I routinely get asked about my perspective on Jesus and the amounts of questions I receive eclipse all other inquiries. In earlier times I would have ignored such inquiries and avoided the discussions of Jesus' Jewishness like a plague. Currently I have caught up with the times and I understand that I have a voice in the discussion and that my voice is valued by those who cannot spend decades learning the intricacies of Jewish Law and perspectives in order to enlighten their understanding of the background of Jesus as a character in their Bibles. Many books have been written on this subject but this topic is still in its infancy so there is a lot of room for insight.
|A depiction of Jesus in an ancient synagogue|
Recently on the comments section of a news agency I responded to an article written by a gentleman who was expressing his opinion on the nature of Biblical interpretation. The article itself wasn't very interesting but the comments section is always the place where most of the debate and excitement occurs. A Christian commented that Jesus had nothing even remotely to do with Judaism and that there is no apparent connection between Judaism and Jesus. Predictably the comment section lit up with the opposition pointing out a myriad of examples concerning Jesus' Jewish nature and the indispensability of the "Old Testament" in the understanding of the purpose of Jesus.
There has been so much mythology erected around Jesus that it is difficult to remove all of the layers of nonsense to uncover the historical personality who wasn't even named Jesus. The Jesus of popular culture and mainstream Christianity is based on a mythological figure culled from the eclectic religious cults of the Greco-Roman Empire. The historical Jesus was a Hasid (pious man) named Yehoshua ben Yosef who walked amongst the Galil teaching the peasants of Judea. His teachings were not too remarkable or revolutionary as they are all from the context of the greater Jewish faith of which he was a part. His piety is what distinguishes him in that he avoided the religious elite and was an advocate for the outcasts of society.
The fact that Jesus was a Jew is rarely disputed but I want to draw attention to how Jewish he actually was. Many of the verses in the Christian Gospels are non-contextually interpreted and translated improperly because of an ignorance concerning the greater context of Judaism of which Jesus was a strong advocate. Christians typically have no problem agreeing that Jesus kept the Torah (Law) and they believe he had to do so perfectly. However, Christians do not realize what the "Law" actually entails and therefore miss out on the depth of their Gospel narrative, which are a discourse on Jewish Law.
Before I begin to demonstrate the evidence of this assertion it is important that some background concerning Jewish Law is developed. Jewish Law is NOT simply the 5 Books of Moses (Torah) but also encompasses what is called Torah Sheba'al Peh (Oral Law), which is the whole compendium of interpretations of the Mosaic Written Torah down through the ages. This Oral Torah is considered authoritative and binding on Jews and Jesus kept and taught these rulings and even established his own yeshiva (school) of thought concerning the application of these laws.
Background of Oral Torah
The Torah is a product of the Mosaic revelation on Sinai and was subsequently written and edited by scholars and scribes who crafted the 5 book document that we possess today (Genesis-Deuteronomy). This 5 book document is called the Torah, which means Teaching (not Law). The Torah is the fundamental and most important document in Judaism because it is the Constitution of the Jewish people. As a Constitution it lays down the basic outline of the Jewish purpose, identity, it sets up the parameters for legislation, laws related to most every aspect of life, describes the calendar, holidays, agricultural seasons, welfare services, etc.
The Torah is not an exhaustive document rather it is a concise declaration of fundamental principles which were to govern Israelite society. The need for practical application of the Torah's commands was not always evident, especially in unforeseen or changing circumstances. Thus the Torah was interpreted according to the needs of individual cases, various times and locations that the original Torah didn't foresee. Over the many generations spanning thousands of years the legislations surrounding the Torah have become immense and varied. This is closely akin to the political and legislative process of the United States wherein you have a fundamental document called the Constitution and you have legislative braches in the government consisting of local, region and national authorities. These authorities have the varying responsibilities of establishing laws based on a Constitutional interpretation and subsequently imposing and enforcing those laws. Regardless of whether the citizens approve of all of these laws or not is irrelevant because the United States is a Republic and the law always trump personal opinion and preference. Jewish Law is a close parallel to this entire process as it possesses a fundamental Constitution (Torah) and a tradition of legislation of legal interpretation, debate, enactment and enforcement. This process of legal development in Judaism in called Torah Sheba'a'l Peh (Oral Torah).
Many Christians think of Jewish Law as an antiquated "Old Testament" Scriptural code that is no longer relevant but the legal process is very much alive and continues to thrive to this day. Further it must not be thought that the Torah is a Sinai revelation and is now a mere religious story to be interpreted according to one's own interpretation. We don’t open our Bibles and read about the Torah rather we live the Torah as a legal obligation just as Americans live life in obligation to US Law and Customs. In other words, Judaism isn't a religion with a mere Biblical story rather it is a society and community.
The legal system was developed by Moses in ancient times, even before the revelation of Sinai as it states:
"The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, "What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?" Moshe answered him, "Because the people come to me to seek YHVH's will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of YHVH's decrees and laws." (Ex. 18:13-16)
Moses is hearing cases and enacting legislative decrees in a process of legal establishment before the Torah was even received on Mt Sinai. This is an example of the legal process occurring on a fairly primitive level (Moses was the sole authority) before the Torah Constitution was ever received thus we see that the legal process is not entirely dependent on the Torah itself. In the contextual narrative of this verse we see Moses receiving advice from his father-in-law to establish a legislative body consisting of judicial personnel to handle the legal affairs of Israel. Again we are seeing the early formation of Israel's judiciary and it was independent of the Torah.
"If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge--whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults--take them to the place YHVH your Sovereign will choose. Go to the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place YHVH will choose. Be careful to do everything they direct you to do. Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. The man who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to YHVH your Sovereign must be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel. All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again." (Deut. 17:8-13).
In the above verse we clearly see that Israel's judiciary was established and the process of legal enforcement had begun. Like in every other society the rules of society must be complied with by the citizens in order to constrain aberrant behavior and anarchy. Legal enforcement via a penal system is necessary for the recognition of governance. The above verse demonstrates the development of a penal system in ancient Israel which was established to enforce the rulings of the judicial system. Notice- the rulings of the judges are to be enforced not the Torah itself although the Torah is at this time implicit in the judicial process.
The early judicial process in Israel was ordered and governed by 70 judges (dayanim) whose rulings were considered to have Divine authority. This type of governance is a Theocracy wherein the national God is considered the King and the Judges act to bestow God's will. This is a common form of governance in the ancient Near East but invariably it had its problems and abuses. The typical problem of Theocracy is evident from the textual narrative and the people of Israel demanded a revolution. The demands was the establishment of a Monarchy to rule Israel.
"So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Shmuel at Ramah. They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have." But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Shmuel; so he prayed to YHVH." (1 Sam 8:4-6)
The amazing thing about the Hebrew Bible is that it was written over such a long span of history thus we see societal evolution happening right before our eyes. For example, societies have evolved from tribalism, feudalism, monarchies, to democracies, etc. Here we are seeing Israel develop from a Theocratic Republic to a Monarchy. This Monarchy would rule for several generations until Israel was defeated and exiled by the Babylonians. During the Babylonian captivity the scribe Ezra re-established the judicial system of 70 Judges (called the Sanhedrin) and upon returning from captivity to Israel the 70 Judges were once again the authority of governance. It should be pointed out that there were two branches of authority- the 70 Judges (Elders) and the Levitical Priesthood. These two branches of ancient Israeli politics were at odds quite often; not unlike the two houses of American governance.
"And you, Nehemiah, in accordance with the wisdom of HaShem, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates--all who know the laws of YHVH. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of HaShem and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment. Praise be to HaShem, the G-d of our fathers, who has put it into the king's heart to bring honor to the House of YHVH in Jerusalem in this way And who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king's powerful officials. Because the hand of HaShem my G-d was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me" (Ezra/Nehemiah 7:25-28).
With this background in mind we have to look at Jesus in this political context and understand that he endorsed the system of the 70 Judges (Sanhedrin) as being legitimate and irrefutable. A clear example of this is in Matthew 23:2-3:
"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach."
|Members of the modern-day Sanhedrin|
Throughout the generations the legal system of judiciary in Judaism has enacted laws and these laws are typical of secular courts that also enact laws. Previous legal rulings subsequently become the legal precedents upon which newer rulings are made and the process goes on and on.
Jesus Followed the Oral Law
Christians are typically uncomfortable acknowledging that Jesus followed the Rabbinic legislations and rulings of his day because modern Christians are mostly inspired by Martin Luther's teaching of Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. However, this is a religious teaching that cannot be imposed upon a society of living tradition. For example, Christianity is a religion that is disconnected from Israel and its community thus it is a religion that is confined to a book. Christians debate about how to best read the book. Judaism is contrast is not in a book rather the Jewish experience continues much the same way it did when it was written about in the Christian Bible. Judaism is a living and breathing community and society rather than a religious doctrine that one talks about on Sunday's.
In an attempt to appeal to Christians a minority Jewish sect called the Karaites try and convince Christians that Jesus himself was a Karaite. Karaites are a small sect of Jews who refuse to follow the body of Jewish Law in preference to the Mosaic Torah alone. They are like the Constitutionalists in America who feel that only the Constitution should rule the Land. There are many flaws with this as neither the Torah nor the American Constitution can address every unique situation that arises within greater society and they were never intended to do so. Both of these fundamental documents set up a judicial and legislative process whereby their respective societies were to develop themselves. To embrace the Torah or the Constitution but deny the countries of their development is to deny these fundamental documents themselves. It is irrational and unsustainable which is why the Karaites are a minority sect which can only sustain its existence by trying to appeal to Christians to replenish its numbers via conversion.
Let's take a look at several passages from the Christian Bible which demonstrate conclusively that Jesus was an observant Jew who valued the role of Oral Torah rather than attacked it as some would assert. Below I have listed several examples by paralleling quotes from the Christian Bible with quotes from the Oral Torah. For simplicity sake I have labeled quotes from the Christian Bible as 'New Testament' but after reading through the following quotes it will be evident that there is nothing "new" about the "New Testament."
· New Testament- The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. - Mark 2:27
Oral Torah- Rabbi Jonathan ben Joseph said: For it is holy unto you; i.e., it [the Sabbath] is committed to your hands, not you to its hands."- Talmud: Yoma 85b
· New Testament- Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. -Matthew 25:45
Oral Law- One who betrays his fellow, it is as if he has betrayed God. - Tosefta Sh'vuot, ch. 3
· New Testament- Insulting someone is like murder.- Matthew 5:21-22
Oral Law- He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.- Talmud: Bava Mezia 58b
· New Testament- But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. - Matthew 5:28
Oral Law- One who gazes lustfully upon the small finger of a married woman, it is as if he has committed adultery with her.- Kallah, Ch. 1
· New Testament- That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. - Matthew 5:45
Oral Law- Rabbi Abbahu said: The day when rain fails is greater than [the day of] the Revival of the Dead, for the Revival of the Dead is for the righteous only whereas rain is both for the righteous and for the wicked - Talmud: Taanit 7a
· New Testament- Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. - Matthew 6:1
Oral Law- In the case of the recital of the Shema, since everybody else recites, and he also recites, it does not look like showing off on his part; but in the case of the month of Ab, since everybody else does work and he does no work, it looks like showing off.- Talmud: Berachot 17b
· New Testament- But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. - Matthew 6:3
Oral Law- What kind of charity is that which delivers a man from an unnatural death? When a man gives without knowing to whom he gives. and the beggar receives without knowing from whom he receives. - Talmud: Bava Batra 10a - 10b
· New Testament- But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.- Matthew 6:7
Oral Law- If one draws out his prayer and expects therefore its fulfilment, he will in the end suffer vexation of heart, as it says, Hope deferred maketh the heart sick. - Talmud: Berachot 55a
· New Testament- Do not worry about where your food will come from tomorrow, or your drink. - Matthew 6:25-31
· Oral Law- Rabbi Eliezer the Great declares: Whoever has a piece of bread in his basket and Says. ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’ belongs only to them who are little in faith. - Talmud: Sotah 48b
· New Testament- Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. - Matthew 6:34
Oral Law- A parable: [They were] like a man who was kept in prison and people told him: Tomorrow, they will release you from the prison and give you plenty of money. And he answered them: I pray of you, let me go free today and I shall ask nothing more! - Talmud: Berachot 9b
· New Testament- Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. - Matthew 5:34-37
Oral Law 1- A righteous yes is a Yes; a righteous no is No. - Talmud: Bava Batra 49b
Oral Law 2- Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. --R. Abaye, Baba Metzia 49a
· New Testament- At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. - Matthew 11:25
Oral Law- Rabbi Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children. - Talmud: Bava Batra 12b
· New Testament- And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. - Matthew 5:29-30
Oral Law- Come and hear what was taught: Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘If his hand touched the membrum let his hand be cut off upon his belly’. ‘But’, they said to him, ‘would not his belly be split’? ‘It is preferable’, he replied, ‘that his belly shall be split rather than that he should go down into the pit of destruction’. - Talmud: Niddah 13b
· New Testament- But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Messiah; and all ye are brethren. - Matthew 23:8
Oral Law- Shemaiah used to say: love work, hate acting the superior, and do not bring thyself to the knowledge of the ruling authority. - Mishnah: Avot 1:10
· New Testament- Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. - Matthew 24:44
Oral Law- Even as R. Zera, who, whenever he chanced upon scholars engaged thereon [I.e., in calculating the time of the Messiah's coming], would say to them: I beg of you, do not postpone it, for it has been taught: Three come unawares: Messiah, a found article and a scorpion. - Talmud: Sanhedrin 97a
· New Testament- Jesus taught in a parable that they can please the king (God) by pleasing one another. - Matthew 25:40 "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." - Matthew 25:40
Oral Law- Rabbi simeon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken thereat words of torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead, for [of such persons] it is said, for all tables are full of filthy vomit, [they are] without the All-Present. But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, blessed be he, as it is said, this is the table before HaShem. - Mishnah: Avot 3:3
· New Testament- Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; - Matthew 5:43
Oral Law- They who are insulted but insult not back; who hear themselves reproached but answer not; who serve out of love and rejoice in their affliction--of them it is written in Scripture: They that love God are as the going forth of the sun in its might. - Talmud: Yoma 23a, Gitin 36b, Shabat 88b
· New Testament- For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. - Matthew 22:23-30
Oral Law- There will be no marital union in the world to come. - Ma'asrot 4:5-6
· New Testament-Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. - Matthew 5:23-24
Oral Law- If a man said, "I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent", he will be given no chance to repent. [If he said,] "I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement", then the Day of Atonement effects no atonement. For transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow - Mishnah: Yoma 8:9
· New Testament- ... sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.- Matthew 5:45
Oral Torah- God causes it to rain for the wicked as well as for the righteous. - Talmud, Taanit 7a
· New Testament- Love thine neighbor and hate thine enemy - Matthew 5:43
Oral Law- They who are insulted but insult not back; who hear themselves reproached but answer not; who serve out of love and rejoice in their affliction--of them it is written in Scripture: They that love God are as the going forth of the sun in its might. - Talmud, Yoma 23a, Gitin 36b, Shabbat 88b
· New Testament- ... first be reconciled to thy brother - Matthew 5:23-24
Oral Law- Yom Kippur atones for all sins, but first you must reconcile your conflict with others. - Talmud, Yoma 85b
· New Testament- For if ye forgive men their trespasses ... - Matthew 6:14-15
Oral Law 1- Only if you forgive others will God forgive you. - Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17a
Oral Law 2- One who is merciful toward others, God will be merciful toward him - Talmud, Shabat 151b
· New Testament- Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth ...- Matthew 6:19
Oral Law- It happened that manobaz had squandered his father's wealth to charity. His brothers admonished him: "Your father gathered treasure and you wasted it all!" He replied: "My father laid up treasure where human hands control it; I laid it up where no hands control it. My father laid up a treasure of money; I laid up a treasure of souls. My father laid up treasure for this world; I laid up treasure for the heavenly world." - Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 15b
· New Testament- Do not judge, or you too will be judged ... - Matthew 7:1
· Oral Law 1- Do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place. - Avot 2:14
Oral Law 2- Do not be a judge of others, for there is no judge but the one (God). - Avot 4:10
· New Testament- ... with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again - Matthew 7:2
Oral Law 1- By a person's standard of measure, is he, too, measured. - Mishnah Sotah 1:7
Oral Law 2- How you judge others, does God judge you. Shabat 127b
Oral Law 3- Rabbi Meir states: "The measure which one measures will be measured out to him." - Sanhedrin 100a
· New Testament- Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye ... - Matthew 7:3-5
Oral Law 1- Rabbi Tarfon said, "I wonder if there be anyone in this era who will allow himself to be reproved. If someone says to another, 'Cast out the speck that is in your eye!' he will retort, Cast out first the beam that is in your own eye!'" - Er'chin 16b
Oral Law 2- He who condemns others, sees in them his own faults. - Kidushin 70a
Oral Law 3- Do not rebuke your fellow with your own blemish - Bava Mezia 59a
· New Testament- Give not that which is holy unto the dogs - Matthew 7:6
Oral Law- R. Levi said: "God made Israel swear that they should not reveal the [Messianic] end, and should not reveal the secrets of [of the Torah] to the idolators." - Ketubot. 111a
· New Testament- Do to others what you would have them do to you ... - Matthew 7:12
Oral Law- What is hateful to you, do it not unto others -- this is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. - Shabbat 31a
· New Testament- every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not ... – Matthew 7:26
Oral Law- One who studies Torah but does not do good deeds is likened to one who builds with a foundation of straw, so that even a minor flow of water will destroy it. - Avot 3:17
· New Testament- …brother shall deliver up the brother to death – Matthew 10:21
Oral Law- In the footsteps of the Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour dwindle; the vine will yield its fruit [abundantly] but wine will be dear; the government will turn to heresy and there will be none [to offer them] reproof; the meeting-place [of scholars] will be used for immorality; galilee will be destroyed, gablan desolated, and the dwellers on the frontier will go about [begging] from place to place without anyone to take pity on them; the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking; youths will put old men to shame, the old will stand up in the presence of the young, a son will revile his father, a daughter will rise against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man's enemies will be the members of his household; the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, a son will not feel ashamed before his father. So upon whom is it for us to rely? Upon our father who is in heaven. - Talmud 49b
· New Testament- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. --Matthew 5:7
Oral Law 1- He who is merciful to others, shall receive mercy from Heaven. - Shabbat 151b
Oral Law 2- As God is, so shall you be: As God is merciful, so shall you too, be merciful. - Sifri, Ekev No. 49
· New Testament- Freely you receive, freely give. --Matthew 10:8
Oral Law- Just as I teach gratuituously, so you should teach gratuitously. - Bekoroth 29a
· New Testament- Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. --Matthew 23:12
Oral Law- He who humbles himself for the Torah in this world is magnified in the next; and he who makes himself a servant to the Torah in this world becomes free in the next. - Baba Metzia 85b
· New Testament- Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the beam that is in your own eye? --Matthew 7:3
Oral Law- Do they say, take the splinter out of your eye, he will retort: "Remove the beam out of your own eye." - Baba Bathra 15b
· New Testament- The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. --Matthew 9.37
Oral Law 1- The day is short, and the work is much; and the workmen are indolent, but the reward is much; and the Master of the House is insistent. Avot 2:15
There are so many other parallels which can be listed herein that would demonstrate the facts that Jesus was an observant Jew (observant of Oral Law) and that he was a teacher of all the legislations and rulings of the Sanhedrin (70 Judges) of Israel. The historical person of Jesus is in stark contrast to the Christian Jesus and in concluding this article I would ask my Christian friends to seriously consider the implications of the proper understanding of Jesus. Does your religion accommodate a truly Jewish Jesus? 1 John 2:6 states:
"Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did."
It is obvious that Jesus lived as an observant Jew and the implication of John does not lend credence to the modern Christian movement as satisfying the requirements to "live as Jesus lived." What will you do with this knowledge?