The (now) first Jewish Study Bible (JSB) was a major breakthrough in establishing a critical, yet faithful, study system for the Jewish canon (for Protestants, the Old Testament). It brought to the table both modern research as well as rabbinical sayings, easily competing with other critical study bibles not only for attention but for depth and clarity. It has been my go-to bible for much of my study in the Jewish Scriptures. Not bad for an “experiment” (as the editors call the first edition) and a winner of the National Jewish Book Award (2004). With the second edition (again edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler), what was good before is now great. I simply have no other words to describe it.
The barebones of the JSB has remained the same. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) 1985 translation has remained the same. The introductions to the books of bible are virtually unchanged, but the notes have been revised. According to the second edition’s preface, “over one-third” is new. This means we have updated scholarship, new voices, and more importantly in this last category, new voices that include women and Israeli scholars. In the first edition, some essays are simply revised essays from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, but in this one, the editors sought completely new essays on the same topics while asking for revisions of previous ones. Likewise, new essays are added — such as the additions of “Reading Biblical Narrative” and “Reading Biblical Law” to the stand alone essay of “Reading Biblical Poetry.”
One new essay of note is “Gender in the Bible”(2177–84) by Marc Zvi Brettler. Brettler is a co-editor of the volume, the Dora Golding Professor at Brandeis University, and the author of numerous scholarly works examining the Jewish Scriptures (including serving as co-editor on Amy Jill Levine’s The Jewish Annotated New Testament, also by Oxford). He notes the difference between “gender” (“enacted”) and “sex” (“biological”). No doubt this differentiation will concern some, but Brettler is able to show easily why it needs to be. Even a woman can share the (en)action of a man (masculinity) — and the bible’s idea of masculinity often changes based on perspective. In once sense, masculine means warrior while in another time, masculine meant a devoted student. “The diversity of models should not be surprising, since the Bible is a complex work with multiple perspectives on many issues.”
When it comes to specific roles, Brettler breaks down the language to show that while ancient Israel and Judaism was indeed male-centric, it was not exactly patriarchal. Nor was it homogenous. Women did have specific roles, but in some portions of Scripture, women shared in roles usually thought to be the sole domain of men (for instance, Brettler points out the Nazarites and prophets). This doesn’t mean Brettler is a wild-eyed liberal, nor given to exaggeration of Scripture. His attention to the verse rather than later culturally influenced readings is made readily apparent when he explores the masculinity of God. He does, in all fairness, give time to scholars who disagree with him, but in the end maintains the explicitness of the bible. “Gender is central to one’s identity and should be immediately evident. Males should act and look like males, and females should act and look like females, and both genders should worship a masculine God” (2184). This section in particular is prefaced with a warning that “all religions…change over time” (2182). We are not told what to think, only what the facts are in determining how we think.
Each essay is based on solid scholarship that remains within the biblical realm. Of note, Jon Levinson’s introduction to Bere’shit (Genesis) ends with, “if J, E, P, and various equally anonymous sources and redactors are its human authors, nothing ensures that God is not its ultimate Author” (10).
My only issue with the bible is the cover. I am going to heavily use this one and I am fearful I will damage the white hardcover. JSB1 had a dust jacket and rough, dark colored cover. JSB2 lacks the dust jacket (thankfully) but has a white glossy cover. The quality of the book, however, is one that will last over time. The pages are thin (use an India marker) but so are most bible pages. (If this bothers you, note there is a kindle version.) JSB2 is set up a lot like JSB1, with the text in the upper portion, next to the spin, surrounded on the left/right and on the bottom by notes. Also included are the JPS 1985 translator’s notes. Throughout the various books, you will find charts and smaller maps to help guide the reader in understanding what is happening in the text and notes. Also include are full color maps like you would find in other bibles. This is a scholar’s bible, but it is a adherent’s book as well.
I have looked, but in vain, for a better study bible for those interested in engaging the Jewish Scriptures as Jewish. Granted, the Christian writings are mentioned, as are the rabbinical sages and both alongside critical scholarship. It does not exclude ecumenical inquiry, but it is the most useful when one is trying to determine how one portion of the text is seen by Jews. This is a great benefit, to be sure, to Christians and Muslims, scholars and theologians, if they are going to interpret the “Old Testament” as a Jewish document first. It is an intellectually stimulating study bible that must be on the desk of every serious student of Scripture.