Monday, December 29, 2014

Rabbi Baird

The funniest interaction of my Christmas holiday season was when my 12 year old nephew stepped off the plane from Nashville to visit us in Southern California and posed a deep and pontifical question.  He asked, "How's the Synagogue going?"  "Synagogue?" I asked.  "Yes," he said, "you are a Rabbi right?"  "No," I said, "I am a Presbyterian pastor in a Protestant church."  "Oh," he said quizzically, "I thought you were a rabbi.  You have so much Jewish stuff in your house.  You have a menorah in your window, a dreidel on your tree, a shofar on your coffee table, and you are always using Hebrew words in your Sunday messages."  I had to admit, my young nephew had a point.  I do have a lot of Jewish accoutrements in my life.

The truth of the matter is that though I am not Jewish (that I am aware of, followers of my blogposts over the years might remember one in which I stumbled upon a long held possible family secret that my great, great, great grandpa Adam Kahl might have been Jewish), I do love looking at the life of Jesus and his times through a Jewish cultural lens.

Most people who attend seminary do a preponderance of their study from one principle cultural standpoint - Greece.  Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, seminarians study the Greek language.  Though not exactly Homeric Greek (high Classical Greek) the New Testament, in varying degrees of exactness, is written in Koine Greek - quite literally, Greek slang.  The most basic of the New Testament books is the book of Mark, which is comprised of a long list of prepositional clauses connected with the word - AND (Kai, Kai, Kai - in Greek).

The Hebrew language is also taught in seminary, though not many of my colleagues took it very seriously as a study.  I, am ashamed to say, included in this group.

The history of the New Testament is often studied through the lens of Greek history.  Herod was at least part Greek, because he stemmed from what was known as the Seleucid Empire.  Some of the great historians of the early world were Greek (Aristotle was Greek, and wrote history, of course).  But not many of the Greek historians focussed on the land of Judah.  Most of the best historians of the period were not Greek, or Jewish but were Roman - Plutarch was one of the most famous.  The Romans were primarily interested in documenting the expansion of the Roman empire, and so wrote history from the standpoint of military victories.  One of the few great Jewish historians was a Jewish man who's name was both Roman and Greek in origin: Falvius (a Roman name) Josephus (a Greek name).

But studying the Bible through a Greek or a Roman lens is akin to learning to cook French cuisine at a McDonald's restaurant training camp.  You might learn a few of the basics (eg: the French Fry is distant relative of the Pomme Fritte) but the essential beautiful nuances will always be lost.

Here are some of my favorite aspects of Jesus' life as understood through a Jewish cultural lens.

*  When Jesus says to the crowd in Jericho that "salvation" has come into the house of Zacchaeus, it is a Hebrew word play.  The name Jesus in Hebrew is "yeshua".  Jesus is saying, "I (salvation/Yeshua) am coming into Zacchaeus' house".

*  Almost every time Jesus is asked a question, he answers with a question.  This is a very Jewish cultural pattern.  Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"  Jesus asks, "Is that your idea, or did someone else give that to you?"  Jesus is not being cheeky or cute, he is following the pattern of his own cultural conversation.

*  Much of the Old Testament is really written from a standpoint of Jewish puns.  When Jacob wrestled the angel on the banks of the river Jabbok, it is a word pun sentence.  The Hebrew word for wrestle is "Javok".  This is also the Hebrew word for hipbone - "Javok".  And so, the literal translation should go something like this, "When Jacov, Javoked with the angel, on the banks of the river Javok, he disconnected his Javok."

And the list goes on.  Maybe my nephew is correct, I am a kind of protestant rabbi.  I firmly believe that many of the most interesting aspects of the Bible and of God can be unearthed by understanding more about Jewish history and culture.

And so, I hope that like me, on New Years Eve, you will raise your glass and say,

Lacheim - Cheers!


All For Now,

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