Opening the Word: A Jewish take on the New Testament
Levine
Book co-editor Amy-Jill Levine is a leading New Testament scholar. New York Times photo by Christopher Berkey

Over the years I have used many different commentaries, study Bibles and related reference works. The majority of these helpful texts have been written by Catholic scholars, with numerous others produced by Protestant publishers, along with a few from Eastern Orthodox writers. And in my studies of the Old Testament, I have used several works by Jewish scholars. But until now, there hasn’t been a volume quite like “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press, $35), a work, as the co-editors note in their preface, that marks “the first time that Jewish scholars have annotated and written essays on the complete New Testament.” 

Reason for writing

The co-editors are Amy-Jill Levine, who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, and Marc Zvi Brettler, professor of biblical studies at Brandeis University. Brettler co-edited the “Jewish Study Bible” (Oxford University Press, $45), which inspired the idea of a similar work focusing on the New Testament. Writing from Jerusalem, where he is on sabbatical, Brettler told Our Sunday Visitor that he adopted 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.” 

Levine was “the ideal candidate,” he said, because of “her knowledge of the New Testament, her familiarity with early Judaism and its writings, and her involvement in Jewish-Christian relations.”  

Levine is the author of “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus” (HarperSanFrancisco, $13.99), and is very active in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. She is a member of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, takes part in the CBA’s seminar, “Biblical Issues in Christian-Jewish Relations” and also is the New Testament book review editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 

“The Jewish Annotated New Testament” reflects the co-editors’ desire, first, to encourage Jews to open the New Testament and read it without fear or prejudice, especially when it comes to passages that might seem anti-Jewish.  

“We felt that Jewish readers might be more comfortable reading the New Testament if it dealt explicitly with such issues,” the co-editors told OSV, “and if the annotations and essays were written entirely by Jews, so it was clear that the volume was not intending to proselytize.” 

A second audience is Christian readers who wish to learn more about the first-century Jewish context in which Jesus lived and the Gospels and other New Testament books that were written. Some specific examples: “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.” To this end, the volume often highlights the common roots shared by Jews and Christians, but without glossing over or ignoring the significant differences between Jewish and Christian beliefs. 

The third group consists of secular readers who “want to understand the New Testament in its historical context.”  

An overview

The Jewish Annotated New Testament is an attractive volume featuring the contributions of several dozen Jewish scholars. These scholars were chosen for their expertise in Hebrew and Aramaic, New Testament Greek, New Testament scholarship, early Church history and Jewish writings such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of the first-century authors such as Philo and Josephus, and rabbinic texts. “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,” the co-editors told OSV. 

Each book has a one- to six-page introduction discussing the title, authorship, date, setting, structure and genre of that particular text. The commentary throughout is detailed, but not overwhelmingly academic in style. In addition to the sort of explanatory notes about key words, phrases, proper names, places, and concepts one expects in such a work, there is a strong and consistent emphasis on connections to the Old Testament. There are also many references to extra-canonical works, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic texts, and works by ancient historians including the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus. Judicious notes about key Hebrew and Greek words and phrases are interspersed throughout. 

In addition to the introductions and notes accompanying each book, there are 30 essays on topics including “Judaism and Jewishness,” “Jewish Movements in the New Testament Period,” “Paul and Judaism,” “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament,” “Jesus in the Rabbinic Tradition,” and “Paul in Jewish Thought.” The essays are solid and clearly written introductions to key issues and topics that are ideal for students and the serious layperson. One of the more provocative and challenging of these is Levine’s essay, “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” examining 10 areas in which “anti-Jewish stereotypes remain in some Christian preaching and teaching.” 

The volume also contains more than 70 maps, charts, sidebars and diagrams that augment the main notes and essays, as well as an excellent glossary. 

Contributing to dialogue

Brettler and Levine are mindful of the significant advancements in Catholic-Jewish relations over the past few decades; they are also very positive about how 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.” This echoes, in many ways, recent documents from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, especially “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (2002).  

Father Patrick J. Madden, a member of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and director of the Greco Institute in the Diocese of Shreveport, La., sees “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” as “a continuation of the ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish religion.” It is important to see the volume “not as an ‘isolated event,’ but as part of the ongoing dialogue with which we are blessed in our times,” he said. 

Father Madden noted that Catholics will benefit from such a work, and might well learn much about what the Church teaches about both the Old and New Testaments.  

A good guideline for the use of a resource such as “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” is articulated in the document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” issued in 1994 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission: “Jewish biblical scholarship in all its richness, from its origins in antiquity down to the present day, is an asset of the highest value for the exegesis of both Testaments, provided that it be used with discretion.” This discretion surely rests on having a solid understanding of what the Church states about reading and interpreting Scripture.  

This includes being familiar with Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see Nos. 101-143); the 2002 document, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” from the Pontifical Biblical Commission; and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”). 

In the latter document, Pope Benedict wrote, “I wish to state once more how much the Church values her dialogue with the Jews. Wherever it seems appropriate, it would be good to create opportunities for encounter and exchange in public as well as in private, and thus to promote growth in reciprocal knowledge, in mutual esteem and cooperation, also in the study of the sacred Scriptures.”  

This new and unprecedented work of scholarship and collaboration by Jewish scholars marks a positive and welcome moment in that growth of knowledge, esteem and cooperation. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com