Monday, May 14, 2012


This book by Jewish editors and authors was published at the end of last year. The two main editors are Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. In addition to the notes, there is a collection of thirty brief essays at the end on various topics.  I will be posting my comments on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I also print it here:

This isn’t a review exactly.  I just want to focus on one problem that this book is symptomatic of.

The best parts of ancient Jewish culture are missing from it: the love of storytelling, shared memories of the recent past, and the fight for constitutional government, justice, and peace. Pharisaic/rabbinic culture accomplished some great things that Jesus fully participated in, including oral Torah. The editors give us almost none of it.

It is not enough to tell us what Judaism was not (not legalistic, not ritualistic, etc.), which this book does very well. You have to tell us what Judaism was in its heart of hearts. The editors and authors do not capture the vibrancy and thrill of creating something new that Pharisees and rabbis explored to the hilt, and their incredible devotion to constitutional government.

Presumably one of the editors’ goals is to get more Jews interested in the NT. Jews have never taken an interest for reasons that are complicated. Just one: There is no book of NT scholarship from which you will walk away with a strong positive feeling about ancient Jewish culture. This book is no exception. Why should Jews involve themselves in a subject that incorrectly teaches them that ancient Jews were primarily tribal and ritualistic and, for inexplicable reasons, were easily antagonized by a Rabbi Jesus/Joshua? There is some effort here to correct some misconceptions about ancient Judaism, but it is way too little, and the editors never challenge the traditional story of Jesus’ death which promotes these misconceptions.

At a bare minimum, a book that claims to be a Jewish – never mind Jewish, how about historically accurate – annotated version of the NT should contain: 1) a discussion of the abundant rabbinic parallels to virtually every saying and parable of Jesus; the editors do point out some of this, but miss opportunity after opportunity to explore the richness of Jesus’ Pharisaic way of thinking; e.g., they completely overlook Jesus’ many allusions to chutzpah (an Aramaic word); and 2) the many places in the Gospels where Jesus refers to sayings and deeds of recent Jewish figures, such as Hillel, Honi, and Shimon ben Shetach, because Jesus and his audience shared these memories; this book misses every one.

An example of one good thing they point out but inadequately: In a few places (2,14, 130, 137, 505), they note Jesus’ use of the qal va-homer argument, which they explain too briefly. It does not vibrate with any great meaning. We never learn why Jesus and the Pharisees loved this form of argument so much.

The worst part of the book is this: the editors reinforce the false and stereotyped image of Jewish leaders working with Rome to suppress Jewish troublemakers. They do next to nothing to question the traditional story of Jesus’ death at the instigation of Jewish leaders and the allegation of Judas’ betrayal (based on highly ambiguous evidence). All this is Christian theology, not Jewish history.

One of the authors acknowledges some of the evidence in Josephus that contradicts the traditional image of Pilate, but there is no acknowledgment of the evidence in Josephus that demonstrates Jewish leaders would never have helped Rome arrest and prosecute a Jew, or the Gospel evidence that exonerates Jewish leaders. The editors once mention ‘paradidomi’, the Greek word used to describe Judas’ deed and a very ambiguous word whose primary meaning is certainly not betray, at 1 Cor 11:23 where Paul uses it twice, but never tell their readers that the Gospels use the same word. Nor do they disclose that Judas’ supposed betrayal rests entirely on equivocal evidence.

So what makes this book Jewish? Any group of Christian scholars could have written it. The problem with NT scholarship is that there is no dialogue, no debate, no academic freedom. Only one point of view is allowed. There has been good work on matters of the historical Jesus, notably by Haim Cohn, William Klassen, and Richard Husband, not to mention my own work (which I won’t mention, oh did I just mention it, so sorry). But their views have been disappeared from the world of scholarship. A long time ago, I thought a Jewish annotated NT would be a great idea. This book isn’t it. We’re hundreds of years away from it.

Leon Zitzer

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