Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine join us to discuss the Jewish Annotated New Testament: what it means to have a “Jewish” version of the New Testament, how we can effectively understand the New Testament as a “Jewish” book within its historical and social context, and why all this matters in terms of scholarly developments as well as the relationship between Judaism and Christianity today.
Marc Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies at Duke University’s Department of Religious Studies. He’s published widely on the Bible on topics including metaphor, the nature of biblical historical texts, and gender issues. His many books include the Jewish Study Bible, which he co-edited with Adele Berlin; How to Read the Jewish Bible; The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously; and The Creation of History in Ancient Israel; among many others.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences; she’s also an Affiliated Professor at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge. Currently she is teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. AJ’s books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus; The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (co-authored with Douglas Knight); The New Testament, Methods and Meanings (co-authored with Warren Carter), Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi; Entering the Passion of Jesus; and, most recently The Gospel of Luke (co-authored with Ben Witherington III).
Marc and AJ, as two tremendously prolific scholars of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament, each have deep knowledge of the historical context of the New Testament as well as of how it has been interpreted over the centuries. Together, they edited the Jewish Annotated New Testament in 2011, and they subsequently produced a second, expanded edition in 2017.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament has four main components: The text of the New Testament itself (using the New Revised Standard Version translation), introduction to the Gospels and Acts, and to the Epistles and Revelation, introductions to each of the books and extensive annotations to the text, and over 50 essays on topics including the historical and social context of the New Testament, Jewish religious movements of the Second Temple period, Jewish practices and beliefs, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and Jewish responses to Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and Mary the mother of Jesus throughout the centuries.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, as we discuss in this episode, highlights the historical and religious context of the New Testament as a set of Jewish texts—that is to say, texts written about Jews and in many cases by people who were themselves Jews, knowledgeable in Jewish theological traditions and textual interpretation. Throughout history, too many people have forgotten (or consciously ignored) that Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his first followers; or, they have sought to instrumentalize this history for polemical purposes. There has been, of course, a great deal of serious scholarship on the New Testament over the centuries, but the NT has also been at the center of sometimes violent debates between Jews and Christians, too. It thus represents a particularly interesting though sometimes problematic text, especially when we keep in mind that several passages have prompted dangerous anti-Jewish stereotypes and narratives at the heart of centuries of animosity. At the same time, one can point to the changing dynamics of Jewish-Christian relations especially after the Holocaust, in part through Christians, as individuals and as Church communions trying to come to terms both with what the New Testament says about Jews and how those texts have been interpreted. In a certain way, part of what I think is so interesting about the Jewish Annotated New Testament is that it is very much a product of our time: a synthesis of the newest academic scholarship, first of all, and it also represents the possibilities of Jewish-Christian relations today.
With this history and context in mind, Marc and AJ have accomplished the remarkable feat of presenting the New Testament in a scholarly, readable, and accessible format for Jews, without any kind of aim of proselytizing—indeed, they are both themselves Jews. It’s also a valuable resource for Christian and indeed for any readers who will want to better understand these texts and their historical and social context, and especially for religious leaders who want to be able to better understand and teach about Judaism, Jesus, his followers and Christian origins in the first and early second centuries of the Common Era. The annotations and essays distill generations of scholarship on the background and meaning of these texts, their contexts, and their reception and ramifications. When necessary, they confront those passages that have been a source for anti-Judaism. As a result, the book presents a useful resource for students, scholars, as well as teachers and religious leaders: In situating the New Testament within its historical context, the volume demonstrates how and why the New Testament matters in terms of our understanding of the development of Judaism in the first and second centuries, and also why and how this context is critical in terms of comprehending the emergence of early Christianity and the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: I was really glad to take a close look at this volume, and I’m really excited to discuss it in depth. I think it makes an important contribution in a number of ways. Where I think it might be useful for us to start is just thinking about what it means to have a Jewish version of the New Testament, so to speak. What does it mean to have a version of the New Testament that is the “Jewish annotated” version, so to speak? And what did you want to achieve in producing one, in both scholarly terms and also in terms of how the public approaches the New Testament as well?
Marc Brettler: The volume in some senses is an accident. It is in some ways a follow up of the Jewish Study Bible, which I co-edited with Adele Berlin. I enjoyed co-editing that a tremendous amount, and I was looking for a follow up project. And I said, and I’m still not sure if I say this seriously or as a bit of a joke, to Donald Kraus, who’s the executive Bible editor at Oxford University Press. I said to him “Why don’t we do a Jewish New Testament as a follow up?” And he thought about it, actually thought about it for a couple of years, and then he came back to me and said “Yeah, the people at Oxford think that it’s a great idea. But obviously since your specialty is Hebrew Bible, you really will need to pair up with a scholar of the New Testament.” And then he suggested working with A.J. [Amy-Jill Levine], and that’s how the project started as a follow up for the Jewish Study Bible. And indeed, if you look at the two volumes next to each other, you’ll see that they’re very similar covers, and that is not an accident. That really does represent the way in which they belong together.
Amy-Jill Levine: The idea of the Jewish Annotated New Testament fits in with other types of what might be considered niche bibles. So there are Orthodox Christian study bibles, Roman Catholic study bibles, Evangelical study bibles, African American study bibles. There’s a GLBTQI study bible. In that sense, the Jewish Annotated New Testament is specifically targeted. On the other hand, we want this volume to reach more than just Jews. The New Testament is part of Jewish history, and we want Jews to be aware of that. Jesus was Jewish, Paul was Jewish, the various Mary’s were all Jews. But we also want Christian readers to be aware of the Jewish context in which they’re movement took shape, and we want them to be aware as well of those select New Testament passages which because of select interpretations gave rise to quite horrendous anti-Jewish and antisemitic views.
MB: Yeah, so to pick up a bit more on what A.J. is saying, since this all began by asking the question of what Jewish means in Jewish Annotated New Testament. It does mean that entire volume is by Jewish authors. It means that the two co-editors, A.J. and I, are both Jewish. It means that it does have, as A.J. just said, as one of it’s intended groups of readers Jews. So a term that I use is that it also in part was an effort to create a safe New Testament that Jews would feel more comfortable reading, because they would know that it was edited by Jews and that the contributors were Jews. And then like other New Testaments, it did not start from a Christian theological position. It was not intent on proselyting people.
And another aspect of it’s Jewishness, and I’ll just phrase it a little bit differently than A.J. just did, relates to this problematic term of Jewish background for the New Testaments, where there are many different ways to study the New Testament. Now it certainly is a Greco-Roman book in some sense, and it also is a Jewish book. These are two not mutually exclusive ways of looking at the New Testament. And this particular volume focuses more than many other volumes on the so called Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, which is a term that I hope you’ll return to.
AJL: There are other so called Jewish study bibles out there, but they’re written by Messianic Jews, and what they’re trying to do is attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. What we want to do was show enormous respect for the Christian tradition, but recognize it as something distinct from us. So our agenda is by no means an interest in proselytizing. Although a number of Jews actually thought that’s what we were doing.
JL: I mean, that’s interesting, the idea of creating a version of the New Testament that Jews might feel comfortable reading because they don’t think that they are trying to be converted. So there you have, in a certain way, the major audience—but did you not also hope that Christians would look at it as well?
AJL: Oh, absolutely. In fact, because many of us are sensitive to places where textual interpretation can lead into anti-Jewish or antisemitic views, in cases where we knew the text had proven to be problems in the past in preaching or in teaching, we pulled out little gray boxes on things like the blood cry in Matthew 27, “His blood be on us and on our children,” and said listen, these texts have been used to harm Jews. Be careful, oh dear Christians, when you preach and teach this. Not to lead your congregations or your students in such a way that you would inculcate or reinforce anti-Jewish attitudes.
MB: Yeah, and Jason, the way in which you asked the question, you spoke of Jews as the major audience. They are a major audience, but they really are not the major audience. Jews are a significant audience, but Christians who are trying to help better understand the book that is so fundamental to the Christian religion are a very significant and a major audience for us as well. And of course we had to play a balancing act, because these are two different by large mutually exclusive audiences. I say by large because A.J. a few moments ago raised the issue of Messianic Jews. And each audience required different issues to be explicated or the same issue to be explicated through sight and different vantage points.
AJL: We’re also sensitive to the variety of Christian readers we have. So words that might have a particular resonance within the Roman Catholic community would have a different resonance or a different understanding for say Evangelical Protestants or a particular Baptist church or an Eastern Orthodox church. So we had to define terms across the board. Jews may have no clue what Eucharist means and Christians would have different definitions, so we have to put in a separate article on what Eucharist means, sometimes called communion meals. We spent a lot of time defining terms so that Jews who would be familiar with terms like Shavuot or Yom Kippur, those needed to be defined for Christians. And for Christians who would be familiar with terms like baptism, we needed to define those for Jews.
JL: You’re talking about a very difficult and very delicate balancing act, reaching different audiences who don’t always speak the same language.
AJL: As well as who have different interests coming in. Jews might be interested in origins of anti-Judaism. They might be interested in what was Jewish life like at the time. But Christians—and I work primarily within a Christian context because I am a New Testament person primarily—it seems to me that if one claims Jesus as Lord and Savior, one would want to know as much as possible about the place where he lived in, the time when he lived, and the people to whom he spoke. And all of that is that Jewish setting. So we can enhance Christian love of Jesus at the same time we can inform Jews about what is going on with Jesus of Nazareth and why is it that certain Jews are proclaiming him to be lord and savior.
MB: And these dominated the first edition of the book. I was still teaching at Brandeis, where the majority of students were Jewish. So in the same way that A.J. had a Christian audience in front of her mind’s eye, I had a largely Jewish audience. And of course we’ve both been teaching for decades. So we’re well aware that for the volume we have the same issue that we have in any classroom of a wide variety of people who are using the book for a wide variety of reasons. And we just tried to be sensitive to these different groups as we might be.
JL: To go back the initial question I had posed, about what it means to create a Jewish annotated New Testament: People, broadly speaking, don’t always think about the New Testament as a “Jewish book.” It’s the holy text of Christianity, certainly not of Judaism, right? So what does it mean to create a Jewish version or a Jewish annotated version of a book that is not usually understood or placed within the context of ancient Judaism, but rather within the history of Christianity?
AJL: It’s a problem. It’s a problem in how we define our terms. In Christianity itself, even that word suggests that there’s a separate entity apart from Judaism called “Christianity.” But, you know, look, Jesus was Jewish and Paul was Jewish and Mary Magdalene was Jewish. They’re all Jews. And there is no formal distinction between Judaism and Christianity as two quite separate entities. So what we have to do is reconfigure, in fact, the way we tend to think about how the New Testament functions within its own historical context, how it took shape in the first place.
MB: I would say the same thing, a little bit differently. One of the major academic issues in the study of early Christianity is called finding the “parting of the ways.” When do you talk about Christianity as a separate entity than Judaism? It’s not important for us to go into the various answers here, but everybody agrees from a scholarly perspective that in the first century or even, by and large, the early second century, the period that we’re talking about for the production of the New Testament, the ways had not yet parted. And one way of seeing this is that the word Christianus, the Greek word for Christian, appears only four times in the entirety of the New Testament. So clearly the people who are involved in writing this book do not see themselves as a separate religion. Although the term gets quite cumbersome, when we’re careful we talk about this group as Christ believing Jews. That’s really what they are.
Now we both understand that this is something that’s very surprising in different ways to members of the Jewish community and members of the Christian community, and we see part of our job in writing essays, in working on other people’s annotations and essays, bringing this point home time after time again. Because it simply is a true historical point that we think it’s very important for readers on both sides of the divide to understand as well as possible.
JL: Part of the challenge here is the way in which the New Testament is understood by scholars and the way it is popularly perceived. Most people who are picking up a copy of this volume of the Jewish Annotated New Testament are not scholars. And so this fact that Jesus was a Jew, all of his contemporaries who were involved in the Jesus movement were Jews, and that there was not yet quite this divide between Judaism and Christianity for many years after the death of Jesus—this an idea that many Christians are engaging with but that is not always at the forefront of the discourse within Christian communities. Part of what’s interesting about this volume is the way in which it’s bringing what has been for many, many years the scholarly approach to a much wider audience to thinking about the New Testament.
AJL: Right, and we tried in the annotations not to sound too academic. We know when we speak to our undergraduate classes, for example, there are certain technical terms we tend to avoid because our students have no clue what we’re talking about. For me, my ideal audience is my mother-in-law, who was born in Williamsburg. She’s smart, but she doesn’t know anything about Jesus. So I figure if I can explain stuff to her in a way that makes sense to her, I will have accomplished my goal. And that’s in part how we formulated some of our annotations. So it doesn’t sound all highfalutin scholarly, you know, we’re talking about the eschatological concerns regarding soteriology of the parousia. No. We talk in normal language that somebody can understand.
MB: And in doing this, coming back to the basic question, I think our readers, all readers, are very able to understand that it is originally a Jewish book that became the basis, or a basis, for Christian religion. Books that start as being central in one religion can become more central and differently interpreted in another religion. There’s nothing terribly surprising about this.
JL: I’m very curious about what the reception has been. Clearly, in a certain way, there’s been a positive reception, because you published the second edition. In particular, one thing that I saw was that recently the two of you had a visit with the Pope to talk about the book, actually. I’m curious what the reception has been like, and what the reception has been like from different communities, thinking about the contribution the volume makes and how they receive it.
MB: Initially, it was perceived as controversial. And I must admit that I did not think it would be controversial, and maybe that was naïve on my part. Soon after it was published, there was an article in the Washington Times that said as follows: “Annotated bibles usually don’t make headlines. But the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the title alone is enough to provoke a spirited discussion, has created quite a stir.” And the stir was really on both sides, and this really relates to the questions that you began with. Jews felt, what are we doing? This is not a Jewish book. How can we even put the word “Jewish” in the same title as “New Testament.” And some Christians felt that we were taking, as Jews, we were taking back the New Testament and taking it away from the Christian community.
You know, obviously both of those positions were wrong. I think that the vast majority of readers understand why those positions were wrong. But still, there were some people who felt that way, and in fact there people who said as much even before the book was published, just based on the title. So there was some initial frustration. I think once people started to read it, they realized what it was trying to do. And it was felt to be much less controversial, felt to be more important.
I’ll give A.J. a chance to talk about the role that it’s had within Christian community. But I’ll say within the Jewish community, one of the things that has been incredibly gratifying is any number of people have come to me and have said that as Jews they’re starting New Testament study groups—and in typical Jewish style, in chevruta style, in paired learning, they’re studying the text together. It clearly is beginning to have an impact on the Jewish community as Jews start to read it. Why don’t we let A.J. talk about it from the Christian side, and then we’ll come back to the question about the book.
AJL: It’s being used across the Christian spectrum, from Evangelicals to liberal Protestants to Roman Catholics to members of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I get letters all the time from minsters or people involved in adult study groups based in churches as to how helpful the text has been. People are using it within the Christian community, also for personal devotions, because they say it’s pointing out to them material in their text that they had never noticed and never realized. So that on a personal level, on a congregational level, it enhances the meaning of the text for the individual Christian. At the same time, it prevents sermons from going down anti-Jewish tracks, or sermons that had in past used Judaism as a negative foil in order to make Jesus look all bright and shiny. And what we’ve made clear in this text is that Jesus is quite fascinating on his own and one does not need a negative Jewish foil in order to make him look worthwhile.
But it’s also done very well in classrooms, including in seminaries and divinity schools as a requisite book for, say, Introduction to the New Testament. I think that’s fabulous. Finally, I’ve been doing numerous clergy workshops. Clergy get copies of the Jewish Annotated, and then we go through the standard mistakes that Christian clergy have made about early Judaism—not because of bigotry, but because of ignorance—fix those mistakes, and then help Christian clergy see in a more profound and historically-informed way just how interesting this ancient text is, how better to understand Jesus, how better to understand Paul. Because if we get the context wrong, we’re going to get Jesus and Paul and the rest of those New Testament figures wrong as well.
MB: It is worthy noting that the volume also has over 50 essays. To my mind, the most important essay is the one by A.J., which is called “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors made about Early Judaism,” which attempts to correct many of those errors. And I think that this volume can really play a major role in how Christians understand the New Testament, especially if they start with that particular essay.
JL: Yeah, actually I want to talk about that essay, and I hope we’ll come back to it. But I think that what you’ve just brought up here, as well, is this important way in which a volume like this one can play a role in dialogue between various religious communities. And this brings me back to something that I mentioned before, which is that I just find it so interesting and fascinating about this idea that you end up having a meeting with the pope to talk about the book.
AJL: The program with the pope was part of a longer program facilitated by the Gregorian University here in Rome. So not only did we get this special audience where we were able to present to him an autographed copy, but we had a formal discussion, extremely well attended, on the importance of the Jewish Annotated. And that Rome has embraced this text is just phenomenal. The pope was terrific. He told us it was an important book. He told us we needed to continue our work. He could not have been more gracious.
MB: The fact that he accepted this work, that we were invited to this special audience, really does indicate that from the Vatican’s perspective, they understand how important this particular work is. It’s a type of a stamp of approval, understanding the New Testament in its original setting as a Jewish book and understanding and appreciating the Judaism of both Jesus and the Judaism of Paul. And I hope that the fact that this was done in such a public way will be an encouragement for others within the Roman Catholic community and beyond to consider similar perspectives.
JL: I mean, it was only, what, 50 years ago the Roman Catholic church officially decided that the Jews had not been the ones to murder Jesus, right? So it reflects a sea change, in a certain way, the acceptance of this volume really highlights the way in which people should read this text without getting anti-Jewish views out of it.
AJL: Right, and at the same time they don’t sacrifice the particulars of their own tradition. So the volume has enormous respect for the various doctrines that mark the churches, whether it’s trinitarianism or the idea of Jesus as both fully human and fully god. All of that stuff stays in place, and what we’re able to do in some of the back essays is explain how those particular doctrines developed.
JL: So going back to something that you said before, Marc, about the role of a volume like this in terms of dialogue. One of the things that’s very interesting is thinking about the way in which the Bible, in all its different forms—the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible and so on—becomes a point of contact between different groups of people, between Jews and Christians, so on and so forth, and different cultures. We just did the episode with Robert Alter where we discussed his translation of the Tanakh, of the Jewish Bible. And one of the things that we talked about in that interview was the way in which Bible translations over the centuries have been points of cultural contact or inflection. What’s interesting, when you look at the Jewish Annotated New Testament, is that it’s also meant to be a point of cultural contact, but you choose to use the standard translation, the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV), but with a new commentary and annotation to go alongside it. When we look at this project of reframing and reinterpreting a text, what’s the difference in your view between using a commentary to do that, and using a translation to do that project?
MB: Let me start with this one. I think both A.J. and I are very practical people. We realize that no translation is perfect, and we realize that the NRSV is an imperfect translation. It has certain advantages. It was done by scholars. It was done by good scholars. It was done on the basis of the best Greek manuscripts that were available at that particular point by people who had studied the text carefully in Greek. That is not the case for all translations of the New Testament. It is more literal than paraphrastic. So all of those features helped it be a useful starting point for this particular volume.
We did think very, very briefly, no more than a quarter of a second, of having people do their own translations or modify the NRSV translations for each of the books that they are writing on. Had that been the case, the volume would not have been done yet, because retranslating these books would have taken a tremendous amount of time, and then there would have been a tremendous amount of unevenness between the various New Testament books, because each person would have translated a book in her or his own way. So we really did need to start with the best standard Bible translation, and that was the NRSV. With that said, if you read almost every page, the authors of the annotations are suggesting ways in which the translation could be better or could be different or there is a certain ambiguity in the Greek that they are bringing out. So this way we were able to be both practical and to highlight certain problems related to Bible translation.
AJL: I’ll just give you quick example where I think the NRSV gets it wrong, the Epistle of James, which has probably the least amount of information about Jesus throughout the New Testament. In James 2, there’s a reference that says “If a person with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your gathering place.” The NRSV translates that term as “assembly.” But the underlying Greek is actually synagogue, which in the Gospels wherever synagogue shows up it’s always synagogue. But why here did they translate it as “assembly”? So our annotators are able to say “Wait a minute. The underlying Greek from here is synagogue, and this epistle may have been addressed to Jews who gather in synagogues, but they just happen to be Jews who are gathered in the name of Jesus.” We need a translation that everybody agrees is a good translation, and at the same time we require annotations that will bring out particular Jewish nuances that may have been elided in the english translation.
JL: It’s very clear that the translation is not perfect.
AJL: And no translation could be.
JL: Right, right. I mean, one of the things that I find very interesting about the choice to use the NRSV has to do with not just the practicality but also the possibilities for reception. By using a standard translation, one of the side effects of that is for the Christian audience who may already be familiar with this translation, it’s a text that they already know. You’re annotating it in a different way, but it’s still the same text essentially.
AJL: That’s also one where we could get copyright clearance.
MB: And because they know it well and are highlighting particular problems in the translation, I think it’s something especially important that we were able to do.
JL: I mean, one of the things that also is really interesting, and this goes back to what it means to create a Jewish version of the New Testament, is that I think that when we think about what that means… I think if we look at the history of modern Jewish studies kind of broadly speaking, from the nineteenth century onwards, one of the contentious set of issues was who does this tradition “belong” to. This is the case of looking at Jewish studies and the figures of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the “science of Judaism”), who were sort of pushing back—this is the 1820s, they’re pushing back against Christian scholars who they believed were taking a proselytizing approach to studying the Jews. There’s also all sorts of issues regarding supersessionism and the way in which the Jewish tradition has been adopted, historically speaking, by Christians of basically all kinds, talking about adopting the Jewish tradition as the precursor to Christianity. Even when we look at Biblical studies, people like Solomon Schechter, others as well, looked at biblical criticism as an attack on Judaism in certain ways. He called it “higher antisemitism.” All of this, I guess, is just a long way of saying that when we look at Jewish studies, the history of Judaism, biblical studies as well, there are a whole series of continuous debates about who this all “belongs to”—the whole history of the debates about the historical Jesus also fits into this as well. But all of this, it can become very continuous, especially when one group is studying the other.
So I’m curious how this fit into your own thinking about the Jewish Annotated New Testament and your approach to creating a kind of “Jewish” version of the New Testament. If we think about the development of Christian-Jewish relations over centuries and decades, that this can be produced today reflects very much our current moment. I’m curious how the history of these kind of debates, about the way in which one group studies the other, affects the way in which you think about this idea of creating a “Jewish” version of the New Testament.
AJL: The Jewish Annotated New Testament is not the same thing as a “Christian annotated Old Testament.” The Old Testament, for the church, or the Tanakh for the synagogue—and granted these are different canonical orders with different books—that stuff is shared material, and throughout the centuries we have had in effect Christian annotations of the Old Testament. Marc?
MB: Yeah, we’ve had many of them, and until recently almost all academic study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was really study of the Old Testament from a Christian perspective.
AJL: We have had, in effect, Jewish annotated studies of Jesus and Jewish annotated studies of Paul since the Enlightenment. Some of them were apologetic, some of them were polemical. Jews have pretty much always commented on material in the New Testament. What we wanted to do was do it not as an apologetic and not as a polemic, but as academics trying as best as we can to get a sense of the history and a sense of the literature. So this is a text that’s not designed with some sort of ideological drive other than a concern for mutual respect and understanding.
MB: And we’re really going back to Wissenschaft des Judentums, because Abraham Geiger, who was one of the founders of that movement, wrote very significantly on the New Testament. It is true that we are the first people to edit a complete Jewish Annotated New Testament, but various books, such as the Book of Matthew, have been looked at by Jewish scholars of previous eras. If you look at the essays in the back, I’m being a little bit simplistic here, there was serious Jewish interest in the New Testament for a long period of time. The Holocaust, the Shoah, the near destruction of eastern European Jewry made people extremely suspicious of Christianity. And then the Jews really pulled back from that for a while, with some exceptions. Yes, the greatest exception in the United States was Samuel Sandmel in the middle or the second part of the twentieth century. And then as a result of real changes in the understanding of rabbinic texts and the understanding of how universities were structured, I think something that we did not talk about yet is how remarkable it is that A.J. as Jew is teaching in a Protestant divinity school. All of those changes culminated in the production of the Jewish Annotated New Testament. And again, part of the way in which you phrased the question suggested that we have a zero sum game, that either Christians talk about the New Testament from a Christian’s perspective, or Jews talk about the New Testament from a Jewish perspective. And I think that neither of us sees this as a zero-sum game.
AJL: But the opening up of Christians, less with Eastern Orthodoxy, but certainly within Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant movements toward listening to Jewish scholars over the past couple of decades has really been remarkable. A number of our commentators do teach in predominantly Protestant divinity schools. That openness needs to be appreciated, and I think it also fits with the early scriptural material. Jews who study what Marc studies primarily, who study Genesis or who study Isaiah, certainly read Christian commentaries, and Christians who study this material generally read works by Jews. So why not move that mutual respect up into New Testament materials as well. Jews have been publishing academically on the New Testament. Sam Sandmel was the best example here from the 1960s, but even before that Joseph Klausner in Israel writing on Jesus of Nazareth. So we’re part of a much longer tradition of Jews studying the New Testament than some listeners may be aware of.
JL: I think one of the questions here, then, is when you put yourself within this long tradition of Jews studying and writing about the New Testament, what is new here? Are you just in a certain way synthesizing the scholarship of the past 100 or 150 years?
AJL: Asking what’s new is like going up to your average academic and saying “Gee, have you come up with a new idea or are you just repeating stuff that was said a hundred years ago?” One would hope that we would come up with something new. So, to some extent we’re repeating stuff that we have learned from our teachers. But the different focus gives rise to new insight. The package is different, the emphases are different. We’re looking at not only at literature contemporaneous with the New Testament, be it the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, texts from the Pseudopigrapha, even archeological information, but we’re also looking at rabbinic literature not as background, to say “Gee, how have Jews within traditional Jewish commentaries addressed some of the same issues that are being addressed in the New Testament.” This is new, and it’s fabulous.
MB: A lot of what is new, which should not be downplayed, is having all of this material available in a single volume. And having it all available in two different ways. But which I mean in the annotations and in the large number of essays in a single volume. That’s simply never been done before, and never been done in a way which attempts to be so accessible.
JL: I think the accessibility is critical. When you look at the essays, and who wrote each of those essays, many of them are a distillation of the monograph that that person wrote on the topic. What we have here is an entire library of scholarship on ancient Judaism, on early Christianity, on the New Testament, boiled down into a single volume that somebody can pick up and flip through. And that is, I think, a really phenomenal thing to have as a resource.
With this in mind, I think one of the interesting things that you do in it is, it’s not just the annotations, it’s the introductions to each of the books of the New Testament. And this is really useful for people who are getting a sense of the text who are not familiar with it, and also who perhaps want to answer similar kinds of questions about each of the texts—about who the author was, what the context was, so on and so forth. Each of these different texts also presents different challenges and opportunities. How did you try to contextualize the New Testament passages and discourse. How did you contextualize these different books and these different passages differently depending on what each of them are doing? In particular, when we look at ones that have been a source of anti-Jewish hatred or misinformation about the Jews, how did you approach this project of contextualize and annotating the New Testament on the book-by-book level and also by looking at different passages?
AJL: Well, we don’t apologize for texts and we don’t explain them away. And in some cases our annotators simply said, this is anti-Jewish material. We can posit what the historical circumstances were that gave rise to that material, but we also have to deal with it in terms of how we understand it. By the same view, there’s material in the shared scripture that say anti-Canaanite or anti-Egyptian or anti-Persian or anti-Babylonian. This is what religious texts do, and we need to be aware of the problem.
MB: We are aware of the fact that for many of the readers, this is the first time that they’re reading the New Testament or reading it in a serious manner. So we did make general recommendations to our authors about what they should include in their introductions. Issues such as the authorship, interpretation of the text, when and where it was written. And as A.J. just said, different New Testament texts require different source of introductions. From the perspective of anti-Judaism, the most problematic as whole is the Gospel of John. So it’s no surprise that Adele Reinhartz, as part of her introduction, has a whole section on John and anti-Judaism. So we’re aware of the fact that for older readers, this is or should be a significant issue. So unlike many other introductory New Testament volumes, we probably do concentrate on those issues a little bit more both in the introduction and in particular annotations. But we try to do so in a non-apologetic. There are problematic passages in the New Testament, as there are problematic passages in the Hebrew Bible. And we discuss that, I hope in a fair fashion.
JL: Were there any particular challenges? When we look especially at books like the book of John, when we think about the source of anti-Judaism of the course of many, many centuries, where there any particular challenges that you faced? How did you try to resolve them when you looked at these texts or passages that had particular anti-Jewish bent or approach?
AJL: Well, I don’t think “resolved” is the right word. I don’t think you can resolve something that is anti-Jewish. I think you have to name it. You can explain it as best as you can, but it still remains a problem. In the same way, we don’t “resolve,” say, slavery in the United States. We can explain how it happened and why it was perpetuated, but you don’t resolve the question. You bring it to light. You flag the tragedies that it has caused. And then you ideally find some way of saying “I need to acknowledge this as part of my history,” and then I move on.
MB: I would use the phrase “call it out,” rather than resolve it. To give a very specific example, because you asked the question about John. One of the most problematic versus is John 8:44. “You are from your father, the devil. And you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and a father of lies.” Now, that is a highly problematic verse, which Adele Reinhartz calls out in her annotation and says, I quote: “This verse is the source of the association of the Jews with Satan that remains prevalent in antisemitic discourse. See Introduction.” And I very much hope readers of this volume will not only read that particular sentence which calls out this verse. And she phrased it very carefully. Not as antisemitic, because that would have been inaccurate, but rather as a source for antisemitism. And then I would hope that people would go to the page that she has that deals with John and anti-Judaism and explains how a Jewish person can write these particular notions which became the source for anti-Judaism and antisemitism.
JL: I think that this is a fundamental challenge. The flip side of this, as well, is that when you are putting the New Testament within its historical context and in terms of its particular elements which are the source of anti-Judaism, there are other texts which are much more “Jewish,” so to speak. For instance, looking at Matthew as kind of the counterpoint to John, this is the most “Jewish,” so to speak, of the four Gospels. So I think one of the things that you guys do there which is very interesting is that in addition to calling out the sources of anti-Judaism, but also you’re really emphasizing the ways in which there is this connection between Judaism and Christianity in terms of the way in which Jesus is portrayed and the way in which the different contexts of the different authors might lead them to have different approaches towards Judaism.
AJL: We have to be very careful here, because we actually, for the Gospels at least, are not clear on what the context is. The Gospel writers do not begin their texts by saying “Hi, my name is and I live at such and such a place and here’s my background, my ethnicity, my community, and here’s what my mother’s name was.” Part of doing Gospel study is a bit of a circular argument. We read the text, we posit the author and audience on the basis of the text we read, and then we interpret the text on the basis of this audience and author we just posited. We talk about Matthew as a very Jewish Gospel because it’s sounds to us Jewish. Then we have to figure out what does it mean to sound Jewish. But we also know that Matthew was the most popular Gospel among Gentile followers of Jesus in the second and third centuries. So even when we talk about Jewish Gospel, that itself is a controversial comment.
MB: But nevertheless, just to explain a little bit. It sounds so Jewish because of the extant to which it quotes from scriptures of Israel or the incipient Hebrew Bible. And the manner in which it quotes, which is very similar from the manner that is attested in Dead Sea Scroll documents that are more or less contemporaneous with the New Testament and in later rabbinic documents. So that’s what I think makes Jews who have some knowledge of this material much more comfortable with Matthew than they do with the other Gospels.
AJL: I do think Matthew—Matthew the author—is coming out of some sort of Jewish context. Because Matthew the author not only knows the scriptures of Israel very well, but also knows post-biblical interpretation that we find in other Jewish, non-Christian sources. But that doesn’t tell me to whom Matthew is writing. We don’t whether Matthew is writing to some small enclave of other Jewish followers of Jesus or Matthew is writing to what might be called the “ecclesia universal,” the assemblies in the name of Jesus across the board. It would not surprise me that Matthew had Gentiles substantially in mind as the audience.
JL: I guess one thing to think about here, about the project of annotating and contextualizing these New Testament texts, is there are a series of different contexts we can consider. There’s the historical context of the authors, who they were. It may not be possible to really know exactly who they were, but what their historical environment was like, who they were likely trying to write for. We can also talk about contextualizing the passages themselves, how they relate to the other contemporary texts of the time and also to the Tanakh and to the Old Testament, to the Septuagint and other versions of the Bible. Part of what I’d like to hear you guys say a bit more about is why does this context matter? Why is it so important to put the New Testament and these texts within all these various contexts?
AJL: The context, when it comes to any literature, is actually not necessary for comprehension. I mean, we can understand a novel without knowing a whole lot about the historical background. It’s just that we understand it so much better if we know where and when and to whom it was written. Shakespeare can be understood by folks today, but if you know a little bit more about history at the time, it’s a whole lot more profound. My friend Ben Witherington, who’s a Methodist biblical scholar, is want to say that a text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything you want. And with the Bible, that’s certainly the case. So people will open up the text and they will say “Here’s what it means to me.” And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if they knew what it meant to the people who first heard it, they would be able to enhance their own reading. And that’s why context is important.
JL: So I guess one thing that I’m really interested in is the way in which the Jewish Annotated New Testament relates to and differs from other New Testament study bibles. One of the key differences is that the Jewish Annotated New Testament does not include the Old Testament. That’s one of the key differences, but also putting it in terms of this different kind of a context, that you’re doing it from a Jewish perspective. What would you say are the major ways in which the Jewish Annotated New Testament relates to and is different from other Christian study bibles that have the New Testament as the core of the text, and why do you think that these differences matter?
AJL: It is the only annotated New Testament that seriously considers, names, and describes the full Jewish context of the New Testament. It is the only one that deduces later rabbinic material, and not simply by ciation of texts but quoting the text itself. Because we don’t presume that people would have say a copy of the Mishnah or a copy of the Talmud at hand. It is the only text that flags issues where anti-Jewish interpretation has been a problem. It is the only text that welcomes Jewish readers by explaining Christian terms that Christians themselves would be familiar with. It is the only text that provides data on Jewish festivals, on the Jewish history of the period, on Jewish reception of this material and so on.
MB: And part of why we’re able to do this is most other annotated New Testaments are not stand-dalone annotated New Testaments. But the annotations there are part of the larger Christian Bible. And because of limitations in space, such New Testaments can only be several hundred pages long, because you have to include the entire Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in that single volume. So this sounds like a very simple technical issue, but it has lots of implications. This is a stand alone annotated New Testament. And as such, we really have the room to do all the things that we think are very important that A.J. just mentioned. And also, proportionately our annotations are able to be longer and thus to include much more information and different types of information than a typical annotations in other New Testaments found in complete biblical study bibles.
AJL: Not to mention all the back essays.
JL: That’s actually a great segue, because I wanted to talk about some of these essays. We obviously can’t discuss all of them, but I was hoping we could discuss the two essays that both of you wrote. Marc, you wrote your essay about the relationship of the New Testament with the Tanakh, as well as rabbinic literature. So I’m curious if you maybe want to say a few words about what it is you think that we gain from putting the New Testament within this literary context.
MB: I think that many Jews, when they approach Judaism, have an understanding that the Rabbinic period immediately follows the Biblical period. That you go from the Biblical period to the Rabbinic period to the medieval period to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the Modern period. And historically, that is not true. The latest book of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is probably the Book of Daniel from the second pre-Christian century. The Mishnah is codified, let’s say, very early in the third post-Christian century. So that leaves us with over 300 years of a blank. And in order to understand the progression of Jewish history, of Jewish ideas properly, we need to fill in that material or fill in that period between the Hebrew Bible and the Rabbinic period. And the New Testament is one of the most central ways of doing that. Again, there are other sources, there’s Philo of Alexandria, there’s Josephus, there are various Dead Sea Scrolls, there are some books from the Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha. But arguably the most important way of filling in that material is through the New Testament.
So in that sense, what I’m really trying to show in my essay is how the New Testament period and the New Testament itself functions as a bridge, again I’m not saying the bridge, but functions as a bridge between the Biblical period and the Rabbinic period. And as such because I do consider myself to be a historian and I’m interested as a historian in how ideas change over time, having the New Testament as a resource for seeing how these ideas change time in this intermediate period is very important for me. That was really the focus of that essay. Because then you see that the Rabbinic period is not something that is totally new and revolutionary, but that many of the things that you have in the Rabbinic period are already seen in some form already in the New Testament itself.
JL: I think part of this project of looking at the New Testament as a Jewish book, so to speak, is to think about how it is one data point or set of data points that we have in terms of understanding the development of Rabbinic Judaism, of Judaism in late Antiquity. If we think about this period of 300, 400 years, if we had nothing from the year 1600 to 2000, how would we understand that. I think when we look at the ancient period, and I say this as a modern historian, there are so many gaps that the more that we have to study and to learn from, we can gain a lot from it.
I was also hoping that A.J., you maybe wanted to say something about your essay as well. Because I think if we look at what Marc is dealing with, right, this is a literary project, this is dealing with the history, I think that part of what you’re engaging with in your essay on errors and misconceptions about early Judaism has a really profound impact. Not just in terms of historical knowledge, but also in terms of a real world impact because of the way in which the New Testament is interpreted and reinterpreted and perhaps sometimes misinterpreted by many people who gain false understanding of Jews and Judaism from it. As you put it, many Christian religious leaders, I’ll just quote from the essay, and you say that “they often strip Jesus and Paul from their Jewish context and depict that context in false and noxious stereotypes.” So I think what I’m wondering is when you look at this long list of misperceptions which you detail in this essay, why do you think that these misperceptions arise out of the text itself and why do you think that these persist over the centuries and even sometimes to the present?
AJL: Well, that’s like asking why stereotypes exist. I have a list of ten, if I had a higher word count I’d have a list of 20 or 30 or 40, problems continued to be perpetuated. And every year there’s a new problem that pops up where somebody gets the context wrong. Why do these things happen? They happen for several reasons. For example, they happen because for a number of people Jesus has to be the savior, and he saves not only to eternal and he saves from sin, but he’s the poster child for social justice. So what a number of Christian readers do is they say well, if Jesus comes to tell us what justice means, then he must be correcting something that’s wrong in his Jewish context. And consequently Jesus becomes the inventor of feminism amid a first century Judaism that epitomizes misogyny. Or Jesus invents pacifism amid a Judaism which is all about militarism and violence. Or Jesus invents universalism amid a Judaism which is xenophobic. Or Jesus cares about health care amid a Judaism where if you’re sick you’re looked at as sinful. And all of these are just incorrect stereotypes designed to make Jesus look good and designed to promote justice.
Liberation theology, which I personally like, because I like the idea of using the Bible to diagnose political issues, uses this negative trope of Judaism fairly frequently because it’s a very easy way of making your justice case. In other cases, because of modern stereotypes of Judaism for example, the Jews are somehow interested in controlling the world and all Jews are rich. You know, we should be so lucky. Transpose those modern nationalistic antisemitic stereotypes from the nineteenth century on up back into the world of the New Testament and read their text accordingly. And in other cases people will take certain verses in the New Testament quite literally and conclude that well, because Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, then all Jews are hypocritical. Or because Jesus calls the Pharisees lovers of money, which is a standard invective in antiquity, that therefore Jews are all interested in lovers of money. Or because Jesus complains about some Jews who are concerned about external practice rather than internal repentance, that therefore all Jews qua Nietzsche are interested in materialism and externalism and can only parrot but have no creative aspect.
So we’ve had 2,000 years worth of negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism. It’s not surprising that those get read back into the New Testament. And because some of them actually derive from interpretations of the New Testament there’s a feedback loop that continues. I think the major reason the stereotypes continue is because in a number of cases people can’t even hear them. They simply take them as normative, in the same way that when I was a kid, when we children were acting in a rambunctious manner my mother would call out “Stop acting like wild Indians.” I mean, today that sounds horribly racist—and it is. But back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, nobody recognized the racism. So when I flag these errors that people make, I’m not accusing them of being antisemites. In fact, I don’t think they are. The problem is they don’t hear their own negative stereotyping. But the cool thing is once it’s pointed out to them, they do, and most of them are able to self correct after that.
JL: I think it’s interesting because it brings me to the final essay at the end of the book, by Ed Kessler, which deals with the New Testament and Christian-Jewish relations. Specifically, he deals with three areas dealing with supersessionism, anti-Jewish teachings, and then the ongoing development of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I think that when we look at your essay, for instance, A.J., about misperceptions, misunderstandings that I think that you’re hoping that this volume will help to correct… In what ways do you think that this volume of the Jewish Annotated New Testament can contribute to the development of Christian-Jewish relations today as well as into the future?
MB: We gave a lot of thought to the order of the essays. And having that essay as the final essay is very intentional. In some ways, it overlaps a little bit with A.J.’s essay and drives some of the points that she just made home in a slightly different way. And one of things that I think Ed Kessler emphasizes is just how important it is to be honest about what these texts do, and that there are supersessionist texts within the New Testament and we need to call them out. That doesn’t mean we should follow them. It doesn’t mean we can justify them. Perhaps we can explain them and should explain them within the historical context, but we need to call out these problematic texts for what they are.
Something else that that particular essay does is it really traces Jewish-Christian relations in a particular historical context. So it begins with the distant past. It then moves to the near past. And it ends in some hopeful hopes for the future. We’re doing this podcast a few days after a woman was murdered in a synagogue right outside of San Diego by white supremacists. So it is difficult to be hopeful all the time, and I think we really do need to recognize that despite our best efforts at letting people realize that certain texts are problematic and have been the cause for antisemitism, they can and should be read and dealt with differently. So we have problems. We need to recognize these problems. But both of us alongside people like Ed Kessler, who are working very vigorously toward better Jewish-Christian relations are working very hard at making all communities aware of the problems that exist and really building toward a more hopeful future.
AJL: There’s also a correction that we hope this text can provide on the other side. I’ve heard from numerous Jews that Christianity is nonsense, that it’s a pagan religion, that it’s a misunderstanding of Judaism, that it has nothing to do with ethics, it has only to do with belief. And all sorts of other negative stereotypes about Christian origins and Christian practice and belief. So in the same way that we’re interested in correcting Christian misunderstandings of Judaism, we’re also interested in correcting Jewish misunderstandings of Christianity. There’s enough bigotry to go around. Everybody has baggage. And if this volume can continue to allow Jews and Christians to have better understandings of each other, and through understanding usually comes respect, that’s all to the good.