Learning from Our Rabbi Jesus

Puzzle PieceThe sayings of Jesus can sometimes be a puzzle to us. Much of our difficulty comes from not seeing the nuances of their Jewish style and context. This loss of understanding has come from the church’s movement away from its Jewish beginnings.

Jesus used many rabbinic teaching methods to deliver his powerful message. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

 

The Parable

Even though Jesus was a master at using parables for his purposes, he didn’t invent them. Over a thousand parables are on record. Most of them postdate Jesus’ ministry but a few come before.

A parable was a way to explain a theological truth in terms of physical images and stories. Just as the Hebrew language uses concrete pictures to express abstractions (God’s “outstretched arm” meant God’s power, to be “stiff-necked” meant to be stubborn, etc), the parable explained truth in terms of everyday experiences. The logic was that we can understand things we don’t see by comparing them to things that we can see and know about.

Typically, a rabbi told a parable to make one major point, often as an illustration of a larger teaching. Many times two parables were told that made the same point in order to strengthen the overall conclusion, because could be proved by the “testimony of two witnesses.” Jesus often told parables in pairs, as when he tells the parable of the leaven and the mustard seed – both describing something that starts out invisible but then grows huge. By reading the two parables together and seeing the parallels, we grasp the common conclusion more clearly.1

Parallel rows in a field

Certain elements were common in many parables, and they usually were drawn from the Scriptures. A king was often the subject of the parable, and the king was almost always symbolic of God (from 1 Sam 8:7). Jesus told several parables about kings, all making a point about the nature of God.

Another motif that was used for God is the shepherd. One rabbinic parable says,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.2

We hear the similarity between this parable and Jesus’ story about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost sheep. Interestingly, even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

Both parables use the shepherd image because in several places in the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd looking for his sheep (Ezekiel 34, Jer. 23). The Messiah is also called the “shepherd” too – linking God to the Messiah. When Jesus speaks of himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10), all of these images would have come to mind.

 

Kal V’homer

Another teaching method that Jesus used was called “kal v’homer,” meaning “light and heavy.” The idea was to communicate a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying. Jesus used this when he taught about worry:

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

LiliesJesus also uses this method when he says, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to you children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11) In both cases, Jesus was teaching theology in non-theological terminology.

Rabbis often used this logic even if they didn’t use the very words “how much more.” An interesting example is from Rabbi Gamaliel, the same rabbi mentioned in Acts 5:34. One time at a banquet, Gamaliel got up and humbly served his disciples, going against the tradition that they should serve him. When they protested and asked why, he said,

“Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham who served his visitors. But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be He, who provides food for all his creation!” 3

Understanding his teaching is dependent on our grasping the “kal v’homer”. Abraham was the most revered of all of their ancestors, but Gamaliel points out that he acted as a humble servant by serving a meal to God and two angels in Genesis 18. Then he points out that God himself serves us and even the animals when he gives us food. God himself is a model of serving others rather than wanting to be served. Certainly, if one as great as God serves his lowly creation, how much more should we serve each other!

 

Rabbinic Exaggeration

Some of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin? Is it really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ overstatements make us uncomfortable when we aren’t sure how we should take them.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that Jesus’ contemporaries often exaggerated, and gave commands that went far beyond expectations, in order to underline the importance of what they taught. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there,
it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead…
But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah,
it is as if they ate from the table of God, blessed be He! 4

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Bible study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement that is intended for emphasis. Or, here is another example:

Let no one stand for prayer without bowing his head…
Even if the king greets you, do not answer him.
And even if a snake is coiled at your heel, do not break it off.5

Once again the importance of concentration in prayer is taught by exaggeration—by saying that even in the most extreme circumstances, you should have single-minded attention on God. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Open 8 Days a Week

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how Jesus’ words were heard by his audience when he said things like, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt…you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done.” (Matt 21:21). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching. We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we grow in our ability to interpret his words when we know how they would have been heard in his time.

 

Alluding to the Scriptures

It may surprise many that Jesus’ teachings are peppered with “hints” to his scriptures. He often used unique phrases or even single words to allude to passages in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically literate culture, where people knew much of the Old Testament scriptures by memory. By knowing his reference, people recognize the context and heard more complex ideas of the Scriptures behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages—he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “remez,” but the practice actually predated Jesus.

One example of this is when at the cleansing of the temple, Jesus said, “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” (Matt 21:13) He was quoting Isaiah 56:6 and Jeremiah 7:11, which contrast God’s greatest vision for the temple (All the nations of the world worshiping there) with the worst possible abuse of it (being used as a refuge for thieves and murderers, which led to its destruction). He was not just protesting the selling of doves – he was speaking about the corrupt leadership that was getting rich from temple sacrifices, and hinting about the Temple’s destruction.6

Nixon leaving after WatergateWe actually use the same practice of allusion today. When a headline reads, “War in Iraq May Be Another Vietnam,” it assumes that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference, and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.

Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate,” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding the half-word “gate,” we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Just as we expect people to be literate in history, Jesus expected his listeners to be literate with God’s word.

Another example of this practice in the gospels is the conversation Jesus had with John’s disciples about whether he was the “one who was to come,” in Matt. 11: 2–6:

“When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Both John’s question and Jesus’ answer are filled with allusions to the scriptures. John was speaking of the “coming one” of Malachi 3:2, and Jesus’ answer was from Isaiah 35:4-6 and 61:1 that speak about the coming of the messiah.8 Recognizing that all those things Jesus mentioned were fulfillment of Scripture underlined that he was the fulfillment of all of those prophecies.

 

Conclusion

Knowing more about Jesus’ context should both clarify our reading and challenge us to take another look at Jesus’ words in light of his scriptures and Jewish culture. Jesus used methods of teaching that are somewhat foreign to us, so it is easy to assume that his style was foreign to his first listeners too. But we see instead that God was preparing a culture for his own coming, giving them a love for the scriptures and powerful techniques to teach the truth about himself. Jesus used these methods to proclaim truth in an uncommonly brilliant way—certainly he was a master teacher!

~~~~~

1 See “Jesus’ Twin Parables” by Robert Lindsey at jerusalemperspective.com (Premium content membership needed.)

2 Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3.

3 Mekhilta Amalek 3. It’s interesting to hear the close ties between Jesus’ foot washing and Gamaliel’s serving at the banquet. His ministry was during the time of Jesus and afterward, and Paul studied with him. Even though he was not a follower of Jesus, he defended the disciples (Acts 5:33-39) and may have been influenced by Jesus’ teaching.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 3.2-3. The Mishnah was the Jewish commentary on the Torah that was in effect from a few hundred years before Christ until it was written down in 200 AD. Much of it was observed at the time of Jesus.

5 Mishnah, Berakot 5.1

6 See “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week” for a list of allusions that Jesus makes during his last week that all hint toward punishment on the corrupt temple leadership and destruction of the temple. Also, see the article “Remember Shiloh” by J. Frankovic at jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium content membership needed.)

7 See “Jesus’ Habit of Hinting” and “Hearing Jesus’ Hidden Messages” for more examples of this technique of alluding to scripture.

Photos: Chris Downer, Oliver Atkins, Olga Berrios

Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar

 

IJN-Set1Insights into Jesus of Nazareth

His Words, His Wisdom,
His World

Conference Seminar

Available as an 8-DVD set or mp3 CD (audio only). Order below.

© En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006

15 hours of in-depth presentations by leading scholars on Jesus’ first-century context. Filmed at the Jerusalem Perspective 2006 Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, June 19-20, 2006. 

Presentations:

The Value of Translating Matthew, Mark and Luke to Hebrew
David Bivin, Editor of Jerusalem Perspective

A Hebraic Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus
Randall Buth, Director, Biblical Language Center

Is Jesus Superior to the Law?  -and-
Jesus’s High Self-Awareness and the Christology of Paul
Dwight A. Pryor, President, Judaic-Christian Studies Center

Why Rabbinic Literature Is Pertinent to the Study of the Gospels  -and-
Jesus Among the Rabbis: Spiritual Life and Leadership
Brad Young, Professor, Oral Roberts University

The Mikvah and Ritual Immersion in Jesus’ Day
The Recently Discovered Pool of Siloam
(Audio online at link)
Ronney Reich, Archaeologist, Haifa University

The New Testament in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Hanan Eshel, Archaeologist, Bar Ilan University

Was Jesus Buried in the Garden Tomb? (DVD only)
Gabriel Barkay, Archaeologist, Bar Ilan University

Jeremiah’s New Covenant and Jesus’ Movement
Serge Ruzer, Professor, Hebrew University

Jesus, the Sin-Fearer
David Pileggi, Rector, Christ Church

Jesus’ Teaching Style Illustrated by His Response to Martha’s Anxiety
Lenore Mullican, Professor, Oral Roberts University

The Pastoral Relevance of Who Wrote the First Gospel -and-
The Importance of Bible Geography for Understanding Jesus
Halvor Ronning, Director, Home for Bible Translators

.

IJN Cover+border

 
8-DVD Set: $59.99



Audio mp3 CD: $29.99



Both DVD & Audio: $79.99

.
Also included on DVDs (not audio CD)

A tribute to David Flusser by James Charlesworth
• A documentary about Robert Lindsey and David Flusser
• Baritone Horst Krueger performing songs of Jerusalem and conference music composed by Robert Lindsey.

© Produced by the En-Gedi Resource Center in cooperation with JerusalemPerspective.com. All rights reserved.

An Ugly Vessel

by Lois Tverberg

“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27

If we know that God created each one of us in his image, what are the implications of how we should live? An ancient rabbinic parable gives an answer:

A great rabbi was traveling along one day on his donkey. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca (empty one or good for nothing) how ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”

Feet shaping clay

The point is this – that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming him, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who designed and fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human being to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly”, we are insulting God himself. Imagine if God were a great artist who painted a portrait of himself on every person – it would be like calling God a poor artist, and ugly too. Certainly that will make us reconsider our negative opinions of others, when we realize that we are looking at God’s own handiwork, and a reflection of God himself.


(1) B. Talmud, Ta’an. 20a-b1, quoted by Brad Young in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Hendrickson, 1998.

Photo: Pp391

The Son of Man

by Lois Tverberg

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. – Daniel 7:14

One phrase Jesus often uses to describe Himself is “The Son of Man.” Many have assumed that when Jesus uses the phrase to describe himself, he is emphasizing his humanity. That appears to be true in some places. But people are often unaware that the phrase “Son of Man” was one of the most powerful messianic claims! It is from a passage in Daniel 7:13 – 14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This passage is about the messianic king. God had promised David that one of his own offspring would have a kingdom without end (2 Samuel 7:13), and this is who is being described here. Daniel has visions of many kingdoms rising to power, but the final kingdom that conquers them all is this kingdom of the Messiah. And this is the scene of the the great King coming to take his seat of honor and receive authority over all creation.

When we now look closer at how Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself, we can see that he is often referring to himself in terms of this passage!

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30)

Art of Transfiguration

We can see these in scenes the Son of Man coming in the clouds and the picture of Jesus having great glory, just as in Daniel. Here Jesus is hinting to his great glory as the Messiah by alluding to these passages, as he does many places. So, the passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus’ usage of the term as prophetic toward his return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that he didn’t regard himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted Messiah who would have a kingdom without end.


See Ch. 22, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p.243-52.

Photo: http://elizabethhagan.com/2014/03/02/wait/

The Other Lost Son

by Lois Tverberg

“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” – Luke 15:29-30

In this parable, we focus almost all of our attention on the prodigal son. But according to Brad Young, the parable really should be named, “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons.” (1) Dr. Young points out that neither son understands their father’s love, and neither has any love in his heart for the other. Both sons see their father as a paymaster, a source of blessing and gain. The younger son first sees his father as a source of cash that he could spend by claiming his inheritance, and then he sees him as an employer who might take him in. The older son has a similar attitude – he expects his father to give him some reward for his loyalty to the family, and doesn’t care about his brother who has come home.

In this parable we can see all types of relationships toward God. We certainly see the person who has rejected God in the prodigal son. Indeed, by asking for his inheritance, in this culture he would have been saying that he wished his father was dead, because he just wanted to live life enjoying the wealth he had gained apart from his family. In a similar way, many people show that they “wish God were dead” by their desire to ignore him and just enjoy all the material blessings he has showered on us, living life just to satisfy their desires.
Prodigal SonWe often don’t consider that the older son is a picture of a broken
relationship too, who even though outwardly he is part of the family, he really sees the father only as a source of reward. He is a person who may be quite religious, but misunderstands God’s enormous love. Rather than valuing an intimate, trusting relationship with God, his feeling is that he must somehow earn God’s favor, and doesn’t see that he is loved in spite of all of observance and good works.

The true hero of the parable is the father who displays amazing love to his very broken family. If only we would love him with the limitless love he has for us!


(1) “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons” in Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p 143 – 154.

Photo: 7AEgfhxf52pz-Q at Google Cultural Institute

I’m Glad I’m Not Like Him!

by Lois Tverberg

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.`I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:10 – 14

We usually don’t get the full impact of this parable because of our assumption that Pharisees were all hypocritical and judgmental.The parable just reinforces our negative bias, and it loses its impact because the conclusion seems to be self-evident: God dislikes pride, and the Pharisees were the most prideful.

Pharisee

To hear this story more authentically, we need to understand the many positive qualities of the Pharisee movement. Most of the greatest rabbis of Jesus’ day were Pharisees, and their teachings were similar to his in many ways. They had nearly the same words of self-criticism as Jesus had for those who fell into hypocrisy and legalism. Several joined Jesus’ movement, including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, and the famous Pharisee Gamaliel actually argued for the release of the apostles, saving the early church from destruction (Acts 5:34-39)! Even when they argued with Jesus, this was typical of the confrontational debate that rabbis used. We should see them as well-respected, learned men who occasionally fell into the errors that Jesus critiques.The parable above takes on new meaning if we see the Pharisee as a favorite pastor of ours, someone who is an admired teacher who really does go the extra mile to be an example to others with his lifestyle and attitude. Then we see the true irony – that even the best of people should not come to the Lord with a sense of self-satisfaction and comparison to others. If we miss that point, we can actually fall into the same trap that this man fell, by taking pride in the comparison of us to him, with the conclusion, “God, I thank you I am not like that Pharisee!”

We all stand in need of God’s forgiveness, even the best of us, and we should always be on the look out for when our prayers are more concerned with other’s sins than our own in God’s sight.


 

*This essay was based on the chapter, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, p. 181-194 of
Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, Hendrikson Publishing, 1995.