Amy-Jill Levine: Focusing on the Jewish Story of the New Testament

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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS

Source: NYT, 11-25-11

Christopher Berkey for The New York Times

Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt is a New Testament scholar….

And she is not alone. The book she has just edited with a Brandeis University professor, Marc Zvi Brettler, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press), is an unusual scholarly experiment: an edition of the Christian holy book edited entirely by Jews. The volume includes notes and explanatory essays by 50 leading Jewish scholars, including Susannah Heschel, a historian and the daughter of the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; the Talmudist Daniel Boyarin; and Shaye J. D. Cohen, who teaches ancient Judaism at Harvard….

Jewish scholars have typically been involved only with editions of the Old Testament, which Jews call the Hebrew Bible or, using a Hebrew acronym, the Tanakh. Of course, many curious Jews and Christians consult all sorts of editions, without regard to editor. But among scholars, Christians produce editions of both sacred books, while Jewish editors generally consult only the book that is sacred to them. What’s been left out is a Jewish perspective on the New Testament — a book Jews do not consider holy but which, given its influence and literary excellence, no Jew should ignore.

So what does this New Testament include that a Christian volume might not? Consider Matthew 2, when the wise men, or magi, herald Jesus’s birth. In this edition, Aaron M. Gale, who has edited the Book of Matthew, writes in a footnote that “early Jewish readers may have regarded these Persian astrologers not as wise but as foolish or evil.” He is relying on the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, who at one point calls Balaam, who in the Book of Numbers talks with a donkey, a “magos.”

Because the rationalist Philo uses the Greek word “magos” derisively — less a wise man than a donkey-whisperer — we might infer that at least some educated Jewish readers, like Philo, took a dim view of magi. This context helps explain some Jewish skepticism toward the Gospel of Matthew, but it could also attest to how charismatic Jesus must have been, to overcome such skepticism.

This volume is thus for anybody interested in a Bible more attuned to Jewish sources. But it is of special interest to Jews who “may believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion,” Drs. Levine and Brettler write in their preface. “This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion.”…READ MORE

A version of this article appeared in print on November 26, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Focusing on the Jewish Story of the New Testament.
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