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Walking in the Dust of Rabbi JesusHow the Jewish words of Jesus can change your life
By Lois Tverberg
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Lois Tverberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBrushing Away the Dust of the Ages
Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the Scriptures: one studies a bit today and some more tomorrow, until in time the understanding becomes like a flowing stream. — Song of Songs Midrash Rabbah 2:8
In 1977, Pinin Barcilon won the assignment of a lifetime when she was asked to lead the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, one of the most well-known images of all time. But the renowned Italian art conservator could hardly imagine how nerve-wracking the next twenty-three years would be.
The centuries hadn't been kind to the mural that da Vinci completed on a monastery wall in Milan, Italy, in 1498. Always the experimenter, Leonardo had reformulated his paints in a way that proved to be unstable, so that the paint began flaking off even before his death. And even though his mural was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it was left unprotected from pollution and humidity. When Barcilon began her restoration, five hundred years of dust, mold, and candle soot had darkened the iconic work almost to the point of invisibility.
The real challenge for her team, however, was to undo the disastrous attempts at restoration that had begun back in the 1700s. Heavy coats of varnish, glue, and wax had been brushed on, each of them hastening the darkening process. Worst of all, hack amateurs had painted over da Vinci's work time and again, rendering its images distorted, brushing out details they didn't understand, and filling in gaps with their own interpretations.
After months of photographing every square centimeter of the painting's surface and analyzing it using state-of-the-art technology, Barcilon's team members finally began their work. Then, for over twenty years they hunched over microscopes, painstakingly scraping away five hundred years of grime and overpainting. On a good day, one postage stamp's worth of the image would emerge. In 1999, when da Vinci's brushstrokes were finally revealed, her team's meticulous, mind-numbing labor found its reward. Barcilon called it a "slow, severe conquest, which, flake after flake, day after day, millimeter after millimeter, fragment after fragment, gave back a reading of the dimensions, of the expressive and chromatic intensity that we thought was lost forever."
Gloomy shadows banished; a well-lit banquet hall emerged. Peter's beard and nose were free of the clumsy weight that later retouchings had given them. Matthew sported blond hair, not black. Thomas gained a left hand. Andrew's expression was transformed — he was no longer sullen, but astonished. And Jesus' face glowed with new light after the dingy repaintings had been removed.
The essence of the scene remained unchanged. Da Vinci had depicted the fateful scene at the moment Jesus revealed one of his disciples would soon betray him. But after centuries of murky obscurity, restoration had brought to light the original beauty of the artist's masterful portrayal of the facial expressions and body language of Christ and his disciples.
Unearthing Jesus' World
Just as modern technology enabled Barcilon to reveal da Vinci's original strokes, in recent decades scholars have gained new tools to restore the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us. In just the past fifty years, we have seen more advances in biblical archaeology and in the discovery of ancient texts than in all the centuries since the time of Jesus. As dingy accretions of history are cleared away, vivid details of Jesus' life and culture are emerging.
The same year that the Last Supper was newly unveiled, I took my first study trip to Israel. One of the scarier highlights of our tour was exploring the water tunnel that King Hezekiah built under Jerusalem in 701 BC. Half terrified, our group peered into the dark, stone-hewn shaft before us and stepped down into the icy, rushing waters of the Gihon spring. After groping our way through the cramped blackness by flashlight for a third of a mile, waist-high water sweeping us along, we heaved a sigh of relief when we finally glimpsed the exit.
Adding to the thrill, we were emerging at the site of the famous Pool of Siloam, where a blind man miraculously recovered his vision after Jesus sent him there to wash (John 9:7). The puddle-deep pool was, admittedly, unimpressive—only a few feet wide and a few more yards long. But this was the famous site, according to Christian tradition that went back to the fourth century AD.
Or so we thought.
In 2004, five years after our visit, a sewage pipe broke underneath a nearby Jerusalem street. Massive earth-moving equipment rumbled in to make the repair. Pushing into the soil, a bulldozer blade collided with a submerged object and came to a grinding halt. An ancient plastered step emerged as the dirt was brushed away. Within minutes prominent archaeologists had rushed over, the word "bulldozer" hurrying them to the scene. Excavation revealed several more steps down one side of an enormous rectangular pool. Within weeks this monumental reservoir (about 160 feet wide by 200 feet long) was identified as the real Pool of Siloam, the main source of fresh water within Jerusalem's walls. Coins embedded in the plaster confirmed that it was in use during Jesus' time.
As they excavated the Pool of Siloam archaeologists also discovered a wide, stepped first-century street that leads from the pool up to the Temple. This was one of the main Jerusalem thoroughfares in the first century, and it would have been the final steps of ascent for pilgrims after days or weeks of journeying to celebrate the feasts. The Pool of Siloam was one of the places where they could have stopped to purify themselves before entering the Temple.
And reading John's gospel again, we discover that the Pool of Siloam played a part in another scene in Jesus' ministry. Each night of the joyous weeklong Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), the high priest would parade down this street amid great fanfare and fill a golden pitcher with living water from the Pool of Siloam for the water libation on the Temple's altar. On the last day of the feast, the high priest would process around the altar seven times as the crowds chanted fervent prayers for living water, rain for the next year's crops. The roar grew ever more thunderous until the priest finally approached the altar. A hush would descend as he filled a silver bowl and then ceremoniously poured the living water onto the sacrificial pyre. It was then when Jesus stood up and shouted, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (John 7:37 – 38, italics added).
Details That Connect the Dots
My first exposure to this field of study was about fifteen years ago when I signed up for a class at my church called "The Land, the Culture, and the Book." Having grown up in a devout Lutheran family, I figured that learning some historical background would be good for my Bible study. My grandparents had been missionaries in Madagascar, and several uncles and cousins were pastors. My own world was the sciences, so I was more used to facts and lectures. My graduate degree was in biology, and I was teaching human physiology and molecular biology at a nearby college.
I admit that I cringed a little before starting the class, bracing myself for what I thought would be a weekly dose of dusty, dry archaeological information. I didn't know much about the presenter except that he had taught high school for twenty-five years and had been leading study trips to Israel for twenty-five years—mentally I calculated his age at about eighty-seven. How appropriate to learn about the Old Testament from an octogenarian, I thought. (Not catching that the presenter, Ray Vander Laan, had being doing these things concurrently, I was off by about forty years.)
But from the first session the class was like drinking from a fire hose. Everywhere the Bible started greening up, sprouting with new life. It was there that I first heard of the biblical idea of living water and learned about its association with the Feast of Tabernacles and with the outpouring of the Spirit during the messianic age (Ezekiel 47; Joel 2:23–29; Zechariah 14:8–18).
As I started to see how important history, geography, language, and culture were for unlocking the biblical text, my curiosity led me to study in the land of Israel, to learn from scholars there about first-century Jewish culture, and to study Hebrew and Greek. A few years later I left the world of teaching biology to write and teach about this subject full-time.
You might think that you need to master whole textbooks before this kind of study starts to enrich your Bible reading, but I've been amazed at how the smallest details can help connect the dots. It's like when you're stumped doing a crossword puzzle but then finally decipher one word. Suddenly an adjoining word falls into place, which yields clues to unlock yet more words, and then the rest of the grid starts to fill in.
The simplest cultural details can unravel knotty mysteries, sometimes with powerful theological implications. For instance, how much would the firewood weigh for an average burnt offering? You might think that minutiae like this isn't worth studying, but this obscure detail casts light on one of the Bible's most difficult chapters.
After reading the account in Genesis 22 about God's asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, many people ask, "How old was Isaac?" Was he a toddler, a teen, or an adult? Most paintings picture Isaac as a child toting a bundle of sticks under his arm as he walks beside his elderly father. This is because Genesis 22:6 says that Abraham carried the knife while Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice.
But a sacrifice was offered by roasting an animal as a whole burnt offering, which took several hours over a full fire. The large logs needed for fuel would require the strength of a full-grown man to carry them. There was no way the elderly Abraham could lift them (remember, he was one hundred already when Isaac was born), so he carried the knife while Isaac carried the wood. In fact, for most of the journey, two donkeys bore the massive burden (verse 3).
Once you envision an adult Isaac bearing the heavy wood, the story takes on an entirely different tone. Now we see that the story is not just about Abraham's unshakeable faith in God; it's about Isaac's willing, heroic obedience to submit to his father's will. And suddenly the scene of Christ carrying his cross comes starkly into view.
Hearing Jesus through a Disciple's Ears
What does it mean that Jesus lived as a Jewish rabbi who called and trained disciples? And how does learning about his teachings in their original context enable us to better live out our calling? Jesus' first followers responded to his words with actions that astound us. They left home, family, and comfort behind to follow him, risking their lives to change the world. As life-changing as his teachings were in their original context, modern readers often struggle to see what provoked such a radical response. More than twenty centuries separate us. Could it be that the debris of time and cultural change have taken the edge off Jesus' earth-shattering words?
What if we could scrub off the dust and dirt of the ages to see the original Jesus in the Gospels? What if we allowed the scenery around him to come to life, so that we could visualize him once again in his native context? Jesus' words would not change, but they would burst with new meaning when understood in their original setting. We would see Jesus with new clarity as we bring into focus the fuzzy backdrop around him that is so foreign to our modern world — a place of rabbis and synagogues, nomads, farmers, kings, and shepherds.
It's hard not to wonder if the early Jerusalem church might have had a few advantages in understanding Jesus that can help us as disciples today. In the first chapters in Acts we read of their amazing passion — their Spirit-filled prayers, their joyful gatherings, their loving generosity, and their dynamic witness to their neighbors.
Until a few years ago, it never occurred to me that the first believers of the infant Jerusalem church in Acts were all observant Jews, men and women who continued to study the Torah and worship in the Temple, even after they came to faith in Christ. In fact, for the first half of Acts, the rapidly expanding church was almost entirely Jewish. It was only after God pushed Peter out of his comfort zone to witness to the Gentile centurion Cornelius that the church considered the possibility that the gospel was for Gentiles too (Acts 10).
We Christians often neglect this as we retell the stories of the early believers' joyful fellowship. We assume that the remarkable success of the Jerusalem church came from the fact that believers were freshly filled with the Holy Spirit. But Paul's Gentile church at Corinth had experienced the same outpouring, yet it struggled with immaturity, division, and sexual immorality. Why the difference? As wonderful as it was that the Corinthians found Christ, most had come out of a pagan reality, and their lives had not been saturated by the Scriptures that Jesus read, our Old Testament. They lacked the Torah's training in moral laws that Christ built upon. They had a lot of catching up to do.
Moreover, while the Gentiles worshiped Jesus as their Savior and God, the Jewish believers also knew him as their rabbi. As Jesus' disciples, they knew their obligation was to memorize his words and live according his halakhah, his interpretation of how God's Word teaches us to live.
Why Haven't We Known?
Nowadays, it seems only natural to wonder about Jesus' Jewish cultural setting. Why haven't we asked those questions in the past? A stroll through the aisles of my local grocery store suggests one answer: Sushi. Gyros. Kimchi. Tahini. Fifty years ago my mother had never even heard of these ethnic specialties; it wasn't until the late sixties that she even tried making a new-fangled dish called "pizza." Until only a few decades ago, a startlingly short list of bland foods comprised my family's entire culinary world. Creamed beef on toast. Macaroni and Spam. Ground beef over rice. In my white-bread world, I simply never thought to ask.
On my kitchen table is a little clay sculpture of Jesus healing a blind man, with a sticker on the bottom that says it was handcrafted in Peru. But you hardly need the label to guess where it came from when you see the dark braids, the ponchos, the Peruvian faces. Of course its creator imagined Jesus within his or her own reality, just as white Americans have cast Jesus as a blue-eyed Caucasian. As the gospel has gone out around the world, people have, by default, pictured Jesus through their own cultural lenses.
You might be surprised that Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper does the same thing. This masterpiece has influenced the Christian imagination of Jesus' fateful last evening more than any other, yet it is culturally wrong in every detail. In the background are windows looking out on a sunny mid-afternoon scene, whereas the Passover meal always took place at night. And of course the faces of Jesus and the disciples are pale-faced Europeans, not Semitic. Most telling is what is on the table. Lacking are the essential elements of the Passover celebration, including the lamb and unleavened bread. In their place is a puffy loaf of bread, when leavening is strictly forbidden during the week of Passover, and a shockingly unkosher plate of grilled eels garnished with orange slices!
Of course da Vinci's goal was to portray the disciples' reactions at that critical moment, and he does so with brilliant technique and emotive depth. But by not including the elements of Passover, a feast that celebrated God's redemption and brimmed over with messianic expectations, we miss the fact that Jesus was powerfully proclaiming himself as the fulfillment of God's ancient promises. Jesus uses the symbols of Passover to point toward his coming atonement to redeem those who believed in him and to inaugurate a "new covenant" for the forgiveness of sin.
Excerpted from Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg Copyright © 2012 by Lois Tverberg . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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