Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus | Review & Notes

Lois Tverberg. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding. Baker Books, 2017. (285 pages)


The third installment of Tverberg’s series (after Sitting and Walking), Reading is similar in tone and approach, and is yet again, another one of my recommendations for those who need an introduction to the Bible through the lens of history, context, culture, linguistics, and yes, even faith. While this book could be categorized under “hermeneutics” as a discipline, one of Tverberg’s strengths is making the material so accessible to her audience, that the reader is not coerced, but rather wooed and inspired into discovery. And, this is not at the expense of good scholarship, research, and footnotes.

Below are my highlights from the book, along with a few critical and interactive comments that I made in the margins.

Thanks again, Lois, for a wonderful contribution to our spiritual journeys!


1. Opening the Bible with Jesus
Emmaus Is Still There

Its ancient name was Ha-motza, meaning “the spring,” which was translated into Greek as Em-ma-oos. (14)

…it is my perception that for us Westerners the cultural distance “over” to the Middle East is greater than the distance “back” to the first century. – Ken Bailey

Part 1: Repacking Our Mental Bags
Tools for the Journey

2. Learning to Be There
A Clash of Cultures

The Scriptures are meant for us to read but they were not written to our modern world. (25)

What I’ve found over and over is that the Bible doesn’t need me to respin or rewrite it, once I grasp its cultural context. When you become aware of it, you often start seeing where the Bible was critiquing the attitudes of its time and calling its audience to live by a higher standard. (29)

Advanced age was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and a source of honor and dignity. (cf. Proverbs 16:31; Job 12:12) (31)

The biblical world, like most of the world throughout history, struggled against hunger, not flab. (33)

…it’s important not to extract lessons from the Bible that it never intended to teach. To search the Bible for secrets for slimming down is to read it upside down and backward of what it meant in its time. (33)

Our world: Thin is beautiful Biblical world: Fat is blessing, wealth
Our world: Youth is attractive Biblical world: Age is wisdom
Our world: Does God exist? Biblical world: Whose god is greatest?
Our world: Me—personal goals Biblical world: We—family legacy
Our world: Sunshine—happiness Biblical world: Rain—utter joy
Our world: Logic and reason Biblical world: Parable and prophecy

In a sense, the Bible is the most translatable religious book that has ever been written, for it comes from a particular time and place (the western end of the Fertile Crescent) through which passed more cultural patterns and out from which radiated more distinctive features and values than any other place in the history of the world.

If one were to make a comparison of the culture traits of the Bible with those of all the existing cultures of today…one would find that in certain respects the Bible is surprisingly closer to many of them than to the technological culture of the western world. It is this “western” culture that is the aberrant one in the world. And it is precisely in the western world, and in the growing number of persons in other parts of the world, that the Scriptures have seemingly the least ready acceptance. – Eugene Nida, Meaning Across Cultures

North America and Europe are the places where the biblical message is most unacceptable, where we least resonate with the narrative of Scripture. We’re the ones who have a hard time getting the point. (39)

3. What Does “Christ” Mean, Anyway?
A Perplexing Word

The act of anointing with sacred oil emphasized that it was God himself who had ordained a person and given him authority to lead his people and act as his representative. (44)

In simple terms, we could has that “Jesus Christ” means, “Jesus, God’s chosen King.” (44)

[compare Matthew 2 with 1 Kings 10:1-3, 10] (49)

When a new king was crowned, the euanggelion was the announcement that the monarch had taken the throne, that a new kingdom had taken power. (52)

Psalm 72 is a prayer for the messianic King that frames his role as one who brings bullies to judgment. (56)

The first thing God did when he poured out his Spirit at Pentecost was make his disciples into translators. Translating language is only part of it–we need to translate culture too. (58)

4. Painting in Hebrew
Bold Colors, Broad Brushstrokes

Each language is a palette with a finite amount of colors. (60)

Each time it [pakad, “פקד”] means that GOd came to someone’s aid or rescued them from a crisis. (68)

…pakad refers to the idea of “paying attention to.” When God pays attention to a person, he cares for them. When he pays attention to someone’s prayers, he answers them. But when he pays attention to someone’s sins, he disciplines them. (69)

…dwell among them (Exod. 29:45)

[via: The passage reads, ושכנתי בתוך בני ישראל which is often translated “in them.”]

Without having the word stubborn, it uses “stiff-necked,” evoking the image of an unwilling ox arching its neck to evade a yoke. Without having the word stingy, Hebrew speaks of being “tight-fisted” or of having a “bad eye”–being unable to see the needs of the person right in front of you. (71)

Interestingly, forget is almost never used in combination with sin. But often the Bible does say that God will “not remember” our sins. (75)

So, to not remember sins is to decide not to punish them. (76)

Part 2: How the Bible Thinks
Big Picture Ideas That You Need to Understand

5. Greek Brain, Hebrew Brain
Cows, Creeds, and Concrete Metaphors

[via: on page 87, Tverberg mentions Descartes famous maxim, “I think, therefore, I am,” as a way of illustrating the rationalism of philosophy. The nuance of Descartes phrase is not so much a comment on the power of rationalism to know, but rather the limits of epistemic certainty. He was saying, in effect, that I can doubt everything, except the fact that I am doubting. It is doubting/thinking that is the only clear and distinct fact perceived by the intellect. (cf. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)]

…much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, reflects an ancient form of reasoning and communication that actually worked quite well before Thinking 2.0 came along. (87)

To the Greeks, the only thing that could come out of foreigners’ mouths was “bar, bar, bar,” like the bleating of a sheep, giving rise to the tradition of labeling non-Greeks as “barbarians.” [via: citation]

Westerners do their serious thinking and communication in concepts. (89)

In the Middle East, from the beggar to the king, the primary method of creating meaning is through the creative use of metaphor and story. – Ken Bailey

Hebrew expresses profound thoughts by telescoping ideas down into simple, concrete images. “Under the sun,” of (90) course, describes everything in the experience of human life. “Bread” refers to all food, the “battle” refers to military aggression and warfare. Here, the language is employing metonyms–concrete nouns that represent a broader category. (91)

Notice, though, that you can’t evaluate a proverb by its internal logic. You can’t refute this line by saying, “No, that is impossible. Pens are not mightier than swords.” The truth of this saying doesn’t come from how flawlessly it has linked together “therefores.” It comes from the fact that it describes a reality, albeit a surprising one–that a well-crafted newspaper article can do more to change the world than a military battle. (91)

Part of the strength of concrete metaphors is that they convey emotion. That’s actually why Western intellectual arguments avoid them, though. The goal of a logical proof is to convince hearers through facts and reason alone, without appealing to emotions. Th Greeks valued detachment, subduing emotions so that intellect could reign supreme. But Middle Easterners believed it was just as important to convey the emotional component of their ideas. (93)

Believe it or not, the Old Testament is usually much easier to translate than the New, because its concrete language makes more sense to the non-Western world. (93)

Jesus often based is reasoning on experience rather than if-then logic. (97)

Jesus was doing theology through storytelling. (98)

Parables often use imagery from the Scriptures, which recounted the history of Israel’s experience with God. Certain memorable motifs came up over and over again. Kings, wedding banquets, shepherds searching for sheep, and farmers at harvest are all images that appear in Jesus’ parables and in those of other rabbis. Both the plots and the punch lines could allude to scenes in the Bible. If it was true before, it could be true again. (98)

The Greeks, like the rest of the ancient world, loved to speculate on the nature of the divine realm. (106)

Through God’s name he was proclaiming how he would reveal himself: “I will be known by what I do. (107)

This is why the Old Testament is more comfortable with paradox and seeming contradiction than Western readers are. The Bible simply assumes that Israel had an unparalleled encounter with a being who was utterly outside human experience. It makes no attempt to explain or defend the strangeness of this mysterious entity. It merely describes Israel’s powerful encounters with God through history. (108)

The Shema, however, is a recollection of history, a reminder of the oath that established Israel’s relationship with God. It doesn’t list things to be believed. Yet it does assume that a person believes in the God whom they vow to love and serve. It contains beliefs but is actually far more than that. It is a collection of the promise that the nation of Israel made centuries earlier on Mount Sinai. The words of the Shema are a binding reminder of the covenant that the Jewish people had committed themselves to on a smoky desert mountaintop centuries ago. This was what was critical to recount each day–the foundational event in Israel’s history. (110)

[via: While “abstraction” is a contrasting way to view philosophical approaches, abstraction is also a helpful tool for the translation of meaning. If there are no “cows” in my economic makeup, what does “cow” signify of which I could find a corresponding concept in the receptor language?]

6. Why Jesus Needs Those Boring “Begats”
Knowing the Family Rules

Along with this inherited identity came a strong assumption that children would resemble their father in personality too. (115)

Not only was Ruth a Moabite but she was even in the same situation as Lot’s daughters: a widow who desperately needed children. (117)

…the Bible has a very different recurring emotional subplot–the “redemption story of barrenness.” (121)

Because it was assumed that descendants would be like their forefathers, it made sense that Abraham would instill in his children his strong faith in God, and a great nation of believers would result. That’s really the overall “plot” of the Bible–How would God fulfill his promise to Abraham, and how would this nation bless the whole world? That’s where Jesus’ “begats” really began. (122)

…throughout history, the purpose of marriage has been to covenantally establish a family, which would take care of its members when they got old and continue a family legacy. In a world where sterility was a disaster, marrying someone of the same sex was unthinkable. (123)

In using the word eunuch, Jesus likely had kingdom imagery in mind, because many kings appointed only eunuchs to high offices. In order to serve a king, these men had to give up the hope of having a family. (124)

[via: It is important to note that eunuchs were often made that way by men so as to domesticate them, and reduce the possibility of threat from someone who was still driven by masculine urges.]

7. Reading the Bible as a “We”
Insights from a Communal Perspective

…an individualistic approach misunderstands the text. (132)

…the word shem is much more about one’s identity within a community… (138)

Collectivist cultures that emphasize “honor” and “shame” are really thinking in terms of shem in the biblical sense. … This is why the word shem is sometimes translated as fame, renown, reputation, authority, or honor rather than name. (139) [cf. Zephaniah 3:20; Joshua 9:9; Nehemiah 6:13; Isaiah 55:13]

A reader from a communal culture, however, would notice that Scripture frames itself collectively, in terms of the family of Abraham and the kingdom of Christ. (144)

Because of our individualism we also overlook a major issue on the minds of everyone in the Gospels: Israel, God’s covenant family. (145)

Here I’m speaking in terms of the “family of Abraham” as the main character of the biblical story. (146)

Jewish scholar Michael Fishbane points out that the imagery here [Genesis 28] is that all together they are one person. This style of addressing a group as if they are one person is especially common in Deuteronomy and Isaiah. The New Testament similarly talks about us as b being “one body” or “in Christ.” (148)

[via: This was really helpful, explaining why the Shema uses second person masculine singular suffixes.]

God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval (Gen. 19:29 NJPS)

God delivered Lot from the catastrophe for the sake of Abraham–as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness, not Lot’s. (150)

…the word kingdom describes a community. It’s describing God’s relationship with a whole group of people whom he is redeeming. (152)

[via: On page 153 Tverberg mentions the story of Anne Rice’s conversion and departure from Christianity. Tverberg writes, “If you grasp the communal nature of salvation, you realize that this is inherently impossible. You can’t quit the kingdom without quitting the King. You may be a solitary, do-nothing member who disagrees with everyone on every issue and never darkens a church’s doorway, but you’re still a part of the body of Christ, no matter what you do.” (153) I consider this a slightly unfair critique and illustration, as Rice’s journey was more about the nature and core values/message of Christianity in comparison with the “Church’s” core values/message. It was a story that still resonates today, in fact.]

In America, our individualism makes us ever more prone to privatized faith. A growing number of people see participation in the church as unnecessary and decide to drop out. Lots of tissues and organs in its body have decided to quit, and the rest of the church body struggles to function without them. Why do we wonder when it does poorly? (154)

[via: I’m not sure this is exactly what Paul was talking about. Is Paul’s message really about “dropping out” or “leaving,” in our modern context, or what he simply describing a reality of how we ought to view ourselves as a body of believers. If that is the case, then if people do decide to not be a part of a local community, they are still, by the description of reality, “part of the body.”]

The best response, I’ve found, is that of a “we-thinker” who says, “I too am connected with the people of my past, and I mourn over how we’ve persecuted the Jewish people.” A “we-thinker” will ask, “How can I help my people change? How can I learn more? What can I do to share this rich heritage with my fellow Christians?” (155)

[via: This is an honorable sentiment, and I bless God for Tverberg’s voice, and pray it encourages others in this same vein.]

8. Like Grasshoppers in Our Own Eyes
Learning to “Think Small”

Greeks learned in order to comprehend. Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use. … To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away.

The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind. … The sense for the sublime, the sign of the inward greatness of the human soul and something which is potentially given to all men, is now a rare gift. Yet without it, the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum. – Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Greek-thinking Westerners, particularly academics, read their Bible with an enormous sense of self, as if humans are capable of systematically predicting the thoughts and actions of a Being infinitely greater than ourselves.

| We begin by assuming it’s perfectly reasonable to boil down God’s essence into a list of attributes, to effectively reduce him to a force, a vector defined by magnitude and direction. Then we weigh God’s motives on our scales of justice and demand he make an accounting of himself. Of course, we are fully capable of grasping all of God’s purposes and ends! Never mind the fact that Job had a conversation with God in which he learned just the opposite. (162)

When Westerners open Genesis, we struggle with the Bible’s lack of proof that God exists. But in the biblical world, this simply wasn’t a question on anyone’s mind. From the perspective of the ancients, it was simply inconceivable that a puny human brain could be the ultimate source of God’s existence. (165

Israel was perennially the ninety-eight-pound weakling getting sand kicked in its face by the bullying nations around it. (165)

Powerful nations had powerful gods who won their battles. Weak nations had wimpy gods who lost. (166)

The writing of ancient Mesopotamia betrays a perpetual sense of anxiety because of the helplessness of humanity in their clutches. Humans had no hope of anything beyond survival in a callous, unpredictable world. (171)

Many of Israel’s distinctive laws were based on the peculiar and supreme value that God placed on human life. Unlike anywhere else, in Israel, murder was seen as an offense against God himself. (172)

Part 3: Reading about the Messiah
Seeing Him through Hebrew Eyes

9. Memory Is critical
Hinting at the Scriptures

Before the widespread use of writing, knowledge was not stored on bookshelves but rather in brains. (182)

10. Moses and the Prophets Have Spoken
Finding Promises in the Synagogue

…the dominant theme of the earliest synagogue lectionaries was God’s coming redemption. (198)

Scholars believe that while the Torah reading was predetermined, the haftarah passage was left up to the reader. Lectionaries date from later centuries, but they developed out of the reading practices of Jesus’ day. Then, the person who read the Torah portion would also select the prophetic portion and deliver a homily. Differently educated synagogue members (or visiting teachers) would take turns each week doing the public reading. It was up to the speaker to choose a haftarah that fit the Torah passage and yielded a good sermon. (199)

the triennial lectionary pairs the reading of Genesis 16 with Isaiah 54:1-10 … Isaiah 54:1-10 offers eschatological hope to end Sarah’s sorrow. (200)

In Galatians 4, we find Paul making the same connection. (200)

…scholars note that the triennial lectionary was formed in the Galilee, although a couple of centuries after the time of Christ. (201)

“What Happened to Jesus’ Haftarah?” … Hananel Mack concluded that the pattern was clear enough to show that it was intentional. Any passage that was quoted int he New Testament as being about Jesus as the Christ was intentionally avoided in synagogue readings. (202)

As Christians were separating Jesus from his Jewish roots, Jews were separating from him too. (202)

Could it be just a coincidence that the fourth century AD, when Jewish liturgy began adopting a lectionary that downplayed prophetic promises, was also the era that Christian persecution of the Jews reached a peak during the reign of Constantine? At the same time that Christians were chopping themselves free of their Jewish roots, the synagogue was silencing the prophecies of a coming Messiah. (203)

Jewish tradition has always struggled with the fact that the prophets describe visions of both a royal, victorious King who would reign on the throne of David and a Suffering Servant who would atone for the sins of Israel. Various legends existed that there might need to be two Messiahs, one who would die and another who would reign. The one who suffers was often called the “Messiah ben [son of] Joseph,” and the one who reigns was called the “Messiah ben David.” (205)

Congregations were reading about Joseph’s suffering in light of Isaiah 52-53, and then a few weeks later about his reign over Egypt in light of Isaiah 11. Hmm … do you think that even a Messiah who is a “Son of Joseph” could someday reign? (206)

11. Reading in the Third Dimension
Listening for Echoes in the Text

God’s Spirit seems to be a requisite for every leader. (212)

On the Third Day… (Hos. 6:1-2; Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:16; Gen. 42:18; Jon. 1:17)

“On the third day” has nothing to do with the date or the counting of time but contains for ears which are educated biblically a clear reference to God’s mercy and grace which is revealed after two days of affliction and death by way of redemption. – Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective

…the Scripture were intimately known, having been read over and over, and connections were being made in retrospect by viewing the narrative as a whole. (216)

Western Christians overlook many of the connections in the Bible because of our habit of boiling down Scripture into abstract concepts for advanced study. … Certainly we find the Father, the Son, and the Spirit throughout the Bible. But instead of following how the ruach flows from scene to scene, we prefer to build theological skyscrapers out of abstract definitions instead. (217)

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension … of the interdependence is a spiritual act. – Erich Auerback, Mimesis

Rather than reading the Hebrew Bible as if it was written prospectively, looking only into the future for meaning, a figural reading highlights the idea of reading the New Testament retrospectively, by how it is prefigured by events in the past. (219)

12. Jesus’ Bold Messianic Claims
Very Subtle, Very Jewish

The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth–traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. – Robert Funk, The Five Gospels

We don’t find Jesus blurting out in so many words, “I’m the Messiah!” Rather, we find him making indirect claims by referring to himself in light of well-known messianic passages from the Scriptures. He was addressing his Jewish audience in a very sophisticated way, drawing continually upon the Scriptures they knew intimately. (224)

Jesus’ references to God as “my Father” reflected more than just an intimate affection for God. (229)

…in the ancient world, the imagery of divine sonship was commonly associated with kings. (as in בני אלהים) (229)

This passage (Dan. 7:9-10, 13-14) was universally understood as being about the coming Messiah. The book of Daniel predicted the rise of great kingdoms, which would all eventually fall to the authority of one supreme King who would rule forever. (231)

…the most wonderful use that Jesus made of the title “Son of Man” was when he pointed out his authority to forgive sin. A judge has the capacity to condemn, but he also has the power to acquit! (233)

…the Shepherd who arrives (in Isaiah 40) is actually the “Sovereign LORD” himself, not a human king or political leader. (235)

13. When the Words Catch Fire
What We Miss in Isaiah

The people aren’t just his subjects, they are his “possession.” (244)

[via: The “position” of king, the “posture” of servant.]

About VIA


  1. Just read through your thoughts and notes, Kevin. It’s fascinating to see what you responded to. All your comments sounded well considered, including critiques. It would be great to talk face to face. 🙂

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