The Shuvah Project #2 — Why is it necessary?

Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.

– Luke 1:1-4 (emphasis added)

As pointed to last week, this blog post is part-two of a two-part introduction. It serves to explain why The Shuvah Project is a necessary endeavor. Admittedly, there is a lot to digest. Also, it is not within the 1,200 word limit we promised, that will start next week.

To lay the historical foundation, the snapshots provided in Kings tell an interesting story. The Nation of Israel split into two kingdoms, a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). For more elaboration on the united and divided kingdoms, head to the BEMA podcast. The northern kingdom of Israel is conquered by the Assyrians (2 Kings 18:9-12). The Kings story line suggests lack of obedience to God’s commandments led to the Assyrian conquest:

“because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord their God, but violated His covenant” (2 kings 18:12).

The southern kingdom of Judah remains safe for the time being, but eventually Babylon marches on Judah. The temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and the majority of the people are exiled to Babylon. Recognizing that Hezekiah’s decision is part of the equation (2 Kings 20:14-18), I also think the pre-Babylonian conquest story of King Josiah may provide another piece of evidence for why the conquest occurred — the Book of the Covenant/Law was lost (2 Kings 22 & 23:1-30).

Ok. Your turn. Your whole city was just destroyed. You are carted off to Babylon. Your place of worship, where God resides, is a pile of burning rubble. In captivity you sit and lament. As you move through the phases of grief you wrestle with how this could happen and why. What do you come up with?

As Kings alludes, the Jewish leaders reason all this happened because they were not obedient to God’s commandments and the major reason they were not obedient: because they didn’t know what those commandments were due to the Book being lost. So, in response to Babylonian captivity, the Jewish leaders come back determined to know God’s word!

**as a Christian far removed from this history we should be extremely thankful for the Jewish people, because after Babylon they carried God’s word for centuries to get it to us.

What concerns me is, unlike the Nation of Israel in the period of kings, modern-day Christians have not physically lost the book, but most often intentionally ignore it, find it outdated, or turn to more important activities to occupy their time. What is so striking to me about the Josiah story is how deeply Josiah grieved when he heard the words within the book. One of my desires for followers of Jesus is to experience what Josiah did, by hearing the words we have lost. And, then return, to rediscover God’s word and the partnership it invokes.

As mentioned briefly last week, largely in response to Babylonian captivity, Judaism operates an annual lectionary cycle in which all five books of Moses (i.e the entire Torah) are read from start to finish every year! M.D. Goulder is the scholar I lean on most regarding the lectionary conversation. In his books Midrash and Lection in Matthew and The Evangelists’ Calendar: a lectionary explanation of the development of scripture, he lays out compelling evidence that our Gospel writers were well aware of the Jewish lection. Moreover, Goulder shows that Luke was written to provide a Gospel “in order.” In order, is a very important distinction compared to an accurate and ordered story-line. One of Goulder’s most compelling pieces of evidence to this regard is Luke’s own achronology. Here’s how Goulder makes the case:

“What sort of Greek history is it which moves from the Prologue to two chapters whose indebtedness to the Old Testament is evidenced in every verse? The order is no whit more chronological than Mark’s: in fact it is the Marcan order. When Luke deserts it, as in the Rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), he involves himself in contradictions: the crowd asks Jesus to repeat miracles done at Capernaum, where Luke has not yet taken him (the reader).” (The Evangelists’ Calendar, p. 9).

As you will hopefully recognize, the writer of Luke is much less interested in telling the reader a more accurate chronological order of events, than in revealing that the stories connect in a particular sequence.

Briefly, Goulder makes the case that Luke’s Gospel is a compilation of 1st century Targum. Targum is “an ancient Aramaic paraphrase or interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, of a type made from about the 1st century CE when Hebrew was declining as a spoken language” (Google’s dictionary). For those of us not familiar with this term or idea (myself included), Goulder provides an illustrative modern-day example. In the Roman Catholic Church, every Sunday’s mass follows a lectionary. Three readings exist: (1) from Hebrew Bible, (2) from New Testament writings, and (3) from a Gospel account. After the readings, the Priest delivers what is known as the homily. A homily is “a religious discourse that is intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction” (Google’s dictionary). Google also says that a homily is synonymous with a sermon, lecture, and lesson. Thus, the homily is the Priest’s expounding or sermon on the three readings. Priests use their own words to connect the readings to some relevant context. Goulder shows that Luke’s Gospel, in its original form, would have been weekly orated homilies. But, it seemed good to the writer of Luke to write the homilies down and in order!

The logical next question is… what was being expounded upon? It is unlikely that the Gospels were expounding upon themselves this early in Church history. Rather, it must be something older, and read regularly in 1st century communities of faith. Goulder shows that in fact, it was — that Luke’s Gospel is the expounding of the weekly Torah readings in his 1st century church. The church would have read the weekly Torah portions. Then, the reader would have provided a homily or paraphrase relating the Torah portion to the life of Jesus. In Luke, Jesus’ life and teachings are directly connected to each week’s Torah readings!! Luke preserved the connection between Jesus’ life and the original Church lectionary!

Maybe now you can start to see how Christians are likely to miss something today.

Over time, Christians have taken these compiled expoundings, Luke’s Gospel account, to be their own set apart document. They are most certainly not. The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be fully understood in the isolation created by viewing the Gospel accounts separate from the Hebrew Bible.

So, what happened? How did Christianity get to such an isolated place?

Previously, the reciting of the weekly Torah portion (i.e. parsha) could take upwards of 20 minutes. If we add to that the Haftarah (readings from the Prophets) we are pushing 30 minutes of reading God’s word — why would followers of Jesus ever want to spend time doing that? 😉 As 1st century BCE winds down and Jesus is about to enter the scene, the lectionary canon became a three-part canon with the inclusion of the History books. With the three-part canon and the additional Targum (i.e. paraphrases) weekly service was likely pushing 1 to 1.5 hours. Here’s how Goulder puts it:

“Such a length of time spent listening is wearisome and unedifying. [Now,] the Church was much quicker to ease this burden than the Synagogue… by Justin’s time (100 – 165 CE) Jews in the Church were outnumbered by Gentiles — and now by Gentiles who had never been God-fearers in the Synagogues. So the system of lectionary parallels, which seemed precious to the evangelists, quickly came to seem capable of abbreviation.” (emphasis added, The Evangelists’ Calendar, p. 53)

For the sake of convenience, something precious got abbreviated. The operating question we laid out last week becomes much more relevant now.

What have Christians lost in order to gain convenience?

Dare I say a lot.

Again, our intent is not to write a weekly academic blog. But I thought sharing Goulder’s thesis very pertinent to understanding why this is such an important undertaking. Goulder devotes 306 pages to an argument I’ve summarized in a few sentences. If you can get your hands on his book, do it! It was the best written thesis defense I’ve ever engaged. He walks you through the evidence step-by-step.

That being said, here are some additional reasons why it is extremely important that modern-day followers of Jesus embark on this endeavor to return and become people of the Text.

  1. Hopefully it isn’t lost on you that 77% of the Christian Bible is the the Hebrew Bible, with the New Testament occupying the other 23%. At the risk of offending everyone, it’s scary to think that modern-day Christians may only know 23% of God’s character and God’s narrative. Imagine having only completed 23% of a puzzle, you would have no idea what the whole image should look like.
  2. Also, if this book is God’s narrative (I realize I will have to convince you of this early on), then shouldn’t someone who wants to know God’s story start it as they would any and every other book they’ve ever read… at the beginning? Say, Genesis 1. Rather than skipping the narrative entirely and jumping straight to the rapture?
  3. Jesus was Jewish. Hal Taussig, a Biblical Scholar, and the New Orleans council he helped convene, have a telling footnote in their 2015 book A New New Testament. Here it is:
    • “One particularly thorny vocabulary issue in the study of all this literature is the word cluster of Christian, Christianity, and early Christianity. There are several significant dimensions of this issue. A primary factor is that the word Christian occurs only three times in the entire existing New Testament. Another is that Jesus — in all books of the existing New Testament and this New New Testament — always considers himself and is considered by the authors as a “Jew.” That is, Jesus is never anything but a Jew, and never a Christian or the founder of Christianity. Many 21st century New Testament scholars also believe that most, if not all, of the authors of the existing New Testament considered themselves “Jewish.” This also means — in keeping with the overwhelming majority of New Testament texts’ lack of the term — that few people thought of themselves as “Christian” during the New Testament era. (emphasis added)”
  4. Matthew is a very Jewish Gospel. In both Goulder’s first book on the topic Midrash and Lection in Matthew, and the later book I discussed above, he makes the strong case that Matthew follows the 1st century Jewish calendar and is based on rabbinic midrash. Midrash is “an ancient [rabbinic] commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text” (Google’s dictionary). How can a Western reader (you and I) understand the God Matthew reveals; if: (1) we’ve never even heard of midrash; and (2) we are unlikely to be well versed in the midrashic stories which are referenced in Matthew?
  5. Jesus stands on the foundation of other rabbis. Jesus enters the scene among a rabbinical debate around the greatest commandment. You may be familiar with Jesus’ response in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But are you as familiar with the names of the two rabbis having the debate? Or, what the debate is between? Our Jesus takes a side in the debate. So maybe it is important to better understand the wisdom and discourse of ancient rabbis regarding the Text so that as modern-day followers of Jesus we can better interpret our Rabbi, Jesus.
  6. Jesus is deeply involved in a Jewish worldview. In Matthew 7:12 Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets. Jesus’ statement is almost an exact repeat of a more ancient rabbi. Modern-day followers of Jesus might need to know what the older rabbi said in order to understand the distinction Jesus is trying to make. Again, without knowing ancient rabbinic understandings of the stories in the Bible, Christians might miss what Jesus is up to.
  7. I’m hard pressed to find anything more convincing of our need to return and study the Text alongside ancient rabbinic commentary than Jesus’ own words:
    • “‘For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished’ Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19).
  8. A more pragmatic reason — look around you. Look at your neighborhoods and your cities. Does it look like the Kingdom of Peace has come crashing into earth? The post Living Tension Part III helps shed light on what you might be looking for as evidence. To me, that evidence is lacking. So maybe it’s time to return to the Text and walk within God’s narrative like Jesus’ original 12 disciples (who likely had Torah memorized).
  9. There’s also reason to become better acquainted with the Text more generally. Frequently, you can find me jamming out to Steffany Gretzinger’s newest album Blackout; in which, in the song Save Me she asserts, “You (God) won’t give me more than I can take.” As comforting as that statement may seem, my wife reminds me God never said it. I did my due diligence and searched for similar phrases… that statement is not in the Bible. But how would someone know what God does and does not say if they are not digging in the Text weekly?
  10. I will finish the list with this — digging in the Text is different from Instagramming a picture of a Jubala latte with an open Bible. Aside from experiencing the early churches in modern-day Turkey, the next biggest impact that drove me to return to God’s word was better understanding the Psalmist’s words in Psalm 1. I, for one, do not want to be like chaff that the wind blows away. But, being like a tree planted by streams of water requires something of me. It requires that [I] delight in the Torah of the Lord and on the Torah [I] hagah day and night. That Hebrew word hagah shows up in Isaiah 31 under a different context. Without ancient Jewish wisdom, I would have missed this connection and interpretation of how I am supposed to engage the Text. I don’t want you to miss it any longer.

Join us weekly during The Shuvah Projectbecause maybe in substituting the Word with the paraphrase, modern-day Christians have become the people Jesus references in Matthew 13.

Next Week Readings: Genesis 1 – 6:8 and Luke 20:19 – 21:4

Content: Chris Gambino Editors: Tony Carrigan, Rachel Fessenden, and Megan Gambino

27 thoughts on “The Shuvah Project #2 — Why is it necessary?

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