Good First Reads about Jesus’ Jewish Context

Many ask me what the first books I’d recommend are to read if you want to learn about Jesus and the Bible in their Hebraic context. Below I’ve shared a short list of where to start.

One thing I always tell people is that before they start studying, they need to have a firm grasp of the biblical text and core Christian beliefs. There are many teachers out there who aren’t terribly balanced, especially on the internet. And the whole idea is to learn about Judaism, which by definition does not embrace Christ. It’s important to have some basic biblical and doctrinal background before you start, so that you can exercise discernment.

What I often see is that people who are disgruntled with their church will embrace every new thing they read. But often they start with an immature knowledge of Christianity, because they didn’t get much training in their faith growing up.

All that said, I’d highly recommend the following books and DVDs to begin the journey. Links are to Amazon pages if not on this site already.

1. Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin Wilson. (Eerdmans, 1989.)

This is a must-read introduction to this topic. Some of the early chapters are a little scholarly though, even though the information is excellent. Later on the book has some more practical insights. If you’ve started it and gotten slowed down, skip ahead to chapter 11, “Marriage and the Family Through Hebrew Eyes.” And don’t miss chapter 14, “A Life of Learning,” on the Jewish love of study. Then go back and read the rest of it.

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2. The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus by Athol Dickson.(Baker, 2003.)

This is another favorite first-read. Dickson is a conservative evangelical Christian, and he shares from his (sometimes awkward) experience of joining a Torah study at a Reform synagogue. Soon he finds insights that deepen his Bible reading and faith in Christ. Dickson is a novelist by trade, and a very warm, readable writer. My favorite chapter was “Yes And Yes,” on Hebraic thought.

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3. Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young (Hendrickson, 1995.)

This is an excellent study of Jesus’ life and teachings in their Jewish context. Young is particularly good with the parables, having written his Ph.D. on the rabbinic parallels to Jesus’ words.

One idea: Use Jesus the Jewish Theologian as the background text for a weekly Bible study of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I’ve done this more than once, and the discussion was very rich.

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4. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context by David Bivin (En-Gedi, 2005.)

Bivin shares many insights on Jesus’ first-century life and teachings. He looks at Jesus within the world he lived – how Jesus dressed and was educated, and how he taught as a rabbi and raised disciples. Then he addresses topics in Jesus’ ministry, like marriage, divorce, pacifism, poverty, the Law and the kingdom of God, and fits his words into the larger rabbinic conversation. (See this page for more details.)

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My other two first recommendations are DVD series which include guides for group study:

5. The Faith Lessons Series, by Ray Vander Laan (Zondervan, 1998-2008.)

There are 12 DVD studies of the land and culture of the Bible. Many people have loved this curriculum, which takes viewers to Israel, Greece, Turkey and Egypt to highlight Jesus and the Bible stories in their Eastern, Jewish context. If you haven’t seen them, you should.

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6. Behold the Man – a DVD teaching series by Dwight Pryor (Center for Judaic Christian Studies, 2008 – not on Amazon.)

Behold the Man is a twelve-session introductory study on the significance of Jesus’ Jewishness for Christians today. Another excellent way to discover our Hebrew Lord, the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

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Obviously, if someone is looking for a place to begin I also recommend the three books I’ve written, because their intended audience is the Christian lay person who wants to encounter the Bible in its original setting. In a nutshell my books are:

Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2012), about Jesus’ words and teachings in their Jewish context.

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2009), about the traditions and culture of first-century Judaism that shaped Jesus’ world.

Listening to the Language of the Bible (En-Gedi, 2004), a devotional guide to Hebraic ideas in the Bible.

(For more on these titles, see my Books page.)

Comments

12 Responses to “Good First Reads about Jesus’ Jewish Context”

  1. 1
    Kathy Alford|August 2, 2012

    Lois, I read your new book not long ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Have recommended it to many friends, but I told them that they had to buy their own, because I was not letting my copy go! Do you know of a Bible, maybe a study Bible, that would incorporate the Jewish culture and foundation, in the same way as the books you’ve recommended? I have David Stern’s Jewish New Testament and Commentary, but I would love a Bible that has explanations and definitions along with the Scripture. Thank you for your help and your teaching.
    Shalom in Jesus,
    Kathy Alford

  2. 2
    LLW|August 7, 2012

    A fantastic book is the recently released Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels by Vine Of David.

    Although not a study bible per se and only the Gospels thus far, it does have a section on the Hebrew idioms that are all through the NT writings (and markings in the text where they show up) which is an amazing tool to understand the context of so many of Yeshua’s sayings. It’s also a BEAUTIFUL book, both inside and out.

    You can read about it here: http://vineofdavid.org/resources/dhe/

  3. 3
    Lois Tverberg|August 13, 2012

    LLW, Thanks for sharing about the book. A Hebrew version of the gospels won’t be very helpful for a person who is just starting out. The section on idioms sounds interesting though. I’d also remind readers that the NT texts are in Greek, and Delitzsch’s Hebrew version won’t be able to definitively reconstruct Jesus’ words.

    David Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary is very good, and more helpful for beginners. There is no comprehensive guide to the NT, but this has a lot in it. I’d worry if someone claimed that they could write one, because there is so much that is up for scholarly debate.

  4. 4
    Kathy Alford|August 24, 2012

    Lois (and anyone else),
    Are you familiar with “Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text” By: George Lamsa. I was browsing online and saw it in a Bible search. “. . . is translated directly from the Aramaic (Syriac) text – the language of Jesus – by renowed scholar George M. Lamsa. The translator grew up in the Middle East speaking Aramaic, steeped in a culture with customs, manners, and language almost identical to those in the time of Jesus. These resources are all brought to bear on his life’s work of translating the Aramaic Scriptures – called the Peshitta – into English,” according to the description.
    Lois, I have “Our Father Abraham,” and had gotten bogged down, but will take your advice and read backwards. I know there’s a wealth of info in it.
    Thank you again for your dedication.

  5. 5
    Helen Hooker|August 17, 2012

    Hi Lois,
    As a (non-Jewish) supporter and participant in Messianic congregations since 1991, I couldn’t agree more with your post and your comment here. I so appreciate your balance and your scholarship! I work in a Christian bookstore, and I make sure that your books are always well-stocked, as well as singles of most of the books on your fantastic “recommended” list. (I was unaware of your own first book, “Listening to the Language of the Bible”, however, so will correct our lack of it right away!) So far I have resisted creating a “Messianic Ghetto” (placing all such books into one section in the store)…sprinkling them instead in various categories, hoping people will stumble upon them while browsing for other things. But what do you recommend? Do you think Christian bookstores should have a special “Hebrew Roots” section? What would be an effective name and location (e.g., near the “theology” section)?

  6. 6
    Cynthia Prentice|August 18, 2012

    What a great post Lois! Your recommendations are right on target. Having read all but two of the books you’ve listed and having served as discussion leader/personal devotion writer for all 12 volumes of RVL’s Faith Lesson…if someone will start with this list I cannot imagine they will ever regret it. In these past seven years the text has come alive…like colorful pop-up pictures in a children’s book. Thanks so MUCH for your contribution. You have a way of taking scholarly topics and communicating them in a way that is so easy to understand. ~ Cynthia

  7. 7
    Lois Tverberg|August 22, 2012

    Thanks, Cynthia. I know you’ve been teaching for quite a while now and seeing many ways the text comes to life.

    And Helen, good question about having a section in a bookstore. The bookstore in my town used to have a whole endcap dedicated to the context and culture of the Bible, which included nearly all of the books above. It included other books on biblical and Jewish history, geography and archaeology too.

  8. 8
    Tom Guilliams|August 24, 2012

    Lois,
    Of course, there are many others but a gem that many don’t know about is “In the Shadow of the Temple” by Skarsaune. Loaned mine out to someone and need to order another. Keep up the good work.

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|August 28, 2012

    Tom, thanks for reminding us of that one. I agree – Skarsaune’s “In the Shadow of the Temple” is a very nice resource for study of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.

    It’s over 400 pages though – I’m not sure it would be the first thing I’d give a layperson who just wanted to know more. Maybe a pastor. But it’s well researched and a good reference text.

  10. 10
    Lois Tverberg|August 28, 2012

    Kathy, Thanks for asking. I’m not overly excited by the Lamsa Bible. It’s based on some questionable premises, including the idea that Jesus only spoke Aramaic. I’m convinced that it’s more likely he did his teaching in Hebrew, especially parables. In Jewish literature, there are thousands of parables recorded, and even when the surrounding text is in Aramaic, a parable will be in Hebrew.

    Hebrew and Aramaic are very close languages, so the Lamsa Bible might have a few insights from how Syriac readers understood the Greek texts of the NT. I wouldn’t see these insights as the FINAL word on what the text is actually saying, although they might corroborate ideas from elsewhere.

    I’m actually not keen on the whole premise of writing a new translation of the Bible in order to FINALLY GET IT ALL RIGHT. The REAL text of the Bible is in Hebrew and Greek, and the best way to understand it is to go back all the way to the original words. All translations are approximations. We should quit idolizing them the way we do.

    Just had to get on my soapbox here.

  11. 11
    LLW|August 29, 2012

    Lois,

    I’m not sure if I understand your comment about “idolizing” bibles, or translations (?) but I’m sure you’re clued in to things many aren’t regarding this issue.

    I’m also confused about your remark regarding the original languages being Hebrew (actually, some Aramaic too) and Greek for NT. I understand the oldest NT manuscripts are in Greek, but as you pointed out, the teachings would have been in Hebrew (or Aramaic I guess some would say). Isn’t that the premis of your books, that if we are to understand the NT we not only need to to understand its foundation (Tanakh) but also the thoughts being communicated by Jesus and his followers, which of course isn’t Greek thought but Hebrew i.e., there is not always Greek equivalent words for the Hebrew teachings, like the word “Torah” for instance.

    So, although the NT is in Greek, it’s already a “translation” of what’s being communicated. Can you shed some light here?

    Thanks!

  12. 12
    Ron Mauger|September 30, 2012

    please respond to LLV 8/29 cause I am very interested in the points made

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