Does Rabbinic Literature Shed Light on New Testament Times?

I’ve noticed that it has become quite popular in Christian literature to use Rabbinic sources to shed light on New Testament times. A few examples are Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith by Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus:How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life by Lois Tverberg, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of Christianity by Marvin Wilson. Rob Bell did much of this in some of his writings for which he was critiqued by some NT scholars. Coming next February Zondervan will introduce Teachings of the Torah: Weaving Jewish History and the Christian Faith edited by Kent Dobson.

While I appreciate what these works are attempting to do I’ve always been a little suspect of the sources they used. Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine explains the difficulties involved with this kind of study.

“Any appeal to the rabbis for determining the meaning of a Gospel passage is a fraught issue: rabbinic sources are later than the New Testament, generally prescriptive (what should be done) rather than descriptive (what is actually being done), often in contradiction with each other since they preserve minority as well as the majority opinions, and not necessarily, or in some cases even likely, indicative of anything practiced in the late Second Temple period in the Galilee. Nor are most New Testament scholars trained to use rabbinic literature. Typically, we rely on the works of our predecessors, themselves untrained, and, typically again, we cite the same texts repeatedly without necessarily or even often tracking their original contexts.” (Short Stories by Jesus, HarperOne, 2014, p.160)

She repeats, “. . . rabbinic literature is often a series of disagreements among rabbis rather than a definitive code; the rabbis debate everything, from the circumstances under which a divorce can be granted to the determination of what constitutes work on the Sabbath.” (178) “Whether rabbinic law was applicable to late Second Temple contexts cannot in most cases be known.” (229)

To their credit Spangler and Tverberg, in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, note this problem. Unfortunately their comment is relegated to an endnote which many readers simply ignore. They state, “In the 1970s and 1980s, many scholars felt that early Jewish sources like the Mishna were not useful for describing Jesus’ setting because they were written down later, although they appear to quote sayings and describe traditions from the first century. . . .In the past decade, however, confidence has grown that these sources are reliable when used with care. . . . In Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, we have made every effort to use early sources rather than latter rabbinic material to describe the setting of Jesus. We do occasionally quote Jewish wisdom from the Babylonian Talmud and later works, without assuming that they describe the reality of Jesus’ time.” (236n.16) They refer the reader to David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 28-40 and the review article by Instone-Brewer, “The Use of the Rabbinic Sources in Gospel Studies,” Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 281-98.”

I appreciate their caution but I still rest uneasy when I see someone quoting from rabbinic literature.

Did the Father of the Prodigal Son Act Shamefully When He Ran?

Sometimes you hear something so often you don’t think twice about if it is true or not. I can’t recall a sermon or reading a book on the parable of the prodigal son that did not mention that it was a dishonorable act for the father to run to greet his son. Here are just a few references I found:

ESV Study Bible: “The father cast aside all behavioral conventions of the time, as running was considered to be undignified for an older person, especially a wealthy landowner such as this man.” (Note on Luke 15:20)

The NLT Study Bible: “Running was considered undignified for the family patriarch, but the father was full of unbridled joy at his son’s return.” (Note on Luke 15:20)

The Orthodox Study Bible: “”Though it was considered unseemly in Jewish culture for an old man to run, the father did not passively stand by waiting for his son return. He ran to him.” (Note on Luke 15:20. Emphasis in the note.)

Craig Blomberg in Interpreting the Parables: “no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son (v. 20).” (p. 176)

Klyne Snodgrass in Stories With Intent: “Respected older men avoided running because it was viewed as shameful to show one’s legs and to appear so undignified.” (p. 126)

But Snodgrass later writes: “Nothing in the parable suggests that the father acted shamefully or that the village needs to be reconciled.” (p. 133 Emphasis mine.)

Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus says this is wrong. She notes that Proverbs, a “‘Semitic patriarch rule book,’ presumes its readers run, both literally and metaphorically” (Prov. 4:12). Other Old Testament passages speak of running with no implied shame (Is. 18:10; 40:31) “Running is fine—a potential disciple runs to Jesus (Mark 10.17); Zacchaeus runs to see him (Luke 19.4); Peter runs to Jesus’s tomb (Luke 24.12)—the point is, as Paul states, not to ‘run aimlessly’ (1 Cor. 9.24-26).” (55-56)

Levine is not alone. David Garland offers this in his commentary on Luke:

“Some claim that running is beneath the dignity of an Oriental elder because it suggests that he is not in control of his time or resources, and he would have humiliated himself pulling up his long robes and bearing his legs as he dashes out to greet his son. According to Sir 19:30, the nobleman is known by his gait, that is, by the slow, dignified pace that betokens his stature in the community. But in Gen 33:4, Esau did the same thing when his brother Jacob appeared. He ‘ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.’ Can we expect anything less from a father who loves his son, longs for his return, and sees him coming down the road? He will naturally run to greet him. The celebrations for recovered sheep and coins in the previous parables prepare us for the father’s excitement over the return of his son.”

Luke in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament by David Garland, pp. 626-29.

Snodgrass makes the following observation about these kind of cultural observations with particular attention to the work of Kenneth Bailey.

“Awareness of such cultural expectations is illuminating, but fascination with the culture can cause one to read into the parable aspects that are not there. K. Bailey’s contribution from his experience as a missionary to Middle Eastern peasants is often insightful, but he uncritically assumes a continuity between first-century Jewish Palestine and modern Middle Eastern peasants impacted by centuries of Islamic rule. . . . Further, Bailey and others who focus on sociological approaches become more intrigued with the culture than with the parable, more with what is not there than what is. Once again the principle is demonstrated: the more an interpretation focuses on what is not explicit in the parable the more likely it is to be wrong.” (p. 132)

Have We Misread the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?

I’m reading Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. My copy is an advanced reader copy so my page references may not match the final print edition. Levine examines some of the parables of Jesus and looks at them the way a first-century Jew might have heard it. One of her major themes is to correct the contemporary manner in which the parables are interpreted in such a way as to contrast “what Jesus taught and what ‘the Jews’ generally understood.” Many of these interpretations “make Judaism look hardhearted and exclusivist. . . Such teachings not only get Jesus wrong, and they not only get Judaism wrong; they inculcate and reinforce bigotry.” (20-21) She interacts with some of the best in Christian scholarship on the parables showing numerous fallacies, unsubstantiated assertions and unwarranted interpretations. Among those she takes issue with are Kenneth Bailey, Klyne Snodgrass, Craig Blomberg, Arland Hultgren, and Luke Timothy Johnson

Many of her interpretations turn the typical Christian interpretation on its head. Take for example the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The common interpretation which sees the Pharisee as a hypocrite and the tax collector as the good guy, she says, is completely off. “The saint is not a sinner, the sinner is not a saint, and our conventionally unconventional reading about a reversal of status in the long fun gets us nowhere.” (170) This type of interpretation shows “Jesus emerg[ing] less as a first-century Jew than as a Young Man Luther, the Pharisee and the Temple represent (bad) Judaism, and the sinful tax collector is the redeemed (gentile) Christian.” (170-71) The traditional interpretation starts from the very start with comments made by Luke. Here Christians may object to the way in which Levine is critical of Luke’s added commentary. To a first-century Jew the Pharisee was only doing what God wanted him to do. “The problem with his prayer is not in his personal religiosity; it is in negatively judging someone else. The Pharisee has the information to speak to his own status, but he cannot and therefore should not judge the hearts of others.” (173) A first-century reader would have been fairly positive towards the Pharisee and the tax collector “would have been presumed to be corrupt.” (174) But here he is in the temple where forgiveness may be found. The crux of her interpretation lies with her translation of verse 18. “To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Most versions translate this “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Levine notes that the Greek preposition, para, can mean “rather than” but that it can also mean “because of.” “Thus the last line could be understood as suggesting that the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.” (Emphasis mine. 192)

The standard translation actually poses another problem since it may lead someone to think “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” “Once we negatively judge one character and promote the other, the parable traps.” (192) What’s the punch of the parable? “They [first-century Jews] knew that the tax collector could be justified. The problem was, they would not have like the idea. Nor would they have liked how this justification took place. Were we in their system, neither would we—and that is the punch of the parable.” (192)

Levine explains that Jewish tradition believed in what was called the “merits of ancestors.” That is to say, “even if we sin, and we will, the good deeds of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other ‘fathers’ could be transferred to us.” (193) This Pharisee indicated that he had more than he needed. “First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the Temple system.” (193)

Levine offers a personal example of a student project where four students are involved. Three of the four are hard-workers, smart, and have various gifts to offer to the project. The fourth contributes nothing but still benefits from the work of the others and receives a high score as well. Levine says, “I found this system unfair. I was justified (I got the ‘A’), but along side me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker. My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us; he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we could have learned more as well. And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended on us, even thought we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g., test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.” (195)

It’s something to think about.

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; Affiliated Professor, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge, UK.

Short Stores by Jesus will be released in September. It will be a hardcover with 320 pages and sell for $25.99.

Short Stories by Jesus

Coming April 2015 – “This Strange and Sacred Scripture”

The Old Testament is a subject of a lot of controversy right now. Coming next April you can add another voice to the choir. This Strange and Sacred Scripture will explore the thorny issues surrounding the Old Testament. Here’s the catalog description:

“The Old Testament can seem strange and disturbing to contemporary readers. What should Christians make of Genesis 1-3, seemingly at odds with modern scientific accounts? Why does the Old Testament contain so much violence? How should Christians handle texts that give women a second-class status? Does the Old Testament contradict itself? Why are so many Psalms filled with anger and sorrow? What should we make of texts that portray God as filled with wrath?

Combining pastoral insight, biblical scholarship, and a healthy dose of humility, gifted teacher and communicator Matthew Schlimm explores perennial theological questions raised by the Old Testament. He provides strategies for reading and appropriating these sacred texts, showing how the Old Testament can shape the lives of Christians today and helping them appreciate the Old Testament as a friend in faith.”

Take a look at some of the endorsements:

“Some of my friends say strange things and hold strange views, but because they are my friends I can’t just dismiss what they say. Having friends who think differently from me helps expand my thinking and rescue me from the limitations of my current perspective. I give my friends the benefit of the doubt when they say things that are outrageous. Matthew Schlimm invites us to do the same with the Old Testament, helps us to listen to many of its notoriously outrageous statements, and also shares with us worthwhile insights from other people who are friends with the Old Testament (and from yet other people who would not see themselves as its friends).”

John Goldingay, David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary

“Seminary and university Old Testament professors: make sure you have your students read this text. Marcionites and semi-Marcionites: this text is the coup de grâce to your idea that the Old Testament is not only pre-Christian but even anti-Christian. To the reader puzzled by much of what you encounter in the Old Testament: immerse yourself deeply in this text, and you will find much food for thought from an author who has addressed intelligently and provocatively the questions that linger in your mind. Matt Schlimm: well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Victor P. Hamilton, professor emeritus of Old Testament, Asbury University

“Many of us have waited a long time for this book: a compelling engagement of the toughest questions about the Testament that both attracts and repels us. In plain language, without taking theological shortcuts, Schlimm shows why Christianity needs the Old Testament in order to address the complexities and real difficulties of life. His concrete guidance for how to read this strange literature and his suggestions for further study are invaluable.”

Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School

“At a time when many critique and marginalize the Old Testament, Schlimm argues that we need to appreciate it as a friend–a friend who is at once odd, insightful, complicated, controversial, and realistic. He is not willing to give up on the Old Testament or its God. This Strange and Sacred Scripture creatively engages the difficulties that trouble interpreters. While some may disagree with the author at points, this book’s tone and presentation invite readers to join the conversation about and with this unique friend we call the Bible.”

M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), distinguished professor of Old Testament, Denver Seminary

Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He previously taught at Duke Divinity School and has held various ministry positions in United Methodist churches. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible.

This Strange and Sacred Scripture will be a paperback with 288 pages and sell for $22.99.

Strange and Sacred Scripture

Coming February 2015 – “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” by Jerry Walls

Jerry Walls is a favorite author of mine and I’ve read his books on Heaven: the Logic of Eternal Joy and Purgatory: the Logic of Total Transformation (both from Oxford University Press). He also has a full monograph on Hell: the Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press). Now Brazos Press will release a book on all three topics. Walls has gathered quite the reputation in this area of study. Consider these endorsements:

“Jerry Walls has spent much of his academic career providing an account of the Christian story of the afterlife from a rigorous, analytic-philosophical perspective. He has subjected the doctrines of hell, heaven, and purgatory to careful and ingenious scrutiny. He has also considered questions about the grounds for morality. In this book he condenses much of this research into one accessible volume that deals with all these issues as well as the problems of evil they raise and the question of personal identity beyond the grave. It is a terrific resource that will be of use to all those for whom such things are pressing theological and existential concerns.”

Oliver Crisp, professor of systematic theology, Fuller Theological Seminary

“Walls may not tell us everything we would like to know about what happens after death, but he tells us what we need to know and much of what we want to know, and does it with style and verve. This book clearly explains why heaven and hell are crucial if human existence is to be fully meaningful, and it even gives an account of purgatory that should be acceptable to Protestants. This is a wonderful book that inspires hope by clearly showing what God’s love for humanity means for us.”

C. Stephen Evans, University Professor, Baylor University

“Jerry Walls shows once again that on the four last things–death, judgment, hell, and heaven–he is by far the most thoughtful evangelical philosopher. His mastery of Scripture, historical theology, and the philosophical literature is unmatched.”

Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies, Baylor University

“Jerry Walls has written a book that should be read by anyone interested in the personal, philosophical, or religious significance of death and whether it is reasonable to believe that there is life after death. I wager there is no living philosopher who has thought more deeply or written with such clear, engaging prose about the prospects of a Christian philosophy of death and afterlife.”

Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy, St. Olaf College

“Jerry Walls offers an insightful, accessible defense of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Though still unpersuaded about the latter, I would urge the reading of this book, first, for the important theological and philosophical insights it affords concerning hell (the realm of the illusory triumph of the creature’s will) and heaven (the new, transformed–though still physical–earth and heaven that are permeated by God’s presence and blessing); indeed, much wisdom on these doctrines alone is to be found herein. Second, concerning purgatory, Protestants have a unique opportunity to more fully understand the arguments for and then to properly assess the merits (!) of this doctrine. The book is sure to generate much lively discussion and deepened understanding.”

Paul Copan, Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University

This is sure to be a significant work on some very contested issues. Watch for it next February. It will be paperback with 240 pages and sell for $19.99. I think it would make a good read for some book clubs.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory


Is Following Jesus Like a Summer Holiday? – Reflections from N.T. Wright

In Mark 9:14-29 we read about a demon-possessed boy. When his father brought him to Jesus’ disciples they were unable to cast out the demon. In his commentary on Mark N.T. Wright makes some interesting observations about the passage. I found them particularly encouraging and challenging at the same time.

“But the main impression we get is of the disciples’ inability to deal with the problem, and the crowd’s consequent impatience with them. They have turned a corner in their pilgrimage; now it’s getting harder. People today often suppose that the early years of a person’s Christian pilgrimage are the difficult ones, and that as you go on in the Christian life it gets more straightforward. The opposite is frequently the case. Precisely when you learn to walk with Jesus, you are given harder tasks, which will demand more courage, more spiritual energy. Did we suppose following Jesus was like a summer holiday? . . . In this part of the scene, too, the mood is tense; a corner has been turned, and everything seems more demanding. In the first half of the gospel, many people come to Jesus with what appears comparatively easy faith. They touch him and they are healed; it seems as simple as that. But for this man, in this situation, faith is hard. Not for nothing are his words regularly quoted as an ideal prayer for someone caught in the middle between faith and doubt, living in the shadowy world of half-belief where one is never sure whether one can see properly or not.”

“In the story overall, Mark has told us that things are now going to be much harder, but that Jesus, and with him God’s whole saving project, is going to get there in the end. It will take all his resources of spiritual and physical endurance, but he will indeed climb the rock and complete the walk, right to the summit. He will take up his own cross, be faithful to the end, and bring in the kingdom. The question, though, for us must be: are we going with him? Are we left muddled, unable to do even what we used to be able to? Are we facing a new turn in our pilgrimage, needing fresh reserves of spiritual strength, needing to spend more time, and more intensely, in our prayers?”

“And when faced with crises ourselves, do we know how to pray with whatever faith we may have? ‘I believe; help me in my unbelief!’ When we find ourselves at that point, the only thing to do is to put the first foot on the ladder, as for help and start to climb.” (Mark for Everyone, 119-21)

Mark for Everyone


Did Jesus Ride Two Animals Into Jerusalem?

Matthew 21:7 has posed a problem for some readers. “They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.” (ESV) Did Jesus ride on two animals or only one as the other Gospels record (note John’s citation of Zech. 9:9 is cut short to only include a donkey and not the colt)?

Some English versions translate this in an effort to alleviate the apparent difficulty. The The NLT reads, “They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.” The do offer a note which provides a more literal translation.

The 1984 NIV read “They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.” The 2011 NIV removes some of the difficulty: “They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.” The latter makes the reference to Jesus sitting on the cloaks more explicit.

A quick scan of the standard study Bibles (ESV Study Bible and NIV Study Bible among others) took the position that the reference to what Jesus sat on (“them”) was the cloaks and not the animals. The CEB Study Bible was a bit of a disappointment. It reads, “Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a strict fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 (see 1 Kgs 1:33). In doing so, however, Matthew seems to have imagined that Zechariah referred to two animals, a donkey and a colt, rather than referring to one animal in two different ways. As a result, he portrays Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt at the same time.”

I found a much more satisfying answer in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture by Michael Graves. He first notes that Hebrew poetry “is often fond of giving two parallel lines in a row, connected by ‘and,’ which refer to one and the same thing.” (e.g., Psalm 20:2; sanctuary and Zion refer to one and the same object, the Temple in Jerusalem.) Matthew preserves the “and” in his citation of Zechariah. Graves is not satisfied with seeing the cloaks as the reference to what Jesus sat on. He notes how writers are often very attuned to the particulars of a text. The following paragraph is the most relevant for our discussion:

“In a similar way, but with different goals in mind, the Gospel of Matthew believes in the significance of details. The Gospel’s central belief is that Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, that Jesus so thoroughly accomplished the goals of the Old Testament that he fulfilled the sayings of the prophets with absolute accuracy. Matthew knows that Jesus entered on a donkey, and he knows that Jesus fulfilled Zechariah 9:9. When the Gospel writer looks at the Zechariah passage and sees the possibility of finding two animals through a hyper-literalistic reading of the text, he takes the opportunity to portray Jesus as entering on two animals—against the grain of the simply history—but precisely in keeping with the very words of the sacred text. Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah 9:9 is an excellent illustration of the confidence with which early Christians believed that Jesus had fulfilled the promises made in the Old Testament Scriptures.” (58-59)

I think R.T. France expresses something similar when he writes:

“That is not to say, as some have suggested, that Matthew simply invented a second animal because his wooden reading of the Hebrew parallelism told him that it was needed. The author of this gospel was not ignorant of OT idiom, and would surely have recognized parallelism when he saw it. His mention of the second donkey is due rather to a typically Jewish interest in the form of the text, so that even though he knew it referred to only one animal, its wording nonetheless lent itself to the mention of the other.” (The Gospel of Matthew, 778-79)

Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture