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.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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8 Responses to Does Rabbinic Literature Shed Light on New Testament Times?

  1. Doug Ward says:

    Thanks for blogging on the Levine book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I think you’re making an important point. There are lots of cool parallels between rabbinic literature and the New Testament–see especially Pirke Avot–but we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions on what they mean.

    Another book in this category–and one that has taken some criticism–is Brad Young’s “Meet the Rabbis.”

    Incidentally, you’ve got the authorship wrong on “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus”. It’s by Lois Tverberg rather than Spangler and Vander Laan.


    • Louis says:

      You’re welcome Doug. I’ve read some of Brad Young and like much of what he has done. I’m not familiar with Pirke Avot. I’ve corrected my error. Thank you. Very appreciated.


  2. Pingback: Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  3. David Instone-Brewer’s book, “The Jesus Scandals” makes extensive use of the Talmud to show how Jesus’ ministry was characterized by scandalous accusation. One citation is particularly interesting. I-B argues that an edited/censored portion of the Talmud contains the original arrest warrant charge sheet against Jesus.


  4. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Thank you for your post. I would add this caveat. All historical documents are suspect until they can be validated from other sources, e.g. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History or Josephus. Both are written later yet contain information from earlier periods that are no longer available from source documents.

    Furthermore, Rabbinic literature, although written later, were from the Pharisaic branch of Judaism since the Sadducees, who ran the Temple, no longer existed. This really gives one a better understanding to what Jesus and Paul were fighting against.

    Finally, remember that Beale and Carson’s, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Baker, 2007, uses quite a bit of Rabbinic literature.


  5. TMD says:

    Rabbinic writings are like margaritas. You need a healthy dose of salt to make it worthwhile.


  6. Pingback: Nick, the Rabbis, and understanding the Bible | My Blog

  7. Pingback: Nick, the Rabbis, and understanding the Bible - Geoff's MiscellanyGeoff's Miscellany

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