Jewish scholars give perspective on the New Testament

Thursday December 15, 2011

BECKET -- Becket resident Marc Zvi Brettler, co-editor with A.J. Levine of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011), never expected a best-seller -- but the first printing sold out within days of publication.

This is the first edition of the New Testament to appear with marginal commentary and interpretive essays by Jewish scholars. It places the Christian scriptures within their original Jewish context, and it also faces the questions of how the two traditions have interpreted these texts over the centuries -- and the tensions which those differing interpretations have sometimes perpetuated.

Brettler became involved with the "New Oxford Annotated Bible" 15 years ago. The editors drew him in because they were "concerned that some of their previous annotations were anti-Jewish," he said, highlighting the common trope of the "Old Testament of law versus the gospel of grace."

Next he worked with Oxford on the "Jewish Study Bible." When that project was done, he remarked to the editors at Oxford that they ought to do a Jewish annotated New Testament. They connected him with New Testament scholar A.J. Levine, and "The Jewish Annotated New Testament" was born.

Within Judaism, the "sequel" to the Hebrew Scriptures is the Talmud, which begins with the Mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second"), legal and narrative commentary written down around 200 C.E. The gospels, the seed of the Christian "sequel" to what Christians call the Old Testament, were being written around the same time.

But despite the interconnections between these two texts, surprisingly few members of one tradition are familiar with the texts and interpretations of the other.

"One major difference," Brettler said, "is that early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is part of the Bible for Christians; early rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is supplementary to the Hebrew Bible, and that has lots of implications."

Putting this volume together, Brettler said, was a joy. "This is not a book that I am an expert in; it was a wonderful education for me. Many moments of ‘wow -- I didn't know it could be interpreted in that particular way.' "

Like "The Jewish Study Bible," this volume contains both annotations of Scripture and a set of essays which put the material in context: essays on early Jewish history, Judaism and Jewishness and the notion of "The Law." Writers explore the Greek term "Ioudaios" -- translated as either "Jew" or "Judean" -- and its implications. They consider the concept of the neighbor in Jewish and Christian ethics. They try to understand of John's "Logos," the "Word," as a kind of midrash -- a form of storytelling, which explores interpretations of, loopholes in, and questions about scripture.

"Figuring out what Jewish readers, Christian readers, and other readers should understand -- and then finding people to write about those subjects -- That was intellectually very interesting," Brettler said.

Response so far has been universally positive. Many Jews, Brettler said, have never read the New Testament. But because this edition was edited by Jews and presents a context for many ways Judaism informed and shaped early Christianity, this volume feels safe to Jewish readers.

"Jews are articulating, hey, [the New Testament] was a book which was written by Jews, a religion which came out of Judaism, and maybe we should know something about it, especially given that it is the majority religion in America," he said.

Christians, too, have responded to the anthology with great appreciation.

"There's a general realization that Christianity emerged out of Judaism; there's an appreciation among many Christians that Jews care about their scriptures as well," Brettler said. "And to the extent that part of the book points out problematic issues in what the New Testament says or how it's been interpreted in ways that have been detrimental to Jewish-Christian relations, there's been appreciation for that as well."

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written that in order to appreciate the beauty of stained-glass church windows, one must stand, both literally and metaphorically, inside the church. The introduction to this volume makes a similar leap, citing Krister Stendahl's notion of "holy envy." Did this project awaken "holy envy" in Brettler?

"Yes," he said simply. Unlike co-editor Levine, who grew up in a Catholic neighborhood and has studied Christianity since college, Brettler "grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and did not have much contact with Christianity or with many Christians."

He said Christian theologian Krister Stendahl, the first Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Distinguished Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University, has had a tremendous influence on him as a person and as a scholar.

Brettler learned from Stendahl that "it is very possible to appreciate religions which are not your own. Even to be envious of certain aspects of those religions."

"In some ways it also deepens appreciation and understanding of your own religion," Brettler said, "and I wish that more people would adopt and understand this idea."

Brettler hopes people in both communities will read and discuss his book. He hopes that Jews will attain a better understanding of the New Testament and of early Christianity, and that Christians will attain a better understanding of the historical connections between the two traditions.

Those conversations will get a jump-start in Berkshire county on Saturday, Dec. 17, when Brettler, co-editor Levine, and Rev. Anne Ryder of Christ Church Episcopal and Trinity Lutheran will speak at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire at 6 p.m.

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and several local synagogues and churches co-sponsor the event. Books will be available, and all are welcome.

"Marc has a home in Becket and is a participant in the Berkshire Minyan which meets at Hevreh," explained Rabbi Deborah Zecher. "When he found out that A.J. was going to be in the area, he put out a general email to the synagogues and Federation asking if anyone was interested in hosting the event. I didn't hesitate for a moment before writing back to say yes!"

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams and a longtime Berkshire freelance writer and editor. Reach her at:

If you go ...

What: Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, two distinguished Jewish scholars of the Bible, will talk about their newly released best-seller, ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament'

Where: Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road, Great Barrington

When: Saturday at 6 p.m.

Admission: Free and open to all

Information: (413) 528-6378.


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