I found an extremely interesting metaphor in N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Getting a handle on the aims and views of Yeshua in relation to his own context of first century Judaism is like “climbing from one moving boat into another” (p. 93).
Judaism in the time of Yeshua is a moving boat for several reasons. Our sources are limited. The Mishnah is later and isolating the strands that represent actual first century views is complicated. The apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic writings are notoriously difficult to judge: whose views do they represent and what time periods do they represent? What of the pictures we get from Josephus and Philo? What of the sectarian documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls? How much of a window do they give us on Judaism in Yeshua’s time?
What sorts of things did common people believe and expect, people like Peter and John and James? How diverse were various groups on basic questions like the end of the age, the nature of God’s kingdom, and so on?
Consider how difficult it is to describe “Judaism” in our age. Even with thousands of books, numerous blogs, journals, lectures, seminaries, media sources, and so on, getting a handle on what Judaism or Jews believe about a certain question is complicated.
Understanding Judaism in Yeshua’s time is a moving boat. Just look at how many books with how many contradictory opinions there are.
By the same token, Yeshua is a moving boat. Many of his teachings, especially parables, are ambiguous enough to allow for widely different readings. True, certain presuppositions about history and Judaism narrow down the range of options, but how narrowly?
Perhaps the widest and shallowest reading of Yeshua is that he came to tell people how to get to heaven. The list of presuppositions behind this for many readers is simple: the teachings of Yeshua are in the Bible; the Bible is simply a book for all Christians; therefore, I should read the words of Yeshua in ways that directly address the concerns of my Christian faith. Wright admirably points out that when Yeshua spoke of the kingdom of heaven, this phrase meant kingdom of God or God’s rule on the earth, not the afterlife. Looking for immediate and direct answers to questions formulated by a religious tradition causes people to ignore the intended meaning of texts. The “how-to-get-to-heaven Jesus” is a subtle distortion of the true prophet and Messiah who lived among us.
Most readers of Messianic Jewish Musings accept as a presupposition that Yeshua came for Israel with a message, something that agreed with parts of the Judaisms surrounding him and parts in tension with the Judaisms surrounding him. No prophet comes to simply affirm that the people have it all right.
In this post, I simply want to consider a few of Yeshua’s statements and how they answer the question, “What sort of Judaism did Yeshua support?” I am sort of thinking out loud here, not submitting a polished theology or historical sketch. I plan to write more on this in part 2 and how these texts give us some clues about the aims of Yeshua and the nature of Judaism in his time.
Yeshua supported a challenge to the status quo in the leadership of his people.
Yeshua visibly opposed the leadership of his time, especially at the Temple. This is the clearest reason why he was killed. The Temple leadership of Yeshua’s time had a small army at their command (the Temple guard), nearly unchecked power, a widespread reputation for corruption, and the ability to call down the imperial power of Rome when there were mutual interests.
In his “cleansing” of the Temple, Yeshua opposed the manner in which the Temple leaders administrated the courtyards (Mark 11:15-18; Matt. 21:12-13; John 2:14-17). Interpretations have varied. A common reading is that Yeshua opposed buying and selling, as a general rule, on sacred ground. Another reading is that he opposed the buying and selling because they hindered people, perhaps specifically non-Jews, from having a fitting place to pray and worship God. Yeshua quoted Isaiah 56, with its ideal of the Temple as a place for non-Jews to worship.
Yeshua supported a Judaism which upheld the prophetic traditions of honoring God, of justice for the people, and rightfully ordained leadership following the Torah’s laws and not political deals with the Romans such as the chief priests and Sadducees made.
Yeshua supported a Judaism that helped people draw nearer to God, not one that made God impossible to approach.
Yeshua railed against the teachers of Torah for creating burdens (Luke 11:46; Matt. 23:4) and not making a halakhah (practice) of Torah that the people could follow.
Yeshua supported the concept of the authority of the priests and Torah teachers in general and told his disciples to do the same (Matt. 23:1-4). This principle is from Torah itself, in which God ordained the appointment of judges to regulate Torah for the people (Deut. 17:8-13). The Torah left most details to the leaders to regulate and only gave general directions.
Yeshua did not believe the regulations the Pharisees were coming up with regulated Torah for the people. There was something about the direction of their halakhah (rulings on practice) that he considered elitist, serving the egos of a group of men desiring to outdo others in sanctity instead of serving the people with a workable life of Torah. An analogy would be a religious denomination that required all people to pray three hours a day, knowing that only the well-to-do and religious professionals can afford such time without neglecting family and themselves.
Yeshua supported a Judaism that was humble and repentant, not one smug and assured.
Repeatedly Yeshua challenged all those who thought they were assured of a good standing with God and encouraged those who longed for God and yet felt far off. Examples are almost too numerous to refer to. Yeshua astounded onlookers by dining with Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and told a parable of a self-justifying Pharisee whose sins were not forgiven and a repentant tax collector whose sins were (Luke 18:9-14). The story was told to oppose “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”
This seems to have been one of Yeshua’s major tensions with some stream(s) of Judaism he saw forming. Of course then, as now, there must have been self-effacing, deferential strands of Jewish life as well. Those who know modern Judaism know that the majority of the tradition is contrite and graceful. As a critic from within, Yeshua opposed presumption of divine favor and disparaging of others before God.
He supported simple repentance, the prayer of the heart. This was not some opposition to the traditions of psalms and liturgy and beautiful prayers versus the alleged superiority of spontaneous or emotive prayer. Nonetheless, one would have to imagine Yeshua approving of a simple “have mercy” by an unlearned pray-er than an elaborate, but unfelt psalm uttered by a scholar. Love for God is not the kind that says, “I deserve a place in your inner council,” but which says, “your love for me astounds me as I see nothing in me to deserve such favor and affection.”
Yeshua supported a Judaism that adhered firmly to Torah and tradition, but which rightly prioritized love for people, justice, and kindness.
In spite of some characterizations of Yeshua as a law-free Messiah, he emphasized the need to adhere even to detailed regulations. He affirmed the decision that herbs from the garden should be tithed on (Matt. 23:23), a regulation not clearly required by a literal reading of Torah.
Yet he thought it obvious and the teachers of Torah scandalous for not understanding a sense of priority in the Torah. There are weighty and lighter matters of Torah. Attention to the light matters while neglecting the weighty ones is a plague of religion in every place and time. The fact is, it is easier to tithe on dill than to care for a neighbor who is ill and needs help. It is easier to say a prayer in the morning than to take part in healing and helping the people in our lives.
Yeshua opposed a Judaism that turned God’s commandments into burdens, especially for the poor.
This is how I take the saying about the Son of Man being Lord of the Sabbath. Yeshua, the Son of Man, declared his authority to give rulings on how the Sabbath laws were to be implemented.
In that story, some teachers of the Torah criticized Yeshua’s disciples for gathering and eating kernels of grain as they traveled through fields (Mark 2: 23-28; Matt. 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5). Yeshua responded with a story about David’s men when they were in dire need of food and how they violated a holiness regulation (bread from the Temple was only for priests to eat in sanctity) to meet a need for life.
The implication, it seems to me, is that Sabbath laws can be construed in very confining ways. It could be illegal to breathe on Shabbat if you regulate work too far. Yeshua advocated Sabbath regulations that did not unduly cause hardship, especially for the poor–such as the disciples wandering the countryside and in need of food.
*****More coming in Part 2*******