Recommended Book: Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

This summer I read a book sent to me by one of the authors that I am happy to recommend to my readers here. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus is subtitled “How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith.” The essence of the book is to reveal aspects of Jewish life that inform how we (should) read the New Testament. feetrabbi

Ann Spangler teamed up with Lois Tverberg to write an engaging study of first-century customs that would have been familiar to Jesus and his disciples, but are unknown to most readers today. The book includes chapters focusing on rabbis and disciples, education, prayer, blessings, Jewish feasts, Torah, and the kingdom of God. The appendices and glossary provide much helpful information.
Quite a bit of work has been done in the last few decades in the area of Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, but much of it I cannot recommend. This book distinguishes itself in several ways. First, the research upon which the book is based is trustworthy. I don’t agree with every bit of analysis, but they use the best sources. Second, while the first point would lead you to expect that this is a “scholarly” work, it is, in fact, written to a popular audience and the writing style is superb. Third, the book is not an academic exercise, but the writers are very interested that their discoveries impact the reader’s faith and daily life. Altogether, these three realities combine to make an excellent book.

There were a few things I would change, and I note these more as testimony that I carefully read the whole book than to affect my positive endorsement. I haven’t read too many books that were co-authored, but these writers often told personal stories and the use of the first-person singular (“I”) sometimes felt awkward. Another issue was the way that a chapter would end so that it led to the next chapter. Perhaps it was the intervening page-long study/thought questions that made the transitions not work as well as I think they were intended. Theologically, I am more and more uncomfortable with the way that the definition of the “kingdom” is derived from later church history than from Jesus’ Bible, but the authors can certainly claim to belong to a larger subset of modern Christianity in this regard than I do.

Brief quotations cannot communicate the argument of a book, but as they may give a sense for the tone, I include a few below:

“Instead of making our hearts burn, sometimes Scripture makes us scratch our head in confusion” (12).
“One day, when the presiding rabbi was having trouble generating group discussion, he fired off question after question, finally tossing out a provocative comment to stir things up. But still the group was silent. Exasperated, the rabbi exclaimed, ‘Come on people! Somebody disagree with me! How can we learn anything if no one will disagree?” (29)
“When Jesus called himself a ‘shepherd’ in John 10, he was hinting at his identity as the messianic king, the future ruler of God’s kingdom” (46).
“While the Gospels record many instances of Jesus instantly healing people’s illnesses, we know of not even one instance in which he simply waved his hand to immediately fix an ugly habit for one of his disciples. Instead, he simply kept teaching and correcting them, giving them time to grow” (56).

Of all the popular “Jewish background of Jesus” books that I have read, this one was the best.


14 thoughts on “Recommended Book: Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

  1. "Theologically, I am more and more uncomfortable with the way that the definition of the “kingdom” is derived from later church history than from the Jesus’ Bible, but the authors can certainly claim to belong to a larger subset of modern Christianity in this regard than I do."

    I'm wondering if you would flesh this statement out a bit more. I'm not sure what you mean by it. Thanks Todd!

  2. The kingdom that Jesus and the disciples knew was what was described in the Old Testament as the rule of a Davidic descendant reigning over the land of Israel with perfect righteousness. Later theologians tried to reckon with the lack of this reality at Jesus' appearing by redefining the kingdom as something completely different – an internal rule of Jesus in a person's heart or through the church. This was aided and abetted by the division between the church and synagogue and desire that the church inherit all of the promises to Israel. Some say there's an "already/not yet," such that his kingdom is already in my heart, but not yet on earth. I think the use of terminology in this way is unhelpful. The kingdom as prophesied in the OT is yet to come. I may be his subject today, but that does not create any sort of fulfillment of the kingdom today. I hope that clarifies. It's not my intention here to debate the matter in the comments of this book review.

  3. Thanks Todd for the reply! No debating intended….

    A number of things about your review caught my attention….specifically your caution about Jewish background material. I've been wondering about your position with that issue…and this book review helped me get a small glimpse of it.

  4. Todd, thanks so much for your review of our book. We appreciate your comments.

    Without responding to all of them, you noticed one thing that Ann and I struggled with – how to differentiate who was "I" as we shared personal stories. Putting the person's name in parentheses was the best solution.

    If your readers want to read more about the book, please visit Our Rabbi Jesus: His Jewish Life and Teaching at http://OurRabbiJesus.com.

    Blessings –

    Lois Tverberg

  5. Todd,

    For years I have searched for books, articles, etc., that would give solid historical and cultural background in the first century AD. I have come up mostly blank.

    On every occasion I hear the works of Josephus quoted, the writer also acknowledges that he was prone to exaggerate. I started out with The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Edersheim, and found him to be so enthralled with the Rabbinical writings, that he totally missed the point of many New Testament writings. (His view of Mary, the mother of Jesus, for example, is that she was some poor, innocent girl, tossed to-and-fro, by the currents of the Lord's dealings with her, and that she did not have a clue about what was going on. A reading of the "Magnificant" would indicate that was not the case. How would a girl of 15 (?) in that society, from the poor side of the tracks, be able to put verses together from the various books of Scripture in the way that she did? My guess is that she was "home-schooled" by Heli! This was one sharp little girl! I suspect the Catholics overrate her and that Protestants underrate her). I ended up throwing his book away. If he couldn't get this right, what else would he have been wrong about?

    Would the book you recommended be a good place to start, and would you be willing to state the parts you disagreed with if I were to ask you about them?

    What other books would you recommend if I wanted to build a solid library on this subject?


    Jim Hunter
    Roswell, GA

  6. I now have this book in my Amazon cart, waiting until I have $25 in an order so I can get free shipping. I don't normally comment on a book I haven't read, but just one thought.

    What seemed to make Jesus stand out to his disciples was how unlike the other rabbis he was. They recognized something different in him. So, while I think knowing the 1stC AD context is critical to understanding many things in the NT, I think we need to be careful in assuming that because most 1stC AD rabbis' did something, that Jesus must have done this as well. The NT texts indicate the opposite may have been true.

  7. Pastor Al – you make a good point that I certainly agree with. Nevertheless, I think there was much that Jesus did that was normal in the culture. Those things weren't recorded in the gospels for the same reason that a writer today doesn't explain how to start a car. The New Testament highlights much of Jesus' unique person and message, but the less we know of his times, the more likely we are to confuse what was unique with what was common.

    Jim – I'm not a specialist in this area. I can offer a few thoughts only, but you'll need to talk with someone else to go further. First, I recommend that you read the contemporary sources. This past week I've read (again) Josephus' Jewish War – excellent. Some of the books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are helpful in understanding some of the thinking of the day. Read the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the Mishnah. Even though it was finally compiled later (c. AD 200), some of it goes back to the 1st century and all of it is closer to Jesus' time than we are. Secondary sources are good, but they are all interpretations of the primary sources.

    Secondary sources are certainly worthwhile. Edersheim, as you note, was not always careful in his use of the sources. I'd recommend the articles at http://www.JerusalemPerspective.com (paid subscription required for most articles). For example, they have a great article on education practices in the time of Jesus that you would probably enjoy. It goes without saying that I wouldn't agree with everything written there (or anywhere).

    Here are a few books that come to mind I would recommend for understanding the 1st century better:
    Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies
    Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary
    Bock and Herrick, Jesus in Context
    McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament

    That's a start. The book recommended in this post is a good start. It's intended for a popular audience, but it has footnotes. Its goal is stimulation of faith, not purely to satisfy intellectual curiosity. At this point, I don't have the time to interact with you more about this book. I think you would be better off anyway in checking the footnotes and reading and comparing with other sources.

  8. Todd, do you still regard Alva Maclain's _The Greatness of the Kingdom_ in the same estimation as before or have your views moderated with further study? Thanks for your newletter/blog. It's always a pleasure to receive/read.

    Kurt Hild / TMC / Santa Clarita, CA

  9. Prof. Hild – thank you for the kind words. As for McClain, my essential agreement with his work is stronger than ever. I recommend it to all. To those who don't know, McClain understands the kingdom by starting at the beginning of the Bible, seeing the development of the concept through progressive revelation, and then understanding the New Testament in that light. Some other approaches try to define the kingdom based on NT theology and a couple of kingdom references and then jettison much of the OT descriptions of the kingdom.

  10. Todd, I found your recommendation of McClain's work to be one of the best I've ever received. I asked one of our former colleagues, Dr. Bookman, his assessment; he used the word, "magisterial" and envied people their first read of the work. I heartily commend McClain's work to your readers as well. Tho' not a theologian, I found it crystalized the Kingdom concept for me, and I'm indebted to you for your ministry in my life through it. I very much appreciated your reply here. Thanks for taking the time.

    Kurt Hild

  11. Todd,

    In your first response regarding "kingdom" you have stated that a "modern" concept of the word does not line up with what you believe the OT was getting at.

    I understand a "kingdom" is coming in the future, but still find it helpful (and believe legitimate)to translate the Greek "basilea" to mean "rulership" in many, if not most, NT verses unless the context is clearly spatial.

    Is this what you were against?



  12. Jim – yes, redefining kingdom as "rulership" and excluding the other elements as given in the OT are what I am arguing against. I think Jesus' opponents in the 1st century redefined the kingdom – they accepted the elements of physical dominion and removal of foreign oppression while rejecting the elements of righteousness, humility, submission, etc. Just as they failed in their redefinition, so do interpreters today who accept certain elements and reject others.

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