I chose this topic today because of something Ben Witherington III said on his blog while reviewing the writings of Rob Bell. Rob is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. He is a wildly popular communicator and a man who thinks deeply and communicates well. He is accused by some of liberalism and may in fact have some problematic beliefs in a few areas. I am not an expert on his theology, though I am about to read his latest book (Sex God).
I was introduced to Rob Bell by a friend who is a Jewish believer and totally into the Willow Creek church model and also interested in Emergent Churches. My friend said to me, “Rob Bell started his church with a sermon series on Leviticus. How cool is that!” I have to admit, most churches don’t preach on Leviticus ever, much less start with a series on it. I gave Rob an immediate credit for that one.
I have heard one or two Rob Bell messages online. I have not listened to his popular NOOMA video series, but I have heard great things about it. Rob is a part of this new communication style with object lessons and one point messages (similar to Andy Stanley and Louis Giglio). The sermon I heard by Rob Bell was one in which he made fresh salsa on stage as he was speaking. I think it is a little gimmicky and it is not my taste, but I would not be foolish enough to criticize it. I have about 50 people who listen to me each week and Rob has thousands (tens of thousands on the web). He obviously is a much better communicator than I am.
Anyway, I should get to the point. One of the things I appreciate about Rob Bell is his desire to present Jesus as a Jewish rabbi. Yet, Ben Witherington III takes Rob to task for his statements in this regard. I want to show that the truth is somewhere in between Rob and Ben’s assessment.
Now, let me say a word about Ben Witherington III and then I will get to the issue. I think Ben Witherington III is a good scholar, but with some holes. He is a supersessionist, for one thing. He often tells people they should read books, so I will say it: Ben, you should read R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology. I wish a man of BW3’s reading and prolific corpus of writings would get the Israel issue right. In the meantime, I still get a lot of value from Ben’s commentaries.
Anyway, here is an excerpt from and a link to several of Ben’s reviews of Rob Bell:
First of all it seems clear that Rob, in his valid attempt to read Jesus and the NT writers in the context of early Judaism, has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries A.D, and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism.
Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense, much less like modern ordained rabbis. It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss. Jesus’ approach to the Torah is not like later rabbis in various ways, not the least of which is that he does not cite (indeed he often contrasts his teaching with) the oral traditions of the elders, such as Hillel or Shammai and the like. Jesus spoke on his own independent authority. At times Rob seems too uncritical in his reading of sources like the truly dated works of Alfred Edersheim, and apparently he spends too much time listening to folks like Ray Vanderlaan, a local teacher in the Grand Rapids area who doesn’t really much understand the differences between medieval Jewish rabbis and the context and ethos of teachers in early Judaism of Jesus’ day. Rob needs to read some viable sources on early Judaism, for example some of the work of Craig Evans or George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner if he wants to paint the picture of the Jewish Jesus using the right hews, tones, and features.
Here are links to two of Ben’s blogs reviewing Rob Bell:
Rob Bell Hits Lexington
Velvet Elvis Review
Here are my thoughts:
1. Perhaps Rob is guilty of oversimplifying matters and perhaps he makes some errors in reading Jesus as a rabbi in the modern sense.
2. Perhaps Rob is guilty of not knowing the distinction between pre-70 Judaism and the Judaism of the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.).
3. Ben is nonetheless guilty of overstating the difference and missing the larger point: Jesus was a rabbi in the early sense of the term.
I will cite a scholar whose work is well respected, John Meier, a Roman Catholic scholar whose series A Marginal Jew is considered a work to be reckoned with in Jesus studies. Meier considers the case for and against Jesus having had an education that we might call Rabbinic. Here are some of Meier’s points:
1. The Talmud’s depiction of universal public schooling for Jewish boys in Hebrew and Bible is certainly fictitious before 70 C.E.
2. Nonetheless, evidence of common literacy (not universal) is strong.
3. Numerous inscriptions on common articles suggest literacy was not rare.
4. There is evidence that some Jews held their own private copies of the Torah.
5. There is evidence from the time of Bar Kochba (132 C.E.) of grammar school exercises in Hebrew.
6. From 200 B.C.E. we know that the ability to read and interpret Torah was held in high esteem and urged for all (Sirach 39:1-11).
7. The gospel accounts depict Jesus as literate in Hebrew and capable of discussing fine points of halakhah. Take for example Luke 4:16 and following as well as Matt 22:23 and following.
8. Nazareth was a mostly Jewish town of 2,000 people in Jesus’ time and it is likely that there was a synagogue (as the Gospels claim) and an education program available.
The natural conclusion from all this is that, sometime during his childhood or early adulthood, Jesus was taught how to read and expound the Hebrew Scriptures. This most likely happened — or at least began — in the synagogue at Nazareth. Yet there is no indication of higher studies at some urban center such as Jerusalem…
(Meier, Vol. 1, p.278).
Is it fair, then, to call Yeshua a rabbi? Even in the modern sense, rabbi is not merely a term used for leaders of synagogues. Many ordained rabbis do not lead synagogues. They have ordination passed on to them in a chain from Talmudic times and are considered learned. So Yeshua would not have to have led an ancient synagogue to be considered a rabbi, even in the modern sense.
What would rabbi [literally “my exalted one, or my master”] mean in the ancient sense? It seems to me it meant any learned person who could gather disciples and teach a way of living Israel’s law. I think Yeshua qualifies for the title since:
1. He was frequently called rabbi (sometimes the text says “teacher” in order to make the title understandable to a Roman audience).
2. He had disciples just as other ancient rabbis had disciples.
3. His saying were memorized and treated as authoritative.
It is true that he was not part of the system of rabbinic succession that had probably already begun. This is debated by those skeptical that any of the Mishnah accurately portrays 2nd Temple Judaism, but it is hard to believe that the entire idea of rabbinic schools and disciples is a complete invention. It may be exaggerated in the Mishnah, but it is not a complete fiction.
Bottom line? I think BW3 is right to ask Rob Bell to read a little Neusner (and I would add, N.T. Wright). But I also think Rob Bell is right to call Jesus a rabbi and to use this title to communicate to moderns the Jewishness of our Savior. I think BW3 should go a little easier on Rob Bell and I think Rob Bell should do a little reading recommended by BW3. Perhaps in the end, both will be better for it.
*****Postscript: I have just read a summary of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and I see that he has made a few historical blunders. Ben Witherington is right to ask Rob to read a little more on these historical issues. Specifically in chapter 4 Rob talks about the rabbis having a yoke and binding and loosing things. He is mostly reading later rabbinic thought back into the first century. Also, in chapter 7, Rob assumes that the later Jewish education system was in place in the first century, that Jesus went on to advanced rabbinic training, and that the age of 30 was a traditional age for a rabbi to begin his teaching. I think Rob is wrong about these details. It’s too bad, because Rob’s point is not dependent on them. He could have made his point with a more accurate portrayal of Jesus’ education and rabbinic work. I also still say that Ben could do a better job of acknowledging that seeing Jesus as Rabbi Yeshua is a helpful corrective for modern seekers.
Great post! As someone who, before coming across Rob Bell, was somewhat skeptical of those who emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus (mainly thanks to an aggressive David Stern fan in my Mother-in-Law!), Robs approach helped me to reconcile the Jesus who offers grace to all with the first century Rabbi.
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Good post. I just finished reading Rob Bell’s book and I’m posting some thoughts on my blog.
Join the discussion:
thanks for the post. very clarifying to me. i see that bw3 doesnt have a high opinion of ray vander laan. what are your thoughts about his teaching?
personally, i have seen ray’s credentials. he has studied at hebrew university with many modern rabbis. certainly as a younger man, ray also may have oversimplified things, but in his more recent stuff, he gives a lot more of a balanced look at things like you have done.
ps for yourself, i wouldnt discredit the influence of a man with 50 rather than a man with 1000’s like rob bell. Yeshua had 12. sometime 50 is more influential than 1000. in fact, i would say given the same teacher, he will always be more effective with the smaller group rather than the larger.
thus you see Yeshua constantly getting alone with his talmidim. he recognized the importance of true discipleship.
Ian, thanks. Yes, believing in a Jewish Messiah does not mean less grace and more work. It means taking the human Jesus and his teachings more seriously, though. I think when Jesus is merely the Christ-God and not the man from Galilee it is easier to ignore his practical teachings.
Michael, I read a little on your blog. Your concerns are valid. I have not read much of Rob Bell yet, but I am going to try to see the positive. I think we are dealing here with someone with original thought and who is in process. I admire him for not doing what so many do: buy into a prepackaged theology and have all your questions answered before considering them.
Peter, I’ve heard of Ray Vander Laan but have not heard any of his videos or read anything by him. People frequently tell me they learned about the importance of Israel or Jewish culture from various teachers (Ray, Zola Levitt, John Hagee, or others). I will take heed to what you said and when I look into Ray’s work, I will check the more recent material.
Concerning common literacy in the late Second Temple period, Catherine Hezser (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, 2001) has some important observations based on extremely extensive research. She writes, “Even if only a very small minority of Jews can be considered to have reached the highest levels of literacy, whereas many were able to write their own signature only or were totally illiterate, Jewish society as a whole can be called a ‘literate society’, that is, a society in which writing was employed in various social contexts. .” (Hezser p. 449).
In a variety of ways, the literate, semi-literate, and illiterate Jews were able to participate in this literate society, while not themselves literate in today’s sense of the word. This is also obvious in the work of Martin Jaffee (especially Torah in the Mouth, 2001). Even those who were not literate functioned somewhere on the oral/literary continuum and could attain to a significant textual knowledge while being unable to read texts themselves.
I am not at all claiming that Yeshua was not literate, only pointing out that Meier’s 7 step analysis is weak at certain points because it fails to weigh much recent scholarship on orality and literacy in Yeshua’s time.
You are simply too well-read for me to catch up to you. How much older than me are you? That will tell me how long I have to catch up.
I have to say that evidence for high literacy rate in Meier’s list was not strong (numerous inscriptions on common articles, grammar exercises found in Bar Kochba caves, Torah literacy held in high esteem in Sirach). I think Meier was simply trying to show literacy for Yeshua would not be out of the question, but a reasonable thing to believe if the Gospels claim it was so. Here is how I see it:
1. Literacy was readily attainable in 2nd Temple Judaism.
2. The Gospels claim literacy for Yeshua.
3. It is reasonable to believe that the Gospels are accurate on this point.
Do you agree that evidence points to enough literacy that the Gospels’ depiction of Yeshua as literate is not difficult to believe?
I have attended Mars Hill since 1999 and was there when he preached on Leviticus. He actually went pretty much chapter by chapter and taught it for almost a year.
Baruch HaShem, there is a growing Torah movement alive and well at Mars Hill. For seven years, we have had Torah Club study groups (using First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club materials). Rob Bell has studied these materials (although he is not part of a Torah Club study group), and has drawn upon them for his teachings. We just celebrated a Pesach seder will all the groups and had over 150 attend! Baruch HaShem. Yes, that is a drop in the bucket of the over 11,000 that attend Mars Hill, but every year our numbers grow.
“How much older than me are you? That will tell me how long I have to catch up.”
I am 61, and trust that you will catch up long before you reach my age. And the more you take my classes , the quicker you will catch up. ;-)
“Do you agree that evidence points to enough literacy that the Gospels’ depiction of Yeshua as literate is not difficult to believe?”
Yes, without any reservations whatsoever.
I appreciate this post. I just read Ben Witherington’s post, so I surfed around and found your blog. You supplied a very moderate viewpoint. I think you hit on some good things here on both of them. You definitely act with righteousness compared to some of the commentors on Ben’s blog. You seem to rise above the judgemental mindset.
“It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss.” B. Witherington
So…Mark 9:5 doesn’t count when Peter sees the Transfiguration? or Mark 11:21 when Peter points out the withered tree? or John 1:38 when Andrew asks him where he is staying? or John 1:49 when Nathaniel declares him to be the Son of God? or John 4:31 when all of the disciples urge him to eat? or John 9:2 when the disciples ask him about the man born blind? or in John 11:8 when they discourage him from going to Judea?
Witherington is too good of a scholar to have missed these references. What’s the deal?
I think it’s also important to note that Yeshua starting his ministry at 30 is consistent with the Levitical priest starting their service of guarding the Temple, Tabernacle or tent of Meeting as is instructed by Yahweh (God) in the Torah. This is important because He is the replacement of the spiritually corrupted priestly order and serves as our High Priest of the Malchezedek order in Heaven intervening on our behalf as the Levites intervened as prescribed by Yahweh for Israel through sacrifice.
I am very late in coming to this article and am only reading it to see why Rob Bell has gone so far off the rails when it comes to understanding basic foundational Biblical concepts. Your article is very insightful in realizing that Mr Bell’s research has been less than exhaustive. Thanks for this insight into Mr Bell.
I think the sources you cite for determining how Jesus was taught are a beginning, I would say however you need to go a bit deeper. Maybe by now you have already come to a different conclusion but I wanted to ask you if you have ever heard of Berel Wein? He has some great historical books, with amazing source material used which explain how the system worked in Jesus’ time. He does not even comment on the New Testament but does give a clear view of what it would have been like to be a Torah Teacher of that period.