Brettler and Levine on the Jewish Annotated New Testament
December 18, 2011
On Saturday evening I drove south to Great Barrington, to hear Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler and Dr. Amy Jill Levine speak about the Jewish Annotated New Testament at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. (For background, here's the article I just wrote for the Berkshire Eagle: Jewish scholars give perspective on the New Testament.)
When I arrived, shortly before six, the parking lot was full; I had to drive further down to the overflow parking lot! The place was totally packed -- hundreds of people were present. (Midway through the event, someone asked any Christians present to raise their hands -- I'm guessing about a quarter of the room was Christian.)
Our speakers were introduced by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, a member of Hevreh and also a member of the Berkshire Minyan which meets at Hevreh. The evening was co-sponsored by Christ Church Lutheran, St James Episcopal, Congregation Beth Israel, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and the South Berkshire Friends Meeting.
"On this Saturday night I am struck by the fact that we are sitting together on a kind of bridge in sacred time. Saturday night marks the end of the Jewish Shabbat and precedes the Christian Sabbath. Resting on this bridge together, we are graced with a unique opportunity," said Rabba Stern-Kaufman. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, R' Stern-Kaufman said, "deepens the possibility of understanding and healing" between Judaism and Christianity.
Marc Zvi Brettler
When many people see the title of the book they think that this is a controversial book, noted Marc Brettler. The first blog entry he saw about the book began thus, "Without having read it, and I can guarantee you I never will, I can guess it's a new bold attempt by the rabbinic Talmudists to undermine the faith." (Looks to me like this is actually a comment on someone else's post.) Meanwhile, the first review on Amazon read, "It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews...why don't you people leave us in peace?" You just can't win, he joked. But more seriously -- "we just could not find a better title for the book!"
Oxford University Press discovered long ago, he explained, that Bibles sell well. Fifteen years ago OUP was revising its standard college and church Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the main editor contacted Brettler, saying that he wanted someone to be involved who was not Christian, in order to ensure that the newer editions would not draw the spurious distinction between the Old Testament God of law and war and the New Testament God of grace. A few years later came the Jewish Study Bible, in which the Hebrew Bible was commented-on by Jewish scholars -- it was remarkable, Brettler noted, that there were finally enough Jewish scholars for that volume to happen!
After he finished co-editing that, he said to his editor, partially in jest, "what would you think about a bunch of Jews getting together to do the New Testament the way we just did the Hebrew Bible?" It took his editor a few years to talk the rest of OUP into it, but here we are.
Edited to add: I've just had a lovely email exchange with an editor at OUP, who offered a gentle correction to the previous sentence of this post. He writes: "When I proposed the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the issue among my colleagues was not whether to commission and publish it – everyone agreed on that, once they saw the positive academic reviews – but rather whether it was a book for general readers or only for academics. Most of the people I worked with thought it would be a library and professional book, not one intended for non-experts." Many thanks to Don Kraus for the clarification!
"I think this book is important to different people for various different reasons," Brettler noted. "I am tired of hearing people talking about the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, implying that Judaism and Christianity are more or less the same thing!" He cited the book The Myth of Judeo-Christian Tradition and said he wished it were more widely-read. "Part of what worries me about this term, Judeo-Christian, is that it is often used in a pernicious sense, to exclude Muslims in various ways," he noted. And then, for a laugh, he held up the bumper sticker someone had sent him -- the fish with feet (Darwin-fish style) which reads "Gefilte."
I hope that we are able to respect each others' scriptures, which are different in a variety of ways, and that we can come to understand each others' scriptures... and get a sense for what the commonalities, as well as the differences, are.
President Obama, in his inaugural, said, "in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." Dr. Brettler told us that when the President said that, everyone in the room looked at him, and he just shrugged his shoulders -- "I'm pretty sure it's not in the Hebrew Bible!" Unless you understand Paul and his letters to the Corinthians, you're not going to understand an important influence on American culture.
Also, he noted, the New Testament and Christianity have deeply influenced Judaism. R' Arthur Green wrote an article several years ago called "Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs." (Here's an abstract.) Shekhinah, he explained, is Hebrew for the presence or manifestation of God as it is understood in kabbalistic literature, and Shekhinah is a feminine-gendered noun. Arthur Green made the claim that the medieval interest in Shekhinah was influenced by the Catholic interest in the cult of Mary -- a controversial claim at the time, though today many of us might take it for granted.
Or take the Hebrew expression ayn navi b'iro, there is no prophet in his own city. Most sources call this a Jewish expression or phrase. But this is a rabbinic borrowing from Christian texts! "I do not mean to suggest that religion needs to be understood only in terms of what external forces have influenced a particular religion, but that is one important aspect of understanding religion, and surely Judaism has been influenced by Christianity in a variety of ways."
There was interest by Christians in the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish works during the Renaissance. Many of the leading Biblical scholars at that point were Christian scholars who had begun to study Hebrew. "If non-Jews are able to study the Hebrew Bible, which was originally a Jewish work, is it not fair that there should be some reciprocity, that Jews should be able to study the New Testament as well?" It is valuable, he argued, for Jews to be interested in Christian literature, "especially since a strong knowledge of rabbinic material often adds insight into what New Testament texts mean."
He cites Matthew 22 verses 34 and following: "When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Pharisees, and one of them, a lawyer" -- what does the NT mean by lawyer, by the by? surely not someone who had passed the Palestinian Bar exam! -- "asked him a question to test him, 'Teacher, which commandment in the Law is greatest?' He answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." You might think this was a very Christian idea, a very Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible.
But it's not. Or at least, it's not only a Christian idea. Quoting from the Talmud Yerushalmi, Dr. Brettler notes -- "R' Akiva taught, love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18) - this is the most important rule in the Torah." He pointed out the similarities between the New Testament teaching and the Talmudic tradition; and secondly, he argued that anybody who wants to draw a contrast between Christianity as a religion of love and Judaism as a religion of law would do well to remember this passage from Talmud where Leviticus 19:18 is called "the most important rule in Torah."
"It is possible, even important, to be a religious believer, but nevertheless to admit that there are problems with your core religious text." If he had a chance to re-do the Hebrew Bible, he knows which 25 chapters he would take out of it! "I am tired of certain apologetic attitudes which de-problematicize...the problems we have in our Scriptures need to be confronted head-on."
It is as useful to complain about Galatians 3:18 and similar text -- "wives, be subject to your husbands" -- as it is to complain about the last few words of Genesis 3:16, "and he will rule over you." And of course the reverse is true, he noted, as well. "One can, and I would argue one must, find beauty and meaning wherever it is present." Influenced, he told us, by teachers like Krister Stendahl, he has learned to see the beauty in the Christian scriptures.
In the editorial process, Dr. Brettler's interest was primarily connections between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and between the Christian scriptures and the early Talmud; Dr. Levine's interest was primarily the Christian scriptures themselves. It sounds like this was a good balance; often, he told us, concepts which had seemed obvious to the essays' authors were not obvious to him as a Jewish reader.
Sometimes, he told us, concepts which play a minor role in the Hebrew scriptures become major ideas in the New Testament. The idea, e.g., of the fall of man and original sin -- we think of these as Christian ideas, but actually these build on Psalm 51, "Indeed, I was born with iniquity, with sin my mother conceived me." Certain ideas which might be peripheral, hardly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, become very important in this later literature which takes the Hebrew Bible so seriously.
And then, in a nod to the Hebrew Bible format of the inclusio, he chose to end as he had begun, with two blog comments. One of them is, "This book is a serious Jewish analysis of the NT. Timely -- no, overdue."
Amy Jill Levine
"My professional activity is in New Testament," she explained. Her primary job at Vanderbilt Divinity school is to train Christian divinity students on how to read the New Testament -- "an odd job for a Jew, but somebody's got to do it!" Her introduction to Christianity was ethnic Roman Catholicism and she loved it: parades of statues through the streets, fabulous foods, going to Mass with her friends after roller-skating -- "it was like going to synagogue; it was a bunch of men in robes speaking in a language I didn't understand. I found it absolutely fascinating!"
Her parents told her that Christians and Jews both worshipped the God of creation, that we pray many of the same prayers, that we share a sense of the importance of at least the Ten Commandments, and that a Jewish man named Jesus was very important. "So my initial sense was that the church was the synagogue we didn't attend." Her fascination with Christianity came to a head in second grade when all of her friends were preparing for First Communion -- she too wanted the dress, the veil, and the white patent leather purse! (That got a good laugh.) Midway through that same year, she heard from a little girl on the school bus, "You killed our Lord."
That, she told us, was her first lesson in interfaith relations. "It turns out we don't know enough about our neighbors' religion to know what to even ask. So we simply presuppose."
Shortly after that came Nostra Aetate, which proclaimed that Jews in all times and all places cannot be held responsible for the death of Jesus. But this encounter on the school bus was before that. "I could not understand how a tradition that had the same God and the same prayers and a Jewish man named Jesus, not to mention Santa and the bunny, both of which I liked, could say horrible things about Jews." She decided, even then, at seven years old, to go to CCD, figure out where the antisemitism was coming from, and stop it. Her parents said, "As long as you remember who you are, go; you might learn something." So she did.
And, she told us, she fell in love with the stories -- and noted their common ground with the stories from Tanakh which she already knew. Jesus meets women at the well; so did Abraham's servant Eliezer when he found Rebecca. Jesus makes food appear miraculously, heals people, raises the dead; so does Elijah the prophet, so does Elisha the prophet, so do the miracle-working rabbis who multiply food and heal people! Jesus survives when children all around him are slaughtered (Matthew 2) -- and we too have a little baby boy rescued when all the little boys around him are slaughtered, who has a connection with Egypt, crosses water for a life-changing experience, and goes to a mountaintop to deliver the law. (That'd be Moses.)
She looked for antisemitism in the teachings of Jesus, and found, "Woe to you scribes and pharisees, because you like to be greeted with honor in the marketplace and you like to have the best seats in the synagogue." But to her, this sounded exactly like something her mother might say about some of the big machers at their shul! (Another good laugh line.)
In seriousness, she told us, there are passages in the NT which are problematic. There are passages which have caused the deaths of millions of Jews, "and we flagged them in the book." But as she read them, it occurred to her that her Catholic friends, the people who had taught her catechism, did not read the text that way. And the same holds true for Jews and how we relate to what's problematic in our scriptures. "We Jews read about the awfulness of the Egyptians during the Passover story, but that doesn't make us hate Egyptians -- I would date Omar Sharif, given the opportunity!" (That too got a laugh.) The important thing to bear in mind is, we all choose how to read our texts. So in this book, she told us, they sought to draw attention to the difficult passages and also to explore how people have read and interpeted those passages through the centuries.
"Much of the NT is written by Jews," Levine noted. "The only first-century Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. Paul wrote 7 if not 13 NT documents...the more we know about first-century Judaism, the more we know how well he fits into the first century." There was great diversity of theological beliefs in the first century; what was possible in Judaism in the year 40 becomes impossible by the year 400.
"The first person in history ever called 'rabbi' is Jesus of Nazareth, and his statements make a great deal of sense in a Jewish context. The NT becomes for us a marvelous source of Jewish history," said Levine. It's a particularly good source for learning about the history of Jewish women in the first century of the Common Era.
The hope here, she told us, is to help Jews as well as Christians understand how this book functions culturally, without fear of proselytizing.
As a Jew, I want Christians to respect Judaism, which means knowing more about us than Adam Sandler's Hanukkah song! But if we want Christians to respect us, that means we need to respect them -- and that means we need to understand what's in their scriptures.
She and Brettler were also interested in correcting uninformed Christian misinformation. "I hear from my divinity students all kinds of nonsense about first-century Judaism, and it is my job to correct it." Most of the troubling rhetoric about Jews in Christian thinking comes not from antisemitism but from ignorance, she told us.
Levine mentions the essays at the back of the book -- which I have begun to read, and which I think are fantastic, by the way -- as one of the primary ways in which this book can correct misinformation. "When I was first reading the NT, it occurred to me, this is Jewish history!...By having Jews do the annotations for this book, in effect, we're reclaiming our history."
On a personal note, she told us, she spends a lot of time doing interfaith relations. "What this text can do is help build bridges." She also mentions interfaith families. How can Christian grandparents with Jewish grandchildren, or vice versa, talk with one another? Perhaps this book can help us "reclaim our common roots and celebrate them, and also see how and why we differ."
After brief remarks from a local Christian minister, we moved into a question-and-answer period. Questions ranged from "which version of the New Testament did you use?" (the NRSV) to "when you see verses taken out of either holy book, do you get the sense they are used by people for power and control, instead of for study and for God?" ("Yes, absolutely," said Levine. "We're Bible-saturated in the United States but we're biblically-illiterate...so people yank the text out of context.")
Someone else asked, how did your work on this book effect and change you? "It took four years of our life," Levine quipped. "Some of it was like herding cats!"
But she added, "Did it change my faith? No. But what it did do is give me greater respect for the areas of connection between the Jewish tradition and the Christian scriptures, connections in the thought-world between early Christianity and early Judaism."
I was also impressed by Levine's comment about how she tries to teach the NT with the utmost respect not only for its original audience and setting but also for the people for whom this text remains sacred scripture. She doesn't need to believe in it in order to teach it in that way. And as a result, when the Christian divinity students have a crisis of faith, they come to her, because if she as a Jew can find the holiness in their scripture and their teaching, kal v'chomer, how much more so might they be able to learn to find that holiness again. What a lovely response.
There was also a question about Revelation and the beast whose number is 666, to which Levine's response delved both into apocalyptic literature and into the practice of gematria; anyone reading that text in the first century would have known the gematria of the emperor Nero, and would have read that as a hidden reference to the emperor, but that symbology has largely been lost to us, and "each generation reads the text anew."
And Revelation isn't actually all that unique, in a certain way. "If you read the entire Hebrew Bible, which very few Jews have, you're aware of the last six chapters of the book of Daniel," added Brettler, which was written right before the Dead Sea scrolls were written, and was an instant best-seller in its time, because that kind of apocalyptic material was hugely popular at the time. "Now we know that at that same period when rabbinic literature was coming together, there was mystical and apocalyptic literature which makes Revelation appear tame." Within Judaism, at certain points, that type of literature was squelched; but it is also part of the Jewish tradition, as it is part of Christian tradition.
The last two questions were about the possibility of mis-use of this text by, e.g., Jews for Jesus (the editors agreed that they want this text to be used in whatever ways are helpful, and that they're not sure that what was described in the question would constitute a mis-use) and about language (yes, the editors and the authors frequently turned back to the original Greek and the original Aramaic, especially the Aramaic and Hebrew antecedents of the Greek words, which can draw out additional meanings in Jesus' teaching.)
"This is a commentary written by professionals," Brettler noted, "so the original languages are very important -- but on the other hand we were both very committed to making this type of scholarship acessible to anyone who wants to read it."
Nu: I'm really glad I schlepped to south county. Despite my general tiredness at this moment in time, it was worth staying awake the hour in the car. I'm so glad to have been present for this conversation and to have a copy of this book in my rabbinic study.