The gospel according to Jewish scholars

Marc Brettler explains how compiling commentary and essays on the Christian Bible has made him a better Jew.

Marc Brettler 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Marc Brettler)
Marc Brettler 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Marc Brettler)
Brandeis University Professor of Biblical Studies Marc Zvi Brettler assures us that The Jewish Annotated New Testament is neither part of a Jewish conspiracy to take over America, as one anti-Jewish blogger claims, nor part of an attempt to convince Jews to convert to Christianity, as an Amazon respondent warns.
“Both perspectives are absurd, and I think reflect attitudes toward the book’s title rather than its contents,” says coeditor Brettler, a visiting professor this year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Brettler conceived of the tome – the first edition of the Christian Scriptures edited and annotated entirely by Jewish scholars – as a follow-up to his co-editorship of National Jewish Book Awardwinning The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004), which was intended to increase Bible literacy among Jews and to present gentiles with Jewish perspectives on the Hebrew Scriptures.
He hopes that a Jewish-annotated New Testament “would encourage more Jews to read this important book, and more non-Jews to understand Jewish perspectives on it. Such engagement is crucial in the modern world.”
Brettler combined his expertise in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible with that of his co-editor, Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar of the New Testament, Second Temple Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations.
Approximately 50 contributors – all Jewish – added their “annotations and essays... of first- and second-century Judaism that enrich the understanding of the New Testament... highlight connections between the New Testament material and later Jewish [especially rabbinic] literature... and [address] problems that Jewish readers in particular may find in reading the New Testament, especially passages that have been used to perpetuate anti-Judaism,” according to the editors’ preface.
“This whole project would have been impossible a generation ago, when there were not enough Jewish scholars who had expertise in the New Testament and in the relevant languages – Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic,” says Brettler.
“Many Jewish scholars have become interested in this topic, and have studied it at the leading universities.”
After drawing up a list of Jewish scholars with the requisite background and experience, the co-editors contacted them with suggested assignments.
“Almost all of our first choices recognized the landmark nature of this volume, and agreed to participate,” says Brettler.
To cite just a handful of the contributors of note, the Hebrew University’s Lee I. Levine wrote the essay on “The Synagogue,” Princeton’s Martha Himmelfarb wrote on “Afterlife and Resurrection,” Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth explored “Jesus in Modern Jewish Thought,” and Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary contributed “Jesus in Rabbinic Tradition.”
Brettler says he consulted many colleagues – especially Brandeis professor Bernadette Brooten, a scholar of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism – before “eagerly jump[ing] into the project,” and was more concerned about its logistic difficulties than any controversy it would stir up.
“I feel fortunate to live in an era where scholars of different religions can discuss, rather than polemicize about, different scriptures from various perspectives,” he says. “My enthusiasm was fostered by my belief that it would be important to both the Jewish and the Christian community.”
The volume contains several essays discussing Jewish attitudes toward Christianity over time and the break between Judaism and Christianity. “Of the approximately 8,000 verses in the New Testament, more than 250 quote the Tanakh [Jewish Scriptures], and perhaps twice as many directly allude to it,” Brettler reveals in his own contribution.
Other themes draw on Hellenistic Jewish literature.
“Because Amy-Jill’s expertise includes familiarity with areas where Christian teachers and preachers, out of ignorance, sometimes depict Judaism in incorrect and ugly ways, we also throughout the commentary highlight places where teaching and preaching can go astray and provide the correct information. Thus the volume is intended also to prevent false witness against Jews and Judaism,” says Brettler.
The co-editors admit to occasional disagreement with contributors. However, they attempted not to present a work that could be titled, as Brettler says jokingly, “The New Testament as it Should be Read by Levine and Brettler.”
“Both of us had extensive experience popularizing scholarly ideas for a lay audience without ‘dumbing down’ the content, and most of our editing was in this area, rather than ‘correcting’ a contributor’s contribution,” Brettler explains. “As in The Jewish Study Bible, we did not try to have all the commentaries or annotations and essays agree completely with each other. The study of early Christianity is a dynamic field, in which there is much scholarly controversy, and we wanted this volume to reflect that diversity.”
In speaking publicly about how the project affected them, Levine and Brettler declare it enriching to their own Judaism.
“I did become a better Jew by understanding more about the history of late Second Temple period and beyond – the period in which the New Testament was written – in part by people who considered themselves Jewish and were considered Jewish by others,” Brettler says.
“Also, by better understanding the differences between rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, I understood more about the directions that Judaism did not take, and thus understood Judaism better.”
Brettler is to share some of these reflections at “Should Jews Study the New Testament?,” sponsored by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, March 18 at 8 p.m. He’ll be joined by Marcie Lenk of Ben-Gurion University and the Shalom Hartman Institute; Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University; and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, president of the Institute of Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament
Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler
Oxford University Press
700 pages; $35
Information: [email protected]