Jesus and His apostles at the Last Supper are depicted in a painting at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church in Southampton, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Getting to know Jesus from a Jewish perspective

  • March 11, 2012

Jesus was a Jew. Mary and Joseph were Jews. All 12 apostles were Jews. The first ecumenical council of the Church was held in Jerusalem in about 50 AD and everybody there was Jewish — even if they were there to decide what to do about non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Very few of the people you meet at Sunday morning Mass are Jewish. Still, all these gentiles who surround us in church want nothing more than to know Jesus better. The Jewish Annotated New Testament is an invitation to do just that — know Jesus better.

It has often been the pastoral wisdom of an influential elite that nobody should bother ordinary Catholics with serious books. As though allowing the people in pews to encounter the best minds and best research we have on a topic might frighten them. But The Jewish Annotated New Testament is on the cutting edge of scholarship about the Jewish world of Jesus and His followers. It is more difficult to read than a cookbook, but perhaps less difficult than your cellphone manual.

It should hardly disturb anyone that Jewish scholars can read the New Testament, apply their knowledge of Judaism to an historically Jewish text and remain Jewish. Editors Amy-Jill Levine and  Marc Zvi Brettler, Scripture professors at Vanderbilt University and Brandeis University, and the impressive roster of scholars they have assembled for this project, have not set out to debate or disprove any tenants of Christian faith. They seek to explore and explain the historical documents which are assembled into the Christian Scriptures.

This is not inspirational literature, but insight can lead to inspiration.

Daniel Boyarin’s essay — “Logos, a Jewish word: John’s prologue as midrash” — is both startling and enlightening. Most of us have been told so often of John’s anti-Jewish bias and of the idea of “logos” as a Greek, philosophical concept, that it is surprising to see a Jewish scholar take the fourth evangelist seriously as a Jewish thinker.

“There were many Jews in both Palestine and the diaspora who held on to a version of monotheistic theology that could accommodate this divine figure (logos or Memra) linking heaven and earth,” writes Boyarin. “Whereas Maimonides and his followers until today understood the Memra, along with the Shikhinah (“Presence”), as a means of avoiding anthropomorphisms in speaking of God, historical investigation suggests that in the first two centuries CE, the Memra was not a mere name, but an actual divine entity functioning as a mediator.”

For most Christian readers of the New Testament, that’s news.

This isn’t a book anybody is going to read from cover to cover. About 90 per cent of it is the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (the same translation used for Mass in Canada) with accompanying, detailed notes. Pages 501 to 587 contain scholarly essays on subjects ranging from “Judaizers, Jewish Christians and others” to “Jewish responses to believers in Jesus.” Pages 588 to 603 contain tables that summarize such useful information as a timeline of Israel’s history from the sixth century BC to the second century AD, the Jewish calendar and New Testament weights and measures. A glossary of scholarly and scriptural terminology occupies pages 604 to 618, followed by an index.

This is a reference book that can be picked up any time the New Testament makes you wonder. It’s also a very good argument for Catholics to do a little more wondering with their Bibles.

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