Monday, February 08, 2010

"Rabbis' Dust" Is Fairy Dust

For a number of reasons which are unimportant to enumerate here, I have set out to find  more of this pervasive idea that as best I can tell Rob Bell created or at the very least popularized. The idea has been bugging me for quite sometime as I just had a feeling that it was not really correct. There are innumerable references to the idea called Rabbis' dust on the internet and I have recently heard a pastor use it in a sermon, although he is not by any means a fan of Bell's. Do you know this Rabbis' dust idea? I'll let Scott Armstrong over at Common Grounds summarize it for you:
There was this saying among the sages: "May you be covered in your rabbi's dust."  If you were the best of the best of the best and a rabbi took you into His flock to be schooled in his "yoke", or teachings, then you literally and physically followed closely behind your rabbi as he traveled from one town to the next, teaching.  And as you walked behind the rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. And then Bell points out the one thing that is all "wrong", upside down and strange about the rabbi Jesus.  He skipped the seminaries, and places of power and goes straight to the fishing docks and factories. Jesus begins calling blue collar "joes" to drop what they were doing and follow Him.  Simon Peter, and the Zebedee brothers, to name just a few, were fishermen and Jesus simply comes up to them and say, "Follow me and be my disciples." These blue collar "joes" had long since given up being smart enough and sharp enough to follow a rabbi.  They were holding down steady jobs, living for the weekends, when Jesus swings by and says, "I want you to follow me." 
This is powerful stuff isn't it? Well the only problem is that it just isn't true. Anyone who would take the time to investigate the saying would discover that the context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea. For a sensible explanation of the mishnah see Tim Seid's blog

Rabbinic literature is very difficult to work with for a number of reasons not least one needs a sophisiticated methodology for dating the traditions. When I was doing my doctorate I remember working tirelessly for a couple of months in the Rabbinic literature. I  came to realized how foreign a world it was. One must be proficient in the first with  biblical, mishnaic and modern Hebrew. Most of the secondary sources and study tools are in modern Hebrew. And those working in the field are almost exclusively Israelis. One notable exception is my friend David Instone Brewer at Tyndale House, Cambridge who is working on a multi-volume project whose acronym is TRENT (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament). The second volume is to be released next month. This is an essential resource for those interested in using the Rabbis as background for the NT.

Alternatively, a rabbinic idea that can be shown to have influenced Jesus in his relationship to his pupils is the idea of imitation. As W. D. Davies points out "The life of the rabbi was itself Torah. It was not enough to learn the words of the rabbi, but necessary to live with him, so as to absorb his thought and copy his every gesture" (Setting of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 455). Jesus in Matthew 10:24-25 says:
Students are not above their teacher, nor servants about their master. It is enough for students to be like their teacher, and servants like their master.
The saying is parallel with one in Sipra on Lev. 25:23 which states: "It is enough for a servant to be as his Lord". And in their commentary Davies and Allison (2.197) eloquently state that "The imitatio Christi runs like a bright thread throughout [Matt] 10.5-25". While not as catchy as "dust", we are on much firmer ground historically to say that disciples both then and now are to emulate Jesus' life.


Steve Duby said...

Mike, thanks for highlighting this.

Another Bell blunder that was a bit frustrating to me was his making much of the noun orge (imagine italics and a line over the "e" for proper transliteration) in Mark 1:41 being in the aorist tense. As the noun wouldn't have a tense and as the aorist tense need not be freighted with great grammatical significance, it's a curious claim. Having said that, it can be an ugly thing to criticize a Christian leader without saying anything constructive. So I'll say just that I hope cases like this prod pastors in the spotlight to be very careful about what they say and to be open to correction from their fellow believers working in fields like NT studies.


Tyler said...

So much better for us, instead of being "covered in the dust of our rabbi," to be covered in the blood of our rabbi.

Steve Duby said...

My apologies, I just saw this was a Joel post.

nick said...

Almost certainly Bell learned this idea from a teacher named Ray Vanderlaan (who lives near GR in MI). You can find his site at I've heard Vanderlaan teach this many times, and at first it seems plausible. But then you find out it was a 2nd century tradition being read back into the 1st. It makes everything unclear at best. Why not stick with biblical teachings and sayings? I've learned the hard way to be cautious with Rabbinic interpretations.

Ty Grigg said...

This is helpful Joel. I came under Rob Bell's influence almost a decade ago and loved his creativity and desire to bring the historical context into understanding the text which eventually led me to North Park Seminary... but now when I go back and listen to him I am curious to know what his sources are - a lot of his claims are difficult to verify. I appreciate his ministry but I am learning to be more careful.

Gilbert Ariel said...

Hey friend.

Interesting post.

It does seem odd to me though, as it seems as if you have these two pictures of following Jesus in mind that you are describing as mutually exclusive. It seems as if if you see Bell's interpretation of following Jesus literally and being covered in dust as at odds with following his life and teaching!

You must already know this, but I feel it's necessary to point out that Rob Bell himself couldn't agree with you more about the core of the matter really being about following Jesus' life and teaching.
The following in the dust metaphor was not meant to contradict or replace the other.


Gilbert Walker

Jeremy Myers said...

Very good.

Maybe I didn't exactly understand Rob Bell's point, because I have always understood him to be saying pretty much the same thing you are saying here.

They didn't just follow Jesus to docks and factories. They went to these places to watch what He did and said so Jesus could be emulated.

trinitywildcatscurriculum said...

It seems that problem is with Rob Bell, I don't have a problem with that...but don't pass off your opinion about a Hebrew practice that is thousands of years old by citing other "blogs!". You guys have got to get over Rob Bell.

Robert Joseph said...

But read this: