Earthquakes in the academic world, sadly, most often only create ripples in the world of the masses. Two academics, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt Universit, and Dr. Marc Brettler from Brandeis University, served as editors for the recently published "The Jewish Annotated New Testament," a book that deserves wide press and a large readership. The book contains commentary and essays from a range of elite Jewish academics on topics that provide both Jewish context and reactions to the New Testament. Before delving into the actual text, some cultural context will provide important background for understanding the importance of this book.
On a communal level, the very name "New Testament" raises visceral ire for many Jews across the spectrum. It brings up questions of rejection, deicide, anti-Semitism, blood libels, pogroms and the supplanting of one people for another. No wonder then, that even the most secular Jews often stayed away from studying the New Testament. Today though, many Jews feel more comfortable with interfaith dialogue, most likely, in my opinion, because neither of the sides feels so strongly toward their religious dogma or doctrine. We've shifted from a dogmatic age, to a more humanistic religious age, an age as Charles Taylor describes in which, "The existential predicament in which one fears condemnation is quite different from the one where one fears, above all, meaninglessness. The dominance of the latter perhaps defines our age."
In our egalitarian culture, in which we fear meaningless more than condemnation, previous transgressional boundaries fall before our relentless search for meaning, or what academics call, "religious envy." In a state of desperation, we forget historical sins, inherited hatreds and cultural biases. Alternatively, or additionally, our religious selves have matured toward what John Hick envisioned when he describes a utopian interfaith state:
"We should live wholeheartedly within our own faith, so long as we find it to be sustaining and a sphere of spiritual growth, but we should freely recognize the equal validity of the other great world faiths for their adherents, and we can also be enriched by some of their insights and spiritual practices. We should not see the other religions as rivals or enemies, or look down upon them as inferior, but simply as different human responses to the divine reality, formed in the past within different strands of human history and culture."
This new book signifies then either a step forward in this direction or a manifestation of this common sentiment. However, the book must overcome certain hurdles. The Bible, in all its shapes and forms, matters less than in the past to the masses. None of this dismisses the importance of this book; it just contextualizes its place.
The editors themselves understand the walls they must climb for legitimacy and for relevance. They feel compelled to explicate their reasons for the importance of their work. Their main explanations range from the academic to the betterment of Jewish-Christian relations. Much of the work they achieve in the commentary and the essays serve to ground the New Testament in Judaic life and sources, both those contemporary with the writing of the New Testament, and with those Rabbinic texts contiguous or contrasting with Christian ideas. In providing context, the editors hope to combat the fact that, "Although Jewish perceptions of Christians and Christian perceptions of Jews have improved markedly in recent decades, Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other's texts and traditions." Lastly, the editors hope to make the book safer for Jewish readers by paying "special attention to passages that negatively stereotype Jews or groups of Jews." They do so not by engaging in apologetics, but through contextualization of the inflammatory remarks, or in highlighting the changing nature of the modern commentary on these verses.
Regardless of what the book signifies, culturally, the text itself deserves strong regard and commendation. The book offers something for a range of different desires. These essays and commentary easily appeal to the world of academia, but ideally, deserves the readership of the world of the laymen. It fascinates even the novitiate, but importantly, forces every reader to confront their assumptions about the texts that define, whether peripherally, or centrally, many facets of our lives. It serves as an introduction to the curious laymen, a guide for scholars, and an excellent collection of essays by the leading Jewish academics of our time on topics ranging from the weighty question of Jewish Law in the New Testament, to a delightful introductory essay on Jewish Life in exilic times. Many of the other essays develop a common conclusion, or build off a similar foundation: The New Testament needs the backdrop of the Old Testament, its culture, history and concepts, to achieve full comprehension of its depth.
Even if this book doesn't create a shift, but represents a shift in changing Jewish-Christian relationships, it serves as an educational model for progress. For this particular reader, it raises my curiosity about a religion strangely similar and often diametrically opposite from my own. The book offers a contextualized, almost safe foray into intense otherness, an otherness that promises not only challenges, but also inspiration.
For example, how can you deny the mere literary strength of Paul's definition of love in 1 Corinthian 13:4-7: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
My only qualm with this impressive effort lies in its raison d'etre. In a sense, it must sanitize the offensiveness of the New Testament for a Jewish sensibility, but in doing so, does it not, definitionally, rob the book of some of its power? Not that the editors purposefully whitewash any of the controversial verses, but contextualization generally deflates the power of any idea. As my first attempt to deeply read the New Testament, I felt safe, comforted by the Jewish academic elite who, like me, grew up on the Tanach (Jewish Scriptures). In a sense, I appreciate this net, but miss the raw experience of the challenging otherness the text can provide without a commentary.
Even with this in mind, the editors, as well as the contributors, do not turn their backs on the complicated, volatile history of Jewish-Christian relationships. In fact, they do the opposite. They assume that only in confronting the past, while simultaneously realizing we share too much in common to continue the enmity and ignorance, can we, at present, move forward as a global community. On a personal level, they achieved their goal to engender religious envy in this thankful reader.