One of the most important aspects of Jesus’ ministry is that He lived a full human life on earth.
As such, He existed in an historical context – He was a Jew who spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and lived in the Land of Israel in the first century. He received a Jewish education and traveled among the common people, teaching them from the Jewish Scriptures and utilizing many of the same teaching methods used by other rabbis.
There are many parallels between Jesus and the rabbis of His day. For instance, although Christians often associate parables exclusively with Jesus, rabbinic literature reveals that this form of expression was well established as an instructional tool among Israel’s first-century rabbis. The fact that Jesus also used parables is evidence that he was a characteristic rabbi functioning in a rabbinic world.
The following paper, which is a reprint of three articles from Jerusalem Perspective, shows how an examination of rabbinic literature can enhance our understanding of the sayings of Jesus.
The “Harvest” in Jesus’ and Rabbinic Teaching
“The (work of) harvesting is great and the workers are few. Ask the owner of the harvest to bring (more) workers for the work of the harvesting.” (Matthew 9:37-38)
This saying of Jesus is echoed by a passage from a well known collection of rabbinic sayings, Pirke Avot, also known as the “Sayings of the Fathers”. Avot 2:15 reads: “The day is short and the work is great, but the workers are lazy; however, the wages are high since the owner is in a hurry.”
The fact that one can find parallels between the sayings of Jesus and the sayings of the rabbis does not necessarily mean that they borrowed directly from each other.
There probably was a general pool of motifs, words and expressions from which the ancient teachers of Israel chose. Common motifs and phraseology in parallel rabbinic literary contexts throw light on Jesus’ sayings and vice versa. Note that while katzar, (short) never appears in Jesus’ saying, katzir, (harvest) appears three times. katzir has the same root as katzar and, except for one vowel, the same sound.
The word katzir is not mentioned in the rabbinic saying, although it is probably implied; melaka (work) is its replacement. The rabbinic saying speaks of baal habayit (the master of the house), while Jesus refers to baal hakatzir (the master of the harvest). Both terms refer to God.
“Workers” are mentioned in both sayings, as is “great” or “much” which appears once in Jesus’ saying and twice in the rabbinic passage. In Avot, it is the work and the pay which are “much”. In Jesus’ saying, it is the harvesting. In each saying, difficulty is caused by the workers: Jesus says they are too few, while in Avot they are too lazy.
There is a basic similarity between the two sayings: both teach spiritual truths by the analogy to the owner who needs labourers to complete his work quickly. Jesus’ saying deals with harvesting, and although the rabbinic saying does not use the word katzir, its reference to the owner’s urgency may suggest a harvest scene.
Each of the above sayings is more understandable when compared with the other. The rabbinic saying in Avot contributes to Jesus’ saying the added dimensions of the urgency of the task and the shortness of the time.
Jesus’ efforts were directed toward bringing more and more people under God’s reign – or in the rabbinic parlance He often used, getting them into the “Kingdom of Heaven”.
That is what he is referring to in this saying. Although he uses different words, Jesus stresses the same point as the saying in Avot: the work of the Kingdom of Heaven is all-important but difficult, and God is interested in the urgent completion of the work.
Rabbinic Interpretation of kal-ve-homer
Throughout the history of Judaism, the Torah has been investigated and analysed by means of various rules of interpretation. These hermeneutic (interpretative) principles are simply statements of deductive reasoning.
Hillel, a contemporary of Herod the Great, compiled a list of seven such rules. We will focus upon the first in the list, kal-ve-homer, simple and complex. This is a logical deduction that can be drawn from a simple truth about a less obvious situation, or from something known about something unknown. For example, “Silence becomes a scholar; how much more a fool” (Tosefta Pesabim 9:2). Notice the key phrase “how much more”, which appears in most examples of rabbinic simple-to-complex reasoning.
In the Mishnah
The tractate Yevamot in the Mishnah preserves a halakhah or rabbinic legal ruling inferred from Deuteronomy 23:3 and 23:7 by means of this principle:-
“No Ammonite or Moabite may be admitted into the congregation of the LORD, and this is a permanent prohibition. Ammonite and Moabite women, however, may immediately be admitted (after conversion). Egyptians and Edomites are prohibited only until the third generation, regardless of whether they may be males or females. Rabbi Shimon said, ‘This is deduced by the kal-ve-homer principle. If, where Scripture permanently prohibited the males it permitted the females immediately, how much more should the females be permitted immediately where Scripture prohibited the males only until the third generation?”‘ (Yevamot 8:3)
Two further examples from the Mishnah illustrate this type of reasoning in non-legal contexts:-
“If, speaking of a ‘light’ commandment which deals with something that is worth only an issar, the Torah said, ‘in order that you may prosper and have long life’, how much more for ‘heavier’ commandments in the Torah?” (Hullin 12:5).
Once again the phrase “how much more” signals the use of simple-to-complex reasoning, used here to urge the observance of all the commandments, whether they are major or relatively insignificant The specific commandment referred to, found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7, commands that a mother bird be released when caught with her young. At that time a bird was valued at one issar; about one twentyfourth of a day’s wage.
In the following passage, simple-to-complex reasoning is used to teach something about the nature of God:-
Rabbi Meir said, “While the man is in agony, what does the Tongue [a name for God] say? ‘My head is hurting! My arm is hurting!’ If the Scripture has thus spoken: ‘I agonise over the blood of the wicked’, how much more over the blood of the righteous that is shed?” (Sanhedrin 6:5).
This passage refers to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which speaks of a criminal who is being put to death. Rabbi Meir expounds the Hebrew words kilelat elohim as “a painful thing of God”, rather than “a curse of God”, and the inference therefore is that when even a criminal is enduring pain, God says “I am in pain”.
In Jesus’ Teachings
The use of simple-to-complex reasoning is proportionately as frequent in the teaching of Jesus as it is in the teaching of other rabbis. The Mishnah is approximately six times the size of the Gospels, and it has exactly six times as many occurrences of this hermeneutic principle; eighteen in the Mishnah to three in the teachings of Jesus.
“If .. how much more”
The key phrase “if… how much more” generally appears in rabbinic simple-to-complex reasoning. We find this phrase at the heart of the following teaching in which Jesus speaks of God’s great care for His children:-
“Which of you would give his son a stone if he asked for bread, or a snake if he asked for a fish? If you, then, who are bad, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more your father in heaven will give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:~1 1).
There is another passage in which Jesus employed simple-to-complex logic to prove God’s reliable care for His children. Worrying about the concerns of everyday life, Jesus warned, is distrust of God and an affront to a heavenly Father who is unfailing in providing for His children:-
“Look at how the wild flowers grow. They don’t toil or spin. I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not dressed like one of these. If thus God clothes grass in the fields, which is here today and tomorrow is used to stoke an oven, how much more can He be expected to clothe you, O men of little faith.” (Matthew 6:28-30)
A third example of Jesus’ use of simple-to-complex reasoning comes from Matthew 10:24-25, and is so Hebraic that in translating it from Greek to Hebrew, the syntax need not be altered except in the case of one word. A literal translation of the Greek will help illustrate how non-Greek and non-English are these words of Jesus:-
“Not is a pupil above the teacher, and not a slave above the master of him, [It is enough for the pupil that he be like the teacher of him, and the slave like the master of him. If the baal habayit baal zevul they have called, how much more the sons of the house of his.”
The reference to baal habayit and baal zevul is an example of Hebrew wordplay. Baal habayit (master of the house) is a term often used by the rabbis to refer to God; baal zevul means ‘Beelzebul’ and refers to Satan. In idiomatic English the passage would be expressed as follows:
A pupil is no better than his teacher, nor a slave better than his master. What is good enough for the teacher is good enough for the pupil, and a slave should not expect to receive better treatment than his master. If the householder has been called ‘1Satan”, it is only natural that the members of his household will be called the same.
The Green Tree
There is a fourth passage in which Jesus used simple-to-complex reasoning, al though the key phrase “how much more” does not actually appear in it:-
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children. For a time is coming when the cry will be ‘How fortunate are the women who are childless, the wombs that have never borne and the breasts that have never nursed!’ Then they will call to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills ‘Fall on us!’ If this is done to the ‘Green Tree’, what will happen to the ‘dry trees’?” (Luke 23:28-31).
Not only did Jesus make use of the kal-ve-homer principle of interpretation in this passage, he also used the rabbinic teaching technique of Scripture allusion. The expression “Cover us, fall on us!” is from Hosea 10:8, and points toward the events of Jerusalem’s destruction. The “Green Tree”, taken from Ezekial 20:47, similarly hints at the impending catastrophe, but beyond that at Jesus’ role as Messiah.
The people who heard Jesus say these words as he was going to his crucifixion certainly understood that His reference to Himself as the “Green Tree” was a bold messianic claim It also was a warning, for Jesus was telling the people “If this terrible thing can happen to me, how much more to you.”
As in the preceding example, Jesus contrasted Himself to others: if he is called “Satan”, his disciples will certainly be called “Satan”; if he is crucified, those who are weeping for him can only expect the same fate or worse.
It is worth noting that another rabbi made a similar statement some 150 years prior to Jesus, also while on his way to be crucified. Yose ben Yoezer, one of the earliest rabbis known in rabbinic literature, was not only a great scholar but also was referred to as the “most pious in the priesthood” (Haggigah 2:7). The statement he made while carrying his cross to the place of execution is structurally identical to that of Jesus, and it explicitly contains the key words of the kal-ve-homer formula:-
“If it is thus for those who do His will how much more for those that anger Him” (Midrash Psalms 11:7).
(Reprinted from Jerusalem Perspective, October 1987, May 1988 and June 1988, with permission, and published in Tishrei Vol 1 No 1, Ways of Thinking, Autumn 1992. The Journal Tishrei was launched in 1992 to highlight the need for the Church to return to its Jewish roots)