Is that just another way of saying, “Jews behaving badly”? Not according to Amy-Jill Levine, the co-editor, along with Marc Zvi Brettler, of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). “The more I study New Testament,” Dr. Levine told the New York Times, “the better Jew I become.”
Why is it the case that Jews plumb the depths of their own faith even as they read the New Testament? Writing from the perspective of Jewish scholars, Levine and Brettler put it thusly in their preface (xii-xiii): “there is much in the New Testament that we find both meaningful and compelling.” ‘[M]any of the passages in the New Testament provide an excellent encapsulation of basic, ongoing, Jewish values.” There are even passages in the New Testament Jews will find “deeply compelling” to the point of eliciting what the editors call – borrowing a phrase from Krister Stendahl – “holy envy.” The example given: Paul’s unsurpassed description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.1
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, hereinafter JANT, is meant to meet the needs of discrete (and occasionally overlapping) sets of readers: (1) Jews, (2) Christians, and (3) readers who approach the New Testament without any intention to appropriate what they learn within the framework of a Jewish or Christian metanarrative. JANT annotates the New Testament without attempting to persuade the reader to embrace a non-Christian perspective on the text. At the same time, it models a critical, empathetic, non-Christian reading of the New Testament at every turn.
JANT is one milestone among many in an ongoing cultural project of paramount importance: the task of appropriation of everything from Qumran sectarian literature to 1-4 Maccabees, Tobit and Ben Sira; from Joseph and Aseneth, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, to 2 Baruch; from the New Testament and the Didache to Philo and Josephus, within the confines of a set of cultural loyalties in which the tradition of the Sages continues to occupy pride of place. The project is of interest to Jews, Christians, and uncommitted readers alike.
Levine and Brettler state that “the New Testament helps Jews to recover some of our own history” – “our” history because Levine and Brettler do not hesitate to write from a confessional standpoint, precisely because they honor and respect the confessional standpoints of others.
A number of questions present themselves: what do “we” mean when “we” identify ourselves and others as Jews? Where does the history of Judaism end and the history of Christianity begin? What did ancient authors mean when they identified themselves and/or others as Jews?
The New Testament is a window into a room of the ancient world in which an intramural all-Jewish debate was going on, a room in which the debate participants were far from agreeing with each other on major and minor issues. What happens when that debate is transposed in a modern key? Levine and Brettler do not hesitate to affirm: “Jesus was a Jew, as was Paul; likely the authors known as Matthew and John were Jews, as were the authors of the Epistle of James and the book of Revelation” (xi). At the same time, as Levine and Brettler do not deny, the chief if not the only opponents of said Jews were fellow Jews: high priests and Sadducees; Pharisees - some, not all Pharisees, opposed fellow Jews who took Jesus to be the Messiah; and, in the case of Paul, fellow Jews who wanted to Judaize Gentile believers in Jesus. Despite important differences with the strands of faith and practice which came to definitive expression in the later Judaism of talmud torah, midrash, and piyyut, no one denies that the Essenes were also Jews; as were the Zealots, and those who followed their lead, bent first and foremost on removing the yoke of Roman oppression. So were Philo and Josephus, and so were the authors of 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and 4 Maccabees. Whether or not the authors of Mark and Luke and Hebrews were Jews in the later sense of having been born to an ethnically Jewish mother is not as important as it might seem. They no less than the others mentioned in this paragraph, they no less than Jesus and Paul and Caiaphas and Gamaliel and Philo and Tiberius Julius Alexander, are 1st century CE witnesses to a set of questions 1st century CE Jews asked in their time and place. Who is a Jew? Who is not a Jew? Who, even if a Jew, is an enemy of the Jewish people? Who, even if a Jew, is an opponent of God's will?
To judge from New Testament passages as various as Matthew 5:17-20; 18:17; 19:28; 23:2-3a.3b-39; John 4:22; 8:44; Romans 9:3-5; 11:29; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; Galatians; and Hebrews, the questions, who is a Jew, who is not a Jew, not to mention who belongs to the “Israel of God,” received complex answers among 1st cent. Jews and Gentiles who acclaimed Jesus as Lord and prayed "maranatha" ["Our Lord, come!" in Aramaic]. “Seeing others as they see us” or at least understanding how others see "us" were challenging tasks for 1st century Jews and Gentiles. They are no less challenging today.
Shaye Cohen (“Judaism and Jewishness”), Joshua Garroway (“Ioudaios”), Mark Nanos (“Paul and Judaism”), and Daniel Boyarin as summarized by Daniel Langton (“Paul in Jewish Thought”) take divergent stances over and against the senses in which New Testament authors generated identity and defined themselves in opposition to, and in competitive emulation of, coeval overlapping ethnic and religious formations (513-515; 524-526; 551-554; 587; respectively). On this score, JANT reflects a fruitful and far from settled debate. I offer one quote in this context, if only because Paul, one of the most radical and original thinkers of all time, remains a favorite whipping boy of a large cross-section of progressive Christians and Jews:
Daniel Boyarin (1946- ) maintains that despite the fact that Paul found the Law problematic, his letters (“the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew”) show him to be a Jew facing many of the same kinds of challenges that Jews face today; furthermore, as a fellow “cultural critic” Paul had asked the right questions (regarding universalist and gender issues in particular) in terms of how Jews should relate to the non-Jewish world. (587)
That Paul has become the favorite author of deeply traditional forms of Christianity and is viewed with scorn by contemporary cosmopolitans is seriously paradoxical.
In the ancient world, particularisms and universalisms meshed and clashed in striking and sometimes bewildering ways. The same is true in the modern world. Those who would think deeply and philosophically about cultural particulars and universals cannot fail to give sustained attention to the pointed letters of Paul, the great missionary of emergent Christianity. Boyarin, Nanos, Levine and other Jewish scholars of the New Testament, each in their own way, contribute greatly to contemporary scholarship on Paul and reflection on cultural and religious particulars and universals. We are all in their debt. Students of the New Testament who overlook their contributions do so at their own unremitting peril. If nothing else, JANT stands a chance of introducing a large set of readers to the theses and insights of a set of authors who are currently unknown to the vast majority of those who read the New Testament.
Theists and anti-theists define God and/or the gods from a vast plurality of opposing directions. There is no such thing as an essential unity of all religions relative to what divinity promises and asks of mortals. The belief that the true, the good, and the beautiful cohere in a dynamic unity, if not in phenomena, in the noumenal, or as a necessary postulate of pure reason, to be designated as "God," is a widespread but not exactly an uncontested notion. “God is not one,” as Stephen Prothero recently put it. Nonetheless, Jews and Christians have believed, and continue to believe, that God is one, albeit in strikingly different ways.
A strength of JANT is the attention it gives to the ways in which the “two-in-one” and “three-in-one” understanding of God found in diverse significations in the New Testament is prefigured and co-figured in precedent and coeval Jewish tradition. The essays by Rebecca Leeses (“Divine Beings”) and Daniel Boyarin (“John’s Prologue as Midrash”) are excellent brief introductions to the topic (544-546; 546-548, respectively).3
Is JANT successful in annotating and reading the New Testament in Jewish terms, past and present? I would reply: not entirely. Methodologically, the volume is uneven, with some authors annotating in terms of background and context, but not trajectory (e.g. David Frankfurter on Revelation). At times it would seem that contemporary ideological perspectives allow a modern annotator to stand in judgment of an ancient author with insufficient allowance for differences in historical and cultural context.
To be clear, the task of reading ancient texts in terms of their ancient coordinates is an onerous one for contemporary Jews and Gentiles alike. The only way to do so is to defend the texts from the deforming agendas of later readers – our own agendas included. Not surprisingly, JANT succeeds in defending the New Testament from misreadings thereof by Christians better than from misreadings thereof by Jews. Shaye Cohen’s reading of Galatians in JANT, to cite one example, strikes me as occasionally untouched by the insights of recent NT scholarship. On the other hand, I can think of no better starting place for evangelical Christians, to cite a circle of readers who stand much to gain by incorporating the insights of JANT into their understanding of the NT, than Cohen’s notes on Galatians.
Once upon a time, it was common in some Jewish circles to disassociate doctrine (philosophy) from practice (ethos). As if one might be indifferent about the first and insistent about the second.
The disassociation has a quaint ring to it if you ask me. On the one hand, both Judaism and Christianity will continue to be characterized by irreducible pluralism in the realms of faith and practice. On the other hand, challenges from within and without to particular Jewish and particular Christian practices and beliefs; counter-challenges to said challenges; attempts at making sense of Christianity in Jewish terms, Judaism in Christian terms, of both in “secular” terms – all of the above are pressing needs in the global village. Bring it on.
I am a Christian; the more I study Talmud and Midrash, the better Christian I become.2 The converse is also true. Jews who study the New Testament become better Jews. Christians who learn to read the New Testament through Jewish eyes become better Christians.
If I had to name three “bridge” books Jews and Christians ought to read, in the interests of self- and mutual identity generation, they would be (1) the volume just introduced; (2) Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), by Mark S. Kinzer; and (3) Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder: Westview, 2000), edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer.
1 “1 Corinthian [sic] 13.4-7.” The copy editing of JANT is not up to the high standards one expects from Oxford University Press.
2 To be clear, very few Christians dare affirm such a thing, and only a tiny minority of those who affirm it practice what they affirm. A diverse set of posts on this blog are meant to demonstrate the truth that the more a Christian swims in the sea of Talmud, Midrash, and Piyyut, the better she will navigate the currents of her faith tradition. Examples: the parable of the banquet in the Talmud (parts One and Two); a bedtime prayer; cleanliness is next to godliness: the talmudic source; the glories of ancient piyyut.
3 One might have wished that the authors would have provided select bibliographies.