Title: The New Covenant, Commonly Called The New Testament: Volume I The Gospels and Apocalypse
Translator: Willis Barnstone
Publisher: New York: Riverhead Books
Year Published: 2002
Number of Pages: 577
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
Title: The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version
Editors: Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 637
Binding: Hardbound in signatures
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 the Jews, 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).
(Taken together with I Nephi 5:14, where Lehi tells the family he has examined the brass plates and learned they are descendants of Joseph, this passage suggests Nephi came from a culture that didn’t distinguish between the tribes. Everyone is called Judah, the largest tribe that came back from Babylon. (Not every member of the 10 tribes was lost. See Philippians 3:5, Romans 11:1, and Acts 13:21). So when Nephi uses the term Jew he means the whole House of of Israel, everyone at Jerusalem.)
Browsing the remainder table at the BYU Bookstore one day I came across a book that helped fill in the picture of how developing and setting boundaries to the Christian canon was related to forgetting who preserved the word of God in the first place. The footnotes and commentary for Willis Barnstone’s translation The New Covenant, Vol I, The Gospels and Apocalypse, read like a guided tour of the rift that developed between Jews who accepted Yeshua as Mashiach and those who didn’t, a tour of how Christians forgot their Jewish roots as Yeshua ha maschiach became Iesous the Christos.
Barnstone is very careful to identify what he calls “the voice of Rome,” passages he believes came from a desire to de-emphasize Rome’s part in Yeshua’s execution. You can see clues of the threat the Romans felt from Yeshua in passages like Loukas 23:12, where Pilate and Herod find a common enemy in Yeshua, “Herod and Pilatus became friends on that same day, though earlier they had been enemies.” Maybe the clues are vestiges of things cut from the text, but Barnstone focuses more on things like the phrase “the Jews,” which along with the Greek _Iesous_ imply that Yeshua was not a Jew.
The Prushim and all the Jews will not eat unless they wash, hand against fist, so keeping the tradition of the elders, and eat nothing from the markets unless they wash. And they keep many other traditions about washing cups and pots and copper cauldrons.
His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed that Yeshua was the mashiah would be barred from the synagogue.
Or at least the passages distance us from Yeshua’s Jewishness. In the first passage the Jews are _they_, and in the second people to be afraid of. One of Barnstone’s projects with the translation is to restore Yeshua’s Jewish/Aramaic voice by using the Hebrew character and place names rather than Greek transl(iter)ations. That’s a valuable service, maybe as valuable as recovering the poetry. He says at one point that Yeshua as recorded by Mattai is one of the great world poets.
I think he overstates his argument at times. Consider this comment on Yohanan 9:28, the Prushim’s words to the man born blind:
And they reviled him and said, “You are his student, but we are Mosheh’s students.
“A reference to the superiority of Yeshua’s teaching over that of Moses and, by extension, of the New Covenant over the Jewish Bible” (340).
Or 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 the three words synagogue of Satan are so powerful that perhaps they overshadow the rest of the verse, which may be why the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament address it in their preface, saying the notes propose that the phrase “is not against Jews at all, but is against Gentile followers of Jesus who promote Jewish practices” (xii).
Their note for John 9:28 reads:
This passage sets up a contrast between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of Moses. There is no evidence, however, that Jews referred to themselves as disciples of Moses (178).
Generally, from what I’ve read so far, the commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament is milder than Barnstone’s, and perhaps a bit more cautious. I particularly like the editor’s comments about how the commentators contextualize some of the more volatile statements “by showing how they are part of the exaggerated language of debate during the first century” (xi). There are a lot of passages like Yohanan 9:28 where Barnstone attributes an intent to the text that I don’t see there. And that’s the value of Barnstone’s commentary, not in giving us insight into the original intent of the gospel writers, but as a guide to how the early Christians, the people who didn’t think of themselves as Jews, reinterpreted the incidents in Iesous-nee-Yeshua’s life to blame and villify the tradition the early Christians had sprang from, far from.
One of my projects during the next few years will be to trace the passages I think were reinterpreted, and it looks like The Jewish Annotated New Testament will be invaluable in giving a sense of what the text might have meant to those first messianic Jews before or maybe after they were first called Christians at Antioch (see Acts 11:26).
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. His work with resonate with Latter-day Saints who want to think about what Joseph Smith might have meant with his comment about corrupt and designing priests altering the scriptures.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament approaches the matter somewhat differently. My oldest son said, “Oh, giving cultural context?” when I mentioned the book 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 the story of Chaim Potok coming 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, cross references to Talmudic and other sources, 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.”
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’ll close with just two insights here. 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 (since I got the book just before Christmas): “_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).
If Barnstone’s translation is the work of a scholar/poet thinking to thank the Jews, to calculate the debt we gentiles owe in gratitude, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler and their editors’ work is thinking to thank the Jews for.