Amy-Jill Levine presents her book “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” to Pope Francis
Amy-Jill Levine and her co-author Marc Zvi Brettler presented a copy of their book The Jewish Annotated New Testament to Pope Francis. See below for their statement to an Italian newspaper:
The Jewish Annotated New Testament Comes to Rome
by Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine
We are both very excited that we will have an opportunity to present a copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament to Pope Francis on March 27, and will partake in a forum on this book the following day.
This volume has a long and unexpected history. It begins about 30 years ago, when Oxford University Press was revising The Oxford Annotated Bible, and they approached one of us (Marc Brettler) to be part of the editorial team with the hope of eliminating the Christian bias that had typified earlier editions of the work. This led to a request to co-edit The Jewish Study Bible (first edition published in 2004, second edition 2014), modeled after The Catholic Study Bible. Brettler enjoyed working on this project so much, he initiated a “follow-up” volume on the New Testament. As a scholar working primarily on the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament, he needed a partner who was expert in the New Testament, and thus, the team of Brettler and Levine was born, which engendered the first edition of The Jewish Annotated New Testament in 2011, and the second “fully revised and expanded” edition in 2017.
The first edition was the first time that a group of Jewish scholars wrote such a work. Jews of all types were invited to participate to reflect a broad view of Jewish perspectives. This could not have been done much earlier than 2011—only in the last decade or two are there enough Jewish scholars with the scholarly expertise necessary. And only in the last few decades have Jewish scholars been welcome to teach in Christian divinity schools—at least in the North America. Europe lags behind here.
We had three main audiences in mind for the volume: Christians who wanted to know more about the Jewish background of the New Testament; Jews who had little familiarity with the New Testament; and readers from any background who were curious about the New Testament in its original historical matrix.
In terms of the first audience, we believe that misunderstanding Jewish practices and beliefs of the first century C.E. will result in a misunderstanding of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. We also sought to correct the negative stereotypes of Jews and Judaism that often, usually unintentionally, come to permeate Christian sermons and Bible studies. We are aware that some Christian readers view the Jews of Jesus’ day (if not through the centuries) as hypocritical, greedy, legalistic, spiritually dead, militaristic, interested in retributive violence rather than restorative justice, xenophobic, and misogynist, if not out to undermine Christianity and to rule the world. These views continue to persist half a century after the important teachings of the Second Vatican Council, in particular, Nostra aetate, and in 2001, the Pontifical Biblical Commission study, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.” And as that study expresses a positive view of Jewish biblical interpretation, so we wanted to encourage Jewish readers to reciprocate with a positive reading of the New Testament. Many Jews have avoided reading the New Testament for various reasons; our volume, written entirely by Jews, attempted to alleviate these concerns. We also wanted to show Jewish readers how the New Testament captures essential parts of our own history.
Our third intended audience, perhaps better represented outside of Italy than in it, is comprised of people of all religious persuasions, and those of no religious background or allegiance at all—we speak to this group, claiming that the New Testament is a foundational book that should be read. The entire Western world is heir to the entire Bible, from the texts Jews and Christians share (e.g., the creation narratives; the Decalogue) to the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, Good Samaritan, and Prodigal Son. The Bible, broadly defined, informs art and music, politics and economics, and views of the past and hopes for the future.
Some readers enjoy reading primary texts; others prefer reading about texts. Thus the two-part structure of the volume: in the second edition, nearly 600 pages are comprised of introductions and annotations to each NT book, and more than 200 pages follow, comprised of over 50 essays. Elsewhere, the book contains many mini-essays, and rehearses the basics of modern New Testament scholarship, so that as whole, it may be used as a one-volume mini-introduction to the New Testament—from a Jewish perspective.
This perspective is useful for anyone interested in the NT, and it can complement various Christian works on the NT. You don’t have to be Jewish to write on Judaism, and you don’t have to be Christian to write, helpfully and sympathetically, about the New Testament.
We have been gratified by the largely positive reception of the book; it has begun to change religious groups’ perception of the other and, at times, perceptions of themselves. It was recognized as somewhat provocative; the Washington Times, for example, wrote: “Annotated Bibles usually don’t make headlines, but ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’—the title alone is enough to provoke a spirited discussion—has caused a stir.” Some Christians attacked us for our factual claim that the NT is an originally Jewish work; some Jews, based on the title of the book alone, attacked us for trying to convert Jews. Some of these assaults have been vulgar and hurtful. But many people of different religions have expressed their appreciation for our work, which has deepened people’s understanding and appreciation of the NT. And we see our visit and talk in the Vatican as part of this trend, and as a sign of the ongoing importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue in our fragmented and broken world.