By MARK OPPENHEIMER
SAN FRANCISCO — As a little Jewish girl in North Dartmouth, Mass., Amy-Jill Levine loved Christianity.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was almost entirely Portuguese and Roman Catholic,” Dr. Levine said Sunday at her book party here during the annual American Academy of Religion conference. “My introduction to Christianity was ethnic Roman Catholicism, and I loved it. I used to practice giving communion to Barbie. Church was like the synagogue: guys in robes speaking languages I didn’t understand. My favorite movie was ‘The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.’ ”
Christianity might have stayed just a fascination, but for an unfortunate episode in second grade: “When I was 7 years old, one girl said to me on the school bus, ‘You killed our lord.’ I couldn’t fathom how this religion that was so beautiful was saying such a dreadful thing.”
That encounter with the dark side of her friends’ religion sent Dr. Levine on a quest, one that took her to graduate school in New Testament studies and eventually to Vanderbilt University, where she has taught since 1994. Dr. Levine is still a committed Jew — she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville — but she is a leading New Testament scholar.
And she is not alone. The book she has just co-edited with a Brandeis University professor, Marc Zvi Brettler, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press), is an unusual scholarly experiment: an edition of the Christian holy book edited entirely by Jews. The volume includes notes and explanatory essays by 50 leading Jewish scholars, including Susannah Heschel, a historian and the daughter of the great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; the Talmudist Daniel Boyarin; and Shaye J. D. Cohen, who teaches ancient Judaism at Harvard.
As any visitor to the book expo at this conference discovered, there is a glut of Bibles and Bible commentaries. One of the exhibitors, Zondervan, publishes hundreds of different Bibles, customized for your subculture, niche or need. Examples include a Bible for those recovering from addiction; the Pink Bible, for women “who have been impacted by breast cancer”; and the Faithgirlz! Bible, about which the publisher writes: “Every girl wants to know she’s totally unique and special. This Bible says that with Faithgirlz!™ sparkle!”
Nearly all these Bibles are edited by and for Christians. The Christian Bible comprises the Old and New Testaments, so editors offer a Christian perspective on both books. For example, editors might add a footnote to the story of King David, in the Old Testament books I and II Samuel, reminding readers that in the New Testament David is an ancestor of Jesus.
Jewish scholars have typically been involved only with editions of the Old Testament, which Jews call the Hebrew Bible or, using a Hebrew acronym, the Tanakh. Of course, curious Jews and Christians consult all sorts of editions, without regard to editor. But among scholars, Christians produce editions of both sacred books, while Jewish editors consult only the book that is sacred to them. What’s been left out is a Jewish perspective on the New Testament — a book Jews do not consider holy but which, given its influence and literary excellence, no Jew should ignore.
So what does this New Testament include that a Christian volume might not? Consider Matthew 2, when the wise men, or magi, herald Jesus’ birth. In this edition, Aaron M. Gale, who has edited the Book of Matthew, writes in a footnote that “early Jewish readers may have regarded these Persian astrologers not as wise but as foolish or evil.” He is relying on the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, who at one point calls Balaam, who in the Book of Numbers talks with a donkey, a “magos.”
Because the rationalist Philo uses the Greek word “magos” derisively — less a wise man than a donkey-whisperer — we might infer that at least some educated Jewish readers, like Philo, took a dim view of magi. This context helps explain some Jewish skepticism toward the Gospel of Matthew, but it could also attest to how charismatic Jesus must have been, to overcome such skepticism.
This volume is thus for anybody interested in a Bible more attuned to Jewish sources. But it is of special interest to Jews who “may believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion,” Drs. Levine and Brettler write in their preface. “This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion.”
Jews who peek inside these forbidding covers will also find essays anticipating the arguments of Christian evangelists. Confronted by Christians who extol their religion’s conceptions of neighbor love or the afterlife, for example, many Jews do not know their own tradition’s teachings. So “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” includes essays like “The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics” and “Afterlife and Resurrection.”
At the panel discussion, Drs. Brettler and Levine conceded that the New Testament’s moments of anti-Semitism would be too much for some to overlook (especially protective Jewish mothers).
“I told one woman I knew that her son might really like this book,” Dr. Brettler said. “She said, ‘If he wants it, he can buy it for himself.’ ”
Thirty years ago, when Dr. Levine was starting graduate school, an aunt asked her why she was reading the New Testament. “I said, ‘Have you read it?’ and she said, ‘No, why would I read that hateful, anti-Semitic disgusting book?’ ”
But Dr. Levine insists her aunt, like other Jews, had nothing to fear. “The more I study New Testament,” Dr. Levine said, “the better Jew I become.”