Rebecca Lesses, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College, is digging into the roots of the New Testament to shine a modern light on some of Christianity’s best-known biblical figures.
Lesses recently wrote “Divine Beings,” an article that highlights the connections between Christianity and Judaism, and was published in “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” the first edition of the New Testament annotated by Jewish scholars of biblical studies.
Staff Writer Jillian Kaplan spoke to Lesses about her contributions to the anthology, her motivations for her research and its significance to Western religion.
Jillian Kaplan: How did this project begin?
Rebecca Lesses: One of the people who is involved in the editing of this is a scholar named Marc Brettler, who teaches at Brandeis
University. He was involved in the production of the book, “The Jewish Study Bible.” That’s where he sort of thought, “Well, we’ve done the Hebrew Bible, let’s do the New Testament.” In the last even 40 years, more and more
Jewish scholars have gotten involved in the study of the New Testament on an academic level. There’s kind of a critical mass of Jewish scholars who, for the first time in history, are working on the New Testament. It’s a testimony to the fact that biblical scholarship on both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is ecumenical — it’s something that both Jews and Christians are engaged in.
JK: What is your research about?
RL: I wrote an article on a topic called divine being, which is a survey of accounts and beliefs about divine and angelic beings in the Hebrew Bible and then in later Jewish literature before the New Testament was written. I look at what the Hebrew Bible says about God as the creator of the universe and the one who makes the covenant with the people of Israel. And then I talk about how angels are referred to in the Hebrew Bible. I also talk about a figure who appears in the Book of Proverbs called Wisdom, who’s depicted as a female figure who’s kind of the co-worker with God and the creation of the universe.
JK: Did your work focus strictly on angels, or did you research other biblical figures as well?
RL: There is a section of the titles that are given to Jesus in the New Testament. He’s called, for example, “Son of Man,” which is a title that originally comes from the biblical Book of Daniel. It seems to refer to some kind of heavenly figure who is next to God, and then Jesus applies this term to himself. Of course, in the New Testament he’s called the “Son of God,” and that refers to the Christian belief that
Jesus is the son of God.
JK: Does the article draw correlations between the Old and New Testament, or is it more so a background?
RL: Some of it is giving the Hebrew Bible background, and some of it is drawing out fictions of God or the divine that are then used in the New Testament. If you look in the
Hebrew Bible itself, there’s certainly no idea that there’s a son of God who comes down to Earth as a human being. There are ideas of angels who are at work among human beings. Perhaps some of these ideas about angels were then applied to Jesus and the process of working out Christian theology.
JK: Will this project have an impact on the way people interpret major religions like Christianity and Judaism?
RL: Because the scholars all have been writing on various New Testament topics, they’ve already begun to have an
influence on Christian scholars of the New Testament. It’s not just going to affect academics who study this as their job, but I think the book is appealing to ordinary Jews and Christians, especially Christians who are interested in what Jews have to say about the New Testament. A lot of people are sort of just very intrigued by it, especially Christians who are interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity, and they see a commentary like this as a way to have access to that knowledge.
JK: Did your research impact your beliefs?
RL: It made me think more about the connections between Jewish ideas about God and Christian ideas. I started to see why some people who were among the early followers of Jesus were using some biblical texts to shape the way that they thought about Jesus.