I have just finished reading “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith,” by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg. I must say, it was well worth reading. I am deeply indebted to Zondervan Publishing for giving me the opportunity to review it.
Both authors have vast experience in biblical analysis and have traveled extensively in the Middle East, especially in and around Jerusalem. They have walked where Jesus tread, and their writing brings a strong sense of the land and people as they help us transport ourselves into that ancient land and time.
This is the main thesis of their book, that we can learn ever so much more about Jesus and his teachings if we can immerse ourselves into his world, the world of his first century listeners, knowing what they knew, and living as they lived. Passages in the bible which can be difficult to understand for the Westernized reader, come alive with new meaning when explained through the lens of life in and around Jerusalem.
Both women are extraordinary writers, easy to read, with wonderful personal stories that they interject through the book as examples of how their understanding of Jesus has changed and been enhanced by their immersion in Jewish life and spirituality.
To generations of Westerners who have, through both movies and other literature and art, come to see Jesus as blond and blue-eyed, this book helps to clear away the misconceptions and assumptions we necessarily bring to the table by virtue of that incorrect visioning. Jesus was essentially and most deeply Jewish. Ms. Spangler and Tverberg go to great lengths to explain Jesus along side the other roving Rabbis of his time. We suddenly see his disciples as Talmidim, students. They, like others in that time traveled the roads from town to town, following a rabbi, learning at his feet. That this was an extraordinary Rabbi, of course, many no doubt realized.
Those who lived in the area would have seen nothing unusual in this, but of course once they sat and listened to Rabbi Jesus, they came to see that they had been in the presence of someone unique and special.
One of the most profitable of the chapters is the third. It is called “Stringing Pearls” and indeed one feels wealthy after reading it. Part of this has to do, as the authors point out, with rabbis such as Jesus, quoting portions of Torah, Prophets and Writings. Their listeners, most all of whom were well versed in scripture, knew what was not said, and knew the context. We are usually not so lucky and miss the import of a good deal of what is being said.
Spangler and Tverberg teach us to always use our bibles by going back to the referenced Old Testament verses and read the entire passage. Only then do we truly get the message Jesus was trying to convey. This was also true of the Gospel writers and Paul, who also understood this process.
For instance, we modern readers often may miss the significance of the phrase “son of man.” It seems not particularly descriptive to us. Yet to the people of Jesus’ time, it flows with messianic meaning derived from Daniel, a prophetic book.
Again and again, we are reminded that to truly get the message, we must learn what first century Jews already knew, the scriptures we now refer to as the Old Testament.
Throughout the book, the authors give us end of chapter questions and suggestions for incorporating some of this Jewish way of looking at things into our own lives. We can benefit, they suggest from haverim, the Jewish practice of study with others, more specifically, having a “study partner.”
One area I found useful, was the Jewish practice of blessing. This is a practice that pious Jews observe, issuing blessings to God throughout the day. It is a simple formula: “Blessed be you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, for . . .” It is a way to “pray continuously” in a sense.
We know that this was important in Jesus’ time, since it was common for him to issue blessings quite regularly, especially for the food that was to be eaten. Such a practice is one we would do well to do more often, as it helps us to avoid negativity and give gratitude for all that we have.
We learn as well the close association between now Christian holidays and Jewish ones. The most surprising one for me, was to learn that Pentecost is not solely a time for Christians to rejoice in the reception of the Holy Spirit. To the people of his time, this was a regular festival, called Shavuot, or weeks. This celebrated the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.
We all remember that Peter and the other disciples received the Holy Spirit at this time. Most of us naturally assume that this happened in the upper room where Jesus and his followers spent their last supper together. After the strong wind, and the tongues of fire, over 3,000 were baptized.
Spangler and Tverberg point out that in Jerusalem, there is no home that would have a sufficient courtyard to accommodate this crowd. Only the temple would be large enough, and would have the necessary purification pools to baptize the new converts. And of course, that is where they would have been, Peter and the disciples as well, celebrating the Feast of Shavuot.
I could go on and on with one after another precious insight to be gained upon reading this lovely book. You can learn of the additional significance of hospitality and eating at God’s table, that enhances our own Eucharistic experience. We learn of other meals, and how we can bring our faith to them as well, such as the sulha, where we reconcile with those that we have been at odds with.
Replete in the explanations, are wonderful stories used to illustrate so many of these beautiful rituals. Some are their own experiences, others just marvelous gems that show us deep meaning in the words and actions. We learn to view the Kingdom as Jesus did, in a radical and personal way.
You will find, upon reading this book, that you will feel a connection with Jesus that is new and joyful. You will realize a brotherhood with your ancient ancestral people, the Jews of first century Jerusalem and before that you have never felt before. It is a valuable asset to anyone who wishes to probe more deeply into the times of our Lord, and to understand his teaching, and then to follow Him.