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Jewish Roots of the New Testament

Image by nate lavey

‘It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews with this dreck. Why don’t you people leave us in peace?”

Marc Brettler Image by oxford university press

So wrote one Amazon reviewer of the new “Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press, 2011), a magisterial volume of Jewish commentaries, essays and scholarly notes on the second half of the Christian Bible. Ironically, the JANT is the work not of “you people” but of two practicing Jews, Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and Marc Brettler of Brandeis University. And the intention of the volume is not “to convert Jews,” but the very opposite: to enable Jews to encounter the New Testament in an informed and noncoercive way, while showing Christians the very Jewish nature of the books (and writers) in question.

But you can understand the anonymous reviewer’s fear: As the joke goes, “Two thousand years of Christian love have worn down the Jews’ nerves.” Despite being the younger religion, for many American Jews, Christianity is the bullying elder brother: stronger, bigger, dumber. As a people, we’re appallingly ignorant of the New Testament, in part, as that Amazon comment suggests, due to having the Good News shoved down our collective throats for hundreds of years.

I talked with Levine and Brettler via email about their aspirations for the volume and about the volume’s place in 21st-century Jewish-Christian relations. (Unless otherwise indicated, their responses were composed jointly, like the editing of the JANT itself.)

The JANT strikes me as a tour de force, and it fills much-needed gaps in our knowledge. But why is it important for Jews to read the New Testament?

First, much, if not all, of the New Testament is Jewish literature, and all of it is relevant for understanding Jewish history. The New Testament sheds important light on early Jewish life and literature, from the practice of Halacha relations with Rome to women’s social roles to the meaning of apocalyptic texts. Another rationale for Jews reading the N.T. is respect: If we Jews want Christians to respect Judaism, we owe the church the same respect, and that respect includes knowing what is in the Christian canon.

Amy-Jill Levine Image by chris berkey

Obviously, many Jews are reluctant to read the New Testament. Why do you think that is, and how does this new volume address their concerns?

Some Jews hesitate out of concern that the text is anti-Jewish, and there are indeed problematic passages. For these readers, the annotations explain how these texts came to be written as well as how Christians over the centuries have interpreted them. We felt that Jewish readers might be more comfortable reading the New Testament if the commentaries dealt explicitly with such issues and if the annotations and essays were written entirely by Jews, so it was clear that the volume was not intending to proselytize.

On the other side, why would Christians be interested in the “Jewish Annotated New Testament”?

The volume will benefit Christians who are interested in the origins of the church: For example, we address how Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood the parables and the miracles attributed to him; how Jesus’ interpretation of Torah and his ethical teachings fit within first-century Judaism; how proclamations of Jesus’ divinity could be accepted by some early Jews, and how both Jewish and Christian understandings of the “messiah” change over time. We wanted a resource for the overworked priest or pastor, volunteer Sunday school teacher and untrained youth leader that would correct the anti-Jewish stereotypes heard in churches, Bible studies and elsewhere [that the Gospel is preached]. The volume flags the stereotypes, shows why they are wrong and provides alternative ways of reading the text so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate.

Amy-Jill, I was struck rereading your previous book about Jesus, titled “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus,” by its polemical tone. I wonder if any Christian responses to that book influenced how the JANT was developed and how it has been received.

Amy-Jill Levine: I have been enormously gratified by how well “The Misunderstood Jew” has been received. It has been used across the U.S. in church-based Bible studies, book groups and college classrooms. I have consistently worked toward encouraging mutual respect between Jews and Christians, and that includes the tradition of what in Judaism is known as tochechah, the rebuking of the neighbor when a rebuke is required. I cannot remain silent when I hear canards against Jews and Judaism, or about Christians and Christianity for that matter. The vast majority of the negative comments and ugly stereotypes are, however, made not out of bigotry but out of ignorance.

It’s remarkable to me how surprised and offended some Christians become when one makes even the simplest claims about the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples, or by how upset some Jews get at the very notion of engaging with the Christian Bible. Have you had any pushback from those concerned about proselytization, intermarriage or assimilation?

The separation of Judaism and Christianity was the result of a process of self-definition on both sides, and the earliest followers of Jesus perceived of themselves, and were perceived by non-Jesus-following Jews, as Jewish. We are both synagogue members and active in our Jewish communities; we believe in the importance of Judaism as a religion and in Jewish identity in the 21st century, and we are not advocating intermarriage or assimilation. But intermarriage and assimilation are facts of contemporary Judaism, and we hope and believe that JANT can, for example, help intermarried couples understand what they share as well as how they differ. It can also help families — Christian grandparents with Jewish grandchildren, for example — better understand each other. To the extent that many American Jews are assimilated, they are assimilated into mainstream American Christian culture, and we hope that JANT can offer them an introduction to that culture’s sacred scripture.

To ask a nonacademic question, I wonder if either of you has favorites and least favorites of the New Testament texts?

Marc Brettler: As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I am very partial to Matthew, since it is so infused with quotations from the Hebrew Bible and uses Hebrew Bible verses in the same way that some Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic texts do. It thus feels especially Jewish to me. I have also grown to like 1 Corinthians more. I find it elegant, and its poem beginning at 13:4, “Love is patient, love is kind,” is sublime.

A-J.L: I am particularly partial to the Gospels and, within the Gospels, to the parables. I am fascinated with the historical work both of reconstructing what the parables might have meant to the Jewish people who first heard them and of understanding how their meanings change as different audiences encounter them.

I wonder if you could speak a bit about the decision to use different scholars to introduce each New Testament text. On the one hand, this led to occasional contradiction and repetition. On the other hand, I feel like it made a useful polemical point about having a diversity of perspectives and approaches. Was that intentional?

The rabbinic idea that the Torah has 70 faces or different, legitimate interpretations influenced our decision to invite scholars representing a variety of perspectives, from their preferred methodological approaches to their particular form of Jewish affiliation (from Orthodox to secular). And as students of modern literary theory, we are wary of insisting on one correct interpretation. We felt that a certain amount of disagreement is proper, and even useful, in highlighting the diversity of interpretations of religious texts. We wanted to create a mainstream publication that is both academically rigorous and accessible to all readers.

I wonder how this engagement with the New Testament has impacted your own Jewishness.

A-J.L.: The more I study the New Testament, the better a Jew I become. The New Testament informs me about Jewish history; in studying the New Testament in relation to other Jewish sources of the period — Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and Philo, early rabbinic literature, the Targumim, synagogue inscriptions, etc. — I can see the vibrancy of the Jewish tradition. And while I do not worship Jesus as lord and savior, I find his parables compelling stories and his ethical teachings often inspirational. I do not think one needs to worship the messenger in order to appreciate much of his (very Jewish) message of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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