By Greg Jones
It should go without saying, but bears repeating anyway, that Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. The Church emerged from Judaism, and was literally born with a Bible in its cradle. The New Testament itself may be seen as a first-century Jewish collection, and it behooves us today to really explore how Jesus and the first Christians beheld and engaged with the Word of God in the Bible.
In Judaism, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – are called “the Law” or, in Hebrew, Torah. These books represent the story God told to Moses on Mt. Sinai as he was leading that disgruntled mob of slaves out of Egypt and toward the land of promise. Judaism holds that God revealed the definitive saga to Moses, and Moses brought this sacred story back from the mountain top in both written and oral form. The written form is called Torah, which tradition says was penned by Moses himself, and the oral form would be handed on vocally but never in writing for over a thousand years. Amazingly, the oral transmission would not be committed to written form until late antiquity – roughly between 200 and 500 AD – long after the time of Christ. The “oral Torah,” as it was sometimes called, is the basis for the Mishna and Talmud, and for numerous books of rabbinical commentary, generally called midrash.
While the oral tradition would become immense and varied over time, and quite difficult to fathom even in its later written form, the written Law is remarkably concise and exact. Indeed, Torah was an established sacred text – a scripture – many centuries before Jesus’ time. As a concise, established and fixed text, Torah most certainly was the master version of the story told to Moses by God, the ‘control copy’ so to speak. And as such, for thirty centuries now, Torah has been revered by klal Yisrael [the whole community of observant Jews] as the God-breathed and perfect version of God’s special message.
As the story uttered to Moses by God, Torah reveals who Israel is as a people, where Israel comes from, and what Israel is called by God to do. What’s more, as Jacob Neusner writes in Judaism: An Introduction, through Torah God utters the divine word not only to and about the people of Israel, but to and about all people, and the whole of creation. In Torah, Judaism asserts that we may encounter a “story about eternity,” and anybody living anywhere at any time in human history can engage this story and find herself in it.
For practicing Jews, Torah utters the Word of God which must always be uttered in every age, in every place, by everyone. Torah is not just a story to be remembered. It is a story to be taken personally, it is a story not only to live with, but to live inside. To find oneself on stage inside the unfolding drama told therein is the spiritual calling of the person who engages with Torah. In Torah, observant Jews find themselves as a people and as individuals both literally and literarily inside the master sacred story of God and all things.
The Torah says the story of God and his mighty acts of deliverance for his people must be told, retold, and not only that, but lived out in the lives of those people who even today live inside that master story.
In the first century when Jesus and his followers lived, Judaism had several major divisions. The priestly and aristocratic caste centered its life around the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. The revolutionary radicals engaged in violent resistance against Roman rule were called ‘zealots,’ and they moved around as terrorists and guerilla warriors are wont to do. The isolationist holy men, who sought refuge from the corruptions of Jerusalem, fled to the hills and deserts – like the community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. And the Jews dedicated to the copying and interpretation of the Bible, and who taught that Jewish life ought to be righteous, in accordance with the Scriptures, were the scribes and the rabbis. Among scribes and rabbis in general was a community of bible teachers specifically referred to as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were righteous interpreters of Scripture, and it was this group which seemed to overlap the most with Jesus and his followers.
Jesus himself is called ‘rabbi’ in the Gospels, and we know that the apostle Paul was trained in the rabbinical school of Hillel, by the famous Pharisee, Rabbi Gamaliel.
In other words, in the heart of the New Testament we have not only stories about Jesus and his followers. We also have a body of teaching and commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures as well, by Jesus and his followers, done in the classical rabbinical style. So what is the rabbinical method of engaging with Scripture?
Classical rabbinical interpretation of Scripture is generally thought to begin around the time of Jesus, with the great Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Hillel formulated a set of seven rules for the interpretation of Scripture. His rules applied to biblical interpretation in areas of Jewish legal questions. The rabbis were primarily concerned that Jewish people live righteous lives in accordance with the Scripture. They sought to answer the question, “How should observant Jews obey the commandments of Torah?” In the Gospels we encounter the essence of this pursuit as the Pharisees are frequently seen to be asking Jesus what sorts of behaviors are ‘lawful.’ Bible scholars have quite easily discovered how all seven of Hillel’s rules may be seen at work in the teachings of Jesus and his followers. Of course, and again, this is not surprising since Jesus was called ‘rabbi’ and the apostle Paul was a student of Hillel’s greatest disciple Rabbi Gamaliel.
First, the primary stance of classical rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is that the Word of God in the Bible is “omnisignificant”—there is no detail in the text, no matter how small it might seem, which is meaningless. As one third century rabbi said, Simeon ben Lakhish, in Torah “there are verses which are worthy of being burnt,” yet even they are the perfect and meaning-filled word of Torah. As such, though parts seem obsolete, or empty of currency, this is an illusion – the meaning is simply obscured from the reader’s eyes.
Second, this disposition that the Bible is omnisignificant, the rabbis believed that the Bible always bears meaning for each person who searches it. Rabbi Akiva, who died around 135 CE, taught that the “Law is no empty thing.” His point was that if a verse seemed empty of meaning, it was the reader himself who was empty.
Rabbi Akiva’s teaching was that if a reader searching the Scriptures could not connect with it, the deficiency was with the reader, not the Bible. The job of the seeker after God in reading the Bible, according to the values of classical rabbinical teaching, is to make the biblical word connect to you.
Third, the rabbis believed the Bible was a cryptic document whose true meaning is not easily discerned from a surface reading of the text. One has to go deep into the text with special skills and wisdom. Fourth, while difficult to understand and interpret, at the same time the Bible is a perfect document, without contradiction, inconsistency or superfluity. In other words, the text is as it should be. The assumption which arises from this second point is that those parts of the text which seem erroneous, or contradictory, or inconsistent, or superfluous are blessed opportunities for interpretation. And fifth, the rabbis believed that the Scriptures are of divine origin. While this is not precisely articulated, it is entirely believed.
Given these assumptions about Scripture, that it is literally filled with meaning, for all readers in every time and place, and that it requires a lot of hard work to struggle and engage with the text in order to connect to those meanings, and that the text itself is also to be honored as it is, and not dismissed, changed, or ignored, the work of the rabbis was ongoing and extensive. The rabbinical work of wrestling with the Word of God in the Bible is reminiscent of the biblical story of Jacob, who spent all night wrestling with a messenger from God, before becoming blessed and having God change his name to, “Israel,” or “he who struggles with God.”
In general terms, the hard work of wrestling with Scripture is called midrash. Midrash is helpful for Christians as they seek to engage with the Bible, and not only as a long ago text, but as a means through which a living and active Word of God may connect to them, today.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory (greg) Jones serves on the board of his alma mater, the General Theological Seminary. He is rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.