Revealing the Jewish Roots of the Christian Bible

Q&A with the authors of the ‘Jewish Annotated New Testament’, a book that doesn’t aim to convert Jews, rather show Christians the very Jewish nature of the scripture.

Jay Michaelson
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Jay Michaelson

The new “Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a magisterial volume of Jewish commentaries, essays and scholarly notes on the second half of the Christian Bible. Ironically, the JANT is the work of two practicing Jews, Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and Marc Brettler of Brandeis University. And the intention of the volume is not “to convert Jews,” but the very opposite: to enable Jews to encounter the New Testament in an informed and noncompulsory way, while showing Christians the very Jewish nature of the books (and writers) in question.

Jay Michaelson: Why is it important for Jews to read the New Testament?
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler: First, much, if not all, of the New Testament is Jewish literature, and all of it is relevant for understanding Jewish history. The New Testament sheds important light on early Jewish life and literature, from the practice of Halacha relations with Rome to women’s social roles to the meaning of apocalyptic texts. Another rationale for Jews reading the N.T. is respect: If we Jews want Christians to respect Judaism, we owe the church the same respect, and that respect includes knowing what is in the Christian canon.

Seeking the Jewish roots of the New Testament.Credit: Nate Lavey

JM: Obviously, many Jews are reluctant to read the New Testament. Why do you think that is, and how does this new volume address their concerns?
AJL & MB: Some Jews hesitate out of concern that the text is anti-Jewish, and there are indeed problematic passages. For these readers, the annotations explain how these texts came to be written as well as how Christians over the centuries have interpreted them. We felt that Jewish readers might be more comfortable reading the New Testament if the commentaries dealt explicitly with such issues and if the annotations and essays were written entirely by Jews, so it was clear that the volume was not intending to proselytize.

JM: On the other side, why would Christians be interested in the “Jewish Annotated New Testament”?
AJL & MB: The volume will benefit Christians who are interested in the origins of the church: For example, we address how Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood the parables and the miracles attributed to him; how Jesus’ interpretation of Torah and his ethical teachings fit within first-century Judaism; how proclamations of Jesus’ divinity could be accepted by some early Jews, and how both Jewish and Christian understandings of the “messiah” change over time. We wanted a resource for the overworked priest or pastor, volunteer Sunday school teacher and untrained youth leader that would correct the anti-Jewish stereotypes heard in churches, Bible studies and elsewhere [that the Gospel is preached]. The volume flags the stereotypes, shows why they are wrong and provides alternative ways of reading the text so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate.

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