Years ago I had some friends in a klezmer band in New Orleans; one of the members of the band was an African American musician whose church was so taken with the music that they wanted to produce a klezmer gospel album. This unfortunately never happened, but something almost as remarkable has just been published by Oxford University Press: The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Under the editorship of Vanderbilt professor Amy-Jill Levine and Brandeis professor Marc Zvi Brettler, this edition of the Christian scriptures features commentary and annotation from prominent Jewish scholars who have analyzed the text and the concepts in it based on their own knowledge of Jewish history and thought. The New York Times has the story.
This is a book that any serious Christian student of the New Testament will want to consult; anytime a familiar text is read from an unfamiliar angle, new insights are likely to come. More to the point, rabbinical Judaism and Christianity are the two great religious legacies of first century Palestine. Learning to see Jesus through Jewish eyes is a way for Christians to encounter another side of the man we recognize as son of God and savior. A copy has been ordered from Amazon and will hopefully arrive at the stately Mead manor in time for Advent and Christmas reading. By then I hope to have finished another reading project: currently I am working through The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis by Nahum Sarna.
For more than a thousand years after the missionary journeys of Paul, Christians and Jews were bitterly estranged. Theological hostility, social and political discrimination, violence and anti-Semitism characterized the relationship. Efforts by Christian prelates and princes to build a total world order that fused church and state led inevitably to the marginalization or worse of the Jews.
This began to change with the Reformation — although Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism helped embed some deeply destructive memes in German culture. First and foremost, the translation of the whole Bible into the vernacular languages coupled with the invention of printing put the Jewish scriptures into the hands of ordinary Christians for the first time. In Medieval Christian preaching and liturgy, the New Testament got more attention than the Old, the gospels got more than the epistles of Paul, and the Passion narratives got more attention than the rest of the gospel story.
The consequence was that most Christians spent most of their time with the parts of their Bible in which Jesus was engaged in theological controversy with Jewish religious leaders, or being handed over to the Romans for execution by a faction of the Jewish religious leadership of the day. Every Sunday the liturgy of the Mass retold the story of the crucifixion; every year reached its religious climax with the intense focus on the sufferings of Christ in the last week of his life — arguing with Jews, and ultimately dying at the instigation of his (Jewish) enemies.
But as Christians encountered more of the Bible, this picture began to change. Calvinists and others who believed in the literal and eternal truth of the Word of God came to believe that the promises God made to Abraham were still valid today: that the Jews still had a place in God’s plan, that the gift of the Holy Land to the physical descendants of Abraham remained valid, that Jews would return to that land before the end of history, and that God commanded the rest of mankind to bless and help Israel, rather than to curse and attack it.
More, acquaintance with the Old Testament exposed Christians to Jewish heroes of faith: to kings and prophets and warriors who walked with the God of Abraham and from whose teachings and experiences Christians had much to learn. Where Calvinist, Anabaptist and Quaker influence was strong, Christian parents began to give their children names from the Jewish scriptures: Hannah, Caleb, Esther, Josiah, Ruth, Joshua, Ezekiel, Rebecca, Ezra, Nathaniel, Naomi, Seth and Sarah entered the English speaking world.
From the earliest settlements in New England, Americans began to think of their country as God’s “new Israel.” Like the first Israel, America had been blessed with a rich and abundant land and a global mission. It was America’s job to assist in the regeneration of the world: Biblical religion and political and economic freedom, seen as deeply connected, would reshape human life.
In the 19th and 20th century, some Christian scholars began to encounter rabbinical Judaism and slowly came to understand that while modern Judaism had some features in common with the idea of Jesus’ opponents and debating partners in the gospels, rabbinical Judaism today is a much more highly developed, flexible and theologically sophisticated faith than what we can see in the gospels. Many of the criticisms that Jesus made of the Pharisees he encountered were shared by those who shaped the modern rabbinical faith: modern Judaism is much closer to Jesus’ ideas about a reformed and purified Judaism than Christians who know Judaism chiefly through the New Testament narratives understand.
This realization that in some respects the two religions have grown together rather than apart is driving efforts like the Jewish Annotated New Testament. On the one hand, modern Judaism offers important insights for Christians seeking to develop a richer understanding of their own faith; on the other, it is increasingly possible for Jews to approach figures like Jesus and Paul as Jews operating within an evolving and developing tradition.
One does not know where this process of mutual rediscovery and reflection will take Christians and Jews during the next century. One hopes at a minimum that the rich traditions of Jewish intellectual life in the middle ages can emerge into the general intellectual culture of the west; an encounter with the thought of people like Maimonides can enrich Christian and secular as well as Jewish writers and scholars.
But wherever this journey takes us, both Christians and Jews can welcome our growing capacity to enrich, respect and even admire one another. Christians have much to learn from Jewish history, Biblical study and theological reflection. Efforts like the Jewish Annotated New Testament are part of a process that will enrich both communities and the entire world.