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The Jewish Annotated New Testament

November 21, 2012

Back from the Chicago annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature:  Running into numerous friends and colleagues, browsing what is certainly the largest book display on religions/theology on the planet, more sessions on more topics than anyone could possible handle, and more.

My own small contribution this year was to take part in a panel-review session devoted to a new and important volume:  The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. A.-J. Levine and Marc Brettler (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011).  My own assignment was to approach the book as a NT scholar, and with special attention to how christological issues and passages were handled.  Each of us had 15 minutes, and so I had to be selective in what I included in my own presentation.  That’s always tough, because you’re expected to give any candid criticisms, but you don’t want them to overshadow too much what might be overall a positive view of a book.

And I can say immediately that I’m positive about this book.  Levine and Brettler in particular are to be commended. There will have been many, many hours devoted to many unforeseen tasks involved in getting together a book involving 50 contributors (all Jewish scholars), and resulting in this impressive work.   I know a bit about editing a multi-author work (though nothing involving this many people), and I can guess what invisible efforts they devoted to the volume.

Essentially, the contributors show the Jewishness of the NT (i.e., the various and many historical connections of the NT writings to the ancient Jewish settiunng in which what became Christianity first emerged).  There are lots of references to Jewish texts and phenomena that illustrate this.  Each NT writing introduced and then a running commentary on its text (the NRSV used as the text commented on).  In addition, there are some 30 mini-essays in the back of the book on a host of topics.

The editors’ hopes are twofold:  They want fellow Jews to get over their fear and/or uninformed loathing of the NT and read it, seeing how these writings reflect ancient Jewish tradition and contribute to our knowledge of it.  They also want Christians to realize the Jewishness in the NT, and so to get over the ill-informed stereotypes of ancient Jewishness:  e.g., Jesus was in “conflict” with Judaism, Judaism was a mean-old religion of dour works-righteousness, etc.  Personally, I hope that many of those Christians called on to preach will probe the book.

On the specifics of how well the book introduces the NT and how well it handles christological matters, I’ve both praise and some criticisms.  I won’t repeat all the details here (and may publish my review in due course).  But, to focus on the latter, I did sense what seemed like a kind of “tone-deafness” to the christological issues and data at some points.  E.g., in the otherwise good treatment of Philippians and the “Christ-hymn” in Philip 2:6-11, I find no mention that vv. 9-11 reflect a stunning revisionist-reading of the passage in Isaiah 45 where a universal acclamation of God (YHWH) is predicted.  In the allusion to this passage in Philip 2:9-11 we see early Christians novel affirmation that the universal acclamation of God is to take place in the form of a universal acclamation of Jesus as “Kyrios”.

Likewise, in the comments on Romans 10:13, there is no indication of a similar stunning re-interpretation of the OT passage (Joel 2:32) proclaiming that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved”.  In Rom 10:13, clearly this devotional/worship act of acclamation/invocation is now directed to Jesus as Lord.

There are some broader instances of this tone-deafness, perhaps none more so than the discussion of Revelation.  The contributor declares that for the author of Revelation the key thing wasn’t Christ but ritual purity!  Hmm.  In a book entitled by its author “Revelation of Jesus Christ”, one would expect that Jesus is pretty crucial.  And it seems to me that in many ways the text of Revelation confirms this, including the remarkable scene in Rev 5 where “the Lamb” is co-recipient with God of the universal worship depicted there.

Perhaps, in the well-intentioned aim of trying to show similarities of the NT to other Jewish texts/traditions/ideas, contributors failed to note adequately the remarkable and innovative role of Jesus in the religious thought and practice reflected in the NT.  But authentic religious dialogue requires us to to note (preferably sympathetically) both similarities and differences.

But these criticisms, notwithstanding, I do commend the book to a wide “general” readership.

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