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 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 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, many 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 generally 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?
… 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.”