published Jewish Annotated New Testament
(Oxford University Press, 2011), marks the first time, as
the volume’s Preface states, “that Jewish scholars have annotated and written
essays on the complete New Testament.” It is co-edited by Dr. Amy-Jill
Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University
Divinity School, and Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler, who is Dora Golding Professor of
Biblical Studies at Brandeis University.
interviewed the two by e-mail about the volume: how it came about, what is
unique about it, and how it might contribute to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. (My
of the Jewish Annotated New Testament
appeared in the March 4, 2012, issue of Our
World Report: How
and why did this project come about?
About fifteen years ago, I co-edited
the Jewish Study Bible
for Oxford University Press with Adele Berlin. After finishing that project, I thought of producing a Jewish
Annotated New Testament
using the same format: Jewish contributors would provide annotations and short
essays on background material.
Since I work primarily in the Scriptures of Israel (the Tanakh, or the
Hebrew Bible), I needed a co-editor with expertise in Christian origins. Oxford
and I agreed that, given her knowledge of the New Testament, her familiarity
with early Judaism and its writings, and her involvement in Jewish-Christian
relations, Amy-Jill Levine would be the ideal candidate.
CWR: How did you decide upon contributors?
What criteria were set for contributors to follow in writing their
and Dr. Brettler:
sought people who had the relevant academic expertise: contributors who had
formally studied the New Testament and were familiar with New Testament
scholarship; knowledge of the period of Christian origins including familiarity
not only with Roman history but also with the extensive Jewish sources (not
only the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Tanakh, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls, the
writings of Philo and Josephus, Rabbinic materials, the Targumim (Aramaic
translations and paraphrases of the books of the Tanakh, etc.); knowledge of
the Greek of the New Testament and the Septuagint (the early Greek translation
of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Deuterocanonical texts) as well as with the
Hebrew of the Tanakh. We sought Jewish commentators who would have sensitivity
to questions Jews today might ask about the text and awareness of the
interpretations that have impacted Jewish-Christian relations over the
CWR: You note in the Preface that there
are points of disagreement among the editors and contributors; what are some of
the significant points of debate and disagreement?
and Dr. Brettler:
have been interpreting the New Testament since it was written, and even when
stories about Jesus were told by the earliest apostles. There will inevitably
be different interpretations. The few disagreements tended to be those that
appear in general New Testament studies: how many of the letters attributed to
Paul were actually written by Paul as opposed to being later texts written in
his name; the date of the book of Revelation; the types of communities to which
the Gospels are addressed. As editors, we felt that it was best not to insist
on our own opinions on these theses issues, but to let the readers see a
variety of reasonable interpretations.
CWR: Who is
the primary intended readership?
and Dr. Brettler:
have three major audiences in mind.
would like Jews to read the New Testament. Some Jews hesitate out of concern
that the text is anti-Jewish, and there are indeed problematic passages:
Matthew’s insistence that “all the people” cried out, “His blood be on us and
on our children”; John’s reference to the “Jews” as “from your father, the
Devil”; Paul’s comment in 1 Thessalonians that the “Jews…killed both the Lord
Jesus and the prophets,” and so on. 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 it 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.
might nevertheless demur, because they are unaware of the relevance of the text
for Jewish history. 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 women’s social
roles to the practice of halakhah
to relations with Rome to the meaning of apocalyptic texts.
rationale for Jews reading the New Testament the volume is respect. If we Jews want Christians to respect
Judaism, which includes knowing more about us than Adam Sandler’s “Hannukah
Song,” we owe the church the same respect, and that respect includes knowing
what is in the Christian canon as well as its reception history.
volume will benefit Christians who are interested in the origins of the church:
how Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood the parables; how Jesus’
interpretation of Torah and his ethical teachings fit within first-century
Judaism; how proclamations of Jesus’ divinity could be accepted by early Jews,
and how understandings of the “messiah” change over time.
Christian interpretation was another prompt for the volume. We wanted a
resource for the overworked priest, volunteer Sunday School teacher, and
untrained youth leader that would correct the anti-Jewish stereotypes heard in
churches, Bible studies, and elsewhere the Gospel is preached. We know from our
own experiencescasual conversations, encounters in the classroom and church
adult education programs, reading Christian literature targeted to the
laitywhere many of the problems lie. 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.
we address the major negative stereotypes that surface among readers ignorant
of Judaism, including the common canard of the Old Testament-Jewish God of
wrath vs. the New Testament God of love; the incorrect insistence that the
Synagogue promotes retributive violence via “an eye for an eye” whereas the
Church promotes restorative justice via “turning the other cheek” (the rabbis
interpret “an eye for an eye” in terms of monetary payment, not bodily
mutilation); the claims that first-century Judaism makes the Taliban look
progressive and that Jesus and Paul argued for an egalitarian system over
against Jewish sexism; the belief that all Jews were looking for a violent
military messiah who would expel the Romans from Jerusalem, and so they
rejected Jesus because he counseled peace; the idea that Judaism was xenophobic
and the Church invented universalism, and so on.
that many preachers and teachers no longer hold these views, but our experience
suggests that some continue to do so, and we feel it is important to correct
these historically inaccurate ideas. Along with side-bars on the more
problematic texts, the volume offers thirty essays on such topics as how Jewish
law was practiced, who the Pharisees were, what Jewish women’s lives were like,
how Jews understood themselves in relation to the question “Who is my
neighbor?, and so on.
thus shows Jews and Christians our common rootsthis would be expected, since
Jesus, all of his earliest followers, and Paul were also Jewsas well as the
reasons why we came to separate.
interested in history or theology should find this book of value. Secular
readers who want to understand the New Testament in its historical context will
appreciate the notes and the thirty essays. Readers interested in how the
Scriptures of Israel have been understood by Jews and Christianstopics such as
Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, the Prophetswill find fascinating details in
this volume. And readers who want to understand Jewish-Christian relations over
the centuries could find no better source for discussion.
CWR: How might Catholic readers, in
particular, benefit and learn from it?
On the general topic of Jewish-Christian
relations, the Catholic Church has been in the forefront of providing
guidelines on how to teach and preach about Jews and Judaism. This volume compliments
these efforts. We are also attentive to matters that Jews and Catholics hold in
common: the ongoing interpretation of the shared Scripture (Old
Testament/Tanakh); the concern for ritual; the role of Law; the relation of the
New and Old Testaments.
CWR: In addition to being the
first annotated New Testament written entirely by Jewish scholars, what
are some of the other unique or notable qualities of this volume?
and Dr. Brettler:
is the first annotated New Testament that fully contextualizes the New
Testament in terms of both all the relevant Jewish and Greek sources of the
period; it is the first to provide the detailed information on that context, as
well as on how Jews have understood both Jesus and Paul over the past 2,000 years;
it is the first to be intentional about addressing matters of Jewish-Christian
relations; it is the first to highlight connections both between the New
Testament and the Hebrew Bible and between the New Testament and later Jewish
CWR: What are some of the main concerns
or challenges that Jewish readers face in approaching the New Testament?
and Dr. Brettler:
will be unfamiliar with basic Christian concepts (therefore, we provide
annotations on baptism, Eucharist, resurrection, etc.); some might be concerned
with passages that have led to anti-Jewish views (therefore, we provide
historical and theological commentary); some might be unfamiliar with the
stories and theologies that stand behind the New Testament as well as the stories
and theologies that have developed from it (therefore, we show how the text is
related to the Tanakh, to Jewish history, and to Jewish theology). Ideally, the
Jewish reader will come away with a sense of what the great Lutheran theologian
and biblical scholar, Krister Stendahl, called, “holy envy,” the ability to
find meaning in a text or a tradition not one’s own.
be fully understood without an understanding of the New Testament and its
interpretation, since at so many points and times in history, Judaism developed
within a Christian milieu. Therefore, Jewish readers can see in this text both
a recovery of early Jewish history and the points at which Church and Synagogue
CWR: How have changes in Jewish-Christian
relations in the past few decades paved the way for this sort of scholarly
When I first started
studying the New Testament, a relative asked me why I would read such a
hateful, anti-Jewish book. I asked her if she had read it. “No,” she responded,
“why would I read such a hateful, anti-Jewish book?” When I first entered my
Ph.D. program in New Testament, I was not permitted to teach New Testament to
Masters of Divinity candidates because I am a Jew. But times have changed. We
now have a significant number of Jewish scholars with expertise in the New
Testament and its contextenough to produce a Jewish Annotated New Testament
. We now recognize that the New Testament
is essential reading for the doing of Jewish history; we can come to the table
of interfaith conversation with mutual respect, and with the ability to agree
To show the
change in Jewish-Christian relations, and especially Jewish-Catholic relations:
I am the New Testament book review editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly
and have served on the executive
committee of the Catholic Biblical Association; I have done numerous programs
for seminarians (Catholic and Protestant) on avoiding anti-Jewish teaching and
preaching; and I have also addressed the Italian Bishops’ Conference on the
relation of Jesus to Judaism.
CWR: What hopes do you have for The
Jewish Annotated New Testament as
far as furthering a healthy and meaningful inter-religious dialogue?
and Dr. Brettler:
Perhaps the day will come when we can all better learn about, understand, and
respect our neighbor’s tradition, and in developing that respect, come to an
even deeper appreciation of what our own tradition teaches. We have edited and
contributed to this volume as a step toward that day.