For the three of you out there who follow my occasional Common Grounds blog, you know I usually write something on church planting. After all, it is all that I do these days. But that’s precisely why writing about it can be so mundane.
Enter Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg who offered me escape from the banal through their offer to have me review their latest book, Sitting At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, a truly unique insight in the Jewish world of our faith. I have long been intrigued with the “Jewishness” of Christianity. That only increased this past October when I had my first opportunity to explore Israel on a study tour.
Surprisingly, there have been few books like this one available, which led me to an initial question as I opened the book: “Why do we know precious little about the very context our faith was spoken into?” The authors themselves point out that much of the book’s contents have been made possible by the archaeological, social and cultural discoveries about ancient Palestine that have been made in the last century.
But likely it goes beyond that, to the sad reality that for nearly two thousand years, the church has sterilized the semitism of Jesus and His origins because of our own penchant for anti-semitism. Somehow, Jesus seems more like the God of the Christian when He is made less Jewish.
And sometimes our “evangelicalness” doesn’t help either. In the face of liberal tendencies to erase the divinity of Jesus in the last century, we have become fearful of anything that refers to Jesus as a rabbi and the humanity caught up in that title. We silently ask ourselves, “How can a rabbi be the Son of God?”
Answer? Because God chose to incarnate Himself into this culture, the one that Spangler and Tverberg illuminate for us. In the Introduction, the authors write that “Writing this book has been for us a joy and a privilege” and I believe them. It reads at times like a series of journal entries, a portal into a world of discoveries the authors have made on countless pilgrimages to Israel. Through first hand experience and first class research, witnessed in the endnotes, the authors take us into the world that Jesus comfortably moved through. We see the significance of Mary anointing Jesus with expensive perfume (the perfume created an “aura of holiness upon its recipients,” used in ancient times, to remind those with a nose that royalty was among them), why orthodox Jews believed that the messianic king of Israel would also be a great rabbi and teacher of Israel (he would be a “living embodiment” of the text, living out the requirements of the Torah perfectly), and the beauty of seven different Jewish feasts, all of which point to Christ as Messiah, deliverer of God’s people.
At times, I seemed that the authors’ reliance on rabbinical thought (both ancient and modern) for understanding what the Scriptures mean could cut both ways since, as Jesus himself seems to indicate in His criticism of the Pharisees, rabbinical commentary on the scriptures was neither inspired nor always accurate in light of the New Testament, but the authors generally are careful to find clear scriptural support for their conclusions.
Sitting At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus is worth having on your shelf simply for the sidebar items (explaining customs and practices in greater depth) and the excellent questions, challenging the reader to think and act differently, found at the end of every chapter (which could make this a great study book for a group of Christians).
My hope is that Spangler and Tverberg will keep returning to Israel so that, for the millions of us who can not, we will be able to draw upon and enjoy what they have learned in order that our own life with Christ might be enlarged and enriched by discovering the beautiful intricacies of Judaism and the Jewish world that God spoke into all those years ago.