Friday, March 14, 2008

New Time Article on Rob Bell's Take on early Judaism (and Mine)

You might not realize it from the most recent article in Time about Rob Bell and myself, but I am a Rob Bell fan, and am very grateful for numerous things he is doing for Christ. I do have an issue with his use of early Jewish sources that date from after the time of Jesus, and the attempt to read Jesus as if he were a post-70 A.D. rabbinic figure, when in fact he seldom sounds anything like a rabbi in the way he teaches, but rather more like a Jewish sage such as Honi the Circle Drawer, or Hanina ben Dosa. Here is the link to the article itself, and a good article it is by a fine writer (David van Bema). See what you think, and compare it to my earlier posts on Rob, which you can easily find by doing a search on my blog typing in Rob Bell.

10. Re-Judaizing Jesus


Matt said...

This is cross-generational Christianity at its best. The younger generation has such a zeal and a fresh, conversational approach to presenting the gospel that is often untempered and may often lack the life experience to back up the thoughts that are expressed (similar to the analogy given by Helmut Thielke in Exercise for Young Theologians where he talks about a physical body that is strong with internal organs that don't match up yet). When the two generations interact with each other and sharpen, learn from, and temper each other I really think both grow from that kind of interaction.

There is a great fear that the younger generation will be alienated by the older one. As long as we can converse like this and practice a little good ole fashioned mutual submission, I don't think it will be that big of an issue. The goal is to keep this from being the exception and make things like this happen more often. Thank you for the good example.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this Ben. I actually tried to call you a couple of weeks ago to talk to you about this. You tried to call me back I think but I hit the wrong button and hung up.. ooopps!
I really like Rob and think that he is a really genuine guy (I drove him and his family around Nashville and went to the natural science museum with them!) But I think that a lot of younger folks are taking in this "rabbinic" stuff uncritically and assuming that it is true (just as I once did). My question is, what effects do you see this possibly having, if any, on the Church? And why do you think that not many learned Christian scholars have tried to correct this?

Ben Witherington said...

Most scholars, and I would be an exception not an example of a trend, do not pay attention to those whom they view as amateurs when it comes to Biblical interpretation. They spend their time interacting with and talking to other scholars. I am sad about this, but there you have it.

As for the effect of a wrong view of Jesus, well the good news about this wrong view of Jesus is that it is not in the least anti-Semitic, which is better than many another views of Jesus. The bad news is that it cannot explain why it is that Jesus' followers mostly did not follow his lead in terms of style and content of teaching, and certainly did not spend most of their time doing midrashic debates with rabbis. There is the further problem that if Jesus dealt with the OT in that sort of fashion how in the world do you explain the use of the OT in the non-Gospel portions of the NT-- especially in Paul and 1 Peter and Revelation?


Ben W.

Rosey said...

Having studied Talmudic and Midrashic Judaism with an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi for almost 20 years, I doubt that any Christian scholar, using Christian dictionaries and commentaries can apprehend the most correct perspective of what Jesus's words and actions meant to the Jews, Righteous Gentiles, and Hellenists of the Gospel period. The dictionary is simply that different, Christianity having drifted far, far away over two thousand years. Simply, Jesus did not present himself as the Messiah they looked for, however affirming he was of the Torah, Law, and the Prophets. Sadly, the few Jews that know and maintain that ancient dictionary will not be budged, and Christians refuse to sit and learn it from them, by and large.

As for what Jesus wrote in the sand (John 8), the hint is in Numbers 5, and in the Talmud (tractate Sotah). It's a wonderful intervention Jesus performed, yet he circumvented the Rabbis' test, in the end, leaving it unanswered.

Unknown said...


YOur comment:

" affirming he was of the Torah, Law, and the Prophets"

reminds me of NT Wright's portrayal of Jesus his book 'The Challenge of Jesus". It was a long road for me to synthesize the humaness of Jesus, much less the Jewish-ness. I think that part of the disconnect for some CHristians is that even before you begin to interact with Jesus the Jew, you have to interact with Jesus the human.

Believe it or not, the turning point for me was reading 'The Last Temptation of Christ". WHile discarding much of what's in the book, it broke something loose inside me that had always pictured Jesus as perpetually supernatural...kind of like a glorified shade that visited us for awhile...

Rob said...

Hey Ben,
Just wanted to say I appreciate your brotherly critique of Bell. I know his teachings have meant much to me and others but just like any speaker his words have to be put to the test of good scholarship and I appreciate the spirit in which you do this. I do have a question which you have probably answered before. What are some good sources for understanding Jesus and his world? And second, I find people at my church having polar opposite reactions to Bell: love or extreme suspicion of him being a wolf in sheep's clothing. How would you suggest responding to those two ends of the spectrum?

Unknown said...

Hey Rosey, I think Lev 20:10 removes any doubt what the "stoners" were going to do with them stones... John 8:3 states caught in the act, no need for jealousy offerings here or bitter water here.

I look at the more mystical aspect of what Jesus did, not that I know anymore than anyone else. However, its intriguing how the adulterer was not present, to be "stoned". Furthermore, what Jesus said to the men willing to carry out the "self"righteous act of killing this guilty lady. He who is without sin... I can see Jesus writing various laws broken by the very men willing to readily condemn another. True poetic justice. Although not on paper, more in the dirt.

Loren Rosson III said...

Ben wrote:

I do have an issue with his use of early Jewish sources that date from after the time of Jesus, and the attempt to read Jesus as if he were a post-70 A.D. rabbinic figure, when in fact he seldom sounds anything like a rabbi in the way he teaches, but rather more like a Jewish sage such as Honi the Circle Drawer, or Hanina ben Dosa.

There's more Honi and Hanina in Jesus than the rabbinic figures, to be sure, but even those aren't the greatest parallels. Best to drop "sage" from the gestalt. Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet. Though even this is limiting: Jesus' version of apocalyptic seemed to span three types -- a Deuteronomic prophet, social prophet, and popular prophet (on account of exorcist-healing) all in one, subsumed under an apocalyptic vision.

There's much I like about your Jesus the Sage but don't think "sage" best captures the essence of the historical Jesus. On top of this, it's a favored term by Jesus Seminarians (for different reasons) and will too easily mislead.

Rosey said...


(Sorry for this long post)

I agree with the opinion that the John 8 test was to see if Jesus would rule in summary court upon a capital offense charge. The Rabbis wanted to know if he was Mossiach Bin Dovid -- King David returned. What better way then to prove it by seeing if he would judge a capital defendant without the assistance of a beit din (court). Unfortunately, they picked the wrong case to bring!

The Trial of the Sotah (Num 5) is a unique procedure that requires God to participate in the judgment of the accused as no valid witnesses, practically and halachacally, for adultery. Male Jews are not allowed to be in a secluded room with a wife other than their own and women are not valid witnesses. The existence of the Sotah procedure is required to accommodate the impossibility of such witnesses.

Jesus begins by conducting the Trial of Hazamah -- validating the, at least, two male witnesses. If they are invalid, they will receive the same penalty (death by stoning) they seek for the accused. In the Sotah procedure [see Tractate Sotah, Talmud Bavli], the name of God is written on parchment, then erased [the dust from it] into the clay cup of water she will drink. Before she drinks, she proclaims "Amen" for herself, and "Amen" for her alleged consort. Both she and her consort will be killed (by God) if she is guilty.

As Jesus is in the Beis HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem, he likely walked over to the Sotah stone, lifted it out, and looked down at the dirt below. (The Sotah pavement stone hand a handle that allowed it to be lifted up to get to the dust underneath, for the Sotah procedure. The temple pavement floor never had dirt on it, being maintained spotless). He likely wrote "Amen" in the dust and gave them a hint.

He then asks them if any is guilt of the specific sin at trial. Since there are no valid witnesses to suspected adultery (she is given the benefit of a doubt, regardless of "in the act"). By the way, it is incorrect to suggest that all witnesses be sinless generally, as this would invalidate all court cases. Such silliness would cause a collapse the courts and create anarchy! Only the witnesses in violation of the charge at trial are intended.

When he writes "Amen" the second time, they understand instantly that, if they do not withdraw their claim (head for the exits), Jesus will hand the accused over to the High Priest (likely nearby or observing anyway) for the Sotah trial. The witnesses' behavior is exactly consistent with this narrative; they abandon the claim, leaving the defendant alone. Since the charge is dropped, he cannot judge her, and does not. He does admonish her to not break the law.

What Jesus did is wonderful. He affirmed the great Torah principle that "You shall live by the Torah and not die by it." The goal of a Torah court is to prove innocence, not guilt. In fact, it was extremely rare for a guilty verdict in a capital case; a guilty verdict once in 7, no 70 years was considered a bloody court!.

The Trial of the Sotah was suspended in the early Maccabean period because barren couples would stage the trial to have children (the blessing of the innocent Sotah). The Sages also thought the Sotah water stopped working because of an overall decline in public morality. Jesus thought otherwise, for the purpose of the Sotah trial is to restore the virtuous wife's relationship to her husband -- this is why it's called the "Trial of Restoration."

Here is a perfect example of Jesus keeping his promise to "observe and keep" the Torah and Prophets (Matt: 5:17-19) that will never go away as long as there is a heaven and earth. Jesus proclamation is, of course, true, as Orthodox Jewish children continue to study and live the Law and the Prophets to this day, under the same heavens, on the same earth.

For this (John 8 narrative) reason, I think every serious scholar of our faith should sit at the feet of an Orthodox Rabbi, forget comparative theology for the moment, and just sit and learn the Torah as it was handed down. Study critically, with an attentive ear to set aside post-Second Temple period innovations. It can be done, but it takes a very sharp Rabbi to help.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Loren: Which is why you should go read my Jesus the Seer book, the companion to Jesus the sage, since he was both. I think he was a visionary seer, among other things.


CT40207 said...

I have a question for the scholars regarding Velvet Elvis/Rob Bell: Bell describes the calling of the disciples by Jesus as a truly groundbreaking event for the reason that, in Bell's view, the Rabbi was choosing the disciples & not the other way around. To me, this is such an awesome portrait & some of the background included in Velvet Elvis that describes why this was such an unlikely event makes it even better. Bell's description is that Rabbis were the top of the heap, the very best of the best. Those who couldn't cut it in their early preparations went into the family business. Is this illustration from the book misleading or not grounded in historical truth?



Unknown said...


Thanks very much for the clarification... but I must admit without knowing the depth of these proceedings, historically speaking, it seems very difficult to get a clear standing of the Gospel accounts. Is it practical to approach a passage such as luke 8 with a rudimentary approach using scripture as I did, or will I always miss as much as you have stated?

Rosey said...


Yours is a great question. After all the arguments and speculations are on the table, such as textural criticism, the Q gospel, and such – which I have only a passing familiarity with, my practical conclusions are a matter of personal faith (however proof-texted!).

My faith narrative -- the short version anyway, is that God must make what I must know to serve him knowable to me, sufficient enough to fulfill what is expected of me, including any divine assistance (e.g. atonement), or the Heavenly Court is unjust. Anything less, while holding me accountable seems unfair -- and I cannot conceive of an unfair God. Incomprehensible? Of course, but not unfair.

For me, it is necessary to understand what’s going on in John 8, for example. For someone else, maybe not so much – or any of the ancient Jewish contexts for that matter.

I am convinced the important narratives that God would have us know are available to know. When Jesus proclaimed the Law (Torah) and the Prophets (the applied Torah) would never pass away as long as there are the heavens and the earth (Matt 5:17-19), then it must be so. Since Christianity, as a community of faith, with its cannon of scripture, did not exist until several generations after the gospel period, the correct gospel period reference narratives are undoubtedly Jewish. And marvel of marvels, the major narratives of Judaism, of that period, including an astonishing amount of detailed law, lexicon, and custom are still with us, albeit cloistered in what are now known as the Orthodox Jewish community. So for me, I relish the opportunity to study with them, praying for wisdom to sift out recent or unworkable innovations.

Being from the American West, I was raised to “Dance with who brung you!” My first love is the love of Christ Jesus who opened up my understanding to Godly matters. The Jesus I observe through 1st Century Jewish perspectives is my Savior. He is, to me, quoting the Apostle John’s Kabbalist (mystical) introduction, the Torah made flesh to me; that perfect conduit of God’s revelation within a life of flawless obedience; the personification of a life of one continuous and contiguous mitzvoth – divine connections that brought Heaven down to Earth. To me, and maybe through me, too.

Which returs us to the theme of the post -- the re-Judaising of Jesus. It's about time, don't you think?

Unknown said...


Amen, and Amen my brother. I have began my quest 20 years your later!

Unknown said...

In relation to RB's use of comparing Jesus to a rabbi, I was wondering what your perspective was on David Stern's Jewish New Testament Commentary? I have a friend who uses it quite a bit, and it seems like the kind of book RB would also use. What do you think of it as an instrument of biblical interpretation?

Rosey said...

I have not read Stern's commentary, but have a dear friend that speaks highly of it. I tip my hat to anyone who might attempt such. The Gospels and Acts would be fairly straightforward to tackle, especially if one knew the Kabbalist narratives, which Jesus hints at. The Pauline epistles are full of collisions with the ancient Jewish narratives, in terms of irreconcilable doctrines.

Ben Witherington said...

Unfortunately Rosey there were no kabbalists in Jesus' day, much less any such commentaries either. That was a much later movement in Judaism. I have not looked at David Stern's commentary.


Rosey said...

Greeting Ben!

(Hat tip to your excellent blog BTW, and your kind hospitality to this stranger. I trust I will not wear out my welcome!).

If the Kabbalist narratives are as reliable as the Talmud’s history, the redaction of the Zohar (Kabbalist commentary) paralleled the Mishnah (the first outline of the Talmud). These redacted oral traditions were much older than the gospel period, if one accepts the Jewish narratives. If one doesn’t accept them, the conversation is over and let’s change the subject. For sake of the intellectual thrill of it, let’s argue in the affirmative!

One confirming test, to me, would be to listen for Kabbalist narratives in the teachings of Jesus and note any similarities.

Let’s take a Talmudic narrative example: Jesus paraphrases Rabbi Hillel the Great (Matt 22:37-40) who commented that the entire Torah can be distilled to two mitzvoth: “Love God with all one’s heart and do not do that which is despicable to one’s neighbor.” One would argue that Jesus taught the Oral Torah, as attributed to Hillel (who died a few years after Jesus’ birth) and be on safe ground. It is, therefore, a logically valid argument to say the Oral Torah was correct (in this specific instance) because Jesus taught it, accepting the premise that Jesus is correct (surely!). Likewise, if we encounter Kabbilist thoughts, Jesus merely expressed them before they were redacted by the Ari.

Consider, then, Matt 5:18-19. Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

A Kabbalist narrative on the Creation account expressed the idea that the Torah and God are one. In fact the very letters of the Torah are “Black Fire on White Fire” and these letters, themselves, became the physical things they describe as these letters descended into the physical world through the process of tzimtzum. When the Torah says, Elokhim (God) “said”, it is more accurately translated, “It arose in the will of God and God revealed … and what God revealed became.” So, the very letters of the Torah are the actual heavens and earth themselves, as an expression of the revealed will of God, written on the Torah scroll. From this perspective – the Kabbalist view point, if one could erase even one “yud” (smallest letter) or one “taggim”, or little crown (found on one of seven letters in the Torah text only), then heaven and earth would physically return to nothingness. Jesus analogy is not figurative at all! He is being quite literal, in the Kabbalist sense of what the heavens and earth are.

Years ago, when I first heard this Creation narrative, I laughed out loud and was promptly questioned by the Rabbi. “What’s so funny?!” he exclaimed. I responded, quite delighted with the obvious parallel, “Rabbi, I think the Nazarene was a Kabbalist!”

Some common sense should apply, too. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck – it’s a duck. If Jesus repeats a Kabbalist concept, it is what it is. What we do with that conclusion is potentially dramatic. It helps explain, for example, how he could heal people and work miracles. It provides insight as to why the Jewish authorities were so upset with Peter and John for healing the lame. The premise, if true, helps us understand how authentic the Gospel period texts actually are, from a Jewish scholarship perspective.

So, I agree with your point that the redacted Kabbalist commentaries post-date the gospel period. No dispute here. But if they are formerly oral, as claimed, they pre-date the gospel period and we should not be surprised to find them in the Gospel narratives.

Again, thanks for the blog space.

Ben Witherington said...

Sorry Rosey but this logic does not work at all. The Babylon Talmud is a source from the 3rd-4th century A.D. even later than the Misnah. Though it has a few traditions that go back to an earlier period, they must be examined with great care. Many things are attributed to Hillel in that source which reflect later editing, not what Hillel is likely to have originally said. See for example the work of jacob neusner on this subject. We cannot assume that Jesus knew any of Hillel's teachings. Hillel was after all a Babylonian rabbi who later came to Jerusalem. Jesus was not trained in Jerusalem, and there was not internet. So one cannot asume he knew such traditions at all. Furthermore Jesus never, not one time ever cites or mentions by name another Jewish teacher, and we shouldn't assume he is doing so in the example you provide. In short, Jesus doesn't operate like a rabbi at all. He operates like a seer and a sage.


Ben W.

Rosey said...


My argument is based on the premise that the ancient Jewish narratives are to be taken at face value; that what they say was orally redacted was old knowledge. I think we disagree here.

Regarding Hillel, you observe, "We cannot assume that Jesus knew any of Hillel's teachings. Hillel was after all a Babylonian rabbi who later came to Jerusalem." If you're using a Jewish source on which to base this assertion, following your logic, we must reject your statement as it would have been oral history before it was written down by a Jewish source.

As an aside, what do we do with the tradition that Rashi (1050-1105) used an annotated Torah scroll handed down from the prophet Ezra, when writing his encyclopedic commentary on the Talmud? Or, the 18th century biography of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (the BECHT) who studied with King David’s Torah instructor, while the BECHT ascended into the heavens (Gan Eden) during evening meditations? Remember, it’s the BECHT that, according to Chassidic lore, ascended and asked the Messiah, “When are you coming?” The answer was pretty close to that of Jesus, true?!

Anyway, following the "Oral Torah is Valid" premise, Perkei Avoth (Ethics of our Fathers) names Hillel and Shammai as one of the five pairs of sages who were the final Torah (halacha) authorities of their day. While Hillel died in AD 10, Jesus would have known the next generation’s legal authority, Hillel's son, Gamliel (whose name Paul drops when defending the veracity of is Jewishness).

As for Jacob Nauser – hum. The Rabbi’s I’ve studied with don’t think much of him, but that probably a family argument I’ll never hear the whole story about.

Concluding – and thank you for your time and hospitality here, if the Oral Torah is valid, and its essential narratives have survived the centuries of copying, like our Gospels, we have a vastly more detailed context to study the Christian texts with. I’m in favor of it. To me, it’s like watching Bonanza in “living color” on television for the first time (guessing that dates me!).

I’ll not post to your blog going forward, as we agree to disagree on first this first premise.

God speed, and keep up this faithful work!

Ben Witherington said...

Rosey you are welcome to post here, but you need to develop the proper criteria to distinguish between myth, legend, and history. The story about Rashi is not intended to be taken as history. It is simply a commentary on his faithfulness. And yes, the oral tradition was not all faithfully preserved from the time of Moses until the time of Jesus, and beyond. The general rule of thumb is that the materials in the Mishnah are generally more reliable than the materials in the Talmud, but in any case all of them have to be given critical scrutiny.



Ben Witherington said...

P.S. Why would you assume Jesus knew Gamaliel? I see no evidence for this assumption. Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, Gamaliel did not.


Rosey said...


(Accepting your invitation to continue posting here)

Let’s step away, for the moment, from a discussion of the textual accuracy of the Mishnah, Gamara, Zohar, and early post-Gospel period Jewish texts. We face the same struggles with Christian manuscripts, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves.

What Jewish scholarship says the Torah says and what Christian scholarship says the Torah says are materially different. Jewish scholars are perplexed and amazed (saying it kindly) that a Christian (and especially a Muslim) has the audacity to tell them what the Torah – their ancestral family record actually means. It’s the same as a Trinitarian Christian taking umbrage (rightly) when a Moslem accuses them of polytheism! Just who are you (being of a different faith) to tell another of a different faith what the other’s texts mean!? The case could be made that no non-Jewish scholar, using only non-Jewish sources, has any standing whatsoever to say what the Torah means. I’m not making that case here, but I respect the assertion, from an academic honesty perspective.

Let’s look at something practical. We have an obligation to not set up straw man arguments against Judaism, when we note Christian differences. For example, we (Christians) were raised on the idea that “An Eye for an Eye” – the law of retribution (lex talonias) was taught and practiced in Judaism. No classic Jewish narrative teaches that, but rather, “The value of an eye for the value of an eye.” Personal injury compensation is monetary only, based on the market value of the victim’s circumstance. Why the Torah doesn’t explicitly say “the value of an eye” is explained in the Gamara, and it makes pretty good sense, in fact. The Jew just throws up their hands in exasperation when the Christian preaches the theme, “Thank God we are no longer under the Law – no more eye for an eye nonsense!” We should know the Jewish meanings of Jewish texts so we know what our accurate value propositions are. We may also discover some unfounded Christian innovations, and thereby return to a more accurate grasp of our Faith.

I think we are on safe ground when we limit our textural confidence to the important themes, narratives, and doctrines in the Talmud and concomitant Midrashic texts, when we are taught by qualified (Orthodox) Rabbis, using Jewish-sourced references. I think the Christian should focus on Gospel and pre-Gospel period narratives, noting it is impractical to ignore of post-Talmudic innovations – and that’s my problem with Rev. Bell. He slips in post industrial-age Chassidic Jewish thought without source attributions.

As for Jesus not encountering Gamliel – it’s not out of the question. He certainly traveled to Jerusalem. Jesus most certainly knew the Oral and Written Torah narratives, stewarded by Gamliel.

Ben Witherington said...

The problem with this whole argument is that it assumes that Biblical texts are somehow privileged communication. I disagree. I think God's Word and sacred traditions, like the truth must be open and available to everyone. I often learn more about the NT from my Jewish colleague A.J. Levine than I do from some of my fellow Protestants. The reverse principle applies to the texts of Judaica. What concerns me about your assertions is that you are not listening to the numerous Jewish scholars of the Hebrew Bible, you are listening to rabbis. This is the equivalent of me taking guidance on the interpretation of the NT chiefly from ministers, not from the experts on the text.


Ben W,

Rosey said...


Last post for me on this thread.

Are you supposing the Rabbis I've studied with are not scholars -- not Chachamim?

I extend a cordial invitation so test your opinion on that point, should you find yourself in Kansas City.

For example, the Rabbi I've studied with, some 90 minutes a week for some 20 years except for Jewish holidays. I've been blessed to review, for example, Genesis (Bereshit) word by word, phrase by phrase, thought by thought twice through -- took us four years. We examined Mishah, Gamara, some Zohar, hudreds of Midrashim. An intillectual and spiritual feast if there ever was one. And that was just Genesis!

And I enthusiastically agree with your observation that the Torah is open and available to everyone -- with one caveat: you have to study with someone who knows it, as handed down from antiquity, as much of the body of knowldege is still orally transmitted.

Again, thank you for your kindest hospitality! Wishing you all success.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your blog and willingness to interact with those who write you. I just want to comment regarding your post saying that Jesus wouldn't have known Hillel's teachings, and that he didn't cite other teachers so that he doesn't operate like a rabbi at all...

A few thoughts:

Hillel became the head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem during Jesus' childhood, and we know that from youth Jesus' family traveled there yearly at Passover, and he had an avid interest in studying with Jewish scholars in the Temple courts. Of course no one can know if Jesus met Hillel personally, but considering the enormous influence Hillel had, I find it impossible that Jesus would not know of Hillel's teachings from interacting with others teaching in Jerusalem at the time.

Also, considering the peripatetic nature of the sages wandering across the countryside teaching, it seems that the Galilee would not be isolated from the proto-rabbinic discussions going on in Jerusalem. And Jesus, of course, traveled widely and engaged in debate and discussion everywhere he went - he of anyone would know what was said among other teachers of his day, don't you think?

Also, regarding Jesus' non-citation of sources, if you look at the proto-rabbinic sages of his time, you don't find that they cited sources either. Hillel and Shammai and sages after them never say something "in the name of" someone else. That was a pattern that developed after a body of oral tradition had been built up over the years, post 70 AD.

To say that Jesus operated outside of the scholarly world of his time because he did not cite his sources is to commit the sin you accuse Rob Bell of doing - anachronistically comparing him to later teachers, don't you think?

It seems to me that the door is quite open for Jesus to be a part of the Jewish scholarly world of his day, rather than a prophetic lone ranger who had nothing to do with the sages of his time.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Leah: First of all thanks for your comment but you are wrong at several key junctures. We have no evidence what so ever that Jesus ever studied with Jerusalem teachers. Lk. 2.41-52 properly exegeted indicates he may have briefly taught them or debated with them when he was on a brief visit there at age 12. So no, we don't have such evidence as you are suggesting. Secondly, there were certainly rabbis of the early period who cited other rabbis, and note that at Qumran they regularly cite the teacher of righteousness, their founder. This was the normal way tradition worked. Paul works that way as well-- look at 1 Cor. 11 or 1 Cor. 15-- 'I handed on to you what I received that on the night when Jesus was betrayed...' You can make a case for Paul formerly being like an early Jewish teacher in the sense of a Gamaliel, you can't make that case for Jesus I'm afraid. Lastly, when Jesus interacts with Pharisees and scribes in the Gospels, it is almost always in an antagonistic manner-- he even accuses some of knowing neither the Scriptures or the power of God. He sounds much more like John the Baptizer than a 'rabbi' in all these regards.


Ben W.

Unknown said...

Ben, thanks for your thoughful response. I agree with you that Jesus criticizes the rabbis of his time and often speaks with a prophetic voice rather than simply exegeting halakah - he is different in this respect. You're right that he likely didn't consider himself one of that movement.

But yet I think he would have been well aware of the teachings of the group, especially Hillel and other founders. He traveled widely in teaching, including Judea, and depended on hospitality of local people for his meals. It's hard to imagine he wouldn't have numerous conversations about the other popular teachings of his time.

You're also right that we can't know that he studied in Jerusalem with the rabbis there. But the fact that at twelve he was literate in the halakah they were debating says that he had had training at home in the scholarly thought of his time. (Just a thought - if he enjoyed debate with them so much that year, how do we know that on other yearly trips that he didn't stop by to continue the discussion? We don't know either way, of course.)

Even though the gospels portray him as hostile toward the rabbis of his time, they also show him being issued invitations to their meals. Considering the fact that they didn't eat with sinners, it suggests that at some point in his ministry, they found him worthy of their fellowship.

How much of Jesus' hostility toward the Pharisees do you think might be magnified by the redactors of the gospels, who lived in times of greater antagonism between the groups? You do find quotes like Mt 13:52 about "every scribe who becomes a disciple..." which hint that at times he had neutral or positive feelings toward the efforts of other rabbis.

Last, reading the early sages like Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel, you find short pithy quotes, not long chains of citations of other rabbis. The Qumranians had such reverence for their teacher of righteousness, of course they'd cite him. I agree with you that Jesus had a high self-awareness and didn't need to cite others when he gave his opinions. But you don't see Hillel or Shammai doing so either.

Thanks for all of your discussions. I appreciate your work. I heard you some years ago at SBL talking about the Sermon on the Mount and enjoyed it a lot.

Rosey said...

(Since these posts show up in my e-mail...reminding myself I was finished, for now...)


Spot on. I'm with you.

(Please consider making your profile public, with e-mail address visible. I have a couple of questions off line)


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Leah:

Nothing suggests that Jesus knew Halakah at 12 or any other age really. He doesn't debate those kinds of issues, indeed he simply dismisses them when he declared all foods clean.


Ben W.

Rosey said...


This conversation is hard to walk away from; a hat tip for the quality of the blog.

Jesus enforced halacha: When Jesus directs the ten healed lepers to present themselves to the priest (Luke 17) for the mandatory tzaras (leprosy) inspection (for subsequent ritual purification and return to the community), he enforces applied Torah law – halacha. The healed Samaritan gentile is not obligated to present himself for inspection, so it’s just a pleasant surprise he returns and thanks Jesus.

I can just imagine him! He’s skipping along with the others and then it dawns on him. He stop in his tracks. “Hey! I’m not a Jew! I don’t have to present myself to the priest!” Hum. What to do? “Well, mates, it seems the civil thing to do is at least thank the chap to healed me!”

The other nine obeyed Jesus. And I wouldn’t be too hard on them for not returning to thank him. They were likely reunited with their families with great joy. The text gives the impression Jesus thought them ungrateful, which seems out of character for him. They did obey the Torah law he enforced. (Maybe here’s an obvious place to suspect an anti-Semite copyist?)

Ben, I suspect “How Jewish was Jesus” merits its own blog site. And sticking with the theme (well, sort of) maybe Rev. Bell will come clean and source all the Chassidic teaching he’s receiving from someone. Next time you see him, ask him if he’s studying Tanya or Zohar.

Oh – one more juicy tidbit. Did you know that unclean food descending from the heavens, according to halacha is edible? Even a pig. Just don’t let it touch the ground! For nothing but good comes from Heaven!

(I really must leave this conversation. I’ll surly wear out your kind welcome.)