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Contra Costa Times Logo

Saturday, June 02, 2001

More Jews Study The New Testament

They Try To Understand The History Of Their Faith From That Time Without Becoming Converts

By Lisa Gardiner

A Jew studying the New Testament? When he was an undergraduate, Rabbi Harry Manhoff scoffed at the idea. That's when he first read the Christian Scriptures for a religion course.

The experience filled him with rage.

"I grew up in a small suburban community in New Jersey, where anti-Semitism was rampant," he said.

But these days, this Reform rabbi and leader of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro quotes the Gospels with ease. He's apt to describe Jesus as a miracle worker, charismatic leader or sage in a lecture at a synagogue or church. He is completing a doctoral dissertation on the New Testament for UC Santa Barbara.

Make no mistake, however. Manhoff hasn't become a Christian. Neither has he had a midlife turn toward messianic Judaism, in the manner of Jews for Jesus. Instead he is among a growing number of Jewish leaders and scholars who are studying the New Testament not as Christian Scripture, but as Jewish history.

Along the way, Manhoff and others are discovering new opportunities for interfaith discussion. "Jews and Christians have so much in common," Manhoff said. "If we could just speak the same language for a little while, there'd be a tremendous amount of possibility."

Jewish New Testament scholarship is breathing new life into the interfaith movement, according to the Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

"I perceive a major shift taking place," he said. "Rabbis and scholars are saying there's a lot to be gained from this kind of study."

Although Jesus was Jewish, the New Testament isn't read in the mainline Jewish tradition. Because Jews don't consider Jesus the son of God as Christians do his teachings aren't considered relevant. While Christians widely acknowledge that Jesus was born a Jew, many believe he rejected the faith of his time to establish a new religion called Christianity.

Concerns about assimilation within the Jewish community and centuries of anti-Semitic New Testament scholarship add to the interfaith divide.

Among those spanning the chasm is New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine.

Levine teaches at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. Most of her students are Protestant Christians preparing for the ministry. She shares something in common with Jesus. She, too, is Jewish.

"The peculiarity of it can have an unsettling effect on both Christians and Jews," she said, counting herself among a handful of Jewish New Testament scholars in the United States. "But you can appreciate much of the message Jesus' concern for social justice, his parables, his struggle for religious self-expression without having to worship the messenger."

Levine believes that Jesus lived and died a Jew. For Christians to understand his life, they have to understand his Jewishness. She imparts this message to students taking a mandatory, introductory New Testament course.

"If a Christian wants to take incarnation seriously, then this is a divine self revealed within an entirely Jewish context," she said. "And he stays within a Jewish context."

But Jews can also benefit from New Testament study, she said. The New Testament fills gaps in Jewish history, providing important information on a period known as Second Temple Judaism, she said. Jews also need to read the New Testament to understand the origins of anti-Semitism, she said. But they should do so with care.

"It needs to be read with Christian readers to understand that the vast majority reject anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic interpretations," she said.

Levine is looking forward to a day when Jews and Christians can study their religious texts together.

Perhaps, one day, New Testament figures will be added to the pantheon of those celebrated for their Jewishness, she said.

© 2001 by Contra Costa Times and Knight-Ridder Newspapers