Understanding Christianity

A Jewish theological and literary commentary to the Christian bible.

rabbi reads Christian bible cartoon 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
rabbi reads Christian bible cartoon 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
We will eat on the seventh of Passover the ‘Messiah Feast,’ intended to infuse the faith in the messiah’s coming into our blood and flesh, like a meal that becomes our blood and flesh.”
This sentence got its author, Chabad spokesman Rabbi Menachem Brod, into trouble. According to a recent Haaretz story, he was criticized in Internet forums for importing the Christian symbolism of the Eucharist, where bread and wine are likened to the flesh and blood of Jesus, into a Jewish ceremony. Brod denied it: the accusations were “wild associations that say more about the forum’s participants, who are apparently immersed in Christian ideology. I, happily, don’t have such associations.”
Should he be happy? The scholarly editors and contributors to The Jewish Annotated New Testament beg to differ. They provide theological and literary commentary to the Christian Bible from a Jewish standpoint, underpinned with essays sketching the Jewish political and religious milieu in which Jesus lived.
Their aims are ecumenical rather than contentious. “Ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories, and the reasons why we came to separate,” state editors Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Marc Zvi Brettler, a Biblical Studies professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, in their preface.
Some reasons are all too clear. “You are from your father the devil,” the Gospel of St. John has Jesus say of the Jews. The commentator describes politely this rhetoric as “difficult,” though its meaning and intention are plain.
But the editors have a point: The New Testament is a fascinating source of information about Jewish history of the period, and gives a snapshot of a vital and vigorous pre- Talmudic Judaism, under pressure from both internal dissension and external Roman rule.
These pressures spawned would-be kings, prophets and priests in profusion, all claiming some form or other of ultimate deliverance, as the Florida State University historian of Jews in the Greco-Roman world, Prof. David B. Levenson, notes in his essay.
The Romans reacted with short tempers and sharp swords: mass slaughter of pretenders and followers alike was the nearly invariable response.
Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why Jesus ran into determined opposition.
He demanded that his followers make a very risky bet on the centrality of his authority and mission. This decision was one that imperiled their lives. Bitter experience taught otherwise, a lesson that was ultimately rammed home by the failure of the messianic-driven Bar Kokhba rebellion a century later.
Still, this book is well worth having. As a matter of course, we should know about and understand the core beliefs of a religion not so far removed from our own, and here we can do so in a friendly and intelligent setting.
And there is a beauty in the texts which makes one understand why so many people have adopted them as their core expression of faith.
There are a few regrets. Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford, and a renowned scholar of Jesus’s life, is only represented here by a very brief essay on Jewish miracle workers in the late Second Temple period.
Also, there should have been an essay dealing with disputations between Jews and Christians over the centuries, at least as they touched on New Testament texts. Some were envenomed affairs, with the lives of Jews at stake. Others were less charged: At the close of one, in Hanover, in 1700, the German Jewish scholar Rabbi Joseph of Stadthagen is supposed to have said: “We condemn no creed based upon the belief in the Creator of heaven and earth. We believe what we have been taught; let the Christians adhere to what they have been taught.”
Not a bad motto for this book, come to think of it.
But bad marks to the publishers for the appallingly small typeface used for the essays.
To paraphrase the Gospel of St. Matthew, it is easier for a camel and a rich man to enter the eye of a needle – together – than for print this size to enter the eye of the reader.
And to the good Rabbi Brod? Bon appetit...