Gary Burge’s Jesus and the Jewish Festivals, reviewed
In college I thought my friend Chad was really cool (he was) for climbing on top of college buildings late at night and shouting the Shema at the top of his lungs… until he was corralled by Public Safety.
Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!
I learned my first Hebrew in Gary Burge’s Christian Thought class my senior year in college. He had us reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) in no time. We’d stand and say it out loud at the beginning of class: Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad! (Hear, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one!)
I was never quite as bold as Chad with my recitation of the Shema, but it’s stayed with me these past 11 years since taking Dr. Burge’s class.
Burge’s writing in Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is just as good as his teaching in the classroom. Burge, a Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, focuses especially on the Gospel of John as he looks at Jesus and the Sabbath (ch. 2), the Passover (ch. 3), Tabernacles (ch. 4), Hannukah (ch. 5) and Jesus’ last Passover (ch. 6). Chapter 1 explores “the festivals of Judaism” more generally, while the final chapter (7) looks at what early Christians did with these Jewish festivals.
As Burge puts it, Judaism had three “great pilgrimage festivals”:
These three festivals
were based not only on the agricultural rhythms of the year, but also they served to tell the story of Israel’s salvation. Israel was rescued from Egypt (Passover, Pesach), Israel met God at Mount Sinai (Pentecost, Shavuot), and then Israel wandered in the wilderness (Tabernacles, Sukkoth). (122)
The chapters cover the original Jewish context of the festivals, Jesus’ relation to each, and then what faith looks like through the lens of that festival–both for Jews then and (especially) for Christians now.
As with other books in the Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is printed on glossy paper and full of high-quality, color illustrations. It’s like a guide book in that regard. I don’t know whether it was Burge or an editor or both, but the photographs and charts throughout the book are expertly placed and reinforce the text at just about every turn. For example, this image appears in conjunction with Burge’s description of the Passover:
As Burge recounts John 6 and the feeding of the 5,000, he notes that “Passover themes were swirling around almost every aspect of the story” (60). Further, Jesus “is the manna from God’s treasury for which Israel has been waiting. He had been sent by God as manna descended in the wilderness” (63). Then, there is always application to people of faith today: “Therefore celebrating Passover is not only knowing about what happened yesterday–though this is important–it is also about knowing the God who desires to feed us now” (65). I have always appreciated this way of approaching biblical studies with a doxological posture.
Another thing I appreciated about Jesus and the Jewish Festivals is the ease with which Burge uncovers layers of meaning in the Gospels, showing how Jesus related to the major themes of Jewish festivals. I found my own gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice, for example, greatly enhanced by the author’s description of Jesus’ last Passover. As Burge puts it: “If we understand these festivals and their symbolism, then suddenly we understand the more profound things about Jesus and his work” (31, italics original). The color illustrations make Burge’s explanations even more vivid.
My critiques of the book are few and minor. At times there is what seems to be just a wee bit of speculation on the part of the author as he explores symbolism in John. For example, he says, “But I am convinced that Jesus wanted to die during the Festival of Passover because of the profound meaning it would convey with regard to his sacrifice” (102). Burge doesn’t further elaborate, and this seems a difficult (though not impossible) claim to support.
Jesus and the Jewish Festivals would be aided by a Scripture and subject index at the back of the book. I also found myself wanting more explanation of the Jewish calendar. Page 26 has a nice figure that shows all the months of the calendar of Judaism (together with various festivals noted), but a little more about its construction would have even further undergirded Burge’s tour of the festivals.
I really enjoyed reading Jesus and the Jewish Festivals. Not only did I find my knowledge and understanding of the Jewish festivals refreshed and expanded; I also grew in my appreciation of Jesus and his work due to the connections Burge made. This seems to have been an intention of this book, and in this regard, it is quite successful. Anyone who wants to better grasp Jesus’ words and work in the Gospels, whether pastor or parishioner, scholar or student, would do well to work her or his way through Burge’s short volume.