Milestone work offers Jewish perspectives on New Testament
March 27th, 2012
By Eugene J. Fisher
“THE JEWISH ANNOTATED NEW TESTAMENT, NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION BIBLE TRANSLATION,” edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. Oxford University Press (New York, 2011). 700 pp., $35.
(CNS) Anyone who wishes to study, teach or preach the New Testament should have this excellent volume at hand, right alongside “The Catholic Study Bible: The New American Bible,” edited by Father Donald Senior et al. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1990).
This work is a milestone, the first such effort ever entirely by Jewish scholars to develop complete notations for and a full commentary on the New Testament. It provides for readers the Jewish context and at times deeper meaning of Jesus’ teachings and those of the New Testament authors who were virtually all Jews themselves and envisioned fellow Jews in the main as their intended readership.
I know personally and have worked with in dialogue a number of the Jews involved in this masterful project. I am not surprised by the depth of scholarship apparent in this volume though I am most pleasantly at its breadth, with over 40 Jewish scholars participating in the respectful study of a sacred text which, given the all too often tragic nature of Christian-Jewish relations up to and culminating in the Holocaust, was considered by most Jews something to be avoided.
The existence and high quality of this volume is strong evidence that the dialogue between the Catholic Church and God’s people, the Jews, by the Second Vatican Council is, in its second generation, producing significant and fruitful results in understanding for both communities.
Fresh insights will abound here for Catholic readers and, as the editors state, for Jewish readers as well. For the New Testament is not only the foundational text of Christianity it is also a major accomplishment and record of Jewish thought, of importance for Jews who wish to understand their own history.
The notes do not shirk from taking on the problematic passages of the New Testament such as Matthew’s historically inaccurate depiction of the Pharisees, which they do not inveigh against so much as seek to explain, and put them into the context of the time and place in which the Gospels were written. The authors likewise deal in constructive fashion with pejorative phrases such as “the synagogue of Satan” and the generic use of the term, “the Jews,” in John’s Gospel.
The volume makes full use of rabbinic sources, as appropriate, which helps one understand nuances and depths of many of Jesus’ sayings and other New Testament teachings. It includes helpful tables on timelines, calendars, parallel texts and relevant ancient literature, a glossary of terms, and even weights and measures. It includes 30 concise and incisive essays on the history, beliefs, literature and practices of Jews of the centuries surrounding the writing of the New Testament, and Jewish responses to Jesus, Paul and the New Testament in general over the centuries and especially in recent times.
Though such a work never existed before, Catholics who use it will wonder how we ever got along without it.
Fisher is a professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.
From March 30, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.