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Discovering the Jewishness of the Early Church

Kent Dobson

Kent Dobson

Kent Dobson is the son of influential American pastor Ed Dobson and now pastors himself at one of the most famous Churches in the US, Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, the former home of Rob Bell. His teaching is marked by a focus on the Jewish roots of Christian teaching and thought, and this is explored in the notes of the new NIV First-Century Study Bible and his commentary on the first five books of the Bible, Teachings of the Torah.

Buy the ‘First-Century Study Bible’ for £29.99 (RRP £34.99)

With Teachings of the Torah you place the Hebrew tradition of the centrality of the Torah within the context of the Christian faith. What level of influence do you think these books have on Christianity?

The Torah was central for Jesus and Paul.  In fact, their entire body of work as teachers and practitioners could be categorised as a commentary on the Torah.  The New Testament is much like a Jewish Midrash on the Torah and the prophets.  But it’s hard to know how central the Torah was for the early Church, post New Testament.  We know the early church fathers were extremely committed to studying the Hebrew Scriptures, but not in Hebrew.  It seems clear that the Torah did not have the gravity in early Christian thought as it did in Rabbinic Judaism. 

There are many different opinions on just how binding the legal requirements of the Torah are on Christians. What conclusions have you come to?

I attempt to follow Paul’s line of thought that there is freedom in Christ from the legal requirements of the law.  And I tend to think the law was pointing beyond itself, to a God beyond the written code. The more I study, the more radical Jesus seems, not fitting neatly into any category.  He breaks and keeps the law.  He is like a prophetic fire, challenging any block to the divine, even the law. 

Buy the 'First-Century Study Bible' for £29.99 (RRP £34.99)

Buy the ‘First-Century Study Bible’ for £29.99 (RRP £34.99)

Is there a danger of adopting a culturally appropriated ‘Jewish’ Christianity – or do you not see that as a danger at all?

There was a time when I was more convinced by Messianic-Jewish arguments that suggest Torah observance should go hand-in-hand with belief in Jesus.  But I came to believe that this sort of religious practice is not very faithful to Judaism or Christianity and tends to look a little piece-meal.  I respect Christians who attempt to keep the Torah but I do not think they are practicing a more pure form of Christianity or are doing what Jesus intended.  In truth, there was no such thing as Judaism in Jesus’ day, only Judaisms. So from a historical point of view, it’s very difficult to be sure of what sort of Jewish practices Jesus actually engaged in.  Many Jewish practices that Christians attempt to engage in were developed many decades after Jesus and the earliest Church.

You bring some of the Jewish influence into the First Century Study Bible as well. Is this something that you feel needs to be reclaimed by 21st century Christians?

Absolutely.  Jesus was Jewish, we ought to listen to Jewish voices from in and around the first century if we want to understand Jesus and the New Testament writings.

Is it important, in your view, to understand the competing influences of Judaism and Hellenism on the development of the early Church?

Both Plato and the Torah influenced the early Church.  Some would say that Plato and Hellenistic philosophy had an even greater influence on the early Church, particularly during the period of the Church fathers.  But I see Hellenism and Judaism in dialogue with one another.  Even the rabbi-student relationship seems to be born from the Greek tutor-student relationship.  Much like today, there was a marketplace of ideas that were influencing one another.  We know this from the opening lines of John, “the logos became flesh.”  This is Greek philosophy, meeting Jewish thought, meeting the person of Jesus, meeting poetry.  This complicated stew is worth tasting and trying to identity the influences.  It’s really wonderful how the early Church talked about the life of Jesus across typical boundary lines.

One thing that struck me in reading the notes in the New Testament of the First Century Study Bible is the conflict between a religious legalism and a more liberal approach – how would you resolve this tension?

I’m not sure I understand the question.  Do you mean the tension in first century around legalism and a more liberal approach, or do you mean what’s going on today?  I would say in either case, the person of Jesus was constantly living in the middle of this tension.  The right and the left of his day might have wanted to claim him, but he does not fit neatly in either.  The same applies today.  The liberal theologians and scholars think they have Jesus in their pockets.  And the traditional readers think he’s one of them.  I say we can learn from all voices, especially if we let go a little bit, listen, allow a few more voices at the table.  I say the tension is not to be resolved. 

How do you hope people use the First Century Study Bible?

I hope people use this commentary in community.  I hope dialogue and questions surround the conversation.  I hope people start digging deeper, looking at the footnotes and endnotes and start going on their own wild journey.  I hope the next generation of Christians listens well to the past and at the same time thinks creatively and with love about the most pressing issues of our day.  I think the Bible has to be our dialogue partner in new and creative ways if the Church is going to remain a vibrant place of transformation in the name of Christ.

Buy the ‘First-Century Study Bible’ for £29.99 (RRP £34.99)

This week’s ten of the best: 9th May 2015

Buy Fathomless Riches for just £12.00 (RRP £20.00)

Buy Fathomless Riches for just £12.00 (RRP £20.00)

Not many changes in the best selling titles this week, with the no-holds-barred autobiography from former pop-star turned Vicar and broadcaster Richard Coles still proving popular, and a great offer at just £12.00. Tom Wright is also continuing to do well, with two books featured here, Reflecting the Glory, and his excellent introduction to the Gospel at the heart of the Christian Faith, Simply Good News.

The re-examination of the Gospel character Judas from the journalist and TV presenter Peter Stanford has had a lot of media attention, and you can read our interview about this book here. You can read interviews and articles with other bestsellers here on the blog, including a look at the new Readers’ Edition of C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit by Richard Coles (W&N)
A Rushing Mighty Wind by Angus Buchan (Monarch)
 A Grief Observed: Readers’ Edition by C S Lewis (Faber & Faber) 
The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez (Lion) 
100 Things God Loves About You (Zondervan) 
 Reflecting the Glory by Tom Wright (BRF)
Judas by Peter Stanford (Hodder & Stoughton) 
Transformed by the Holy Spirit by Liz Babbs (CWR)
Simply Good News by Tom Wright (SPCK)  
The Illustrated Guide to Bible Customs and Curiosities by George Knight (Barbour) 

 

 

Spirituality in old age

Caroline George has spent many years ministering to the older people in society, finding ways of meeting their spiritual needs and creating worship spaces for them to continue in the practice of their Christian faith. With ‘Living Liturgies’ she reflect on ageing and spirituality, and provides an invaluable resource for those embarking on this ministry as well as those wanting inspiration for their ongoing work.

Buy ‘Living Liturgies’ for just £5.99 (RRP £7.99)

Buy 'Living Liturgies' for just £5.99 (RRP £7.99)

Buy ‘Living Liturgies’ for just £5.99 (RRP £7.99)

I liked your use of the word ‘sage’ to describe the older people you were ministering to that lead to the writing of this book. Why do you think we too often miss the experience and insights of older people in the Church?

There is nothing worse than answering a question with questions but I would dare to ask in relation to missing experience and insights of older people, how well do the people of a church know each other particularly where there are large congregations? Are there opportunities for members of a church to sit down as all age groups and as an elderly group and discuss their experience and insight? Are there opportunities for experience to be expressed to church leaders and in the wider context of diocese, circuit or equivalent?

Experience and insights of older people may be missed because there is a pre-occupation with admirable and necessary initiatives for younger generations that limit time and resources for meeting the needs of older people. Technology has changed communication and younger generations expect to converse using electronic devices and the services they offer, this often isolates older people.

People are living to a greater age and changes to church liturgy, and music have dramatically changed, what was familiar is sometimes considered old fashioned. Older people will often choose to attend early or evening services because they are more familiar and often because of the simple issue of being able to hear but at the expense of not being seen and their experience all too soon forgotten.

I was particularly struck by the idea of the depth of spirituality in older people – is this something that is often dismissed?

It is dangerous to generalise but in present day society older people living in dependent contexts do not always have the opportunities to express their spirituality in terms of experience and expectation and may struggle to articulate their faith and so the subject is avoided. It may also be that ‘carers’ in a variety of contexts are reluctant to approach the subject for fear of being reprimanded. These are hopefully worst case scenarios because it is also true that older people’s spirituality is expressed in conversations that begin with ‘small talk’ but often express profound thoughts. It is impossible to measure the amount of informal spiritual care that takes place but I believe there is a need for churches to create opportunities for stories to be shared and affirm and encourage those whose encounters bring hope and comfort to older people. It is a two way encounter and those who visit often receive far more than they give and would welcome opportunities to share insights received.

How can local Churches help in reaching those unable to come to regular services?

There are many churches that offer pastoral and spiritual care to those who are housebound or in residential care but often only reach a small percentage of people because resources are limited. A little may go a long way, for example it may not be possible for an elderly person on a weekly basis but once a month or for occasional special services. There is huge potential in small all age groups reaching those unable to come to church perhaps the day before worship or directly after a service with the opportunity to share the theme of worship and pray informally. This particularly lends itself to seasons and festivals taking a cross on Palm Sunday, spring flowers for Easter Sunday, a red balloon for Pentecost, the list is endless including Harvest, Advent Sunday, Christmas Eve. Again a little that is achievable goes a long way and taking a church leaflet, magazine prayer lists connects those who are homebound to the living church.

Do you think that liturgy shaped around older people will become more common as the population continues to age?

Now there’s an interesting question! Some would say it already is and again generalisations are dangerous. I am an optimist and believe the creative liturgists and collaborative ministries within and beyond individual church walls are expanding with the potential for appropriate liturgy to be devised for inclusive and particular congregations.

The liturgies you have in the book are mainly based around the Church of England ‘Service of the Word’. How can the Eucharist be incorporated into services for older people?

I hope the chapter in Living Liturgies entitled Cooking and Meals will offer some direction. A lot will depend on context and tradition, the use of the reserved sacrament or priestly consecration. At the heart of this is the need to know the expectations of the group or individual. There may be a very traditional expectation, it may be there is an openness to an informal breaking of bread with few words. Chaplains and pastoral teams who visit residential homes have a wealth of experience in this area and their practice could well be translated into services for older people.

What do you hope people will do with Living Liturgies?

My hope is that people who minister to older adults groups or individuals may find the liturgies useful as they stand or use them to create their own liturgies.

Buy ‘Living Liturgies’ for just £5.99 (RRP £7.99)

This week’s ten of the best

Order 'Judas' (released 12th March 2015) for just £16.00 (RRP £20.00)

Order ‘Judas’ for just £12.99 (RRP £20.00)

As life gets back to normal after the Easter break there quite a lot of change in the books that have proved to be of most interest. The ever-popular Tom Wright has two books featured this week: Reflecting the Glory and Simply Good News.

A notable new release is Judas from the journalist and TV presenter Peter Stanford and you can read our interview about this book here. You can read interviews and articles with other bestsellers including a look at the new Readers’ Edition of C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit by Richard Coles (W&N)
A Rushing Mighty Wind by Angus Buchan (Monarch)
 A Grief Observed: Readers’ Edition by C S Lewis (Faber & Faber) 
The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez (Lion) 
100 Things God Loves About You (Zondervan) 
 Reflecting the Glory by Tom Wright (BRF)
Judas by Peter Stanford (Hodder & Stoughton) 
Transformed by the Holy Spirit by Liz Babbs (CWR)
Simply Good News by Tom Wright (SPCK)  
The Illustrated Guide to Bible Customs and Curiosities by George Knight (Barbour)