Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Understanding Jesus

book cover

Understanding Jesus:
Cultural Insights into the Words and Deeds of Christ
by Joe Amaral

ISBN-13: 978-0-446-58476-0
Trade Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: FaithWords
Released: April 7, 2011

Source: Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher.

Book Description from Goodreads:
In UNDERSTANDING JESUS, author Joe Amaral delves deep into Jewish history, societal mores, and cultural traditions. Using a chronological approach to the life of Christ, he guides the reader through significant events such as Jesus' birth, baptism, and crucifixion, pointing out illuminating details that the Western mind would normally miss.

Amaral's premise is that to understand Jesus, we must understand the time and place in which he was born, the background from which he drew his illustrations, and the audience he spoke to. Throughout the book he explores specific terms, places, and events for their significance and shows how they add richness and meaning to the text. Topics include the connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, the annual Feasts and why they are important to modern Christianity, Jewish customs such as foot-washing, clean and unclean foods, paying tribute to political governments, and the significance of various miracles.

My Review:
Understanding Jesus gave some cultural background information to the gospels and Revelation. The author spent most of the book exploring the Feasts of the Lord to provide insight into some things Jesus did and said. He also briefly covered information on the four messianic miracles, clean and unclean foods, binding and loosing, tear jars, fence laws, prayer shawls, and more.

The author quoted large sections of Scripture before explaining the cultural insight he'd gained into those verses. This is good, but, of 180 pages of text, it seemed like only about half of them were spent explaining the cultural insights. Many of the topics weren't explored in-depth.

Perhaps because of this, I sometimes felt his statements were misleading. For example, the way he explained the timing of John the Baptist's birth and Jesus' birth would lead the reader to believe everyone who has studied the topic agrees with his timeline. However, the timeline he gave is based on many assumptions, and not everyone agrees with those assumptions.

Also, sometimes the author took an idea or tradition further than the evidence supported it. For example, on pages 28 and 29, he said that people took their burial shroud with them whenever they took a long journey. From this, he concluded that the "strips of cloth" that baby Jesus was wrapped in were from a burial shroud. I suppose this might be true, but babies have been swaddled for centuries. It's just as likely that Mary used stripes of cloth specifically intended for swaddling Jesus (since they knew she was close to giving birth and would have been prepared for that) rather than hastily using a shroud to make swaddling stripes.

Sometimes the information he gave conflicted with information that I've read elsewhere. Like he gave a slightly different order for the steps of a betrothal-wedding than the very detailed information given in Women of the Bible by Smith, Phillips, and Sanna. Amaral implied that the marriage was consummated before the wedding feast, but other sources say that the first day of the wedding feast is celebrated before the marriage is consummated.

As another example, on page 96 and 97, the author said that on the Day of Atonement, "Before the priest would push the goat backward [off a cliff], he would tear off a portion of the scarlet strip of wool that was tied around one of its horns. Ancient Jewish literature records a most phenomenal event. It was said that the piece of scarlet wool that the priest held in his hand would turn white as the goat fell. This was a sign to the people that their sins had in fact been forgiven and removed for another year. ...This practice was carried on for hundreds of years by the priests and brought great comfort and solace to the people. They knew every year that God would forgive their sins. Every year, as the scarlet wool turned white, they would take comfort.... Amazingly...the scarlet piece of wool stopped turning white after the death and resurrection of Jesus."

He refers to the Talmud as his source, but what does the Talmud actually say? Rosh HaShanah 31b, Babylonian Talmud: "'Originally they used to fasten the thread of scarlet on the door of the [Temple] court on the outside. If it turned white the people used to rejoice, and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that it should be fastened to the door of the court on the inside. People, however, still peeped in and saw, and if it turned white they rejoiced and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that half of it should be fastened to the rock and half between the horns of the goat that was sent [to the wilderness]’....‘For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red.'"

That doesn't quite match up with what he said. So some of the information in this book was solid and insightful, other parts sounded neat but were highly speculative, and some parts seemed to be in error or were potentially misleading.

Personally, I'd recommend books that covered more certain topics and covered them in-depth (like Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Spangler, Lois Tverberg, and several other Bible background books I've reviewed) before I'd recommend this one.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Article Quote: Cultural context of keys, binding, & loosing

Here's an interesting bit of information from an article, Is the New Testament Reliable? by Brian Edwards:

The words of Matthew 16:18–19 (and Matthew 18:18) have often been the cause of debate and argument, but the passage is straightforward. The promise, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” must be understood in the Jewish context. When scribes were admitted to their office, they received a symbolic key of knowledge (see Luke 11:52). The duty of the scribes was to interpret and apply the law of God to particular cases. When the scribes bound a man, they placed him under the obligation of the Law, and when they loosed him they released him from the obligation.

Similarly, the Lord had been training His disciples to be stewards of His teachings. In this promise in Matthew 16:19, He referred to their future writing and preaching as scribes of the New Testament and promised divine help to His disciples in those tasks. In John 14:26 He gave His disciples two promises: a divinely aided understanding and a divinely aided memory. “But the Helper [Counselor], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” John 16:13 adds to this a divinely aided knowledge: “He will tell you things to come.”

In order that the disciples might recall accurately all that Christ had said and done, instruct the Christian church in the way of truth, and write of things still in the future, Christ promised the help of the Holy Spirit. The apostles would be writing with no less authority than the Old Testament prophets.

And something else interesting from further down in the article:

Although the Jewish rabbis and Greek and Roman philosophers preferred oral teaching, we know that students of both kept notes of the instruction they received. Notice the “writing tablet” in Luke 1:63. It was also common for civil servants and others (like Matthew, Zacchaeus, and the man in Luke 16:6) to use a “notebook” for their work. This was an early form of book made of parchment sheets fastened together with a primitive spiral bind. The Greek language borrowed the Latin name for it, which is membranae. This is exactly the word translated “the books” in 2 Timothy 4:13. Paul used a notebook.

The Gospels record 21 Aramaic words used by Jesus, and we may therefore assume that Jesus generally taught in Aramaic. Professor Alan Millard comments, “The simplest explanation for the presence of these foreign terms in the Greek text is accurate reporting.” In Galilee, where Hebrew was little used, Jesus may have taught in Greek. A leading Jewish authority on the rabbis of this time concludes, “We would naturally expect the logia [teaching] of Jesus to be originally copied in codices.”

We are not suggesting that all the Gospels were written “on the hoof” as the disciples accompanied Jesus, but it would be natural to expect some listeners to write down His teaching and parables. This would be fully in keeping with what we know of the literacy and note-taking of first century Palestine. There is no reason the Gospel writers would not have had access to written records.

The idea that the Gospels and epistles were not written down until two or three centuries after the death of Jesus is yesterday’s “scholarship.” Ignatius, who was martyred around the year AD 115, wrote of the apostles’ letters and the Gospels as the “New Testament.” This was typical of all the early church leaders who acknowledged only the four Gospels for the life and teaching of Jesus. By AD 150 the Muratorian Canon listed the books accepted by the “universal church,” and it includes the four Gospels and all thirteen letters of Paul.

In 1972 a liberal scholar, John A. T. Robinson, published a detailed study of each of the books of the New Testament and concluded that every one must have been completed before the year AD 70. In addition he condemned the “sheer scholarly laziness” of those who assume a late date for the New Testament and added, “It is sobering too to discover how little basis there is for many of the dates confidently assigned by modern experts to the New Testament documents.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Women at the Time of the Bible

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Women at the Time of the Bible
by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

ISBN-13: 978-0-687-64972-3
Paperback: 104 pages
Publisher: Palphot
Released: 2007

Source: Bought through

Book Description from Back Cover:
Welcome to the world of Biblical women, uniquely revealed in this book, a cornucopia of ancient sources, first among them the Holy Scripture, along with photographs and drawings of rare and beautiful finds unearthed in the Holy Land and other Bible lands. All are woven together with engaging and in-depth commentary. Each chapter reveals a different fascinating aspect of a woman's life in Bible times, from her fundamental contribution to family and community, her spiritual walk, the work of her hands, her dress and adornments, and more. As the stories of these long-ago women unfold, you will find yourself riveted by everything from the minutest details to the dramatic milestones of women's lives. You will discover bonds unbroken by the millennia, and a singularly enriching and inspiring path to a more thorough understanding of the sacred message of the Scriptures.

My Review:
Women at the Time of the Bible provides information about what life was like for women during Bible Times. The information tended to be general since it covered such a large time period, but it did give some period-specific or culture-specific details (usually Hebrew, sometimes Roman, occasionally another culture).

The author used clues gleaned from the Bible but also other ancient sources like the Mishnah, early Jewish commentaries on the Bible, early Christian commentaries, clues gleaned from the Apocrypha, traditional cultures in our own time, and archeology. The author did a wonderful job of combining this information in an interesting and easy to read way.

There were 14 profiles of important Biblical women. The author summarized what the Bible says about their life, but she also gave cultural insights into their lives. There were also many enlightening full-color photographs and illustrations of the information in the text, including pictures of ruins, ancient artifacts, people today performing ancient skills, models, reproductions of items, and more.

However, if you're looking for "how-to" details, like the exact details about the process of cooking bread or grinding grain or even getting betrothed, this book didn't give them. It was more a surface survey about women's lives with a few specific details scattered throughout. I recently reviewed Women of the Bible. While these two books covered many of the same overall topics, they covered them in very different ways. Little of the content overlapped.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to those wanting to know what women's lives were like based primarily on ancient writings (including the Bible).

The topics covered were: who made up a household, women's "home-making" jobs, what houses looked like, family relationships, life expectancies; women's jobs (both city and country, poor to wealthy); romance & romantic love; betrothals & weddings; marriage; divorce & widowhood; motherhood (pregnancy, birth, & raising children); women at worship; music & dance; women in mourning & professional mourners; women's clothing (parts of, how frequently got new clothing, etc.); jewelry, makeup, perfume, & hairstyles; women's education; in leadership roles; prostitutes, mediums, seductresses, & loners.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from page 58
The Orthodox Jewish tradition of separating men and women in the synagogue during prayer is believed to have come about only during the Middle Ages. There are numerous references to women being present in the synagogue, including in Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 14, 10, 259-261). According to the minor Talmudic tractate Soferim 18:4, it was the custom to begin holiday services later to accommodate women who had to make sure food was ready before they left for prayers. The Talmudic tractate Avoda Zara 38a also portrays women going to the synagogue in the normal course of her day: "a woman puts her food pots upon the stove, leaving her non-Jewish servants alone at home, until she comes from the bathhouse or the synagogue."

The Talmudic tractate Megilla 23a states that women were allowed to read from the Torah: "All are qualified to be among the seven [who read publicly from the Torah in the synagogue on the Sabbath], even a minor or a woman." However, paradoxically, the sages ruled that a woman should not read from the Torah "out of respect for the congregation." This may have been the sort of social norm that governed Paul's statement about women's silence.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: The Story of the Bible by Larry Stone

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The Story of the Bible:
The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation & Effect on Civilization
by Larry Stone

ISBN-13: 9781595551191
Hardback: 96 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Released: September 21, 2010

Source: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program.

Book Description from Publisher's Website:
A beautifully illustrated, hands-on history of the world's best-selling book.

With a highly readable and colorful narrative, The Story of the Bible covers in a sweeping panorama the writing and transmission of the Bible through the ages. The writing of the Old and New Testaments, the canonization of the Scriptures, and stories of those who gave their lives to make the Bible available in common language—all are reported clearly and reverently with the power of anecdotal illustrations. Readers encounter page after page of engaging illustrations set in a highly designed journey chock-full of removable documents.

My Review:
The Story of the Bible covered the history of the Bible from the writing of the books of the Bible and their canonization to the many translations made throughout the ages. This book was packed with interesting information, but it was still easy to read and understand. There were over 90 full color illustrations (including pictures of many Old and New Testament manuscripts and translations).

There were also 23 life-sized, full-color, removable copies of pages from important Bibles. They were tucked into pouches near the text that talked about them. These included copies of pages from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, The Morgan Crusader's Bible, The Book of Kells, New Testament translated by John Wycliffe, German New Testament text by Martin Luther, Gutenberg Bible, New Testament translated by William Tyndale, Geneva Bible, 1611 King James Bible, The Bay Pslam Book, Algonquin Bible translated by John Eliot, and Waodani Gospel of Mark translated by Rachel Saint.

There was also a timeline inside the front and back covers showing the various events mentioned in this book. Overall, I was very impressed and learned a lot I didn't know. I'd highly recommend this book.

Chapter One gave an overview of the Bible including the languages it was written in, material it was written on, and the number of remaining early manuscripts. Chapter Two gave an overview of Old Testament history from Abraham to the end of the Old Testament including who wrote what books. It also talked about how careful the Jewish scribes were when making copies, how the Old Testament cannon was determined, the early translations of the Old Testament (including the Septuagint), and the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscripts and how they confirm the accuracy of the Old Testament.

Chapter Three gave an overview of the New Testament and who wrote what and when. The "traditional" or standard views were given. It also covered the variety of New Testament manuscripts and how they confirm the accuracy of the New Testament that we have today. Chapter Four talked about how the New Testament cannon was determined, early church history, and early New Testament translations.

Chapter Five talked about Middle Ages translations, history, copying practices, and methods of teaching the Bible (including pictures, drama, etc.). Chapter Six discussed translations and history related to the Bible from Gutenberg to Luther.

Chapter Seven talked about William Tyndale and the other English Bible translations that came after his (including the King James Version). Chapter Eight talked about Bibles printed in America from 1640 until today. Chapter Nine talked about modern Bible translation efforts.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Read the introduction and chapter one using's "view inside" feature.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review: When the Hurt Runs Deep

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When the Hurt Runs Deep:
Healing and Hope for Life's Desperate Moments
by Kay Arthur

ISBN-13: 9780307457110
Hardback: 248 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Released: Oct 5, 2010

Book page on Publisher's Website

Source: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Book Description from Back Cover:
At some point in life, every one of us will face the dark pain of heartache and despair, a hurt that pierces so deep we’re left gasping with questions:

Why me? Why now?
What have I done to deserve this?
Will the pain ever go away?
How can God just stand by and let this happen?
What do I have left to hope for?

Writing from insights she has gained, not only through her own valleys of deep hurt but also from years of study and counseling others through their pain, Kay Arthur points the way toward genuine healing. With candor, grace, and vulnerability, she invites you to join her on a journey toward wholeness as you exchange your fears and frustrations, hurts and disappointments for a hope that will never disappoint.

My Review:
When the Hurt Runs Deep explores Scripture to find answers to why God allows us to suffer deeply and how to heal from these deep hurts. It used examples from real people's lives, both those in the Bible and today. The author covered a wide variety of specific situations that can cause deep hurt as well as general ones. She gave solid, Scriptural answers to why God allows such suffering to touch His followers (and others). She also pointed the way toward healing. At the back of the book, she included a 26 page Bible study for small groups or individuals to use for further, deeper study on the topic.

The writing was easy to understand and covered the topic in a sympathetic way. I'd highly recommend this book to those who are deeply hurting or who wish to help someone they know who is deeply hurting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
"It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way!"

At some point in life, nearly every one of us finds ourselves pulled under by a tsunami wave of pain, overwhelmed by something large, sudden, and personally devastating.

It can come crashing into our lives in any of a thousand ways.

A phone call from the doctor about a lab report that looks suspicious.

A wooden-faced supervisor who calls you into his office just before lunch and says, "We’re downsizing the company. We have to let you go."

A brief, cold conversation with your spouse one morning, and then the shocking words: "I’m leaving. I've found someone else."

A late-night knock on your door from a highway-patrol officer. "Your daughter has been in an accident. I’m sorry to tell you this, but she didn’t make it."

A quick, stricken glance from the obstetrician. "I’m not picking up any heartbeat from the baby."

At such times heartache and despair rush over us, pulling us down into a place of darkness until we wonder if the light of hope will ever again penetrate our lives.

This is when the hurt runs deep.

Read more from chapter one.