Friday, January 27, 2012

A 'New' New Testament

Christmas has come and gone, but for most American Jews, Christianity is never too far off our radar screen. Maybe that's because most of us have close friends who are Christian, or significant others, or a parent or grandparent. For most of us, to live in America is to be conscious on some level of the fact that our religion differs from most of the people that surround us. For the last 2000 years, Jews have willfully kept Christians at arms' length. Historically speaking, this often happened as a result of the violent anti-Semitism that Jews suffered at the hands of Christians in medieval Europe. There was distrust between our community and theirs....and so we lived separately, worked separately, studied separately, and married separately.

The rise of the Enlightenment and its accompanying Emancipation of Western and Central European Jews changed all of that.  For the first time in history, Jews were permitted to live amongst their Christian neighbors, compete with them for the same jobs, study at the same universities, etc.  Our communities mixed in other ways, as the phenomenon of interfaith dating (and ultimately marriage) came to be. 

Today, even as we strive to authentically maintain the traditions of our ancestors by passing Judaism on to our children in every successive generation, we can celebrate the remarkable degree of acceptance (and some would say 'assimilation') that American Jews have achieved, vis a vis our relations with our Christian friends and neighbors. 

And yet...even though we have such a high degree of comfort regarding relations with individual Christians, American Jews continue to keep Christianity (as a religion) at arms length.  Some of us are still suspicious of Christian tradition, and to what degree contemporary Christianity embraces the anti-Jewish attitudes that were a part of the Christian past.

One result of this suspicion is our shocking lack of knowledge about Christianity!  Jews (many of whom were raised to think that "Jesus" was a word that shouldn't be uttered out loud) hear John and Paul and think about the Beatles first - without even realizing the significance that those names bear to early Christianity.

Thankfully, the last few decades have marked the arrival of a new genre of non-fiction: excellent scholarly books on Christianity written by Jewish scholars for a  Jewish audience.  I would call your attention to two titles in particular:
This year, I can happily announce that there is a third title that is worthy of belonging on every Jewish bookshelf!  Drs. Amy-Jill Levine (of Vanderbilt) and Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis), in partnership with Oxford University Press, have published The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  To put it quite simply: this text is unlike any other edition of any religion's scripture that I have ever seen.

The volume contains a full English version of the New Testament.  But every margin in this volume is filled with thought-provoking and engaging commentary offered up by Jewish scholars.  This volume is safe for Jewish readers, who are now free to read/learn the New Testament and be guided by commentary, free from any suspicion about the accuracy of the commentary/its religious agenda.  (Read a recent New York Times article about the book here.)

For those who are puzzled as to why a rabbi would encourage Jews to become more familiar with the New Testament, all I can say is that we live in a Christian world.  I guess I'm presuming that your life is not all that different from mine: I have very close friends who are Christian.  My neighbors are Christian.  I have made peace with the fact that I live in a Christian world, surrounded by Christians.  Shouldn't we Jews who find ourselves in that reality want to learn everything there is to know about Christians, so that we can better understand the people who surround us, and who play such important roles in our lives?

Just as we should want to respectfully share the very best about our own Jewish identities, so do we have the responsibility to learn about the traditions of others.  Levine and Brettler's new book most certainly helps us do so.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. In my experience, I have found especially revealing how little most Christians know about Christianity (and sadly, how little many Jews know about Judaism). Oftentimes, the fear and suspicion that has existed between our peoples has resulted entirely from ignorance and fear of the "unknown". Amy Jill Levine, a professor at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, is a particular favorite of mine. She has been featured in several courses at the Teaching Company ( I can especially recommend her course on "Great Figures of the New Testament". It greatly demystifies what we as Jews have traditionally avoided and at the same time, arms us with more knowledge than many of our Christian friends. I delight in being able to cogently discuss or comment on their theology and get the quizzical comment: "Really?? I never knew that!!". And by the way, Luke is my favorite apostle.
    Rob W :=)