This year, on Sundays at 11:15a, we will explore the Jewish Context of Jesus’ ministry. We all know that Jesus was a Jew, but it is not easy to understand the Judaism of Jesus’ day, because …
· by the time Jesus was born, Judaism had evolved dramatically since the days of Abraham (2000 BCE), Moses (1200 BCE), David (1000 BCE), Josiah (640 BCE) and even Ezra (450 BCE);
· much of what we know about the Israelites and the Jews comes from the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament), most of which were written down 450 years or more before Jesus’ birth;
· much of what we know about Jesus’ life was not written down (in the Gospels) until after Christianity and Judaism had drifted apart following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; and
· much of our current understanding of Jesus’ life is based on Christian theology which developed many centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this theology has often unfairly condemned the Jews collectively as the people who rejected, and even murdered, Jesus.
The Christian misunderstanding of Jews and Judaism has led to the anti-Semitism which has plagued the Jews for the past two millennia and helped set the stage for the Holocaust. One of the goals of this course is to help set that record straight.
Our course will be divided into three sections:
During the fall, we will study From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (2nd Edition), by Shaye Cohen, a Hebrew Bible scholar at Harvard. Cohen clearly and concisely describes the evolution of Judaism during the Second Temple period (516 BCE – 70 CE). Topics include the growing importance of the synagogue, liturgical prayer and scriptural study, the development of sects (including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Christians), evolving views of the afterlife, the diversity of messianic expectations, the democratization of the Jewish religion, change in the roles of women and children, and the relations of the Jews with the Greeks and Romans.
During the winter and early spring, we will study The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School who is also an Orthodox Jew. She provides insightful and often surprising explanations of the 1st century Jewish context of such important Gospel passages as Jesus’ pronouncement of the Great Commandment, Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the process, she debunks many myths about 1st century and current Judaism that have been perpetuated by divinity schools, Baptist ministers, the World Council of Churches, and even Adam Sandler’s The Hanukkah Song.
It will be up to the class to decide what we study during the last month of the Sunday School year. We could study the breakup of Judaism and Christianity in The Parting of the Ways (2nd Edition) by James Dunn, a retired British New Testament scholar. We could read some of the essays on 1st century Judaism and Christianity in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, a fascinating Jewish look at the New Testament that is edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, a Biblical Studies professor at Brandeis. Or we could study the provocative Jesus in the Talmud, by Peter Schafer, a Jewish Studies professor at Princeton.
Each Sunday, our class will begin about 15 minutes after the worship service ends, and will run for about an hour. The highlight of the course will surely be the guest lecture on Sunday, November 23 by John Roberts, who was my pastor and mentor at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore for over 20 years. (I had the great privilege of teaching the John Ewing Roberts Adult Sunday Class at Woodbrook for a number of years.) To further our exploration of the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry, John will lead a discussion of Matthew 23, which has been called the meanest chapter in the Bible. Even if you cannot attend our class on a regular basis, you should drop by to hear John’s presentation. You will be glad you did!
I hope to see you at our first class next Sunday!