hebrew jesus

It’s easy for us to forget that the message of Jesus and the entire Bible come from an intensely Hebrew context and worldview. Jesus was a Jew teaching Jews, and bringing the words of scripture back to their original Hebrew language and setting, understanding what the first Jewish hearers of those words would have understood, is the closest we can come to their original intent.

Training Wheels

Dave Brisbin 2.11.24
What churches and religion inevitably forget—as does every human group—is that their laws, doctrine, and practice are not ends, truth in themselves, but pointers, guides to non-rational truth that must be personally experienced, never bestowed.

Thomas Huxley said that new ideas begin as heresy, advance to orthodoxy, and end in superstition. Belief systems practiced for a length of time follow this curve, and Christian thought is no exception. The practices that Jesus taught and his followers called the Way, heretical to most, were understood as a way of life that prepared individuals to experience the paradoxical truth of God’s love. But as the movement matured and institutionalized, life practice became ritualized, and the theological ideas that had grown around them were legalized into orthodoxy. Eventually, law and ritual were believed to have supernatural power, ends in themselves rather than pointers to spiritual experience.

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The original Hebrew meaning of law—torah—was instruction, guidance, like training wheels on a bike. But that in no way diminishes its importance. Jesus said he was not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it—that even the smallest letter and stroke would remain until heaven and earth pass away, which in Aramaic means to cross a boundary. We need the guidance, restriction, and discipline of law and ritual until the oneness of heaven merges with the individuality of life on earth in our own hearts. When heaven and earth merge in us, we no longer need law and ritual as training wheels, but will live them from the inside out as expressions of the love we have experienced along the Way.

Jesus is teaching us that law is not fulfilled in obedience or righteousness in ritual practice. Legal compliance and ritual observance mean nothing in themselves, but everything when they have become the deepest purpose of a transformed heart. To believe otherwise is to miss the Way entirely, remain focused on conformance rather than transformance…as if training wheels are permanent, the highest expression of riding a bike, and not a limitation—the outward badge of an inward inability to fly.


Radical Forgiveness

Dave Brisbin 2.4.24
Some things are too big to grasp all at once. Like those Nazca lines in Peru…geoglyphs laid down on a windless plateau around the time of Christ—so big you can only see them from the air. Other things are too big to grasp within the limits of rational thought. You need greater perspective to see, not altitude, but a step outside conscious thought to the wordless awareness of pure presence. You still can’t grasp the thing intellectually, but you can experience its reality.

God’s radical, degreeless, indiscriminate love is just such a thing. This is why Jesus doesn’t give us a theology. More things to think about. We can understand the words that describe perfect love, but not its reality from words alone. So Jesus gives us a Way of living, the only way to experience the reality of a love so alien that it can’t be rationally understood. Alien. I hope that word is uncomfortable. Only if we are experiencing something uncomfortably unfamiliar at first, or even frightening or amoral according to our sense of justice, are we even in the neighborhood of God’s radical love.

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Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than with the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is greatly misunderstood. We equate forgiveness with condoning the past, making restitution, even reconciliation, but it has nothing to do with any of these. Neither does it have anything to do with the person who hurt us…we can forgive the dead. In Aramaic, forgiveness descends from the same root word as freedom. To those who wrote the gospels, to be forgiven is to be set free from any victimization or unbalance that has occurred, to be restored to our original state.

This is a completely interior process that only we can do for ourselves. No one, not even God can do it for us. God doesn’t forgive; God is forgiveness as much as God is love. God can’t withhold his own nature; it self exists. All we will ever get from God is love and forgiveness, but we will never know this reality until we live the Way, until we love and forgive those who haven’t earned it. Then we’ll know how real it is, how it had to first be given to us before we could ever give it away.


Teach Us to Pray

Dave Brisbin 1.28.24
Familiarity breeds contempt usually means that the more we know people, the more we can lose respect and judge more harshly. If contempt seems too strong a word, at least the more familiar things become, the more they blend into the wallpaper until we don’t even see them anymore. And when those things are religious scripture and doctrine, we may be so saturated that we believe we know things we have never considered on our own: accepted as children or under group pressure, such teachings became familiar before ever teaching us how to live spiritual lives in a physical world.

And what is more familiar than the Lord’s Prayer? Even those not steeped in Christian tradition are familiar with it. We learned it as kids, recited it—but what is this wallpaper saying? Is there anything to learn beyond mere recitation? We know the words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth…

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But when Jesus’ friends asked him to teach them to pray, he would have said something like, abwoon d’bwashmaya, nethqadash shmakh, teytey malkuthakh, nehwey sebyanach, akanna d’bwashmaya aph b’arha. Transliteration alone gives a sense of the unfamiliar otherness of a teaching from as far out of modern Western experience as humanly possible. But beyond mere translation, when we put these Aramaic words back in their ancient Eastern context, we discover this “prayer” is actually a blueprint for living a spiritually aware life.

The five lines of the prayer form the steps of a process that starts with becoming unfamiliar again with everything we think we know. Clearing an interior space allows us to see the reality of the sacred in the ordinary details of life and begin to match our values to God’s, only knowable when our sense of separate self is lost in present action. Released from that sense of separateness, the victimhood of the past, we realize a new connection, always herenow.

If we can become unfamiliar again, see these words again for the first time, we can stop reciting them and start living the path they describe. Or better, recite them as a reminder to really live.


Following the Star

Dave Brisbin 12.17.23
We think we know Christmas. Bed-sheeted children reenact the details every year, so it’s shocking to go back to the gospels and see how little is there and how much is merely tradition. All we know about Jesus’ birth from Luke is that he was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. All we get from Matthew is the story of Herod and the magi, wise men from the east following a star.

Reading closely, there weren’t three wise men, and they weren’t kings. With some word study, there was no inn—the word refers to the living space of a first century Judean home. And historically, Jesus couldn’t have been born December 25th—Judean shepherds did not keep their flocks out at night during cold winter months—or in year 1 CE, since Herod died in 4 BCE. Most likely date was either in spring or summer between 7 and 5 BCE.

And what about that star?

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Matthew tells us magi saw the star in the east, that it went before them, guiding them west, then stood over the place of Jesus’ birth. No star could do this. Are we looking for a miraculous star with non-physical properties? Scholars have offered comets, supernovas, planetary conjunctions as explanation, but none of these fit Matthew’s details, and there’s no astronomical evidence either. But in the ancient world, astronomy and astrology were one and the same, and amazingly, there is astrological evidence for the magi’s star. From April 17 to December 19, 6 BCE, Jupiter obeyed all Matthew’s details in its apparent motion, astrologically speaking…making Jesus’ birthday April 17, 6 BCE.

Is this true? Can’t know. Important? Only in considering the magi. Probably descendants of Jewish exiles searching the stars across centuries, longing for signs of their promised king. The devotion and discipline, willingness to risk life and reputation following a star only they could see, humility to surrender their treasures to an impoverished child. What is the temperature of our desire? Hot enough to persevere? To search the stars, risk following the star we find, surrender preconceptions blinding us to the truth our star reveals? That’s important.

Preparing to See

Dave Brisbin 12.10.23
What do we really know about the birth of Jesus? There’s so little information in the gospels, just a few scant paragraphs in Matthew and Luke. Only Luke gives us details of the birth itself and the shepherds’ vision and visit, while Matthew tells of the Magi after Jesus’ birth. All we’re told of Jesus’ birth is that he was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn. That’s it.

Early Christians didn’t consider Jesus’ birth very important compared to his death and resurrection; it would be over 800 years before Christmas was widely celebrated in the church. Probably why the gospels didn’t record much, but the details that survive are important because they emphasize an absolutely ordinary and unremarkable first century birth. The relatives or friends with whom Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem didn’t even make room for them in the living space of their home—the word inn is a mistranslation here—they had to stay in the part of the house reserved for the animals.

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Ordinary? Unremarkable? You’re thinking the shepherds and Magi saw something pretty spectacular, right? Yes, but why are they the only ones recorded as having a significant experience with this birth? Why didn’t the people in the same house as Mary and Joseph see anything special? Why didn’t king Herod or his court see the star? Jesus was born as any poor Galilean: washed, rubbed with salt, tightly wrapped in spare strips of cloth, but also laid in a livestock feeding trough because no room was made for him in the house.

We say seeing is believing, but some things must be believed to be seen. The deep truth the gospels are telling about this birth is that only those who were prepared to see beyond their expectations could see the significance of what was right before their eyes. True then, true now. Our God is an unassuming God. Humble, vulnerable, unremarkable to those set on power and wealth. Only when we become humble and vulnerable enough, begin to reflect and value what God values, will we see that God really is Immanuel—with us, right here and now, perfect love in human form. And always has been.


Give with the Wind

Dave Brisbin 12.3.23
Amid the holidays, ‘tis the season for giving. Expectation and requests bombard from every form of media and family and cultural traditions. Trying to come up with perfect gifts for family, friends, clients, prospects, bosses, those who matter in your life, those who can give back, those who can’t—how much feels like obligation and how much freely blows like wind into the shopping, decorating, cooking, planning?

Giving shouldn’t be complicated, but it can be…tied up with many conflicts of interest. Ancient Jews considered charitable giving one of three measures of a person’s righteousness, along with prayer and fasting. The rabbinic tradition, with its typically legal perspective, had defined giving to death with numbers and percentages, reduced it to rules and obligations. And with all that emphasis at stake, those following the rules naturally wanted everyone to know just how righteously giving they were.

Jesus lays his ax right at the root of these conflicts.

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In religious circles we often hear that we can’t out-give God or that our tithes and offerings will come back to us 100-fold. True as that may be spiritually, if that is our intent, then our giving has become mere investment. And as soon as we put a number or percentage on a gift, it’s just a tax. Jesus teaches us to give so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing—preserving the anonymity of the giver and the dignity of the receiver, removing the conflicts that make giving not a gift.

It’s a first step in chipping away at the God-complex we have about giving: the need to be in the superior, controlled position of the giver rather than the vulnerable dependence of the receiver. Until we have received, what do we have to give? Until we recognize that all we have of any lasting value is a free gift we could never give ourselves, how will we ever know the vulnerability and gratitude that animates all true giving? The difference between a gift and an investment or tax, is the fear of not knowing that we’re merely caretakers, constantly receiving, and all we can ever do is regift what has already been given. Freely and secretly.


Sun and Rain

Dave Brisbin 10.22.23
In the last line of Matthew 5, Jesus says, therefore be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. Wow. Hearing that for the first time, would it spur you to work harder? Try to hit imagined thresholds? Or feel completely defeated? Shake your head and walk away? Most of us know we’re not perfect, that the human condition doesn’t allow, so exactly what is he asking?

Since Jesus said, “therefore,” we need to go back and see what that’s there for… Therefore connects back to the entire chapter as the how of this perfection, but especially to the immediate passage in which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. How are we supposed to love what we hate and what hates us? The original language helps. Enemy is not just a malicious adversary, but one who is not of our tribe, someone we don’t know, understand, trust, like.

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We’re to love our enemies as we love our neighbors—those close to us in proximity and relationship—and love our neighbors as ourselves, which still doesn’t imply affection, but at least basic human decency. Still, that word love trips us up. Even showing basic decency to those we consider indecent is too much. But there are two words for love that Jesus uses in Aramaic. When he says love your neighbor, he uses rehem, which is a love full of affection and devotion that flows as if from a deep wellspring. And when he says love your enemy, he uses ahab, which literally means to kindle a fire: gather dry, dead twigs and ruffage, carefully spark and blow and guard until a warming fire burns.

Loving our enemies is a process of becoming someone who experiences growing a love never thought possible with someone always thought unlovable. Such an impossibility comes as a perfect moment, a connection beyond those we normally experience that changes our view of love and life. Jesus is saying that even in our imperfection, we can feel our love, our decency, falling like sun and rain on those who deserve it or not, for whom we feel affection or not…just as perfectly as God’s. It’s a momentary union of imperfection and perfection, an experience of perfect love that can grow into a character that defines.


Second Mile

Dave Brisbin 10.15.23
It is absolutely, positively, unreservedly impossible to overestimate the impact of culture on language. Language is a child of culture and can only breathe in the culture that birthed it. When translated to another language, we’ve taken a fish out of water, trying to understand as it flops on the ground. If we want to know a fish, we have to get into the water. If true for modern languages, how much more for ancient ones, where not only culture, but history, science, and technology also affect meaning?

Cultures exist to bind people together, ensure survival by making group experience meaningful and cohesive. So first task of culture is to control behavior—make sure the behavior of individuals is not harmful to the group. We see that as a function of law, because modern Western society is based on what anthropologists call a guilt/innocence culture: order is maintained by creating and reinforcing feelings of guilt and expectation of punishment.

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But the ancient world, and much of the East to this day is based on honor and shame, not guilt and innocence: order is maintained through indoctrination of shame—loss of honor—and the threat of ostracism. Such cultures are collective: individuals exist to serve the group and bring either honor or shame to everyone in it. When shamed, the restoration of honor often through revenge, not punishment under law, restores balance. An honor/shame culture produced our Judeo/Christian scriptures and the impact of those texts can only be understood when we get into that water.

When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek if struck on the right, until we know this meant a backhand slap, a shaming insult that would require vengeance to restore honor, we can’t know what he was asking in terms of voluntary humility for the sake of relationship. And when he says to go a second mile after Roman officials commandeered you for the first, until we see the shame in oppression, we can’t know how everything Jesus is teaching about the assurance and fearless vulnerability of God’s love is never found in the first mile. Only a second mile, beyond honor and obligation, can show us that.


Yes and No

Dave Brisbin 10.8.23
How hard is it for you to say no? From telemarketers to employers, people on the street with signs to friends and family, there’s a psychological spectrum of difficulty. No one likes to give anyone the bad news of no, but if the difficulty is so great that it’s near-impossible, then we’ve shifted from concern for another to a form of codependency, concern for what another thinks of us. We’re all codependent to certain degrees, but when we can no longer simply say yes and no, there’s a problem.

In a recent group discussion, women said they thought it was harder for them to say no than men—that women are more relationally focused and taught to please others in a way men are not. But everyone had varying levels of difficulty: the introverts said the answer is always no, no matter how many times they say yes; one man said you should always say no first, because it’s much easier to change your mind later to yes; a woman said that her no was always softened, accompanied by an alternative; while another spoke of the virtues of “maybe.”

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Jesus said that yes or no are sufficient answers, you don’t need oaths or appeals to higher authority. In the context of formal contracts and proceedings, he spoke to a tradition that allowed people to legally break their promises depending on what authority they based their oath. God’s name was always binding, but lesser authorities were not. Jesus is saying we don’t need any higher authority than our own word to bind our promises once we have come to care about others as much as ourselves. Who is the person making the promise?

For an honest person, no oath is necessary—for a dishonest person, no oath is enough.

What does it take to be the person Jesus suggests? To simply say yes or no…why, only later if needed…takes someone who’s experienced an inner assurance of belonging and acceptance. Someone strong enough to say yes and carry it out; non-codependent enough to say no without loss of identity.

When we say yes to one thing, we say no to another. Yes and no, define us and the course of our lives. Jesus is showing us the freedom to choose with something other than fear.


Darker Before Dawn

Dave Brisbin 10.1.23
One of the most misinterpreted and misused passages in the Bible affects a foundational part of our personal lives. Jesus appears to tell us in Matthew that adultery is the only legitimate ground for divorce and anyone who remarries after divorce for any other reason commits adultery. In Mark and Luke Jesus seems to remove the exception: all remarriage after divorce is adultery. I’ve seen pastors send women back to abusive husbands, toxic marriages held together at all costs, divorced people leave the church in order to live their lives.

Is it legal to drink under the age of twenty-one?

We mentally add alcohol or the question is nonsense. We leave it out of the question because the context is clear. Same happens biblically, but we don’t know the context. Everyone in first century Israel knew there were five legal grounds for divorce, and adultery was not one of them. Proven adultery was punishable by death, not divorce. The matter of indecency Jesus cites that we have translated as adultery, meant bringing shame to the family, while the other four dealt with neglect, abuse, and infertility—common-sense responses to the realities of marriage in their culture.

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Jesus was asked: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any matter? “Any matter” created a narrow legal question. One school of Pharisees maintained the “matter of indecency” as a single ground for divorce; another school broke it in two: indecency and “any matter,” which meant a husband who wanted another woman, could divorce his wife for any or no reason at all. When pressed to choose between the two, Jesus maintained a matter of indecency as one ground—a husband had to show just cause, and if he divorced for “any matter” in order to marry another, it was the same as adultery. Common decency. Common sense.

God’s purpose is always to bring together, make separate things one, peace out of chaos. This is the purpose of marriage as well. But if a marriage is chaotic, abusive, toxic, divorce may be the only way to create greater oneness later.

God knows this…that sometimes it has to get darker before the dawn. Jesus did too. How about us?


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