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CE: Are they Messianic Jews?

JL: No. I don’t know about all of their religious commitments, but most have a close relationship to Judaism. Amy-Jill Levine, one of the editors, is Orthodox.

CE: Is it aimed at debunking the New Testament?

JL: No, it’s, uh … Jesus and the apostles were very Jewish, and we have lost some of that over the years. These scholars aim to focus our attention back on the particulars of the Jewishness of the New Testament.

CE: What do they say about the resurrection?

JL: That’s not really what this book is about. It looks at the New Testament as a Jewish document, in light of what came before and after. So they look at the role intertestamental Jewish literature plays in the New Testament, draw in the Dead Sea Scrolls, consider Jewish historians, and consult the Talmud.

CE: Oh, OK.

That last source, the Talmud, represents the culmination of a revolution in New Testament scholarship, which had previously shied away from the use of the Talmud - and for good reason. The Talmud represents a distillation of rabbinic Judaism compiled in writing several hundred years after the New Testament books took their final forms. Any use of the Talmud in New Testament studies thus introduces serious problems of anachronism - and perhaps other problems as well.

When Peter Schafer, the distinguished professor of Judaic Studies now at Princeton, brought out “Jesus in the Talmud” in 2007, he faced charges of anachronism as well as of accidentally furthering anti-Semitism. Much of what the rabbis say about Jesus in the Talmud is colored by an intervening history of Christian-Jewish conflict and is unflattering, to say the least. But Mr. Schafer’s book seems to have had the effect of permanently opening that can of worms.

Rabbinic Judaism is the form the tradition took well after the fall of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 A.D. Granting that the initial break with the growing Christian movement was not a completely clean one, the temple was the major point of connection between the Jewish Christians and other Jews. After it fell, the two movements eventually separated and clashed as competitors. Generations of Jewish Christians either reverted to Judaism or were absorbed into an increasingly gentile Christianity.

The New Testament tells some, though not all, of the story of this divergence, and we can see traces of it in how the Gospels were composed and edited. With the possible exception of Matthew, they were all likely first written down in Greek, not Hebrew or its close cousin Aramaic, and certain sayings of Jesus are helpfully explained to an otherwise clueless gentile audience. The New Testament is thus a work that began as a loose collection of Jewish literature but became something very different.

Whether that makes the New Testament “important for Judaism” is hard to say. We can say that it is a reliable marker for certain Jewish ideas as they affected one of the many messianic movements in the first century - the only one with any staying power, as it turned out. The scholars of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” do us a great service by tracing those ideas.

c Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books and Real Clear Religion.