AJL, MZB – This project is in many ways a continuation of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011, 2017), which we edited together. We enjoyed working together – even our disagreements turned out to be enjoyable learning experiences – but the format of that volume, with short glosses, was very constraining, and we realized that we had a lot more to say. We both have had experience in the classroom and in synagogues and churches of finding that Jews and Christians had very different interpretations of the same texts, whether from Genesis or Isaiah, Jonah or the Psalms. In some cases, members of one group would tell us that the other group’s reading was wrong. Since the Bible has always been open to multiple interpretations, since ignorance helps no one and intolerance harms many, and since we want to show that, in biblical interpretation, there can be multiple and even mutually exclusive correct answers, we thought this book – showing respect for each tradition – would be both timely and helpful: timely because it rejects the cancel culture that is becoming so prominent, and helpful because we can only move forward if we listen respectfully to other positions.
JW – Do you think that inter-religious dialogue has ‘taken a hit’ in recent years?
AJL, MZB – Civility has taken a hit, and any sort of dialogue suffers because of it, especially in a political atmosphere that gives priority to one particular form of religious affiliation.
JW – After all this time, why do Christians and Jews still find themselves at odds concerning so many things?
AJL, MZB – Not only are we ignorant of each other’s history, we are not as familiar as we should be with our own, and that includes biblical interpretation. Sometimes we are afraid to ask questions for fear of sounding foolish or, worse, bigoted. Sometimes we rely on incorrect information, often conveyed to us as children by well-meaning but uninformed teachers or clergy. Sometimes we understand a tradition by the worst exemplars of its practitioners rather than by the best. And much too often we define ourselves through negative identity—we are what the other is not. This inevitably leads to misrepresenting the other, and often demonizing them.
JW – Your book is wonderfully organized. Did that happen ‘genetically’ or did you rearrange chapters until you hit upon the present arrangement?
AJL, MZB – Thank you; this was not easy, and we went back and forth several times on the order of the chapters. We tried to follow canonical order, more or less, but that was impossible, since the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament are not in the same order. Beginning with creation made sense, and from the beginning we knew we wanted to end with Jeremiah 31, the promise of the New Covenant, a promise that, in our view, remains unfulfilled.
JW – How did you settle on the subtopics in each chapter? There are loads of texts you could have addressed. How did you ‘narrow it down’?
AJL, MZB – This happened pretty organically. The texts that we found the most fascinating turned out, for the most part, to be the texts we have been asked most about by Jews and Christians.
JW – The discussion of ‘prophecy’ is particularly interesting to me. Do you think that the Prophetic literature is the bit of the Hebrew Bible that Jews and Christians see most differently?
AJL, MZB – Yes—and this is a very important point. Even when Jews and Christians share the “same” texts, they often read them differently or evaluate them differently. Select prophetic texts, such as the Emanuel material in Isaiah 7-9 and the so-called “suffering servant” passages have substantially different reception histories—they are crucial to Christians from their earliest history, but of no particular significance within Judaism. The interpretation of Jonah is also quite different within the two traditions.
JW – The discussion of the sacrifice in chapter seven is one of the clearest and most profoundly important treatments of the topic I have seen in a good while. How did you balance the Christian and Jewish views so delicately? I guess what I’m wondering is, how were you able to examine the issues involved so judiciously and theologically? (Biblical scholars aren’t usually known for their theological sensitivity).
AJL, MZB – Ah, now, Jim, surely you are not indicting the entire field. Working on editing the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we had a number of occasions when we asked our contributors to rephrase, precisely because we are aware that words can take on different, sometimes offensive, connotations, depending on the ears that are listening. We insist in our writing and our teaching on being as gracious to others as possible, and therefore on being theologically sensitive. (Contrary to Marcion, being gracious is a good Jewish, and Hebrew Bible value!) One does not need, we think, to agree or to believe in a particular viewpoint to express it in a clear, sympathetic, and straightforward manner. We tried hard to do this throughout, and we appreciate that you recognized our ability to do so. In at least one case, we suspect we’ll get some pushback, and that is in our conclusion that the Epistle to the Hebrews is supersessionist. At the same time, however, we also note that the rabbinic reading of Melchizedek and Psalm 110 can be taken as arguing against Christian readings.
JW – I don’t want to appear to be one of those terrible people who tells authors what they should have written instead of discussing what they did write. But I was stricken by the fact that your treatment of ‘The Son of Man’ made no reference to Mogens Müller’s -“The Expression ‘son of Man’ and the Development of Christology: A History of Interpretation”. Did you simply find it irrelevant?
AJL, MZB – Not at all – it’s an extremely helpful volume and – in retrospect – you’re right; we should have included it. This is one of the many books that primarily traces Christian readings that did not find its way into the bibliography. Our focus for this chapter was primarily the use of this expression in the Tanakh and then in rabbinic literature—since that was less well known.
JW – In chapter 13, ‘In the Interim’, you write
“In the twenty-first century, we are finally at the point where Jews and Christians can read their shared texts differently, and learn from each other. We all can, and must, even read those texts unique to the other’s tradition. Jews do well to read the New Testament and then to share these readings with Christians, and Christians do well to look at nonbiblical Jewish sources and then share them with Jews. We are finally at the point where we can interpret the Bible, whatever its content, not as a zero-sum problem, but as an opportunity to correct certain older readings based in polemic, creating newer ones based on the possibility of mutual respect if not in complete agreement.”
JW – I hope that’s true. Of course, in many places it is. In some it is not. So my final question is, how hopeful are you that Jews and Christians all can do exactly what you describe in that paragraph?
AJL, MZB – We are not naïve enough to believe that “all” Jews and Christians will read this book, and that “all” will instantly adopt the tolerant attitude that we are suggesting. To use a Hebrew Bible phrase—mi yitten—if that were only so! But we have already seen progress made on both sides in this type of mutual understanding, and we have been invited by both Jewish and Christian groups to have conversations about the book (doing this on zoom rather than in person is not as much fun, but it is infinitely easier to schedule). If we can help just a few people be able to see that biblical studies is neither a blood sport nor a zero-sum game, that there is often beauty and inspiration in another’s tradition, and that the nastiness we have found in most of the reception history on both sides serves only to harm, then we will have succeeded.
JW – What’s next? What are you working on now that we can look forward to reading in the near future?
AJL, MZB – Have you any suggestions?
JW – Thank you for your time! And THANK YOU for this wonderfully crafted brilliantly executed book. Please do more of this. Perhaps a commentary on Hebrews from a Jewish and Christian perspective.
AJL, MZB – Given what we’ve said above, that would be a real challenge. It might however be fun to tackle more of the New Testament readings, perhaps of characters in the biblical tradition. We’ve looked at Adam and Eve in this book, but we can envision chapters about Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; the four women in Matthew’s genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba), Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Jezebel, and of course, the Hebrew Bible’s main character: God.
JW– Whatever you do, we know it will be worth reading.