Christian Scriptures, Jewish Commentary

An interview with the co-editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

The recently 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.

I recently 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 review of the Jewish Annotated New Testament appeared in the March 4, 2012, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

Catholic World Report: How and why did this project come about? 

Dr. Brettler:  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 commentary? 

Dr. Levine and Dr. Brettler: We 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 centuries.

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?

Dr. Levine and Dr. Brettler: People 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?

Dr. Levine and Dr. Brettler: We have three major audiences in mind.

First, we 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.

Some Jews 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.

Another 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.

Second, the 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.

Uninformed 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 experiences—casual conversations, encounters in the classroom and church adult education programs, reading Christian literature targeted to the laity—where 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.

For example, 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.

We appreciate 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.

The volume thus shows Jews and Christians our common roots—this would be expected, since Jesus, all of his earliest followers, and Paul were also Jews—as well as the reasons why we came to separate.

Third, anyone 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 Christians—topics such as Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, the Prophets—will 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? 

Dr. Levine: 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? 

Dr. Levine and Dr. Brettler: This 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 literature.

CWR: What are some of the main concerns or challenges that Jewish readers face in approaching the New Testament?

Dr. Levine and Dr. Brettler: Some 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. 

Judaism cannot 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 parted.

CWR: How have changes in Jewish-Christian relations in the past few decades paved the way for this sort of scholarly work?

Dr. Levine: 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 context—enough 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 disagree.

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? 

Dr. Levine 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.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.