The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Preface
Levine (Amy-Jill) & Brettler (Marc Zvi)
Source: Levine (Amy-Jill) & Brettler (Marc Z.), Eds. - The Jewish Annotated New Testament
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The Editors’ Preface (Full Text)

  1. It is almost two millennia since the earliest texts incorporated into the New Testament were composed. For the most part, these centuries have seen a painful relationship between Jews and Christians. 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. The landmark publication of this book is a witness to that improvement; ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories and the reasons why we came to separate.
  2. The word "Jewish" in the title The Jewish Annotated New Testament serves several roles. First, this volume highlights in its annotations and essays aspects of first- and second-century Judaism that enrich the understanding of the New Testament: customs, literature, and interpretations of biblical texts. We believe that it is important for both Jews and non-Jews to understand how close, in many aspects, significant parts of the New Testament are to the Jewish practices and beliefs reflected in the works of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo and Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha and Deuterocanonical literature, the Targumim (Aramaic translations of the Bible), and slightly later rabbinic literature, and that the New Testament has, in many passages, Jewish origins. Jesus was a Jew, as was Paul; likely the authors known as Matthew and John were Jews, as were the authors of the Epistle of James and the book Revelation. When they were writing, the "parting of the ways" had not yet occurred. Other authors, such as the individual who composed the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, while probably not Jewish themselves, were profoundly influenced by first- and second-century Jewish thought and by the Jewish translation of Tanakh into Greek, the Septuagint. Thus, understanding the diverse Jewish populations of the early Roman Empire — their habits, their conventions, their religious practices — is as crucial to understanding the New Testament writings as is general familiarity with the Roman world. In turn, familiarity with the New Testament helps Jews to recover some of our own history.
  3. Second, we highlight connections between the New Testament material and later Jewish (especially rabbinic) literature, so readers can track similar as well as distinct ideas across time. For example, in most rabbinic literature, the entire book of Psalms is attributed to David, even though fewer than half of the psalms have a Davidic superscription and several are explicitly attributed to other people, such as Korach. How and when did the rabbis' understanding of all of Psalms as Davidic (b. B. Bat. 14b) develop? Here, Acts 4.25 introduces Psalm 2 — a psalm with no explicit Davidic superscription — by saying "it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant." The verse offers important evidence that the idea of the Davidic authorship of Psalms already existed in the first or early second century CE, and was not a rabbinic innovation. Similarly, seeing certain ascetic tendencies, interests in resurrection and heaven and hell, views of fallen angels and Satanic evil in some New Testament texts can make readers aware that such ideas existed in early Judaism as well.
  4. Third, the volume addresses problems that Jewish readers in particular may find in reading the New Testament, especially passages that have been used to perpetuate anti-Judaism and the stereotypes that non-Jewish readers sometimes bring to the texts. Therefore, in addition to emphasizing the Jewish background — or better, the Jewish contexts — of the New Testament, we pay special attention to passages that negatively stereotype Jews or groups of Jews, such as the Pharisees or the "Jews" in John's Gospel. Jews have for too long been accused of being "Christ killers" (see 1 Thess 2.14b-16), or regarded as Judases, or seen as the venal descendants of the Temple's "money changers" (Mt 21.12; Mk 11.15; Jn 2.14-15, cf. Lk 16.14). The authors in this volume do not engage in apologetics by claiming that these statements are harmless. In some cases, they contextualize them by showing how they are part of the exaggerated language of debate of the first century, while elsewhere they note that the statements may not have always been understood accurately by later Christian tradition. An excellent example of the latter is reflected in the annotations to Matthew 27.25: "Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’" (a verse unique to Matthew's Gospel). The annotation observes that the verse may be referring to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the "children" may be specifically the generation after Jesus who experienced that destruction, and not Jews in perpetuity. Similarly, the notes to Revelation propose that the polemic against the "synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not" (Rev 3.9) is not against Jews at all, but is against Gentile followers of Jesus who promote Jewish practices. These annotations cannot undo the harm that such verses have done for two millennia, but they may help both Jews and Christians see that certain pernicious interpretations of the New Testament are not based on the actual texts, as they have been assumed to be. At the very least, the annotations and essays should provide guidance to Christian teachers and preachers, so that when they proclaim the "good news" (the meaning of the Greek term euangelion or "gospel") of Jesus, they will not stain that good news by anti-Jewish stereotypes.
  5. At times, the reader must wrestle with these New Testament texts (and we would argue the same point for the materials in the shared Scriptures — the Tanakh of the Synagogue and the Old Testament of the Church) since they sometimes express ideas that might make us uncomfortable, or worse. The point in studying such texts is not to justify them, but to understand them in their historical contexts and to recognize that the heirs of those texts have different interpretations of them. For example, some New Testament texts appear to promote a supersessionist agenda. Supersessionism (also sometimes called "replacement theology") is the claim, expressed in its starkest form, that by rejecting Jesus and then killing him, the Jews have lost their role as a people in covenant with God, and that the promises made to Abraham now apply only to the followers of Jesus. In other words, this view regards Jews and Judaism as having been superseded by or replaced with Christians and Christianity. This theology is most evident in Hebrews 8.13, which states: "In speaking of 'a new covenant' [Jer 3131-34] he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear." Study leads to deeper knowledge and therefore understanding of how those of differing beliefs or traditions develop.
  6. Indeed, for many Jews, including the editors of this volume, study of the New Testament also has made us better, more informed Jews. Familiarity with the New Testament allows readers to see the various options open to Jews in the first century (to follow Jesus, or John the Baptist; to join the community at the Dead Sea or to affiliate with Pharisaic teaching; to align with Rome or with the rebels, and so on), and so have a better sense of why most Jews did not follow Jesus or the movement that developed in his name. At times, we find that many of the passages in the New Testament provide an excellent encapsulation of basic, ongoing Jewish values: of love of God and love of neighbour (Lk 10.25-28, quoting Deut 6.5; Lev 19.18; Josh 22.5; on love of God see Avot de R. Natan 48 [67a]; on the primacy of Lev 19.18, see R. Akiva in y. Ned. 9.4, who notes that "it is a great principle of the Torah"); of tzedakah (righteousness expressed as charity) (Mk 10.21; Mt 25.34-40; see Jer 22.3; Prov 21.3; on its primacy in rabbinic texts, see b. B. Bat. 9a; b. Sukk. 49b); of longing for the kingdom or reign of God (Mt 16.24-26) and the repair of the world (Rev 21.1-4); compare the Aleinu prayer: "To repair the world through the kingdom of heaven." It is very possible for the non-Christian to respect a great deal of the (very Jewish) message of much of the New Testament, without worshiping the messenger.
  7. Many Jews are unfamiliar with, or even afraid of reading, the New Testament. Its content and genres are foreign, and they need notes to guide their reading. Other Jews may think that the New Testament writings are irrelevant to their lives, or that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion. This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion. Our intention is not to convert, whether to convert Jews to Christianity, or to convert Christians away from their own churches. Rather, this book is designed to allow all readers to understand what the texts of the New Testament meant within their own social, historical, and religious context; some of the essays then describe the impact that the New Testament has had on Jewish-Christian relations. Moreover, we strongly believe that Jews should understand the Christian Bible — what is called from the Christian perspective the Old Testament and New Testament — because it is Scripture for most English-speaking people: it is difficult for Jews to understand their neighbours, and the broader society of which Jewish citizens are a part, without familiarity with the New Testament. Just as we as Jews wish our neighbours to understand our texts, beliefs, and practices, we should understand the basics of Christianity.
  8. Additional reasons commend Jewish familiarity with these texts. The New Testament is the origin of much of the great literature, art, and music of Western culture. To appreciate fully Bach's masterpieces, it helps to know the texts on which they are based; familiarity with the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke helps readers to appreciate the magnificent portraits of the Madonna and her child; New Testament literacy provides the necessary background to understand how cultures over time have come to represent Jesus and Judas, Mary Magdalene and Peter. The New Testament is not only a book of religious significance; it is a book of cultural importance as well.
  9. The term "Jewish" in the title has a final, important function: it reflects the sensitivities of the contributors. It is not the case that only Jews have the competence to provide these annotations, many of which assume knowledge of Hebrew, Tanakh, Second Temple, and rabbinic texts. The indebtedness of all the contributors to scholarship of authors from all religious backgrounds is evident throughout. At the same time, the increase in the number of Jews having expertise in this material, allowing us to find sufficient contributors, is testimony to the openness of the study of religious texts, and it also highlights the increasing cooperation of Jewish and Christian scholars in understanding both the differences and similarities between early Christianity and Judaism of that period.
  10. As professional scholars, the authors of the annotations and essays approach the text with the respect that all religious texts deserve. A precise understanding of the Greek in which the New Testament is written, and deep knowledge of the Greek and Roman literary conventions that it employs, are crucial for understanding the New Testament — just as understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture and languages is crucial for understanding the scriptures Jews and Christians share. The annotations not only display a sensitivity to what may be perceived to be Jewish interests, they also provide data about history, nuance of language, and connection to earlier biblical texts that any annotated Bible provides. The annotations do not, and cannot, provide the final word on the meaning of the texts either in antiquity or today: new discoveries and new theoretical models will continue to advance our knowledge. Moreover, in some cases contributors to this volume disagree with each other, and in other cases the editors disagreed with the contributors. This is the nature of biblical studies. We believe that the discussions included in this volume fit the category of disputes for the sake of divine service. As m. Avot 5.20a states
      "Any controversy waged in the service of God shall in the end be of lasting worth, but any that is not shall in the end lead to no permanent result. Which controversy was an example of being waged in the service of God? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for God? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his company."
  11. Such study can also have a much loftier result. The late Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran New Testament scholar, Emeritus Bishop of Stockholm, and former professor and Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, coined the term "holy envy" to express the idea that a religious tradition different from the one we practice may express beautiful and meaningful notions. No religion contains all wisdom expressed perfectly and there is much in the New Testament that we find beautiful and meaningful. For example, Paul's description of love in 1 Corinthian 13.4-7 is deeply compelling:
      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.
  12. Just as we have learned much working on this milestone project together, the first time that Jewish scholars have annotated and written essays on the complete New Testament, we hope and anticipate that all who read the annotations and essays will gain a deeper appreciation of this central religious work. We hope that non-Jewish readers will learn to appreciate that significant sections of the New Testament derive from the heart of Judaism, and that they will be able to understand these texts without importing false notions of the tradition of Jesus and his earliest followers. We further hope that this volume will make the New Testament more welcoming to Jewish readers (many of whom are unfamiliar with its contents), that these new readers may become better acquainted with the traditions of their neighbours, and that perhaps they may even experience "holy envy" in the reading.
    … Amy-Jill Levine
    … Marc Zvi Brettler
    … (28 Sivan 5771 / 30 June 2011)

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