The Bible With and Without Jesus
How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently


Amy-Jill Levine
Marc Zvi Brettler

These pages: The Bible With and Without Jesus
Preface – Chapter 5 (here)
Chapters 6–13


the Bible

index pages:

The Bible With and Without Jesus
How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently

Copyright © 2020 by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler


We live in a multicultural society where we cannot afford to ignore the perspective of others, or indeed to perceive them as “other.”

We have thus teamed up, as a scholar who predominantly studies the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Tanakh (Brettler) and one who predominantly studies the New Testament (Levine), and who each works in “reception history”—the interpretation of these texts by the communities that hold them sacred—to examine ten well-known passages or themes from Israel’s scriptures that are important to the New Testament. Each of our central chapters asks three questions: What did the text mean in its original context in ancient Israel? How do the New Testament authors interpret that text? And how do post-biblical Jews from the time of Jesus (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first-century historian Josephus, and the first-century philosopher Philo) through the rabbinic and medieval Jewish tradition and later Christian traditions understand those same texts?

Our chapters highlight how differently different communities interpret the same material.

We also seek to demonstrate how translation matters: how reading the original Hebrew, the pre-Christian Greek translation (the Septuagint), and different English versions creates substantially different impressions. Translators, sometimes deliberately and often unconsciously, choose readings that fit the needs of their own religious communities.


On Bibles and Their Interpreters
Same Stories, Different Bibles The goal of biblical studies should not be to convert each other or to polemicize. Conversion is a matter of the heart, not of the academy; polemics function more to “speak to the choir” and shore up internal unity rather than to facilitate understanding, let alone to show love of neighbor. Biblical studies, as we understand it, can rather help us better to understand each other, and to move forward in appreciating the Bible’s power and importance.
Christian and Jewish Bibles

As the old Italian proverb goes, all translators are traitors. Words always have connotations, and when they move from one language to another, those connotations often change. Because the New Testament writers primarily used the Greek translation of Israel’s scriptures, some Hebrew nuances are erased or replaced.



On Interpretation

In our view, the biblical story is a marvelous tapestry created by many weavers of tales over many centuries, each with a different understanding of history, of the relationship of God to the covenant community, and of how people in that community should believe and act. We celebrate the various perspectives rather than try to harmonize them. Similarly, we celebrate the different Jewish and Christian interpretations rather than try to reconcile them. As mainstream biblical scholars, we respect both views in our work of interpretation, and we recognize that interpretation of texts is a complicated process.

Interpreting Divinely Revealed Texts

Many biblical scholars seek to reconstruct the earliest form of a text and determine what it meant in its original context—for example, finding (what is closest to) the words uttered by the prophet Ezekiel and understanding how the exiled Judean community in sixth-century BCE Babylonia understood his words.

Other biblical scholars are interested in reception history, in seeing how texts are understood over time. Sometimes these interpretations seem strange to us, even ad hoc. But reception is not always a free-for-all, such that interpreters make a text say anything they want.

Jewish Interpretation: Two Jews, Three Opinions

An old Jewish joke proclaims, “two Jews, three opinions.” In more mundane terms, the joke correctly indicates that Jewish interpretation is multivocal rather than univocal. We can literally see this appreciation for various interpretations in the Rabbinic Bible, a Tanakh surrounded by commentaries that often disagree with each other yet all live together on the same page. This possibility is due to what Kugel has called the Bible’s “omnisignificance.” Every detail of the text is meaningful: even seemingly quotidian differences in spelling are divinely intended, and passages that seem insignificant must convey deeper meaning.

Beginning in the late thirteenth century, Jewish biblical interpretation was often divided into four categories, summarize through the acronym PaRDeS: peshat, the simple or contextual meaning; remez, literally “hint,” an allegorical meaning; derash, a homiletical meaning; and sod, a secret mystical meaning. This term is based on a Persian loanword meaning “orchard” and its use in Song of Songs 4:13. The same Persian word, via Greek, gives us the English “paradise.” As the following chapters illustrate, for many commentators, these four modes of interpretation were mutually enhancing rather than mutually exclusive.

Christian Interpretation: Aligned with Belief

No matter how much US citizens disagree over political issues—and we do disagree!—at the end of the day, we are all still US citizens. That same point holds for Jews, who do not have major problems with most alternative readings of scripture. In Judaism, orthopraxy, what one does, is more important than orthodoxy, what one believes. There are Jewish atheists; technically, however, “Christian atheist” would be an oxymoron.

If one enters a movement by belief, by being born from above, disagreement is a greater problem, and thus scriptural interpretation is more likely to be constrained. If one enters a group by belief, one also leaves by belief. Christianity therefore developed creeds to assure that its members would all hold the same major beliefs. Otherwise put: orthodoxy, correct belief, is paramount in Christianity.




The Problem and Promise of Prophecy
Prophecy Reading the scriptures of Israel retrospectively, believers concluded that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, including texts that were not, until this retrospective reading, understood to be prophetic. For example, Jesus asks his disciples on the Emmaus Road, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). They would not have previously read their scripture as having made this claim; in the light of Jesus’s suffering and death, however, the claim becomes obvious for them. Such after-the-fact reading does not make the conclusion wrong; rather, it makes it contingent on a prior set of beliefs. The person beginning with the view that Jesus is the culmination of the scriptures of Israel, and that all those scriptures point to him, will find confirmation of the view. The person who lacks such a prior belief is unlikely to be convinced by such christological readings.
Prooftexts Any biblical text can be manipulated to prove any point, and any text—even one not recited by a prophet—can be taken as “prophetic.” The problem with such reading is that often the predictive aspect is apparent only after the event is “fulfilled.”

We can appreciate how prooftexting makes sense to those who hold a particular belief, since prooftexting is always retrospective. We should also appreciate how different communities, with different starting points, find different messages in the same texts.

Polemics With implicit polemic, we need to decide whether a particular passage was written with polemical intent.

Christianity emerged from Jewish practice and belief, and rabbinic Judaism took shape, in places, in competition with Christian claims. In the process of self-definition, each side directed polemic against the other. These polemics were honed especially during two periods: the emergent period of Christianity, when the need for self-definition was central; and the Middle Ages, when Jews resisted Christian pressure to convert.

The earliest polemic found in the New Testament took various forms, most famously the derogatory depiction of Pharisees and other Jews in the Gospels. But non-Messianic Jews (that is, Jews who did not view Jesus as the Messiah) are not the New Testament’s only polemical object. Jesus tells a Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). For John, the “Jews” may have the wrong belief, but at least they, unlike the Samaritans, have the correct text.

Polemic as identity formation is found when a weaker group polemicizes against a stronger one—a frequent case in post-Constantinian Jewish polemics aganst Christianity. A number of our Jewish friends, observing that they have never heard anti-Christian polemic in a synagogue, conclude that therefore Judaism has no anti-Christian polemic. They are wrong. The Talmud makes a few quite negative comments about Jesus, as do several medieval commentators.


The Creation of the World
In the Beginning

The prologue to the Gospel of John is a midrash, or elaboration, on the opening verses of Genesis. From John’s “in the beginning,” to the reference to God, to the celebration of light, echoes of Genesis and other central passages from the scriptures of Israel abound.

At the Council of Sirmium in 351, not only did the Christian participants affirm that God (the Father) was speaking to his Son (the Christ) in Genesis 1:26, they proclaimed this view doctrine and demanded that those who rejected it be excommunicated.
Making Order from Chaos

Syntactically, the Hebrew of 1:1 is not an independent sentence. It is an introductory clause, as reflected in the “when” of the NRSV’s “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” or in the NJPS’s “When God began to create heaven and earth.” Nor does the opening verse describe creation ex nihilo—creation out of nothing, although this idea became prominent in Christian and some Jewish thought. The Hebrew term for “create,” bara’, which in the scriptures of Israel is only predicated of God, does not mean to create something from nothing; it means to create as only God can create. It also carries the connotation of “to separate” and so indicates how God brings order to chaos. This concern for separation and organization typifies the Priestly worldview, where every created item belongs to a clearly delineated category. Therefore, the Priestly story ends with the Sabbath, separated from the previous six days of creation, which will be given as a gift to Israel, separated from the other nations.

Not even the King James Version’s “ heaven and earth” is correct. Hebrew uses the same grammatically plural shamayim for both “sky” and “heavens.” Ancient Hebrews as well as the Jews of New Testament times thought there were multiple heavens. [...] Even the famous prayer that begins “Our Father, which art in heaven” (Matt 6:9 KJV) is, in the Greek, “in the heavens.”

The concern for creating order out of chaos also helps us determine the best translation of that ru’ach ’elohim in Genesis 1:2: “spirit of God,” “wind from [or of] God,” or “a mighty wind.” [...] Ru’ach also describes what fills a person’s mind—ideas and attitudes—and in that sense means “spirit.”

However, the Biblical Hebrew ru’ach never refers to “Spirit” in the sense of a separate, divine entity. In the Tanakh, the spirit is something God has, or can bestow, but it is not a deity, an angel, an object of worship, or what in some Christian teachings is called a “person.”

In its original context, ru’ach ’elohim probably indicated a “great wind” or even “awesome wind.”

The meaning of ru’ach ’elohim can be additionally clarified by the Hebrew participle connected to it, merachefet, which the NRSV translates as “swept over”; the King James Version offers “moved upon.” The root r-ch-f appears here and only two other times in the Bible. In Deueronomy 32:11, it indicates a bird’s fluttering; in Jeremiah 23:9, it refers to the quaking of the prophet’s bones. If we imagine the initial chaos as crashing waves and gale-force wins, then “quake” is appropriate; if we think about unresolved chords, as in the beginning of Haydn’s “The Creation,” or ocean waves lapping upon the shore, “swept over” better fits.

Wind, Spirit, Wisdom, Logos

While the ru’ach ’elohim of Genesis 1, which we understand as “a great wind,” does not achieve the status of a divinelike being in rabbinic Judaism, other figures do. One such entity, associated with God’s “glory” (Hebrew kavod), begins to appear in the targumim and then in later rabbinic and especially mystical Judaism. Indicating “God’s presence in the world,” the Shechinah finds her (yes, feminine) origins in the Hebrew root sh-ch-n, “to dwell”; this root is the basis of the word mishkan, the tabernacle described in the latter part of Exodus, and John’s description of the Logos as “tabernacling” with humanity may allude to it.

For example, the Mishnah (Avot 3.2) states that when two people are sitting and discussing the Torah, “the Shechinah” is between them. The Jerusalem Talmud glosses Exodus 19:18 as “Mount Sinai sent up smoke, because the glory of the Shechinah of the Lord was revealed upon it in flame of fire.” From the mystical tradition, the first-millennium Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) suggests that the Shechinah is one of the sefirot, the emanations or attributes of God. Sometimes imagined as God’s daughter, the Shechinah will in later mystical Jewish tradition take her place as a feminine aspect of God, yet like Wisdom she is also both independent from and subservient to God. Whether or not for the early rabbis the Shechinah is a manifestation of God or separate from God cannot be determined; it is likely that different rabbis viewed this matter differently.

Jewish writers also had their own version of the “Word” at creation. In the first creation account, God creates through the word—God speaks, and “it was so.”

“Let Us Make Humankind . . .” If one believes in the Trinity, Genesis 1:26 can be seen as supporting the belief. But if one reads the text either in its original historical context or through Jewish interpretive approaches, no Trinity appears.
Later Jewish Interpretation The rabbis found it necessary to emphasize that God, although happy to consult with angels, with Wisdom, or with the Torah, created humanity without the help of any partner.

Adam and Eve
The Garden of Eden

This story of the creation of man and woman—their original innocence, the encounter with the snake, their eating the forbidden fruit, and their expulsion from the garden of Eden—is a “myth,” by which we mean a metaphorical tale designed to explain why life is the way it is. A myth does not, however, explain how life should be. [...]

Such mythic understandings of the past are more than traces of nostalgia; thy help us deal with the present. We sometimes find ourselves projecting an image of the perfect past into the future so that, if we can find the right key, we can return to the garden of Eden, or the golden age. But if we confuse “myth” with “history” in the sense of what actually happened, we miscue the genre.

This second creation story begins with a reference to plants and herbs and the lack of anyone to till the ground (Gen 2:4b–5). We should not pass over this notice too quickly. A major theme of the end of the story, and of life in ancient Israel, is agricultural hardship. Eden is a place where gardening is, in all senses of the term, fruitful; outside, in the real world, humanity faces drought and locusts and fire.



Later Jewish Tradition The point here is not the dreaded “works righteousness,” that is, the idea that Jews follow the commandments in order to earn God’s love or postmortem salvation. This idea is a mistaken view of Jewish thought. Jews do not follow the Torah in order to “earn” divine love. Jews lovingly follow the Torah in response to the love God showed Israel by giving the Torah to them.

For some, seeing these multiple voices diminishes the Bible’s power, and these differences must somehow be reconciled. For others, including us, it is precisely the multivocality of the Bible, its interest in offering multiple, often conflicting perspectives, that gives it its power. Already in the first chapters of the Bible, we see these multiple perspectives in the two creation stories from the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) source. For some, asking questions about the text is dangerous because the answers could lead to new choices, to different religious beliefs. For us, the text prompts us to ask these questions and others, and it is through our answers that we discover ourselves and our place in the world.


“You Are a Priest Forever”
Genesis 14: The First Appearance of Melchizedek

Problems continue with the translation of Melchizedek’s name. The Hebrew offers malki-zedek, a Hebrew name similar to that of Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem (Josh 10:1,3). The Septuagint reads a single word, Melchisedek, as does the (Aramaic) Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) from Qumran. As one word, Melchisedek must be a personal name, but as two words, malki plus zedek, we may have a noun followed by another noun that functions adjectivally. [...] Further increasing the mystery, the meaning of both Hebrew words is insecure. The first element, malki, may mean either “my king” or “king” (with a following vowel [-i] that is not translated); the second, zedek, may be a common noun meaning “justice,” and thus the name might mean “my/the king is just.” If so, the Hebrew name Malkizedek is identical in meaning to the name of the Mesopotamian king Sargon, which derives from shar (“king”) and kenu (“just”). The name, indicating legitimacy, is used in cases of debated succession.

The Problem of Supersessionism in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Jews and Christians both participate in unfinished systems; they both recognize, albeit in different ways, the importance of atonement and sacrifice, sin and repentance. There is little reason to claim which system “replaces” the other or which is the “better” path. They both have their own logic, and everyone does well to recognize how each functions. Jews and Christians both have plausible readings of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, and here we can agree that the scriptures of Israel require interpretation.

text checked (see note) June 2021

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Background graphic copyright © 2021 by Hal Keen