The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxiii + 2,181 pp. £27.50/$45.00 (cloth); £18.50/$29.99 (paper).
Whether one is choosing an annotated study Bible for personal edification or for teaching, comparison of differing positions of commentators is always illuminating. Consider Jon Levenson s comment in the new Jewish Study Bible on Gen. 3:24 ("Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh") as compared with that of David Carr in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Carr remarks that sex between a man and his wife "[reflects] the essence of the connection God created between men and women," whereas Levenson notes that "although polygamy is amply attested in the Tanakh, v. 24 indicates that the ideal, Edenic condition is monogamy," citing Malachi 2:14-16 and Proverbs 5:15-23 in support of this reading. These are two very different interpretations indeed, each with its own sort of attentiveness to the biblical text and its own kind of force for understanding the social and theological implications thereof. For Christians who wish to enter into a multidimensional interchange about Scripture, the new Jewish Study Bible should prove an invaluable resource, offering excellent teaching and a number of interpretive surprises.
Chief among the purposes of a good study Bible are the following three goals: (1) to supply learned notes on the historical background, literary significance, and theological importance of particular biblical books, passages, motifs, and concepts; (2) to address semantic and syntactical difficulties with the original language of the text and adduce other textual traditions that may shed light on the cruxes; (3) to provide in-depth essays on historical and hermeneutical issues of importance for understanding the Bible. This review will consider the Jewish Study Bible's performance in comparison with another Oxford study Bible, the Netv Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV version; 2001), the excellent essays and annotations of which have set a very high bar for study Bibles generally.
First, we turn to some of the notes on Genesis and Leviticus. The introduction to Genesis, by Jon Levenson, is well done, highlighting the importance of that book as "a primary source for Jewish theology," candidly noting the ostensible absurdity of God's promise to Abram, highlighting parallels with other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, and briefly suggesting that the Documentary Hypothesis need not be taken to imply that God is not "the ultimate Author" of the book. The notes themselves are rich and detailed, paying special attention to ancient and medieval rabbinic commentators. Regarding the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, one notes a much fuller commentary in the Jewish Study Bible than in the New Oxford Annotated notes. References to Talmudic and midrashic readings abound; a brief comment is made about the unlikelihood of this text ever having served as a polemic against child sacrifice (an older scholarly view that is occasionally still aired); and the remarkable literary artistry of the story is given more attention than in the New Oxford Annotated. No mention is made of the huge role played by this text in Christian theologies from ancient times to the present day, for the editors note in their preface that the contributors do not consider the Tanakh to be part of a larger Bible that contains the New Testament. While this will doubtless be perceived by some Christian readers as a palpably strained omission, a thunderous silence if you will, yet it may be instructive for Christians to encounter the potential power of biblical exegesis apart from overt reference to traditions about Christ.
As might be expected, the notes to Leviticus are far more detailed in the Jewish Study Bible than in other annotated Bibles, demonstrating the deep reverence with which Jewish thinkers have characteristically treated the Law. …