By Dr. Lawrence Wills
Photo by Matthew Griffing
A few decades ago, a common “meme” of jokes began something like this: “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are in a lifeboat. . . .” Humor is based on tension and the release of tension. The tension of a priest, a minister, and a rabbi in the same lifeboat was the basis of the meme, but today that particular tension is no longer sufficient to propel a joke.
The priest, the minister, and the rabbi are now often on the same faculty in seminaries and religion departments. One of the results of this shift in the American landscape is The Jewish Annotated NewTestament (edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, published by Oxford University Press). It consists of a modern translation of the New Testament with introductions and notes by Jewish scholars. Passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, or Paul’s arguments with the Galatians over the continuing validity of the law are placed in the context of first-century Judaism, and the refrain of many of the annotations is: the traditional Christian understandings of these texts must be radically re-assessed.
I contributed the material for the Gospel of Mark, and was part of a panel in Boston to discuss the significance of this surprisingly hot-selling work on the New Testament. The venue for the panel reflects the changing discourse on inter-faith issues. It was at Emmanuel Center just beside Boston Common, which itself is a cooperative venture of Emmanuel Episcopal Church and Central Reform Temple. Also on the panel were Pheme Perkins (professor of New Testament at Boston College), Pamela Werntz (priest at Emmanuel Church and EDS 2000), and Rabbi Howard Berman (rabbi of Central Reform Temple).
It has long been recognized that the Gospel of Matthew remains loyal to Jewish law, and that even Paul was much more concerned that gentile converts not be held to the law than he was that Jews in Christ should give it up. But Mark has been considered a gospel for a gentile audience that followed Paul’s message to lay aside Jewish law. This is now questioned as well by many scholars. Even if Mark and the audience are gentile (there are several apparent inconsistencies between this gospel and first-century Judaism), it is not clear that Mark sets aside the validity of the law. When Jesus heals the leper (Mark 1), he does not reject purity laws concerning leprosy, he “cleanses” the leper and brings him into a state of purity. Even the fact that Jesus touches the leper does not necessarily mean that Jesus disregarded Jewish law. Some Jewish texts of the period indicate that at the end of time there is a special dispensation of purity on those who are within the new community. Jesus has the power to dispense purity, and this may have been a common Jewish conception. Other terms in Mark are now seen as more fitting within a Jewish context than in a gentile. Most of the New Testament texts refer to “demons,” but like the (Jewish) Qumran texts, Mark usually calls them “unclean spirits”—one might facetiously say “non-kosher spirits”—which the Holy Spirit will overcome.
Every tradition survives and thrives by re-telling a story of its own origins and internal heroism, and Christianity is no exception. (Don’t be naïve—if your organization doesn’t do that, it won’t last out the decade.) The New Testament texts became in the second century a story of “Judaism there, Christianity here,” or even “Judaism bad, Christianity good,” but in the first century it was not so simple. This volume represents an opportunity for reflection by Jews and Christians, as Jewish scholars bring their training to bear on the question, “What did this internal debate look like in the first century?”
The discussion at the Emmanuel Center was very spirited and raised far more questions than could be treated in the session, but for me the most poignant moment came when Rabbi Berman closed by saying, “If books like the Jewish Annotated New Testament had existed a hundred years ago, the history of the twentieth century for Jews might have been very different.”
At the same time that it is reported that the number of anti-Semitic acts in Massachusetts and Connecticut was up this year, the shifting public discourse in general seems clear. But is there a new tension in the land? “An imam, a Southern Baptist minister, and a feminist are in a lifeboat. . . .”
Dr. Lawrence Wills is Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School.