I purchased my copy of the The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) thinking it might be an established Bible translation (the New Revised Standard Version) with notes similar to David Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary. What I got was not at all what I expected, but exactly what the title suggests: the New Testament with notes and commentary from Jewish scholars. These are Jewish scholars that do not believe Yeshua is the Messiah. It is important to keep that in mind as you read the notes and commentary in this book – these are unbelievers and this is NOT a Messianic perspective.
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The Jewish Annotated New Testament
New Revised Standard Version
Amy-Jill Levine, Editor
Marc Zvi Brettler, Editor
Oxford University Press
First Edition, 2011
Second Edition, 2017
What Is the Jewish Annotated New Testament?
The JANT calls itself a “groundbreaking text for scholarship, interfaith dialogue, and secular or religious readers.” Introductions to each New Testament book as well as each major section, verse-by-verse annotations, and an extensive collection of essays are by Jewish scholars who are recognized authorities on the New Testament.
The copy on the back cover says that the JANT “presents Judaism before, during, and after the time of Jesus and his immediate followers. It explores the early community of Jesus-followers and their eventual separation from Judaism. There is unflinching treatment of anti-Judaism in the New Testament and in later history.” This is troubling that the editors view at least part of the New Testament as “anti-Judaism,” but we should consider that many Christians view it in this way as well. To the Jewish reader this is a bad thing, yet the Christian is likely to think it good.
The JANT accomplishes its purpose in providing a connection between the New Testament and the culture of Judaism of that day. At the bottom of every page of Bible text are verse-by-verse study notes, often broken down into key phrases and cross-referenced to variety of sources, including Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, historians such as Philo and Josephus, non-canonical writings of the New Testament period and more. The list of abbreviations for source materials takes up almost seven pages.
Within the Bible text are charts, maps, diagrams and articles (called “sidebar essays”). At the bottom of each page of Bible text are very extensive notes, sometimes as much as half of the page. They cover many topics, including defining Greek words and tying them to Hebrew words, identifying where concepts, not just quotes, are found in the Tanakh, and cross references to other New Testament passages as well as outside sources.
After the Bible text there is a section with reference materials and longer essays. The essays cover Jewish history, societal life, movements within Judaism, Jew and Gentile relationships, the Law, religious practices and beliefs, Jewish literature and Jewish responses to the New Testament. Remember, these are from non-Messianic Jews and are written with two goals in mind – to make sure Jews maintain a Jewish perspective on the New Testament and Christianity, and to show Christians how (and why) Jews see them this way.
Two of the most helpful references in the back are a chart that lists all of the chapter and verse differences between the Old Testament and the Tanakh, and a glossary of terms mostly extra-biblical that are relevant in the Jewish relationship to the New Testament and early Christianity.
Editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament
The editors of the JANT are Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. Here is the biographical information provided in the book:
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences.
She also has a short biography listed on Wikipedia. Quite interesting is the fact that she “rejects the Orthodox Jewish tenet of an afterlife,” one of the themes of the New Testament.
Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University.
He also has a short biography and bibliography listed on Wikipedia. He is one of the editors of the Jewish Study Bible based on the JPS Tanakh, also published by Oxford University Press and a companion to the JANT.
More than fifty other writers contribute to the extensive essays and references.
What Is In the Jewish Annotated New Testament?
So, here are a few selections from the JANT just to give you an idea of what you will find.
In the Introduction to the Gospels, the editors (Levine and Brettler) state this:
Mark is usually regarded as the first extant Gospel composed and serving as a source for Matthew, Luke, and possibly John. Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, lacks both a nativity (birth) story and resurrection account; it focuses on Jesus as the suffering servant who dies as a ransom for humanity (Mk 10.45; cf. Mt 20.38). Some early Church fathers as well as some biblical scholars understand Mark as carrying Paul’s legacy in negating practice of Torah (e.g., Mk 7:19).
First, the comment that Mark does not include a resurrection account might be true, if you consider that the original Gospel ended with Mark 16:8. Thus Mark ends with an empty tomb and an angel declaring that Yeshua is resurrected, but no physical appearance of the Messiah. This is important if they are building a case that the other Gospels might have been enhanced.
Second, one verse is used to suggest that Mark is negating the practice of Torah, when in fact there are many other passages confirm the opposite (e.g., Mark 10:17-22; 12:28-31). The editors simply state as fact their opinion of “Paul’s legacy in negating the practice of Torah.”
Just a little further on in the introduction more comments are made supporting the idea that Matthew added to Mark and that Paul was anti-Torah, while also suggesting a conflict between the writers.
Matthew can also be seen as correcting Mark’s presumed antinomianism by declaring the permanence of Torah (Mt 5.17-19) as well as negating Paul’s mission (e.g., Matthew makes Peter and the other disciples the evangelists to the Gentiles [Mt 28.19], whereas Paul takes this to be his role [Gal 1.16; 2.2]).
Here is one more quote on Mark, giving some insight into how these editors view the Gospel accounts.
Traditionally, Mark, considered to be the earliest Gospel, is dated soon after 70, as Mk 13.1-2 suggests the Evangelist knew of Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. However, if Jesus had in fact predicted this calamity (see also Mt 24.1-2; Lk 19.41-44; 21.20), just as Jeremiah had predicted the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, Mark’s Gospel could predate 70.
“If Jesus had in fact predicted this…”, suggesting of course that he might not have actually said these things. In fact, one final quote on this subject says:
How much of the Gospels and Acts record “what actually happened” will remain matters of debate – just as whether traditions recorded in the Scriptures of Israel, such as the Creation Narrative and Garden of Eden Story (Gen 1-3), the Exodus, or the miracles experienced by Daniel and his fellow Jews in Babylon are debatable.
For further evidence about Paul’s antinomianism, here are the notes for Colossians 2:16 (JANT 1st ed.).
2.16-23: Warnings against Jewish observance. 16: The author complains about the Colossians’ observance of Jewish dietary laws and calendar rituals. Arguments about dietary laws divided his churches (see Rom 14.15,17,20; 1 Cor 8.1-13). The Colossians want to eat, drink, and sanctify time like Jews. Food and drink probably imitates Rom 14.17. Festivals (Gk “heortē”; used in LXX chiefly for Heb “ḥag,” e.g.,Ex 10.9), refers in general to a Jewish festival or to a specific one, Pesach (Mt 26.5) or Sukkot (Jn 7.8); it appears in no other NT letter. New moons, or sabbaths, one of this letter’s few direct echoes of the LXX (e.g. Ezek 4.17; Hos 2.11). Jewish rituals for “rosh chodesh,” the first day of the month (cf. Num 28.11) are never mentioned in the NT but are well known to Josephus (cf. Ant 3.238) and the DSS (cf 11Q5 27.7; 11Q19 43.20). In contrast to the Tanakh, Mishnaic references largely focus on legal questions involving the observation of the new moon, vital to establishing festival dates, rather than on special observance of the new moon festival, although m. Zeb 10.1 describes “rosh chodesh” sacrifices in conjunction with Shabbat sacrifices. Paul never mentions Sabbath or “rosh chodesh” observance in his authentic letters; Gal 4.10 refers to pagan, not Jewish, ritual. For Paul, the church is a Gentile congregation gathering on the Lord’s Day (“the first day of the week” [1 Cor 16.2]).
The paradigm presented is the exact opposite of what Paul is writing. He instructs the Colossian believers to not allow anyone to judge them because they are observing Torah commandments. Nothing in the New Testament suggests that Paul’s “Gentile congregation” was gathering for worship on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2 only mentions the collection of funds) or that Paul ever called the first day of the week “the Lord’s Day.” But the JANT has chosen to present Paul as anti-Torah, a position acceptable to most Jews and Christians.
Finally, let’s look at part of one of the “sidebar essays” on the virgin birth (I took this one from the First Edition and do not know if it is in the Second Edition).
Traditional Christian readings favor a reference to a miraculous conception. However, some interpreters argue that Matthew was not speaking of a literal conception that took place apart from sexual intercourse. Others argue that Matthew borrowed from pagan traditions, in which a male god engages in intercourse with a human woman (cf. Gen 6.1-4); or that the tradition of miraculous conception arose in order to explain what would otherwise be seen as an illegitimate conception; still others see behind Matthew’s account a midrash similar to Jewish ones concerning the miraculous birth of Moses.
We know that the editors are not believers in Yeshua as Messiah, so it can be anticipated that they might present alternate explanations to a virgin birth, not espousing one of them over another. However, in the way this is presented they have subtly slipped in the assumption that any idea of a miraculous conception is just a tradition.
Interestingly, the New Revised Standard Version text it pretty clear, quoting Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 as “the virgin shall conceive” and Luke 1:34 reading “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?'”
The New Revised Standard Version is one of the accepted translations for reading in the Roman Catholic Church, so one would expect it to be strong on the virgin birth. I thought it interesting, though, that Matthew 1:18 reads like this:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Almost all Bible translations read “before they came together” (or similar), not “before they lived together.” I was puzzled by this, especially given how living together without being married is now commonly accepted in our society. I checked and found this same phrasing in the New American Bible and in the Jerusalem/New Jerusalem Bible, all on the approved list for Catholics. Then it occurred to me that Catholics believe Mary and Joseph never “came together” in sexual union, they just had a platonic relationship. Even this reading in the NRSV reinforces the fact of a virgin birth.
Should You Buy This Book?
I have mixed feelings about the JANT. It troubles me that so many in the Messianic movement are quick to embrace non-Messianic teachers. While they may offer beneficial input on history and culture, we should never rely on them for understanding the New Testament texts and certainly not their version of Yeshua, who Paul might call “another Jesus.”
Christians who think Paul opposed Torah for Gentile congregations, especially “Two-Covenant” Christians, will be OK with the JANT. Jewish people who do not believe in Yeshua will probably be comfortable with it as well. We can pray that, as they read the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit) will speak to their hearts and the Father will draw them to Yeshua.
For those of us who uphold Torah for all believers in Yeshua, well, you won’t find that in this book. It does, however, provide some unique insight on history in the New Testament and subsequent time period. Be careful of notes that attempt to dilute what you already know about our Messiah. The essays give a Jewish perspective on the New Testament, just remember they are from the outside looking in.
Along with the JANT, you may also want to consider Dr. Michael Brown’s books on Answering the Jewish Objections to Jesus.
2 thoughts on “Review of The Jewish Annotated New Testament”
Thank you for your interesting comments.
There is also another book which might well be worth having alongside Michael Brown’s book and that is Donald Hagner’s ‘The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critque of Modern Jewish Study of Jesus‘. I found Hagner’s book gives a useful survey of Jewish scholar’s attitudes to Jesus of Nazareth.
Hagner, writing toward the close of his preface tells us “Although I have tried to be fair and honest, I realise the book will probably frustrate Jewish readers in the same way that many Jewish books on Jesus frustrate me. There is perhaps no way around this. But it does remain important for us to keep listening to each other despite our differences. As an example of the attitude needed, I would like, if I may be permitted, to refer to that great Jewsih scholar the late Samuel Sandmel, who, when I told him of this project a few years ago, although he knew my perspective as an evangelical Christian and that his own writing on Jesus would be criticized, nevertheless encouraged me to complete the work and to publish it.”
“… There is perhaps no way around this…” is worth noting and paying particular attention – we so often come to a study of Jesus from past convictions. I often wish that were not the case and that we could approach such a study from a purely scientific perspective, willing to change our opinions based on fact alone – but then again there is a whole literature on such a method…
I look forward to reading ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’ as I lack in-depth knowledge of that particular area. Having studied many works on the Historical Jesus for sixty years I am still perplexed – I suppose mostly regarding the sudden and very early view of Jesus as equal to God and am hoping some light may be shed on that aspect from a Jewish viewpoint. Perhaps a return once again to Hurtado’s two books on the question will assist my mmemory.
Thank you for the review. I had been looking for a non messianic edition of the Christian Bible with commentary by reputable Jewish scholars, so this was helpful. I was familiar with Amy Jill Levine, and have always found her even handed and respectful of her subject, though I was not familiar with Marc Zvi Brettler. I purchased and read this edition and found it absorbing, scholarly and fair.
By the way, my understanding is that in the first century Judaism, when a couple contracted marriage, they lived apart for a year while the husband set up house.. It was the first phase of the marriage, a fully committed arrangement that would have required divorce to dissolve. So, I do not find this book’s translation of Matthew 1:18 quite so puzzling. Perhaps ‘coming together’ in this case would have referred to the second phase of marriage, i.e. cohabitation.