A REVIEW OF THE BOOK SITTING AT THE FEET OF RABBI JESUS
Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg. First published by Zondervan, 2009.
This is not a new book, but it is the kind of book that never gets old. It enables you, the reader, to put yourself in the shoes of those who walked and talked with Jesus during his earthly ministry, and in so doing you will doubtless gain a vastly increased understanding of much that you may have read, and read right over, in the Gospels themselves. Not only does the book enable a better understanding of Christianity through a better understanding of its roots in Judaism, but it gives a better understanding of Yeshua (Jesus) as a man, as a teacher and as Messiah.
One of the most important things the book does is to put into context the life and teachings of Jesus as a 1st century rabbi - a scholar and teacher of the biblical texts who shared this descriptive term with other teachers of that age long before the term became a formal religious title as it is used today. Viewing the Gospel accounts through this lens gives countless insights into what Jesus did, said and even, on occasion, what he did not say that can help us understand these accounts and the social and historical realities behind them. It is like the situation we find ourselves in today whenever we read a newspaper. Every story has layers of meaning which we grasp because of our knowledge of our own culture and recent history – layers of meaning that would be lost to readers of the same document who might read it two thousand years from now. This is the beauty of Sitting At The Feet Of Rabbi Jesus. The book fills in much of the missing context and enables us to see how the words of the New Testament would have been understood by the original readers – and to have more of that same understanding ourselves, today.
For example, by looking at the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) from the context of 1st century biblical understanding and interpretation, the authors are able to open up this important event with meaning and significance that a modern reader would never have guessed. The verse is completely transformed into something far more meaningful, that most commentaries do not convey. Similarly, Jesus’ description of himself as the “Good Shepherd” or as the “Son of Man” takes on entirely new and more powerful meanings when seen from the perspective of 1st century biblical understanding and expectations. These are only small examples, chosen at random. Few pages go by without New Testament stories, conversations or events being clarified and expanded in a similar way.
The book also does an excellent job of differentiating between the kind of interpretation Jesus and other rabbis of His day used in explaining the plain meaning of scriptures and some of the more symbolic and esoteric interpretations which were added in Jewish scholarship as later centuries went by. In the same way, the book shows that the Judaism of 1st century Palestine is not the same as modern Judaism in a great many ways, yet when similarities are there, they are discussed. However, the book is not about Judaism per se. For the most part, it brings information together regarding the culture in which Jesus lived which increases our understanding of many of the words and deeds of His ministry.
But this book is not only about the Rabbi who was Messiah. It is also about his disciples and what it meant to follow a rabbi in 1st century Israel. Just as the book expounds on the role and teachings of Jesus, it also greatly enhance the reader’s understanding of the roles and responsibilities of his disciples – both then and now. It does this by giving a deeper knowledge of how the disciples of Jesus’ day functioned, the bonds they developed with their teacher, and the responsibility they in turn took on to make further disciples. These things have direct application to anyone aspiring to that same role today, and the book might be said to be a manual for disciples as much as it is an exposition of the life and work of Jesus himself.
Finally, the book discusses a good number of concepts related to Jewish worship and life which are known to have developed during the time of Jesus and before – concepts which were clearly known and alluded to by Jesus and his disciples. Some of these concepts have to do with individual worship, and others have to do with much broader things such as the structure and nature of the New Testament Church. Several of the concepts may surprise you. Although he was addressed as “Rabbi,” for example, the book shows why Jesus instructed his followers not to take this title. The reason has a great deal to do with what the Church should be.
The book is not a formal study, however, and is quite informally written with many insets and asides from the authors. Each chapter closes with suggestions for applying some of the things learned. You may not agree with every interpretation offered by the authors, or some of the applications they suggest, but the book is still a veritable gold mine for nuggets of understanding. By way of warning, the style in which the book is written is also somewhat different and can be a little choppy. A paragraph on some aspect of life in the time of Jesus may be followed by another describing one of the authors’ recent trips to Israel, and then by another discussing the development of Jewish thought in the Middle ages. There is also some repetition of ideas which are discussed in the text and summarized in additional paragraphs. It is not that the style does not work, just that the style takes a little getting used to. But if you can “go with the flow,” the book will amply reward your time spent on it.
Indeed, Sitting At The Feet Of Rabbi Jesus is one of those rare books that repays the reader for her or his attention many times over. It is not often that a single book comes along which teaches so much, but this is such a book. It is now available in both print and Kindle formats. If you have never seen the book, or if you are aware of it but never got around to reading it, you may have no idea what you are missing.
For those who may have read this book at some point, consider now reading Lois Tverberg’s more recent study: Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life. (Zondervan, 2012). It too is a rich source for increased understanding of the Rabbi who was Messiah and what it means to be his disciple.