In Tents # 11 More About Jesus the Pharisee, But First an Interlude Thinking to Thank the Jews

Title: The New Covenant, Commonly Called The New Testament: Volume I The Gospels and Apocalypse
Translator: Willis Barnstone
Publisher: New York: Riverhead Books
Genre: Scripture
Year Published: 2002
Number of Pages: 577
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
ISBN10: 1-57322-182-1
Price:

Title: The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version
Editors: Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Scripture
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 637
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
ISBN10:
ISBN13: 978-0-19-529770-6
Price: $35

In II Nephi 29 Nephi pauses in the midst of an apostrophe to future readers who will reject his words to remind them of their debt to the Jews.

4 But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?
5 O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.
6 Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews
(2 Nephi 29:4 – 6)

Nephi’s connection between hating the Jews and closing the canon is deeply intriguing, especially since Nephi speaks harshly of them, of their refusal to accept his father’s revelations, of their attempts to kill his father, so harshly that he refuses to teach his people “many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations” (II Nephi 25:2).

Perhaps Nephi wrote his words to the Gentiles partly to remind himself–and maybe to remind Jacob, who had said the Savior would come to the Jews because he had to die and there was “none other nation on earth [so wicked] that [they] would crucify their God” (2 Nephi 10:3)–to tone down his rhetoric, to remind his people of the Lord’s covenant with the House of Israel, which is one thing Nephi means when he uses the term Jew: “I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came,” 2 Nephi 33:8.

Browsing the remainder table at the BYU Bookstore one day I came across a book called The New Covenant, Vol I, The Gospels and Apocalypse, translated by Willis Barnstone. The footnotes and commentary read like a guided tour of the rift that developed between Jews who accepted Yeshua as Mashiach and those who didn’t, like a tour of how Christians forgot their Jewish roots as Yeshua ha maschiach became Iesous the Christos.

Barnstone attempts to recover the Jewish character of The New Covenant not only through the commentary, but through using the Jewish names for places and characters. I think he overstates his argument at times, like his comment on Apocalypse 3:9:

I know the blasphemy
of those who say they are Jews and are not
but come out of a synagogue of Satan.

“The demonization of the Jews in the gospels persists in Apocalypse” (317).

To me the passage is about hypocrisy, just as if you said, “those who say they are Mormons and are not, but do their sealings in the temple of Satan.” But those three words synagogue of Satan are so powerful they may overshadow the rest of the verse, which might be why the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament address it in their preface, saying that the notes propose that the phrase “is not against Jews at all, but is against Gentile followers of Jesus who promote Jewish practices” (xii).

The two books are valuable correctives to each other. Barnstone works a lot with the idea that the texts of the New Covenant were altered to amplify “the voice of Rome.” He seeks to diminish that voice. For example, consider his comment on Mattai 27:25:

This line, “Let his blood be upon us anu upon our children!,” has given rise to much dispute and skepticism. The Jews in the street are shouting, “Let the guild or his murder be upon us, the Jews, forever.” On Passover evenings the Jews would be in their houses, celebrating the Passover meal. They would not be in the street asking the Romans to crucify a rabbi, and, had they been, they would not be shouting for crucifixion and at once declaring their guilt forever for shouting for crucifixion (194-5).

His work with resonate with LDS who want to think about what Joseph Smith might have meant with his comment about corrupt and designing priests altering the scriptures, and I expected a similar comment from The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Instead, the editors comment on this passage in the same paragraph as their comment about “the synagogue of Satan”:

In some cases they contextualize them [anti-Jewish passages] by showing how they are part of the exaggerated language of debate in the first century, while elsewhere they note that the statements may not have always been understood accurately by later Christian tradition. An excellent example of the latter is reflected in the annotation to Matthew 25.25 . . . [which] observes that the verse may be referring to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the “children” may be specifically the generation after Jesus who experienced that destruction, and not Jews in perpetuity (xi-xii).

I was particularly gratified by the comment about the exaggerated debating style, since it occurred to me about three years ago, listening to a description of a Hassidic debate in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, that if you read Jesus’s contests with the Pharisees as just such an internal debate they would sound very different than the blood feud they sound like in our traditional readings.

“Oh, giving cultural context?” my oldest son said when I described The Jewish Annotated New Testament to him, but others have given a puzzled or apprehensive look that says, ‘Jews don’t believe in Jesus. Is this a book that challenges our belief in his divinity and miracles?’

One can imagine the editors getting the same kinds of quizzical looks. “Many Jews are unfamiliar with, or even afraid of reading, the New Testament” (xii).

When I introduced the book to my Gospel Doctrine class at the nursing home I told about Chaim Potok’s visit to BYU in the early 1980s. Someone asked him the ritual question, “Have you read The Book of Mormon?” (He had been discussing his concept of the core-to-core culture confrontation, and The Book of Mormon is the core of our culture.)

He said he had a copy but hadn’t read it, because Jews read with a commentary and there wasn’t a commentary to guide his reading. The editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament confirm that practice. The next sentence after the one I quoted above says, “Its content and genres are foreign, and they need notes to guide their reading.”

So the book gives Jews the tools to understand the New Testament and Christians the tools to understand the care and scholarship Jews bring to their study of scripture, including maps, charts, sidebar essays, diagrams, tables, glossary, index and nearly 200 pages of essays, starting with “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism,” and including “Paul and Judaism,” “Food and Fellowship,” and “Josephus.”

The editors assure us they are not trying to convert Christians to Judaism, or Jews to Christianity–”It is very possible for the non-Christian to respect a great deal of the (very Jewish) message of much of the New Testament, without worshipping the messenger” (xii).

That word respect is important to the editors: “As professional scholars, the authors of the annotations and essays approach the text with the respect that all religious texts deserve” (xii).

I’m very impressed with this book. Since it’s Christmas I’ll give just two more examples, seasonal. We all realize that John quotes the opening of Genesis in his gospel, but listen to the comment about Matthew’s opening: “Genealogy, Gk ‘geneseos,’ perhaps an allusion to the book of Genesis” (3).

And Luke 2:7: “Manger feeding trough; the symbolism anticipates the Last Supper (22.19). Inn, Luke gives no indication residents rejected the family; there may have been no room for the privacy needed for the birth” (101).

These books should be quite valuable as I lay out why I think Jesus was a Pharisee and that his relationship with them was rather different than what we’ve supposed from our traditional exegeses. Those thinking to thank the Jews will find a lot of good thinking to thank the Jews for in these books.

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4 Responses to In Tents # 11 More About Jesus the Pharisee, But First an Interlude Thinking to Thank the Jews

  1. C. M. Malm says:

    This certainly shines a different light on 2 Pet. 1:20 (scripture is not subject to private interpretation). While the written Talmud was only compiled after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the tradition of orally transmitted commentary was in place long before (indeed, that kind of teaching session is what the 12-year-old Jesus would have been participating in). In other words, the idea that we NEED to have scripture explained and put into context for us has been around for a long, long time. But modern Christianity (beginning with the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into various national languages) has largely discarded the idea of a need for commentary for the average reader. Explains a lot.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thanks to Harlow and C. M. both for making me think some new thoughts in connection with the New Testament and its Jewish origins, and ways of interpreting scripture in general. Always something new to learn and think!

  3. I wonder if the two poles of “the need for commentary for the average reader” question aren’t something along the lines of (at one end) the pre-Reformation attitude that only those educated (priests) in theology could “read” the scriptures properly and everyone else had to take the priest’s word for what was in scripture–those who didn’t were heretics (hence translating the scriptures so others could read them, as well as reading said translations, was punishable by death)–and (at the other end) a reaction against clergy of any kind setting itself up as the interpretation mediators for scripture so that all readers should understand scripture from their own reading and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    The idea of having to read someone else’s interpretation and commentary in order to read scripture seems to be a rather interesting combination (or middle ground?) of the two poles.

    So where do we sit? Well, we certainly receive a lot of commentary on our scriptures, but we are also told that none of it replaces the need for us to read the scriptures for ourselves. The scripture reading comes first, and then the commentary helps us go back and read again with additional insight, and read again, and read again, and read again.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      There’s an idea about the distinction between useful and necessary. A learned commentary is not necessary for effective reading of scripture, but it can be extraordinarily useful in providing context, detail, and interpretive insight.

      I’m interested in the idea of choosing not to read until a commentary is written. While I appreciate the desire for a native guide, that doesn’t quite explain the ethic of avoiding a guide present itself. Is it concern over incorrect interpretation or false conclusions born of limited contextual understanding? Is it unwillingness to form individual ideas or opinions that are not pre-validated by an authority? Is it that the text itself is opaque, difficult, or boring in its own right, which makes it simply distasteful (as opposed to frightening or even intimdating) to approach alone?

      Interesting considerations.

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