Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus:
How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding
Hardback: Zondervan, 2018.
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert
The weekly Bible study I attend in my Anglican parish church is led by a remarkable woman—a retired a pediatric hematologist specializing in childhood leukemia—who, with her late husband, also a physician, decided, in their 60’s, to return to University for advanced degrees in Religious Studies. Since his death several years ago, his widow has continued to teach our class by deftly combining her particular interest in spirituality and the arts with his scholarship and passion for ecumenical understanding and knowledge, particularly as it pertains to the Jewish roots of Christianity. Over the years, we have learned so much about the rich religious and cultural antecedents of our faith, indeed, we have been led to revere vigorous study of the Scriptures through the lens of Judaism.
In light of this pursuit, I found this finely crafted book, Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg not only worthy of inclusion in that quest but an essential addition to any library devoted to ecumenical religious education, and to any reader interested in the deepest possible understanding of Christianity and of the first century Jewish world in which Jesus lived and carried out his ministry. Dr. Tverberg holds a PhD in Biology and was teaching as a college professor when her fascination for biblical study was kindled by a seminar at her church. This led her to take several trips to Israel in order to study, taking courses in Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek and in the historical and cultural context of the Bible. She has made excellent use of her scientific education to write a book that thoughtfully—and thoroughly—interrogates the material and is outstanding in its structure and readability—it’s a truly use friendly guide for scholars and lay people alike–to understanding the Jewish history, culture and original languages of the Bible.
The introduction to the book is worthwhile on its own, explaining both the author’s own interest in pursuing the subject and why she feels it is so necessary to learn to read the Bible “through the eyes of first century Jewish people”. She likens it to the currently popular artisanal food movement—the desire to eat foods that are prepared with cultural authenticity in terms of both preparation and ingredients and she suggests that we, as western, first world Christians, tend to read the Bible “microwave” style thus making the case that we might consider transforming our engagement with the Bible to something more akin to practicing an “Artisanal Bible Study” that includes an understanding—or at least a working familiarity—with ancient languages and cultures and to this end, she provides ample support in the appendix in terms of a list of common Hebrew words and resources for reference and further study.
The chapters unfold and build upon each other with precision and good sense: each has a title devoted to the overarching theme and sub-sections breaking things down into manageable component parts —starting with the first chapter entitled, “Repacking our Mental Bags: Tools for the Journey” it walks the reader through the successive sections devoted first to explaining why we need different tools than those we’re accustomed to and what replacement tools are needed–in this case, we need to learn to read the Bible through Jewish eyes in the context of an ancient culture.
The remaining chapters offer more depth, methodology and nuances —all of it done such that any interested lay reader can take on, if not without some work and study beyond the scope of the book—there is nothing impenetrable here. Every chapter ends with a section entitled “Further Tools and Reflections” making it ideal both for individual and group use. The book manages to do all of this without implied criticism of the readers pre-conceptions and—probably—lifelong process of reading of the Bible; she gently guides us away from our old habits by introducing new ideas with a winning generosity of spirit.
My initial glance through the book made me wonder whether some might find it hard to accept or whether it might be too academic for the general reader but the overwhelming tone of the book is one of invitation and patience—this is a book that takes its readers seriously and one that wants them to engage the material comfortably largely by combining strong scholarship with a sturdy, straightforward prose style that is never condescending or overwhelming.
A very particular strength of the book is found in the sections devoted to understanding the importance of learning to think—and read—outside what the author calls our “WEIRD” (Western/Educated/Industrialized/Rich/Democratic) worldview and culture as she breaks the acronym down into its component parts and explains how it differs from the worldview of the average first century Jewish person. Within the sections and succeeding chapters, it gives real help, for instance, in learning to understand the differences between the highly individualistic culture of the west, centered as it is on ideals of personal success and equally personal viewpoints and values versus those found in a communal, family-centered society where family and kinship networks are central and personal decisions are made in the light of the family’s legacy going forward. To this end, it does an especially fine job of explaining why all of those “begats” most of us quickly learned to skip over in our Sunday School years really matter if we’re to understand how important family lineage is to Jewish culture then, and now, and, of course, how central it is to the story of Jesus—why it mattered that he was of “The House and lineage of David”.
The author also helps us to comprehend the differences between living in an agrarian culture not far removed from hunger-gatherer societies versus our more urban culture with its dependence—and emphasis– on technology and speed. There is enormous value quite beyond the topic at hand in learning how to engage with people and values so different from our own and this book does fine job of making that case in general terms, along with its primary focus on deepening our understanding and comprehension of the Bible. Other topics spread throughout the chapters deal with everything from Sabbath rituals and feasts to how Jewish reading of scripture is conducted within the Synagogue and the home and how gender roles impacted the level of fluency and engagement with Scripture in first century Jewish life.
This is a remarkably well written book on an important topic—one of several the author has written and having spent some time exploring her website and reading a short interview with her, I am quite impressed by her work and the commitment she has to helping Christians engage with what is, for most of us, a lost world. It is a gift to learn to read the Bible as a “we” instead of viewing the words as intended for us as individuals alone—to begin to understand that the Bible—and God’s Kingdom—was intended for all of us—for a community of people. In this book—a work of grounded scholarship and spiritual depth–we have an added and essential resource and insight into the ground and glory of our faith.
Michelle Wilbert is a writer and spiritual director in the contemplative Christian tradition; she offers one-on-one spiritual direction and spiritual and writing retreats at Taproot: Spiritual Direction for the Contemplative Life. Michelle is also a retired midwife, mother of four young adult children and Ben’s “farm wife” on their small, urban homestead. She blogs at closetotheroot.blogspot.com.