amy-Jill here is concerned about Luke’s attitude toward those (majority) Jews who do not sign on to the program.
The important point, here, finally, is that we, Ben and Amy-Jill, are trying to listen, sympathetically, to each other. We see how both came to our conclusions; we can locate the source of our disagreement, and in the conversation can read with more sensitivity in the presence of those with whom we disagree.5
These discussions are most helpful to Messianic Jewish readers as well as Christian readers who may lack the knowledge and background in Jewish-Christian interactions historically, and have the potential to promote better understanding of the Messianic community in the Christian world. They also model mature disagreement while maintaining respect and understanding.
Overall, this volume provides detailed historical background, laying out the issues in which the narrative of Scripture takes place. It also presents both evangelical and Jewish perspectives on what is going on in the text, and their relationship to issues we deal with to this day. Finally, the commentary models honest disagreement while maintaining respect, listening deeply to one another, and responding sympathetically toward those with whom we disagree.
I believe critical readers as well as lay readers would benefit from this volume. The scholarly material as well as the breadth of viewpoints and interaction make this book invaluable. They can only serve to assist readers in gaining perspective and insight as they seek to understand what is happening in the text of Luke, and better comprehend the meaning of the gospel.