#25—All about the Jewish Annotated New Testament, with Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the—
CHILD: Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: I’m Blair Hodges, thanks for listening to another episode. My guests on the program today are the editors of the unique edition of the New Testament, specifically The Jewish Annotated New Testament from Oxford University Press. The Jewish Annotated New Testament marks the first time that Jewish scholars have annotated and written essays on the complete New Testament. This edition is full of explanatory footnotes, references to other Jewish works, and essays that expand especially on the Jewish elements of the gospels and the other Christian writings of the New Testament.
So what do Jewish scholars have to say about this book of Christian scripture? Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament and they are here in this episode to answer that question.
Marc Brettler is a professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and he also contributed to the book, The Bible and the Believer, which we have discussed in a previous Maxwell Institute Podcast episode.
Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. In addition to The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she also just published a new book called Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. It’s a book that takes a look at the parables of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. We’ll be talking about that book in a future episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
As always, questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be emailed to email@example.com. Don’t forget to rate and review the podcast in iTunes and help us grow the audience.
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BLAIR HODGES: Marc Brettler, you’re a friend on the program. We had you on just a little while back talking about how to read the Bible critically and religiously. Thanks for being on the program again.
MARC BRETTLER: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be back.
HODGES: Amy-Jill Levine, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m glad to have you on the show.
AMY-JILL LEVINE: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
HODGES: So AJ, you made your way as a Jewish grade school student in a predominantly Christian context. So I was hoping we can begin by having you talk a little bit about your background and how you eventually chose to study the New Testament.
LEVINE: Not simply a Christian context, but I grew up in a predominantly Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood, so the background was ethnic Catholicism. It was feasts and rituals and beautiful churches and nuns and priests who wore interesting clothes, and I was just fascinated by the entire thing.
When I was in the second grade I became obsessed with making my first Holy Communion because all of my friends were doing that. I didn’t quite know what the ritual meant but I knew you got a bride dress. I mean the accessories alone really make this a worthwhile initiation rite. So, you know, I asked my parents if I could make my first Holy Communion and they said, “No, because you’re Jewish and they’re Catholic.” But my parents had also explained to me that Judaism and Christianity were very similar, that we took authority from the same books, whether Genesis or Deuteronomy. We prayed the same prayers, most notably the songs. We worshipped the same God, the one who created heaven and earth, and that my Christian friends thought that this fellow named Jesus was very important and he was Jewish.
So my initial sense was that Christianity was kind of like Judaism, which turns out to be true. So I couldn’t understand why I didn’t get to have this initiation rite but my parents said that there were also differences that were important as well. The closest I came to making my first communion is Bendable Barbie had just come out. So my mother bought my Barbie doll a bride dress and I used to practice putting Barbie in her bride dress and then on her knees and she would take communion from Ken, which I found to be an interesting ritual.
About midway through that school year though, a little girl said to me on the school bus, “You killed our Lord.” And I couldn’t fathom how this tradition that had communion and a Jewish man named Jesus, not to mention the bunny and Santa, could say such horrible things about Jews. So I started asking questions then and I was seven years old. And I’m now fifty-eight and I’m still asking questions but I have a few more answers.
HODGES: That’s great. That’s great with the Barbie. How about the New Testament itself, early impressions of that as a text? You’re familiar with Jewish scriptures and then there was this other book that your Catholic friends used.
LEVINE: Right. There was this other bible that I became familiar with, less from my Catholic friends than from when my parents and I would go on vacation and there was this book in the hotel room. I knew Christians had a new bible, or an additional bible, and I actually thought they had to work harder because their bible had more books in it. I did not read the New Testament right off. I started, I guess, trying to read it when I was about 10 or 11. But if you begin a book with the genealogy, it’s really not much of a grabber. And then the women in the genealogy got much more interesting.
I actually read the New Testament through when I was about 14 and I realized then where this, “you killed our Lord” idea came from because there are passages in the New Testament that do say that the Jews killed Jesus. First Thessalonians, chapter 2 is a good example. But I also realized in reading the New Testament, two things. One, most of my Catholic friends and many who have read the Bible did not come out being anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, so I realized at that point we choose how we read. Jews and Christians as well who read about the Exodus and how awful the Egyptians were to us do not come out hating Egyptians. Or if we read about the Holiday of Purim based on the book of Esther and we find out how terrible the Persians were it doesn’t make us hate Persians or Iranians. So we choose how to read.
The other thing that I realized as I was going through the New Testament was that that was Jewish history. If I want to fill in the gaps that I had in my own historical knowledge, I want to know something about Judaism in the first century or Jewish women’s lives in Galilee. The New Testament is a superb source for that. You know, I figured if anybody will teach me how to read this text and be able to train other people how to read it in such a way that we can recover Jewish history and we don’t proclaim hate and we can see those common roots that church and synagogue share, then I want to do that for a living. And I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do it.
HODGES: While you were doing that, not everyone understood why you were drawn to that. I remember reading where your aunt asked you why you were reading an anti-Semitic book like the New Testament.
LEVINE: Yes. In fact, “Why are you reading that terrible, horrible anti-Semitic book?” And I said to her, “Have you ever read it?” And she said, “No, why would I read that terrible, horrible anti-Semitic book?” Ignorance doesn’t help anybody. And I find if one simply says the New Testament is anti-Semitic, that is a non-starter. It certainly has been interpreted in an anti-Jewish way. So I don’t want to put down some sort of label and say this is a terrible text. I want to say this is a text that has received terrible interpretations. Now, how can we interpret it in a more benevolent way?
HODGES: So it’s kind of like the text is like a hammer and a hammer can be used to build a house or can be used to break down a wall.
LEVINE: That’s actually a nice Midrashic analogy.
HODGES: Thank you. How about you, Marc, how about your background, how you came to be interested in working on an annotated version of the New Testament? Do you have any Barbie stories?
BRETTLER: No Barbie, not even any Ken stories for me. My story could not be more different than AJ’s story. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood for both elementary school and high school. I went to Jewish schools where I spent half of my days studying Hebrew and studying Jewish subjects. I actually did first encounter the New Testament in high school where in my Jewish high school Jewish history course we had to read sections of Matthew in relation to late Second Temple period because Matthew, of course, is one of the most important sources for the late Second Temple period.
I enjoyed reading Matthew, so the following summer I read at least the gospels from the New Testament. I mean, I must admit my sense of geography has never been strong, so Acts was a bit of a challenge. And as a young teenager, the epistles were really rather difficult for me to understand essentially because I did not have the advantage of an annotated bible.
HODGES: Were you using the King James translation or which one, do you remember?
BRETTLER: I think I was actually using the King James, which was again— he had another impediment. In college in a Jewish history course I again had to read sections of the New Testaments but my main field for the last thirty years has been the Hebrew bible. And had you asked me thirty years ago if I would ever be part of such a project, I think I just would have laughed in your face.
I think what really happened was as a result of editing The Jewish Annotated New Testament for Oxford, first of all I got much more interested in editing books and realizing how important it is for the broader public to understand these books in a constructive fashion. And I said, hey, what can a good sequel be to the Jewish Study Bible, which was an annotated version of the Hebrew bible, and that is ultimately how The Jewish Annotated New Testament got started. So this is not my main field, this is something that I’ve come to in a serious way later in my life but now it’s become a very important part of both my scholarly and my Jewish identity.
HODGES: So did you recruit AJ? Did you find her for the project?
BRETTLER: Oxford recruited AJ for the project and it really has been a wonderful work of matchmaking. We complement each other in all sorts of great ways.
HODGES: So the majority of my audience listeners are Latter-day Saints and we have our own edition of the scriptures that includes the Book of Mormon and other texts but also our bible that has footnotes and a bible dictionary. But I think a lot of Latter-day Saints don’t often make use of other books, other annotated commentaries and things like that. So can you talk a little bit about what an annotated edition of the New Testament is in general, and then what it means to have a Jewish annotated New Testament?
LEVINE: There are numerous annotated bibles and published by a variety of presses. Some of them are denominationally based. Annotated bibles designed by and for Roman Catholics, which would look not only at what the text says but how the Catholic church over the centuries has understood that text. There are Methodist annotations. There are annotations designed for African-Americans, which would highlight people of color, issues of slavery, and issues particularly of liberation that speak to that community.
A Jewish annotated bible provides two things, or at least ours does. The first is we provide the same type of information that any secular annotated bible would have. If a place is mentioned and the place name has changed, what is it? So we know that Babylon is today’s Iraq, or Persia is today’s Iran. If we have types of measures or monetary concerns we adapt those to say what would this mean in contemporary context. So in that sense it’s like anybody who’s ever read, say, Shakespeare and there were side notes telling you what the words mean as we go from Shakespearean English to modern English, an annotated bible would do that.
For our Jewish annotated, we featured a few things that aren’t found in most other bibles. We looked very closely for allusions to the scriptures of Israel, what the church typically called the Old Testament, what Jews would call the Tanakh and what the academy calls the Hebrew Bible. We looked at what contemporary Jewish sources were saying about the same issues, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, books that did not make it into anybody’s canons, it was pseudepigrapha. We looked at whatever archeological evidence might be helpful in understanding what’s going on and then we looked at post-biblical Jewish sources, Rabbinic sources, medieval sources, to say how has the Jewish tradition addressed some of these questions, like what do we do with the passage in the Torah that talks about an eye for an eye? How have Jews understood the synagogue, or the role of women in religious life, or temple sacrifice in priesthood? Here are few things that might be of interest particularly to some of your listeners. How has the Jewish community understood these concerns over time?
Then finally at the back we threw in about thirty back essays on who were the Pharisees, and how was Jewish law understood, and how have Jews looked at Jesus over time, because it’s not as if we haven’t paid attention, or how we looked at Paul over time. So the text is designed to help Jews understand this part of our own history that we do not know very well to help Christians understand the Jewish context of their own tradition and to help anybody who’s interested in Jewish and Christian conversation figure out how have we spoken to each other over the centuries, and what are the points of dialogue that are still open where we might still engage in a fruitful conversation.
BRETTLER: When I think about annotations I really think of them in two categories. The first category is an average person will read a biblical text and will get lost just because they do not have certain pieces of background and they’ll say, “What is going on here? Why is the text saying that?” So a big chunk of annotations is really our imagining ourselves as initial readers of the New Testament and just helping people with these various issues that they might very well be confused by and that might very well push them away from continuing to read the text.
So to pick up on AJ’s example from the beginning of Matthew, now genealogy is not a great way of starting books and many people might really put it down. But after reading that genealogy, if we’re able to explain how genealogy functions in first century Jewish culture, offer other examples and so forth, then I think people might actually find it easier to read the text of Matthew rather than finding it harder.
The other thing that we do in a lot of the annotations if the first set are things that come from the readers. The second set are things that readers might not even know to ask, but types of background that we really want to provide. And that’s where we really try to bridge between either Sunday school knowledge or none knowledge at all, and scholarly knowledge, and try to provide in a friendly way the type of background that scholars have offered and to make it accessible to people who don’t have access to huge scholarly libraries.
HODGES: Making things accessible is kind of a tricky task I think for scholars. How did you navigate between seeming overly pedantic versus knowing where to be helpful because, like you said, scholars sometimes take so much for granted based on their own understanding and so now you’ve got to make some of what seems obvious to you known to a more general reader, but there’s that difficulty between being a pedant versus being helpful.
LEVINE: Both of us have been in the classroom for many decades, so we do have some sense on what would a reader who has no clue about this material, what would that reader want to know. For me personally, my mother-in-law actually had a childhood somewhat like Marc; she grew up in Brooklyn. She works for Sears; she sold carpet. She has no idea what I do for a living, but she’s fascinated by it. I imagined I was talking to my mother-in-law. What would she want to know and what would be the appropriate language by which I could explain this to her?
So between our years in the classroom, our personal experience, and Marc and I have also spent a fair amount of time doing adult education programs. I’m in churches and synagogues fairly often. I think, Marc, you’re increasingly in churches?
BRETTLER: I am. Yes.
LEVINE: Yeah. Who knew?
BRETTLER: And still in synagogues.
LEVINE: So we have a sense of what questions might be asked. And sometimes we found, or at least I found, from some of my Christian readers, you know, I never thought to ask that question. So the Gospel of Mark begins with this fellow called John the Baptist and suddenly to realize that that’s a unique title. It’s not like there’s a Fred the Baptist or a Suzie the Baptist running around. So why does he have that title and why is he dunking people in the Jordan River and what did this symbolize at the time? So even very simple questions like what does this word connote? It can open up a great vista and make the text so much more, not only comprehensible, but also interesting.
BRETTLER: We’re both teachers. I think that really is the key. We’re not only scholars, but we really both see ourselves as teachers and scholars and understand those two missions is very, very tightly tied together. And I think there really are huge advantages to co-editing because sometimes one of us would find something too technical of what the other person had said and we would just call the other person on that. So co-editing is really a huge advantage in projects like this.
HODGES: The Jewish Annotated New Testament marks the first time, this is from your introduction, it marks the first time that Jewish scholars have annotated in written essays on the complete New Testament. So, you know, it’s been a long time in coming. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the academic politics that made such a project take so long to finally get organized and come out.
BRETTLER: I think that this project reflects something amazing about the academy, especially in America. This project would not have been possible fifty years ago and probably not even possible twenty years ago. Until the past decade or fifteen years, Jews in the academy have not been extremely interested in the New Testament. This has really been seen outside of Jewish studies. Rabbinics was really barely interested in the New Testament. Jews who studied the Dead Sea Scrolls were not terribly interested in the connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.
So it’s really only in the last fifteen, twenty years that Jews have been interested enough and that enough Jews have existed in the critical mass to be able to write on the New Testament. We have about fifty contributors. You would not have found those numbers dozens of years ago. And the other thing that happened and this is really very much reflected in AJ’s academic position, it was I think, unimaginable, maybe AJ you could talk about the first time this happened, that Christian seminaries employed Jews to teach the New Testament. As AJ is at Vanderbilt, as Paula Frederickson was before she retired at Boston University and this simply would not have happened.
There was a notion, which does not really have scholarly integrity that you have to— in seminaries that you have to be of that particular religion to teach texts of that particular religion. So a real change in academia, much more in the United States than in Europe, is a notion that you don’t need to be Christian to teach Christian studies. You don’t need to be Jewish to teach Jewish studies. And once you think about this, this is really obvious because let’s take something that I deal with, the study of Ancient Mesopotamia. There are no people alive from Ancient Mesopotamia. So obviously you don’t need to be an Ancient Mesopotamian to teach Mesopotamian studies.
HODGES: And it also means there’s no Ancient Mesopotamians around to complain about the way you’re teaching too.
BRETTLER: That has both advantages and disadvantages. You’re correct.
LEVINE: That was what Stuart calls a Mess-up-potamian. You don’t need that.
BRETTLER: I like that. That’s great. You do not need to have lived through the French Revolution to teach about the French Revolution. So what has happened in the opening up of academic religious studies makes a great deal of sense, but this really has only happened recently, by which I mean at the end of the 20th century and that’s really what allowed something like The Jewish Annotated New Testament to be written because there were enough Jews with linguistic expertise and general expertise on the New Testament to participate in this project.
HODGES: AJ, Marc mentioned your work, that you’re a Jewish teacher of the New Testament at Vanderbilt.
LEVINE: Yes. According to someone, when that happened hell certainly had frozen over that a Yankee Jewish woman would be teaching New Testament in Tennessee to candidates for Christian Ministry. Okay, that’s weird, I get that. When I was in graduate school at Duke, the dean who was there when I matriculated would not allow me in the New Testament classroom in the Divinity School because he insisted one needed to be a Christian in order to teach New Testament to Divinity School candidates, candidates for Ordination in Christian Ministry.
I suggested through the man who eventually became my dissertation adviser that perhaps he ought to pull the faculty to find out how strong their own Christology was. I was told not to ask fresh questions. To this day, a major— Princeton Seminar at Presbyterian School will not hire anybody who’s not a Christian, a very good school but I find it helpful to have people of different religions working with folks who want to be Christian clergy. Religions within the Christian tradition itself because they will be dealing with people who are outside of their own denomination or outside of their own movement because ecumenism within broader Christendom is not done terribly well and people tend to define themselves over against each other rather than within this kind of big tent, or as Paul would put it, “the body of Christ.”
I think they ought to have exposure to people who do not believe what they believe because that’s the best check on figuring out what exactly they believe. It’s very often the person on the outside who can ask those really hard questions, like how exactly are you saved through someone’s death? What exactly do you mean when you interpret the text in this way rather than that way because your neighbor is interpreting it in a different way? If you think that God is a gracious and merciful God, why do you think that God is consigning certain people to hell for not being able to believe what’s simply not in their hearts? If you believe in loving your enemy, why do you act the way you do? These are really hard questions and sometimes that ecumenical or inter-religious conversation is in a better place to open them up than simply people of their own denominations speaking with each other.
HODGES: That’s an excellent answer. That’s Amy-Jill Levine. She’s author of the new book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. She also co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament with Marc Brettler who joins us. He’s a professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. He joins us from Jerusalem today.
The other question I had about the composition of the book itself is the decision to use the New Revised Standard Version. As I said, Latter-day Saints typically use the King James. I’ve had a really good time using the NRSV myself. So talk a little bit about the NRSV as your translation around which this book is created.
BRETTLER: We really had two choices and any person who edits or co-edits an annotated bible has two choices. Either you could create your own translation or you can use one of the translations that are out there. Since AJ and I went in to see this book through its completion in our lifetime, we did not think that it was a prudent idea to ask everybody to write their own translation, and especially to ask different people responsible for different books.
HODGES: I’ve heard it only takes seventy days though, right? Like most students can a full-on translation in seventy days, is that— it’s what I’ve heard.
BRETTLER: I’m not quite sure.
LEVINE: That’s only from the Hebrew to the Greek.
HODGES: Oh, okay.
LEVINE: From the Hebrew to the English we need a little longer.
BRETTLER: Yeah, there are no ancient traditions that deal with translation from the Greek to the English.
BRETTLER: Plus everybody would have had a different translation philosophy, so that was a total non-starter. So then the question was which translation to choose? We wanted a translation that would not distance people from the New Testament. Most people are simply not familiar and do not understand well the King James Version. The King James is in absolutely beautiful English. I will say that its English is much more glorious than the English of the NRSV but it was just not an option for us. In addition, our understanding of the New Testament, our understanding of the Greek language of the New Testament is so much better in the last several hundred years that it did not make sense for us to use the King James.
So the question was which is the best of the translations that’s out there? This is not so much our decision but this was really Oxford’s decision but I believe a decision that we both agreed with, that the NRSV was really the best translation that is out there. Its scholars knew the Greek well. It is not a hyper literal translation, in that it is still rather readable and we used it as the best. What’s really nice about the notes that we have throughout whenever one of the annotators disagrees with the translation we are certainly allow to do so and many annotators took liberal opportunities to do so.
HODGES: Talk for a second too about the Septuagint. I kind of made a joke about the seventy translators. That’s part of the old lore about how the Greek Hebrew scriptures were translated and these are the scriptures that were used by most early Christians and are cited in the New Testament. There are differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew scriptures. The difficulty is that with the NRSV and most other, I think all other modern translations, the Christian Old Testament, the Old Testament of NRSV follows the Hebrew scriptures whereas the New Testament writers were following the Septuagint, which differs. So did that come up at all in the course of working on this version?
LEVINE: Yeah. Whenever we have in the New Testament what looks like certain quotations, like Matthean fulfillment quotations, this was done to fulfill what was said by the prophets, something, something, or even an allusion, we put in the notes where that allusion stems from in many, many cases for the New Testament because the New Testament authors are all writing in Greek, they are also reading in Greek. So they’re pulling their proved text from the Septuagint. But it’s not as if there was a standard Septuagint or even at the time a standard version of what eventually becomes the Christian Old Testament or the Jewish Tanakh.
So sometimes they’re citing from memory. Sometimes they’re citing to make an allusion and they’re not that concerned about exact wording. Sometimes they might have been working off a manuscript with a different wording than the ones that have come down to us. So all the annotators had to be aware of what are the various options at the time, do we know what’s being cited? Is the text being cited actually shifted by the author directly in order to make a point because the idea of alluding to a text or citing part of it but changing a word or two that’s part of the course in the first century.
HODGES: One other question about the footnotes, as one of you mentioned earlier, they’ll refer to a variety of different sources, including Jewish sources, and Christian readers are probably less likely to be familiar with some of these. So talk a little bit about some of the other sources, the Talmud and some of the other Jewish sources that are brought in through the footnotes to dialogue with the New Testament text.
BRETTLER: I think dialogue is a very good word because these texts do not always function as “background” for the New Testament, which is how they’re so often presented because some of these texts are actually later than the New Testament. So these texts fall into a variety of categories. One category I would call Jewish Rabbinic Texts. So the earliest such text is the Mishnah, which was codified about the year 200 of the Common Era and then was interpreted in both the Talmud of the land of Israel and Babylonia Talmud several hundred years later. In addition to that there are different sources from different types of Jewish Midrash from the whole Rabbinic period. So that’s one type of source which we bring.
Another type of source is related to the fact that the Bible was translated from the original Hebrew and Aramaic already in antiquity, not originally into Greek, but already into Aramaic. Those translations were sometimes very literal and sometimes were extremely periphrastic and homiletic. The word that’s used for those translations is “targum,” in the plural “targumim” or “targums.” So very often there are important early Jewish traditions, which are found in those Aramaic translations, especially when they’re not extremely literal. In addition to that, there are books which made it into the Catholic bible but did not make it into the Protestant bible. Those are the Apocrypha; those are all Jewish Hellenistic books. Those are important sources.
Then there are a whole set of Jewish Hellenistic writings which did not even make it into the Apocrypha. AJ alluded to those earlier. They go by the wonderful title of “pseudepigrapha,” which means false writings. There is no set number of pseudepigrapha, some come from the Land of Israel, some come from outside of the Land of Israel, but the pseudepigrapha as well really represented Jewish views around the period of The New Testament.
And finally, there are the scrolls discovered in the Dead Sea. There is some overlap between those and the Apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha although many of those texts are neither apocryphal, nor found as part of the pseudepigrapha. We can date those texts. They are incredibly important because they are really— they’re in the right country. They are in the right time period. So they are especially important in terms of understanding what was happening among the different Jewish groups at the time that the New Testament was written.
HODGES: AJ, do you have anything to add to that?
LEVINE: This can be somewhat of a morass to try to wade your way into. You start studying Talmud like it’s this pool; you may never come out, you just keep going more deeply. So what we have done is we provided for all the abbreviations; we have discussions of what these texts are, where they’re from, then we date them as approximately as possible. So we’ve made the guide to all this Jewish literature as clear as possible.
Along with all that stuff, we’ve also put in material on archaeology, which is yet another concern by which we should understand the New Testament. And here, not just material from the land of Israel but because we have stuff in the New Testament, which is not Israel based from the Book of Acts moving its way up. Jesus goes to the Decapolis, that’s where the pigs go over the cliff on the other side of the Jordan River. We have Paul’s journeys and Paul’s letters to the Romans or to the Galatians. What we also have to do is figure out what’s going on in these places. So Galati’s in Turkey, what’s the Jewish community doing there? What do we know about Jews in Rome at the time that Paul is writing Romans? So here, archaeology comes in and also so-called Pagan literature. What are these folks on the outside saying about Jews and Judaism? What are they saying about the Gods that they worship and how might a Pagan who has been evangelized by Peter or James, how might that Pagan understand the message in light of Pagan religiosity?
So there’s a lot of stuff out there. And the choices that Marc and I had to make were among this huge stuff, this morass of stuff. How do we put in what’s relevant? How do we figure out what would be of greatest value to our readers? And how do we also make it so that the readers themselves would say, “I want to know more about this now. Where do I go look?” And we provide them the resources.
HODGES: So the book can kind of serve as a launch pad for people to get into even more sources that they’d like to, or if they just want to get a little bit of exposure, they can—
LEVINE: Absolutely. Or a textbook, or a book for an adult education study group.
HODGES: Right. In the introduction, Marc and AJ, you identify a few different audiences for The Jewish Annotated New Testament. It’s meant to be read by Christians who view the New Testament as holy scripture. It’s also intended for Jews who don’t usually see it as inspired scripture. It’s also for interested people in general who, maybe they aren’t necessarily religious, they’re just interested in these issues for cultural reasons. Questions like this always risk a little bit of reduction, but what sort of general views would Jewish readers bring to the New Testament that you tried to account for as you put this together?
LEVINE: Besides my aunt saying, “Why would you read that hateful, anti-semitic book?”
BRETTLER: Well, I think she’s rather typical.
LEVINE: I think so. There’s a sense of this book— you just don’t want to deal with it because it would just be too painful. That it would tell you over and over again how Jews are lost or damned or responsible for, you know, every sin that’s ever been committed in the world culminating in the death of Jesus. Or that it would be so alien. A number of Jews from my experience have presumed the entire book is just a Pagan myth. It has nothing to do with Judaism whatsoever. It’s like gods impregnating human beings and whatnot. So the negative stereotypes and the fear or the sense of alienation, all set up blocks by which Jewish readers might say, you know, “That’s not a book I’d really care to read.”
BRETTLER: Yeah. And I think of it in terms of pronouns, with the goal that we were trying to accomplish with The Jewish Annotated New Testament, for many Jews the New Testament is “that” book. And I think we’ve really tried to turn it into “this” book. That it is not really so other, it is not really so foreign. It really is a book which came together in a Jewish milieu. It really is a book that was written by and large by Jewish authors. It really was a book— is a book that is one of our most important sources for Jewish history of the first century. In that sense, I think we both really tried to make the book much less other than it is for many people in the Jewish community. That it could really more be “this” book rather than “that” book. And to really make it into a much more of what I call a “safe book,” or a safer book for Jews to read.
HODGES: So in terms of Christians now, some Christians might look at a book like this and wonder why Jews would be getting involved. They might think, oh, maybe this is an opportunity to see Jews converting to Christianity. And obviously that’s not the intent of the book. So for Christians, I think, one of the most important things they can get out of this book is a better understanding of the Jewishness of early Christianity, of Jesus. I wanted to hear a little bit about the four gospels, for example. How do the writers of the four gospels and their historical context impact views that the text gives of Jews?
LEVINE: Before we even get into the gospels, it might be helpful to gloss a little bit on the Christian reader who thinks why would Jews get into this in the first place. One dominant reason is that of respect. I mean, not only are we interested in recovering our own history, and not only are we interested in preventing anti-Jewish readings from filtering down into pulpits and pews and Sunday school classes, but there’s a sense of respect here. The reason that Jews are able to study the New Testament at all, and as Marc pointed out that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, is because Christian experts were willing to work with us, that various graduate programs opened their doors and said, “Yes, it’s kosher for you to come and study the New Testament. We would welcome you to do that.” Because we know so many Christians influenced by the New Testament, influenced by the preaching of Jesus, who go out and do the good work that needs to be done in the world. So part of our interest is also one of respect.
For me personally, I have enormous respect for much that’s in the New Testament. I think Jesus had some incredibly smart and wise things to say. I don’t worship him as Lord and Savior, but I think his message of the kingdom of heaven and what that might look like, I think it’s a very Jewish message and I think he puts it together in a profound and engaging way. So I don’t worship the messenger, but I take much of the message to heart, which gets us to the gospels.
One of the things that history helps with, as well as a general understanding of Jewish culture, is when Jesus in the gospels argues with other Jews, and he spends a lot of time arguing with other Jews, this does not take him out of the Jewish environment. It puts him smack dab in the middle of it. Because one way Jews have always had of understanding who we are and of understanding the divine word, what the church would call the Old Testament and particularly the first five books, our Torah, your Pentateuch, is you wrestle with it. That’s what Israel traditionally means, is to wrestle with God. So you know, Moses comes down the mountain and says, “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.” And one Jew looks at another and says, “How exactly do you do that?” And the next thing you know, you have an argument, and possibly then have two synagogues.
So Jesus is arguing with fellow Jews over how to follow God’s law. That is just such a Jewish thing to do because you don’t argue over something in which you have no investment. Jesus is interested in how to actualize Torah for the needs of the community, how to update it, how to make it relevant. Well, that’s what the Pharisees were doing and that’s what the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls were doing, and that’s what we’re trying to do in the synagogue today. So instead of looking at Jesus as over against Judaism, what we can do by looking at the gospels is see him well within it. And the diversity of Judaisms—plural—at the time.
BRETTLER: And I think at the same time, both we and the people doing the annotations were very, very conscious of passages within the gospels, and in the case of John, the gospel as a whole, which has been incredibly problematic, and in the sense that has often been used in an anti-Jewish fashion. And I think it’s fair to say that both AJ and I are historians of religion. And we are very, very interested in contextualizing why the gospels present Jesus and present Judaism in a particular fashion.
So just to give two very, very brief examples, in her introduction to the gospel of John, Adele Reinhartz in a section which is called “John and Anti-Judaism,” which I think if you open most other annotated New Testaments, you are not going to find a section like that in the introduction. So that in and of itself reflects part of the importance of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, both for the Jewish community and for the Christian community. And there she says, “John’s difficult rhetoric should not be vastly dismissed. It can be understood as part of the author’s process of self-definition and self-worth.” In other words, she really contextualizes what the gospel as a whole is doing in a way that I think will make it much easier for both Jews to read and for Christians to read it without picking up on or agreeing with or following some of what might be considered the anti-Jewish sentiments that you have in John.
And similarly, in the end of Matthew, in the very important bloodguilt verse in Matthew 27:25: “Then the people as a whole answered, His blood be on us and on our children.” There the gloss by Aaron Gail notes: “Matthew’s first readers likely related the verse to the Jerusalem population devastated in 70 CE.” In other words, we put this material in a historical context. We’re not trying to say that this material is fine. We recognize the problems certainly that have been caused by these verses. But nevertheless by contextualizing them we hope that these verses may be understood and certainly may be used in a different fashion in the 21st century.
HODGES: I think there are a number of stereotypes that are addressed throughout the book. Stereotypes about Jews that readers will pick up. And as you mentioned, the New Testament was formulated in part as a way for Christians to formulate their identity, and often that was done in distinction with Jews. Scholars have talked about the fact that you’ll see a more polemical edge in the New Testament, especially toward Judaism, because it was created as a text to differentiate from wider Judaism as Christianity became more of its own faith.
Let’s talk about some more of those stereotypes that are addressed throughout the text. Some examples include things like the God of the Jews is a God of wrath, and then Jesus brings in news about the God of love. Or the law, the Torah, is this onerous burden that everyone has to obey or else they’re going to be somehow, you know, destroyed by God. Depictions of Pharisees and Sadducees, and those types of things.
LEVINE: We have a back essay that talks about the major stereotypes that some Christian readers bring, obviously not all, but some Christian readers bring to the text, and if those stereotypes are already implanted, one can certainly find verses to help fertilize them. So we explain the stereotypes, we explain why they’re wrong, we explain where they come from, and we say, “Don’t do this.” So there’s already a kind of prophylactic in the back saying, you know, “Let’s make this a safe text.”
Even in the classroom, I’m still hearing today about the Old Testament “God of wrath” versus the New Testament “God of love.” And when I hear that I want to engage to in proof texting. You know, just taking a verse and saying— so I respond to them, “The Lord is my Shepherd who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul. But you are condemned to the place of outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In other words, I have a Good Shepherd and you have a sadistic dentist, right? It’s the same God. And it’s not as if the divine has some sort of personality transplant sometime in the early Hellenistic period. Want a God who’s a tad upset? Have a look at the Book of Revelation. So we tried to do away with these stereotypes.
That Old Testament “God of wrath” versus New Testament “God of love” also functions to stereotype Jesus in an inappropriate way. So for a number of somewhat naive Christian readers, Jesus comes off like this sweet, gentle, you know, with long blond hair, where he just looked like he had shampoo, and a perfectly white outfit which is so unlikely in the Middle East, you know. And he’s harmless. And the message is only, “I love you, I love you,” rather than, you know, “You have to feed people and you have to visit people in prison and you have to love your enemy.” This is not easy stuff. So what we can do is recover some of the charges that Jesus makes, the concerns that he has rather than just the love.
When it comes to the law and this law as being a burden, what we can point out is that Jesus actually makes the law more rigorous rather than less. The law says you can’t commit murder. Jesus says you can’t be angry with anybody. The law says you cannot commit adultery. Jesus says if you look at a woman, speaking to a male audience, if you look at woman with lust in your heart, you are already guilty of adultery. That’s harder. And Jesus does not do away with any of those laws.
For example, if he did away with the food laws, then Peter and Paul never would have had that food fight in the Antioch that Paul talks about in the epistle to the Galatians. And the Jerusalem Conference that’s recorded in Acts 15 debating whether Gentiles needed to follow the law, never would have to have had to happen. So what we’re able to do is locate Jesus as a practicing Jew, a loyal Jew, within a Jewish environment, but a Jew arguing with other Jews about how best to follow divine will.
BRETTLER: Just to pick up on what AJ said, she was really being very modest. Most people think that the most important essay in the back of The Jewish Annotated New Testament is the essay that she referred to which she wrote, which is called “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism.” And whenever I speak about the volume, time and time again people tell me the way in which reading that essay was really an “ah-ha” moment for them. But these issues do not only come up in the essays, they also come up throughout the annotations.
So for example, one of the things that we could do, just to offer one specific for what AJ talked about, in Matthew, which is my favorite gospel. And yes, even Jews can have favorite gospels. In Matthew 22, when Jesus is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, in 22:36, and he gives an answer where he quotes both from Deuteronomy chapter 6:5, and from Leviticus 19:18. There, the annotation that we have shows that there is some real continuity between what Jesus had to say and what happens in Rabbinic literature, both in terms of the laws that Jesus chooses as the best, the first, the most important laws. But also in terms of the stereotype that often exists, which you mentioned in your question, where the Torah is often stereotyped by non-Jews as a book of law and the book of harsh law.
HODGES: Yeah, this actually is one of my favorite essays in the book, “Bearing False Witness.” Another stereotype that comes up in the book is the idea— or is the way that Christians accounted for Jews not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. And the idea is that Jews expected this triumphant militant leader to come around, and then Jesus showed up and he was this weak preacher of love and things like this. But the picture is a little bit more complex than that and that comes out through the book. So talk a little bit about Jesus as a messianic figure and how that fit into his direct context.
BRETTLER: AJ, why don’t you take this one?
LEVINE: In the late segments of the period, there’s no standard messianic job description. It’s not like there’s a list tacked on in the temple saying, you know, make sure your mom is a virgin at the time of conception, walk on water, gather twelve disciples, you know, have a big parade in Jerusalem, die, come back, ascend, and come back again. There are some people who are expecting a shepherd. There are some people who are expecting the archangel Michael. There are some people expecting Elijah, and others expecting Enoch.
BRETTLER: There are some people expecting two Messiahs.
LEVINE: Right. The Dead Sea Scrolls attest at least two Messiahs, where they’re expecting a prophet. Or they’re not expecting anybody. The dominant view, as best as we can reconstruct it, was Jews associated a Messiah with a messianic age, right? So the job had to come with some manifestation of what the Messiah does. So what does the Messiah do? The Messiah brings about a messianic age. And what’s the messianic age? Everybody comes back from the dead. And that’s why Paul refers to Jesus as first fruits of the resurrection, because Paul’s expecting that final resurrection during his own lifetime is coming shortly. There’s a final judgment. There’s peace on earth. There’s an end to war and death and disease and poverty and, you know, little kids don’t cry at night. The world is fully transformed. Much of this then becomes associated with what Christians refer to as the Second Coming. So what the church does is divorces the coming of the Messiah from the messianic age and institutes the idea of a Second Coming.
The other thing about Jewish expectation or religious belief in general, like why didn’t the Jews believe in Jesus, or why today do Jews generally not resonate well with various forms of Christian preaching or missionaries. Religious faith, as best as I understand it, is not a matter of logic. It’s not a matter of proof. It’s not like sudoku, where if you have enough intelligence and you spent enough time and you studied enough math, you could get the right numbers in the right blocks and everybody gets the right answer and therefore goes to the same church. Religion is not like sudoku. Religion is more like love. And love hits you in the heart more than the head. Most people engaging in religion do not do a cost benefit analysis to figure out what church they’re going to go to. Although I do know some who have. Love is not based on logic any more than grace is based on logic. You love the people you love because you love them. And the person you love and you might say to your best friend, you know, “I’ve fallen in love with so and so.” And your best friend looks at you and says, “Are you insane? What were you thinking?” I think most parents have had that thought every once in a while.
So what people can do as evangelists or as missionaries is they can say, “Here’s how my religion works for me. Here’s how that love impacts me. If you were to join my community, you would find the following teachings and you might resonate with that.” In the same way somebody might come up to you and say, “You want to go on a date? I think you’re really cute.” If the love is meant to be, it’s meant to be. But again, it’s not based on logic. It’s based on how your heart responds, rather than initially how your head responds. So for Jews, their heart was filled with various other forms of Judaism. And it wasn’t as if there was some gaping hole that only Jesus could fill. But in some cases, there was that hole and Jesus filled it.
HODGES: Marc, do you have anything to add to that? That was beautiful.
BRETTLER: It was said so beautifully, anything that I would add would take away from it.
HODGES: AJ, you not only confront the stereotypes, specific stereotypes about the law and about Jesus’ relationship with women and these types of things, but you also talk about some of the reasons for the perpetuation of these types of stereotypes. So talk about some of those reasons why these stereotypes get perpetuated.
LEVINE: Once a stereotype is in place it’s very, very difficult to do away with it. Some of the stereotypes are designed so that Christians could have a better sense of their own identity. For example, one common stereotype is that first century Judaism epitomized misogyny, that women were no more than chattel. They were stuck in women’s quarters of their homes. They couldn’t go anywhere. They were basically slaves and then Jesus comes along and invents feminism. And when we look at the stories of women in the New Testament, it turns out that’s not true. I mean women in the New Testament owned their own homes like Martha or Mary, the mother of John Mark. They have access to their own funds, they have freedom of travel, they show up in synagogues, they’re there in the temple. They’re out in public and nobody ever says, “Oh my God, that’s a woman in public.”
So what happened for certain Christians, particularly women who are interested in why they didn’t have equal rights in their own churches, were thinking, well, if I can get Jesus as leverage, if I can cite Jesus as a feminist, maybe I can get ordained as a priest or a pastor or a minister. Well, it turned out that they couldn’t find much leverage on Jesus. So what they did is they dropped the bar on early Judaism and made early Judaism look like the worst misogynistic culture in the world, and then anytime Jesus talked to a woman, he was looked at as being progressive. And the irony here is they were able to do that in part because at the same time, Christian women were wondering how come they weren’t getting ordained or how come they didn’t have equal say in their churches. Jewish women were wondering the same thing about the synagogue.
We went to our sources, particularly the Rabbinic sources, and we found material that would be constraining. And we also found material that would be liberating and we published. And then the Christian authors looked at the constraining stuff, ignored the liberating stuff, presumed all that Rabbinic material was in effect in the first century, and then were able to construct a negative Judaism over against which to set Jesus. So once we know where the stereotypes come from, we’re in a better position to abrogate them, alleviate them, and put in some sort of correction.
BRETTLER: I know it wouldn’t justify the stereotypes in the New Testament or any other types of stereotypes, but it is very, very frequent that when a group, including a religious group, wants to talk about itself, wants to construct its own identity, it does so by talking about the negative identity of the other. And especially the negative identity of the other with which is it is very, very close. And that’s why Judaism is stereotyped in this particular way in certain sections of the New Testament. So there’s really nothing at all unusual about what is happening here. I think what really is so unusual is that now in the 21st century, we live in a time when I wish I could say this does not happen, but where it happens less, where we’re able to create our own identity as religious communities without talking about negatives, real and perceived, in other communities.
LEVINE: Right. To add to Marc’s comment, it seems to me that Jesus stands very well on his own without having to construct a negative Jewish stereotype, you know. When I teach, particularly when I’m teaching the intro course for the ministerial candidates, I want them to know that if they’re preaching on a Sunday morning, that the message has to be more than, “Well, thank God we’re not like those Jews.”
LEVINE: You have to get beyond the stereotype. You have to get beyond the negative foil, which pretty much everybody in antiquity used. You know, “I’m this and not that.” Get beyond the negative foil and figure out who in fact you are. And go out and show what’s good about your tradition rather than what you think is bad about somebody else’s.
HODGES: Good. We’re speaking today with Amy-Jill Levine. She is the author of a new book called Short Stories by Jesus, and she co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament with Marc Brettler. He’s a professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and also co-author of The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, which we talked about in a previous Maxwell Institute podcast. And that book has just been released in a less expensive paperback version, so if you haven’t yet picked up a copy, now is the time to do that. We’ll be right back with the conclusion of this episode.
We’re speaking today with Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine. AJ is the author of Short Stories by Jesus, and she co-edited the Jewish Annotated New Testament with Marc Brettler. He’s a professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University.
I wanted to wrap things up by talking a little bit about what it’s like to read the texts of other religious traditions. I think it’s fairly common for people to talk about the value of reading about other religious perspectives, but this book is unique in that readers come to it to read from other religious perspectives. So particularly, Christian readers come to read from the Jewish perspectives from the scholars, and Jews come to the book to read from the perspective of New Testament authors. So I think it can be uncomfortable sometimes to learn about what people from other religions see in your religion. So what are your thoughts on that coming to a text from another religious tradition, reading through the eyes of another religious tradition?
LEVINE: We talk in the book about something called holy envy. The term was developed by the late Krister Stendahl, the Lutheran pastor, as well as Dean of Harvard Divinity School, and I think Bishop of Sweden. Stendahl said that we should be able to look at somebody else’s religious tradition and see beauty there, find inspiration there, recognize truth there. But at the same time, recognize that it’s not our own. We can do this whoever we are, when we travel to foreign countries and we look at another culture and say, “Isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this splendid? But I’m still glad I’m an American.”
So the approach that we gave to this text is we recognize that our Christian neighbors find inspiration here and truth and beauty and wonder, and to the best that we can, we try to find that same inspiration. One does not have to be a full-blown, full-pledged believer in what a textbook claims to find to find worthwhile material in that text. So one should not be worried about approaching somebody else’s religious tradition. And in our case, when we’re looking at the New Testament, the tradition we’re approaching is actually just a part of Judaism, but a part of Judaism that did not come through the centuries.
BRETTLER: Yeah, I too have become a Krister Stendahl groupie. I was very fortunate in that Krister taught for several years at Brandeis University and was down the hall from me, and I really got to see from his personal example what his notion of holy envy is, and to appreciate it, then to try to appropriate it. And in addition to holy envy, my favorite quote from Krister Stendahl is, “The longer I have lived, the more I have come to like plurals. I have grown increasingly suspicious of singulars.”
I think that that really represents to me a lot of the work that I’ve done in terms of The Jewish Annotated New Testament. And I am Jewish, I am fully Jewish. It is my religion. It is an essential part of my being. But nevertheless I think that I am a better person and I am a better Jew for having immersed myself in this project and really having understood the New Testament in a much better way as a result of co-editing this book with AJ.
HODGES: Marc, you mentioned that there’s a new edition coming out of the Annotated New Testament?
BRETTLER: Yeah, there is. So AJ and I are at the preliminary stages of working on that edition which we hope will be out in several years. And it will be different in a couple of ways. We’ve heard that many people have been using The Jewish Annotated New Testament as a standalone volume. And one of the things that we realized is we do not, for example, have an introduction to the gospels. We do not have an introduction to the epistles explaining what letters are as a genre. So we will be adding those and similar sorts of introductory pieces so that the volume will be more of a standalone volume.
The second big change—there are all sorts of other smaller changes—is we realized that there are many other topics which could be discussed in essays, which we just neglected to insert into the first edition. It’s really wonderful to have an opportunity to work on a second edition. So these range from topics such as circumcision, gender, archaeology, messianic Judaism, salvation. So we’re going to have over twenty new essays in the second edition, which we just hope will allow more people to have different entry points into the book, because one of the things that we’ve discovered for this volume is that some people love reading the essays first. Other people like reading the annotations first. So the more essays that we have that both explain the annotations in a deeper way and offer for more people greater entry points into the volume, we think the volume will then be more successful and used even more broadly.
HODGES: Good. Do you have a general estimate, like a projected time of when people can expect that?
BRETTLER: Within the next three years, if all goes well.
HODGES: Good. That’s Marc Brettler. He is the co-author of the The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously. It just came out on paperback. And we’re also speaking with Amy-Jill Levine. She’s the author of a new book, Short Stories by Jesus. It looks at the parables of Jesus. And they’ve co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
AJ, Marc, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
LEVINE: It’s been lots of fun. Thanks for having us.
BRETTLER: I’ve enjoyed it. Thank you.
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