A Brief Review of
A Prayer to Our Father:
Hebrew Origins of the Lord’s Prayer.
Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson.
Paperback: Self-published, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Lucas Land.
This review originally appeared on Lucas’ blog: http://wwje.wordpress.com/
It is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission.
A Prayer to Our Father was written by an African-American Pastor and a Jewish Hebrew Scholar about the prayer that Jesus’ taught his disciples and followers to pray. It’s written as a sort of DaVinci Code mystery suspense thriller. Unfortunately, it also tries to be a scholarly analysis of ancient texts, Hebrew and Greek grammar, a tale of overcoming prejudice and religious difference and a popular theology/devotional book. This is too much weight for a book of less than 200 pages to bear. It’s not all bad; it just lacks focus and thus never succeeds on any of the levels at which it tries to reach readers.
As a thriller it is pretty lame. There are a couple points at which the author(s) try to build suspense, but the reveal is as disappointing as the lack of real tension. There are no earth-shattering revelations here about The Lord’s Prayer. There are some interesting thoughts and ideas, but not much proof or evidence. I was left wondering what the mystery was and when the real suspense would start.
As a scholarly book it fails miserably. At one point the Hebrew scholar argues that Hebrew was the first language spoken by humanity because it was what everyone spoke in Genesis 1-11. That would not pass muster in an undergrad logic class, much less the realm of biblical scholarship. The arguments for where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer build and build as if the true location will be revealed without doubt. None of the arguments are conclusive, and the final analysis is speculative. I did find it interesting that there is a long tradition of some of our New Testament books, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, originally being written in Hebrew. I do think that the kind of work these two men were attempting to do is important. I value the roots of the New Testament that run deeply into the Old, but not at the expense of good scholarship and reasoned argumentation.
On another level, the book tried to show how Jews and Christians can come together to study the Bible without trying to convert each other. I think that’s great. There should be more of that. I also thought we were a little beyond Jews and Christians studying the Bible together. I’d like to read the Bible with Muslims. Heck, we’d all benefit from reading the Bible with some homeless people, maybe a prostitute. It’s not that I don’t believe anti-semitism exists. It certainly does. It’s that we sometimes ignore other prejudices and people, because of our collective guilty conscience concerning the way we treated and allowed others to treat Jewish people throughout Christian history.
Finally, I will say that this book could be considered successful as a popular devotional book. Scrap the scholarly stuff and the air of proving something that has hitherto remained a mystery and you have some nice meditations on the Lord’s Prayer. The thing that bothered me most about the last half of the book, which breaks down the Lord’s Prayer, is that it always interpreted the prayer “spiritually.” It was not the earthy prayer that I know and love.
The Jewish scholar claims to come from a school that interprets scripture using the most plain meaning that a peasant Jew would have grasped from hearing the words read aloud. Yet he chooses to spiritualize parts of the prayer that have a plain meaning. Not that scripture can’t hold multiple meanings and interpretations, just that his method was inconsistent. For example, the authors over-spiritualize the meaning of “give us this day our daily bread” to mean primarily something spiritual about how the spirit is more important than the flesh. This flies in the face of my understanding of Hebrew thought being very grounded in an everyday earthly existence. (They didn’t believe in an afterlife for crying out loud!)
I gave the book away to a friend of mine who is a “Messianic Christian” because I knew she would enjoy it and hopefully get something out of it. However, I can’t recommend the book to anyone else. You’re better off just reading your Bible… or the newspaper, or preferably both.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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