For Hanukkah this year my lovely wife gave me a copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt (and author of the highly acclaimed The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus) and Marc Zvi Brettler, Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis. It’s packed with commentary and notes by a host of world-class Jewish scholars, including Daniel Boyarin, Shaye Cohen, Pamela Eisenbaum, Mark Nanos, Adele Reinhartz, and Geza Vermes, all reading and explaining the New Testament texts from deep within Jewish space. (New Testament isn’t my favorite term for the apostolic writings, but we’ll just go with it here for simplicity’s sake.)
Needless to say, I’m thoroughly enjoying this book, including the silent arguments I’m having with different contributors over their interpretation of various texts. For example, when Yeshua explains that he can’t get rescued from those who arrest him, because the Scriptures “say it must happen in this way” (Matt. 27:54), the note points out that Matthew doesn’t cite any specific Scriptures here, and claims, “no pre-Christian sources predict the arrest, suffering, and crucifixion of the messiah.” Perhaps you can argue that about the arrest and crucifixion per se, but surely the theme of a suffering Messiah is well established in the Tanakh, as rabbinic literature amply recognizes in the following centuries. And sometimes the notes don’t go far enough. Since I got The Jewish Annotated NT for Hanukkah, I read John 10:22ff early on. It mentions, of course, that “the festival of the Dedication” here is Hanukkah, but it doesn’t say that this is the earliest reference anywhere to Hanukkah as a holiday, or explain the connection between the festival and this pericope in John.
But what’s most striking about The Jewish Annotated NT is its deep engagement and respect toward Yeshua and the writers of the New Testament. In the Introduction, the editors cite Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl’s phrase “‘holy envy’ to express the idea that a religious tradition different from the one we practice may express beautiful and meaningful notions.” Of course, we Messianic Jews would like our fellow Jews to get more out of the New Testament than “beautiful and meaningful notions,” but we also need to be confident that Scripture itself can get through to people, if they’ll only read it, and this publication can help many Jewish people to do just that with the New Testament.
Another benefit of the book from a Messianic Jewish perspective is that the authors read the texts without the layers of Christian preconceptions and dogmas that color the reading of Yeshua-believers, Messianic Jews as well as Christians. Here’s one example:
A couple of weeks ago (before I got the book), I spoke at a Navajo One New Man conference here in New Mexico (see http://umjc.org/home-mainmenu-1/news-mainmenu-40/1-latest/729-navajo-nation-supports-israel). I opened with Revelation 7, where John hears the number of those sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel—144,000—and then sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7.9 NRSV). I said that this was a picture of the One New Man that this conference was speaking about—not a homogenized humanity, but still Jews and Gentiles. John hears the perfect number of redeemed Israel, with the twelve tribes represented, and then sees a remnant from all the nations, representing humankind in all its diversity, ultimately Jews and Gentiles worshiping God and the Lamb.
Now, traditionally Christian scholars have read Revelation through the lens of replacement theology and seen a “new Israel,” with 144,000 as a symbolic number for the redeemed, who appear in the next scene as the multi-national multitude that no one can count. Or, more recently, other Christians see the 144,000 as the literal number of Jews who will be saved during the great tribulation, even if the rest of Israel doesn’t make it. The multi-national multitude of those raptured before the tribulation worship before the throne while the drama plays out on earth. The Jewish Annotated NT, free of centuries of interpretive dispute, offers a simpler and more compelling reading of this passage: “John’s eschatology revolves around the restoration of the tribes of Israel, as in Ezek 37.15-22 . . . affirming the fundamentally ethnic ideology of this book.” The great multitude of 7:9 comprises “Gentiles who have devoted themselves to purity (white robes) and to the God and messiah of Judaism.” I might prefer to see Messiah capitalized, but I love the interpretation. It’s pretty much how I preached it to my Navajo brothers and sisters, but I was a little nervous about my interpretation until a Jewish scholar backed me up here.
I’m just starting to work with The Jewish Annotated New Testament, but I sense that it will provide lots of insights like this one as I incorporate it in my studies.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors.New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 637 pages, hardback.