Annotated Bibles don't often make headlines, but "The Jewish Annotated New Testament" (Oxford University Press) - the title alone is enough to provoke spirited discussion - has caused a stir.
Co-edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Bible scholars at Vanderbilt and Brandeis respectively, the volume is proving controversial because of what it says about the very close relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Jewish scholars of the New Testament are saying, effectively, "This is our book, too."
The annotated Bible shot up to #31 overall on the Amazon best-seller list over Thanksgiving, and it continues to do well among religious books. Sales of its hardcover and Kindle editions now rank #1 and #3, respectively, in the online bookseller's Jewish History of Religion category.
Most notices of the book have a Rorschach-test-results quality to them. The New York Times advertised the arrival, finally, of an annotated New Testament not aimed at proselytizing. The Christian Science Monitor viewed it as one more marker of "a notable period of reconciliation and bridge-building between Jewish and Christian communities." The Jewish Daily Forward used it as a jumping-off point to discuss the near ostracism of Jewish novelist Sholem Asch for publishing "The Nazarene," a sympathetic portrait of a very Jewish Jesus, in 1939.
The editors of this volume have in mind different take-aways for Jewish and Christian readers: They want Jews to become more comfortable with the Christian holy book and Christians to be more comfortable with its Jewishness.
Ms. Levine recalls the story of her aunt, who wondered why her Jewish niece had acquired an unfortunate interest in the Christian holy book. When Ms. Levine challenged her - "Have you read it?" - the aunt replied, "No, why would I read that hateful, anti-Semitic disgusting book?"
Now, having digested that disgusting book and taught it for the past 15 years at Vanderbilt, Ms. Levine told the New York Times, "The more I study the New Testament, the better Jew I become."
Mr. Brettler seconds that notion. He told the Forward that Jews should no longer regard the New Testament as "dangerous," but rather "important for Judaism."
That is an intriguing claim; let's come back to it after considering the book's prospects with Christian readers, whose long-term buy-in may prove more elusive than the editors imagine.
As its title indicates, "The Jewish Annotated New Testament" is an annotation, not a translation, of the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. The NRSV is a relatively new translation and is not terribly popular with many Christians (for reasons unrelated to this project), so any annotated version starts with a strike against it.
Further, Christians who are not scholars may have a hard time wrapping their heads around the need for this particular New Testament - as I discovered while reading it publicly. My conversations with maybe half a dozen evangelical Christians in my small town all went something like this:
Composite Evangelical: What is that?
JL: "The Jewish Annotated New Testament." It's what 50 Jewish scholars have to say about the New Testament.
CE: What kind of Jews?
JL: Come again?
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.