The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings
Abingdon Press (August 3, 2021), 176 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $14.53
I am very familiar with the work of Amy-Jill Levine. I have listened to her lectures in the Great Courses and I have read her book The Bible With and Without Jesus. Levine offers an interesting viewpoint. She is an observant Jew who is a professor of New Testament studies. From her Jewish background she takes the perspective that the Bible should be interpreted and debated, as the Jewish Talmud exemplifies.
Levine does not stand by as an objective scholar. She inserts herself into the conversation. In discussing Jesus’s statement that no one can follow him unless he hates his mother and father, she states, “My first thought is to reject the entire Gospel. I’m not hating my parents. I’m not hating life. Not me. No way.” She goes on to say that this commandment cannot be taken literally, especially considering that Jesus tells his disciples that they must obey the Torah, including the commandment to honor your father and mother. She suggests that the statement really takes the perspective of those left behind: “My son must really hate me to have done that.”
The author is not afraid to engage in debate. She tells how she wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Luke with a colleague. Levine’s position is that Luke was not progressive on women’s issues. For example, in the parallel stories of Anna and Simeon only Simeon speaks. But she says her colleague believes Luke has Jesus promoting an active role for women in his communities.
Levine avoids taking the easy way out on tricky passages. Regarding the statement of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, she refers to the theory that there was a small gate in the city wall where you had to unpack your camel in order to get it through. She states, “There is no such gate.” Similarly, she writes, “Jesus, like Paul, presumed that slaves were a normal part of life.”
The author differs from mainline scholarship on some points. She suggests Luke was written about 90 CE, later than most scholars believe. She also believes that Matthew drew from Luke, where the standard belief is that both Matthew and Luke drew from a common “Q” source. She writes, “I am also finding it increasingly likely that the Book of Revelation was written before the Gospels,” where the accepted belief is that it is a product of the late 90s.
Levine concludes, “We can work together. Since we find common history in the first century, or what is called Second Temple Judaism, we can learn together and interpret together.”
I’m more than happy to learn and interpret with Amy-Jill Levine.
It’s been more than ten years since the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for use in worship, replacing the lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church does deviate from the RCL a couple of times during the year, however. One of those times is the two Sundays after Christmas. (We have two Sundays after Christmas this year; that’s not the case every year.) For the First Sunday after Christmas the Episcopal Church uses the prologue to the Gospel of John for the gospel reading. This does not make me happy. First, John really annoys me for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here. Second, I like hearing the story of Simeon and his song on the First Sunday after Christmas. (You’ll find Simeon in Luke 2:22-35.)
But wait. The RCL does not specify the Simeon passage for every year. The only time the Song of Simeon is designated is for Christmas 1 for year B, the year of Mark. (For those of you who are not liturgically inclined, we began Year C, the year of Luke, on the First Sunday of Advent this year.)
The Song of Simeon is one of my two favorite passages in the New Testament (the other being the Emmaus story). Simeon has inspired many great works of music. Simeon’s song begins, “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” The Latin “nunc dimittis” means “You now dismiss (your servant)” and many of the works use the Latin.
Since we don’t find Simeon in the lectionary today I’ll share one of those musical pieces with you.
The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
Vintage (March 28, 2017), 232 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.00
I read a review of The Gospels: A New Translation and promptly bought the book. In it Sarah Ruden’s goal is to come as close to the original Greek as possible. In the process of buying the book I found her 2017 title, The Face of the Water. That looked interesting, so I bought the Kindle edition.
In The Face of Water Ruden discusses the problems in translating the Bible and analyzes a few passages in both the Old and New Testaments where she provides the King James version and then offers her own translation of the Hebrew or Greek.
Some of us at times get frustrated with Old Testament narratives because of the repetition. Ruden points out that Hebrew is an infected language (as is Greek). This means that verb and noun endings convey meaning that require additional words in English. So when translating a passage more words are required in English than in Hebrew, making the repetition more tedious.
Her own translations provide some insight. She points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, “daily bread” in the King James is a poor translation. There is no “daily” in the Greek and “bread” is better translated “loaf.” She states that the label “a Psalm of David” that appears on so many Psalms is misleading. She writes that the inscription is “To/for/regarding [here pretty much an impossible word to translate] David.” Ruden suggests that in the book of Ecclesiastes “vanity” is better translated as “evanescence.”
Ruden writes with a self-effacing humor that makes the book a pleasure to read. If you have an open-minded view about things Biblical you’ll find this book fascinating and enjoyable reading.
The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
HarperOne (October 27, 2020), 512 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.99
I was familiar with Amy-Jill Levine from one of her Great Courses offerings, so when I saw this book advertised it immediately caught my interest.
Levine and Brettler do a real service with this title because it is easy for those of us who come from a Christian tradition to interpret the entire Bible, including the Hebrew scriptures, through a Christian lens. Obviously Jews do not do that.
The authors cite several passages in which Christian and Jewish interpretations differ. For example, in the Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, there is no suggestion at all of original sin, and Eve is not singled out for blame.
Levine and Brettler explain that while the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was obsessed with Melchizedek, the priest-king is only briefly mentioned in two places in the Hebrew Bible. The first is Genesis 14, where, they suggest, “the Melchizedek story can be removed from Genesis without creating any narrative gaps,” indicating that it is likely a later addition. The other Old Testament mention is Psalm 110. They state that medieval rabbinic commentators say little about Melchizedek, perhaps because of the Christian fascination with him.
There are many other examples. They discuss almah (Hebrew: young woman) vs. parthenos (Greek: virgin), the story of Jonah, and the Son of Man in the book of Daniel vs. in the synoptic gospels.
For those interested in how key passages of the Hebrew Bible might be read when the Christian perspective has been removed this book will be an engaging resource.
Today we have a Sunday morning lectionary occurrence that happens only once every three years: the reading of the Emmaus story. True, the story is in the lectionary for Easter evening each year, but for Sunday morning it is only found in Year A, the year of Matthew, on the third Sunday of Easter. This is one of those oddities perpetrated by those lectionary elves, as the Emmaus story appears only in the Gospel of Luke.
The Emmaus Road passage is my favorite narrative in the Bible, and I have written about it many times. You’ll recall that in the story Cleopas and his companion encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but they don’t recognize him until he has departed. One interpretation of the story suggests that Cleopas’s companion, due to not being named, was a woman. This has to do with the mores and conventions of first century Palestine; since Cleopas is named had his companion been male he would also have been named. I have always rather liked this idea and so for this week’s Good Shepherd e-news I selected the image on your left.
In the days when we were able to meet in person for worship I would always sit in a pew at Good Shepherd near the stained glass window on the right. I always thought that this depicted the Emmaus story, but in a video we created when we were searching for a rector a relative of the person who to whom the window was dedicated said that it was the Last Supper. Oh, well. Then again, as my spiritual director pointed out, perhaps they’re the same story.
What is important about Emmaus, however, is this, in the words of the Rev. Dawn Hutchings, “Each and every one of us has at one time, or indeed for some of us, many times, traveled along the road to Emmaus.”
This was originally intended as an email to Fr. Rob, our interim rector. But, I thought, Fr. Rob has enough to deal with. He has two funerals to plan and has to deal with the unexpected resignation of the chairman of our rector search committee. This in addition to all of his normal responsibilities. He doesn’t need to hear me kvetch right now. Fortunately my blog friends normally seem indulgent of my occasional kvetching.
This all has to do with Fr. Rob’s sermon on Sunday. I have noticed that he tends to take the Bible at face value. For example, he made reference to the end of the book of Mark, where Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” However, this comes from a passage that is not in the oldest manuscripts we have. Scholarship generally dates this passage to the early second century A.D., a few decades after the composition of the main body of the book.
The second reading for the past few weeks has come from the epistle I Peter. Fr. Rob seems to give the disciple/apostle Peter credit for this work, but modern scholarship generally dates that work to the early second century as well. I have to admit, however, that he is preaching a sermon and not teaching a seminary class.
The more disconcerting issue for me is Fr. Rob’s focus of late on evangelism. The Episcopal Church has long shied away from such a focus, in spite of the fact that the official name of the national church is the The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Our presiding bishop since November 2015, Michael Curry, is working hard to change this. Fr. Rob, based on what he said in a recent sermon, seems to have long believed in the importance of evangelism. He certainly addressed this clearly and directly on Sunday. He even used the “w” word: “witnessing.” That’s enough to send me running from the room screaming, though I didn’t. Too many memories of the minister and youth group at my Methodist church here in Hemet in junior high and high school.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating as it is something that I struggle with on an ongoing basis. I believe that temperamentally and theologically I fit better into the Reform Jewish perspective than anywhere else. That, however, is not my heritage. It’s not where I come from. And I do love Episcopal worship.
So I just keep on keeping on. And I appreciate greatly the leadership that Fr. Rob is providing in this time of transition.
I briefly considered skipping church this last Sunday. Fr. Rob, our interim rector, was away, so we had Morning Prayer rather than the Eucharist. However Sunday was Easter 3 in Year A. Those of you who have been reading my blog for several years will know what that means. It is the only time in the three year Sunday morning lectionary cycle that we have the Emmaus Road story. This is odd, because Emmaus is found only in Luke, and Year A is the year of Matthew. But it is what the lectionary elves have decreed.
The Emmaus story has long been one of my two or three favorite Bible passages. It gained additional meaning when the chaplain chose it as the scripture reading for my grandmother’s funeral in 2006. The only time I have ever opened up a Gideon Bible in a motel was that evening in order to revisit the passage.
Each week at church I sit next to this stained glass window. The window lists who it is in memory of and who donated it, but it does not offer a scripture reference. It must, however, be the Emmaus story. I can’t think of any other passage in the Bible that it could represent. Note the figure on the left is a woman. In the passage only one of the two travelers on the road is given a name: Cleopas. The other is left unnamed. Given the norms of first century Near Eastern society this suggests that the other traveler may have been a woman. Of course in that society a woman would only travel with her husband or a close male relative. So perhaps the other traveler was Cleopas’ wife.
Often this scene is depicted with two men, so I love that the stained glass artist depicted one of the people as a woman for our window. And I love having this window sitting over my shoulder each Sunday. While it is unlikely that the story is historically true, it is a reminder of Christ’s presence with us.
As John Dominic Crossan wrote, “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”
Yesterday’s Gospel lectionary reading was the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, Luke 1:39-45. When we read in Luke about that journey we don’t think much about it.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Tradition says that that Mary and Elizabeth were somehow related, perhaps cousins. But as Pastor Kathleen pointed out yesterday morning, this was an extraordinary, probably unheard of, journey. First, Mary was likely a teenager. Luke 2 tells us that Joseph went from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem for the census. So Mary must have been in Nazareth with her husband Joseph when she set out. As the quote above tells us, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea, outside of Jerusalem, in the South of the former united kingdom of Israel. Remember that Galilee is in the North, in the region then still known as Israel. That would have been quite the journey for Mary. Fifty miles at least, Kathleen said. And as she pointed out, not only did Mary not have a driver’s license, but there weren’t any cars then anyway.
So why, Kathleen asks, after hearing from the angel the news that she we would be giving birth to the Messiah, would Mary have made such a journey when she no doubt had relatives in Galilee to whom she could talk, and probably a BFF or two there as well. Kathleen suggests that Mary wanted to talk to someone who would “get it.” The much older Elizabeth conceived in a miraculous manner as did the young Mary. Elizabeth would get it.
Kathleen went on to say that we all need someone to talk to in our lives who will get it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life I can talk to who will get it. My wife Terry, certainly. Definitely my spiritual director. My brother and sister-in-law for certain things and my dad for others.
I hope you have that person or those people in your life as well.
When we start the new liturgical year with Advent, I am always a couple of weeks behind in realizing that we are moving from one year to the next in the three-year lectionary cycle. It hit me just last week that we have finished Year B, the year of Mark, with its brevity and Jesus in conflict with the authorities, and we have now moved on to year C, the year of Luke.
I like Year C. I like Luke. Luke has little of the harshness of Matthew, and overflows with compassion. Jesus is always having a meal with someone, somewhere.
Luke contains the Song of Simeon and the passage in which he tells the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke contains the Emmaus Road story, even if we don’t get it in our Year C lectionary readings.
I’m happy to be in Year C.
I have been privileged to stay in touch with Terry and Debbie, the children of my first wife Ruth, after her death in 1989. As it turns out, both are here in Southern California these days. Terry is in Los Angeles with his wife and children. Debbie is in San Diego and just got married. We were honored to be invited to the wedding.
The invitation said the dress was “garden party formal.” I wasn’t sure exactly that was. And that was one of those times when the gears in my mind did not mesh. Rather than googling it, I guessed. I thought that a guayabera, a formal business shirt used throughout South America, Cuba, and the Caribbean would be suitable. After all, I read, it was also known as a Cuban wedding shirt. So I ordered one from Amazon.
When we got there I saw that almost all of all the men were wearing ties and jackets. Had I simply done a search on “garden party formal,” as I did after the fact, I would have found what I should have worn, and discovered that I had everything I needed and that there was no reason to buy a new shirt.
All I could think about was the passage about the wedding garment in the parable of the wedding banquet, a passage found only in Matthew.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Fortunately, this was a Jewish wedding, so I suppose the tenets of New Testament parables didn’t apply. Lucky for me.
It was a marvelous wedding. The ceremony was heartfelt. Debbie was beautiful and very, very happy. Clearly she has found the right person.
Terry (my wife Terry) and I are delighted to have been there.