Reading the New Testament

May 1, 2012
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Marc Zvi Brettler & Amy-Jill Levine

All Jews should read the New Testament. As paradoxical as it sounds, it will make us better Jews, just as the study of the New Testament — which we did in preparation for our book — has made us better Jews.

We make this claim not out of naiveté but with an awareness that certain interpretations of the New Testament have had tragic consequences for Jews. The New Testament contains deeply problematic passages: the cry of “all the people” in Matthew 27:25, “his blood be upon us and on our children” (the verse led to the idea that all Jews in all places and at all times are particularly responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion); the description in John 8:44 of the “Jews” as “from your father the devil”; 1 Thessalonians 2:15, which states explicitly that the Jews “killed the Lord Jesus,” and so on.

It is important for Jews to know these passages. The Jewish Annotated New Testament does not flinch from these difficult passages, and it does not seek to excuse them. Rather, it provides discussion of why the texts were written, how they were understood by their initial audiences, and how they are understood today. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, at Vatican II, officially rejected the idea that all Jews should be held responsible for the crucifixion, and many churches have formal statements on how properly and sensitively to speak about Jews and Judaism. All religious traditions have problematic scriptures: Passages in the Talmud about Jesus are also deeply offensive. True dialogue can only take place when we each have a full, noncensored view of the other.

Study of the New Testament does more than provide information on painful texts. It also reveals the rich diversity of late Second Temple Judaism, a diversity that gave rise to both rabbinic Judaism and the Christian Church. In studying the New Testament and understanding how it came to take shape in its historical context, we also recover Jewish history. For example, the New Testament is a splendid source for learning about early halakhic debates, for locating the social roles of Jewish women, and for discovering how Jews variously negotiated life within the Roman Empire. The study shows us how certain ideas — including concerns for eschatology, the promotion of celibacy, and communal living wherein the family of faith replaces the biological or marital family — fit within an early Jewish context. Indeed, in doing the history, we can see both what Jews and Christians share in common as well as how we gradually came to separate.

Third, the New Testament is the source of much artistic, musical, literary, and even political debate. To fully appreciate the various renditions of the “Prodigal Son” or the “Good Samaritan,” it helps to read the Gospel of Luke. To fully appreciate the concern for Armageddon, it helps to read the book of Revelation.

However, it is also important for Christians to read the New Testament within the context of Judaism. Well-intended priests and pastors, uninformed about the Jewish context of the New Testament, wind up making numerous erroneous, extremely negative comments about Jewish traditions and beliefs in their Bible studies and sermons. We’ve flagged passages that are frequently misinterpreted, explained how the misinterpretations arose, and provided historically accurate information. Reading the New Testament in this way, Christians are better able to celebrate their tradition without having to make Judaism a negative foil. For too long, Jews and Christians — ignorant of each other’s texts and histories — have been bearing false witness against each other.

We believe that it is a Jewish value to seek wisdom, whatever its source. The late, great Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm, coined the term “holy envy” to express the appreciation of religious ideas found in other traditions. We find that there is much for Jews to appreciate in the New Testament. While we do not worship the messenger, we find compelling many of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of Heaven; we find eloquent Paul’s hymn in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

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Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University.

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. She also serves as an affiliated professor with the Woolf Institute at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

The authors of many books on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and biblical interpretation, Brettler and Levine recently co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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