How Jewish Is the New Testament?

The Jewish Annotated New Testament

The Jewish Annotated New Testament

Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler

(New York: Oxford Univ. Press,
2011), xxviii + 637 pp., $35
Reviewed by James D.G. Dunn

This excellent volume consists of introductions and notes on the New Revised Standard Version text of the New Testament, together with 30 brief essays by some 50 Jewish scholars. Appendices provide timelines, lists of rabbis, calendar, weights and measures, etc.

The explanatory footnotes, together with more extended notes at the top of many pages, amount to small commentaries. For example Mark’s introduction, text and notes runs to more than 40 pages. The amount of information packed into the footnotes, regularly citing Jewish and rabbinic sources (though not modern bibliography), is impressive.

The notes well represent the character and quality of New Testament scholarship (not just Jewish scholarship) today. None of this can be regarded as one-sided, far less as Jewish propaganda, though the Jewish perspective gives many observations a special relevance. For instance, Aaron Gale, commenting on “the strong anti-Pharisaic rhetoric in Matthew” points out that “adherents of a particular group or set of beliefs often polemicize most strongly against those who share similar, but not identical, beliefs.”

Other good examples of the extended notes are on the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” “Sexual Mores,” “Headcovering” and “Slavery in the Roman Empire.”

The essays cover a wide range of topics, for example, “Food and Table Fellowship” (David Freidenreich), “Jewish Family Life in the First Century C.E.” (Ross Kraemer), “Divine Beings” (Rebecca Lesses), “Afterlife and Resurrection” (Martha Himmelfarb), “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament” (David Stern) and “Jewish Responses to Believers in Jesus” (Claudia Setzer).

Specially to be recommended is Amy-Jill Levine’s “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism.” It starts from the observation that “many pastors and religious leaders strip Jesus from his Jewish context and depict that context in false and noxious stereotypes.” She goes on to give five reasons and ten illustrations of the anti-Jewish stereotypes that are still found in some Christian preaching and teaching, including the antithesis between law and grace, the misconception that purity laws were burdensome, that Judaism was misogynistic and that Judaism regarded God as distant. The essay in itself makes the volume worthwhile.

The choice of essay topics is, however, also occasionally puzzling. In particular, it is unclear why there is an article on “Judaism and Jewishness” (Shaye Cohen) and another on “Ioudaios” (Joshua Garroway). And “Judaizers” are not the obvious companions to “Jewish Christians” in a single article (Charlotte Fonrobert). Much more appropriate would have been a different essay on “Judaizers, God-fearers and Proselytes.” “Jewish Movements of the New Testament Period” (Daniel Schwartz) could have helpfully dealt with more than Pharisees and Sadducees. Although there is another essay on “The Dead Sea Scrolls” (Maxine Grossman), an essay on the post-biblical Jewish literature (1 Enoch, etc.) would have been welcome.

An essay on the first-century figure whom Christianity has ignored almost completely, James the brother of Jesus, principal leader of the mother church of Jerusalem, would also have been a valuable addition—forwarding the volume’s goal to make today’s readership more alert to the Jewish character of Christianity’s beginnings.

But even with all that, the volume is a splendid contribution to the growing and growingly fruitful dialogue between non-Jewish and Jewish New Testament scholars. More important still, the volume underlines just how Jewish the New Testament was, and still is!



James D.G. Dunn is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the department of theology and religion at Durham University in England.

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  • online says

    more interesting work: David Stern’s Jewish New Testament and commentary online

  • Larry W says

    Just one of many reference volumes on my desk. I have found the essays which begin on pgs 501 thru 587 to be both interesting and valuable. Good addition to my library.

  • Daniel says

    The editors’ preface is excellent. But the authors failed to reveal Jesus the Jew hidden in the gospels.Jesus was a Jew, Jesus was the Jewish prophet about whom Moses wrote as Jesus claimed in John 5:46. Jesus said with cent per cent sincerity ” I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. That is the ultimate truth about Jesus. There is nobody in this world to acknowldge this truth, I expected some wonderful revelations in “The Jewish Annotated New Testament ” about this bold Jew Jesus but failed to see that.

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