February 12, 2012
‘Familiarity with the New Testament can enhance Jewish understanding’
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”?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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