Strange World of the Bible #4: Missing Eight Windows on Jesus’s JewishnessAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds
We all want to be better students of the Word of God. And by being better students we hope to be better followers of Jesus/Yeshua and walk in his Way. I have harped on the Hebraic/Jewish context of Jesus and the “early church.” The history of Christian anti-Semiticism warrants paying attention to this and stressing it. It is after all THE context for the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus and it is THE context for the early church as described in the Book of Acts. All of Paul’s teachings presuppose this background, all of James’ teaching does and John as well.
So the more we actually know of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish context, the more we will understand as Jesus and the apostles intended us to understand. So I want to offer eight vignettes in the Gospels that reflect the Jewishness of Jesus, the authors and the early Way and we often simply are unaware of it.
And I am not saying just that Jesus was Jewish. I am saying that the Gospels, all of the Gospels, are themselves Jewish in worldview. We know the geography, topography, demography of the Story are distinctly Jewish. Yeshua is from Nazareth, headquarted his ministry in Capernaum, he crisscrosses the Sea of Galilee, travels to Jericho, Judea, and Jerusalem 30+ times for various festivals like Passover, Tabernacles and even Dedication, in his lifetime.
Jesus wears prayer shawls, has tassels, phylacteries, abstains from ham (Jesus would never have eaten pork as much as I like a pulled pork BBQ sandwich). Jesus participated in the worship of God’s people thus offered sacrifices (we often simply do not even have a mental picture of Jesus offering a sacrifice and sharing it with the Levites) and Jesus sang the Psalms in the temple with instruments and he almost certainly danced in praise of the Father. But none of these are part of the eight … they just offer a “window” on “the windows” 🙂
Missed Jewish Vignettes
1) Jesus called disciples and some of them were designated as “apostles.” It is almost never recognized that this is a Jewish convention. In Jewish literature the prophets, and Moses especially, are labeled “apostles.” This is rooted in biblical passages like Exodus 3 where Moses is “sent” by Yahweh to Pharaoh. The Hebrew equivalent is “shaliah” or “shaluah” from the verb “shalah,” “to send.” Hebrews tells us that Jesus himself was God’s “apostle” (Hebrews 3.1).
2) Jesus was not the first prophet to be dealt with by severe measures by the powerful priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish general turned Roman sympathizer and historian, tells us of a Jesus ben Ananias. Jesus ben Ananias had the audacity to walk around Jerusalem and warn of coming judgment. He experienced a very similar fate as Jesus of Nazareth (Josephus, J.W, 6.5.3)
Jewish Biblical Interpretation
3) The NT commonly, and the Gospel of Matthew in particular, uses a distinctly Jewish approach to biblical interpretation. This is confusing to some folks today and we scratch our head about some interpretations. Indeed it was the Dead Sea Scrolls that highlighted the incredibly Jewish manner that the NT uses the Hebrew Bible. Among the DSS there is a document that called, the Habakkuk Pesher or commentary. The first two chapters of this book are preserved with a line by line interpretation given by the author. The prophet was interpreted as talking about this recent event or persons relevant to the Qumran community. In fact when the Scroll were first discovered it was this manner of interpretation that scholars first noticed as among the most important contributions of the scrolls for getting into the world of the Gospels/Jesus. Matthew punctuates his narrative with “and this was to fulfill” or “what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah …” and then cite this event in Jesus’ life. Matthew, and Jesus, reads the Bible in same way as other Jews did prior to AD 70.
4) In the Gospel of Matthew one of the most famous features of Jesus’ teaching is the Beatitudes (Mt 5.3-12). These are part of the biblical tradition first of all (Ps 32.1-2; Sirach 14.1-2; 25.8-9; Tobit 13.13-14; etc). But the Dead Sea Scrolls show us that “strings of beattitudes” were at times brought together just as Jesus does. What Jesus does is typically Jewish. I quote part of 4Q525 …
“[Blessed is the one who …] with a clean heart and does not slander with his tongue.
Blessed are those who hold fast to its statues and do not hold fast to the ways of injustice.
Blessed are those who rejoice in it, and do not burst forth on paths of folly.
Blessed are thos who seek it with pure hands, and do not search for it with a deceitful heart.
Blessed is the man who attains wisdom, and walks in the law of the Most High”
Criticism of the Establishment
5) When Jesus said “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” … many other Jewish teachers would be shouting Amen. The Essenes of Qumran would have thought that the Pharisees were liberal dogs unfit for association with. The Sadducees were even worse scum than the Pharisees having polluted the temple itself in their thought.
6) The angel announces to Mary “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High … the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1.32-35). These words first of all echo the Bible itself from 2 Samuel 7.13-16. But in the time of Jesus we have a stunning parallel to Luke in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In an Aramaic text we read “He shall be called son of the great God, and by his name shall he be named. He shall be called the Son of God, and they shall call him Son of the Most High … their kingdom will be an eternal kingdom.”
Leviticus 18.5 & Eternal Life
7) When we read Luke’s Gospel carefully it seems clear that Jesus understood Leviticus 18.5 as a reference to ETERNAL life. Obeying the law actually had eternal consequences. Thus in Luke 10.25-28 a student approached Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit life. When this Jew said love God and love your neighbor, Yeshua agreed with him and said “do this and you will live” (v.28). Some, who discard Jesus’ context, dismiss this out of hand. But Jesus’ interpretation fits that of most Jews of the day, that Lev 18 was about eternal life. If we look at Leviticus in Aramaic, in the Targum (interpretation), this is how it reads: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall LIVE IN THE WORLD TO COME: I am the LORD.” This same understanding is in the Damascus Document from Qumran. Jesus is quite Jewish on this point. Paul and James follow Yeshua on this matter.
8) One of the most interesting, and one we moderns simply miss, Jewish pictures of Jesus is that he is the authoritative teacher of the Law. The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, as just this authoritative teacher (as does chapter 13). You have heard it said, but I say unto you … And the crowd were amazed because he taught as one who had authority (Mt 7.28-29). This authoritative teacher can be called various things and names. Shammai and Hillel were giants in their day. At Qumran the Master Teacher had exalted status and was called THE Teacher of Righteousness. At Qumran they were looking for this teacher of righteousness who would appear at the End of the Ages who would instruct the faithful in the true meaning of the Bible and he would reveal genuine righteousness. Michael Wise several years ago even wrote a book about the Teacher of Righteousness and called it The First Messiah to show how Jesus fit an already established paradigm. The Gospels present Jesus in this typically Jewish manner. Matthew is not, as is so commonly asserted, presenting Jesus in conflict with Moses or the Law rather he is in fact presenting him in a genuine and recognizably Jewish manner by having him pronounce what righteousness and faithfulness to God actually means. Sometimes many supposed believers in inerrancy are ironically strange bedfellows with the Jesus Seminar because they gleefully divorce Jesus from his Jewishness – who cares about context right?
Final Sunday Night Thoughts
The Savior of the world is a crucified Jew. He did not stay dead. God raised his crucified body from the dead. Not only is Jesus Jewish, but the Gospels as writings are Jewish in the manner in which they hold him forth for the world to believe. This includes the so called Gentile Gospel written by Luke.
I want to encourage you to spend some time imagining Jesus living, breathing, behaving, and teaching, as a Jew. The typical paintings of Jesus we encounter as beautiful as they are clearly do not present Jesus as he actually lived on this planet. So when you read the Gospels and the inevitable image of him enters our mind as we are reading any passage … does he have a prayer shawl? is he dark skinned? does he have phylacteries? Can you see him about to sacrifice an animal? He did it every time he worshiped in the Passover and many other times. Do you see him joyously shouting and dancing the Psalms with the festive throng in the Temple?
Stop and reflect and imagine …
If your Jesus is not Jewish you may have the wrong Jesus …