New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus

New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesusby David Bivin
© 2006, En-Gedi Resource Center
Softcover, 208 pages, $13.99

Download a sample chapter (pdf)

David Bivin is the founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective, a journal that explores the Jewish context of the Gospels. He has traveled and lectured internationally for more than 25 years, and is the author of hundreds of articles on that subject.

New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus is a collection of some of his best writing on the Jewishness of Jesus, edited for the general reader. The book examines Jesus’ lifestyle as a first-century Jewish rabbi, and looks at how his words would have been understood within the larger framework of first-century Judaism. Many scholarly footnotes make it a valuable help to those who want to study in depth.

“In Jerusalem, David Bivin has interacted for decades with some of the best Jewish scholarship in the world. This book displays many of the brilliant Hebraic gems the author has mined that help illuminate the pages of the Gospels. Clearly written and very readable, Bivin shows why Christians need rabbinic sources if they intend to know and understand Jesus in his first-century Jewish setting. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus is a valuable resource for every serious student of Scripture.”

— Marvin Wilson, Author of Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

Order New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus ($13.99).

Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar

 

IJN-Set1Insights into Jesus of Nazareth

His Words, His Wisdom,
His World

Conference Seminar

Available as an 8-DVD set or mp3 CD (audio only). Order below.

© En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006

15 hours of in-depth presentations by leading scholars on Jesus’ first-century context. Filmed at the Jerusalem Perspective 2006 Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, June 19-20, 2006. 

Presentations:

The Value of Translating Matthew, Mark and Luke to Hebrew
David Bivin, Editor of Jerusalem Perspective

A Hebraic Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus
Randall Buth, Director, Biblical Language Center

Is Jesus Superior to the Law?  -and-
Jesus’s High Self-Awareness and the Christology of Paul
Dwight A. Pryor, President, Judaic-Christian Studies Center

Why Rabbinic Literature Is Pertinent to the Study of the Gospels  -and-
Jesus Among the Rabbis: Spiritual Life and Leadership
Brad Young, Professor, Oral Roberts University

The Mikvah and Ritual Immersion in Jesus’ Day
The Recently Discovered Pool of Siloam
(Audio online at link)
Ronney Reich, Archaeologist, Haifa University

The New Testament in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Hanan Eshel, Archaeologist, Bar Ilan University

Was Jesus Buried in the Garden Tomb? (DVD only)
Gabriel Barkay, Archaeologist, Bar Ilan University

Jeremiah’s New Covenant and Jesus’ Movement
Serge Ruzer, Professor, Hebrew University

Jesus, the Sin-Fearer
David Pileggi, Rector, Christ Church

Jesus’ Teaching Style Illustrated by His Response to Martha’s Anxiety
Lenore Mullican, Professor, Oral Roberts University

The Pastoral Relevance of Who Wrote the First Gospel -and-
The Importance of Bible Geography for Understanding Jesus
Halvor Ronning, Director, Home for Bible Translators

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IJN Cover+border

 
8-DVD Set: $59.99



Audio mp3 CD: $29.99



Both DVD & Audio: $79.99

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Also included on DVDs (not audio CD)

A tribute to David Flusser by James Charlesworth
• A documentary about Robert Lindsey and David Flusser
• Baritone Horst Krueger performing songs of Jerusalem and conference music composed by Robert Lindsey.

© Produced by the En-Gedi Resource Center in cooperation with JerusalemPerspective.com. All rights reserved.

Praying with Intention

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart. ” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus and Paul prayed were a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were prayed at certain times of day. One of them that is still prayed today is called the “Amidah” or “Eighteen Benedictions.” (1) It is quite lengthy, and consists of prayers for all the various concerns of the Jewish people. For thousands years since Jesus lived, these petitions have stayed nearly the same.

In contemporary Protestant culture, we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.” The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as “Kavanah.” The word means “direction,” “intention,” or “devotion,” and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward praying the memorized prayer “with all your heart.”

A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is undistracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them today that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know before whom you stand.” That is just what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe.

When I used to pray after crawling in bed, I would often fall asleep before finishing my prayer. After thinking about the lack of reverence this has for God, I now make myself kneel or stay awake in some way, or pray at a time of day when I’m more awake. He deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and day with devotion and intention, being aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God in every way.


 

1The Amidah: A New Translation, by David Bivin, is available here.

Time to Pray

by Bruce Okkema

But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” Luke 5:15-16

“It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.” Luke 6:12

When I examine my life as to whether I am spending enough time in prayer, I have yet to be able to say that I am. Even when I devote a lot of time to this, it seems I can always do more. Is this true for you as well?

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer everyday as we read in many accounts throughout the gospels. As a faithful Jewish man, he would have prayed the full Shema1 twice every day, as well as the “Amidah” or “18 Benedictions”2 at the very least. If you try this yourself, you might be surprised at how long it takes, but you will begin to realize why this was done.

Perhaps you do want to pray more, but you just can’t think of any new ways to make your prayer life deeper. You are not alone, there are many people who feel this way and as long as you make a commitment to do something about it, you can be encouraged that there are many places to turn for help.

The best place to start, is to pray specifically for God’s help in improving your prayer life. It is almost certain you will get a positive answer; can you imagine that the Lord would not help you in this? You can also begin using scripture as a guide for your prayers. Study some of the great prayers of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter … praying them for yourself. Also, look at any Christian bookstore and you will find many books on prayer with good ideas about where to start and suggestions on methods to use.

Of course the difference is not made by the quantity of time you spend in prayer or about a particular method you use, but rather your sincerity in doing it. Try to follow Jesus’ example of praying often and praying long. You will find that that more time you spend in prayer, the more time you will want to spend in prayer.


 

(1) See the English Translation of the text of the full Shema
(2) ”The Amidah Prayer: A New Translation” by David Bivin

The Gentle Eyes of Leah

by Lois Tverberg

Woman's EyesLeah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful.

Genesis 29:17

Most of us have read the passage above about Jacob’s wives as describing Leah’s bad eyesight. We may assume that she squinted because of her eyes, and perhaps was plain and homely too. If she lived today, we might imagine her as an awkward wallflower with thick glasses.

Looking at the Hebrew a little more closely suggests that the word translated as “weak,” rach, may have been a more positive description. It can mean “weak,” but we can see other nuances in the following verses:

Genesis 18:7 Then Abram ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender (rach) calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.

Isaiah 47:1 “Go down, sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, Daughter of the Babylonians. No more will you be called delicate (rach) or pampered.

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle (rach) answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

From these passages and others, we can see that the word rach can mean tender or gentle, and when used to describe a woman (as in Isaiah 47:1), it can connote delicateness or refinement. The passage seems to be a way of contrasting the lesser beauty of Leah with the greater physical attractiveness of her sister, which was why Jacob favored Rachel.

Could Leah’s tender eyes been God’s preference? Even though Jacob loved Rachel more, God consistently came to Leah’s aid by blessing her with children – six sons and one daughter to Rachel’s two sons. But nothing Leah did seemed to be able to win the love of her husband. Instead, Rachel’s sons Joseph and Benjamin were Jacob’s favorites, and she was the wife he truly loved.

It is interesting that God’s choice was not toward the beauty of Rachel, but of Leah, whose son Judah was the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus. Perhaps he wanted Jesus to inherit Leah’s gentle eyes.


Photo: يبي صح

Note: This article is based on “Leah’s Tender Eyes,” by David Bivin, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

Dying to Have Life

by Lois Tverberg

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. – John 12:24-26

In this passage in John, Jesus focuses on a seed, as he does in other parables about bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. But here, Jesus doesn’t just advise us to pluck out weeds of distraction that might choke the growth of our faith. He proclaims that the seed itself needs to perish in order to multiply and bear fruit; that we need to die to our basic desires in order to live for Jesus and receive life that endures for eternity.

Fishers of Men
The parable’s logic becomes clearer in light of the expectation of first-century disciples. A disciple was supposed to show utter dedication to his rabbi, acting as his “servant” and following him everywhere he taught. To do this one had to embrace a lifestyle of traveling, lack of comfort and sleep, as well as rigorous study of the Torah and the rabbi’s interpretation of it. Some quotes about it include,

This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, sleep on the ground, live a painful existence, and labor [studying] the Torah. (1)

The words of Torah are not retained by one who is lazy regarding them, and not by those who study surrounded by luxuries, food, and drink; but rather by one who ‘kills himself’ over them, denying himself physical indulgences; one who does not allow his eyes to sleep nor his eyelids to slumber. (2)

Other rabbis expected their students to “kill themselves” in their studies in their desire to learn the Bible. How much more should Jesus, our rabbi and Lord, expect that we sacrifice our time and lives to learn his words, and live by them too.


(1) As quoted in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, p 25.

(2) Maimonides, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:12. (Commenting on Shabbos 83b, B. Talmud.)

Photo: Edith OSB

Motivation Not to Sin

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

The rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate 7 deadly sins in a heartpeople to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they employed was to point out how seemingly small sins can evolve into much greater sins. (1) This was called kalah ka-hamurah (“light as heavy”), an abbreviation of mitsvah kalah ka-mitsvah hamurah (“a light commandment is like a heavy commandment”). In other words, kalah ka-hamurah relays the sense that breaking a less significant law is linked to breaking a greater law. The same style of logic appears in Jesus’ teaching when he compares anger to murder and lust to adultery (Mt 5:22-23, 27-28).

Other rabbis applied this same technique to make listeners aware of the potential damage that their words can do. The question was asked, to which sin is lashon hara  (the “evil tongue,” gossip) more closely related—theft or murder? The answer is murder, because a robber can always give back what he has stolen, but a murderer, as well as a gossip, can never repair all the damage that he or she has done. (2)

Not to be outdone, another source compares gossip to the murder of three persons! (3) It observes that not only do you “murder” the reputation of the object of your gossip, but you “murder” yourself, showing you are a person who savors ugly ideas about others and can’t be trusted not to betray those around you. By bringing someone else down, you bring yourself down too. And finally, you “murder” the person who listens to you. You load them down with information that will create disgust for the gossip’s subject, and tempt them to spread the word to yet more hearers.

Yet another rabbinic source asserts that gossip is like committing the three worst possible sins in Jewish thinking: idolatry, adultery, and murder! (4) Murder, of course, for what you are doing to another’s reputation. Adultery, because you are betraying a person’s trust; and idolatry, because you are acting as if you don’t believe God is listening to your words.

The rabbis’ purpose in conflating small sins with greater ones was not so much theological, but motivational. They were reminding their audiences of an important truth—that if we want to avoid sin, the time to scrutinize our conduct is when the choice is easy and the temptation is small. We do that when we consider the consequences of even our most minor actions.


 

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal (Quill, 1996) p. xx

(2) David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, (En-Gedi, 2005) p. 97.

(3) Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b.

(4) Ibid.

Photo:  Moreau.henri

Anger Unleashed

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Matthew 5:22-23

Anger
Rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate people to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they used in their teaching was to pointing out that seemingly small sins can lead toward much greater sins.1 We see this in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when he first describes how in the Scripture, murder requires judgment, but then he says that even anger and insults put you in danger of judgment. A rabbinic source actually derives this same point by linking together several verses in Leviticus:

“He who violates, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself [Lev 19:18],’ will ultimately violate, ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart [Lev 19:17],’ and ‘You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge [Lev 19:18],’ and even, ‘He shall live with you’ [Lev 25:35], until in the end he will come to shedding blood.” 2

It is fascinating how the commentary here pulls together several commands from Leviticus and points out the progression between them. It draws a slope of sin that is a natural progression:

Not loving your neighbor –>

Hating him in your heart –>

Taking revenge on him –>

Driving him away from you –>

Taking his life – murder!

Both Jesus and the rabbis are emphasizing that the time to confront a sin is when it is still minor, so that you can forgive and your relationship can be repaired. If you just internalize your anger, it will eventually lead to contempt, hatred and thoughts of revenge. After that it is a short step between insults, fighting, breaking up relationships, and even destroying life.

We all should examine our feelings toward others and consider whether we harbor grudges toward people around us. The time to confront and forgive is now—before we slip any further down the slope. Like Cain, sin is crouching at the door of our hearts. We need to keep ourselves from sliding down this terrible incline that can eventually lead to death.


1 & 2  Sifre Deuteronomy, Shoftim 187.11. As quoted in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, p. 98.

Photo: LilRoloHere

The Weightiest Law

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

weighing-beans-flkr-dey

Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance-, -but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws potentially conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow. For instance, the command to circumcise on the eight day took precedence over the Sabbath. (Jn 7:22) This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and observing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light” (kal) and “heavy” (hamur) in relationship to each other. 1

Jesus was likely using this terminology when he spoke about the “least of the commandments” in Matthew 5:19, referencing the laws that had lower precedence compared to others. Also, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus chides the religious leaders for neglecting the “weightier” matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness, while being careful to tithe each spice, a less important law.

The idea of “weighing” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is most important?” (Mark 12:28-30) The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer was to quote two laws found in the Torah, from Deuteronomy 6:14 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor). About 100 years later, Rabbi Akiva said essentially the same thing a different way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself —this is the great principle (*clal gadol*) of the Torah.” 2

This is a very wise word as we discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you have a worship meeting one evening, but a sick friend needs you to visit during the same time, the friend should take priority. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday) but your elderly neighbor really needs her lawn mowed, and its the only day you can help, you should do it then. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal 5:14


 

1 For more on “light and heavy” in regards to the law, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, pp. 96-98.

2 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

(Photo: Dey)

Doing Our Duty

by Lois Tverberg

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Luke 17:10

Jesus’ odd parable in Luke 17 is a head-scratcher for many readers. You may never have heard it mentioned in a sermon, because of its apparent negativity. He said,

Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ Luke 17:7-10

Doing Our Duty 1

What was the point of his message? It sounds as if we shouldn’t approach God as our loving Father, but merely as our master. Why?

It’s likely that this parable was offered as a contrast to Jesus’ many statements about a future reward that God has for those who have been obedient to him. While of course it is faith in Christ that atones for our sins and allows us to enter heaven, Christians rarely note how many times Jesus promises a “reward” which does seem to depend on how a person has lived:

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. Mt 16:27

And, Jesus even declares that his followers will be rewarded in this life as well.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Luke 18:29-30

Doing Our Duty 2When a person hears this, the typical human response is “Wow – what will be my reward?” and our focus shifts to that. Indeed, some prosperity preachers focus their entire ministry how God wants to bless us and make us rich. But Jesus’ parable at the beginning of this article teaches us that our focus shouldn’t be on the reward at all, but on doing God’s will. Other rabbis of Jesus’ time said similar things:

Do not be like slaves that serve their master to receive a reward; rather, be like slaves who do not serve their master to receive their reward. (1)

If you have performed many mitzvot (good deeds) [literally, if you have done much Torah], do not think that you have any merit [i.e., that you are entitled to a reward]. This is the purpose for which you have been created! (2)

And Paul also points out that this is our purpose:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph. 2:10

It’s wonderful that we have a loving Father that enjoys blessing us, and plans for a future together in eternity that we can hardly imagine. But instead of greedily grasping for the pleasures we’ll gain, we should respond out of love to the One who wants to give them to us.


(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:3. (As quoted in “The Rich Man Who Rejected the Kingdom” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 81-87.

(2) Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, Ch. 31 (ed. Schechter, p. 66). Quotation also from New Light, pp. 81-87.

Photo: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. and little*star