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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 25: Study of Jewish Language and Literature"


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Why study Jewish culture, civilization, language, literature? Because all but one of the writers of Scripture were Jews. The exception, St. Luke, shows more Semitic influence, in his Greek, than do the Semites themselves. Further, Jesus and His Apostles were all Semites. Clearly, we can hope to learn much of the physical world and the thought world in which Jesus and the scriptural writers lived from a study of Jewish things.

It is now contrary to fashion to write a life of Christ. Admittedly, we cannot be sure of the chronology of His life, yet such works as the Synopsis of the Gospels by Aland not only put texts of the Gospels in parallel columns, they also try to give a reasonable estimate of the chronological sequence. One could fill that data in and construct a life of Jesus. Such lives used to be plentiful. We suspect that a large reason for their present scarcity is the huge skepticism injected by Bultmann and others who say that there is a great gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Some of these lives in the past, especially that by Edersheim, added a great deal to our knowledge of Jewish customs and Jewish life in general. Further, St. Paul was trained as a rabbi at the feet of the great Rabban Gamaliel.

At least some knowledge of the language is very fruitful. Really it is necessary for solid research. For example, when we read St. Paul, we must constantly ask, What is the Semitic word he has in his mind? Thus when Paul says "justice," he has in mind the broader concept of the Hebrew sedaqah, the virtue that impels one to follow all morality. And when Paul says "know," he usually thinks of Hebrew yada, which means both "know" and "love." When he writes "many," he normally has in mind Hebrew rabbim, "the all who are many."

Much Jewish literature is intertestamental, that is, written between the end of the Old and the start of the New Testament. An especially important portion of Jewish literature-which, in time, spreads beyond the intertestamental period as well-is of the apocalyptic type (see chapter 13). Some scholars consider it, not as a separate genre, but merely as literature that is preoccupied with the end of all history. That description, however, does not fit well with all the actual examples. Some of the more important works of this kind are: the Books of Enoch (the first book is probably second century B.C.; the second, probably late first century A.D.; the third, fifth century A.D.); the Apocalypse of Zephaniah (first century B.C. or A.D.); the fourth book of Ezra (also called Esdras, late first century A.D.). There are also Apocalypses of Sedrach, Baruch, Abraham, Adam, Elijah, and Daniel.

St. Paul, in writing to the Colossians, the Ephesians, and perhaps the Corinthians, is struggling against opponents whom he does not name. Would that he had. They may well be apocalyptic-type speculators, though they could equally well be a type of Gnostic. Especially in Colossians, Paul counters the claims that we must attend, not only to Christ, but to some spirit powers, or aeons, whom his opponents consider good but whom, we soon see, Paul considers to be evil spirits (see Colossians 2:15).

The names Paul gives groups of these spirits (following his opponents) include principalities, powers, dominations, and so on- names that were once thought to belong to nine choirs of angels but that we now know were used by Gnostics or apocalyptic speculators for other spirit powers.

Another example of apocalyptic thought is in fourth Ezra 7:32, which says that before the Judgment, "the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them."1 The same thought is found in many of the Fathers of the Church-that the souls of the just, even when fully purified, must wait somewhere until the Judgment before they receive the Beatific Vision (for example, in St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.31 and in Tertullian, De anima 55). Only martyrs attain the Beatific Vision at once after death.

Again, in Luke 13:23, Jesus is asked point blank, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" We know from apocalyptic that this question was much discussed, as for example, in fourth Ezra 7:45-61. Answers tended to be pessimistic: few are saved. Now Jesus would hardly want to give the real answer. To say few would lead many to despair; to say the majority would promote laxity. Jesus, therefore, cleverly parries the question. "Strive to enter by the narrow door," He says. He seems to mean: Do not say that we have Abraham as our Father, as if that would suffice for salvation. See Luke 3:8 and also Genesis Rabbah 48.7, which says Abraham sits at the gate of hell and will not let any circumcised Jew enter.

We also have quite a bit of testament literature, not as extensive as the apocalyptic but of similar vintage: the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second century B.C.); the Testament of Job (first century B.C. or A.D.); Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (first to third centuries A.D.); Testament of Moses (first century A.D.); Testament of Solomon (first to third centuries A.D.); Testament of Adam (second to fifth centuries A.D.). Some of these are really also apocalyptic in character. There are some clearly Christian passages in the testaments, and also affinities with the Dead Sea Scrolls, so debate still goes on as to whether the testaments are basically Jewish works with Christian interpolations or Christian works employing Jewish sources.2

As we noted in chapter 4, we are very fortunate to have Targums. These are ancient Aramaic translations, plus commentary, on the Old Testament. Some of these were officially recognized by the Jewish authorities: Targum Onkelos on the Pentateuch, and Targum Jonathan on the Prophets. In 1949 a Targum Neofiti was discovered in the Vatican Library. It is part of the Palestinian Targum on the Pentateuch, along with the Jerusalem Targum and the Pseudo-Jonathan.

The dates of the Targums are disputed. A respectable scholarly opinion is that of Samson Levey: "The official Targumim are quite circumspect about adducing Messianic interpretations from the Hebrew text.... We may conjecture that the reason might be that the official Targumim stem from Maccabean times [second century B.C.], when hope for a restoration of the Davidic kingship could constitute treason to the Hasmomean dynasty" (The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, 1974, p. 142). Levey gives us all the Old Testament texts that the Targums see as Messianic. No matter what the date, the Targums do this without the use of hindsight from fulfillment in Christ. The writers, of course, rejected Christ. R. Brown, as we saw in chapter 20, thinks the Old Testament prophecies would be good only with hindsight.

Levey is admirably honest in saying that "Christians tended to base their arguments against Judaism on verses of Scripture, and the Targum-interpretation of those verses was often deliberately designed to exclude the Christian argument" (p. 152, n. 10). This is clearly the case with the Targum on Isaiah 53, which makes the meek lamb into an arrogant conqueror. (See Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, H. J. Schoeps, tr. H. Knight, Westminster, 1961, p. 129. Schoeps makes the same admission.) Yet Levey gives many Targums that help one to understand prophecies about Christ.

During about a ten-year period starting in 1947, Bedouins found scrolls and fragments of some six hundred manuscripts in eleven caves on the west side of the Dead Sea, about ten miles south of Jericho, near a cite called Qumran. A sectarian community lived there, seemingly from around 135 B.C. to about 31 B.C., and again from about 1 A.D. to 68 A.D. Most likely these people were one of three sects of Jews described by Josephus as Essenes (Antiquities 13.5.9 n. 171). (The other two sects were the more familiar Pharisees and Sadducees.)

The Essenes seem to have fled there in a revolt against Syrian dominance that began under the Maccabees in 167 B.C. But the Essenes disapproved of the Maccabees taking over the high priesthood, and considered Jerusalem profaned. The settlement was interrupted from 31 to 1 B.C., perhaps owing to an earthquake, plus suspicions by Herod. The settlement was finally destroyed by Roman armies in 68 A.D. in the First Jewish War.

At first, grossly exaggerated and distorted reports made it seem that these discoveries would almost destroy Christianity, showing it to be largely a copy of Essenism. No scholar now believes such things. But we have gained much from these finds. Some Targums have been found there. The most important among them is a Targum on Job from Cave 11, probably written in the second century B.C. Still more important, at least parts of nearly all books of the Old Testament have been found at Qumran. Some of these copies are a thousand years older than the best copies we used to have. But this does not mean they are superior.

From the Dead Sea Scrolls we learned that the text of the Hebrew Old Testament was not yet standardized at that time. It existed in more than one form. Standardization came in the second century. Some texts from Qumran agree with the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament that we used to think was rather loose but now see is apt to be precise, in a different version.

We also learned from the Qumran scrolls that some deuterocanonical books-books not in general accepted by ancient Hebrews- which we had before largely in Greek were found in Aramaic (Tobit, for example) or Hebrew (Sirach, for example) at Qumran. We also have from Qumran manuscripts of some well-known apocryphal books, such as Enoch, Jubilees and some of the testaments of the patriarchs. We used to have them, in some cases, only in Ethiopic translated from a Greek translation. Now we have some in the original Aramaic or Hebrew.

Finally, Qumran has yielded some documents written by the Essenes themselves-their rule of life, their visions of God's plans, and their commentaries on some of the Old Testament prophets. These commentaries are of the type called pesher. The Essenes updated, for example, Habakkuk, to apply to their own times.

It is especially interesting to notice that the Essenes strongly emphasized the coming of the Messiah and the need for reform. We know that the Essenes stressed celibacy. This shows that celibacy was perceived as a value. It also removes an objection to Mary's resolve of virginity.

Finally we come to the works of the rabbis, recalling, as we said, that St. Paul was trained as a rabbi. His teacher was the great Rabban Gamaliel I. (Rabban, a very special title, was not given to all rabbis.) Gamaliel was so great that a maxim of the rabbis says, "When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died" (Sotah 9.15). He intervened on behalf of the Christians in Acts 5:34 ff. Gamaliel followed the school of Hillel (from a few decades earlier), which was in general less severe in its interpretations than the school of Shammai. The written law had 613 precepts, but the oral law had many more. The Pharisees considered both of equal authority, in fact: "It is a worse thing to go against the words of the Scribes than the words of the [written] law" (Sanhedrin 11.3). We can see the problem when Jesus clashed with these interpretations, though not with the law itself.

The content of the Law was in two categories: halakah, norms for living; and haggadah, which was mainly historical and largely narrative. The rabbis would deduce many rules for living from the law, using seven rules of interpretation (hermeneutic) attributed to Hillel, later expanded to thirteen by Rabbi Ishmael. These rules were for the halakah; there were other rules for the haggadah.

At first, all this was transmitted by memory (an echo comes in Sirach 39:1-3). This oral transmission lasted until more than a century after the time of Paul; but near the end of the second century A.D., there was a written collection that won official approval. This collection, called the Mishnah ("repetition"), was made by Rabbi Judah na-Nasi (also called Judah the Holy). It contained the decisions up to that time by rabbis who were called the Tannaim. Later, further commentary was,added from the rabbis called the Amoraim, whose writings cover the period from 200 A.D. to about 500 A.D. This commentary was called the Gemara. The Talmud is formed from the Mishnah (not including tractates, however), and the Gemara (not provided for all tractates). There are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Palestinian.

The Mishnah gives decisions that are, for the most part, not explicitly related to Scripture. Hence, in the period of the Tannaim, other interpretations based more directly on Scripture, were made. These are called Halakic Midrashim. Halakah pertains to legal matters. Midrash basically is an investigation of a text to discover its hidden meanings and apply them to new situations. Not all define midrash in the same way. (Compare Hebrew darash, "to seek or to examine.") Especially important are the commentary on the legal section of the Exodus (the Mekilta); the Sifra, on Leviticus; and the Sifre, on Numbers and Deuteronomy. The older midrashim-both halakic and nonhalakic-were handed down and developed more, and come down to us in such collections as the Midrash Rabbah and other midrashim of homiletic nature.

The Mishnah is divided into six main orders, each of which is subdivided into treatises, making a total of sixty-three treatises.

A doctor of the law would solve cases, in a casuistic way, using decisions thus collected from the most authoritative rabbis, and he would add his own.

Some matter is not just casuistic but almost scrupulous. A whole treatise in the Mishnah is called Bezah (egg). Here was one problem: Suppose a hen lays an egg on a festival day following the Sabbath. May one eat the egg The school of Shammai said one might eat it; the school of Hillel said no. One should not profit by illegal work done by the hen (1:1). Again, suppose a cripple has a wooden leg. Rabbi Meir said he may go out with it on the Sabbath; Rabbi Jose said no (Shabbath 6.1.8). Paul would have learned such legal decisions in great numbers.

However, there is another side to Jewish piety, which is warm, shows an appreciation of the Fatherhood and the love of God. (On this aspect, see Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Christ, J. Bonsirven, tr. W. Wolf, McGraw-Hill, N.Y., 1965; and Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud, Solomon Schechter, Schocken, N.Y., 1969.)

Besides the Mishnah, there is another, still larger, collection, called the Tosefta. It consists of additions to the Mishnah. In its present form, it was probably not edited until the fourth century. But the matter on the whole is much older and really forms a sort of supplement to the Mishnah.

In order to use these rabbinic materials as a help in understanding the New Testament, we must first ask about the dates of the material. Some of the material is easily dated, for instance, when the name of the rabbi who made the decision is given. Sometimes we have this form: "Rabbi X said in the name of Rabbi Y." But there are many other sayings, both halakah and haggadah, without any rabbi's name attached. It is likely that most of the anonymous material of the halakic type comes from the period 133-200 A.D. (between Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi). This, of course, helps. But there is a further problem.

Most of the tradition was formulated and written down after 70 A.D., the date of the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that the legal matter has been mediated through one man, Johanan ben Zakkai, who belonged to the school of Hillel. So much of the legal tradition of the opposite school, that of Shammai, has been lost. The same is probably true of the nonlegal tradition. Until shortly before the Jewish War of 66-70, the school of Shammai was the more influential, yet its thoughts are lost to us. Further, some of what we do have is likely to be from non-Pharasiaic sources.

Even so, given the tenacity of the Jews about their traditions, many scholars think we can assume that ideas found, let us say, a century after St. Paul were current also in his day.

There are cases, of course, in which we can trace an idea both before and after 70 A. D. A specially important example is the concept of sin as a debt. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar (late second century) wrote in Tosefta, Kiddushin 1.14 (cited from Bonsirven, p. 111): "Happy is the man who has practiced a commandment, for he has tipped the balance toward the side of merit, both for himself and the whole world. But woe to the man who has committed a transgression, for he has tipped the balance to the side of debt (hobah), both for himself and the world." Notice both the debt concept and solidarity.

Much the same thought is found in Rabbi Akiba (50-135 A.D.), in Pirke Aboth 3.20. Akiba speaks of the divine shopman giving credit and then sending around the collectors to exact payment. The concept of sin as debt was also common in the time of Christ. S. Lyonnet speaks of "the notion widespread in the Aramaic milieu of primitive Christianity: sin considered as a debt" (Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice, Biblical Institute Press, 1970, p. 32). For example, the Targums may use Aramaic hobah, "debt," for sin. The Greek word aphienai is common in the Synoptic Gospels to mean "forgive," but the connotation is that of canceling a debt. In the Our Father (Matthew 6:12), we find Greek opheilemata, "debts," for sins.

St. Paul, in Colossians 2: 14, speaks of Christ as having, by His death, "canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands." Farther back, it is at least highly probably that the Hebrew concept of bisheggagah, involuntary sin-that is, transgression of a law of God done unwittingly-reflects God's holiness and concern for the moral order that debts be paid even when personal guilt is absent (compare Leviticus 4:27; Genesis 12:17; Luke 12:47-48; I Corinthians 4:4).

The purpose here has been to provide a concrete example of how this work can be done to ensure, in a particular case, that a later rabbinic text reflects the thought world of the New Testament. In particular, we think of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church ...."

Now of course, Christ, the individual, lacked no suffering. But the whole Christ, of which Christians are the members, may be lacking (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Colossians 1:18). One member may fail to do his part in rebalancing the scales of which Rabbi Simeon teen Eleazar spoke. But another member can make up for this failure-and Paul feels it part of his duty to do so. This same concept of the objective order is strongly present in the doctrinal introduction to Pope Paul VI's Indulgentiarum Doctrina.

The tendency is widespread today to water down the sense of Colossians 1:24, to say that as a matter of fact Paul had to suffer much in preaching the Gospel. Of course he did. But the richer meaning comes out when we set his words against the background of the thought world of Judaism in his time.


1 Cited from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 538.
2 For all of these, and for many more nonscriptural Jewish works, we are fortunate to have the solidly scholarly two-volume work edited by Charlesworth, cited above.

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