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The Forgotten Jesus: How Western Christians Should Follow An Eastern Rabbi

Robby Gallaty

–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.


          Almost ten years ago, Kenneth Bailey blessed us with Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies In the Gospels. Robby Gallaty has added another helpful reminder that despite our cultural myopia, “Jesus was a Jewish man, living in a Jewish land, observing Jewish customs, investing His life in Jewish men and women.” In studying the Bible, many Christians have never learned some of the fascinating Hebraic cultural customs and Jewish idioms and how they affect our understanding of the Bible, which in turn deepens our experience with God and our love for Jesus.

          Gallaty states quite simply that he wants to take us on a journey to rediscover the Jewish Jesus of the first century. Though the vast majority of the current biblio-ecosystem addresses Jesus in this current culture, we often forget that everything Jesus did was “patently Jewish.” D. Thomas Lancaster said, “Any attempt at church reformation—any attempt to return to the original New Testament church—falls short as long as it refuses to acknowledge the essential Jewishness of our faith.”

          We are all products of our own culture. Jewish believers in Jesus read the Second Testament through the lens of the Older Testament by highlighting the textual connections between the parts of the Bible. Because of our lack of biblical knowledge, we often skip over these important links. Looking at the Last Supper from a Hebraic perspective points out some errors many Christians have believed through the years. Gallaty explains how Leonardo da Vinci hijacked the Passover with his culturally inaccurate painting of a Middle Eastern festival.

          “One out of every twenty-two verses in the New Testament contains quotations from the Old Testament, and including allusions to the Old Testament make that ratio jump even higher. For the first-century Christian, the Old Testament was the only Testament.” (22) Focusing on the differences between Eastern and Western thought, we can uncover the forgotten Jesus of the first century.

          I remember back in the ‘80s when the word “discipleship” seemed to come into the evangelical vernacular as if it were a new word. In reality, we were just catching up. The discipleship process was not even something developed by Jesus—it was already part of the Jewish culture. Quoting Lancaster, “As the Mishnah demonstrates, ‘discipleship’ already existed as a well-established institution within Judaism long before the appearance of Yeshua (Jesus) and His followers.” (25) Although the Mishnah wasn’t compiled until the second century by Rabbi Yehuda, many of the sayings contained within it were circulating in Jesus’ day. Circulating orally in Jesus’ day, this was the oral law or the oral torah. Though Jesus sometimes rejected certain teachings, it was always a teaching of the oral law, the extra-biblical rules and interpretations of the rabbis. He never disregarded the written law, the Hebrew scriptures.

          Gallaty helps the reader begin the process of thinking like a Hebrew, looking at the Hebrew language and thought. He looks at the cultural approach to learning. The Middle Eastern mind learned by doing. We are led back to Jesus, Who never wrote a creed or occupied Himself with systematic theology. He stressed action more than belief. Part of our challenge and difficulty reading the Bible stems from a struggle with paradoxical concepts, the ability to hold multiple options in tension. I’ve heard Leonard often say, “Orthodoxy is paradoxy. If you’re going to get comfortable with Jesus, you have to get comfortable with paradox.” Gallaty notes, “These seemingly contradictory doctrines may be congruent in the Jewish cultural framework that gave birth to Christianity.” (28) [Gallaty also writes about this way of thinking in his book, Rediscovering Discipleship.]

          I loved his phrase, “A purpose is worth a thousand words.” Hebrews would describe the purpose of, something, how it is used rather than how it looks. “The Bible rarely describes people, places, and things visually, like we are used to doing in our cultural context in the West.” (30) The Israelites gave their impressions of how something was perceived, which is why there is not a single description of an objective photographic appearance in the entire Old Testament.

          Robby has saved us light-years of time through his research. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. There are dozens and dozens of corrections and reinterpretations of passages with which we are quite familiar, new backstories and vignettes that make one wonder, “How have I not heard this before?” The chapter on uncovering Christ in the Old Testament is rich, Abraham and Moses, Mount Moriah to Mount Calvary. The Essenes and John the Baptist prepare the way for the Messiah. Was JB an Essene? The Essenes were known for adopting orphans into their priestly family, which might explain why John began his preaching ministry near the Qumran region.

          In Jesus: A Theography, Len touched on the significance of “swaddling cloths.” Gallaty also blew up the rich symbolism that most folks have never heard or grasped. These “cloths” became the clothes at birth, foreshadowing His death even as He began His earthly life. The angel added that detail (Luke 2:8-12). These were not random pieces of fabric. The multi-layered symbolism explodes in the historic details. Made from priests’ old undergarments, these linen strips were used to wrap lambs destined to be Passover lambs immediately after birth, causing harm to themselves as they thrashed back and forth. Shepherds would wrap them in these swaddling bands. These lambs were raised in Bethlehem. When the shepherds rushed to see the God of the universe born as a human baby, they would have recognized the type of cloth He was wrapped up in immediately. (79)

          The word for this type of cloth was also used to describe burial cloth, so the same strips that protected a newborn were the ones used to prepare a body for burial. Niches in burial caves would store burial cloth. If a person died, the body would be wrapped in strips of cloth stored in the stable caves. Since Jesus wasn’t born in a stable made of two-by-fours with a tin roof, Mary and Joseph would have made use of that which was most available in the stable cave, burial cloth. (And remember Jesus’ words when Lazarus came forth? “Unwrap him.”)

          Bottom line: I don’t review bad books. This is a great addition to your library. Get it.

          You’re welcome.