Do Jews and Christians share the same Bible?
The title of this blogpost is also the title of the book we coauthored. The Bible With and Without Jesus (HarperOne 2020) asks how the (Christian) Old Testament and the (Jewish) Tanakh are different books and why it is that Jews and Christians read the same passages so differently. As we approach Passover and Holy Week, these questions gain in importance.
Jews and Christians have different Bibles, with the Christian Bible larger than the Jewish one, since it contains the New Testament as well as the Old (to use a Christian term, which, by the way, we think is an appropriate term for the first part of the Christian Bible, as long as “old” means “treasured, honored, necessary,” etc.), and in the case of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox, the Deutero-canonical books (what Protestants call the Old Testament Apocrypha) as well. But aside from size, what Jews call the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah (the Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), is not the same as the Old Testament.
The most obvious, and perhaps most important, difference concerns the canonical ordering. The Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, whose final verses describe the return of Elijah the prophet to usher in a new age. Thus, the Old Testament points to the New, with John the Baptist taking the role of Elijah (see Matthew 11:4, 17:12; Mark 9:12–13). For Jesus’s followers, the prophetic corpus, which immediately precedes the Gospels, foretells Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. The predominant Jewish order, in the Tanakh, ends with 2 Chronicles 36:23, King Cyrus’s declaration giving the Judean exiles in Babylonia permission to return to their homeland in Judea (the Persian province of Yehud). The last word of the Bible in this order is vaya‘al, “may he go up,” from the same root as the modern Hebrew word aliyah, to emigrate to Israel. From the Christian perspective, everything in the Old Testament, from the first words of Genesis to the last words of Malachi, points to the person of Jesus. Yet the Jewish reading of the Tanakh is diffuse—no single individual or theme informs the Jewish reading of the 24 books of the Tanakh (these are identical to the 36 of the Protestant Old Testament, but counted differently). The distinct canonical orders are but one example of how the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament tell different stories.
Ancient books had no punctuation, and in some cases, the different punctuation traditions of Judaism and Christianity reflect different emphases. Read without punctuation, Isaiah 40:3 says: “A voice rings out in the desert clear a road for the LORD level in the wilderness a highway for our God!” Does “in the desert” refer to where the voice rings out, or is it part of what follows, where the road shall be cleared? Matthew 3:3, anticipating the role of John the Baptist in announcing Jesus, reads it the second way: “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” The Jewish tradition, where cantillation marks also function as punctuation, follows the first option in reading: “A voice rings out: ‘Clear in the desert a road for the LORD! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God!’” It is likely that the Jewish option fits the original context of Isaiah, who is encouraging the people in exile to return home: Build the road on which you will travel. But the text can bear the alternative reading. Not only the Gospels but also the Dead Sea Scrolls and other post-biblical literature similarly play with texts that can be interpreted in multiple ways.
Jews will read the Hebrew text through Jewish-centered lenses, and Christians will read their Old Testament, often in light of its ancient Greek translation, through Jesus-centered lenses. Given that Purim (the holiday that commemorates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish community in Persia from genocide) has just passed and Good Friday (the date of Jesus’s crucifixion) will shortly occur, we illustrate these distinct foci by looking at how Psalm 22 informs interpretation of both the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s death and the Book of Esther.
Mark 15:34 narrates Jesus’s final word on the cross: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (cf. Matthew 27:46). The quoted words are a combination, in the Hebrew of the biblical text, and in Aramaic (the language that Jesus likely spoke), of the beginning of Psalm 22:2 (in English translations, 22:1), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This citation is only the beginning of how the Psalm informs the Passion narrative. For example, according to Matthew 27:41–42, “the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking [Jesus], saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.’” This is an application of Psalm 22:7–8 (in Hebrew, 22:8–9) to Jesus: “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’” (For more of these allusions, see chapter 11 of The Bible With and Without Jesus.)
In the Jewish tradition, Psalm 22 has multiple readings, for multiplicity typifies Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh. One Jewish reading, from the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 15b), applies the psalm to Queen Esther. To the verse, “And she stood in the inner court of the king’s house” (Esther 5:1), “Rabbi Levi said: ‘Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence [Shechinah] left her. She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’” (Psalm 22:2). Some Jewish communities read Psalm 22 on Purim.
The Old Testament and Tanakh are big enough, elastic enough, to serve both the Jewish and Christian communities well. The issue is not and should not be “who got it right?” as if biblical understanding were a zero-sum game. Both Christian interpretation of the Old Testament and Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh are legitimate enterprises. Both traditions play with punctuation, take words or verses out of context, retranslate terms, juxtapose some texts with others, and emphasize their own concerns. We titled our book The Bible With and Without Jesus to highlight the different ways this Bible has been interpreted. With differences in canonical order, punctuation, translation, emphases, etc., Jews and Christians do not really share the same book. We should celebrate these different readings rather than polemicize about them.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Department of Jewish Studies; she is also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK.
In Spring 2019 she was the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. She has authored many books, both for adults and children.
Marc Brettler, a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research, is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He has authored and edited many books and articles.
This article first appeared in BHD on March 22, 2021.
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