It was not so long ago that Jews assiduously avoided reading the New Testament or even saying the name of Jesus. The publication last year of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (available through Oxford and Amazon), described recently by one scholar as a “paradigm shift,” testifies that we have entered a new era in Jewish engagement with the New Testament. Not only has it become a legitimate subject of Jewish study, providing both insights into the history of Judaism during its formative era and an effective vehicle for promoting Jewish-Christian relations, but also there now exists a cadre of Jewish New Testament scholars with the abilities to tackle the task.
Edited by Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and Marc Brettler of Brandeis University, the volume features the work of fifty-one Jewish scholars and offers a commentary on each of the books of the New Testament (full disclosure: I contributed the commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians). Though the New Testament is sacred scripture for Christians, many of its individual books were written by people who self-identified as Jews and who wrote for a Jewish audience, including the Apostle Paul, as well as the authors of the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation. These works were composed in the decades just before and after the destruction of the Temple, the same time that the foundations of what became Rabbinic Judaism were being laid. Of all the varieties of Judaism in the Second Temple Period (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Jewish-Christians, etc.) it is only Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity that survived the destruction of the Temple. The commentaries help the reader understand how the texts would have been understood at the time they were written and their relationship to emerging Rabbinic Judaism. They also address passages in which Jews and Judaism are presented negatively, many of which are at the heart of centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Additionally, a collection of brief essays about the historical context of the first century Judaism, the role of the New Testament in Jewish history and the avoidance of anti-Judaism round out the book (including one entitled “Jewish Responses to Believers in Jesus”). The Jewish Annotated New Testament has received rave reviews from Christian and Jewish scholars alike.
As a small minority in a Western, Christian society, it is imperative that we North American Jews understand our neighbors and the broader culture in which we live; studying their sacred scriptures and their impact on Jewish history is the starting point for such an understanding. For Christians, studying the Jewish context of early Christianity can lead to a deeper understanding of their own history and sacred texts. In addition, awareness of and sensitivity to the potential misuse of New Testament texts is essential for Christians who wish to avoid the perpetuation of classical anti-Jewish attitudes in teaching and sermons. Thus the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a perfect gift for both Jews and Christians. It is particularly suitable for college students and for interfaith families, for rabbis and Christian clergy, and for anyone who wants deeper knowledge of this formative period and the influence of its literature on Jewish and Christian history.