Baker Academic

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Jewish Annotated New Testament - Le Donne

Last week in Chicago, I was involved in hosting a panel review of a landmark achievement. The Jewish Annotated New Testament is an NRSV, with notation, commentary, and short essays edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. It represents something of a "who's who" in Jewish scholarship, at least related to the fields of ancient, Second Temple, and rabbinic literature. But this is not what makes the publication a "landmark" achievement. What makes this publication historic is that it is edited and annotated by 51 Jewish scholars who suggest that the study of the NT is important for the study of Jewish history and that such study has the potential to enhance Jewish well-being.

One of the panel reviewers asked whether something like this could have been achieved by previous generations of Jewish scholars.  I have wondered this myself.  There have been remarkable personalities in Jewish and Christian scholarship who have attempted to bridge the divide between camps, but have there ever been this many specialists willing and able to produce a Jewish Annotated New Testament? ...more...

More importantly, would there have been a market for something like this in previous generations?  Historically speaking (rightly or wrongly) Jews have been highly suspicious of Christian writings and Christian "Bible experts". Christian attempts to proselytize and dehumanize Jews have punctuated our long and tragic history of relations. So finding a Jewish readership for the New Testament would have been nearly impossible for previous generations. That this problem is deeply entrenched can be seen in this comment by one amazon reviewer:

EvilDecember 1, 2011
This review is from: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Hardcover)
It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews with this dreck. Why don't you people leave us in peace?

Obviously, the New Testament has been so often associated with a particular brand of Christianity that this "Jew for Judaism" assumed that A.-J. and Marc were Christians (or worse: undercover Christians)!  This assumption is funny on one level, but it is also quite disheartening.  As a Christian, it reminds me that my people have been so decidedly ignorant, inhospitable, and/or violent that default positions like this are common. So I welcome this volume's admirable attempt to open new avenues for readership and education.

I truly hope that this volume finds readership among both Jews and Christians. I will echo Larry Hurtado here and suggest that this NT should be used to sensitize Christian preachers our unwitting anti-Judaism.  I will also go a step further and suggest that Christians use this NT to balance out what they hear from the pulpit.  In fact, I just did so yesterday.  Over the past few months, my pastors have been preaching from the books of John and Hebrews.  Knowing well that these books can often fan the fire of anti-Judaism among Christians, I have been taking my Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) with me to church.  In this way, I have allowed my pastors and my JANT to create a Jewish-Christian dialogue for me.

This volume isn't perfect. It might be overly concerned with matters of authorship at times. It might assume a little defended thesis (without mentioning that a minority view has been adopted) at times. It might propel a neat distinction between Judaism and Hellenism at times. I have no doubt that much will be done to improve this volume when the second edition is published.  But as the first attempt to do what this volume does, indeed the first attempt in 2000 years, the small deficiencies represented in this volume should not overshadow this important opportunity for Christians and Jews to find common ground.

I often tell my students that the New Testament was composed mostly by Jews, in dialogue with other Jews, on topics of Jewish theology.  We Christians would do well to use whatever tools we have at our disposal to rediscover just how Jewish our theological undergirdings are. The Jewish Annotated New Testament is a powerful new tool for this purpose.


  1. Anthony, I am a Jew who spends gobs of time studying Christianity. I have found, much to my surprise, that doing so strengthens and enriches my commitment to Judaism ... and while my admiration for Christianity grows daily (holy envy?), I have no interest in becoming a Christian.

    You wrote about Jewish suspicion of the JANT. I think there is Christian suspicion as well. I write a blog about interfaith topics, and one commenter (a good and sincere person) tells me that unless I follow Jesus as a Christian, I fail to get who he is and to understand his message.

    The more I try to talk to Christians, the trickier the conversation turns out to be! For one thing, the Jewish participant in Jewish-Christian dialog has to deal with the Christian impetus to proselytize. I think this is something I have to live with if I want to engage in dialog with Christians. But I'm never 100% sure that the Christian I'm talking to values my Jewish perspective, or is hoping to convince me to abandon that perspective (and yes, I DO get that this is not always an either-or).

    Another tricky thing is that so much of the NT is built around a compare-and-contrast with Judaism: Judaism is this, and Christianity is that. I can go to synagogue for years and never hear Christianity mentioned, but time I visit a church I encounter Pharisees and Judaizers, and a Jesus-or-Paul taking a stand vis-a-vis (fellow) Jews. Again, I have no problem with Christians who see their religion as an improvement on Judaism -- why else BE a Christian? But it seems difficult for Christians to do this compare-and-contrast without denigrating Judaism ...

    I draw great comfort from what you've written here, that the dialog I seek may be possible after all.

    1. Thank you for this Larry - and do please send me your blog's address!


  2. This post reminds me of discussions we have had in class about the Jewish nature of both Jesus and the Gospels. I remember that we had a discussion about attempts at creating a Jewish Bible that would include Hebrew terminology and names. It is neat to see that this is relevant in today's society. I think that it is a good idea to have this version of the New Testament available for both Jews and Christians. I definitely think that it can help with better understanding Jewish tradition and provide us with perhaps a more accurate and authentic understanding of who Jesus was.