With the Jewish reclamation of the person of Jesus, and with a move in the church to understand its Jewish roots, a question lingers in the mind of many believers. It is, “Is the study of Rabbinic literature of any value to the church?” As an Israeli Messianic rabbi, I can offer some reflections which may help answer this question. First off, it is a good question to ask, and I welcome it as a positive step in discovering the church’s connection to its Jewish roots. I believe that to understand Jesus’ message in its full power and wonder, it should be understood close to its original context. The church has traditionally seen its roots in Hellenist thought, and has distanced itself historically from the people and world in which Jesus lived. By adopting Greek philosophy and a more Hellenist worldview as its roots, the early church fathers took an illogical and unfortunate step. Thus, to be familiar with the beliefs and customs of first century Judaism is essential for a fuller understanding of the New Testament.
One of our most important and plentiful primary sources of Jewish life during the New Testament times is rabbinic literature. There certainly can be different uses for rabbinic texts. That is, clerics and serious scholars (or interested Bible students) should have a well-rounded education in rabbinic literature. Other church members may be more interested in familiarizing themselves with specific sections of specific texts, which deal with New Testament background issues.
Let us look at two examples of how a knowledge of rabbinic literature sheds light on New Testament passages.
In Matthew 17:1-13, we have the Transfiguration narrative. In it, Peter makes a seemingly odd statement in saying, “… it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (v.4, NIV) Various biblical commentators have attempted to derive meaning out of Peter’s words here. However, with a knowledge of rabbinic literature on the coming of the Messianic era, one would know that it was believed by some first century Jews that the Messiah would come in and usher in the Messanic era during the Feast of Booths (Succot). Thus, this being what Peter expected, what he said was totally logical, and a faith-filled statement of his belief in Jesus’ Messiahship. He was willing to make Succot booths for the three men, the Messianic era could be ushered in, and thus they would start the era by celebrating the Feast of Booths. Rabbinic interpretation of Zechariah 14:6-20 serves as our guide for understanding Peter’s statement.
Luke 12:31-32 reads, “… some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to Him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill You.’ He replied, ‘Go tell that fox, I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” (N IV) Most attempts at explaining why Jesus Galled Herod Antipas a fox focus on alleged slyness of Herod. However, equating slyness with a fox as a characteristic is from Grecian and modern mindset. A study of the use of the epithet “fox” in rabbinic literature uncovers an entirely different meaning: that of “a nobody, an insignificant buffoon, a worthless demagogue, a puffed up braggard.” In modern slang, a “zero”. Now we can see that Jesus was really not calling Antipas “sly”, but a worthless braggard. (Credit for my understanding on rabbinic literature’s depiction of a fox goes to Randall Buth of the Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research.) This is a much more powerful picture of Jesus’ assessment of Herod, and the comparison which follows takes on even greater meaning, as we now see Jesus saying that Herod Antipas had really insignificant power compared with the power He has to heal, deliver and defeat death (“reach His goal” following verse 32).
Again, in this example, rabbinic literature serves as our source of understanding the term used by Jesus. Subjects such as Messiology and prayer were developed by rabbinic literature. Reading rabbinic texts to glean relevant points in these areas can certainly be profitable for the believer, as it can familiarize one with concepts common in the New Testament. Thus, I am advocating the study of rabbinic texts to help illuminate the belief system of the first century BCE-CE Israeli Jewish world.
As the Jewish Talmudic scholar Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University has pointed out, rabbinic literature, and the Talmud in particular, is by far our best source for understanding the structure, priestly function, sacrificial methods and festival ceremonies of the Second Temple. Since Jesus lived in this world, since He carried out His teachings at the Temple, and since He sacrificed and attended festival Ceremonies there, it is worthwhile to be familiar with the Talmud’s description of these areas. Talmudic tractates such as Midot, Tamid, Yoma, Sheqalim, Sukkah and Pesahim are Valuable sources for understanding the life cycle which Jews lived by in Jesus’ time. As Rabbi Safrai has noted, “Talmudic information does provide essential background for the right understanding of New Testament passages relating to the Temple.” (Shmuel Safrai, “Talmudic Literature as an Historical Source for the Second Temple Period,” p.132, Mishkan, vol.12.) I have taught my students much on the subject of the Pharisee-Sadducee conflicts from rabbinic literature, especially from the Talmud. Such a teaching makes a nice tapestry (a logical historical picture) when combined with New Testament passages on the same subject. In my PhD thesis, which explored the manner in which Jesus kept the commandments of the Torah, I found much illumination from rabbinic literature. Without the use of rabbinic literature, I would have been greatly confined in my research, and no doubt could not have reached what I would consider historically accurate conclusions on significant points. Thus, for the interested scholar or Bible student, rabbinic literature can be a rich illuminating source in a good number of studies.
I recommend the following rabbinic texts for purposes of New Testament background understanding. Of course, it is best to study such texts in a classroom situation, ie. with a qualified teacher who can bring out New Testament parallels.
|Possible Background Purpose
|understanding justice and court systems of Second Temple period
|understanding purity ideas (Pharisaic) of Second Temple period
|understanding laws and customs of Feast of Booths (Pharisaic)
|understanding Yom Kippur rituals of Second Temple period
|Dead Sea Scrolls
|understanding Dead Sead Sect views on purity, serving G-d, Messiah, community; familiarity with recipients of book of Hebrews (following Juster, Fischer, Friedman)
|understanding rabbinic worldview of Jesus’ time
|Book of Maccabees
|history of Israel 150-100 years before Jesus, start of Hannukah holiday (1st – 4th books)
|understanding Temple structure understanding
|2nd Temple daily ritual understanding
|2nd Temple taxation system
The Book of Maccabees and the Dead Sea Scrolls are readily available in translation. The Mishnah tractates above are also available in translation: Soncino Talmud, ed. Freedman; or Ehrman edition, MP Press).
The above constitutes a start for general background purposes, and is especially recommended for clerics.
In addition, reading rabbinic literature can serve to heighten the appreciation of the church for the efforts that Jewish people have made throughout history to protect, preserve, spread and interpret the Scriptures. Certainly studying the Book of Maccabees can contribute to this end. In its own small way, rabbinic literature can, in the right hands, help in the battle against anti-Semitism. The church can then drop its ages-long fear of rabbinic literature and, instead of helping to burn and destroy such literature, can be appreciative of such literature’s positive qualities. Of course, in order to attain this end, the active participation of Christian clergy, and teaching to their congregants, is needed. As a last note, Messianic Jewish authors, whom I have recently read, have expressed certain fears of misuse of rabbinic literature. In order to prevent a misunderstanding of my points above, I will say the following: First, I do not believe that rabbinic literature should be consulted as a primary tool for sharing faith in Jesus. As a supporting text, in some discussions, I have seen rabbinic literature successfully used in such a way that it is consistent with the rabbinic text itself. However, agreeing with my colleagues, it is best used for other purposes. Secondly, agreeing with my colleagues, I believe that we should prayerfully study rabbinic literature and that our use of it should be consistent with our desire to love G-d with our whole heart, and give glory to the Messiah Yeshua. Lastly, however, let us not fear to study rabbinic literature. To renege on this due to fear is to repeat the mistake of the historic church, and to deprive ourselves of a great tool for New Testament era historical enlightenment.
(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 2 No 2, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture, Winter 1993/1994)