Studying the New Testament also makes “better” Jews


Central Europe

Klaas van der Zwaag, RD

The headquarters of the Orthodox Jewish Chabad movement in Brooklyn, New York. Photo RD

The New Testament is not only a book for Christians but definitely a Jewish book as well. A Jewish commentary wants to close the gap between Judaism and the church. “Jesus belongs in Judaism.”

So says Prof. Dr Wolfgang Kraus, chief editor of “Das Neue Testament – jüdisch erklärt” (published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft in Stuttgart), a translation of the English Annotated New Testament that was published in the United States in 2017.

The book is a commentary on the New Testament from the German Luther Bible, made by more than 80 renowned Jewish scholars worldwide. Fifty essays accompany it on several aspects of Judaism and Christianity in the first two centuries. Prof. Dr Kraus is a professor of New Testament studies at the University of Saarland (Saarbrücken) and has been active for decades in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Germany.

Prof. Dr Wolfgang Kraus. Photo Kraus

In the Netherlands, it is regularly heard that Jews are not interested in the New Testament because it is not “relevant” to them. Is the situation in Germany different?

“It can be explained from a historical perspective when Jews are not interested in the New Testament because Judaism and Christianity have been independent religious communities for centuries. Christians have shown much hostility towards Jews, which sometimes degenerated into persecution and murder. In the first century, it was different. The followers of Jesus were Jews. The New Testament originated within Judaism. It is, therefore, a Jewish tradition that we find here. I cannot say whether Jews in Germany are more interested in the New Testament than Jews in the Netherlands. But a Jewish commentary on the New Testament could also be an opportunity to get to know some of their tradition again.”

So, what can Jews learn from the New Testament?

“They will get to know an aspect of their tradition that they may have neglected for a long time because of problems in history. No matter how you look at it, the New Testament is part of European cultural history. If you like music, painting and visual arts, you need to know the entire biblical tradition. You can only understand paintings from Rembrandt or music from J.S. Bach if you know the Bible. And in our culture, that includes the New Testament.”

Better Jews

American editors and Judaism professors Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler write in the foreword of the English edition that studying the New Testament has made them “better Jews” because of a greater understanding of the shared past.

Isn’t this a bit optimistic because interpretations of the New Testament have also led to hatred of the Jews?

Prof. Kraus: “I have understood this statement in such a way that they have recognizsed something for themselves that they also wish for others. Perhaps this is indeed a bit optimistic. Unfortunately, one must admit that the New Testament has led to hatred towards the Jews. But the study of the Jewish interpretation of the New Testament could show us how to properly deal with problematic texts in the New Testament, not to create Jew-hatred.”

Isn’t it remarkable: a Jewish commentary on the New Testament in the Luther Bible?

“Yes, Luther would never have expected this. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, the reformer was so excessive in his Jew-hatred that one should be ashamed of himself. During that period, he was trapped in traditional ideas. We clearly need to distance ourselves from him here. But since the German Bible Society publishes and distributes the Luther Bible, it was obvious that we would choose this edition as a basis for our book. The US version was based on the New Revised Standard Version.”

The commentary seeks to study Jesus and Paul in their Jewish context. But what happens when Christians view Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God, yes, God Himself? Is there no gap then?

“The gulf exists mainly between the earthly Jesus and the Jesus as understood in the history of dogma. “Son of God” means, first of all, closeness to God. “Sons of God” can be exemplary pious people, such as Abraham, the king of Israel or the nation of Israel as a whole. Only later was the Son of God, in our view, seen as one in essence with God. The task of today’s theology is to interpret these dogmatic provisions in such a way that Father, Son, and Spirit do not become three gods, and the people of today understand what is meant by them.”

How objectively can one comment on the Gospel as a Jew when reading about the trial of Jesus and “the cry for the blood of Jesus,” as the commentary writes?

“Objectivity does not exist in Biblical scholarship, only in more or less probability. The Gospels, in our view, are not so much historical factual accounts as they are testimonies of faith. Matthew 27:25 is at most a reference to those then present in Jerusalem, not to all Jews at all times, as has been misunderstood in the past. The short distance from the congregation of Matthew to the Judaism of that time led to such polemical statements. Thus, the discourse in Matthew 23 paints an evil caricature of the Pharisees, but not reality. There was also self-criticism of the Pharisees in the Talmud, such as showing off piety to the whole world and boasting of doing good works. Pious people of all religions, including Christians, are in danger of behaving in this way and showing off their alleged piety.”

This is a translation from CNE.news of an article previously published in Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on November 23th, 2021.



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