The Jewish Annotated New Testament
Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Oxford University Press, 700 pp., $35.00
One of the most interesting shifts in Christian theology after the Shoah was in how the adjective Jewish was used. In the patristic era, to call someone's work Jewish was to insult it: the work was too fleshly or legalis tic. Since the Shoah, to call someone's work Jewish is to praise it as appropriately this-worldly, concerned with the ordinary stuff of life, embodied. This 180-degree turn in rhetoric is summed up nicely in an anecdote Stanley Hauerwas likes to use. A former colleague of his, a rabbi, used to say, "No religion is interesting that fails to tell its adherents what to do with their pots and pans and genitals." How Jewish. In a 20thcentury sort of way.
Now The Jewish Annotated New Testament is here to help us all be more Jewish. Amy-Jill Levine (author of The Misunderstood Jew) and Marc Brettler have edited and annotated a study Bible that will enable us to keep Jewish perspectives in mind as we read the New Testament. Using it to prepare for preaching and teaching lately, I've been shocked (again) at how easily my mind settles into the default mode of anti-Jewish interpretation: If Jesus turns up as a feminist, it must be because the Jews of his time were misogynists. If he likes children, it must be because the Jews of his time did not. This volume might get some of us Christians out of the habit of painting a negative portrait of Judaism in order to praise Jesus. If it does, it will have done the church and the world a mighty service.
I am left with questions, however. Some have to do with the limitations of study Bibles as a genre. Levine and Brettler stuff a great deal of information into the margins of the NRSV text, but it often seems not nearly enough. They cite intertestamental and other Jewish texts that I have no knowledge of as though I do. Space clearly doesn't allow for much more. Topical essays fill the gap to some degree, but not entirely.
I also often wonder whether the annotator is speaking as a Jew or as a critically trained New Testament scholar. One can be both at the same time, of course (praise God for an age in which we have so many who are both), but the. notes often feel like boilerplate historical criticism, with its assumption of objectivity, rather than more full-throatedly and particularly Jewish commentary (note the positive valence!), with its assumption of immersion in the laws of Moses.
Are we who read the New Testament as scripture interested in this Bible because the God of Israel has, in Jesus Christ, elected even us gentiles? Or are we interested in it in order to become more tolerant of a diverse perspective? I find this volume far more interesting when approached from the former vantage point than from the latter.
In their preface the editors say they hope that preachers will not stain their preaching with "anti-Jewish stereotypes." In one way this seems obvious: for Jesus to be Lord the Judaism that birthed him doesn't have to be vilified. Yet even those of us convinced of the harm of binary logic often fall right back into it.
I think, for example, of sermons I've preached about Jesus being touched by the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 and about Jesus taking the hand of the dead girl--showing that compassion trumps purity. Levine's essay "Common Errors Made about Early Judaism" shows that I was wrong in those sermons in several ways. Sure, the woman in Mark 5 is ritually impure, but Jesus doesn't touch her, she touches him, and transfer of impurity doesn't come from touching with hands. There is no prohibition against touching corpses--in fact, Jews take care of dead bodies, and there were prohibitions against neglecting them. Impurity is not necessarily sin, and it matters only if one wants to worship in the temple. There are still thousands of ways to preach Mark 5, but several sermons in the saddlebag are ruled out if one pays attention to Judaism both then and now. …