Professor Nina Livesey on Jewish-Christian Interpretations

Professor Nina Livesey on Jewish-Christian Interpretations

Much of my research and interests concern early Jewish-Christian relations, their later interpretations and Christian origins. The question that drives nearly all of my research is how and why Christianity became a separate religion distinct from Judaism. This issue is pertinent because it bears on relations between Christians and Jews into the present era. It concerns investigations of anti-Jewish sentiments that are apparent explicitly and implicitly within many early Christian texts, those of the New Testament and beyond, as well as in dominant strains of Christian theology.

While one might imagine that given my interest in early Christianity, my focus would be on the historical Jesus and the gospels, actually the Apostle Paul is our earliest witness of what has become known as Christianity, and his writings pre-date the canonical gospels by approximately fifty years. Furthermore, much Christian theology, what people generally recognize as “Christian” stems from Paul. Paul too is the earliest witness, who claims that with the advent of Christ the Jewish law is unnecessary and comes to an end.

Interpretations of Ancient Judaism

Livesey Research - Circumcision as a Malleable SymbolMy first major publication, Circumcision as a Malleable Symbol, was a revision of my 2007 dissertation completed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The book aims to undermine the notion that there was one and only one way of understanding ancient Judaism. In my investigation I use circumcision, an important and widespread rite or ritual of Judaism, as a test case. The book argues that in each and every instance context and the rhetorical situation determine the meaning of circumcision.  The first-century Jewish exegete and religious scholar Philo of Alexandria (20 bce–50 ce) treated circumcision three times within his corpus and, in each instance, the meaning of circumcision changes. In On the Migration of Abraham, Philo is concerned primarily with the importance of community in the life of a Jew, most likely sensing that Judaism cannot flourish without the rituals that define it. Thus, Philo argues that an understanding of what circumcision represents is alone insufficient for a Jew. According to him, it is the physical practice of circumcision that garners the respect of one’s fellow Jews. Likewise, the physical practice of circumcision enables a Jew to have a clearer understanding of the symbolic signification of this rite.

In On the Special Laws Philo is also concerned to justify the physical practice of circumcision, yet he addresses a different situation and as a result the meanings he ascribes to this rite change. In this treatise, he addresses Jews who are likely faced with ridicule this rite engenders among outsiders. In part, Philo attempts to rebut this social stigma by referring to circumcision as a custom and not as a law, facilitating its connection with other nations. Similarly, he provides an array of the practical benefits of this rite, those that would be attractive to all males, even to circumcision’s critics. Yet Philo is far from abandoning this rite and faces the criticism of circumcision head-on, as is demonstrated by this treatment’s prominent place within the treatise. Indeed, it is in this treatise, in the face of circumcision’s opposition, that the physical practice attains its highest status among all of Philo’s treatments. Here, Philo assesses circumcision as a rite that promotes health, life, and well-being.

The question that drives nearly all of my research is how and why Christianity became a separate religion distinct from Judaism.

Yet another situation dominates Philo’s third treatment of circumcision. In Questions and Answers on Genesis, a line-by-line commentary on parts of the book of Genesis, there is no indication that Philo is combating either inattention to the physical practice of circumcision or its ridicule. Here, the justification for the physical practice takes a back seat to the spiritual benefits of this rite. Thus, without compromising the need for the practice, Philo moves his Jewish audience to another level of understanding. Indeed, in this treatise circumcision signifies the stripping of the mind of superfluous growths that would prevent its drawing closer to God. Factors coincident with the rhetorical situation as well as the literary context play a role in the Pauline writings, in Josephus, in the books of the Maccabees and in Jubilees. Through these various examples, I make the case that there is no central meaning for circumcision and hence by extension no single method for characterizing what it means to be a Jew in the ancient world.

History of Interpretation

Livesey Research - Nina Livesey HeadshotAnother interest of mine is the field of the history of interpretation. With this type of inquiry one can compare depictions of texts or symbols over an extended period of time to assess differences in their understanding. Such a study makes readily apparent the role culture plays on the interpretations of texts. This particular field was the subject of my Master’s thesis and was later reworked and summarized for a talk given for the OU Judaic Studies Brown Bag Series in May 2011. That talk was titled, “Old Paul/New Paul: Recent Scholarship on First-Century CE Judaism and Christianity.”

Other recent work on Paul includes a paper devoted to analyzing his ethnic identity based on his central autobiographical statements in Philippians. “Paul, the Philonic Jew (Philippians 3:3-21)” was presented at the Society of Biblical Literature National Meeting in November 2009 and was subsequently published in an Italian journal, Annali di Storia dellEsegesi, in a volume of conference papers on the topic of the construction of Christian identities.

More recently, I have worked on two newer interpretive methods for analyzing Pauline texts. The first is called sound mapping and the second applies psychology to textual analysis. A sound map attempts to record sound patterns within ancient compositions and its use aids modern interpreters in recovering meaning based on those sound patterns, meanings that would otherwise be undervalued and overlooked. As the inventors of this method comment, ancients authored compositions to be read aloud and not read in silence, and they expressed meaning not so much through semantics, by a word’s inner meaning, but instead by how words were heard and presented. For example, repetition of sounds is a primary way of creating meaning in oral performance. In July 2011, I delivered “Sounding out the Meaning of Romans 4:9-12” at the International Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature in London, England, which employs this method of analysis. The paper was subsequently published by Oral Tradition, an online journal devoted to orality.

A second method of interpretation I explored is the analysis of ancient texts through the lens of modern psychological theories. In “Evidence of Anger in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” I research the root causes of anger in this ancient writing. This paper was presented at the International Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature in St. Andrews, Scotland in July 2013. With the sound mapping, psychological hermeneutics and rhetorical analysis, I bring a degree of interdisciplinarity to my research.

Nina Livesey

Nina Livesey

Nina Livesey is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Oklahoma, as well as co-editor of Forum. She holds a master’s degree in Theological Studies and a doctorate in Biblical studies.