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‘Familiarity with the New Testament can enhance Jewish understanding’

by Shmuel Rosner

February 12, 2012 | 6:14 am

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler

Professors Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and Marc Brettler of Brandeis University discuss their book, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament”.

Why do we need a “Jewish Annotated New Testament”?

Marc:  This volume was conceived after I co-edited with Adele Berlin The Jewish Study Bible, a comparable volume on the Tanakh.  The response to that volume was very positive: many Jews commented that they felt comfortable reading the Bible, and about the Bible, for the first time.  I realized that many Jews were wary of reading the New Testament, and suggested this volume to my editor at Oxford, who was excited by the idea.  I also realized that this volume would need to address the Jewish background of Jesus and his followers as well as the problematic passages in the New Testament in a straightforward way. 

AJ: The volume serves several purposes. First, for Jewish readers, it presents Jewish history: if we want to know about Jewish life in the first century, the New Testament is an excellent source. The texts themselves present some information, and the annotations fill in more detail by attending to related material in Jewish sources: the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo and Josephus, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, early Rabbinic thought, archaeological and inscriptional material, and so on. Second, as Marc notes, the volume addresses the statements that have led to anti-Jewish views, such as texts that present the Jewish community as responsible for the death of Jesus, or as children of the devil. The annotations explain how such rhetoric functioned in antiquity as well as how churches today address this material. Third, the volume is an aid to interfaith relations: it shows what the Church and the Synagogue share in common and how the movements came to separate.

For Christian readers, the volume also has several purposes. It provides an historical context for the New Testament and so explains how Jesus, Paul, James, and others would have sounded to their original audiences. Second, and this is particularly important to me, it corrects the misunderstandings of Judaism that sometimes creep into Christian sermons and Bible studies – and thus it can prevent the occasional, unintended anti-Jewish message from being conveyed.

“The more I study New Testament the better Jew I become” is a quote from Dr. Levine (in an article by Mark Oppenheimer). If you both feel this way, tell me why - if you disagree it would make it even more interesting.

Marc: Editing this book, and writing for it, certainly helped us better understand Judaism of the first century CE, and in that sense, connected me to my history better, and made me a better Jew.  Also, our close engagement with the New Testament made us understand much better what paths Judaism, as it developed, did not take, including the idea that the Messiah has already come and will come again, and that God decided to appear on earth in incarnate form.  These early Christian beliefs have many implications that do not inform our Jewishness.

What was the most negative response to the book (the most negative you’ve heard about), and do you see any merit to the concerns that were raised by suspicious fellow Jews?

The first review that appeared on Amazon was by “A Jew for Judaism” and titled “Evil.”  It read:  “It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews with this dreck. Why don’t you people leave us in peace?”  It was clearly written by someone who had not opened the book, and knew nothing of ourselves or the project.  Both of us believe that this project can have a positive impact on Jews, intermarried couples, and Christians.  We are both proud Jews who admire many aspects of Christianity, but we have no interest in converting people from Judaism to Christianity.  Nor do either of us, as some have guessed, have any affiliation with Jews for Jesus, Messianic Judaism, or similar movements.  Like the Amazon reviewer, we both are “Jews for Judaism,” but unlike that reviewer, we believe that familiarity with the New Testament and early Christianity can enhance Jewish understanding and practice.

And the most positive comment?

We have been enormously gratified by the positive comments the book has received across the Christian spectrum: Evangelicals, liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics; similar positive and welcoming comments have come from the Jewish community, from Modern Orthodox to secular Jews. We do not think we can pick out the “most positive” – there are too many from which to choose. And that is a very good thing.

Commenting on your work, one writer observed that “Jewish literacy of Christianity is probably far better than Christian understanding of Judaism” – do you agree? And why is that?

Most Jews outside of the land of Israel live in majority Christian cultures and thus are necessarily exposed to Christian ideas and images: art and music, theatre and literature, television shows and presidential inaugurals (which usually have a New Testament quote), the ubiquity of Christmas, and so on. It is likely that more Jews have heard of the Virgin Mary than they have Maimonides or Rashi. The problem, however, is that this Jewish literacy of Christianity is sometimes of a superficial kind: seeing a Christmas display at the mall is not the same thing as reading the nativity stories in the Gospels or attending a Christian worship service. Moreover, often Jews are not familiar with the diversity of Christian thought and practice, let alone the various understandings of Jesus in the New Testament. Just as there are various movements within Judaism, and various themes in the Tanakh, so there are various movements within Christianity and various themes in the New Testament.
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Any other major books in need of Jewish annotation?

The last few decades have seen the translation and annotation of many important Jewish works.  We are in an era, for the first time ever, I believe, where the major Jewish classics, and many other books are available in English, and this allows many Jews who do not know Hebrew to be much more engaged with literature, ranging from the Siddur to the Talmud to the Zohar to the Aggadic tradition (The Book of Legend/Sefer H-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash). Missing yet is a Jewish Annotated “Old Testament Apocrypha” or what is also known as the “Deuterocanonical writings.” These are the books composed by Jews, written or preserved in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic, that appear in the canons of the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox communions but not in the Protestant Bible. The collection includes such books as Judith and Susanna, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the books of the Maccabees; ironically, Jews celebrate Hannukah, but the first accounts of the Judah Maccabee appear in the Christian Bible. It would be good for Jews to know these Jewish volumes, and it would be good for the Church to have Jewish annotations attached to them.

And how about major Jewish books in need of Christian annotation?

We have both observed that in this generation, it is often impossible to tell from opening a book if its author is Jewish or Christian.  There are many Christian scholars with excellent training in Jewish studies and excellent Hebrew skills; they have begun to translate and comment on many Jewish books and issues.  There is nothing Christological in their writing.  But we do not see any particular Jewish book that would benefit from such annotation, except perhaps the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, where such annotations would highlight the commonalities and differences between Jewish and Christina liturgical practices.  Such a work could be very helpful in allowing Christians to understand synagogue services, and for Jews to understand Church services.

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