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.