Interview'People can look at the text with someone else's lenses'

The Bible without Jesus? How two faiths can read the same text in dissonant ways

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler parse opposing interpretations Jews and Christians have of the same Bible, and make the argument that religion doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game

Gerard van Honthorst, 'Adoration of the Shepherds,' 1622. 'The Bible With and Without Jesus' looks at verses that can be interpreted to predict Jesus's birth. (Public domain)
Gerard van Honthorst, 'Adoration of the Shepherds,' 1622. 'The Bible With and Without Jesus' looks at verses that can be interpreted to predict Jesus's birth. (Public domain)

For Christians, the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem two millennia ago was not only chronicled in the New Testament, but also prophesied centuries earlier in parts of the Hebrew Bible. It goes without saying that most Jewish readers view those passages of the Old Testament differently.

A recently published book, “The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently,” seeks to offer some insight into how two faiths can have such disparate understandings of the same text.

The book’s two co-authors — professors Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and Marc Zvi Brettler of Duke University — are American Jews affiliated with Jewish Studies departments. Levine specializes in the New Testament and Brettler, who is currently based in Israel, focuses on the Hebrew Bible. As they explained in a recent joint Zoom interview with The Times of Israel, they hope their new book can help Jews and Christians understand each other better by examining how each faith interprets the same select passages of the Hebrew Bible.

“We’re not encouraging people to change religious beliefs,” Brettler emphasized. “We’re encouraging people on both sides of the divide to not see it as such a divide, but to look at these texts with somebody else’s lenses.”

Levine and Brettler have been collaborating on this topic for some time now. In a previous project, they co-edited the “Jewish Annotated New Testament,” first published in 2011 with a second edition in 2017. A photo of the authors giving a copy of the book to Pope Francis in 2019 was shared widely in academic social media circles.

Marc Zvi Brettler, left, and Amy-Jill Levine, center-right, give a copy of their previous book, the ‘Jewish Annotated New Testament’ to Pope Francis in March 2019. (Courtesy)

In the wake of the “Jewish Annotated New Testament,” the authors continued to note instances in which Jews and Christians seem unaware of the different ways the others’ faith interprets the same parts of the Hebrew Bible. This insight led the pair to realize there was another book they needed to write, said Levine.

Their new book is built around parts of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, that Levine and Brettler identify as especially popular among Christians, starting from Adam and Eve to the term “Son of Man.”

“We chose which passages would be most familiar to Christian readers from repeated use in the New Testament,” Levine said. “We also wanted passages that would be the most helpful to Jewish readers unfamiliar with the New Testament.”

Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, co-author of ‘The Bible With and Without Jesus.’ (Courtesy)

In each case, the authors look at the text’s interpretation in Christianity before delving into its interpretations among Jews.

“We quote the text and what it does in its particular [New Testament] location — such as the Gospel of Matthew, of Mark, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and so on,” Levine said. Then, “we dip back to detail, as best as possible, how the text was understood in its original historical context,” as well as how it may have been understood by later Jewish interpreters, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, to Josephus, to medieval commentators such as renowned 11th-century biblical linguist Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki] and Moses Maimonides.

“For every chapter, we really had to do three different bodies of research,” Brettler said. “What the biblical text originally meant, what it meant in Christianity, and what it meant within Judaism.” He noted that “Jewish interpretation, in general, was much more diffuse than Christian interpretation. Lots of decisions were hard to make about which parts of Jewish interpretation to emphasize and include more than others.”

Just who was Jesus, anyway?

Joel Marcus, an emeritus professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Duke Divinity School and a colleague of Brettler’s, explained that disputes over Jesus’s historical role led to differing interpretations of the Hebrew Bible between Jews and Christians.

Marcus said that “the earliest Christians were Jews,” but “most Jews eventually decided that Jesus was not the messiah, and controversy arose between Jews and Christians around the interpretation of many parts of Scripture.”

Joel Marcus, emeritus professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Duke Divinity School. (Courtesy)

For example, the Book of Isaiah from Chapter 40 onward is discussed in “The Bible With and Without Jesus.” Centuries after Jesus’s death, the term “suffering servant” was coined among early Christians to infuse these passages with a Christian interpretation that they foretell Jesus.

These passages in Isaiah feature “a mysterious figure called the Servant,” Marcus said. “Sometimes it seems pretty clear Israel itself is the servant. Sometimes the servant seems to be an individual figure. Sometimes it seems to have a collective nature.” Overall, he said, “the identity of the figure seems to oscillate between an individual and a collective reference.”

“I think maybe early Christians noticed that,” Marcus said. “It helped them in their relating those sections to Jesus, who in Christian understanding is an individual figure and also a figure with a collective dimension.”

“For Jesus’s followers, pretty much everything in Israel’s Scriptures pointed to him,” Levine said. “Thus the text came to have a singular meaning.”

‘The Bible With and Without Jesus,’ by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. (Courtesy)

Early Christians began reinterpreting other parts of the Hebrew Bible through a Christ-centered lens. They found prophecies of the Nativity narrative in some of the texts examined by Levine and Brettler, such as other parts of Isaiah and the Book of Jeremiah.

Levine holds that such texts can “add to the familiar Christmas story,” taking it beyond the contemporary understanding of “Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, presents, something about a baby.” She sees the Bethlehem narrative as “not just a sweet story about a boy left in a manger, a bunch of wise people, individuals from the East, with frankincense and myrrh,” but one with “historical context in the Roman Empire, children in danger, political oppression, forced emigration, the plight of the immigrants, international relations, economics, politics, echoes of Israel’s history, a stunningly profound story.”

The Gospel of Matthew links Jesus’s virgin birth to prophecies in Isaiah, and of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Jeremiah. Yet, Levine said, the original Hebrew words in Isaiah meant a young woman who is pregnant, not a virgin who will become pregnant, while Jeremiah 31 is about Rachel weeping for her children, “no more.”

“Matthew glosses over how some of these [Old Testament] individuals functioned in their original context,” Levine said. “Our understanding of Matthew becomes increased by our understanding of post-biblical Judaism… The more you know about how texts were read in antiquity, the more robust your knowledge of your own sacred scripture will become.”

Walking in a mine field

Levine and Brettler recognize that the terrain they are venturing upon has been fraught for much of history. They reference polemics by Jews and Christians in which the authors condemn the inability of the other faith to see things their way.

“Part of the basic issue is that we tend through history to be ‘either-or,’ not ‘both-and,’” Levine said. “‘If Christians are right, Jews must be wrong, and vice-versa. Christians claim that Jews fail to see Jesus in their own scriptures. Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians of Jews reading their scripture through a veil that is only removed when they accept Jesus as lord. That’s a polemical mindset.”

“There does not have to be only one way to read,” said Levine.

Levine and Brettler are hopeful that today, there are more opportunities for mutual understanding.

Marc Zvi Brettler, co-author of ‘The Bible With and Without Jesus.’ (Courtesy)

“This really is an era of very significant Jewish-Christian detente,” Brettler said. “There are a lot more attempts at churches and synagogues to try to understand the other without converting them.”

“Times really have changed,” he added. “It’s been more than 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. It’s been slow change, but continuing change.”

James McGrath, the chair of New Testament language and literature at Butler University and an American Baptist, agreed that things have changed in a positive way.

“There’s now a vibrant, very, very flourishing wealth of Jewish interpretations of the New Testament,” McGrath said. “People are actively investigating it.”

McGrath looks forward to reading “The Bible With and Without Jesus,” which he has requested at his local library and is considering using as a textbook. A specialist in biblical interpretation himself, he is working on a project about where John the Baptist fits into the history of Judaism.

People can hear the same thing and it means different things to them

“People can hear the same thing and it means different things to them,” McGrath said. “Sometimes it reflects the original context, sometimes less so.”

He said that in Christianity, Isaiah “gets probably more focus than pretty much any other book in the Hebrew Bible,” and that in churches on Christmas, when Christians “quote” Isaiah as saying, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…,” they “do not mention other references in their original context — King Ahaz, the Assyrians, things of that sort.”

James McGrath, chair of New Testament language and literature at Butler University. (Courtesy)

Marcus, Brettler’s colleague at Duke, has a faith trajectory reflecting the differing ways in which he has read the same texts over time, including Isaiah.

Growing up in a Jewish family, he converted to Christianity — first, with what he describes as more fundamentalist forms, and now as a member of the Episcopal church. Today he identifies as both Jewish and Christian. When he reads the “suffering servant” songs in Isaiah, he said, “I still think it sounds a lot like Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament.” He said that he thinks “what a text means, and comes to mean, can transcend what the author himself or herself meant it to mean.” However, he said, “I also think it’s important to try to discover what the text originally meant to the original authors and audiences.”

Boston University emeritus Scripture professor Paula Fredriksen. (Courtesy)

For Boston University emeritus Scripture professor Paula Fredriksen, a visiting professor of comparative religion at Hebrew University, the topic of how Jews and Christians read the Hebrew Bible differently may be news for some lay audiences but not for academics with a comparative religion background.

The latter “compare different religions all the time,” she said, including through “other fields” such as anthropology, literary criticism and classics.

Fredriksen noted that just as differing opinions exist between Jews and Christians, there are also varying intra-faith interpretations in Christianity. For example, whereas Christians in the West celebrate Christmas Day on December 25, some Orthodox Christians will celebrate it on January 7.

“December 25 is the Western Roman date for Christmas,” she said. “It’s not the case on different Christian calendars.”

However you celebrate your holidays, “The Bible With and Without Jesus” indicates the great gift of interfaith understanding.

“Ideally, it will [be translated into] various languages,” Levine said. “Jews are interested in Christianity, Christians are interested in Judaism. Ideally, they will start to talk about each other in increasingly informed and respectful ways.”

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