That most Jewish of books
How does the New Testament appear to Jewish eyes? A new scholarly volume provides both close-up and wide-angle views of the Christian Bible’s 27 books, and reveals the Jewish underpinnings of nearly every part of it
The Jewish Annotated New Testament
edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Oxford University Press, 700 pages, $35
In 1881, Nietzsche heaped scorn on Christians for what he considered a prime example of the art of reading badly. “I mean the attempt to pull the Old Testament from under the feet of the Jews with the assertion that it contained nothing but Christian teaching and belonged to the Christians as the true people of Israel, the Jews being only usurpers.”
Given how long Christians have regarded the Hebrew Bible as a prologue − a collection of prophesies and prefigurations that found their fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus − we know a great deal about how Christians have read or willfully misread what they call the Old Testament. But how did − and does − the New Testament appear to Jewish eyes?
In “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” Amy-Jill Levine, of Vanderbilt Divinity School and author of the 2006 book “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus,” has teamed up with Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of Bible at Brandeis University, to reclaim the New Testament as an integral part of Jewish literature. The result is a landmark volume that in its reading of the New Testament as a Jewish text reverses the usual direction of appropriation − with sometimes surprising effect.
The bulk of the book is a verse-by-verse annotation by 27 renowned Jewish scholars (oddly, not a single Israeli among them), one for each of the New Testament’s books, demonstrating the texts’ deep indebtedness to early Jewish theological motifs, stylistic conventions and exegetical impulses.
The second part of the volume consists of 30 essays on historical and religious topics − such as messianic movements, midrash and parables in the New Testament, Jesus in Jewish thought, the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls − designed to enlarge the scope of the commentaries.
These close-up and wide-angle views combine to offer a fascinating bifocal study in literary influence.
In its weave of references and allusions to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible made some of its borrowing intentionally explicit. To bolster its own authority, the New Testament, the very name of which derives from a Hebrew phrase in Jeremiah (brit hadasha), struck familiar chords and made the Hebrew Bible the touchstone of its truth. Hence its repetition of the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures,” as in “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Some of the New Testament’s quotation, direct and indirect, is straightforward enough. The essence of Jesus’ teaching, for example, his “Great Commandment,” is taken from the Torah’s commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 18:19). Other no less obvious borrowings include the messianic idea itself, the notion of a scion of the house of David ushering in redemption and the idea of a “world to come.” Many of the New Testament’s other great themes − resurrection and salvation, suffering and martyrdom, temptations and tests, God as a heavenly father, the idea of prophecy itself − already animated the Hebrew drama.
Other borrowings, however, are somewhat more subtle. The volume’s contributors show, for example, how closely famous lines like “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24) hew to Old Testament verses or Talmudic passages. The notes also illustrate how Mark shapes his narrative of the death of Jesus in such a way as to fulfill predictions in Psalms and Isaiah; how Revelation invokes the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel; how Jesus’ stringent views on divorce parallel those of the rabbinic school of Shammai; how Mary’s Magnificat in Luke (her prayer of thanks on being told by the angel Gabriel that she would bring forth a son) is modeled on Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel; and how John’s description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd mirrors the imagery of Psalms and Ezekiel 34.
Elsewhere, the annotators call attention to linguistic nuance, and not only in the obvious places where the Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, breaks through into the common Greek in which the New Testament is written. For instance, most readers of John the Baptist’s declaration that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8) are likely to miss the Aramaic punning on avnayya (stones) and benayya (children). Another contributor shows how Paul’s distinction between law and faith rests on his fateful Greek mistranslation of the word “Torah,” which connotes not law (nomos) as much as instruction in God’s way.
At still other points, the annotators attend not to substance but to form, and show how some New Testament passages employ the formal rules of rabbinic exegesis.
Jesus ‘did not utter a new thought’
In one sense, the cumulative effect is to make some forbidding parts of the New Testament utterly familiar to the Jewish reader.
In fact it is this theme that draws the book’s essays together. In his contribution on “Jewish Miracle Workers in the Late Second Temple Period,” for instance, Geza Vermes gives a tour of wonder-workers − Moses outperforming the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, Elijah miraculously feeding the hungry, Elisha resuscitating a dead child, Honi “the circle drawer” summoning rains − to show that “the miracles and signs ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels and to his followers in the Acts of the Apostles are not anomalous in Jewish culture.”
Similarly, Daniel Boyarin reads the famous opening of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) as a midrash on the opening verses of Genesis. He brilliantly shows that a proper understanding of the early Jewish idea of the word (memra, in Aramaic, or davar in Hebrew) as God’s agent in creation yields the inescapable conclusion that John’s Logos is “a thoroughly Jewish usage.” As David Stern concludes in his essay “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament,” “For all their profound theological differences and mutual conflict, early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism spoke much the same language.”
That sentiment, and this volume’s larger project of locating the religion of Christ within a Jewish frame of reference, is a culmination of a long tradition. Susannah Heschel remarks in her essay on “Jesus in Modern Jewish Thought” that the first stirrings of the Jewish enlightenment, or Haskala, brought about a sea change in Jewish attitudes toward Jesus and the Gospels. German-Jewish historians like Abraham Geiger ceased looking at the younger faith through the lens so highly polished by Christian persecution of the Jews, and began to claim that early Christian writings could be best understood by reading them in their Jewish context. Jesus, Geiger wrote in 1864, “did not utter a new thought. ... He did not abolish any part of Judaism; he was a Pharisee who walked in the way of Hillel.”
From the philosophical tracts of Moses Mendelssohn to the modernist poems of Uri Zvi Greenberg, Jesus was newly represented, with a deepening sense of identification, as a brother. “By the early twentieth century,” Heschel writes, “a cottage industry had developed of Jewish writers who adduced parallels between rabbinic literature and the Gospels.”
Superseding the supersessionists, some Jewish writers went so far as to suggest that Jews were best placed to fathom the Christian Scriptures on their own original terms. Such was the view of German-Jewish scholar Leo Baeck, whose own annotated precursor to this volume, “The Gospel as a Document of the History of the Jewish Faith,” was brought out in Berlin by Schocken in 1938. “A full understanding of Jesus and his gospel is possible only in the perspective of Jewish thought and feeling and therefore perhaps only for a Jew,” Baeck claimed.
Softening the blow
In another sense, however, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” is not only a culmination of a belated project of reappraisal, but a reminder of its limits.
In her essay “Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” Amy-Jill Levine expresses the hope that reading the New Testament as a Jewish text may help to undermine simplistic contrasts of Jewish law with Christian grace, and of Jewish exclusivism with Christian universalism.
This may be borne out, but when “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” encounters the more anti-Jewish passages, its laudable effort to soften the blow by swaddling them with historical context falters.
There is no lack of passages that cannot easily be brushed aside. In his diatribe against the Jews in 1 Thessalonians (probably the New Testament’s oldest book), Paul says “they displease God and oppose everyone” ((2:15. Matthew has the Jews clamor for the crucifixion of Jesus: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). John has Jesus tell his Jewish audience: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” ((8:44.
Jews are xenophobic, lovers of money (Luke 16:14), willfully uncomprehending of the truth (Acts 28:26, John 8:45), hard-hearted and stiff-necked (Acts 7:51), rejected by God, members of “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9, 3:9), literal-minded legalists who choose law over love, the dead letter over the living spirit. Most of all, they are obsolete.
If one wishes to take it on its own terms, then, one can read the New Testament as a Jewish text precisely until the point where the Jews are superseded − until Paul, measuring himself against Moses, sought to legitimate a new people of God. If Israel’s self-definition rested on law and ethnicity (the difference between Jew and Gentile), Paul sought to transcend both by means of a kind of coerced universalism. This is the point at which internal critique shades into a rejection that − despite the editors’ best intentions − cannot be explained away.
That caveat aside, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” admirably succeeds in charting how biblical poetry made its way into ecclesiastical dogma, and how the teachings of Jesus were nourished by the soil of Judaism. More deeply, it reveals how the Christian Scriptures were made possible by the inner imperatives of the Torah itself, a text which demands to be ever reread anew in the light of contemporary experiences, and which teaches that everything has somehow been foreseen.
The Old Testament, as everyone knows, begat the New. In the common telling, Christianity, the deeply ambivalent religion of the son, torn between filial love and patricidal hate, aimed both to fulfill and to supplant the religion of the father. But the poet Yehuda Halevi suggested a less rivalry-inflected metaphor. He imagined Christianity as the tree that grows from the seed of Judaism. And yet the fruit of the tree, he said, must again contain the seed.
Benjamin Balint, a frequent contributor to Haaretz Books, is the author of “Running Commentary” ((2010.