I was lucky enough to hear Amy -Jill Levine speak recently and found her funny and engaging. In fact she was able to keep her audience spell-bound over several 90 minutes sessions, without referring to notes. Given that the audience were Anglican priests and her subject was a familiar one, the parables, that’s no mean feat.
One could think that if would be difficult to find much that’s new to say about the parables. That’s where Amy-Jill’s book is so important. It is not only full of new insights, but challenges some accepted assumptions which are often quoted in different sources (for instance that shepherds were despised) and asks where the evidence is for these assertions.
The author is Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. Her book is thoroughly researched and evidenced, and asks two main questions:
“How do we hear the parables through an imagined set of first century Jewish ears, and then how do we translate them so that they can be heard still speaking?”
Amy-Jill acknowledges that “The texts must speak to each generation and each individual anew, or they cease to be either scripture or literature and become only markings on a page” but equally that our understanding can be greatly enhanced by having an understanding of how the parables would have been heard by a first century Jewish audience – one with a thorough grounding in what we call (and she as a Jew is happy for us to call) the Old Testament.
Later commentators often see Christ himself in some parables – but Amy-Jill reminds us that the first hearers had no idea that Jesus would be worshipped by future generations as the Son of God – or even that he would be crucified. Moreover, parables are not allegories. We do not need to try and find a meaning for every element. Sometimes a shepherd is just a shepherd and a coin is just a coin.
What we should find in the parables, she suggests, is something surprising, perhaps shocking, perhaps amusing. Nice little stories they are not – if we think they are, we have missed the point.
Her book is surprising, shocking and amusing. It can enable us to add a layer of meaning to the familiar stories- and also to open our eyes to anti -Semitic interpretations, however unwitting.
It is an enjoyable and important book, for lay people as well as the clergy.
Reviewed by Jenny Monds
Special price of £12.50 in the shop (posted out for free) or buy online for £10.50 + postage until 31st August 2016. RRP £14.50.