Tverberg, Lois. Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). (Amazon.com)

9780310284208Lois Tverberg is the author of a recent book titled Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. She sent me a copy to review (for which I’d like to thank her) since this blog discusses topics related to Second Temple Judaism, Jesus, and early Christianity. It is more of a “user friendly” book than is reviewed here usually, but it is one that I think many of this blog’s readers may find valuable. 

Message of the Book

The aim of this book is quite simple: study the culture within which Jesus lived and his words and deeds will be given a new, enlightening nuance. I enjoy reading literature on this topic from a variety of people, whether it be N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, Amy-Jill Levine, Craig A. Evans, or a host of other authors who are experts on the historian’s Jesus. I know authors like Rob Bell, Ray Vander Laan, and to a different extent Kenneth E. Bailey have tried to include the discussion of scholars into their more popular literature (or like Wright, writing his own popular versions), but it is not common. Tverberg on the other hand as written one book already titled Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus and this is her second effort to help the “person in the pew” think about Jesus as a first-century Jew (though by no means does she remove the confessional/creedal affirmation about Jesus).

I admit that sometimes I am skeptical of these types of works. In an effort to talk about the historian’s Jesus there is the danger of anachronism, especially when it comes to the use of rabbinic sources, but even scholars can make the mistake of interpreting the historian’s Jesus through later works, so I read this book with a graceful eye knowing that the historian’s Jesus is a difficult character to grasp, especially when you come from a confessional background of one sort or another, and even when you do not come to the study having thought of Jesus in terms like “the second person of the Trinity”.

I should qualify that though this book does aim to revive the Jewishness of Jesus for the reader it is not strictly a work of history. Rather, it does engage in the reception history of rabbinic and Christian traditions, it is devotional, and it does include stories and examples that give contemporary meaning to living as a Christian in our modern world. Personally, I think it is a very useful book for something like a small group study at your local church with people who may never have the opportunity to read much about the historical studies surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.

Summary of the Content

The title of this book is based on a saying from Mishnah, Avot 1:4. Yose ben Yoeser is a second rabbinical figure of the second century BCE who is quoted here as having said that a disciple should “powder yourself with the dust of their feet”, “their” being that of one’s teacher.[1] The idea is that one should sit at the feet of their teacher or follow their teacher so closely that the dust that kick off his feet cover them. If this saying is nearly as old as it is attributed then Jesus’ disciples may have heard something like it and it may have had it in mind as they followed Jesus. This is the picture of discipleship Tverberg aims to present.

The book divides into three sections: I. Hearing Our Rabbi’s Words with New Ears; II. Living Out the Words of Rabbi Jesus; and III. Studying the Word with Rabbi Jesus.

In section I there are four chapters. Chapter 1: Brushing Away the Dust of the Ages is introductory. Tverberg talks a bit about how Gentile Christians have thought of Jesus as a Savior, as have Jewish Christians, but there was a sense among Jewish Christians that Jesus was their “rabbi” or “teacher” as well, something lost on many Gentile Christians.[2] This may be true, in part, when one examines contemporary Christianity, but I don’t know that the Patristic writings would deny the necessity of following the example of Jesus, even if not described in Jewish terminology like halakhah. It is a contemporary evangelical audience to whom Tverberg writes though and what she says about following Jesus’ example is true of many.

Tverberg does Christians a great service by making known to a popular audience some of the ideas circulating since E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Palestinian Judaism forced scholars to rethink their language about first century Jews as legalistic and superstitious people who Jesus had to enlighten. Rather, Jesus was very much a Jew of his day engaged in the discussions being debated at that time. In many ways Jesus was unique in his teaching, but there is a lot of what Jesus said and did that is far from original with his person. I think this is good for lay audiences to know.

Tverberg presents her sources in this chapter: the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus, and the Gospels. She clarifies that she doesn’t mean to limit Jesus to the status of a mere rabbi. Instead, she wants to highlight that part of his reality as a teacher who called disciples. She wants to remind Christians that our religion was once called “the Way” or “the Path” based on the Hebraic concept of following a derekh and that Jesus talk his disciples how to “walk” in his way, or halakah.[3]

The remainder of section I examines Jesus’ teaching that the most important commandments in the Law are to (1) love the Lord your God with all your heart…. And (2) the one like it, love your neighbor as yourself (see Mt. 12:28-31). Tverberg admits that she was surprised as a younger Christian to find that Jesus’ words came from the heart of the Law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, “two books I had read the least.”[4]

In Chapter 2: Shema: Living Out What You Hear she begins to delve into the Jewish Shema beginning with this word meaning something like “to hear with the intent to obey”. She ties this into Jesus’ words, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Then she discusses the meaning of the word echad, often translated “one” (which has caused much debate between Jews and Christians over doctrines like the incarnation and Trinty), but she advocates the use of “alone” as in this God was Israel’s God “alone”. This frames it as a command to fidelity more than a mere creedal statement for monotheism.

In Chapter 3: Loving God with Everything You’ve Got Tverberg continues to explore the Shema asking how God could command “love”. She argues that “love” is not a mere emotion here, but a covenantal agreement of sorts, like the word hesed, which is discussed in this chapter as well. When this chapter ends the reader will have gone through a fairly extensive word study on the Shema with an aim for understanding how this may have impacted Jesus and his teachings and how it should impact our contemporary discipleship.

In Chapter 4: Meeting Myself Next Door Tverberg moves to the second commandment about loving one’s neighbor. She provides a helpful discussion on how important this teaching was for the early church. Then she moves to studying Leviticus 19:18 and its context which is a reminder that Israel was once slaves in a foreign land, therefore treat foreign guests with kindness. This introduces the debate in Jesus’ day over the meaning of “neighbor”, provides a context for Jesus’ story about the Samaritan, and asks how all of this fits into Jesus’ words in his prayer for God to forgive us and we forgive others.

Section II begins with Chapter 5: Gaining a Good Eye which examines Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22-23 about the eye being filled with darkness or light. She argues that this saying is idiomatic meaning that having a “good eye” means to look out for others, especially the poor while having a “bad eye” means being selfish.[5] The remainder of the chapter examines Jesus’ teachings on charity and giving.

Chapter 6: The Mystery of the Name attempts to unpack the meaning of a “name” in the ancient world, e.g. when disciples baptized or did exorcisms “in the name of Jesus”. Tverberg introduces readers to the idiomatic expression’s relevance for presenting the authority of another. She discusses the lexical meaning of Jesus’ name, what coming in someone’s name meant, the idiom “in the name of a prophet…”, the “hallowing” of the name of God in the Lord’s Prayer, and what it means to profane a name (e.g., taking the “name” of the Lord in vain).

Chapter 7: How to Have a Kosher Mouth begins with a discussion on the role of the tongue on books like Proverbs and James and then delves into the ethics of speech: avoiding an evil tongue, slander, shaming others, and a variety of topics that include showing other dignity and not abusing them with one’s speech.

Chapter 8: Taking My Thumb Off the Scale includes a very relevant discussion on Jesus’ words about judging, especially when contrasted with Paul’s decision to tell the Corinthians to toss a member from their assembly. What does Jesus mean by “judgment” and how does our modern language around “judging others” skew our reading of the text? Tverberg guides the reader into thinking about this from a Jewish perspective, asking how anger and insults play into Jesus’ words as well as the picture of a scale being used at the local marketplace.

Chapter 9: Praying with Chutzpah argues that Jesus depicts God as appreciating someone with chutzpah or “utter nerve, sheer audacity that borders on obnoxiousness.”[6] She examines the story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mt. 15:21-28; Ml 7:25-30); Jesus’ parable about the unrighteous judge in Luke 18:2-5; the parable about the man who has unexpected guest from out of town in Luke 11:5-8; and Jesus’ words about “good gifts” in Matthew 7:9-11. She grounds this Jewish appreciation for chutzpah in Abraham, the father of the Jews (see Gen 18:23-25), and Moses (see Ex. 5:22-23). The chapter ends with some words on prayer, especially prayer for others.

Tverberg ends section II with Chapter 10: Thinking with Both Hands examines the Jewish tradition of shakla v’tarya, or “give and take”, where one person—like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof examining the tradition of a “match maker”—wrestles with a dilemma arguing internally for both sides. This approach to reality is found everywhere within Scripture—sometimes seen through western eyes as contradictions. One could think of Paul’s words on justification juxtaposed with James’ words on justification. Also, Jesus’ paradoxical words about “first” being “last” and “last” being “first” or losing life gains it and gaining life loses it. What would be contradictions to some are balanced views of the world in Scripture.

Tverberg transitions to a discussion on how some Laws—though all seen as having a divine origin—are seen as weightier than others. In this chapter she does a fine job of snuffing the tradition that Jews were panicky legalist seeking to avoid hell to gain heaven. She writes, “Contrary to our traditional Christian assumption, their discussions about the Law do not arise out of an anxious striving to earn one’s way to heaven. Jewish thought generally assumed that Jews were already saved, because God graciously chose Israel as his people. In their minds, the Law teaches them how to live in a way that pleases a loving God and upholds their covenantal relationship.”[7]

This invitation to “weigh laws” explains Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees over things like Sabbath far better than the old “legalism v. grace” paradigm. I think this may be one of the most valuable chapters for Christians who are used to this sort of approach to the Judaism of Jesus’ day. As much as scholarship has seen a paradigm shift it has taken a while for these ideas to “trickle down” to the church. Tverberg’s book as a more popular work can help bridge the gap.

The final section focuses the last four chapters on reading Scripture. Chapter 11: The Treasure of the Text reminds Christian readers that the Old Testament matters and that it is “floating” right below the surface of the text of the New Testament. Tverberg writes, “As Christians, we long to think the thoughts of Christ. But the stories he knew, the songs he sang, and the prophecies that shaped his earthly mission lie in the Old Testament.”[8]

The familiarity with Scripture reflected in the New Testament is attributed to the importance of reading Torah in the synagogue and the command for Jews to meditate and know the words of Scripture. Tverberg discusses parasha and haftarah readings (almost liturgical) and how this dedication to reading the text changed people.

Chapter 12: The Secret That God Keeps argues that the Jewish tradition has been aware that one can study Scripture their entire life and never know it all, or capture it, or find all the answers. This isn’t the goal of reading. Tverberg discusses God’s secrets in Daniel 12:8-9 and how this shapes the words of Acts 1:6-7 and Mark 13:32. The chapter includes sections on Messiah (Jesus) as interpreter of Torah, the ignorance of Job’s friends, and caution when studying eschatology.

Chapter 13: Our Longing Father challenges Marcionite thinking that denies (whether implicitly or explicitly) that the God of Israel in the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus in the New Testament. Tverberg emphasizes the God shown to us by Jesus as being a God of emotion and feeling, not an unmoved mover, but a real “personal” deity as seen in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. She examines a variety of Old Testament texts that speak of God in the same way, as loving, gracious, patient, caring. She presents the God of Jesus as being one who is not indifferent, or an “unmoved mover”, but a God who loves, actively.

Chapter 14: God’s Image Stamped in Dust is the final chapter of the book. It is a study of the imago Dei concept from Genesis 1:26-27 and how that fits into Jewish thinking and the teachings of Jesus.

At the end of each chapter there are a series of discussion questions under the titled “Wisdom for the Walk”. The book has a forward by Ray Vander Laan and an afterword from Ann Spangler. The book uses endnotes, at the end of the book, not the chapter. Finally, there is a glossary of terms and recommended resources for further reading that include respected authors such as Kenneth E. Bailey, Craig A. Evans, Abraham Heschel, and Brad Young as well as various online resources.

Concluding Thoughts

This book would be a great resource for small group leaders or the Sunday school class of a local church. I think Lois Tverberg has a lot of helpful points to make that evangelicals ought to hear and she puts it in the type of readable format that allows her to gain an audience. It is an enjoyable read. It is applicable. It is pastoral. It is informative. I learned from it and I imagine others will as well.


[1] 201, n. 24

[2] 21

[3] 27-29

[4] 33

[5] 70

[6] 118

[7] 137

[8] 146

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