Sunday, April 26, 2009


This is the title of a brand-new book by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, published by Zondervan. As a book on Jesus' Jewishness, giving more detail than most books do, it deserves to be addressed in a careful, detailed way, which I will do in this essay. I am not a book reviewer, so don't look for a broad review here. However, I will tell you one thing that any reviewer would tell you: the importance of the sub-title, "How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith".

This is a book written from the point of view of Christian faith for Christians of faith. The authors make no bones about it. Each chapter ends with some suggestions as to what a Christian might do to consolidate the lessons learned therein. This book does not pretend to be a pure scholarly study. And yet, the authors do a far better job explaining some important things abouit Jesus' Jewishness than the typical historical Jesus scholar does. You won't learn one-tenth of what can be found in this book from mainstream scholarship — despite the fact that these authors bring a definite bias to the subject!

So what is the first thing we learn from the sub-title? If you are honest about your agenda or prejudices, you will do a much better job at discussing the evidence. Most scholars will not acknowledge they have any prejudices, which really means their biases operate in secret and therefore control the so-called objective analysis. At the end of the book, Tverberg honestly admits the prejudices she once harbored about Judaism, and both admit that it is their faith as Christians that guide this study. This produces more objective results than you will get from other scholars. It will also introduce a problem or two. I'll get to that further on.

First, here is a sampling of some of the more interesting things you will learn either about Jesus' Jewishness or about his historical Jewish culture (I will give page references throughout):

— Jewish women had a good role to play in Judaism and could be educated (12, 80). This is in stark contrast to what most historical Jesus scholars say, who claim that Jewish women had second-class status and that Jesus elevated them against the strictures of his own culture. At the end of the book (199), Tverberg explains that she once shared this prejudiced idea.

— study and debate were extremely important in Jewish culture, more important than worship, so that Jews practiced their religion in a thoughtful way, and Jesus participated in this (25-29).

— rabbinic teaching contains many surprises (26, 31), not unlike Jesus' capacity to surprise.

— a good description of what the rabbis meant by devotion to Torah, and how Jesus shared this belief (57).

— favorably comparing a rabbinic teaching and Jesus on how to pray (85).

— Jesus blessed food like a Jewish father, which means he thanked God for providing it (94).

— Jewish tradition sanctifies time more than space (124).

— Jesus is placed in Jewish tradition when he tells his disciples to travel light and depend on the hospitality of others (131). As with the first example I gave, this is quite a contrast to all those scholars who try to put Jesus in the Greek Cynic tradition.

— Jesus and Pharisees had much in common concerning the things they criticized, such as hypocrisy (168).

— throughout the book, the authors offer many rabbinic parallels to Jesus' teachings. One example is how strongly rabbinic tradition and Jesus condemned humiliating another person(170). I will return to this one further below.

That's not bad. It's rather good, and I have not listed everything you will find in this book. Read works by John Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Meier, Raymond Brown, E.P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, and more, and you will be much less informed about what makes Jesus so Jewish. Even Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstoof Jew, which is a good book, does not tell you anywhere near as much as Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.

The very few mistakes Spangler and Tverberg make stem from the old and still prevailing Christian attitude that Jesus must be superior and Judaism inferior, though scholars these days strain themselves to express this as subtly as possible. There seems to be a deep need in almost all Christian scholars to make Jesus at some point better than what rabbis and Pharisees taught.

Spangler and Tverberg too feel compelled to put distance between Jesus and the Pharisees, describing the latter as only close to the truth (168-69). They do the same when they talk about rabbinic interpretation of Passover (105). How often they use the language of Jesus fulfilling Jewish traditions. Much as they admire and understand Jewish culture, for them only Jesus gets all the way to the ultimate truth. Traditionally, Christian scholars have played this up to the hilt, whereas Spangler and Tverberg limit the moments they contrast Jesus to Jewish teaching.

German scholar Wolfgang Stegemann calls this playing a game of one-upmanship in which Jesus is always declared to be one up from or one better than Jewish culture. Stegemann has a good point, but I think it is more like a game of one-downmanship. After all, it is not as if the scholars who play this game start out with an accurate idea of Judaism and then make Jesus one better. Rather, what they do is start with an idea about Jesus and then downgrade Judaism from there, regardless of what the actual facts about Judaism are.

This is standard practice in mainstream historical Jesus scholarship. Yes, it's that bad. They assert that Jesus is anti-Torah, anti-Temple, anti-purity, anti-rituals, anti-tribal, anti-inequality, etc., and then thoughtlessly make Judaism pro- all these things in order to make Judaism appear to be legalistic and obsessed with externals.

Thankfully, Spangler and Tverberg do not do this as much as most scholars do. They are too respectful and knowledgeable, for the most part, about ancient Judaism to denigrate Judaism willy-nilly on so many points. In fact, they occasionally criticize this kind of thinking. Also, thankfully, when they do make a mistake, they do not stick to it consistently and will actually give information that contradicts their mistake. I will give a few examples to explain what I mean. But they do sometimes play the game of one-downmanship and get both Judaism and Jesus wrong as a result. I will get to that too.

At one point, they seem to be headed in the standard theological direction which says that ancient Jews had a materialistic understanding of the kingdom of God, while Jesus had a more spiritual idea of it. But then they do a complete about-face and say that both Jesus and the rabbis understood the kingdom of God in an internal way, as something within you. "So for both Jesus and the rabbis, to 'receive' or to 'enter the kingdom of heaven' could describe making a personal commitment to loving God with all your heart" (193). And further on, "Jesus' message of the kingdom is Jewish to the core" (195).

But then they make the following misstatements in relation to the rabbis, which they do not consciously correct, as in the above example, though they do provide evidence to undermine their own statements: "Unlike other rabbis, this rabbi [Jesus] spoke with great authority, as though he knew the mind of God — and this was the essential difference [between Jesus and the other rabbis] ... The rabbis lacked the authority to say, 'This is what God really meant when he told us to keep the Sabbath holy'" (171).

This is not just false, it is blatantly false. They miss the historical context for one thing. This whole business about speaking with authority was an issue because the Sadducees and high priests objected to all the Pharisees and rabbis claiming authority to interpret Torah and the mind of God. By the 1st century, the Sadducees had lost this battle, but they were still shocked by this temerity which they would have seen in Jesus as much as in any Pharisee or rabbi. The Pharisees cultivated the art of strong personalities teaching their views and would have been delighted by Rabbi Jesus who was only doing what they believed a good rabbi should do.

I could give thousands of examples from rabbinic literature of the rabbis seeing into the heart and mind of God. They quote him rebuking the angels who had burst into song when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea by telling them, "My children are drowning and you are singing!?" They also depict God praying to himself that his compassion should overcome his anger. There are so many examples like these. As for Shabbat or Sabbath, not only does the Talmud make the point that Jesus makes, that man rules over Shabbat and not the other way around, but it also offers what the rabbis ultimately considered a more profound point, namely that, God gave his ordinances, like Shabbat, to live by and not to suffer and die by, so that healing is of course allowed on Shabbat.

All religions which have some intimacy with God know something about God because you cannot be intimate with a stranger. I do not mind Spangler and Tverberg saying that, for them, Jesus is the greatest rabbi and reveals the mind of God better than anyone else. That's okay. What I strongly object to is any misrepresentations made about Judaism in order to promote their beliefs about Jesus. In this case, these authors should know better. They themselves talk about Jewish intimacy with God (e.g., 121). They even give the rabbinic comment about God giving his rain to benefit both the righteous and the unrighteous (which actually appears a number of times in rabbinic literature) and naturally the parallel in Jesus' remark at Matthew 5:45 (192).

So does it matter that they make an occasional error about Judaism? Yes, because it is a serious error which denigrates Judaism and because it leads them to miss important evidence from a page of the Talmud which they themselves just previously cited (170). In the last example I gave in the list above, I noted their comparison between Jesus and the rabbis on the way both strongly condemned the humiliation of another (causing blood to drain from the person's face) which was compared to murder. They cited Baba Metzia 59a. But they missed something equally important there.

The rabbis tell us that sometimes the gate of prayer to God is locked. God will not always hear your prayer. But there is one gate that is never locked — the gate of tears or the gate of wounded feelings. God will always listen to a broken heart, especially one who has been humiliated by his fellows and cries out in terrible pain. They tell us this twice on 59a and repeat it on 59b because it is an important part of the story they are telling there. How is that for an insight into what God cares most deeply about?

If you start with a preconception that only Jesus had the authority to see into the mind and heart of God, you will miss so much in rabbinic literature and you may miss some important elements in Jesus' teachings. Jesus was raised in a culture that was always wrestling to gain an intimate understanding of God. This is where he gets it from. He was not unique this way. All the Pharisees and rabbis, which includes Jesus, struggled mightily to accomplish this and they all enjoyed debating with each other and telling each other stories to make their points. Does Jesus also talk about the gate of tears always being open? I won't answer that here, but keep in mind that there is so much more to learn once all prejudices about Judaism are abandoned.

That brings me to what Spangler and Tverberg have to say about Hillel and Jesus. Unfortunately, they take the old, standard Christian line of putting Hillel down and making Jesus look better. I am sure they will say that this was not their intention and that they merely wanted to point to certain differences between them. But they go seriously awry when they talk this way. Recall my previous criticism of the way they occasionally describe the Pharisees and rabbis as being close to the truth, while Jesus reveals all.

For example, they say the rabbis were so close to understanding the true significance of Passover and the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (105). That is so very, very wrong. The rabbis did not just come close. They got it exactly right. For Jews. It is demeaning and condescending to say otherwise.

Since time immemorial, Christians have been rewriting and re-interpreting Hebrew scripture to find some Christology in it. This is pure imperialism, a naked grab for power over another culture. It is unacceptable. I would say that Christians can borrow Hebrew scripture, but they cannot own it.

Think of it like music. Music has no respect for borders. It travels all over the world, crossing borders, inspiring musicians in other lands to create something new. But no good musician would ever say that his or her music is better than, or a fulfillment of, or more sophisticated than the music from some native source.

Culture (religious or any other kind) is like that. I don't think God meant for any culture to be restricted by borders. Cultures spread out and go a-travellin'. Christians have a right to say that the Hebrew Bible inspires something different in them and that God is speaking to them in a special way through this book. But they have absolutely no right to disrespect the original culture it comes from and say they have perceived the true or ultimate meaning of this text. They must continue to respect the original source on its own terms just as musicians do with music. I don't think Jesus would like any hint of spiritual imperialism towards his own culture.

That brings me back to Hillel and Jesus. Spangler and Tverberg state (again, as Christian scholars have done since forever) that Jesus' positive formulation of the golden rule is a greater expression of the meaning of Torah than Hillel's negative formulation of it (171-72). This is nonsense. For two reasons. First, as far as I know, the ancients did not distinguish between, or make a big deal of, the negative and positive statements of an idea. The negative way of putting something can often be a powerful rhetorical device. Jesus does this too on occasion. Which brings me to my second point.

If you are really going to argue consistently that positive is better than negative, then you would have to agree that when Jesus offers a negative insight which a Pharisee or rabbi expresses in a positive way, then Jesus has given the lesser or inferior point of view. Do any Christians want to concede this? I doubt it.

Jesus says that God as a good parent will not give his children bad things to eat (Matt 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13). A couple of generations before, Shimon ben Shetach compared God to a father who gives his children only delicious things to eat. Is Shimon's formulation superior or more of a fulfillment of Torah? I would never say so. In the vineyard parable (Matt 20:1-16), there is a touch of bitterness in the workers who are paid last because they've been working all day. But in a similar rabbinic parable, there is only pure joy. Is the rabbinic parable spiritually better? I don't think so.

Or look at what Hillel and Jesus have to say about peace. Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers (Matt 5:9). Hillel bids people to love peace and pursue peace, and adds, to love all mankind (not just Jews) and bring them near to Torah (Pirke Avoth 1:12). Is Hillel's exhortation superior to that of Jesus because he connects love of peace and love of mankind? Of course not. And the same is true of their versions of the golden rule. No one is any better.

Not to mention, by the way, that it is silly to imagine that all these single quotations are the only way any of these ancient figures ever expressed themselves. Jesus quite likely put it Hillel's way on other occasions and Hillel probably expressed the golden rule differently at different times. We make too much of this or that quote. Does anyone believe that Jesus or any rabbi told each parable the exact same way every time? To harp on one expression of it is a disservice to all of them.

Spangler and Tverberg go on to offer a series of contrasts between Hillel and Jesus (172), making Jesus look better. They don't even present quotations. They merely sum up what they think each one stood for and apply it to modern life. To say they've been unfair to Hillel is an understatement. For example, they say that when you are pinched financially, Hillel would tell you "don't steal" and Jesus would say "look around to see who's worse off than you and find a way to help." May I say how odious this is to Jews? How demeaning to Hillel. Jesus would not like it.

I don't know what Hillel would say in each and every situation in life. But I do know that Christians often pick out Hillel as the best that Judaism has to offer, so if they can demonstrate that Hillel does not measure up to Jesus' standards, then obviously all of Judaism falls short of Jesus. In general, ancient Pharisees and rabbis advocated helping those in need, including gentiles. They would never advocate that you hurt yourself or your family in the process, and I doubt that Jesus would either, but they would always ask you to do whatever you can in each situation. Never close yourself off from the community and others. And while they were big about charity, they would point out that charity is often humiliating for the person in need, so a better way to help might be to provide a loan. In this way, the person can feel better about themselves and not feel so utterly dependent.

I'm not going to defend Judaism or Hillel on each and every point. Suffice it to say that this is all very belittling of Hillel. Jesus would hardly approve. He would be very embarrassed that anyone spoke this way about Hillel (and in Jesus' name yet!) to make it appear that Hillel practiced his Judaism in a lesser way. I think Jesus would actually be cringing.

I could offer a list of comparisons too, one that might make Hillel look better. I would include their comments on peace, as noted above. And how about Hillel's thought that man getting his daily bread is as wonderful a miracle as the parting of the Red Sea? Is this greater than, less than, or about the same as something Jesus said about daily bread? Answer: Who cares? It does not matter. There is greatness in both of them. Comparisons, especially those that demean, are out of order. Hillel would have been someone Jesus revered very much. It is not impossible that he studied with him (their dates of birth and death are uncertain, but Hillel could have died anywhere from a few years before Jesus was born to when Jesus was about fourteen).

I would suggest to Christians that if you really want to be a disciple of Jesus, then do not diminish Jewish sages out of fear that Jesus might be diminished if Jewish figures are not made to look smaller. If it makes Jesus cringe to hear his fellow Jews and Judaism undervalued in any way, it should make you feel that way too.

But another thing Spangler and Tverberg do very well is to explain where Jesus is alluding to the written Torah. They use this to give a fuller understanding of what he meant. They do this occasionally with oral Torah, but much more could be done here. There are places where you can hear Jesus tapping into stories about Hillel, Shimon ben Shetach, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, and probably many more.

In the Talmud, a rabbi comments that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) can be very useful with heaven. Jesus too talks a lot (and I do mean a lot) about approaching God with chutzpah and getting results. It is one of the most important aspects of his Jewishness, yet almost everyone misses it. I suspect that chutzpah towards God makes Jesus too Jewish for most people, so they would rather not hear it. But the evidence, and plenty of it, is there.

Jesus also occasionally uses the qal va-homer argument, known in Latin as the a fortiori argument, which was a very popular technique with Pharisees and rabbis. There is also some evidence that, like his compatriots, Jesus believed in due process, Torah as Constitution, and rational debate as to its meaning.

So what's the hold-up? Why haven't we made more progress learning about Jesus' Jewishness? I think there are two main reasons. One is a combination of prejudice against Judaism and a fear that a Jewish Jesus will be a lesser Jesus. Spangler and Tverberg seem to recognize this, which is why they put so much effort into convincing their Christian audience that Rabbi Jesus is no less a Jesus than the one they have always known. His specific rabbinic teachings make him more wonderful in their eyes, not less. That's why they also remind their readers from time to time that, though Jesus was a rabbi, he is the greatest rabbi of all and ultimately different.

They understand that Jesus cannot be diminished or else Christians will not listen. In a way, it may help their case to get Christians to pay attention to some of Jesus' Jewishness, if they reinforce the idea that Jesus transcends them all and is the fulfillment of Torah. My problem is that this means there will still be a continuation of misrepresentations about ancient Judaism, a failure to see all that Judaism accomplished, and, in the end, a disrespect for this culture and the sages who helped to create it.

The second reason we are so slow to get to an appreciation of Jesus' full Jewishness is that people have an intuition that if we ever understand Jesus' complete immersion in his own culture, then the traditional story of his death, in which Jewish leaders are the chief instigators with a little help from Judas Iscariot, will no longer hold up. The more Jesus is seen in harmony with his fellow Jews, including Jewish leaders, all happily sharing in the same culture, the more likely it is that he will lose the lethal Jewish enemies he has always been surrounded with.

This intuition is correct. And it is good news for Christianity, not bad news. The first thing that has to be done is to study Jewish history completely on its own terms. Christian theology has absolutely no place in this. Christian theology has nothing to do with who the Pharisees and priests were. And yet every Christian scholar brings some theological baggage with them into this Jewish history (and some bring a lot).

To reduce the Pharisees to being obsessed with Temple, rituals, and purity is a falsification and trivialization of their culture. The Pharisees fought for constitutional government, due process, reason, open debate with God, justice, peace. Of course, I am just listing general qualities. When you see the Pharisees in action against KIng Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus), Herod, and others, including the Sadducees, these words gain greater meaning. The priests were not the Pharisees, but Josephus makes it very clear that they would never cooperate with Romans in the arrest and prosecution of those Rome considered troublemakers charged with a capital crime.

My point is that just as Spangler and Tverberg hear things in the Gospels, now that they are more familiar with the Jewish context, so too you can hear the evidence in the Gospels in a different way, once you have a firmer grasp of real Jewish history. Did you know that a high priest ripping this robes before someone was not an act of condemnation, but an act of persuasion, an act of pleading? And this is merely the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

It is hard for people to accept this, but the traditional (and scholarly) version of Jesus' death is not the same as the Gospel version. The Gospel version is so much richer than anything you can imagine. What scholars have done is to erase any evidence that is in favor of Jewish leaders and Judas. They misstate the evidence to make it appear worse for them.

Scholars have a tendency to present both Judas' betrayal and the so-called Jewish trial of Jesus as if they were stated facts in the Gospels. They are not. They are theories or interpretations of the facts and quite bad ones at that. Did you know that Mark does not contain one definite feature of a story of betrayal? He does not use the word that definitely means betray, also no motive, no conflict with Jesus or other disciples, and not even anyone denouncing Judas after the deed is done (if anyone who knew Judas ever said a bad word about him, all four Gospels failed to record it). Mark's entire story is ambiguous to the nth degree. We read betrayal into it. We put betrayal in the text and then claim we found it there. Shame, shame.

This might seem to be taking us far afield from Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. But not really. It's all about getting to the Jewish roots of the story. Recall that Spangler and Tverberg said, "Jesus' message of the kingdom is Jewish to the core" (195). So is the original story of what happened to Jesus, in which Judas never betrayed him and Jewish leaders tried to save him from a Roman execution. The clues are all there. We just have to listen.

In the kingdom of God, will we still condone lies and injustice because they make us feel comfortable? Are Jews and Christians that far apart here? A Jew is called upon to listen in the prayer of the Shema. So is a disciple of Jesus. Do we kowtow to the powers that would silence the evidence? Or do we listen to the silenced voices of the past and fight for the truth?

I wish Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus all the success in the world. I doubt that the authors will have much effect on academic scholars because historical Jesus scholarship has shown itself to be impervious to change. But then scholars are not their intended audience and that's probably a good thing. Despite my misgivngs about some of the false turns in this book, Spangler and Tverberg give enough good information about Jesus' Jewishness that it may help to wake some people up. I hope Christians will open themselves up to even more dialogue as I have suggested here. Just don't be surprised if Jews object to any unjust statements about what Judaism was and is. Learning to see the whole truth and achieving full justice must continue.

Leon Zitzer

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