Important Announcement from Lois (updated Jan 2012)

Shalom everyone –

Our Rabbi Home PageIf you discovered my writing here and are wondering where to find me, my blog is now at Our Rabbi Jesus: His Jewish Life and Teaching ( The site focuses on how understanding the Bible in its original context can shed light on how we live today. The site is a work in progress, but I hope you’ll subscribe to its email list. (My goal has been to send something monthly, but its actually been about once a year.) You can also find updates on the OurRabbiJesus Facebook page. (Click “Like” to stay connected.)

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi JesusMy main activity right now is actually writing books. In March 2009, Zondervan published Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (co-authored by Ann Spangler). The book explores the first-century world of rabbis and disciples, festivals, prayers and the Torah, and how restoring Jesus to his Jewish reality sheds light on his life and ministry. For more info and a preview, see this page. (You can get the book from your local bookstore, or online at Amazon, B&N or CBD.)

In February 2012, Zondervan will release the sequel, which I’ve been working on for the past couple years: Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. There, I ask the next question — what are the implications of Jesus’ Jewish context for how we live as his disciples? I also contemplate some Jewish ideas that deepen our understanding of Jesus’ words and yield practical insights for following him today. For more info and several excerpts, see this page. Available soon at bookstores, or online at Amazon, B&N, or CBD.

En-Gedi Home PageIf you want to read some of my earlier writing, see This is the En-Gedi Resource Center, an educational ministry I founded with Bruce Okkema in 2001. For six years we organized seminars and published books and audio/video materials. I’ve been writing independently for the past five years, but you can find many of my earlier articles there, as well as my first book, Listening to the Language of the Bible.

I do also travel and speak. If you’re interested in where I’ll be or inviting me, check out my calendar here.

Blessings –

Lois Tverberg

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)  

Can we call Jesus “Rabbi”?

In March 2009, my new book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus will be released by Zondervan. Just the title of the book might cause you to ask, “Is it OK to speak of Jesus as a ‘rabbi’?” Some have suggested that the term may be from after Jesus’ time, so to apply it to Jesus isn’t appropriate. What is going on here?

jesus-rabbiIt’s true that there is a change in how the word “rabbi” was used right around the time of Jesus. Jewish teachers who lived a few decades before his time, like Hillel and Shammai, were not called “Rabbi Hillel” and “Rabbi Shammai,” even though they had numerous disciples. They simply went by their name with no title, like Jesus did. It was only after 70 AD that we find numerous religious teachers who had that title, like “Rabbi Akiva” or “Rabbi Eliezar.”

Because of this, modern day scholars refer to the era after 70 AD as “the rabbinic period” and speak of teachers in this period as “the rabbis.” Religious teachers who gathered disciples prior to 70 AD are called “sages,” so Jesus technically was a “sage” rather than a “rabbi” by modern definition. In the minds of academics, calling Jesus a “rabbi” sounds if he lived a few decades later than he did.

It is important to not to transplant Jesus from his own time into another. But if we disassociate him entirely from the rabbis that lived slightly after him, it is misleading as well. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus actually lived in the critical period of Judaism that formed the nucleus of later rabbinic thought. The disciples of Hillel and Shammai were debating in his day, and their opinions became the focus of much of the discussion that is preserved later in the Mishnah and Talmud. Jesus himself commented on their debates. To artificially divorce him from early rabbinic discussions excludes extremely relevant information about the Jewish conversation that was going on in his time.

So what word would Jesus’ disciples have used to refer to him? Rabbi. But in a different sense. Quotations from before Jesus’ time often spoke of the relationship between a “talmid” (disciple) and his “rav” (master). The same word, “rav” was what a slave would say to his owner, displaying an attitude of humility. When an “i” was added to the end, it meant “my,” so a disciple would address his teacher as rav-i, “my master,” or rabbi. (In Hebrew, b and v are often interchangeable.) In the decades after Jesus’ time, the word for “my master” gradually became the title of a Jewish religious teacher. This is very analagous to how clergy were once honored with the phrase, “the most reverend so-and-so,” but later “Reverend” became a professional title.

The gospels show that Jesus’ disciples called him “rabbi” in this older sense of the word. We hear Jesus saying, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25) The reason he makes this comparison is likely because the disciples were calling him “rav,” and addressing him each time they spoke to him as rav-i, “my master.”

This sheds light on Matthew 23: “Everything they do is done for men to see… they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” (vs. 5,7-8, NIV) Jesus’ was objecting to his disciples demanding others pay them obeisance and competing for honor with each other. But he did not object when his disciples used rabbi to refer to him. The Greek is explicit about this. In the text of the gospels, Greek letters are used to spell out the Hebrew word “rabbi” as ραββι rather than translating it into a Greek equivalent in 15 different places (see Matt. 23:7, 8;  26:25, 49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 3:26, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, and 11:8). John’s gospel explains:

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” [ραββι] (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (John 1:37 )

John is saying that his use of “rabbi” is the equivalent of the Greek word didaskalos, which means “teacher.” It’s reasonable to assume then, that when we see Jesus addressed as “teacher” in English translations, the actual word spoken at the time was rabbi.

To sum up, many modern scholars do not refer to Jesus as a “rabbi” because the boundaries have been set to define him as slightly before the rabbinic era. But the gospels themselves explicitly spell out the word “rabbi” in reference to him. And Jesus himself speaks as if he expects that we as his followers would think of him as our “master.” It seems very appropriate, then, that if we are his disciples, we should speak of him as our “rabbi.”

For more, see the entry “Rabbi” at

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 2:40 pm  Comments (3)  

Those who have much will be given more…

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. Matthew 25:29

I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a sermon based on this tough saying of Jesus. The place where I did find this line was in the book I got for Christmas called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. (By the way, I also loved his earlier books, The Tipping Point and Blink.)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell writes about hidden patterns behind everyday experiences, and in Outliers he looks at what factors influence who becomes successful in life. His chapter called “The Matthew Effect” is based on the fact that this head-scratching line from Jesus, that “those who have will be given more” comes from the book of Matthew.

Gladwell describes how all-star hockey players in Canada almost always have birthdays in January through March, because being born near January 1 gives boys an edge in the highly competitive training that starts before they are even in kindergarten. Because they are slightly more mature, they are given more opportunities to practice and play.  This effect builds on itself – the more they practice early on, the more they achieve later in life.

I used to notice a related effect when I taught Biology. Some smart students would go out for a game of frisbee golf rather than study early on, and were surprised to find later material much harder. Knowledge builds on itself, the more you know, the easier it is to learn. I used to tell my Human Physiology students to try hard to retain what they learned in their early courses, because they more they packed in their mental suitcases now, the more capable they would be as health professionals later on. What they invest at the beginning will be magnified throughout life.

How does this relate to the words of Jesus? The line about “those who have much will be given more” comes up several places in the gospels. In the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:3-9), the same good seed falls on different patches of ground, and the only place it can multiply a hundredfold is in the good soil. In the parable of the talents, (Matthew 25:14-30) servants are given small sums, and depending on how they invest them, they receive great rewards (or punishments) at the end. Both times a tiny seed is sown, a small investment is made that has huge potential. But whether or not it becomes a great thing in the end is entirely dependent on the recipient’s response.

I don’t think that we should read Jesus’ words as threat of punishment, but as a stiff dose of reality. The simple truth is that if we have enough faith to follow Christ, our faith will grow stronger as we attempt to do his will. If we have so little faith that we don’t respond, the tiny bit we do have will tend to grow weaker. No matter how little we have, we need to turn it into response, or else it will decay.

Don’t misunderstand – God won’t ever give up on us because of his great love. It’s never to late to make a change. But the question to ask each morning is, how can I respond in faith to what I’m called to do this very day?  The outcome of the rest of my life depends on it.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Early Reviews of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Final Cover

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

I thought I’d share few more details about Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, my book that will be released by Zondervan in March 2009.

First of all, here is the final version of the cover. (In an earlier post I included a preliminary cover for the book. Feel free to share your thoughts.)

And, here are the some of reviews the book has received so far:

“Spangler and Tverberg, with the rigor of a scientist, the drama of a story teller, and the passion of a disciple, present a stirring depiction of Jesus as a first century Jewish teacher which will greatly benefit the scholar and the lay person alike. Supported with careful analysis of ancient sources and recent archaeological discovery this study is a profound call to follow the Jesus of Scripture.”

—Ray Vander Laan, Author and Founder of That the World May Know Ministries

“If we could turn the clock back to the Jewish world of the first century, what would it be like to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Jew? This highly readable work is rooted in rabbinic sources and reflects current Gospel research. Spangler and Tverberg vibrantly introduce the reader to valuable aspects of the Jewish background, life style and teachings of the Rabbi from Galilee. Through their engaging personal style and reflective Judaic approach toward understanding biblical discipleship, Spangler and Tverberg have “hit a home run.” The authors draw their readers in to learn at the feet of the Rabbi and leave them begging for more.”

—Marvin R. Wilson, PhD, Ockenga Professor of Biblical Studies, Gordon College

“For disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) who know little about his Jewishness, including his rabbinic and Hebraic teaching style, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus is the place for them to start. Spangler and Tverberg have created the perfect introduction for the uninitiated. This book will have a deep impact on the thinking of ordinary Christians throughout the world.”

David Bivin, Author, Founder and Editor of Jerusalem Perspective

“Last year over a million pilgrims visited the Holy Land. Few however would have learned as much about the historical Jesus as you can by reading this terrific new work by Spangler and Tverberg. Drawing upon personal experiences as well as the latest Jewish and Christian scholarship in Israel, the authors skillfully guide you on a wonderful journey into Jesus’ first-century Jewish world—exploring his culture, his lifestyle as an itinerant sage, and his well honed rabbinic teaching methods and subtle but startling messianic claims. This book makes you really eager to sit at the Rabbi Jesus’ feet and learn from the One we joyously serve as both Messiah and Lord. I commend it to every follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dwight A. Pryor, Founder and Director of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies

The book is available for pre-order from Amazon at this link.

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 10:20 pm  Comments Off on Early Reviews of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus  

Ushpizin: A Great Movie for Sukkot

Right now all over the world, Jewish people are celebrating the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) in small “booths” or “tabernacles” they have built in their yards. They live in these little huts for seven days (or at least eat their meals there), in order to remember God’s care during their 40-year wilderness trek to the Promised Land, because God commanded it in Leviticus 23:39-43.

They are also commanded to pick leafy branches and fruit of four species and wave them each day in thanks for God’s harvest. Pious Jews scrimp and save in order to purchase a flawless “etrog” (a citron, a lemon-like fruit), which often costs $50 or more, sometimes spending hundreds of dollars. One of my friends asked a Jewish man why he would spend so much, and he said, “Why would I worship God with less than the very best?”

If you want to see how these ancient traditions are still observed by Jews in Jerusalem today, you have a superb opportunity in a movie that came out a few years ago called Ushpizin (oosh-pee-ZEEN). The word means “visitors,” and refers to the tradition of showing hospitality to visitors in your sukkah during the Feast of Sukkot.

The movie revolves around the lives of Moshe and Malli Bellanga, an extremely poor couple who live in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Both of them are what Jews call ba’al teshuvah, (“masters of repentance”) meaning that they became observant as adults, and they are still learning to live as ultra-Orthodox Jews. Soon you find out that the husband has a pretty violent past, and his old friends are convicts.

Convicts visiting Moshe & Malli

In fact, two escaped convicts presume upon them to host them in their sukkah, making their lives miserable and testing their new-found faith. The question of the movie is whether Moshe has truly repented of his past, or if he still is the man he used to be.

The movie, Ushpizin is one-of-a-kind in that it is the only movie ever made by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who normally stay far away from public media. When it debued in Israel in 2004, it won all sorts of awards because of its delightful story and excellent acting. (You can read the story here.) It’s a real favorite of mine.

The entire movie was played by ultra-Orthodox (“Haredi”) Jews living in their own neighborhoods in Jerusalem, so you get an amazingly authentic glimpse into their very private lives. Considering how stifling its strict rules would seem to be, I was amazed at the characters’ humor, faith and gentleness.

You might think the movie is hard to find, but I got it at my Blockbuster movie outlet. Several libraries in my area of Michigan have the DVD too. Of course you can buy it new or used on Amazon. It is in Hebrew with subtitles. Not only will it teach you about Sukkot, it is a delightfully hilarious story. I highly recommend it.

Let me know what you think!

Published in: on October 19, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  

Tonight Yom Kippur Begins

Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities under foot.
Yes, You will cast all their sins
Into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-20

Tonight, just before sunset, Jewish people around the world will begin the fast of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest and most important day of the year for Jews. It includes a 25 hour fast from both food and water, and ceasing of all work. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to ask for atonement for the sins of the past year. Even Jews who otherwise are not practicing will observe this day.

Yom Kippur comes after the ten “Days of Awe” when people are to examine themselves and repent of their sins. They also go to each other to confess and be forgiven, because they believe God calls us first to make things right with each other before being right with him. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried. That is a reminder that our lives are finite here, and we should be prepared to stand before the Lord the day we die.

The holiday was instituted in Leviticus 16, where it says:

This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. (Lev. 16:29-31)

The traditions of the day are rich and moving. When the temple was standing, special sacrifices were offered, and the high priest laid the sins of the nation on a scapegoat that was driven into the wilderness and killed there. Among the ultra-orthodox, some still lay their sins on the head of a chicken that is then sacrificed, and the meat given to the poor. Throughout the ages, there has been a clear understanding for the need for a means of atonement, even after the Temple was destroyed and the decision was made that prayers alone were sufficient. To Christians, we see the obvious need for the atonement that comes from the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, it is appropriate to remember God’s answer for our sins as the Jewish people celebrate this day.

In years past, I have observed this day with friends using the liturgy below. It was written for Christian believers, but with many traditional elements of the services in the synagogue. It reminds us of our need for our atoning Messiah, and our forgiveness in Him. It’s very meaningful to say it together, and thought you would be blessed through it too.

Yom Kippur Liturgy

Almighty King, seated upon Your throne of compassion, You are gracious to Your people, pardoning sinners and forgiving transgressors, and You deal generously with all human beings, not treating them according to their wickedness. Oh God, You who revealed Your character to Moses on Mount Sinai, remember in our favor Your thirteen attributes of mercy, as it is written:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with Moses, And proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,

“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin,
and clearing those who repent.”

Adonai, Adonai, El rachun v’chanun,
Erech a-pa-yim, ve rav chesed ve-emet
No-tsayr chesed la-alafim
No-say avon va-fesha, va-cha-ta-ah, ve-na-kay.

Our God and God of our fathers! Let our prayers come before You, and do not hide Yourself from our supplication. What shall we say to You who dwell on high? You know all things, both hidden and revealed. You search our hearts and thoughts. Nothing is hidden from Your sight. We are not so arrogant nor hardened to say, “We are righteous and have not sinned.” For truly we have sinned. We have turned away from the good commandments You have given us. You are righteous and true in all Your ways, but we have done evil in Your sight.

Thank You our God and God of our fathers, that You forgive all our sins, pardon all our iniquities, and grant atonement for all our transgressions through Yeshua the Messiah. For it is written: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Return, O Israel to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips.”

(It is traditional to gently thump your closed fist against your chest in remorse as you recite the following liturgy:)

For the sin we committed in Your sight by sinning willfully,
and for the sin we committed in ignorance.
For the sin we committed in Your sight rebelliously,
and for the sin we committed through weakness.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by slander,
and for the sin we committed through gossip.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by lustful thoughts,
and for the sin we committed by impure actions.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by speaking idly,
and for the sin we committed by speaking cruelly.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by not being merciful,
and for the sin we committed by withholding when we could have given.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by not loving our neighbors,
and for the sin we committed by not praying for our enemies.
For the sin we committed in Your sight knowingly,
and for the sin we committed unknowingly.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by loving the things in the world,
and for the sin we committed by worshipping idols.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by dishonoring parents,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding children.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by preoccupation with wealth,
and for the sin we committed by coveting possessions.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by unbelief,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding your Word.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to pray,
and for the sin we committed by failing to love.
For the sin we committed in your sight by neglecting the poor,
and for the sin we committed by lack of generosity.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to forgive,
and for the sin we committed of hardness of heart.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by not seeking first your kingdom,
and for the sin we committed through pleasing ourselves first.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Our God and God of our fathers,
forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.
For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your community, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Lot.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your companions, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our Friend.
We are your people, and you are our King.
Forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Se-lach la-nu, me-chal la-nu, ka-per la-nu

May Your great Name be magnified and sanctified throughout the world
Which You created according to Your will.
May You establish Your kingdom in our lifetime and during our days,
and within the life of the entire house of Israel.

Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 8:05 am  Comments Off on Tonight Yom Kippur Begins  

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus – Almost Done

Greetings from Lois after some months being away from the blog. It’s not that I haven’t been writing! I’ve been busy working on a book. Finally we’re nearing the end of our edits after several long months of writing.

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

The book is called:

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith

Zondervan will be releasing it in March 2009. Here’s an intro from the back cover:

It is 30 A.D., and you are studying with the greatest rabbi of all time…

What would it feel like to sit at the feet of Rabbi Jesus, sensing his power and learning firsthand about his kingdom? By immersing yourself in the culture, customs, prayers, and feasts of first-century Jews, you can enrich your own understanding of the Bible and of Jesus—drawing near to the greatest of all rabbis.

Delve into the culture that surrounded him and gain a richer understanding of Scripture and of the deep roots of your own Christian faith. Watch Jesus teach, understand what he is saying, explore his faith, and experience a more intimate relationship with him, coming to know Jesus not only as your Savior, but as your Rabbi, the one who teaches you how to live.

I worked with a co-author, Ann Spangler, who has written several popular Christian books including Praying the Names of God, Women of the Bible, and most recently, The Tender Words of God. She’s an award-winning writer who has quite a gift for storytelling. Here are the chapter titles from the table of contents:

1. Joining Mary at the Feet of Jesus
2.  Why a Jewish Rabbi?
3. Stringing Pearls
4.  Following the Rabbi
5.  Get Yourself Some Haverim
6.  Rabbi, Teach Us to Pray
7.  For Everything a Blessing
8.  A Passover Discovery
9.  Discovering Jesus in the Jewish Feasts
10.  At Table with the Rabbi
11.  Touching the Rabbi’s Fringe
12.  Jesus and the Torah
13. The Mysterious Kingdom of God
14.  Becoming True Disciples of Our Jewish Lord

If you want to read more about the book on Zondervan’s website, visit this link. While you’re there, you can watch a video of Ann and myself. We were asked to give a 45 minute devotional presentation at Zondervan’s summer sales meeting. Ann speaks first about the background of the book, and then I spoke about Jewish prayer.

Let me know what you think!


Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 1:41 pm  Comments (7)  

Dating the Jewishness of Jesus

How much can we know about the Jewish culture of Jesus?  That’s a pretty fundimental question, since the goal of this blog is to understand the Jewish background of Christianity. I’ve found some pretty important news in my recent reading, and wanted to share it here.

A common approach to studying Jesus is to use Jewish writings that we have that are from slightly after his time. Two major sources are the Mishnah, a record of the debates and decisions of the rabbinic teachers written around 200 AD, which supposedly preserves sayings back to 200 BC. The Talmud (in two editions) is a collection of the Mishnah with yet more commentary, that was published between 200-300 years later. Many who write about Jesus’ Jewishness have quoted the Mishnah and the Talmud extensively. Their assumption is that oral traditions were very long lived, and that even though they were written down later, they are still useful.

But others have protested for quite good reason, because the documents came along much after Jesus’ time. Can they be used? For many decades since the 1960s, the answer of many scholars was a resounding “no.” This was especially the feeling in the mid 1970’s, when a well known scholar, Jacob Neusner, put forth the theory that Judaism completely reinvented itself after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. He suggested that everything written in the Mishnah was very late-all the quotes from rabbis who were supposed to have lived before the time of Jesus, like Hillel and Shammai, were fabricated later. Any scholar who tried to publish something that compared Jesus to the rabbis was laughed out the door.

But in the past decades more and more research has been done to ask the question, how trustworthy is the Mishnah? Can it tell us about Jesus’ time period?  And more and more are saying that with care, it actually is. In fact, Neusner himself is one of the researchers who says so. Some parts seem to be very early and very reliable, and some things were added or edited later. For instance, sayings attributed to rabbis are thought to be fairly reliable. Since we know when rabbis lived, we can check the date of the saying.

This can be really interesting. For instance, one saying that you may have heard is “Let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily.” (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4) It’s attributed to a sage named Yose ben Yoezer, who lived about 200 years before Jesus’ time. If you’ve ever heard David Bivin or Ray Vander Laan or Rob Bell talk about “walking in your rabbi’s dust,” this is where that comes from. It describes the tradition of teachers wandering the land, staying in people’s houses, and having disciples follow after them and sit at their feet when they taught.

Think about it – in the 1970’s, scholars would say, “You can’t trust that saying at all – its from 200 AD. That describes the rabbis of then, not Jesus’ time.” (Even though it sounds a lot like what we read in the Gospels!) Now, they are concluding that this saying is really from the time when it was said – 200 years before Jesus’ ministry. The conclusion is now quite different -Jesus was taking part in a tradition of known by generations before him. This makes all the difference in the world in terms of painting the Jewish reality around him.

Another thing that scholars have decided are fairly reliable in the Mishnah are the debates between the disciples of Shammai and the disciples of Hillel, which date to sometime between 10 and 70 AD. This is very interesting, because their debates come up in Jesus’ ministry. The question Jesus was asked about divorce was about which side he took. Other things, like Sabbath observance and making vows were issues between them too, and Jesus took a side too. Often it helps a lot with Jesus’ context.

This might be too scholarly of a subject for some readers, but it really is fundimental to the study of Jesus’ Jewishness. And it is true that you have to be very careful about your dating, and not assuming something said hundreds of years later describes Jesus’ reality. It’s really not a good idea to assume Jesus and Rashi, who lived a thousand years later, had much in common. Or even quote the Babylonian Talmud (500 AD) and assume it is what Jesus knew. Unfortunately, plenty of people do that, even me.

My reference for this is Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, by David Instone-Brewer, published by Eerdmans in 2004. It’s the first in a series of six that will seek to date saying from the Mishnah and some other early Jewish writings that are relevant to the New Testament era. Dr. Instone-Brewer also wrote a book called Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. It examines Jesus’ words on it in light of the debates between Hillel and Shammai. He makes some interesting conclusions on how to interpret Jesus’ words based on his Jewish context.

More about this another time… I’ll write again soon.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:10 pm  Comments (3)  

Would Jesus Go Green?

Right now, of course, the hot topic in the news is the effort of many to be “green.” Because of the rising price of oil and the discussion about global warming, many people are trying to “reduce their carbon footprint.” Others may just be rolling their eyes at another over-hyped trend, and skeptical about the whole thing.

What would Jesus say about the issue? I think it’s fascinating that the rabbis were commenting on environmental conservation over 1600 years ago in the Talmud, in their discussion of a passage in Deuteronomy: “When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (lo tashchit) its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?” (Dt. 20:19)

In this verse, God forbade the destruction of the fruit trees outside of cities that were under siege by the Israelites during war. It was common practice during wartime to destroy the land – to chop down the trees and poison the fields by sowing them with salt. God expressly forbade this kind of wanton destruction and declared that the trees were “innocent bystanders” who should not be victims of the war.

The rabbis concluded that if God forbade the destruction of the environment in the dire situation of war, he must certainly must oppose it during peacetime. They then reasoned that modifying the environment to build useful things to serve human needs is fine, but needless destruction is wrong.

They also concluded that the reason destroying fruit trees was forbidden was because God gave the trees to provide food, and when we destroy any useful thing, we insult God’s gracious care for us. To them, these words against needless destruction should teach us not to waste any useful thing. The ethical command was called bal tashchit (bahl-tahsh-KEET), meaning “do not destroy.”

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the commandment against bal tashchit. (Talmud, Kiddushin 32a, written about 500 AD)

Because of this interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:19, there has been an ethic of conservation and avoidance of waste in Judaism for thousands of years. They see it as an act of reverence for God. Listen to the thoughts of Rabbi Hirsch, who lived in the 19th century:

In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that things are the creatures and property of God, and who presumes also to have the right, having the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols — anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, #56)

Wow. To him, wastefulness is a kind of idolatry that views the self as the ultimate god. What an excellent point.

I think the reason why Christians miss this is because in our Western mindset, we see God as completely uninvolved with his creation, and believe that the world as entirely ours for disposal as we see fit. This attitude actually comes from our Greek cultural ancestors who considered the material world to be worthless and evil, and God as utterly unconcerned with it. The Scriptures, in contrast, say repeatedly that God created the world very good, and that creation itself groans for its redemption which will come in the end (Rom. 8:21).

Part of the reason that some conservative Christians (including friends of mine who I respect a lot) are resisting the environmental trend is because it comes from folks who seem to be worshipping the creation rather than the creator, who are hostile to the God who made all things. But for centuries, the rabbis have been saying that we should be careful with the natural world not to worship it, but the God who created it. To show our love for the one who provided such abundant world for us to live in.

What would Jesus say about the whole issue? The way he summarized all of Torah was in two commands – (1) Love God and (2) Love Your Neighbor. Every other command must fit into one of these categories. But remarkably, the idea of conserving the environment fits into both, because it shows your appreciation for God’s handiwork, and consideration for the needs of others to live in God’s world. It is a spiritual discipline of thinking about others before one’s self.

And there is another reason too, which is especially for my conservative friends who bristle when they hear another op ed piece on global warming and refuse to recycle out of annoyance at the whole thing…

Consider the rabbinic discussion on the command in Exodus 23:5: “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” The rabbis asked the question, “If at the exact same time as you saw your enemy’s donkey needing help, and also your friend’s donkey needing help, which should you help first?” Their answer was, you should help the donkey of your enemy first, to teach yourself to be kind to your enemies. They realized that the point of the command was not for the donkey’s sake, but to fix your inner attitude.

The reason why this odd story comes to mind is because it is one of the places in the Torah where an early hint of Jesus’ command to “love your enemy” is found. This was his single most radical teaching, which was unparalleled among rabbis after him. But yet the rabbis saw that God told us not to act out of dislike for each other even in little ways. And they said that if you have an opportunity to teach yourself kindness to your enemies, do it, in order to get a little closer to that ideal.

My friends who question the global warming data may feel they have strong arguments supporting their cause. They may not feel like we are using up our world’s oil supplies at an alarming rate. But even if it isn’t happening, wouldn’t the thing to do be to conserve now, rather than wait until it does?

And, if you admit that just a little bit of your resistance is coming from your dislike for the “liberals” who advocate it, isn’t that all the more reason to do it?  Then you’d be able to fulfill all three of Jesus’ greatest commands at once — to love God, your neighbor and your enemy, every time you did something green.

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 8:32 am  Comments (1)  

Under the Passover Moon

Today is Maundy Thursday, the Christian remembrance of the Last Supper and day of Jesus’ late night betrayal leading to his death. Because of the differences in calendars, the Jewish Passover is still a month off.

I always go out late at night on Passover and look at the full moon and remember Jesus’ struggle in the garden of Gethsemane. (Because of the lunar calendar, Passover is always on a full moon – tonight is also a full moon, just like Passover.)  Jesus said to Judas, “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.” It was as if a great battle was going on in the heavenlies, like the battle that was going on two thousand years earlier in Egypt when God defeated the gods who kept his people enslaved in Egypt.

I’d like to share a little of the chapter that we’re just finishing today on this very topic. It seemed appropriate. Blessings on your holy week!  — Lois


The full moon of Passover stared down at Jesus, its light filtering through the shivering leaves of the olive trees, their branches trembling in the early April breeze. Despite the evening chill, sweat glistened on his forehead. Still praying, he stood and then peered into the darkness, listening to a distant murmur of voices. One of his own talmidim, Judas, was approaching. Trailing him was a mob of soldiers, snaking up the hill.

Under a nearby tree, Peter, James, and John were lying in a heap. Twice, Jesus had pleaded with them to stay awake, asking them to keep vigil with him on this, the most difficult night of his life. Yet there they were, wrapped in their heavy woolen talits, mouths agape and snoring softly, oblivious of the approaching threat…  

Whenever I think back to this scene from Gethsemane, I can’t help but wonder about Jesus’ narcoleptic disciples. How could they have fallen asleep when their beloved rabbi had implored them to stay awake and remain alert? How could they have nodded off when the climax of salvation history was about to take place? I couldn’t imagine a satisfactory answer, and this was just one of many questions that filled my head whenever I thought back to that fateful week.

I remembered previous Palm Sunday services I had attended, where only minutes after the children stream down the aisles, joyously waving palm branches to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the mood shifts, turning solemn as the gospel account of the passion is read. Why were the crowds in Jerusalem so fickle, adoring Jesus one week and then hating him the next? And why, I wondered, did Jesus choose a Passover Seder to celebrate the last meal of his life?            

Fast forward, now, two thousand years, to the fellowship hall of my church, on the afternoon of the Thursday before Easter, known as Maundy Thursday. We are setting up for a Passover Seder. As Gentile amateurs we are doing our best to recreate the Last Supper, giving ourselves a chance to meditate on its significance. Perfect historical accuracy isn’t the point. Our goal is to relive a little of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples so that we can better appreciate the Maundy Thursday service.

All afternoon the church kitchen bustles with clattering pans and chitchat as we hurry about our tasks, cutting parsley, boiling eggs, and spooning horseradish onto plates. When we finally sit down, I am famished. The time ticks by as I endure the long Seder liturgy, with just a bite of parsley dipped in salt water and dry, cardboard-like matzah (unleavened bread) smeared with horseradish to tide me over. When we finally dig into our simple meal of lamb stew, I devour my humble feast! Afterward, I hurriedly help with clean up and then slip into the back of the service, which has already begun. The liturgy is mournful and solemn.

The events of the day have taken their toll on me—the non-stop preparations, beginning the Seder feeling famished, and then overeating to compensate. I feel a crushing lethargy sweep over me. Over the next hour, the sanctuary lights gradually dim to complete darkness. I can barely see through shuttering eyelids. As the service rolls on, I rouse with a start. Did someone call my name? I can almost hear the disappointment in Jesus’ voice. “Could you not watch with me just one hour?”

Suddenly, I understood why the disciples found it so hard to stay awake! And they had an even better excuse than I had. Traditional Passover celebrations involved a huge meal plus four cups of wine, and they started at sunset and went well past midnight. What’s more, they took place after several days of exhausting travel and preparation. Certainly everybody in Jerusalem would have wanted to crawl straight into bed after their late-night feast. Aware of this perennial problem, the rabbis ruled that a person who dozed lightly could remain a part of the dinner, but anyone who fell sound asleep could not.

Our amateurish attempt at reliving the Last Supper led to other insights on the final hours of Jesus’ life. I realized, for instance, why the leaders had plotted to arrest Jesus after the Passover meal. A man so wildly popular couldn’t have been arrested in broad daylight. To avoid an uprising, the chief priests had to proceed in secret. So they let Judas lead them to Jesus while he was outside the city. Passover was the perfect choice, because every Jewish family would be celebrating the feast that started at sundown.

Jesus’ arrest and trial proceeded swiftly, occurring during the wee hours, when most of his supporters were in bed. Peter’s denials happened as the rooster crowed, around four or five in the morning. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ final sentence was handed down at sunrise (Mark 15:1). One has to ask, what group of people were around at the crack of dawn on a major Jewish holiday to shout crucify him? Mostly corrupt priests and Roman soldiers who wanted to kill Jesus.

But there’s more. Jesus was crucified at nine in the morning—the time of the first Temple service of the day! The authorities knew they had to finish their secret trial before the crowds re-entered the city. And indeed, as Jesus was carrying his cross out of town, his supporters reappear, weeping out loud as they see him being led to his death (Luke 23:27). His followers had just learned of the events that had transpired the night before.

Prior to our Passover Seder, I had always thought the crowds unimaginably fickle, cheering Jesus one day and then shouting for his head the next. But Jesus’ supporters never changed their minds! How could they have when they were not even present at his arrest or trial? The entire plot unfolded after the Passover festivities, while most people were sound asleep.

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 7:19 am  Comments Off on Under the Passover Moon