What a Friend We Have in Jesus
The Jewish Annotated New Testament
edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Marc Z. Brettler
Oxford University Press, 700 pp., $35
The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
by Daniel Boyarin
The New Press, 224 pp., $21.95
by Shmuley Boteach
Gefen, 300 pp., $26
Arguments over who has the authority to interpret traditions of Shabbat observance. Reprimands for bad behavior when food appears after community service. Boasting of accomplishments in Jewish education. Concern over the proper size of tefillin. Discussion of the holidays, both minor (Hanukkah) and major (Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot). Collecting funds in the diaspora to send back to Jerusalem. Endless infighting over the correct way to be Jewish. Sound familiar? It's all in the New Testament.
An anthology of 1st-century Jewish texts written in Greek, the New Testament provides some of the best evidence we have from (and for) the rough-and-tumble days of Judaism in the late Second Temple period. The intrinsic Jewishness of the New Testament—and that of its two prime figures, Jesus and Paul—has long been obscured because of two simultaneous and linked accidents of history: the rise of Gentile Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.
As with Gentile Christianity, so with Rabbinic Judaism: both asserted, very loudly, that though Jesus may have been a Jew, he was a special sort of anti-Jew. (Paul had a more checkered career, either as the ultimate apikoros or, in some Jewish retellings, a secret agent of the high priest working to ensure that something as outlandish as Christianity would flourish only among the goyim.) The anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Christian churches in late antiquity helped to produce long centuries of sporadic violence. Yet, at those times in Western history when Christian scholars availed themselves of Jewish learning, there came moments of fleeting recognition: the gospels tell a Jewish tale.