Hardcover: 700 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (November 15, 2011)
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
Reviewed by Rich Robinson
The main significance of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) is that it exists at all. There have been other books by Jewish writers about Jesus and the New Testament, but this is the first time the entire New Testament has been presented by mainstream Jewish scholars to Jews and Christians as something that both communities need to read and understand. Its reception by the Jewish community has been both welcoming and critical, even sometimes hostile, as the two editors shared at last fall’s meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco.
The introduction highlights what makes this a “Jewish” compilation: it is designed to enrich understanding of the NT; to compare the NT and its ideas with other Jewish literature; and to address for Jewish and Christian readers the problematic NT passages that have been used in anti-Jewish ways. The intentions of the volume vis-à-vis Jewish readers are spelled out in this way:
“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.”
To accomplish this, some 50 contributors have been assembled from the top tiers of Jewish scholars: Daniel Boyarin, Shaye J. D. Cohen, and Geza Vermes, to name just three. Besides the annotations to the NRSV, numerous sidebars are scattered throughout. At the end comes over 80 pages of background essays in small type, which could well have been its own book under a title such as, What are Contemporary Jewish Scholars Saying About the New Testament?
Each annotator introduces his or her book with matters of authorship, date, setting, relationship to Judaism, and so on. The conclusions are generally from a moderate-critical standpoint, though there is no uniformity of agreement among the contributors or editors, and m. Avot 5:20 is quoted in regard to “disputes for the sake of divine service.”
To pick a few examples: the section on “Matthew and Judaism” highlights the commonalities with rabbinic methods of scriptural exegesis, but also interprets various Matthean passages to “suggest a strained if not broken relationship between Matthew’s intended readers and the synagogue.” The introduction to Mark notes that “the ‘Gentile focus’ of Mark is not as certain as it was once held to be.” John’s Gospel “reflects deep and broad knowledge of Jerusalem, Jewish practice, and methods of biblical interpretation.” Discussing the usage of the phrase “the Jews” in John, although its meaning “varies according to its literary context,” that is not enough, since “more important than the referent of each usage is the overall rhetorical effect of the relentless repetition of the words hoi Ioudaioi. The Gospel’s use of the term serves two important functions: it blurs the boundaries among various Jewish groups, and it employs the term to designate the forces that are hostile to Jesus.” Importantly, though, “the Gospel is not anti-Semitic in a racial sense, as it is not one’s origins that are decisive but one’s beliefs. Nevertheless, it has been used to promote anti-Semitism.”
To take an example from the Pauline corpus, namely Galatians, “negative assessment of the Torah and those who follow it is striking: he [Paul] insists that the Torah does not come from God (3.19–20); no longer has a salvific role, and perhaps never did (3.21–22); and its observance is akin to the worship of the Greek gods (4.9–10).” Nevertheless, many today recognize that the audience is Gentile, and “nowhere in his letters, either in Galatians or elsewhere, does Paul attempt to convince Jews to abandon the Torah.”
The annotations themselves are brief, usually highlighting the Jewish background through citing OT, intertestamental, and rabbinic literature or noting similar ideas/practices in Judaism. The average Jewish reader, unless he or she has some familiarity with Jewish texts, may well be lost in the annotations without the aid of a teacher. Christian readers who come from a tradition emphasizing Bible study will not be quite as much at sea with the biblical references in the annotations but again will need guidance for much else.
The general level of the essays too will be rather sophisticated for many lay readers without further guidance, depending on their familiarity with the topic at hand. Of great value are the introductory essays by the editors: Amy-Jill Levine’s “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made about Early Judaism” and Marc Zvi Brettler’s “The New Testament between the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and Rabbinic Literature.” Other essays cover historical and social backgrounds, literature, and theological ideas. Mark Nanos covers “Paul and Judaism,” Joshua Garroway handles the term “Ioudaios,” and five essays cover “Jewish Responses to the New Testament.” Several tables, a glossary and index round out the volume.
JANT is indeed a landmark work, one that would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago. Yes, Jewish scholars wrote about Jesus and portions of the New Testament, but never this comprehensively and with such intention to speak with clearly delineated goals to two faith communities.
If JANT can acquaint Christians and Jews with the Jewishness of the New Testament, it will have served its purpose. The editors and contributors undoubtedly hope that Jews will become better Jews as a result; readers of this Bulletin will hope for the recognition, among some at least, that becoming better Jews involves no less than faith in Yeshua.
FROM THE PUBLISHERS:
Although major New Testament figures--Jesus and Paul, Peter and James, Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalene--were Jews, living in a culture steeped in Jewish history, beliefs, and practices, there has never been an edition of the New Testament that addresses its Jewish background and the culture from which it grew--until now. In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eminent experts under the general editorship of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler put these writings back into the context of their original authors and audiences. And they explain how these writings have affected the relations of Jews and Christians over the past two thousand years.
An international team of scholars introduces and annotates the Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation from Jewish perspectives, in the New Revised Standard Version translation. They show how Jewish practices and writings, particularly the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, influenced the New Testament writers. From this perspective, readers gain new insight into the New Testament's meaning and significance. In addition, thirty essays on historical and religious topics--Divine Beings, Jesus in Jewish thought, Parables and Midrash, Mysticism, Jewish Family Life, Messianic Movements, Dead Sea Scrolls, questions of the New Testament and anti-Judaism, and others--bring the Jewish context of the New Testament to the fore, enabling all readers to see these writings both in their original contexts and in the history of interpretation. For readers unfamiliar with Christian language and customs, there are explanations of such matters as the Eucharist, the significance of baptism, and "original sin."
For non-Jewish readers interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity and for Jewish readers who want a New Testament that neither proselytizes for Christianity nor denigrates Judaism, The Jewish Annotated New Testament is an essential volume that places these writings in a context that will enlighten students, professionals, and general readers.
Product Code: BK84