Interview with Marc Brettler

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.08.15 PM
cover of the second edition

This transcript is a lightly edited version of an interview that took place on September 1, 2015, and retains its oral style.

Interviewer: Hello. Welcome to New Books and Biblical Studies, where we look at New Books about the Bible—from modern day commentaries and art books to scholarly monographs and reference works.

On today’s program, I’m talking with Marc Brettler about the second edition of The Jewish Study Bible, published by Oxford University Press, which he co‑edited with Adele Berlin.

Professor Brettler is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University’s Center for Jewish Studies, and member of Duke’s Department of Religious Studies. From 1986 to 2015, he taught Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, and since 2001 was the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies.

His academic research has been wide ranging. He has explored: the use of religious metaphors in the Hebrew Bible (God Is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor, 1989), the nature of biblical historical texts as literary texts (The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, 1995), and gender and the Bible.

He was a co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011) and the 2001 and 2010 editions of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, the co-author of The Bible and the Believer (2012; paperback 2015), author of Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Hebrew (2002), and co-editor of first edition of The Jewish Study Bible (2004), which was awarded a National Jewish Book Award. His book How to Read the Bible was published by the Jewish Publication Society in fall 2005, and in paperback as How to Read the Jewish Bible by Oxford University Press in 2007.

In addition to his published work, Brettler was awarded the Michael L. Walzer Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In today’s program, we discuss the second edition of The Jewish Study Bible, published by Oxford University Press. At 2,300 pages and with 54 academic contributors and 42 contextual and interpretive essays, the new edition represents a monumental scholarly achievement. In our conversation we talk about the complexity of that undertaking and the foundations upon which it was built.

Marc Brettler, welcome to the show.

Brettler: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to speak to you.

Interviewer: I wonder if you might begin by telling listeners about your background. How did you become a Bible scholar?

Brettler: I am an accidental Bible scholar. It is true that I’ve known the Bible for many years. I went to traditional Jewish schools, started studying Hebrew in elementary school, and reading the Bible in its original Hebrew early in elementary school.

But by the time I had finished high school, I thought I really had enough. I started college as an economics major. My first semester at college at Brandeis University, I needed a last course to fill in my schedule. Some of my friends told me that Professor Nahum Sarna, whose book Understanding Genesis I had read years earlier, is teaching a course in Psalms, so I enrolled. For only one semester was I an economics major.

Interviewer: [laughs]

Brettler: He and that course had a tremendous influence on me. Then I got hooked on the Bible and on the serious academic study of the Bible.

Interviewer: What was it like to study under him?

Brettler: He was a wonderful teacher. He really cared deeply about teaching. He listened to students very well. One of my most amazing memories of him is that he used to come into class with index cards. Some of those index cards would say, “On such and such a date, a particular individual in class made such a suggestion about what that verse means, or that what a particular word or Psalm meant.” He thereby showed the whole class that you don’t only learn from books, but that you learn from each other, that he really valued our opinions. I really try to continue that legacy when I’m a teacher.

Interviewer: His scholarship was distinguished by an emphasis on the literary aspects of the Bible. Is that right?

Brettler: It depends on which work. In Understanding Genesis, a lot of his analysis is literary. He really did a lot of literary study of sorts before Robert Alter started his very important articles, and then books on the literary study of the Bible.

But in Understanding Genesis, a lot of what he tried to do was to place the book within its ancient Near Eastern context. There’s a lot of study of the relationship between Genesis and other ancient Near Eastern narratives, and what I would call the “contextual study of the Bible.”

In Psalms, a lot of his work is literary, probably more literary than many traditional scholars of Psalms. A lot of Psalms scholarship had really been involved in trying to understand exactly how the Psalm fits into ancient Israelite’s worship. He believed, I think correctly, that so much of that is conjectural. Too much time should not be spent on that. He really cared a lot about the psalms as prayers, and how the different words and verses and structures help to shape it as a prayer. When I work in Psalms I continue to follow in that route.

Interviewer: Fascinating. Where did you go from there? This was at Brandeis?

Brettler: This was at Brandeis. I was an undergraduate and did my Masters degree at Brandeis. I spent two years in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University where I studied Bible and a variety of Semitic languages. Then I returned to Brandeis to complete my Ph.D. under Nahum Sarna’s direction.

Interviewer: OK, so you returned?

Brettler: I returned, yes.

Interviewer: Wow.

Brettler: I taught at Brandeis for 29 years. And now, a few weeks ago, I started teaching at Duke.

Interviewer: Excellent. Duke is very well known for its Religious Studies program.

Brettler: Yes.

Interviewer: Are there other things that influenced your decision to become a Bible scholar? What specifically? A number of your accomplishments are editions of the Bible or commentaries on the Bible. What led you in that direction as opposed to more popular engagement with the Bible? What led you into that direction over something that’s more focused on a particular period?

Brettler: I’ve done a lot of that specific academic work, and I continue to do that work. But various things have led me to doing more popular works on the Bible. I must admit I have some colleagues who think that the word “popularizing” is a dirty word. For me it’s really an incredibly important word, because the Bible is very important in American culture—both religious and secular culture.

I would very much like to participate in the debate, in the discussion, about what the Bible means. Some of my popular work was written because I was looking for works for students to read, and I just could not find something that was satisfactory. For example, the book that I wrote, How to Read the Bible (How to Read the Jewish Bible in paperback), started really as lecture notes for my classes. I wanted those to be available to a broader group of people who do not have access to university classes and wanted to understand what the modern study of the Bible is all about.

In terms of the editions that you asked about, again, life in scholarship is really many, many accidents. That first started with my being an associate or one of the associate editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which is the major college textbook on the Bible. It existed in several editions, and like much of biblical scholarship was very Protestant in its nature.

The Bible editor at Oxford University Press, Don Kraus, who is a wonderful man and a very, very open man, wanted to make The New Oxford Annotated Bible into a broader text representing a greater variety of perspectives and was actually quite disturbed or at least perturbed by some of what he inherited in the earlier editions of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which for example, had contrasts quite often between the Old Testament—I’ll use that term because that was the term that was used then—as a book of law, and the New Testament as a book of grace.

Interviewer: That was in the first edition of the Oxford Study Bible?

Brettler: That was in the earlier editions of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

Interviewer: OK.

Brettler: Part of my job as one of the associate editors was to make sure that that contrast would be eradicated and that the Hebrew Bible would be presented in its own terms positively, and not in a supersessionist fashion. I did that. I really enjoyed doing that and then a few years later, Don Kraus came to me and said, “We’re thinking of another Bible project. We’re thinking of something called The Jewish Study Bible.”

This was after Oxford had published The Catholic Study Bible. I think that Oxford realized that many of their Bibles were really Protestant study Bibles—that was certainly the case for the older edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. For the first time, because no one else had done this, Oxford thought that it would be a good idea to put together a Jewish Study Bible, which meant a number of different things.

All these contributors would be Jewish and in a variety of ways its perspectives would be Jewish. He approached me. He knew me from The New Oxford Annotated Bible. He approached Adele Berlin, who was then teaching at University of Maryland. She’s now professor emerita and together we developed and co‑edited that volume. That project came from Oxford.

Interviewer: I see. Did you two identify the scholars to include in that first edition?

Brettler: Yes. We really had several jobs. Our initial one—we have the books of the Bible obviously all set so we did not need to decide which books to include—but we needed to find scholars for each of the books, which is actually was not always that easy because for example, in what people call Jewish scholarship as opposed to Protestant biblical scholarship, the study of prophetic books or certain prophetic books certainly was, and to some extent is, under represented.

For example, the study of the first five books, the Torah or the Pentateuch, is represented much better. In some cases, we really had to struggle to find the appropriate people who would be able to write annotations to particular books. In addition, a lot of what we did took a lot of thought and a lot of planning, and changed very significantly between the first and the second edition.

We wanted to have a significant number of essays in the back that would offer different types of backgrounds in the Bible and to the Jewish study of the Bible. First, we had to configure what those essays would look like and how they would be structured. There is a type of literary conceit, because there are 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, according to the Jewish enumeration; in the first edition of the Jewish study Bible, we had 24 essays.

Then, we needed to go out to find the right people to be able to write these essays. That’s how we began to put that book together. In this particular case, each of us edited everything. I might have had more familiarity with some of the books, for example, the book of Judges, which I wrote on a lot. I would edit that first and then that would go to her [Adele Berlin] second.

For example, she was working on a commentary on the book Lamentations—that would go to her first and then come to me second. Each of our hands, all four of our hands, edited every word of both volumes of The Jewish Study Bible.

Interviewer: It’s great. Before we talk more about that work, I’d like to ask about some framing and contextual concerns. I’m interested to know, from your perspective, what is the role of the study Bible and who is its main audience? I know they’re probably separate answers, but who’s the audience and how does it function?

Brettler: Let me start with each group of audience. I think Adele and I—and Oxford as well—all thought that the audience would be predominantly Jewish. It’s still largely Jewish, but much to our surprise many non-Jews have picked up The Jewish Study Bible.

They want to simply see a different perspective on the Bible. In addition, they use The Jewish Study Bible simply because it has longer notes on the Hebrew Bible / Old Testaments than most study Bibles; it is often the go-to or the main textbook in biblical courses at universities and even seminaries, even in Protestant seminaries.

I’ll say that we got to appreciate that the audience really is a broad one, but does include to a significant extent Jewish audience. Just remind me the rest of that question? Please, the first part.

Interviewer: In general, what is the purpose of a study Bible? We’re so familiar with the text of the Bible being published by itself without any annotations or editorial apparatus. Some people believe that this is sufficient for understanding the text. Why is a study Bible necessary?

Brettler: The Bible by itself, especially in English, is never sufficient. I emphasize especially in English, because no translation is perfect and one of the roles of any study Bible is to make the readers aware of different possible translations of a verse, different possible translations of a word, which can really have a larger impact of what the larger unit means.

One thing that a study Bible does is perhaps exactly the opposite of what your question says. It problematizes the translation and gives different options for the translation.

Secondly, even if you understand the Hebrew perfectly, and then if you translate the Hebrew perfectly, there will be many different areas of background that the reader might not know.

A reader might not know how stories at the beginning of Genesis are connected to Ancient Near Eastern texts and may have even used or reused those myths. To give you another example of a role of the study Bible: meaning is not merely created by words, but it’s also created by the way that words are structured. One of the things that scholars attune themselves to is the structure of different biblical units and how that structure helps to communicate reading.

Actually, a very good example of that is from Genesis chapter one where the annotations from Jon Levenson point out the way that days one, two and three of creation in Genesis chapter one are paralleled by days four, five and six in a particular way, creating a symmetry. This makes an argument that the world, in that particular chapter, is very well structured.

These are things that a reader might not immediately notice: background, structure, translation, noting textual difficulties, noting how different biblical books are related. For example, a main interest of mine in biblical scholarship is the way in which the Bible is a compilation. Therefore, as a compilation, different parts of the Bible will often disagree with each other.

Therefore, I say to my students, “If I want you to learn one thing from my course that you will remember after the semester is over, it is that you won’t leave and say ‘the Bible says,’ followed by one very simple notion, because there aren’t almost any single ideas in the Bible. The Bible has a multiplicity of voices.”

Another thing that the annotations can do is show you where a passage in the Bible that is being annotated agrees with other passages and disagrees with other passages. Therefore, the readers can begin to get to sense the texture of the Bible, of the complexity of the biblical text. Unless you have a photographic memory, if you read the Bible just by itself, you’re unlikely to be able to recall all the different places in which a particular theme or idea is found in the biblical text.

Interviewer: OK. What burden does a study Bible bear to provide a consensus view, rather than the particular view however well grounded of an individual scholar? Is that a concern when you were pooling together both the commentary and the supplemental essays?

Brettler: It’s a very big concern. Let me address that in two ways. Adele Berlin and I could have written or edited The Jewish Study Bible according to Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin, but we realized that there are a wide variety of valid opinions. There are invalid opinions as well—invalid opinions about what the Bible means, what words mean, about what larger units mean. In that way [including a wide variety of valid opinions], I think that we really are very Jewish.

An important rabbinic expression is—I’ll give you the Hebrew, then I’ll translate—Shiv’im panim la-Torah. Literally, “there are 70 faces or facets to the Torah [or to the Bible].” In other words, there are 70 (which is just a typological number for a large number) of legitimate, equally legitimate, meanings for what a biblical text means. That is a very Jewish view. If you open a traditional Rabbinic Bible, it will have the biblical text. Then it will be surrounded by any number of commentators who disagree with each other, often vociferously.

Interviewer: [laughs] I love that.

Brettler: We wanted to follow that example. We realize that there might very well be a contradiction between the annotations of Isaiah and the annotations of Ezekiel. We allowed those sorts of contradictions, though we obviously chose scholars whose scholarship we respected.

We made scholars aware of the fact that this really is not a scholarly monograph. This is really not a place to try out crazy ideas. This is a place where students and others might go to understand that there often isn’t a consensus, but something within the circle of the consensus. We did, somewhat, limit ideas so that this is really pretty much reflects mainstream biblical interpretation.

Interviewer: OK. One thing I was struck by, too, is that you are building on a long tradition of a biblical commentary going back to the great medieval commentators, such as Rashi or Ramban, whose commentaries have almost become embedded with the text, infused with the canon. There are many references to them throughout your edition.

There’s a polyphony of voices taking place. How do you balance all of those voices? How do you find a way to emphasize those older commentators with newer insights?

Brettler: I very much like your word “polyphony,” because that is really what we are trying to do in this Bible. That is really what happens when you have a variety of different annotators, authors writing for you, and when you encourage those authors to quote earlier sources. We encourage them to quote earlier sources in two main cases.

One of the major contributions of biblical scholarship, of Jewish biblical scholarship of the 20th century, was to show that traditional biblical scholarship is relevant for modern, critical biblical scholarship. The medieval Jewish commentators knew Hebrew superbly. They saw many of the same structures that modern scholars of the Bible “discovered.” They were aware—the medievals were aware, the classical rabbis were aware—of many of the contradictions that critical biblical scholarship solved in a very different way than these earlier Jewish sources, especially when the early Jewish sources, whether it’s the rabbis or the medievals, say something which is widely accepted in modern biblical scholarship, which the moderns think they have discovered.

One of the things that we try to do in this volume is to correct modern biblical scholarship and to make it realize the some of the “original insights” that it thinks it has discovered were really discovered a thousand years ago. In some cases, earlier.

Another use of traditional biblical scholarship in The Jewish Study Bible—and by the way, this would very much differentiate The Jewish Study Bible from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which has a different name and a different audience, since we’re assuming that much of the audience is Jewish and are curious about Jewish customs—is that we talk about the anchoring of Jewish law in the Bible. For example, three times the Torah states, “You shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” [Exodus 23:19 and 24:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21]. That is very important in terms of Jewish food laws, the laws of being kosher, and is the origin for keeping meat food and dairy food separate. In The Jewish Study Bible, we will talk about that.

In The Jewish Study Bible, for example, we are also aware, very conscious, of verses in the Bible which entered the Jewish liturgy. We’ll talk about that. We’re aware of certain prayers such as the Shema prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one,” or “The Lord Alone,” from Deuteronomy 6:4. We’ll talk about its meaning in Judaism, including the meaning given to it by some of the traditional Jewish commentators whom you mentioned in your question.

Interviewer: The New Oxford Annotated Bible doesn’t go into any of that?

Brettler: The New Oxford Annotated Bible goes into that much less than the Jewish Study Bible to us. It might mention it here and there, but it has a broader audience. Therefore, I think, that the distinct emphasis of the two volumes as reflected in their distinct titles is totally appropriate.

Interviewer: OK. The first edition of The Jewish Study Bible was published in 2004. As you’ve mentioned, this is a complete edition of the Jewish canon, which is called the “TaNaKh. Is that right?

Brettler: Yes, the TaNaKh is an acronym or an abbreviation for Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim. The Torah, the Nevi’im—the prophetic sections, and the Ketuvim—the writings. And I’m glad you actually asked that. I’m stopping you here.

Many people think that the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible are the same. They have the same books if you’re Jewish or if you’re Protestants; if you’re Catholic, the canon is actually a little larger. But the order of the books and the grouping of the books is different.

TaNaKh reflects the fact that, in Judaism, the Bible is divided into three sections. While in Christianity, the Old Testament is divided into four sections.

Interviewer: OK. What has changed in the past eleven years to prompt the release of this new edition? It’s been completely re-typeset—and handsomely, I might add.

What else did you do in the preparation of this new edition, because so much was done to lay the foundation in the first edition from 2004? Can you tell me a little bit about what went into the new edition? Maybe what scholarship or findings actually presented new opportunities to eliminate the text?

Brettler: First of all, I would not minimize the new typesetting. The major complaint that we got about the first edition is that if you are over 30, it is very difficult to read . . .

Interviewer: [laughs]

Brettler: . . . or as some people said, “I like the two‑volume edition of The Oxford English Dictionary,” and that we should have also sold our volume with a magnifying glass.

Interviewer: Oh dear.

Brettler: We were very happy that the typography could be changed and could resolve reading problems for a variety of people. Here are the main differences between the first and the second edition.

Certain of the biblical books were assigned new annotators. We simply totally changed the commentators and the commentaries. In some cases based on our knowledge that particular people were working on a book and therefore, we wanted to have their newest scholarship. Secondly, people might think that it’s only the sciences that change every year but fields in the humanities also change every year. There are journals in the humanities and biblical studies are just like Nature or Science which give a sense of new discoveries, new insights, new meanings and therefore all of the authors who we retained from the first edition had an opportunity to go over their work from ten years earlier and to see what of the newest scholarship they wanted to insert.

But the biggest change, or a change that I am very, very happy about and proud of in the second edition of The Jewish Study Bible, is that we very significantly expand it through the essays at the end. And just to preempt the question because many people ask me about this—they ask: “How should we read The Jewish Study Bible? Should we read it from the beginning to the end starting with the biblical text or should we read the essays first?” I simply tell people: Well, it totally depends on your personality. Some people like synthetic material first then reading the particulars. Others like to do it the other way around. But we realize that there were certain very important topics that we did not cover in the first edition in the essays and we expanded the essays very, very extensively in the second edition. Just to give you a couple of very many examples.

Interviewer: OK.

Brettler: The first edition had an essay on “The Bible in Israeli Life” by Uriel Simon, distinguished Professor Emeritus from Bar-Ilan University in Israel. We simply said to ourselves, hold it, we are publishing this in English. The Bible has played such an incredibly important part in American Jewish life. We therefore added an essay on the Jewish Bible in America by my former colleague at Brandeis University, Jonathan Sarna, who is really the dean of American Jewish history. Or another few examples if I might…

Interviewer: Please.

Brettler: We recognized in the first edition that the hardest genre to read in the Bible—in English, especially—is poetry. We added an essay there by my co‑editor Adele Berlin on “Reading Biblical Poetry.” But then we also realized, hey, biblical narrative doesn’t look like modern American novels or short stories. So we added an essay on “Reading Biblical Narrative.” Similarly, we added an essay on “Reading Biblical Law.”

Another example: in the first edition of The Jewish Study Bible, we had a generic essay which was largely taken from The New Oxford Annotated Bible on what is called textual criticism, which is how to sort out the different ancient manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible and evaluate it. This time, we totally redid that essay. Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University, who is really the dean of textual criticism, wrote the essay for us and he tailored it to this particular volume. In other words, the last few columns of that essay deal with textual criticism in the Jewish Publication Society translation.

To give you one final example, because I worked co‑editing The Jewish Annotated New Testament after I did The Jewish Study Bible, I became very interested in the place of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. I asked Amy‑Jill Levine to write an essay on that for the second edition of the Jewish Study Bible. Similarly, I asked Jacob Lassner, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern, to write a comparable article on the place of the Hebrew Bible in the Quran and the Muslim tradition.

We really added expansively and very significantly in the second edition in terms of the essays. That is really where the major difference is, to the extent of that, with the first edition, you probably had to use it with another introduction to the Bible. This second edition is much more self-standing, between the text, the annotations, and the very extensive essays at the end.

Interviewer: It’s really quite monumental.

Brettler: Thank you.

Interviewer: As a book maker myself, I don’t know how you did it.

Brettler: Lots of wonderful help from my co‑editor, my contributors, and Oxford University Press.

Interviewer: Of course, excellent. Well, can you tell me a little bit about your co‑editor Adele Berlin? Can you tell us about her and her work?

Brettler: Sure. Adele Berlin, as mentioned earlier, recently retired from University of Maryland. Her initial training was in Sumerology, the study of Sumerian texts. She was one of the first people to bring literary studies from the world of English and general literature into the world of Sumerian texts.

She also has always worked on the Bible; a major interest of hers is in literary study and the Bible. In that sense, we work quite well together because our interests complement each other. I have a bit more of a historical bent, and she has a bit more of a literary bent, but we each appreciate what the other person does and brings to the table.

She has written several books on literary study of the Bible. She has written on the way in which medieval scholars have understood biblical poetry. Also, she has written several commentaries on the Bible which is really very, very helpful because she fully understands the issues involved in writing commentaries—and the annotations on the bottom and the side of this Bible are really mini-commentaries of sorts.

So she has written on Lamentations. She has written on Esther. She has written on some of the prophets. That is her background and I am a little more interested in Torah material. So that way, in terms of what we have worked on, we also complemented each other very well.

Interviewer: Did you mainly work over e-mail or did you just get on the phone or a combination of both I’m sure?

Brettler: We sometimes had to get on the phone. Usually, it was e-mail. One of us would edit and then the other would edit. We each have queries to each other and we would send them back and forth. I can think of fewer than five cases where we had to get on the phone because we disagreed on something, we disagreed one with another so significantly that we really just had to talk it out.

Interviewer: Well, a modern technology allows this to happen now—not to be sitting in the same room pouring over the same text together.

Brettler: Yes, it’s a wonderful thing, modern technology, especially when it’s applied to ancient texts.

Interviewer: Yes, well, we have already touched on it already but one of the things that impressed me so much about this new Bible is the flexibility of its design. Obviously, the typography itself is more readable, the type bigger, and I think, they chose a different typeface for legibility but the design allows you to get what I am calculating to be about 58 lines of commentary for every 46 lines of the biblical text without breaking a column.

But then, if you do break the column, it has this nice way of flowing around the bottom of the text. How did you do that? Did you write with very specific specification for word count? I know how painful it is to cut text. So I am just wondering how you guided your colleagues? Did you have a template or were they just very precise in the word counts?

Brettler: No, we had a basic starting position—namely, that a single volume could have about 2,300 pages, which is what this volume has. We then figured out what proportion should be essays, what proportion should be biblical texts.

We then figured out, because again, this is a Jewish study Bible, and the word counts and the proportionality of word counts is different in different study Bibles. We figured out which books are especially important within Jewish tradition. So not surprisingly the Torah word counts per book are larger than the word counts of some of the prophetic books. We just tried to figure out how we can more or less use all 2,300 pages.

Adele and I would often use the equivalent of white out to make the word counts more or less fit so that the book would really fit between two covers—and the wizards of typography and layout at Oxford University Press then did their job. It is very nice that you picked up some of the differences between the first and the second edition, and that the layout of the page very much looks like the layout of what a page of Talmud—the great rabbinic work—looks like, and that is not an accident.

Oxford was very aware of what a Talmud layout looks like. We showed that to them, and much like a page of Talmud, sometimes there is a little text and a lot of commentary. Other times, there is a lot of text and a little commentary and that is the model that Oxford worked with for this particular volume, which is fully appropriate for a Jewish study Bible.

Interviewer: Was there a chief designer? I looked in vain for the name of someone to compliment. Was it a team of designers?

Brettler: I am honestly not sure. We were presented with various choices. This is what we went with because we, like you, were impressed with wizardry and the readability and the Oxford people are very modest. They like hiding behind their product.

Interviewer: Yes. Well, very few designers and editors get credit in their works. It’s a labor of love behind the scenes.

I want to touch on the translation too. This edition, like the one before, is based on the second edition of the JPS [Jewish Publication Society] translation of the Bible which was published in 1985. How does that translation compare to ecumenical translation such as the RSB or the NRSV, the new Revised Standard Version, which I think is the basis for The Oxford Annotated Bible. Is that right?

Brettler: Yes.

Interviewer: Because the RSV had was also a team of both Jewish and Christian scholars. But how would you describe the differences between those translations?

Brettler: OK. So the RSV and the NRSV really present themselves as ecumenical. And they are somewhat ecumenical. There are a token number of non‑Protestant scholars who were involved in the translation, but really it is largely a Protestant translation. The JPS, Jewish Publication Society, is entirely a Jewish translation. It differs from the NRSV in a couple of ways.

First of all, it is much closer to the Hebrew text than the NRSV is. And this is fully appropriate because in Jewish tradition the traditional Hebrew text, what is called the Masoretic text, was really the only text used within Judaism. While fully appropriately for the New Revised Standard Version and the earlier Revised Standard Version, the Jewish text, the Hebrew text doesn’t have the same voice there.

They will sometimes take a reading from the Septuagint, from the ancient Greek translation, which of course started out as a Jewish translation but was enshrined within the church rather than within the synagogue, and that will be the basis of that translation. One difference is the text that they use – this is something that the NRSV is very proud of, which the Jewish Publication Society would never do. It is quite likely that in one of the chapters of Samuel several verses were lost in the Hebrew that are preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The NRSV restores those verses [see the end of 1 Samuel 10]. The JPS translation would never do that.

Another significant difference is the NRSV was written, as was the RSV before it, with an awareness that was to be liturgical translation, that it would be read out loud in church. So that every time, a pronoun that might be masculine in the Hebrew, but might in some way reflect both masculine and feminine and be gender inclusive, the NRSV pushed the translation toward gender inclusivity. The JPS translation is much more, though certainly not totally, interested in what the text originally meant.

So, issues such as gender inclusion which are very important liturgically did not affect the translation of the Jewish Publication Society because, again, they were much more interested in what the text originally meant, when it might very well might not have been gender inclusive, as opposed to what the text or how the text should be used in current liturgical practice.

Interviewer: OK. Our time is winding down unfortunately. But I wonder, if you might cite some examples of the commentary where it provides fresh new insight about a particular passage? Are there two or three passages that come to mind where you thought, the contributor really brought out something new that wasn’t in the previous edition?

Brettler: Yes. Actually, if you don’t mind, let me stick with one example.

Interviewer: OK.

Brettler: It’s a slightly complex example.

Interviewer: Sure.

Brettler: But a very, very important one. Probably the most difficult book of the Bible is the Book of Job, which is hard for a wide variety of issues. The key to understanding the book of Job is often understood to be the speeches that you have in chapters 38 through the beginning of Chapter 42, where God speaks from the whirlwind twice, and Job responds to God twice. You would imagine that the very last verse of Job’s response to God in the second set of speeches may very well be the key to understanding the book of Job.

Now that reads in the Jewish Publication Society, “Therefore, I recant and relent being but dust and ashes.” That is Job speaking there. Now, the new edition of The Jewish Study Bible has a commentary or annotations by Job by Edward Greenstein who taught for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and now teaches at Bar‑Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv in Israel.

He glosses that verse as following, “The Hebrew can sustain neither this nor most other translations. The verb rendered recant requires a direct object which is lacking. Dust and ashes is a figurative expression referring to the abject human condition. But the proposition ‘al cannot mean ‘being.’ This key verse should thus be rendered: ‘Therefore, I am disgusted and I take pity on wretched humanity.’”

Now, that’s remarkable. These are the last words that Job said and then he [Greenstein] goes onto say, “This understanding of the Hebrew is reflected in a liturgical poem recited on the evening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement: ‘Take pity on (pathetic) humanity.’” Again, this particular annotation gives a sense of a lot of what we do in The Jewish Study Bible, whether the first or this newer second edition.

Yes, we use a translation, but we are not enslaved to that translation. When we think the translation is wrong, we call the reader’s attention to that and we explain why we believe it is wrong. Finally, we show the continuity between what is said in the Bible and later Jewish tradition—in this particular case, how a particularly liturgical poem for Yom Kippur really picks up and properly understands Job 42:6, which, in this new translation, might very well be a key for understanding the meaning of the book of Job as a whole.

Interviewer: In preparation for this interview, I read the introductory materials for Job. I was really struck by its even handedness, but also the way in which it presents both views that I get tossed around from time to time, that it’s both a folk tale with some commonalities, some but not all commonalities, to other ancient new eastern texts.

It is fitting that the introduction is able to handle both of these approaches to Job, in a such way that telegraphed no anxiety about the tension. I saw that in a number of instances, even in Genesis or the Torah, with regard to the handling of the documentary hypothesis and the different sources. It’s all laid out for the reader to take in these different things that are known or unknown, and then the reader is left to decide.

Brettler: I think you picked up something very important about this volume as a whole. This brings me back to what I said earlier about the traditional Jewish view of shivim panim la-Torah, that there are 70 different facets of interpretation to the Bible.

Now, note that that maxim is not continued by saying, “and choosing one of them is the right or the only way to do it.” To use your own language, there often is not a lot of Jewish anxiety around this particular tension. There often is not a Jewish view to, again, to pick up on the term that you use.

Many Jews look at the Bible as a polyphonic book, rather than as a unified book. That is something that both Adele Berlin and I believe in very strongly. That determined the authors we chose to write the annotations and the essays, and also is reflected in the broader editing that we did in this particular book.

Interviewer: That’s an excellent note to end on. I think we’ve identified a new motto for our channel, for “New Books in Biblical Studies.” Thank you for that, as we approach the 70 different facets of the biblical text.

Our traditional closing question on the New Books Network is “What are you working on now?”

Brettler: I’m working on two things simultaneously. Having finished co-editing this new edition of The Jewish Study Bible, Amy‑Jill Levine and I are working on a new edition of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which we hope will be out in two years. That book was seen as revolutionary and got so much hype. We realized that we need to revise it quickly. In the same way that there are many new essays in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition, there will be many new essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition.

Again, we just got wiser. I actually think that the best time for teaching a course is the second time. I think the best time for editing a book is the second time you edit it. There were just many things that we could not do the first time around that we hope we will succeed in doing the second time around. We hope that will be out in 2017.

The Jewish Publication Society, having completed a series of commentaries on the Torah, and on the Haftarot (the Prophetic readings), and almost on the Five Scrolls, is now looking to broaden. I am one of five or six people working on the commentary on the book of Psalms. Now, my original work is writing a commentary on Psalms 91–118. It is a tremendous challenge.

Interviewer: You have to take up the labor of your great and wise teacher.

Brettler: Yes. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to do that.

Interviewer: Excellent. I look forward to reading those in the future and perhaps having you on a future program.

Brettler: Thank you. That would really be my pleasure. Thank you very much.

Interviewer: All right, take care.

Brettler: You too.

[background music]

Interviewer: That concludes my conversation with Marc Brettler about The Jewish Study Bible published by Oxford University Press. I hope you enjoyed today’s program. Please join me again to hear about other new books in biblical studies. To learn about new programs, you can follow me on Twitter @NewBooksBible. As always, thank you for listening.

One thought on “Interview with Marc Brettler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s