Rabbi Yeshua Part 2
In this second study on Rabbi Yeshua, we look at how He followed the teaching methods of the rabbis of His day. Now, Yeshua is not just being polite and politically correct by adopting the teaching methods of the time. He is following the methods that the Godhood would have guided into being, in other words, Yeshua was using God ordained teaching methods.
Yeshua taught sitting
A simple example to show that Yeshua followed the traditions of rabbis of His day is their custom of being seated whilst teaching: “And a large crowd gathered to Him (Yeshua), so he got into a boat and sat down (Mark 4:1).”
In the West, it is customary for our teachers to be standing – this is seen in the painting below which depicts the scene described by Mark 4:1. Yeshua is teaching, and so He is painted standing.
Another example is given in Luke 4:16-21: Yeshua is in the synagogue of His home town Nazareth on the Sabbath. He is chosen by the assembly to read the scriptures, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Isaiah 61:1-2a).
Yeshua read standing, and then sat down – to the Western mind Yeshua has completed His duty. To the Hebrew mind, He has adopted the posture for serious teaching. The eyes of all of those attending that morning were fixed on Him. It is a momentous occasion, He brings the good news to his own people saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Yeshua used hyperbole
I once heard a legalistic Christian mother rebuke her son for using hyperbole, telling him that it was the same as lying. If she had read the Gospels more carefully, she would have understood that Yeshua regularly used hyperbole, as it is a very effective tool when emphasising a point that needs to be highlighted.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24b).
Yeshua takes the largest of the animals in the Middle East, and describes it being threaded through the smallest of the common household items. The use of familiar images by Yeshua allows the individual to picture the impossibility of the task, but still understand nothing is impossible for God. Hyperbole was an effective teaching tool of the Jewish rabbis in driving home a truth to their disciples, and Yeshua followed their traditional teaching methods.
There is a much-repeated explanation given in Western churches to explain the message given by Yeshua, that there was a small gate leading into the city of Jerusalem called “the Eye of the Needle”. The explanation goes, that at night when the city gates were closed travellers could still enter the city by the Eye of the Needle gate. However, this took some time, as the gate was so small the camels would have to have the baggage from their backs removed, before they could pass through, (I have even heard a version where the camels had to pass through the gate on their knees). The message is given as a comparison – just as travellers needs to shed themselves of their belongings to enter Jerusalem, so too, must the rich individual change his focus from a quest for wealth, to a seeking after eternal life, and treasures in heaven.
Christ Church near Jaffa gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, has a room with models of Jerusalem at different stages in its history, from the City of David, to the time of the Herod’s Temple. Not one of their many models has a small night gate. At no stage in the history of Jerusalem, has there been any record of a night gate called “The Eye of the Needle”. Also, the many archaeological excavations done on the successive walls of the city, have yielded no trace of a small gate. The narrative is given in order for the Western mind to understand the message given by Yeshua, and ignores the cultural method of teaching by rabbis.
Yeshua also used hyperbole to expose the extent of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. During His “Seven Woes” rebuke of the Pharisees Yeshua says: “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24). Yeshua condemns the Pharisees for their great care to tithe all they earned, even measuring out their spices (mint, dill, and cumin) for that purpose. Yet their goals were status, authority, power and wealth – often at the expense of the people they were required to serve. Yeshua was exposing the hypocrisy of their religious exterior, compared to their selfish motives.
As a school teacher, I often observed teenagers pointing out flaws in others, and then ridiculing them, while totally ignoring their own flaws. This is a common human trait, and Jesus deals with the hypocrisy of it in Matthew 7:4, using hyperbole:
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?”
Yeshua’s message is that to see more clearly a person must first deal with their own faults and flaws. Then to further emphasize the importance of forgiveness, Yeshua goes on to uses hyperbole in the parable of “The Unforgiving Servant”:
“A man who owed ten thousand talents (billions of Rands) was brought to him (the king)” (Matthew 18:24).
To understand the use of this hyperbole by Yeshua, we need to answer the question – How much is a talent of gold?
- A Roman talent was 32.3 kg of gold.
- 1 denarius was equal to a day’s wages.
- 1 talent = 60 000 denarii, which was the equivalent of 20 years’ pay.
- In Homers Iliad Achilles gave a half-talent of gold to Antiochus as a prize. It was a large amount of money.
How much is 10 000 talents?
6 000 denarii in 1 talent X 10 000 = 60 000 000 denarii.
20 years’ pay X 10 000 talents = 188 679 years’ pay.
In the parable of The Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:21-35), the servant whose lord forgave him much, 10 000 talents (about 188 679 years pay), was then unwilling to forgive another servant who owed him a mere hundred denarii (about 4 months’ pay). The message is that the person who is forgiven much, should in turn be forgiving. Yeshua, using hyperbole, emphasizes the extent of our sins and how much we have been forgiven. We can in no way repay such a debt, so the parable enforces the depth of the grace of God, and thus emphasize the need for us to be gracious and forgiving of others.
Understanding the use of hyperbole in the gospels, helps us to interpret the difficult sayings of Yeshua:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
Clearly this was not meant literally, as the declaration is against the fifth commandment; hating in this statement is comparative; our love for Jesus should make our love for parents look like hate by comparison.
There are a large number of Christians who have been seduced by humanism and worldly values. In stressing the importance for Christians to be eternally minded, I have used hyperbole – as in the tradition of the Jews – saying, “God does not care about this life, He cares about the next.” The message hits home, it is initially shocking, but the realisation is that God cares so much about our eternal destiny, that He will put people through harsh trials and testing, to mould them into vessels of honour.
Answering a Question with a Question
Answering a student’s questions with further leading questions is sometimes dubbed “the Socratic method,” but the method was also a teaching technique of post exilic rabbis. In modern English the method is referred to as maieutics. It is an excellent way of drawing information out of people and making them think for themselves. The technique forced the talmidim (student) to clarify their thoughts and come to the answer of their own question; the individual learns that they can find the answer through careful reasoning.
Another example is one we covered in the last study using Luke 10:25-28, where visiting rabbis were often questioned to ascertain their wisdom. An expert in the law stood up to test Yeshua, “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Yeshua then, as a good rabbi would do, answers with a question, “what is written in the Law?’… How do you read it?” The man then answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Yeshua replied. ‘Do this and you will live’.”
The habit of answering a question with a question is still very much a part of the Jewish culture today, especially in the Yiddish community. A Gentile once asked a Jew why Jews always answer a question with another question, the Jew answered, “why not”?
Dwight Pryor, gives an excellent example from the Sermon on the Mount, of how Hebrew idioms are taken out of their Hebrew context and interpreted with a cultural bias:
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).
Hindus and New Agers, look at Jesus as a god man, a guru who had found enlightenment. They relate Matthew 6:22 to the master teaching his disciples meditation, using the third eye to see within the self, for did not Jesus say “the kingdom is within you?” Pryor reveals how The Message Bible translates the verse from a distinctly western culture: “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”
The lesson Yeshua is giving to the crowd gathered is one He repeats throughout the Gospels. A “good eye” is generosity (Prov. 22:9, NKJV), an “evil eye” is stinginess (Prov. 23:6 NKJV [foot note]). So, Yeshua is admonishing His listeners to serve God not money. A giving person will be “full of light,” a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and have the confidence to “cast (their) bread upon the water “(Ecclesiastes 11:1). The “bad eye” would be the stingy rich man in the parable, who builds barns to store his wealth, but dies before he can spend it. Yeshua is encouraging all to store up treasures in heaven, rather than wealth on earth.
A note of interest: Storage barns were uncovered in the excavation of Herod’s port city Caesarea, they were made of stone, not wood as depicted in European illustrations.
A rule of thumb in interpreting idioms and symbolism in scripture, is to find where they are first used in scripture and interpret them from that context.
- People often use the expression, “the apple of his eye” to imply being cherished without any real idea what it means. In Hebrew, the pupil of you eye is known as the apple your eye; it is a pictorial idiom. The usage refers to the pupil of the eye as the most treasured and protected part of the body. Your eyelid comes down at lightning speed at the first sign of a threat to your pupil.
- The concept of “binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19),” are halachaic terms meaning permitting or prohibiting. The disciples are being given authority to interpret scripture for the Church. The belief by Pentecostals that this verse empowers the believer to bind and loose demonic powers is therefore incorrect. If believers could bind the works of Satan, the world would be a utopia. Acts 15 records that the Apostles met for the council of Jerusalem, where Gentiles were loosed from the requirement of circumcision and adherence to most dietary laws. Gentiles were however, bound to “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29).
Jews at the time of Jesus had to study the Tanakh from the age of 5 to 9 (Pirkei Avot 5:21), and then study Jewish commentary on law to the age of 12. So, the Jews knew their scriptures well enough to be able to pick up a quote and place it in the passage from which it was taken; without needing chapter and verse, as we do. They carried the Word of God in their hearts, something that is sadly lacking in believers today. Teaching of the Word should be the most important church activity, yet it continually falls foul to numerous other church activities deemed to be more important.
This ability to make Kesher connections (linking or hooking together biblical texts) explains why Yeshua’s audience often reacted so strongly to statements made by Him. For example, in John 8:58, Yeshua says: “’I tell you the truth,’ Yeshua answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ At this, they picked up stones to stone him.” The Jews were well aware that Yeshua was speaking Kesher, and therefore making the statement that He was Yahweh, the “Great I am” that spoke to Moses from the burning bush.
Dwight Prior points out that even God spoke in Kesher! In Luke 9:35 God’s declaration at the transfiguration is a “Kesher” connection to Yeshua, one to each of the three divisions of the Tanakh:
“And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’”
Torah: Deuteronomy 18:15, “Listen to Him”
Nevi’im: Isaiah 42:1 “My chosen one”
Ketuvim: Psalm 2:7 “This is my son”
Yeshua continually makes “Kesher” connections between His teachings and the Hebrew scriptures. An example is the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke:
“Jesus said to him, ’Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’” (Luke 19:9).
Firstly, there is a very clever play on words – Yeshua (saviour) “has come to this house”. Then there are two clear Kesher connections:
- “Son of man” Daniel 7:13-14. Zacchaeus is restored as a true son of Abraham, by the “Son of Man” the Messiah.
- In Ezekiel 34:11-24 God rebukes the Shepherds of Israel, and promises to send His servant David to rescue the lost sheep of Israel.
“Yeshua in His rabbinic way of speaking is saying: ‘I am the Son of Man that Daniel saw, the Messiah. And in fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, I have come, and I – the Son of David – am seeking and saving the Lost sheep of Israel, like the tax collector Zacchaeus. I promised Ezekiel that I would come, and here I am. Today the lost sheep Zacchaeus has become a true child of the covenant, a son of Abraham’.” (D.A. Pryor)
- information on the use of kesher is from D. A. Pryor’s book Behold the Man, Centre for Judaic Christian studies, 2005. P81
“How much more” – kal ve’chomer
If you read the synoptic gospels carefully you will note how often Jesus makes frequent use of a rabbinical method of teaching called kal ve’chomer; Kal is Hebrew for light and ve’chomer means heavy. So, a rabbi would prove a point by stating that if a small thing is true, how much more will a larger thing be true.
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).
The point that Jesus is making refers back to something He said earlier, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
So, the conduct of an earthly father (kal) is compared to our heavenly Father (ve’chomer), Yeshua uses kal ve’chomer to emphasize the love of our heavenly Father in answering prayer.
- information for the use of kal ve’chomer is from D. A. Pryor’s book Behold the Man, Centre for Judaic Christian studies, 2005. P79.
Yeshua taught as a very Jewish rabbi:
- He roamed the country side taking His message of the Kingdom from place to place.
- He gathered disciples (talmidim) around Him to train up to be rabbis themselves.
- He taught by sitting, emphasizing the importance of His message. While teaching He used hyperbole, kesher, Hebrew idioms, parables and kal ve’chomer, He also followed the rabbinical teaching method of answering questions with questions.
- Yeshua was tested by the locals with questions to determin His wisdom and knowledge as a teacher.