GUY RAZ, HOST:
The New Testament is constantly re-interpreted from a variety of perspectives - feminists, socialists, traditionalists, even a version as seen through the prism of Star Wars.
Well, add to the collection, "The Jewish Annotated New Testament." Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. And along with her colleague Marc Zvi Brettler, she gathered a group of Jewish scholars to put together the first-ever annotated version of the New Testament from an entirely Jewish perspective.
Levine grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, in a predominantly Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood. And that's where she first became fascinated with Christianity.
AMY-JILL LEVINE: I used to go to mass with my friends on Saturday afternoon after a day of roller skating. And mass reminded me of going to my own synagogue. It was men in robes speaking in a language I didn't understand, but somehow it was inspirational and meaningful.
RAZ: I read that your favorite movie was "The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima." How did your Jewish parents take that?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEVINE: My parents had explained to me that Christianity was very, very much like Judaism. That we worship the same God, the God of creation. We prayed the Psalms together, we thought at least the Ten Commandments were important. So, they raised me to think of Christianity as, like, one of the other synagogues to which we did not attend. And they were happy when I raised questions about what my neighbors were doing, because they thought that was part of how one lived in America.
RAZ: So, I was really surprised to learn that "The Jewish Annotated New Testament" that you've co-edited, that this is the first time that Jewish scholars have ever been involved in editing the New Testament. But explain to me how this works because obviously the Jewish faith does not accept Christ as the messiah. And, of course, the New Testament is rooted in the resurrection and the works of Jesus after the crucifixion. How does it work when there's so much in the New Testament that Jews would not subscribe to?
LEVINE: Although Jews would not generally say, yes, I believe in Jesus as Lord and savior or the second person of the trinity, there's much in the New Testament which comports perfectly with early Jewish history. Because much of the ethical material in the New Testament is Jewish, and much of the history presented in the New Testament is Jewish.
RAZ: One interesting part is Matthew 2 when the wise men or the magi herald Jesus' birth. Can you explain how you have dealt with that part of the Bible?
LEVINE: Today, we tend to look at the magi as the wise men. And one can find bumper stickers that say: The wise men still seek him. But for 1st century Jews, magi weren't necessarily wise. They were court astrologers. And sometimes they're seen as figures of humor. When ancient Jews were (unintelligible) Philo of Alexandria describes a fellow from the shared scriptures, the Tanakh in Judaism, the Old Testament for the church. His name is Balaam, he's got a donkey who's more clued in than he is.
So we can look at the magi as, in a sense, figures of fun who relate to high humor. To come into Jerusalem and say, where is the one born king of the Jews? Well, King Herod the Great, identified as king of the Jews. And basically a paranoid megalomaniac is on the throne. That's not the most astute question. So, if we read the Christmas story the way 1st century readers would have seen, we will find not only profundity, we will find humor, entertainment, history and politics.
RAZ: Let me ask you about one of the potentially more controversial parts of the New Testament. This is Matthew 27:25 which refers to the death of Christ and says: His blood be on us and on our children, the Jews. How do you deal with that passage?
LEVINE: Matthew was signed to that verse as the Greek reads all the people say this. So, for centuries, folks had read this text to say: Jews at all times and all places throughout all generations are responsible for the death of Jesus. And that's how we wind up with Jews being accused of being Christ killers. But for Matthew, in his own context, Matthew is thinking about Jesus dying sometime in the early 30s. The children of that crowd for Matthew would be the population of Jerusalem in the year 70 when the city is destroyed and the temple is burned down. Matthew wasn't thinking about generation after generation after generation.
RAZ: Amy-Jill Levine, you attend a synagogue in Nashville. You are Jewish. What's been the reaction to your New Testament from Jewish community, people that you interact with?
LEVINE: Not only in my home congregation, but in synagogues across the country as well as in Canada and in Australia and in Great Britain, I am being welcomed in to provide some education about early Christianity. I think firmly that if we Jews want Christians to respect us, our practices, our beliefs, our traditions and our texts that we need to show the broader world, in particular the Christian world, that same grace and that same courtesy.
The blessed thing now is that Jews and Christians today can have this conversation. And by talking with each other, we learn more about each other, and ideally we learn more about ourselves.
RAZ: That's Amy-Jill Levine. She's a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. The book she co-edited, "The Jewish Annotated New Testament," is out now. Professor Levine, thank you so much.
LEVINE: My pleasure.
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