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.
The Forward Day-by-Day meditation for last Tuesday was about the story of the paralyzed man being let down through the roof of the house in front of Jesus as related in Mark 2:1-12. In particular, the writer of the meditation focused on Mark 2:1: “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.”
Wait! What? Jesus at home? How had I never noticed that before?
In a way I guess it’s not surprising. The Revised Common lectionary assigns this passage to Epiphany 7 in Year B. Unless Easter is on the late side we don’t get as far as Epiphany 7 in many years. This year (which happens to be Year B) we only got as far as Epiphany 5 before moving on to the The Last Sunday after Epiphany and the story of the Transfiguration.
Nor would it help to encounter this story as part of the lectionary cycle in Matthew or Luke. Matthew simply says that Jesus “came to his own town.” Luke doesn’t say where Jesus was when this happened.
Given the three-year cycle, one could go quite a few years before the reference to Jesus at home came up in a Sunday sermon.
I am guessing that this is probably the only reference to Jesus being at home in the gospels, at least for Jesus during his ministry, putting aside the infancy and youth narratives in Matthew and Luke.
I’m still thinking about what to make of the idea of the itinerant Jesus at home.
My rector is brilliant.
The Old Testament lectionary a week ago Sunday had some troubling language from the book of 1 Samuel: “The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul…”
In her sermon she asked if anyone had a favorite recipe from their grandmother. She turned to a pair of sisters who had raised their hands and asked what their favorite recipe was from their grandmother. They responded that it was salmon patties. Pastor Kathleen said, “I bet the recipe contains bread crumbs, right?” The sisters said that it did. Pastor Kathleen said, “Now if you go to the store and buy a box breadcrumbs then take it home and start eating the breadcrumbs straight out of the box, that’s not the same as eating a salmon patty, is it?”
That, she said, is what it’s like to base your understanding of the Bible on a single verse. People do it, she told us, but it doesn’t work.
As I said, brilliant.
Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading was the story about the king who sends out invitations to a wedding banquet for his son. Everyone has more important things to do so they don’t bother to show up. The king has them all killed and their towns burned, and then has his servants go “into the main streets, and invite everyone [they] find to the wedding banquet.” When the king finds one guest not dressed in the appropriate attire he tells his servants to “bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
That’s Matthew. Matthew 22:1-14, to be exact. I have issues with Matthew. You’ve seen me complain about the harshness of many passages in Matthew before. But, still, the text is there, so how do we deal with this passage?
As for the first part, suffice it to say that in the ancient Near East blowing off a king when invited to a wedding banquet is probably not an effective survival strategy. The end of the passage is more troubling to me, but we can make sense of it. Bishop Mary made the point three years ago when she preached during her visitation when I reaffirmed my baptismal vows and officially became part of St. John the Divine. Fr. Phil made the same point Sunday. At weddings in that culture and time the host handed out wedding garments to all of the guests. So this fellow obviously walked right past the guy handing out the wedding garments. Not wise.
We excommunicate ourselves. Fr. Phil said:
God does not excommunicate people from the divine kingdom; God can’t because it would mean that something would exist outside of God. Only members of God’s creation can live in the illusion that they don’t live within God’s kingdom and hereby excommunicate themselves from God’s great world.
The irony is that I nearly excommunicated myself, at least for one day, on Sunday. I looked at the server schedule and saw the names of the two sisters signed up for acolytes. That meant that their dad would be there using his smart phone to video tape his daughters during the opening procession. That always annoys the heck out of me. Dammit Jim, this is a worship service, not a Christmas pageant! I almost skipped church that day. In the end, the privilege of receiving the Bread and Wine outweighed the dad’s annoying, not disruptive I remind myself, but simply annoying, behavior.
Oh, and one other thing. Fr. Phil pointed out that the reason wedding garments were handed out was “to insure that all of the guests had the appearance of equal standing at the party. The wedding garments were like a uniform of equality indicating that all guests had equal standing in the eyes of the host.”
I don’t think I need to explain the obvious in terms of what that says about God’s relationship to me versus God’s relationship to that dad. Enough said.