I’ve been rereading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, The Misunderstood Jew. Levine’s work captivates me because she’s an Orthodox Jew who teaches the New Testament at Vanderbilt University. That makes her perspective unique in a world where Jesus’ Jewish background is often forgotten or ignored.
While I don’t always agree with her views, Levine’s work is the type where I always come away with new thoughts every time I reread one of her books. This time around, her take on Galatians 3:28 stood out to me. This is the verse that says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
One thing I love about Levine’s work is that she not only expounds on how Jesus’ words would have sounded to Jews in his time, but also how they sound to Jews reading them today. This is essential for productive interfaith conversations. In this book, Levine writes that many Jews today find Galatians 3:28 to teach “Jewish erasure” because it is essentially erasing Jewish identity (and Greek, and gender, and all other identities, for that matter).
Maintaining a Jewish identity while professing belief in Christ was something I struggled with in my first few years as a believer, so I can resonate with Levine’s concern here. But is Galatians 3:28 really “anti-Jewish,” as she claims?
Melting Pot Or Salad Bowl?
I’m reminded of how the “melting pot” analogy for describing American culture has been updated to a “salad bowl,” in which all cultures get to retain their uniqueness without blending (or assimilating, some might say) into one monolithic identity.
In my early years as a Christian, I still held on to my Jewish identity with an iron grip. This was mainly because Judaism is a connection to my family, who felt personally betrayed by my conversion. There was – and still is – a part of me that wondered why God had me born into a Jewish family in the first place if I would end up rejecting the faith as an adult. If nothing is wasted in God’s economy, then my Jewish identity serves a purpose. So I couldn’t just act as if it no longer existed.
This caused some tension with my Jewish friends at the time, who understandably no longer recognized me as “one of them.” I wonder if things would have gone easier if I had dropped any pretense of being Jewish altogether, even if just by heritage. I just couldn’t help it; I still craved validation from other Jews. I suppose this was due to my people-pleasing tendencies, and not being able to cope with the fact that people I cared about saw me as a traitor.
In my new faith community, I struggled with this strange dichotomy of wanting to blend in but also wanting people to know that I wasn’t completely “like them.” For better or for worse, Judaism set the terms for how I understood Christianity. To have that piece of my identity left out as I worshiped in church and Bible studies did feel like erasure on some level.
Who We Are In Christ Is Forever
My view of Galatians 3:28 today is quite different from Levine’s. I don’t see it as “Jewish erasure,” which is rather implausible because Christianity would cease to exist without its Jewish foundation. Rather, I understand the words “There is no Jew nor Greek” as a way of easing the pressure to seek validation from others.
When you place your faith in Christ, you join a new covenant, a new family, a new way of life. Everything else you are – a wife, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer, an athlete, whatever – becomes secondary. Those other identities we wear are how others understand and categorize us, but are no longer who we are at the core.
After all, you can become widowed or divorced and lose your status as a spouse. You can break your leg and no longer be athletic for a time. You can change careers and no longer be a pastor or teacher. But who you are in Christ is forever. In a world that is always trying to stuff people into boxes, I find that comforting rather than offensive.
I know the Jewish community at large does not see me as one of them anymore, but I don’t need that validation to be secure in who I am. I don’t need every Christian to be aware of my Jewish identity, either, in order to worship alongside them. There is a real peace in not having to prove anything anymore.