Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"The Jewish Annotated New Testament" at One Year Old

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 na├»ve—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. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Facing Death

By The Rev. Dr. Emily K. Robertson

About twelve years ago, I was laughing with my rug-hooking friends about the play on the words “die” and “dye.” In my craft we dye a lot of the wool we use because color is very, very important to us. So, I decided to make my epitaph rug. (See photo right.) I really like this rug even though it is much cruder than what I usually do. Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.

Since I was in my thirties, I have said and believed that I would live to be 100 with my wits about me. They say that if you tell God your plans, she laughs. Well, we will all have to wait to see how hard God laughs at me. However, the one thing I have never given a thought to is the death of others that would surround me as I went about facing my own old age. Death comes for us all.

Looking death in the face is what my sister, Sue, has had to do. Last year, she was diagnosed with a quick moving, fatal form of cancer. She told me that she was going to commit suicide before her illness became too debilitating. I could understand how she felt on a rational level and I told her that for what it was worth, I supported her in her decision.

My daughter, Chris, and I made the very long journey to Sue’s home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall to visit Sue. I talked to her in late July and she said that she thought that she had come downstairs from her bedroom on the second floor for the last time. That was indeed grave news.

Shortly after that Sue began to receive hospice care. While her son, Adam, was away retrieving a hospital bed to put on the first floor for Sue’s use, Sue felt very poor indeed and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital where she died a few hours later.

So even though Sue was determined to take her own life whenever she saw fit to do so, she advanced in her illness to receive hospice care. Even though she was in hospice care, when things got dicey, she chose to go to a hospital for traditional treatment that might prolong her life. It is good to have options and choices. Sue died on August 6th.

Sue chose to live as long as she could. My brother chose a different route.

Four weeks ago I was sitting in an easy chair looking at the day’s mail when a policeman came to my door. He informed me that “they” had been looking for me all day because my brother, Mark, had taken his life in the early hours of that day, but had left no contact information in his apartment except that of his ex-wife.

I was shocked by Mark’s death, but not surprised. He was so bitter, so depressed, and so turned in on himself that there really could be only one end, the one he chose. Is death important at all? One wonders. Look at all the people and other living things that have lived lives before us on this planet. Everything dies. We all die.

Is it our human ego, our personal sense of self worth that makes us think that the ending of our life would be very important in the general give and take of our days? I started asking people about death months ago. What I concluded was that the people around me did not seem very fearful of death itself, but rather of not having autonomy in the last days of life, of not having choices. Choices mean ego involvement.

But when you think of all the death that has occurred and is occurring right now all around us, we can see that our own deaths are pretty inconsequential in the big picture. So what is important?

Here is the beginning of a great sermon! But, I’ll save you all that today and just say that when each of us looks death in the face, can we do so knowing that we have loved and loved and loved? Can we love so much in life that our love and kindness and caring is all given away by the time when we die?

The Rev. Dr. Emily K. Robertson (MATS ’06) is the Co-Pastor of the First Church of Squantum, Congregational, in Squantum, Massachusetts, and an award-winning rug-hooker whose works have been exhibited frequently and published in magazines.