In our modern world, Jesus is rarely portrayed as a Jewish Rabbi. Most often people assume that he was against Judaism and that he came to teach a new thing and start a new religion called Christianity. This could not be further from the truth! The first believers in the Messiah were Jewish, and Judaism was their religion. Many Christians try to emphasize the differences between Judaism and Christianity but fail to realize that they started out as the same religion. These things have caused many people to ignore Jewish sources as being useful for understanding Jesus (Y’shua). However, when we consider the things that Y’shua says in their Jewish context we gain a deeper, fuller understanding of his message.
Y’shua’s teachings are full of references to the Hebrew Scriptures, what many people today call the Old Testament, specifically the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Unlike many people today, his audience was intimately familiar with the Torah, and because they could not purchase a Bible at the local Christian Book Store, most people had the Scriptures committed to memory. Knowing these Scriptures and how they were interpreted at the time of Y’shua are not going to tell us a whole lot about his world, but they can help us understand his thought process. Aside from this, we have several sects of Judaism that were present during the time of Y’shua. Understanding the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes is crucial for understanding the world in which Y’shua lived.
We also have ancient historical writings such as Josephus that are very useful in shedding light on the social, political and economic setting of this time in history. Other writings from the intertestamental period such as the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha1http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/apocrypha.html help us understand the culture around the time of Y’shua. One of the most important discoveries was the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), a vast collection of writings and Scriptures compiled by the Essenes. The DSS revealed a wealth of information about the religious thinking of Y’shua’s time and shed lots of light on “the cultural conversation going on around Jesus.”2Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center.
*Disclaimer* This next part is likely to kill some sacred cows, but it is the truth. There are other writings that are paramount for understanding Y’shua’s Jewish context, the rabbinic writings. The Oral Torah, a collection of scripture interpretation and legal codes, was passed down orally from Rabbi to student for hundreds of years until it was finally written down in a book called the Mishnah around 200 CE. There are also similar works such as the Tosephta, Sifre, Sifra, and the Beraitot. Eventually, the Talmud, the Mishnah along with a lengthy commentary on the Mishnah, was produced. There are two versions of the Talmud. The first was the Jerusalem Talmud that was compiled around 400 CE and the larger Babylonian Talmud that was compiled around 500 CE. These ancient writings are not Scripture, but they are invaluable in understanding Jewish thought and practices from the time of Y’shua.
Another important aspect to understanding the words of Y’shua is taking a close look at the grammatical style of the language of the Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are all written in an elegant formal form of Greek known as Koine Greek, but in some locations seems awkward or unnatural for Greek. These areas are where we find Semitic idioms translated into Greek and when we are aware of these idiomatic sayings it can help us understand Y’shua’s sayings. Every language has idioms that make perfect sense in their own language, but a literal translation to another language causes them to seem strange. For example, in the United States some common idioms such as, “he kicked the bucket,” “you’re in hot water,” or “it cost an arm and a leg” make sense to English speakers but would seem out of place when a literal translation is done in a different language outside of American culture.
Hebrew idioms translated into Greek are no different, and sometimes they seem to make no sense to us English readers. There are many examples of these Hebraisms in the Greek Gospels that have been used since the time of Moses. One example is “lift up the eyes and see” used in Luke 16:23. This same expression is used 35 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is used twice in the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah for the first time in Genesis 24:63-64. “There is no evidence of this expression being used in the normative Greek” of Y’shua’s day, “yet it is found in the Greek texts of the Synoptic Gospels.”3Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center.
Being aware of these idioms can help us to read the English version of our Bibles with more understanding. To start to understand the Jewishness of Jesus, we have to understand the Jewish culture in which he lived and taught. When we know that he used rabbinic terminology and Hebrew idioms, then we can start to see how Jewish text from his time can help us to unlock clues that will allow us to understand the difficult words of our Messiah.
Over the next couple of years, we are going to examine many topics surrounding the difficult sayings of Y’shua. Each month a new article will be released in our Newsletter that will touch on subjects such as, Taking on Y’shua’s Yoke, The Accuracy of Oral Transmission, The Cost of Discipleship, Divorce and Remarriage, What Would Y’shua Do, and much, much more. These will initially only be available in our Newsletter, so please take a moment and sign up to receive the Newsletter here.
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|2, 3.||↑||Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center.|