Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Velvet Elvis and the King"-- Has he Left the Building?

Rob Bell’s best-selling first book “Velvet Elvis” has tapped a remarkably large market of young people ranging from early teens to late thirties who seem wide open to the Gospel, if presented in user-friendly forms. And Rob has a gift at reaching them. One of the things I like most about Rob Bell is his genuineness, his honesty. He may have a funny bone, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a phony bone in his body. Its very refreshing. And full props should be given to him for presenting a Christocentric worldview. This is of course characteristic of the Emergent Church movement. In fact it has been criticized for being too Christ focused in some respects. I disagree.

Furthermore, Rob writes clearly and well. It was interesting to hear him describe the agony of the writing process for him when he was here in Lexington this week. Clearly, writing is a labor of love for him, which may explain the one word, and one line sentences from time to time, not to mention the shortness of his two books. But I suspect this is partially intentional. If one takes time to peruse his notes, you discover he has read widely, and fortunately a goodly number of his sources are good ones. Some however leave a good deal to be desired. But more on that in a moment.

It is evident, particularly from the way that Rob uses and quotes the Bible that he has a high view of the Bible’s authority, probably a higher one than some other Emerging Church folks I have encountered. I like the Biblical depth of his arguments at points. His books may be short but they are substantive. They reflect a real wrestling with deep issues, and a real honesty about growth areas Rob sees that he still has. Sometimes as well, there are some really profound insights reflecting deep meditation on the Word.

And let us discuss for a moment how Rob sees the Gospel. He believes that the whole Gospel in all its spiritual and social dimensions needs to be preached and lived out. He has a strong commitment to the poor, the diseased, the hungry, the homeless, not only locally but globally. And he makes this commitment without ever compromising on the spiritual dimensions of salvation as well. He believes that Jesus died for everyone, atoned for everyone’s sin, that God desires that none should perish, and that salvation should be offered to everyone from the least, last and lost, to the first the most and found. He has a profound grasp of sin, guilt, atonement, salvation, God, the afterlife. It is a joy to watch this thirty six year old think and ask questions.

And he has good questions. In some ways questions are his forte. But he does not just use questions to fend off other questions or avoid giving answers when he knows them. He sees himself as following the M.O. of Jesus himself and other early Jews in this. He also has a very good and broad vision of God, not to mention a broad vision of God’s plan for humanity and the earth. As Rob says—escapist theology is not Biblical. Our final destination is not ‘somewhere out there’ its right down here.

The reason ecology and environmental concern is so important is that surely we ought to clean up our room before God comes in the person of Jesus to dwell with us down here forever in the new heaven and new earth. Robb thinks on a cosmic scale, pointing out that God intends to redeem and restore not just you and me, but the earth and all that is in it. Praise God for good holistic visions of salvation that motivate us to be our best selves. It will be clear from all this that I think there is a good reason God has given Rob Bell such a platform—he is a sincere, orthodox communicator of the Gospel with a passion for people and their shalom, their wellbeing. And he is indeed a gifted communicator.

What I am about to say thus must be taken in the larger positive context in which I have framed it. While the following list of concerns should not be seen as minor, they do not by any means outweigh the good that Rob does and which characterizes his ministry. So I would want the following to be seen as a list of desirable upgrades:

1) Rob, since he wants to stress the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers, needs to have a better understanding of early Judaism in a number of ways. In the first place, Jesus was no rabbi. So far as we can tell, there is no archaeological evidence at all for bet Talmud or bet Midrash in Jesus’ day in Galilee. There were some schools in Jerusalem but they were far from Galilee. After 70 A.D. of course some schools were established in Galilee because Jerusalem was no longer capable of supporting such things. This became totally impossible in Jerusalem after the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early second century when the Romans turned Jerusalem into a pagan city with a temple to Jupiter/Zeus and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. In fact, you will notice that Jesus has no encounters with ‘rabbis’. Scribes yes, Pharisees yes, Sadducees yes, priests yes, synagogue Presidents like Jairus yes--- but no rabbis. This is because there were no ordained rabbis hanging around synagogues in Jesus’ day. It is a huge mistake to read the Talmuds and the Mishnah as if they were describing the world that Jesus lived in, when in fact they mostly described Judaism after the two Jewish wars when Judaism had been whittled down mostly to Pharisaism and had become a much more Torah-centric religion. Jesus was not a rabbi, nor did he have close encounters of the first kind with ordained rabbis. There were none in his day.

Along this same line it needs to be stressed that Jesus was in various ways a radical Jew. He did not simply keep the Mosaic Law, he believed that he came to fulfill it in some respects, and to intensify it in some respects, and yes, to replace it in some respects because the new covenant was being inaugurated through his ministry. Over and over again Jesus healed on the Sabbath—a violation of the work rules in the OT, never mind the more strict ones the Pharisees upheld. Jesus not only dined with sinners and other unclean folks, he famously declared that nothing that enter a person actually defiled them (see Mk. 7). Say what you will, but this makes clear he does not think Leviticus any longer applies in various ways since the Kingdom is breaking in. When Jesus says “you’ve heard it said… but I say” Jesus often contrasts his own teaching with that of Moses, not just contrasting his interpretation of Moses with other interpreters of Moses. Jesus spoke on his own authority, and in this he spoke very differently than rabbis—who were always using footnotes and quoting previous teachers. Jesus never once quotes the great teachers from before or during his era--- Hillel or Shammai or Gamaliel. For the most part Jesus does not spend his days debating Bible passages with people. His occasional debates in Jerusalem do not characterize the majority of his teaching which is wisdom material—riddles, proverbs, aphorisms, one liners, parables, even a bit of allegory. Jesus is a Jewish sage, not a rabbi in fact by trade he was an artisan ( a carpenter or stone mason) and he came to change the world, including Judaism. In other words, Since he is going to focus so much on the Jewish Jesus, Rob needs to use best evidence on what that looks like. See the bibliographies in my books The Christology of Jesus, Jesus the Sage, and Jesus the Seer. The mistake of using the later rabbinic grid to interpret Jesus leads to mistakes in interpreting Jesus’ words. For example when Jesus speaks about binding and loosing, he is not referring to forbidding and allowing certain ways of interpreting OT verses. To bind refers to making a ruling that is binding, not forbidding it. To loose means to free someone from obligation to keep a particular rule.

2) Rob needs a better knowledge of Hebrew. One example from ‘Velvet Elvis’ will have to suffice. On p.26 we hear about what “being born of a virgin” means. In the course of this discussion Rob claims that the word ‘virgin’ in Hebrew could mean several things. Well in the first place, we do not have the word ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7.14 in the Hebrew text we have almah which means a nubile young woman of marriage age. In an honor and shame culture like that, this would certainly imply the virginity of the girl in question, but would not focus exclusively on that trait. There is a word for virgin in Hebrew, but this is not it. It is the Greek OT, not the Hebrew that has the term virgin (parthenos) which Matthew follows in Mt. 1 when he quotes the Isaiah text. In the midst of this discussion Rob throws in a mention of Mithras cults. Now unfortunately he likes to do the comparative religions thing from time to time, but he needs to get his facts straight: 1) the cult of Mithras does not seem to have existed properly speaking before the late first century A.D. It is of no relevance to discussion NT books, and in particular the Jesus tradition; 2) the cults of Mithras and Attis and Dionysius were not religious cults which centered on real historical persons, unlike Christianity. As such they did not talk about actual virgin births any more than they talked about bodily resurrections of a person like Jesus. It is simply not true as well that Julius Caesar or other Emperors were said to be born of virgins. Remarkable births or births signaled by comets are one thing, virgin births another. Rob is however quite right that some of the Greek terminology like euanggelion (Good News) was used by the Emperor cult, and was borrowed by Christians to make their own claims about Jesus. As my friend Tom Wright says—Jesus is the reality of which Caesar was only the parody.

3) The good news is that Rob is committed to contextual exegesis of the NT. The bad news is a fair bit of the time he has not read the commentaries so he will get the context right. When I say he hasn’t read the commentaries, I mean he hasn’t read the standard commentaries on the various books of the NT written by Evangelical or other Orthodox scholars, or at least he never footnotes them or shows any knowledge of them. Instead he has read the Paleo-Jewish commentaries of folks like David Flusser or Brad Young, or the like, whose views represent a tiny minority opinion within the world of NT scholarship. I find this odd since he had a chance to study with folks like Don Hagner and Marianne Meye Thompson at Fuller. How did this happen? In any case, he needs a commentary tune up, as one is only as good a teacher as one’s sources.

Enough with the wish list. There is more, but it can wait. I like Rob’s integration of personal stories with Biblical interpretation. I like his big vision of the truth—that all truth is God’s truth wherever we find it. His insights into forgiveness for example and its connection to the death of Christ are profound (see pp. 107-08) and he is so right that God doesn’t just want to forgive us, God wants to restore us. I like his paradoxes which he explores—for instance “For Jesus the question was not how do we get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here?” (p. 147).

There is so much more positive I could say, but I will leave it at that. I admire Rob’s courage and commitment and creativity (he's left handed like a few other ministers I know), and it would be a good thing if we all prayed for him and the ministry God is doing through him. Who knows but that God has called him especially to reach our youth in days such as these as we drift in an increasingly non-Christian cultural direction.

Elvis may have left the building a long time ago, but the real King, Jesus is alive and well and Rob is lifting him up.


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Ben, Thanks once again for your helpful comments.

Matthew said...

If only Christians of all stripes could disagree and correct one another the way you have, Dr. Ben.

Since I'm away from my copy of The Christology of Jesus, I'm going to ask a question that might be settled by the bibliography. I know that part of our task is gleaning the good information from people who may not hold to the same Christology we do. Does Geza Vermes' 'Jesus in His Jewish Context' provide the kind of background information that you have blogged about?

I ask because I picked it up cheap and haven't had a chance to read it yet.

Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for this carefully written expansion and clarification of your previous post. Thank you for taking the time to read Rob's book and give gracious feedback as a NT scholar. Oh that more biblical scholars would "stoop" to interacting with hugely influential popular books. We are in debt to people like you and Scot McKnight. This post will have a healing and redemptive impact on evangelical Christianity.

Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Ben Witherington said...

Well yes and no. Vermes has a kind of glorified view of sages, but there is bound to be some good stuff in there.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rainsborough:

Sanders now dated treatment of the material has had some major refutations along the way since 1991. Jesus' eating with tax collectors and sinners is found in various layers of the Gospel tradition. What we know of Pharisees is that food laws is certainly one of the major issues they would have taken issue with Jesus about, as well as unnecessary healing on the sabbath, particularly when the situationw as in no way life-threatening. John Meier's able treatment on these subjects, see especially his Marginal Jew Vol. II, is helpful at this point.

As I said before, Jesus was a radical in various regards, and he was so precisely because he believed the eschatological Dominion of God, and with it the new covenant (which established new rules for the new occasion) was breaking into human history through his ministry.

The reason Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, sublimates the more radical edge of Jesus, is because he is addressing Jewish Christians in either Galilee or Antioch, those who were, and wanted to continue to be Torah true Jews. The Acts 15 council in about 50 A.D. settled the matter that Gentiles did not have to observe such laws, even when in fellowship and dining with Jewish Christians. The ekklesia Matthew addresses however is a Jewish one, and so there was not an issue of the need to accommodate Gentiles.


Ben W.

hook said...

Are you saying that the scribes were not rabbis? Or that someone identified as a Pharisee might not also be a rabbi?

Steve said...

I believe NT Wright has done some wonderful work in putting Jesus into his first century Jewish context. I would suggest "the Meaning of Jesus" which he co-authored with Marcus Borg.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Hook:

Indeed, scribes are not rabbis-- they are exegetes or theologians but not rabbis in the later sense. And Pharisees were most certainly not rabbis-- they were all lay people, the ancient equivalent of lay witness missioners.

Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

Some good points Rainsborough. I think there were a whole series of violations or perceived violations that set the Pharisees off, one of which is the willingness in various ways to ignore the rules about ritual purity. And not once, not once do we ever find Jesus practicing purification rites after such contact with the diseased, impure, the non-observant, the Gentile. This surely is not an accident.

Ben W.

yuckabuck said...

I think it is possible for a first century Jew to be a "loyal Jew" and yet still seek to displace the covenant. I think that is what Elijah is doing in 1 kings 19.

(Elijah informs God that Israel has rejected the original covenant, and then heads to Sinai hoping to hear God's voice thunder out, bringing a new covenant. God answers instead in a "still small voice," informing Elijah that His plan actually has not failed, as there is a remnant that remains faithful, and that there will be no new covenant at that time; therefore Elijah should just go and anoint a successor and carry on.)

Obviously much of what Jesus said and did has parallels from the Old Testament and 2nd temple Judaism, but we should allow him to be unique as well. I see the main points of contention between Jesus and the Jewish leaders being over who Jesus was, and what his announcement of the Kingdom of God meant (ie., Christology and Eschatology- interestingly, these are the two main areas that scholars and "questers" still argue over).

I think Jesus knew how to make radical points in a subtle way. He would never have said, "Do not perform sacrifices," but He did small things that were unmistakable in their larger implications, like the aforementioned neglect of purification after touching a diseased person. The opposition didn't want to kill Him merely because he healed on the Sabbath, but because they could see where it might lead to next. They understood that Jesus was pushing a definitive break with the past, even if on the outside it looked more "Jewish" than, say, Paul's outreach to Gentiles (which got him in trouble as well).

Nate Long said...

"And Pharisees were most certainly not rabbis-- they were all lay people, the ancient equivalent of lay witness missioners."

A strange claim given Paul's words:"educated at the feet of Gamaliel" who was himself "a Pharisee in the council..., a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people"

Perhaps you refer to the differing nature of first century rabbis, as opposed to the "officially ordained" rabbis of the post-Yavneh era?

Nate Long said...

P.S. I thoroughly appreciate the spirit and tone of your critique of Rob's book. Thank you for this example.

Ben Witherington said...

Pharisees were indeed lay people. There were the scribes of the Pharisees who were the theologians. Basically they were scribes with Pharisaic beliefs and approaches to the OT. Gamaliel was certain a scribe of the Pharisees and a fine teacher as well--- but a rabbi in the later sense he was not. For example, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, not a synagogue president or leader or 'minister'-- kapish?


Nate Long said...

gotcha; I hear what you're saying.

It would be interesting to do a more nuanced description acknowledging that Gamaliel the Elder, Hillel, Jesus, Hanina b.Dosa and Paul were rabbis, yet different in nature than Judah Ha-Nasi or Rabbi Meir.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ben! I was intrigued by your advice to Rob Bell about consulting more and better commentaries. Do you have particular commentaries in mind?

Also, do you have experience with any electronic editions of commentaries such as this list, available from Logos Bible Software? (The company where I work.) Do you have a preference for working with electronic vs. print editions?

Along those lines, you might be interested to know that Logos is producing an electronic edition of The Jesus Quest.

Daniel Foster
Logos Bible Software

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Daniel:

You have some wonderful commentary series in your list, however not a single one of them involves Socio-Rhetorical approaches to the NT, which is a great great pity. I suggest you negotiate with Sam Eerdmans for the Socio-Rhetorical series I edit for them, and with Andy Beck for the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series as well. In general, I myself do not like electronic editions of commentaries because you need to have about 8 of them in front of you at once when you are digging into a passage. "Give me that old time format, give me that old time format, if it was good enough for Jesus...., oh wait, that was another song :)

Blessing on Logos' ministry,


hook said...

Ben -

Your use of "rabbi in the later sense" is an interesting distinction. Apparently it's important to you, and perhaps reflects a significant argument taking place in academia. For myself, I know just enough to find your statements misleading.

I'm aware that the rabbis became preeminent after the destruction of the Temple. And that meant institutionalization. But this movement didn't pop out of thin air.

It would seem more likely that scribes were in essence, the precursor group to post-destruction rabbinical structure. This would not rule out ordination as conferring of official status upon a scribe, nor the title of rabbi.

Nate has posted something that seems to reflect my confusion here, although he doesn't seem to be confused. And that's his suggestion that there is a more nuanced distinction that could be made between say, Hillel, and rabbis of the later rabbinic structure including Talmud. In Matthew 23, Jesus warns his followers not to be like those love to be called Rabbi, and as nearly as I can tell there are only scribes and Pharisees that he could be referring to.

As a final attempt to get at the heart of what you're saying, I'll first say that since I haven't read the Bell book, it could be your strong statements are in reaction to what he writes. But your statement that there were no ordained rabbis in Jesus' day seems to fly in the face of the (admittedly limited) reading that I have done on the subject.

BTW, thanks for sharing your insights on this blog and your willingenss to interact.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Ben! We'll certainly keep working on these publishers. They are both excellent series and would add a dimension to our offerings, as you observe.

If you haven't seen firsthand what Logos Bible Software is like in terms of interface, personalized workspaces, quality of books, and depth of interlinking between material...well, I hate to think you're missing out. I'm amazed at how prolific you've been, and there's a chance that Logos could help you to be even more so!

I'd be happy to set up a personal online demo with one of our ministry trainers if you can carve out a half hour sometime. Or I could help set something up next time we're in KY. Just let me know. Bible software has come a long way in the past few years! :-)


tvtv3 said...

Thank you for such a great post. I find your comments about Bell refreshing.

Anthony said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the helpful comments on Rob's talk. I also appreciate his ministry and feel that God is using him awesomely for his Kingdom. None the less there are some concerns, especially over how he has come to some of his conclusions from an exegetical perspective.

However, i found your discussion over the differing understandings of Jewish history very helpful. I am currently writing a paper on the Biblical motif of Shalom for some Post-grad work. Could you direct me to any sources (from a Jewish perspective and Christian) that could be useful?

Much appreciated,

Joel Gorveatte said...

If you have the time, I have a Rob Bell & “Revelation” question for you. What is your take on the connection between Domitian’s Roman rule and the picture painted in Revelation chs. 4 & 5?

- The Domitian Games

- Worshippers with golden crowns inscribed with Domitian’s name.

- The scroll

- The “Mark of the Emperor/Beast” in order to do commerce in Ephesus and through the Empire

- 4 different colored horses racing around the track

This obviously comes from a teaching by Rob Bell.

My problem is:

- I’m having trouble verifying sources for these details from Domitian worship.

- Is there any factual stuff here?

Maximus at Parvus said...

Thank you for reading this book and commenting on it! Rob Bell's ability to "connect" with 18-25 year olds is impressive, to say the least.

I heard Rob last week, and I took a group of students from Asbury College. The way in which the material about emperor worship was presented left the hearer wondering about the historicity of things like the virgin birth or resurrection. (I asked the students I had brought - they immediately began to wonder if Christians had "made it up" to compete with the emperor cult.)

Max Vanderpool
Generations Community Church
Nicholasville, KY

Steve said...

What a wonderful pattern for an honest review of a brother's work. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I like the book alot and your review just as much. Rob Bell and Brian McClaren are really just revisiting NT Wright and putting it in plain english instead of theological verbage

Thomas said...

Ben, I'm confused. "Jesus was no rabbi?" He was called rabbi in the scriptures. Can you explain? Thanks, Thomas

pbandj7 said...


i wrote a lengthy comment, but it kept getting erased. so suffice it to say, in regards to Jesus having no similarities to men like Hillel and Shammai, etc, please check out i think you may find that Jesus was in fact very much a rabbi and used Hillel's teaching frequently.


Unknown said...

Didn't the bible define rabbi as a teacher and wasn't Jesus our greatest Teacher?

Michael Krahn said...

Excellent post Ben. I am quoting you at length in my own series on the book, the first part of which I have just posted at:

seethroughfaith said...

Fun ending

but I echo the comment of the pentultimate post and ask since rabbi means teacher and Jesus was a teacher (with a set of disciples) what's wrong with giving him the title rabbi ? isn't that how - on occasion - the disciples (and possibly others9 actually addressed him

Dev Lunsford said...

Hi - I'm currently a very confused wavering Christian disillusioned with the way things are - and I'm trying to work out what's true in everything.

All I do know is that as soon as people start shouting at each other I'm not interested. I like Rob Bell for this reason - but not being a theologian of any kind and only a thinking but under-read Chemistry graduate I've worried that I'm just believing everything he says because he's nice ;-).

You're the first person so far to be able to say 'Well... he's great, and a lot of the things he says are great, but he misses this and this...'. All I've had so far is my own 'he's amazing' or some people's 'he's a crazed mystic watering down the gospel and should be excommunicated'.

So thanks for being able to say 'yes and no, but mostly yes'. Given that I'm never going to understand even what one of your students needs to understand, I don't know what I can do better than find someone, well as many people as possible, who seem to at least care about God and people more than anything else, even if they're not right about everything.

I'm sorry if I've not explained myself very well. I am essentially very confused and I'm not sure really why I needed to tell you all this. Basically, thanks again for being able to give a constructive mixed review.

Dev Lunsford

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben! I'm a senior at UNC-CH that was web surfing for Velvet Elvis reviews and happened upon your blog. I just read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, with parts of it resonating deeply with what I've been exposed to in InterVarsity and read of N.T. Wright, Allen Wakabayashi, Scot McKnight, etc., though not without parts of Bell's work resonating as near to heresy as truth gets.

I've appreciated some emerging-church critics that have pointed out areas I wish Bell had been more explicit in articulating his supposedly Orthodox views, but I also have been frustrated by their level of freak-out about his Gospel narrative (God wants to reconcile everything? Surely liberalism!) and some of the lines he doesn't feel compelled to de-fuzzy.

Your review is perhaps the most intelligent, constructive of the ones I've read, and I just wanted to thank you for that. As someone without a seminary degree, it's significantly easier for me to see the lots of good in Bell, along with some of the dangers. But understanding how he portrays Jesus's Jewishness is beyond my knowledge base. It's very useful to be able to appreciate where Bell is trying to go with things while taking them with a grain of salt.

Appreciate it!

Kyle and Kassy said...

In John 1v38, John the Baptist's disciples call Jesus Rabbi. Was this term, Rabbi, just used flippantly for anyone who showed a hint of teaching ability? And if John was written later when the term Rabbi was official, then why did he apply it to Jesus? And what were teachers of the law?

And my other question is about the disciples. Were disciples not official in the time of Jesus? If they weren't, then who did they follow?