In a time when religious affiliation in Europe and North America is declining, it is a measure of how important the Bible remains in that major publishers continue to look for scholars to help readers understand the writings that Jews and Christians call scripture.
And it is a measure of how much more open publishers are to finding new ways to get scholars with different approaches to work together that Cambridge University Press has added to its New Cambridge Bible Commentary series The Gospel of Luke, with commentary by both Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine and Christian scholar Ben Witherington III.
What they have produced here is a commentary that is enlightening, engaging and challenging -- but civil. Even better, it shows how Jewish-Christian relations (which, over the long haul, have had a terrible history) can be advanced through an openness to hear someone else's view that's different from yours.
Both Levine, who attends an Orthodox synagogue and teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt, and Witherington, who describes himself as an evangelical United Methodist who teaches New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, are widely recognized as insightful and accessible experts in the 27 books that make up the New Testament canon.
No matter how many times you've read Luke's gospel and no matter how well you think you understand its main points, its history and its nuances, you will learn something new -- and sometimes unexpected -- in this new volume, the official publication date for which is July 31, though it can be pre-ordered now.
One aspect about this book that's especially appealing is that Levine and Witherington say early on that they "have no delusions about being able to answer definitively all -- or perhaps even any -- of the questions Luke's Gospel poses to historians, literary critics, theologians and people who read the Bible for spiritual direction and inspiration. Indeed, definitive answers elude us, and they always will."
So these scholars wish to be modest theologians, a welcome category when false certitude so often rules the day in religion.
I will say more about what I like about this commentary, but first let me note that I believe their use of the term "Christian" to describe Luke himself (as they do on page 7) is anachronistic, whether Luke, whoever he was, was a Gentile or a Jew. When Luke wrote late in the First Century, there was not yet a separate religion called Christianity, only a subset of Judaism whose members believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. So to call either the Apostle Paul or Luke a "Christian" seems like a category error. If Levine and Witherington wish to defend their use of the term, I'll do my best to publish their responses here on the blog later.
At any rate, they are right in their introduction to the book to suggest that readers not divide up into "team-Ben" or "team-Amy-Jill."
"This," they write, "is not what we want. We want our readers to see the same text through difference lenses: Jewish and Christian (of particular sorts), historical and literary, behind the text and in front of the text as well as in the text. We want our readers to read Luke, and then read our comments, and then to join us in the conversation."
One of the clear tasks of these scholars is, together, to undo some of the deeply held but misguided views about the Jewish context in which Jesus lived. One problem, they note, is that ". . .a number of Christian readers are convinced that the Torah creates an impossible burden and that Jesus came to free 'us' from the 'burden' of the Law. These are false views of the Torah and mischaracterizations of Jewish practice. Gentiles were never under the distinct commands of Torah such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, the dietary regulations, wearing fringes to remind them of the commandments and so on, since these laws functioned to separate Jews from the broader gentile world. One cannot be 'freed' from something to which one is not bound. Nor was Torah observance a 'burden,' but a delight, as practicing Jews to this day attest."
But where Levine and Witherington disagree about interpretations, the reader will know, as in the case of how they read whether the birth of Jesus was some kind of threat to the rule of Caesar.
It is not unusual in this commentary to find that Witherington takes the text more literally or at least more historically accurate than does Levine, who is less worried about what 21st Century readers would consider historical accuracy and more about what the text meant at the time it was written and what it might mean for readers today.
An example is the story of the stoning of Stephen. Witherington accepts Luke's account "as historical; Amy-Jill, concerned that Stephen is not mentioned by Paul or the early Church fathers, that his Greek name means 'Crown' and so symbolizes the crown of martyrdom, and that his speech reads like a Lucan composition, wonders if he is a Lucan construction. . ."
Another fascinating area in which Witherington and Levine come to conclusions in some tension with each other has to do with passages that Christians sometimes have used as warrants for their historic anti-Judaism (I linked you to my essay on that subject above in the words "terrible history").
Levine sees Luke essentially blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Witherington disagrees.
A sample of some details about this from the book: "Amy-Jill suggests that, by continuing accusations against the chief priests, along with Temple officials, elders and scribes, Luke keeps the responsibility for Jesus' death primarily in their hands and not that of the Romans. By continuing to note that this cabal would have acted themselves were they not fearful of the reaction of the Jerusalem crowds, Luke further exculpates Pilate and so Rome even as the Gospel holds out hope that the people Israel will reject the local authorities and follow Jesus instead.
"Ben. . .notes that Jesus from the cross forgives his Roman executioners and perhaps also the Jewish critics who watch him die, because they acted in 'ignorance,' that is, they did not realize the implications of their actions. The penitent bandit speaks for some Jews when he speaks to Jesus' innocence. . .Ben therefore regards Luke as presenting both some of the Jewish leaders and the Romans as playing a part in Jesus' death."
(Speaking of blaming the Jews, don't miss the sidebar in the book that starts on page 582, "A closer look: Judas Iscariot.")
In the end, Levine and Witherington say that they "have written as colleagues and friends who not infrequently disagree, without becoming disagreeable, but also find many things to agree on."
This new commentary is a gift to readers who want to take the Bible seriously instead of literally. It does not solve all disputes about meaning, nor did it mean to. But it brings the readers into the conversation in many helpful ways. It will be hard to imagine reading Luke again without this book at my side.
* * *
MORE ON THE METHODIST ANTI-SCHISM PLAN
The world is getting a little clearer idea about plans developed by a United Methodist commission that hopes to avoid schism over matters of human sexuality in the 12-million-member Protestant denomination. More details were made public this week when the commission went to the church's top court to ask for a review of the constitutionality of what it is proposing. I have written about the (flawed) plan here and I wrote this column about how the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, is working to hold the denomination together.