Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.
But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.
There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.
The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.
Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.
Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Witherington: email@example.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.
The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.
* The childless Elizabeth: She thinks of her infertility as a “disgrace.” But the commentary says inability to conceive (prior to John the Baptist’s belated birth) “was not a punishment. Nor would most Jews, as far as we can tell, regard infertility as the result of sin.”
* The Temple: Frequent Christian claims that the Temple was “flawed” because it perpetuated distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, and men and women, ignores “the biblical notion of both holiness and creation as involving separation.” And to be fair, Christianity has practiced such divides of its own.
* Nazareth: The hamlet where angel Gabriel visits Mary was “so insignificant that outside the Gospels no contemporary source mentions it.” Ben cites the famed “Nazareth inscription” in Greek about grave robbing, dated by epigraphers to the early 1st Century. Though the marble item was located in Nazareth and shipped from there, Amy-Jill notes the text does not actually name the town.
* The Census: We know that Quirinius was governor of Syria but the evidence we have indicates the Roman tax census did not occur during his reign. Amy-Jill figures Luke was simply mistaken. Witherington offers theories that could explain this discrepancy.
* Travel to Bethlehem: Why did the holy couple need to make this trip? The Roman censuses “counted people where they lived” or owned property. So possibly Joseph’s family owned property there and, one scholar proposes, he wanted “to take advantage of a tax loophole”!
* Status of shepherds: It’s often said shepherds were looked down upon in the ancient Mideast as “unclean and degraded.” But this stems from a misreading of one text in Judaism’s Talmud from a century or more after Luke was written. The point of that rambling text is that all vocations are as nothing compared with studying of God’s Word.
* The Inn: Popular suppositions that the innkeeper rejected Mary and Joseph because they had no money lack any basis in Luke and reinforce “negative stereotypes of greedy Jews.” Perhaps the guest rooms were already filled or the stable provided needed privacy for the childbirth.
* Perpetual virginity: Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (along with early Protestant leaders, such as Martin Luther) teach that Mary went through life without having sexual relations. But these Protestant and Jewish commentators agree that the phrase “firstborn son” suggests she bore further children. Otherwise, Luke would have used a different adjective.
* The purification ritual: Luke says “they,” that is both Mary and Joseph, participated. But Jewish law only required the mother do so after giving birth, which importantly did not signify any sinfulness. Was Luke mistaken? Or did both Jewish parents sometimes participate though this is not attested otherwise? Or did Joseph assist with the birth and need purification?
* Mary’s “Magnificat”: Luke provides this famous “canticle” as Jesus’ mother responds to her pregnancy. There’s no indication a scribe recorded these words. Are liberals right that Luke simply made this up? Or did Mary memorize her poetry and pass it along? Is it even possible Luke learned this from Mary directly?