NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sometime in the next few weeks, Rabbi Kliel Rose of West End Synagogue in Nashville hopes to pick up a copy of the New Testament and learn a little more about Jesus.
Rose, like many Jews, has viewed the Christian scriptures with some suspicion in the past. The New Testament is not always flattering to Jews, plus it's been used in unwelcome attempts at conversion.
He hopes the new Jewish Annotated New Testament will make his task a bit more enjoyable.
"For so long we've been told that this is not a safe text, that it is a perversion of Torah," said Rose. "This allows us (to) look at this as a body of literature without any fear that it will try to convert us."
Edited by Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the book features the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian scriptures with notes and essays from Jewish scholars. It hopes to make the New Testament accessible to Jews while also teaching Christians about their Jewish roots.
The project, published by Oxford University Press, is the latest effort in Levine's lifelong quest to help Jews and Christians understand each other better.
That quest started when she was growing up among Portuguese Roman Catholics in North Dartmouth, Mass. She was fascinated by her schoolmates' faith and horrified when one of them told her that the Jews had killed God by crucifying Jesus.
She has made it her life's work to prevent Christians from spreading that kind of anti-Semitic claim and to help build bridges between the two faiths.
After all she said, Jesus and his early followers were Jews. So the two faiths have much in common.
The Annotated New Testament points out places where Christians get Judaism wrong.
"The volume flags common anti-Jewish stereotypes, shows why they are wrong, and provides readings so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate," Levine said in an email. "These stereotypes include the Old Testament-Jewish God of wrath vs. the New Testament God of love and the view that Judaism epitomized misogyny and xenophobia."
William Brosend, associate professor of homiletics in the School of Theology at Sewanee: University of the South, made the Jewish Annotated New Testament required reading for his senior preaching students. The comments from Jewish scholars will help his students get more out of the New Testament, he said.
"For starters, Jesus was a Jew, Paul was a Jew and most of the early readers of the New Testament were Jewish," he said. "So we need to know what being Jewish meant for them."
Brosend hopes his students will use the book throughout their careers as preachers. The book is set up like many other study Bibles — with notes and comments at the bottom of the page, and essays and other resources at the back.
That makes it easy for his students to use to dispel stereotypes. "It will help my students learn how not to say stupid things about Jews in their sermons," he said.
Many Christian readers of the New Testament forget that it was written for people who were Jewish and who didn't see themselves as part of a new religion, said Jay Phelan, senior professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Today, Judaism and Christianity are separate faiths, with long histories and tradition. But they were much more closely linked in the first century.
Phelan has begun studying the New Testament with a rabbi friend and said that experience has helped him learn new things about the scriptures even after decades as a seminary professor.
Phelan is a big fan of Levine's. He's met her several times at interfaith gatherings and been impressed by her understanding of Christianity.
"It's been her goal to help us be better Christians," he said. "And we become better Christians by better understanding Jesus, who was Jewish."
Levine's appeal continues to grow both nationwide and around Nashville. She's been speaking at the The Temple-Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville as part of an annual series of lectures. Her last lecture drew about 300 people.
Temple Rabbi Mark Schiftan said the success of Levine's lectures and the Jewish Annotated New Testament show how far relationships between Jews and Christians have come.
They began to thaw 50 years ago, he said, when Christian groups started removing anti-Semitic language from their prayers and teaching. Now, he said, Christians and Jews are meeting together to learn about each other's faith.
"You've got Jews who can sit and learn about the New Testament and not be afraid of it," he said. "And you've got Gentiles gathering in a synagogue to learn about Judaism because it was Jesus's faith."
Levine hopes the annotated New Testament will give both Jews and Christians a better understanding of their faiths.
She said that studying the New Testament has made her a better Jew.