Reflections on the Value of Jewish Studies
A few months ago, a family member brought a particular newspaper article to my attention. The title “New Testament gets a new look by Jews.”
As someone who is very interested in not only the study of the Old Testament, but also the Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, and the Christian faith, this seemed quiet intriguing. After all, the more I have learned to try to adjust my worldview, experiences, and perceptions of God and His promises to see them through a “first century Jewish worldview,” the more the text of the New Testament comes alive.
Yet, as I read, this article seemed to be reporting on a slightly different type of scholarship. The development in discussion is the announced publication of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press), pitched as “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.” It is “for anybody interested in a Bible more attuned to Jewish sources. But it is of special interest to Jews who “may believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion.” Instead, this volume “should not raise that suspicion.”
I began to think about this a little bit. For the last seven years, I have learned to get excited about new discoveries pertaining to Jewish literature, culture, and archaeology of antiquity, for the same reason behind the creation of this Jewish New Testament: to better and more fully understand the paradigm of the Jewish person to the life and ministry of Jesus, and the expansion of the Church.
Yet, what what other reasons might lurk behind the development of this particular annotated New Testament? Especially curious is the note that this NT will hopefully “not raise [the] suspicion” that reading the NT should direct one towards understanding Jesus in a way that heads one to respond in faith, and accepting Jesus as their Messiah, their slaughtered lamb, and their God.
This leads me to wonder: what value is there behind a perspective of the NT that intentionally does not lead to evangelism and discipleship? Certainly, liberal-critical scholarship has taken such an approach for centuries now. And despite their presuppositions, their theories and research have advanced our understanding of the first century world and our understanding of the text. Yet, this same academic tradition has also brought a determined offense against the kerygma, or the proclamation, of the New Testament:[box] “…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” 1 Cor 15:3-4[/box]
No approach to interpreting and teaching the NT by use of coercion is likely be successful (nor will it be evangelism in a way that agrees with the NT teachings about faith). Yet, to cut the Christian Messiah out of the pages of His revealed word is a terrible tragedy as well.
A few years ago, I remember listening to a speaker at a conference, who was talking about “what makes a message, a Christian message?” The answer: Christ. A message that simply teaches moral values and moral formation from the Proverbs, a lesson that is steeped in history from 1 Chronicles, or a detailed chronology of the ministry of Paul from Acts… without the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that by believing in his work on the cross and victory over the grave alone as the means by which we may be saved and made members of the people of God- could be taught by any religion. Any historian. Any critic. Jesus is what makes it Christian.
So, what value is this new work? Actually, useful in some ways. The one “example” of its unique contribution (which is actually more the result of surveying the works of Philo and other Jewish authors of antiquity) was actually somewhat interesting when it comes to understanding the background of the Magi of Matthew 2. But, if this is meant to engage Jewish readers around the NT, but to intentionally lead them to read the inspired text with eyes simply for passing curiosity, and not for tasting the weight of its commands and calling, sadly this won’t lead any more Semites any closer to “knowing” the plan and person of the God of Abraham.
Historically, Jewish scholars have (quite sensibly) been involved in OT scholarship, and Intertestamental literature.