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?