The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation

Levine, Amy-Jill & Brettler, Marc Zvi (eds)
OUP (2011)
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In theory, producing a version of the New Testament comprehensively and authoritatively annotated by Jewish scholars is so obvious that one might wonder why it has never been done before but Jews have been so terribly treated by Christians for almost all of our 2000 year history, culminating - if that is the right word - in the Shoah that it is a wonder that it has been done at all; and the further wonder is that the depth of scholarship is most benignly matched by a breadth of understanding and tolerance of our beliefs that we scarcely deserve.

The Editors say that their primary purpose is to promote closer understanding through study but if this lovely and useful book has one drawback it is the restraint with which some of the analysis is presented, leaving Christians the benefit of the doubt when, frankly, we don't deserve it. What we are presented with is the complete text of the New Testament NRSV with comprehensive notes, cross-referencing NT citations and listing OT references and all the major Jewish sources. At the back of the book there is a splendid collection of 30 short essays on everything from Jewish table fellowship to Philo of Alexandria for which alone it is worth having the book.

For me, three major themes emerge from the detail, obvious, perhaps, but still worthy of consideration by all of us. First, there is no sharp dividing line between the OT and the NT: the dense citation of the former in the latter is only the most obvious evidence of continuity and the 'parting of the ways' was a much lengthier process than is usually assumed, reaching a critical point after the 'conversion' of Constantine (312). In this regard we are seriously disadvantaged by ignorance of what we call the Apocrypha. Secondly, as I have long suspected, we need to be much more careful in analysing the relationship between Jesus and Paul and "The Law; where our inclination may be to seek a sharp dividing line the scholarship all points precisely in the opposite direction. I will content myself with three brief examples: shepherds were not outcasts but honoured in the figures of Moses and David; most healing on the Sabbath was permitted; and there is a difference between plucking the odd ear of corn and reaping. Indeed, whether out of ignorance or the wish to effect a radical separation, the Evangelists are an extremely unreliable guide to the central Jewish concepts of Sabbath and ritual purity. And, thirdly, we need to distinguish between Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism because, like every other major religion, Judaism has evolved over more than 3000 years and received a shattering blow in 70 CE, the like of which Christianity has never had to bear.

Interestingly, the issue which occurs most often in the essays, viewed from linguistic, exegetical, hermeneutical and social angles, is the proper meaning of Isaiah 7.14. It is extremely difficult to construe the verse to foretell the virginal conception of Jesus: setting aside the issue of whether a text foretells or provides a frame of reference for a New Testament event, the text clearly indicates a specific commentary on the reign of King Hezekiah and, not for the first time, the use of the Greek Septuagint as the source for the NT is a complicating factor. This is perhaps only the most obvious piece of Christian baggage that we need to discard as a necessary precondition for taking the message of Jesus into an indifferent, if not hostile, world.

I have promised myself never again to embark on a sermon on an NT text without consulting this book; and, as Jesus says: do likewise.