Jason Mahler is the producer of The Dust Cast, a podcast dedicated to discussing the ancient Hebraic context of scripture. Jason was kind enough to answer a few questions that relate to topics discussed on this blog. The Dust Cast is a great resource for discussing the necessity of reading scripture in its proper social and religious context.
There is an early tradition among the church fathers that Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Hebrew. What do you think about the Semitic background of the gospels from a cultural and linguistic perspective?
I think that Richard Bauckham makes a strong argument that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony, and I think that scholars such as David Bivin make a strong argument that much of the language in the Gospels reflects Hebrew idioms and linguistic patterns. It seems likely to me that Jesus spoke Hebrew fluently and quite possibly taught in it, even if Aramaic was the more common day-to-day language at the time. Given the Jewish emphasis on memorizing the exact words of your teacher, the fact that the Mishnah was written in Hebrew indicates to me that Torah teaching in Hebrew likely continued well into the time period when Aramaic became a common tongue. Taking all of that together, if Jesus and his disciples spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic – and were perhaps especially likely to discuss the Torah in Hebrew – then I think we should always have Semitic culture and linguistic characteristics in mind when studying the Gospels. When Jesus taught, the full Biblical concepts behind Hebrew words such as chesed, anawim, and the valley of Hinnom are likely in mind.
The parables of Jesus relate closely to Rabbinic sayings in the Talmud. How important do you think it is to understand the gospels in light of other Jewish literature?
Christians are sometimes tempted to think that Jesus was radically different than everything that came before him, but the more I study the more continuity I see. And why not? If Jesus is The Word, and God has been speaking to his people for hundreds of years, wouldn’t we expect continuity? It seems that in many ways God shaped Jewish culture in the Second Temple period to be ideally suited for Jesus’ ministry: Jesus came at a time when itinerant sages roamed the countryside teaching Torah, when students memorized the Tanakh and the sayings of their teachers verbatim, when scripture was read in synagogues and sages taught in parables.
I don’t think that we necessarily must know other Jewish literature in order to understand the Gospels, but I do think that it enriches our study significantly. We can see Jesus’ teachings on divorce in light of the debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. And we can see Jesus’ teachings on the greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) in light of the ongoing rabbinic debates about summarizing the essence of Torah with one commandment. We can see Jesus relating to his culture in a way that would have been especially relevant to his disciples.
Do you think that a Hebraic approach to scripture changes the approach to polemics and controversies in Christianity as a whole? Catholic vs Orthodox vs Protestant, Calvinist vs Arminian, Covenant vs Dispensational, etc…
I hope that it does, and I have argued elsewhere that it should. Generally speaking, Jews have been less likely to divide into separate sects over debates on theology than Christians have (especially Protestants). And it’s not because they have fewer debates. I see at least two reasons, and I think they could both be beneficial to Christians. The first is that Jews seem to view debates as healthy and desirable among friends and colleagues, rather than as something divisive and irreconcilable. As I mentioned above, the view seems to be that there is greater wisdom in the tension of differing perspectives. Debate helps us to stretch, learn and grow. By challenging our assumptions we are forced to think more deeply. We should welcome those we disagree with into fellowship and be thankful for the dialogue, rather than separating. Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17 ESV).
Secondly, Jews seem to define themselves more based on what they do (praxis) rather than precise details of what they believe (doctrine). I may be more comfortable with this perspective than the average Protestant since I come from a faith tradition that eschews statements of faith, but I have found the “unity on essentials” approach deeply problematic when we think of “essentials” exclusively in terms of theology and doctrine. We can’t even agree on what is essential and what is nonessential. I think we should define ourselves more in terms of what we do – a body of people who gather to worship and share a meal around the table, who follow Jesus, and who go into world to make disciples.
I think that truth is very important. I think that theology matters. So, please don’t read this as an invitation for sloppy thinking or loose theology. But if someone is willing to share communion with me and they are trying to follow Christ as a disciple, then I am willing to walk the road with them as we figure out the rest.
What three books (and why) would you recommend to someone interested in the historic and cultural study of scripture?
It’s hard to only recommend three books, but if I think about someone interested in beginning this journey, a few books do stick out as great introductions:
1. Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg – a great introduction to how an understanding of Judaism and the Hebrew language can enrichen our reading of the Bible and our walk with Jesus.
2. The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton – wonderful information on the Ancient Near Eastern worldview, especially cosmology. Part of me really wants to recommend Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by Walton, but it is a longer and more academic work. If you do want to tackle it, you can probably safely skip the Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East and start on page 87.
3. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin – an important work on how the First Century Jewish context contributes to our understanding of Jesus’ words.
In the context of biblical culture and history, one often runs into the phrase, “Christianity is Jewish”. What do you make of the relationship between “Christianity” and “Judaism”, both in the 1st century and today?
This is a tough one! I don’t consider myself a dispensationalist or a supersessionist, but I am not theologically trained in this area, so I probably don’t have adequate language to explain what my view actually is. The best I can do is the image of the olive tree that Paul uses in Romans 11. God has been cultivating the Jewish people as the people of God through his redemptive work in history, and through Jesus – the Jewish messiah – God has now made a way for Gentiles to be grafted into the people of God as well. God’s plan was always to bless all of the families of the earth through his election of Abraham, and through Jesus he has done so.
However, apart from any theology of the ongoing relationship between Israel and the Church, there is also a more basic, practical sense in which Christianity is Jewish. Jesus was Jewish, he was born in Israel as the Jewish messiah, and his ministry was predominate among the Jewish people (with an occasional interaction with a Samaritan or a Roman). The apostles were all Jewish, as were the vast majority of the early disciples. Jewish followers of Jesus continued to identify as Jews, meet in the temple, and story Torah in the synagogue.
Whatever we may believe about the relationship between the Church and Judaism today, it is clear that we must understand historical Judaism as deeply as possible in order to understand Christianity. Jesus quoted from the Tanakh continually and understood his ministry in light of the Jewish scriptures (especially, it would seem, Isaiah). He engaged with his local culture, taught in ways consistent with other Jewish sages (and later rabbis), and lived a life fulfilling Torah and Israel’s covenant.
You’ve had fantastic guests on your podcast. Who would you suggest people listen to first if they’re just starting the process of learning the Hebraic background of their faith?
This isn’t quite like asking me which of my children is my favorite, but it is difficult to prioritize my guests! I guess if someone is new to the ancient context of our faith and wants to get started with a broad overview, I would suggest some of the same authors whose books I recommended above. Lois Tverberg (episode 5) offers wonderful insights for walking with Jesus, and John Walton (episode 6) provides a great overview of the Ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).