STEPPINGSTONES TO UNDERSTANDING OUR JEWISH ROOTS
by Marvin Wilson, Ph.D.
I'm certainly delighted to be back here speaking on this campus. Let me commend this university for building positive relations with the Jewish community here in Tulsa. I remember the last time I spoke in this room was on the day of elections, November 1984. The Jewish federation here in Tulsa and the American Jewish committee had put together a conference held on this campus. I remember the speakers, Rabbi Zeke from Arkansas, Rabbi Rudin from New York City, Judith Banke, and several others. I think that this present Foundations of Our Faith Conference is very important because it shows an ongoing commitment on this campus to bring together Jewish and Christian communities to jointly explore our Jewish roots and the very important question of Christian-Jewish relations. This is our fifth conference. I've enjoyed all of them. Each one takes on its own personality.
There is so much for all of us to explore in this area of our Hebrew roots of the faith, whether we're a beginner or advanced. As already indicated, I'm particularly delighted that my mentor, Professor Cyrus Gordon, professor of Semitic studies, ancient near-eastern studies for literally hundreds of professors of Hebrew Bible, Semitic studies, Old Testament studies around this country, a world-class scholar with disciples scattered all over this earth, and more than any of my teachers in higher education, gave me a great love for the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history. For the rest of my life, I will remain indebted to this man for the great influence he has had on my life as a teacher and as a scholar.
Now for the topic at hand. For a number of years now, I have had requests from some of you attending this Foundations of Our Faith Conference to address the topic of how to get started. No one ever told me how to get started in this area. Can you be basic? Can you give me something to pass on to my friends, to my pastor? It seems like there's so much in this area that scares people away. Can you be very basic with me? How do we launch out? How do we begin in this search for our Jewish roots?
Since I found myself as one of the first speakers in this conference, I decided that I would try to reach back to my 25 or 30 years of experience in Christian-Jewish relations and try to be that basic person with you, to kick off things today, seeking step by step to introduce you to this magnificent and rich world of the study of our Jewish roots.
So I want to risk erring on the side of clarity and simplicity, assuming little background. Though I have been working in this field, as I have indicated, for many, many years, I have learned that you can take nothing for granted when you speak to such a diverse audience. This teaching session will be a beginning point for many of you. It will be a refresher course for others. I trust that, for all of you, it will be a useful overview for growing deeper in our understanding of the foundations of our faith.
I've chosen to break this lecture into two parts, because when I got into it, I really needed to make it a 2-part series. This lecture will mainly focus on ten important steppingstones essential to any would-be productive search for Jewish roots. In my second lecture, I will primarily focus on ten potential pitfalls, or common mistakes, the types of misunderstandings that often arise for any who would travel this road of seeking to get deeply involved in a study of Jewish roots and Christian-Jewish relations, the things that might impede our progress.
My aim in both of these presentations is to make them highly pragmatic, practical, hands on, how to. Yes, the theoretical is important, but I am concerned with helping people in this particular area to get started. So I have chosen as a title for this 2-part series, Getting Started: Steppingstones and Pitfalls in Our Search for Jewish Roots.
Before I enumerate my ten specific suggestions or steppingstones, which will be the heart of this address, I want to take a few minutes in the beginning to address the question of motivation. Why ought Christians to be interested in this whole field? Why should people come from Alaska and California and Massachusetts and here in Tulsa in our own back yard for this conference? Why should we come together. What should motivate us? Why is it imperative that we study Jewish roots of our faith and that we understand the history of Christian-Jewish relations? Is this some kind of a passing fad? Is this an aberration by some kooks out there in the fringe of the church? Or does the very nature of biblical faith require that we understand and give heed to these issues? I believe that it does, so up front I want to give careful attention to the question of motivation, why bother? I have four main reasons, before I get into the heart of my lecture, on this question of motivation, why bother?
The first reason that I would give for motivating Christians in this task is the realization that the Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not spiritually a Jew. Do you know your relatives? There are a lot of people in the church today who donít know their relatives. Do you know your family members? We have been grafted into Israel (Romans 11), and now most of us have come through the outpatient department; that is, we're not naturally born Jewish people. We're not physical descendants of Abraham, but spiritually we are all Semites. Have you come to know the family who gave you spiritual birth and life and wisdom? John 4:22 says, "Salvation is from the Jews," which simply means your life, your deliverance, and all that you have which has made you part of a redeemed community today has come from the Jewish people. A realization of this fact in my own life prompted me to write Our Father Abraham. I wrote it to try to give some historical and practical teaching on what it means for today's Christian to claim a Jewish heritage in the faith. What difference ought this to make? It seems to me that it ought to make a great difference in the way that we read, the way that we understand, and the way that we obey the Bible.
The noted Protestant Swiss theologian, the late Karl Barth, it seems to me, has stated this clearly, correctly, and concisely. Barth wrote in his Church Dogmatics, "The Bible is a Jewish book. It cannot be read, understood, and expounded unless we are prepared to become Jews with the Jews."
What Barth understood, many Christians have failed to see. Our faith IS tied to the Jewish scriptures and the Jewish people. The bedrock of the early church, the bedrock of Jesus and his teaching was the Hebrew scriptures. The early church was all Jewish. Most of the writers of the New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke, were Jews. So the biblical view of reality is profoundly Hebraic. Gentiles have been grafted in to an all-Jewish olive tree (Romans 11). Israel is the root which supports us (Romans 11:18). So every Christian has a Jerusalem connection. The church was born in Jerusalem. Jesus taught in Jerusalem. Jesus was buried in and ascended from Jerusalem, and the teaching of the church is that he will return to Jerusalem. So we have a new history as Christians. Israel's history is our history. Israel's patriarchs have become ours. Israel's prophets have become ours. Israel's scriptures have become ours, because we have been grafted in to this people of God, this venerable olive tree, the Jewish people. Abraham, then, is our father.
Who says Abraham is our father? Have you read Galatians lately? Galatians 3:29: "If you belong to Christ," Paul says, "then you are Abraham's seed." You donít have any option. Abraham is our father. He is the father of all who believe. Rom. 4:11: father of believing Gentiles; Rom. 4:12: father of believing Jews. So we are Abraham's spiritual children. So before we can become fully Christian, we must also know what it means to be a Jew. Indeed, as the late Rabbi Stuart Rosenberg put it, "The stronger a person's Christian faith, the more Jewish will he regard himself." I trust I'm not bringing coals to Newcastle when I make that statement to an audience like this.
Let me sum up my first point. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not spiritually a Jew. We are Abraham's spiritual children. We have been grafted in to the Jewish people, and the consequence of this in-grafting is that we take on the likeness of the olive tree. We haven't taken over the olive tree. We haven't replaced it, but we have been grafted into it, and we partake of the richness of that olive tree, that sap of that olive tree, to use the Apostle Paul's metaphor. The result of all of this is that the biblical view of reality is profoundly Hebraic. As believers in Jesus, we have a Jewish book, we have a Jewish Lord, and we have a Jerusalem connection, and if we're Christian, we had better find out what this is all about.
For my second reason which should motivate us in this task, we ought to study Jewish roots in order to live a more authentically biblical lifestyle. Yes, we need to know that we have a Jewish family and that the Bible is a Jewish document, but the study of our Hebrew heritage also ought to motivate us on how to live, as Yochanan (John) in his very Hebraic way puts it. We must learn to DO the truth (1 John). Some may study Hebrew and Jewish culture in order to impress others with their learning in an area in which, admittedly, few seem to have much understanding. Others may be motivated to study in this area mainly because of prophetic or end-time reasons in regard to Israel, and some in this category basically view the Jewish people as the key piece to some kind of eschatological jigsaw puzzle which they have devised. In short, Israel and the Jewish people are studied so that these Christians can further an apocalyptic scenario which they have determined is "biblical." Unfortunately, many of these so-called prophetic studies regarding Israel have often proven to be largely sheer speculation. They have usually had very little to say about how to live in the here and the now.
I have a friend on the west coast who is a mature graying preacher who once said to me, "For many, many years, I thought I had it, but I was very slow to learn. After I saw my fifth candidate for antichrist get buried, I decided to rework my study priorities." I hope you donít have to go through five to force you to re-order your study priorities.
This illustration is not to say that we should avoid study of predictive prophecy. We should study it, but it is to say that our study of the Jewish people and Jewish history ought to impact how we live. It ought to make us love Jesus more and to emulate what he taught about the kingdom of God, about spirituality, about love, about compassion, about forgiveness, about marriage and the family, about the celebration of life, about faith, about salvation. It seems to me that, if this is one of our primary motivations for studying Jewish roots, we will reap great dividends. I have seen yet others study this subject area to show how heretical the American church is today. They study so that they can put other Christians down or so that they can correct their pastor with the truth. Such arrogance has no place among God's people. If we as Christians hold the truth, we always hold the truth in love. We do not, with smugness and pride, look down the nose at others in the community of faith, our brothers and sisters, as if somehow God has revealed to us all the truth. My mother, who is 94, keeps telling me, "Son, watch out for the hardening of the attitudes." Thatís very important. Yes, I think that we need to have God-honoring attitudes in our study of Jewish roots, and we need to learn from one another. We are a body.
Are there any other valid reasons why we may be motivated to explore our Jewish roots. I think that there are many. Let me mention a couple more of the important ones.
In addition to (1) understanding the Jewish origins of our faith in our Lord and (2)
instructing us on how to live a more authentically biblical lifestyle, (3) I think that our
studies also ought help us dispel the disease of neo-Marcionism from today's church.
Marcion, a second-century church father around 130-140, sought to do away with the
entire Hebrew Bible and to divest the church of all traces of Jewishness.
He wanted to rid Christianity of anything of Jewish flavor, eventually
condemned as a heretic. But Justin Martyr, a church father of the second century, considered
Marcionism one of the most dangerous heresies of his day. I discuss what I call neo-Marcionism
in my book Our Father Abraham. Let me simply say that modern Marcionists, and there are
many of them around, relegate the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, to secondary importance
in preaching and teaching. Neo-Marcionism manifests itself in many ways today. It's that
local church which has a Sunday School curriculum which tends to have almost exclusively
classes in the New Testament and rarely in the Old Testament. It's the preacher who gets up
and you can almost predict like your clock on a Sunday morning that the text is going to come
from the last 20 percent of the Bible rather than the first 80 percent of the Bible. A
Bible, by the way, where the church, in all of its historic creeds and statements, has never
made a distinction between the 66 books. All 66 books are authoritative and inspired in
terms of the life of the church. That has been the teaching of the church, but the
practice of the church has been more in favor of neo-Marcionism. Check the courses taught at
Christian colleges and seminaries around this country. Greek is often required, and Hebrew at
best, if offered at all, is optional. Or you have twice the courses in New Testament that you
do in Judaism, history of the Hebrew people, Old Testament studies. Sometimes neo-Marcionism
today displays itself with a teaching that Israel has been permanently cast aside, displaced
forever. How many theological faculties espouse that view. Many.
Sometimes the position of anti-Zionism, denouncing Israel's right to a national homeland,
may be nothing more than neo-Marcionism in disguise. However neo-Marcionism rears its ugly head
in today's church, Christians who know the origins of their own faith in the Jewish people and
in the Hebrew Bible will be prepared to call people back to the Old Testament, the Jewish
scriptures, the Hebraic foundation of the church.
One other very important reason, the fourth and last of this preliminary part of my talk on
motivation. What other reason ought to propel every sensitive Christian to become
knowledgeable in the area of Jewish studies? It is this. We desperately need to improve
Christian-Jewish relations. I donít know if you read the statistics of anti-Semitism in this
country, but they are rapidly on the rise in the last few years. I take three Jewish
newspapers, two of which are weekly newspapers, and the statistics are appalling, what is
happening in the last few years, the percentage of rise. There's a dark side to the history of
Christian-Jewish relations about which most Christians are uninformed. A dark side that goes
back to the early Christian centuries and has extended to this very day.
Anti-Judaism in the teaching of the early fathers soon led to a long history of anti-Semitism,
hostility and hatred acted out toward Jewish people. That was climaxed, of course, in that
indescribable event which we know today as the Holocaust. The Holocaust years were
1933-45. At that time, when 6 million Jews (with some 5 million others) were slaughtered
simply because they were Jews. And most of the church stood idly by. No wonder the
credibility of the Christian message has suffered great damage when exposed to Jewish ears over
the centuries. Many within the church rendered that message unbelievable through crusades,
through inquisitions, through pogroms, through torturings, through expulsions and other such
things, or simply by the guilty silence of the church in the face of these atrocities.
My point is that there are bridges that need to be repaired between our communities. It is time that a new image of true Christianity emerge, and this takes time. Misunderstandings and hostility between Christians and Jews must give way to a new relationship, and that relationship will be thoroughly informed about the history of the past. But it will also seek to ensure the future of the Jewish people by maintaining a strong and secure Israel. In America, Christians and Jews really donít know each other, largely because of geographical isolation. We have a need to dispel faulty images and popular stereotypes and caricatures that we have, one of the other. I think that lack of personal encounter has resulted in the creation of these prejudices and distortions and faulty perceptions that we have, one of the other. Jews have been Christ killers, Pharisees, elders of Zion, money grubbers, legalists, and a whole host of other offensive and contorted labels. And Christians have been called rednecks, crackers, anti-intellectuals, Bible thumpers, narrow-minded bigots, street creatures, and you can add to each of those lists.
We are further fortifying the barrier which has divided us for nearly 2000 years when we tolerate, indeed, condone, this type of language, when we donít speak out against it. I remember the late Dr. G. Douglas Young, one of Professor Gordon's earliest students, who founded the Institute for Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. Dr. Young once told me, when he visited in my home, "When I hear an anti-Semitic statement in my presence, I fear I have to say something which sometimes jars people and throws them right back on their haunches. If they say it in my presence, I often come out with this statement: 'I totally disassociate myself from those words.'" If someone were to say that, it might pull people short, but sometimes we need to be pulled up short and reconsider.
Martin Buber once said that all real living is meeting. The Jewish community of Tulsa is lending its support in interaction with us, and one of the best ways to dispel such vicious images and caricatures is for Christians and Jews to reach out to each other. How much more that a Christian should be the one to take the lead in this. This is especially true if that Christian is cognizant that he or she owes an enormous debt of appreciation to the Jewish people, and one of the most gratifying self-imposed responsibilities is not merely to acknowledge that debt, but also to seek meaningful and constructive ways to repay it.
One of the most important ways that our debt to the Jewish people can be repaid is by informing the church about the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and by encouraging opportunities where Christians and Jews can come together in our communities and learn from each other.
Before we move on, let's sum up. We've been talking about the question of motivation. What are we doing at a conference like this? Why do we need this stuff? Why should we be involved. I have developed four reasons.
1. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not spiritually a Jew. We must be knowledgeable about the foundations of our faith.
2. We ought to study Jewish roots in order to live a more authentically biblical lifestyle, and for openers, thatís not bad.
3. Our studies are crucial in order to combat a disease in most of our local churches, and certainly in the church at large. It's neo-Marcionism.
4. Finally, we desperately need to improve Christian-Jewish relations in the light of the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
This leads me to the heart, now, of my lecture. I want to suggest a number of
foundational steppingstones which are essential for our own study and growth. I was going
to call these the Ten Commandments for Personal Growth, but I backed off. If you didnít
understand what chutzpah meant before, you'll understand it now. Brazen
gall. Guts plus effrontery.
However, let's call them the Ten Steppingstones. Just remember that each one can pay
great dividends as you launch out in this field.
First, make a commitment to personal study and seek to be faithful at it. The Talmud
says that, in the life to come, you're going to get hit with three questions.
The first three questions to confront a person, according to Shabbat 31a in
the life to come: Did you buy and sell in good faith? Did you raise a family? And
did you have a set time for study?
One of the first articles that I ever published was in Christianity Today, and the title
was "A Question for Rabbis, Pastors, and Teachers." That question was: Do you have a set
time for study? Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah says, "If you have
learned much, do not think highly of yourself for it, since for this you were created" (P.
Avot 2:8). The New Testament especially supports the idea that study and the
instructing of others ought to be the concern of every Christian. In Matthew 28,
the so-called Great Commission, is a command, and it includes the responsibility of making
disciples of all nations and a method - teaching them to observe all that I have
commanded you. We cannot teach others until we ourselves have become students.
Why is study important? For many reasons, but I can't think of a better answer than a rabbi once gave to this question. The rabbi said, "When I pray, I talk to God, but when I study, God talks to me."
Make a commitment to personal study and seek to be faithful at it.
My second foundational steppingstone is: Personal study requires the building of a library. I would recommend that you work on acquiring a good usable collection of books. Rely on the recommendations of other people who you respect. Remember, you need a variety of books in several areas, and it takes time to acquire these. Remember, every book has strengths and weaknesses. Know your library. Know how to get the best out of every book, and leave the rest. Donít worry about it. Read broadly and try to discuss what you are reading with other people. When you find a particularly good book, buy a copy for your pastor, buy an extra copy for your church library, for a close friend. Get the reaction of other people, and see that that book gets circulating. The same is true for audio tapes, video tapes, and other important publications.
What books should you have in your library in this area of Jewish roots and Christian-Jewish relations? Let me suggest 20 or 30 books that I have found helpful in my own studies and that others have found useful also. Remember, this list is not exhaustive, and I have left many important titles out. You will find full bibliographic data for virtually all of these books in my 11-page bibliography at the rear of Our Father Abraham, and there are many other important titles there as well. Here are some suggestions for doing some reading and research in the area of Jewish roots and Christian-Jewish relations:
Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, Schocken Books.
There are many other titles that I could put in that list for beginners, but if you want to
keep up on most of the latest and current Jewish books being published, become a member of the
Jewish Book Club and get their catalog.
David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus.
John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, Baker Book House.
Terrance Callan, Forgetting the Root: The Emergence of Christianity from Judaism, Paulist Press.
A. Cohen, ed., Everyman's Talmud, Schocken Books.
H. Danby, ed., The Mishnah, Oxford University Press (or a more recent edition of the Mishnah by Neusner).
J. G. Davies, The Early Christian Church, Baker Book House.
W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, Fortress Press.
Hayim Donin, To Be a Jew, Basic Books.
Yechiel Eckstein, What Christians Should Know about Jews and Judaism, Word Books.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (one of the most singularly important books
in formulating my thinking concerning the history of the Jewish people), Farrar, Straus, and
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (a collection of 15 essays that are
tremendous), Schocken Books.
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, Harper & Row.
Daniel Juster, Jewish Roots, Davar Publication.
Leon Klenicki and Geoffrey Wigoder, eds., A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue,
Maurice Lamb, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, Harper & Row.
Bernard Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, Paulist Press.
Robert Lindsay, Jesus: Rabbi and Lord, Cornerstone Publishing.
Jacob Neusner, Invitation to the Talmud, Harper & Row.
David Rausch, Building Bridges: Understanding Jews and Judaism, Moody Press.
David Rausch, A Legacy of Hatred, second edition, now by Baker Book House.
E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Fortress Press.
Siegel, Strassfeld, and Strassfeld, The Jewish Catalog (a very creative approach to
Judaism, which now has three expressions of The Jewish Catalog like the New Earth
Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differed, Macmillan Press.
Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, Wadsworth.
Another book that I think you might enjoy reading: Our Father Abraham, William B.
Eerdmans and Center for Judaic-Christian studies.
Herman Wouk, This Is My God (a personal pilgrimage and expression by a best-selling
Bradford Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables, Paulist Press.
Ronald Youngblood, The Heart of the Old Testament, Baker Book House.
My third point: Get on the mailing list of a wide variety of organizations which offer
educational resources in this area. To increase your knowledge of the Jewish roots and
the Jewish people, I would urge you to become familiar with organizations that provide items
and services such as books, tapes, newsletters, in-house publications, seminars, conferences,
trips to Israel, and other various avenues by which you can become involved with the Jewish
community and with Israel.
To me, it is very important that Christians become informed in a number of areas that are interrelated. Jewish background, Jewish culture, Jewish history as it relates to the Christian faith (very important), but also anti-Semitism, Christian-Jewish relations, modern Israel (not just the politics of modern Israel, but recent archeological discoveries which shed light on the Bible, things happening in Israel), and Hebrew language study.
You may find certain groups more useful than others. It all depends on what you're looking for. You'll find that some people are critical of some groups, and they may not have much good to say about certain groups. Thatís okay. The sign of a mature Christian is someone who can think for himself or herself and make one's own judgment. Just as I donít automatically agree with or believe as gospel truth everything that I read in a book or hear on a tape just because so-and-so says it, I hope that you donít either. God calls us to test truth by scripture. He wants us to read critically and to listen with discernment. He wants us to bounce ideas off other Christians and to value their input as we seek to evaluate the strengths and the weaknesses of what we're studying. Thus I believe that we can learn many positive things from the materials produced by these organizations, whether Christian or Jewish. We need a broad list of groups because no one Christian and no one Jew has said it all. No one group can provide everything that we need in resources. Each group has its own particular strengths. Get to know what it is, and you be the judge in your study as to what materials are most helpful.
A few organizations which provide Christians with some very useful resources.
Awareness Ministry, Huntsville, Alabama, Robert Somerville, Dir.
That is steppingstone number three: Know where to find material to keep you going, to feed you.
Bridges for Peace, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Clarence Wagner, Jr., Pres.
Center for Biblical Analysis, Cleburne, Texas, Jim Myers, Dir.
Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, Ohio, Dwight Pryor, Pres.
Center for the Study of Biblical Research, Monrovia, California, William Bean, Dir.
David A. Lewis Ministries, Inc., Springfield, Missouri, David A. Lewis, Pres.
The Gospel Research Foundation, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Brad Young, Dir.
HaKesher, Inc., Hebrew Language Study, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ken and Lenore Mullican.
HaTikvah Ministries, Port Arthur, Texas, Joseph Good, Pres.
International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Chicago, Illinois, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Pres.
Shalom International, Costa Mesa, California.
Steppingstone number four to get you launched: Find yourself a teacher or a mentor. Thatís what early rabbinic literature says. It's very important that you have someone whom you trust and respect to guide you as you get started in this area. Teachers are not easy to find, and to have someone you can work with on a personal basis, of course, is the best thing to shoot for. If this is not possible, consider choosing a mentor from afar. That is, study under someone who has tapes, articles, books available on the subject areas that you wish to explore, and whenever feasible, seek to sit under this person's teaching in person at seminars and lectures, etc. But one word of caution: No matter whom you consider to be a mentor or teacher, remember no one teacher is capable of saying it all. Every teacher has human limitations. Every teacher has blind spots, and that means me and it means everyone. That is why it's important to study under several people. You will learn new things from each. Cast your net broadly, and you will be the richer for it.
What does the Mishnah say? Who is wise? He who learns from all men (Avot 4:1). Indeed, the Mishnah urges that you allow scholars to invade your house. Have you ever considered that? Thatís a biblical principle. I won't give you the Bible verse, but I'll give you a verse that you may not know thatís not in the BibleóPirkei Avot 1:4 states, "Let your house be a meeting place for the sages and sit in the very dust at their feet and thirstily drink in their words." It says, I'd rather be a tail to lions than a head to jackals, which simply means, I'd rather be the lowest person in the room listening to, drinking in the wisdom of the wise, the chacham, who is speaking than to be the head of a group of ignorant people, the am ha-aretz (literally, the people of the land), the uncultured, the people who despise wisdom. Let your house be a meeting place for the sages. Unlike many churches and university classrooms where the back rows fill up first, the serious learner is here depicted sitting at the very feet of his master. Good teaching produces a chain reaction. Observe the task which Paul outlined to Timothy. It embraced four groups of teachers. Paul told Timothy, the things that you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). Good teaching produces a chain reaction. Find yourself a teacher or a mentor.
For many of you who are living near educational centers, let me urge you to take advantage of course work in the area of Hebrew scriptures, Judaica, Jewish history, Jewish background, modern Israel, etc. For others, it may mean driving 45 minutes or an hour to attend a Friday group Bible study in a neighboring town. But it will be worth the drive, because when you go there, you will be fed. You will be challenged to study on your own, to dig into the word. People are willing to drive and to make sacrifices when they know preparation precedes teaching. I think, personally, one of the reasons that church, in all frankness, is boring to many Christians is because they keep hearing the same thing again and again and again. There are only so many ways that you can say the same thing over and over again. Every pastor should be locked in his study for at least 20 hours a week, and it's up to the elders and the deacons to insist that that happen. They must help to free the pastor from the often trivial responsibilities which sap his study time. Why do teachers and preachers of the word need to sustain themselves by a regular serious time for study? Avodah Zerah 3b in the Talmud has the answer. It's beautifully put. "As the fishes in the sea immediately perish when they come out of the water, so do men perish when they separate themselves from the words of Torah."
Steppingstone number five for increasing our possibilities in the field of Christian-Jewish relations and knowledge of Jewish roots: Seek to put into practice or implement the things that you are learning, especially biblical truths and values. If youíve learned something new about Jesus and what he taught about the law, seek to put it into practice. If you have discovered that there are any traces of Marcionism in your home church, seek to be rid of these. If youíve discovered the Sh'ma from Deuteronomy 6, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul," and realize that this first verse of scripture that Jesus memorized as a child (and I go into this in Our Father Abraham), that is, declaring the oneness of God and loving God with one's whole being, that is the first and greatest commandment, then let the Jewish scriptures be the foundation for your love as a Christian. After all, love is a very Jewish concept. The reason that Jesus taught us to love God with all our heart and strength is that Moses taught this, and Jesus appeals to Moses for the basis of that one teaching of love that pulls all of scripture together.
If youíve never grasped the Jewish view of time and history, then do so. It will enable you to sleep better tonight. History is progressively moving toward a goal, a brilliant future, a messianic age when redemption will be totally experienced over this sin-cursed earth. As Christians, we believe in a brighter tomorrow, that the olam hazeh, this age, will lead eventually lead to an olam haba, the age to come. No matter how depressing the conditions in this world appear, we believe and we hope and we await a tomorrow when God will complete his work of redemption. That, to me, is good news. It is what the Hebrew prophets taught, and it is a biblical view of history.
Seek to put into practice biblical truths that you're studying. If your view of
spirituality is too heavenly like the gnostics, make it more earthly like the biblical
Hebrews. If your view of salvation is to get out of this world, to take off, to
escape this planet to another world, reconsider. Look at the Hebrews. Their concept
of yeshuah, deliverance, salvation was very much this-worldly. They knew the
liberating power of God in the here and now. Salvation was not escape. It
was involvement in the work of a God who sets people free in this life, not simply for a life
Are your views on marriage and the family largely negative, or do you know any people who
have negative views? Go back to the Jewish scriptures. Allow the word of God to
bring a corrective here. The Hebrews taught a God-given goodness to marriage and the
family. The first of the 613 commandments in the Bible is what we call in Hebrew the
boogie-woogie construction: P'ru u'r'vu. Be fruitful and multiply. Be
fruitful and increase. The one commandment in the Bible that we've done a great job
fulfilling. The Hebrews considered children a blessing, not a nuisance. The Hebrews
stressed the importance of love after marriage, not simply before. The Hebrews affirmed
that the pinnacle of life was old life, not age 21 as we're told today. The Hebrews
valued the wisdom of experience which the elderly gave. The Hebrews affirmed hope in a
resurrection. We need to hear that in an age of skepticism, in an age of rationalism
Our views on marriage and the family, aging, death, resurrection must be positive with all of the questioning about the validity of this today. If we're going back to our roots, we need to hear these things. We need to be, again, radical people going back to our roots. So seek to put into practice what you're learning about your Hebrew heritage. Donít be afraid to rethink, to grow, to change. After all, isn't this the whole reason we study?
Steppingstone number six: Share what you are learning with others. Donít keep the good news that you're learning all to yourself. Share this material with other people. This is an important key to your own personal growth. It will help to reinforce what you're studying, and it will also help to clarify your thinking on issues. Where can this be done? Some sharing of ideas can be done effectively on a one-to-one basis. Find a few people who are open to new ideas of exploring in regard to the Bible and the Jewish people. But donít press things. Be content to plant a few seeds to begin with. Then watch them gradually grow. This is especially crucial when talking to pastors and church leaders. Give the Holy Spirit some time to work on the material.
You may also want to share what you are learning with a small group, a Bible study class or an adult church school class. You never really learn something until you are forced to teach it or are forced to share it, and this is the principle. You learn it. What does the Talmud say? Who is the great scholar? Not the one who can repeat the lesson back a hundred times to the rabbi; it's the one who can repeat it back a hundred and one times. Mishnah means to repeat, to say it again, do it again, and this is how you learn. You use it or you lose it. And this is the part of teaching that's so important. It helps to clarify your thoughts if you have to explain it to someone else. The goal of all of this is, of course, to reproduce ourselves in other people. What excites you is bound to excite them. What is burning within you has to catch fire within them.
I think that a good teacher is really like a salesman. He is able in an honest way to convince others that what he has they desperately need. If something has changed your life, then others are going to know it, and they're going to be affected. Share what you are learning with others. You will be glad that you did.
Steppingstone number seven: Network with other people who have an interest in this area. Get a network going for yourself. Sometimes it can be pretty lonely out there. Often it's hard enough just getting people excited about the importance of the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, never mind finding people who are turned to the relevance of Jewish roots or Christian-Jewish relations or Holocaust studies. Build up a coterie of friends that you can depend on. You will need them, and they will need you for a number of things. You need other people that you can bounce ideas off of. Call these people. Write them. Cultivate their friendship. We need other people who understand where we are coming from, and we also need others to whom we should be accountable. We need people who can talk to us honestly and objectively and help us with problem solving. We need to encourage each other in this area. Problems can be very complex, and we need the collective wisdom and insight of others more knowledgeable in this field. This is where networking comes in. The experienced can assist the inexperienced with sharing advice and resources and information or pointing to others who have this material. Make use of those resources above. If they donít have the answer, they can usually point you to some other direction or give you the name or a phone number where you can find an answer, or get materials which you need, whatever your study needs are at that particular point. Establishing a network of relationships can be especially helpful when you need a core of people to support a particular project in your area. It may be crucial, for instance, to bring together Christians on short notice to respond to an anti-Semitic incident in the local Jewish community. Why? To denounce that incident through the press or to repair any defacement of property, perhaps synagogue. Or you may want to contact a core of local Christians to support a lecture on our Hebrew heritage in your area. In short, build a network of people who you can depend on and share your gifts with them as occasion demands.
My eighth steppingstone: Become familiar with the Jewish community in your state and start getting involved. The Jewish community in your area (and you may have to travel for miles to find out where that is) can be a tremendous resource for education and understanding. Jewish faith and traditions may be effectively grasped through a series of visitations to several synagogues. Here one may learn of such things as Jewish worship, Jewish prayer, symbolism, holidays, education, synagogue architecture, you name it. Opportunity to participate in their community Passover seder will educate you again on not only what's going on in Exodus 12, but also what is going on in the gospels in the upper room. In addition, one may learn from taking courses in conversational Hebrew, or introduction to the Talmud at a local Jewish community center, or by attending a lectureship series sponsored by a synagogue. I took a large group of my students to visit a Jewish funeral home to study the Jewish rites of dying and burial, and I plan to take another group of my students to a Jewish day school to observe how the Bible, Hebrew language, Jewish tradition are taught. These types of things can prove to be very informative to us as Christians.
Furthermore, I would urge those who pastor churches or serve as directors of Christian education to work out periodic teaching or lecturing exchanges with local rabbis. I know that there are at least 15 synagogues in my area within a 20-mile radius where I have been asked to speak as a Christian to these Jewish groups, and I think that there should be many pastors of churches in your area who should open their doors to allow Jewish scholar teachers to come in and speak. How we can profit from the resources of the Jewish community. I would urge you to encourage that kind of periodic teaching exchange.
Also, Christian women's groups such as Women's Aglow should seek to hold one of their monthly meetings each year with a nearby Jewish Hadassah chapter. I've challenged a number of Christian women's groups to do this once a year. An illustrated lecture on the history and archeology of Jerusalem would provide a worthwhile topic of mutual interest. A community-produced version of the play Diary of Anne Frank, or even Fiddler on the Roof will provide great insight into the Jewish experience. An evening of Jewish music or folk dancing or jointly sponsored class on traditional Jewish cuisine will give additional enrichment to your study.
To sum up this point, get familiar with the Jewish community in your area or your state, and get involved with it. You will build new friendships and learn much in the process.
Steppingstone number nine: Go to Israel as soon as you can, and you can take that as a commandment if you want to. It will make the Bible come alive, and it will change your life. I've never taken anyone to Israel (and I think I've taken now over 650 people over the years) whose life has not been radically affected. Just being there in the land does it. Biblical history starts to come to life in a new way. An existential awareness begins to grip people who come to Israel for the first time. Viscerally, they begin to declare, "This is not just Israel's homeland, but I too have something personal and tangible at stake in this particular land." Get to Israel as soon as you can. It will give a radically new and refreshing perspective on your study of Jewish roots, the Holocaust, Jewish survival, Middle East politics, and you will be glad that you went.
My final steppingstone: Look for ways to initiate programs in your home area which will build bridges of friendship and understanding between Christians and Jews. A variety of programs and projects can be undertaken in order to bring Christians and Jews together. Urge your pastor and church leaders to work with you in accomplishing this task. It will require some planning sessions with the Jewish community to make this happen, but it will be well worth the effort.
Let me give several suggestions of what can be done together in order to build the bonds of friendship. Perhaps one or two of these ideas may grab you.
Show and discuss the film The Chosen or The Hiding Place, one time in a local temple, the next time in the educational hall of a local church. Bring high school youth groups together for the constructing of a sukkah, an outdoor hut commemorating the fall Feast of Tabernacles. Initiate a dialog group among Christians and Jews. Use some of the excellent materials available. Hold an annual Yom HaShoah service which commemorates the Holocaust. Normally this will be in the month of April because it coincides with the date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Make it a community event with clergy and lay participation from Jewish and Christian communities. My wife plays the piano every year. We have 500-600 Jews and Christians who come together in the North Shore of Boston. She provides the music. We have three local clergy, usually one a Protestant, one a Catholic, and one a Jew, who briefly speak about the importance of the Holocaust. We come together as a community to become sensitized to history and find out who we are within the community. Put together an interfaith study tour of Israel so that Christians and Jews can see that land together. Let local rabbis and ministers spearhead this worthwhile educational venture. Set up a program to encourage the planting of trees in Israel. Bridges for Peace right here in Tulsa has a way in which you can plant trees in Israel if you're interested. See them. Bring Israeli Jews into your area to discuss life and the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Make Christians aware of how they can assist in the settlement of Russian Jews in Israel. Devote an evening to educate and update Christians and Jews in these matters. I could go on and on, but my time is gone.
Make many things happen in this area, and it can be done. Build bridges of friendship and understanding between both our communities. Many people will be helped in the process. Donít be afraid to reach out and find tangible ways to show that you care.
Here, then, are ten steppingstones for the purpose of getting launched in the study of Jewish roots and Christian-Jewish relations. In the simplest terms, let me test your memory. Let me review with you the ten steps. You may have others that you would include, or you might want to eliminate some of mine, but I've been working on this for some time, reflecting on what I would put into a basic talk like this.
Here are the points that I've gone over with you. I talked about four points of motivation and then the ten steps.
1. Make a commitment to personal study and seek to be faithful at it.
You will observe that any successful study in this area requires the cooperation, help, support, and encouragement of others around you. You will need others and they will need you. Last week I was reminded of this anew and how important this fact is. Very central to the Hebrew heritage: community. Last week, I took a group of my students to synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah, the final day of the week-long celebration of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. It was a time of great rejoicing when the last chapter of Deuteronomy was publicly read, and then the beginning of Genesis all over again. This annual event beautifully dramatizes the eternal nature of God's word. The Torah is never-ending. As the tradition has been in the synagogue since ancient time, when the last verse of Deuteronomy was read, the congregation exclaimed in unison, "Chazak, chazak, v'nit chazek." Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. And may that exhortation also be true in the experience of each of us. As we pursue the study of our Jewish roots, may we be strong in the word, and may this exciting quest also be an important time to reach out and strengthen one another. Amen.
2. Work on acquiring a good usable personal library.
3. Get on mailing lists of organizations which offer educational resources.
4. Find yourself a teacher or a mentor.
5. Seek to put into practice and to implement the things that you're learning, especially biblical values which impact your lifestyle as a believer.
6. Share what you're learning with others. Thatís how you remember it; thatís how you refine it.
7. Network with other people who have a similar interest. They will need you, and you will need them.
8. Become familiar with the Jewish community in your area and start getting involved.
9. Go to Israel as soon as you can. You will never read the Bible the same way again, and you will never view Jewish people the same.
10. Look for ways to initiate programs in your home area which will build bridges of friendship and understanding between Christians and Jews.
Dr. Wilson is the Harold J. Ockenga Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. In 1971, he joined the Gordon faculty where he currently [1995?] teaches Old Testament, Hebrew, Jewish history and culture, and modern Judaism. For 17 years, Dr. Wilson has chaired the Department of Biblical Studies. Dr. Wilson is an active writer, authoring or editing seven books and has also penned numerous articles in both scholarly and popular periodicals. Four of his books deal with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Dr. Wilson's most recent work is a textbook on the Hebrew heritage of the church titled Our Father Abraham, Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Professor Wilson served as an Old Testament translator and editor of the New International Version, currently the best selling Bible in the English-speaking world. Dr. Wilson served as an organizer and co-director of three national conferences of Christians and Jews here in the US with religious leaders attending from this country, Canada, and Israel. Professor Wilson is a frequent speaker in churches and synagogues, at conferences, and on radio and television. His innovative field trip course at Gordon, titled "Modern Jewish Culture," has been cited as an educational model in the field of Christian-Jewish relations. He has directed 13 extensive study tours of Israel and the Middle East and has been involved in archeological digs in Israel.
The educational background of Dr. Wilson includes an A.B. from Wheaton College and post-graduate degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Brandeis University. Dr. Wilson's mentor was Professor Cyrus Gordon, noted Jewish biblical scholar and archeologist.
Click HERE for more information on Dr. Wilson.
Presented at Yavo's Foundations of Our Faith Conference, October 15, 199(5?)
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
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