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SIDIC Periodical XXVI - 1993/3
Rethinking the Jewishness of Jesus (Pages 13 - 17)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Gospel and the Rabbis
David Daube


The New Testament can be best understood against the background of the Palestinian Judaism of the time. Many scholars have done good work in this respect, but there is scope for further research. Let me give a few examples.

Ruth - A Foretaste of Messianic Fulfilment
In the Gospel according to Luke, the angel, who anounces to Mary the birth of a son, declares: "The power of the Highest shall over-shadow thee". And Mary replies: "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord". The use of the verb "to overshadow" in this context is strange and has led to a number of theories by modern writers, none of them satisfactory. The explanation is that the Gospel is alluding to the story of Ruth. When Ruth came to Boaz at night, saying "I am Ruth thine handmaid, spread thy wing over thine handmaid", she was not yet married to him. This fact created a problem for the ancient Jewish Rabbis: no blemish must attach to the character of Ruth, the prototype of the genuine convert and an ancestress of David and the Messiah. The Rabbis somehow reached the conclusion that the request "Spread thy wing over thine handmaid" revealed exceptional chastity; indeed though appearances might be against her, Ruth was the purest of all women. In the Aramaic vernacular translation, "spread thy wing" could easily become "overshadow"; the two expressions are closely associated.

Luke, by his language, by the use of the verb "to overshadow", and also by the way in which Mary describes herself as "the Lord's handmaid", means to indicate a parallel between this situation and the Old Testament one, as interpreted by the Rabbis. Mary, betrothed to Joseph, was with child; yet, despite appearances, this second Ruth was pure, a virgin. It should be stressed that the Evangelist is fully conscious of the uniqueness of the events he relates. But he would deprive himself of a valuable means of bringing out their significance if he did not refer to earlier incidents in the history of Israel as foreshadowing and throwing light on them. The figure of Ruth in particular was looked upon by many Rabbis as endowed with features pointing forward to Messianic happenings.

There is at least one more narrative in the New Testament where she is subtly introduced: the narrative of the miraculous feeding of the multitude. There are five versions in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, all of which culminate in a statement like "They did eat and were filled and took up twelve baskets full of what was left".

This echoes the notice about Ruth, when she had been invited by Boaz to share his and his people's meal in the field: "She did eat and was filled and left thereof". It is, then, the Christian Messianic community which is compared to Ruth: the meal Ruth received from Boaz is regarded in the Gospels as adumbrating the meal the multitude receives from Jesus. This is not so surprising when we consider the role which the pious speculation of the Rabbis assigned to the feeding of Ruth. Ruth was taken by the Rabbis as standing for her descendants, in particular David or even the Messiah, and Boaz, her host, as standing for God. There is indeed one Rabbi for whom it was a miraculous meal, because though Boaz gave her little, it turned out to be more than enough in her hands.

A Fateful Sleep
The scene at Gethsemane before the arrest is nowadays widely classed as legendary, as embodying a theological maxim but with no claim to historicity. Commentators can discover no natural motivation either for Jesus' request to the disciples to stay awake or for the serious consequences he draws when they do finally fall asleep. There is, however, an adequate motivation to be found in the Jewish setting of the story. According to the Evangelists, Jesus and his disciples form a Passover eve company such as was usual in that period: everywhere in Palestine friends, like-minded people, joined to go up to Jerusalem and celebrate Passover eve as a group - five, eight, ten, any number. There were rules governing the formation and the termination of a company; and some circles were stricter than others in these matters. One rule says that if any members of the company fall asleep, the bond is dissolved between all and incapable of being restored, but if they merely doze it is not; and we are told that a man who dozes is characterised by the fact that when spoken to "he answers but does not know how to answer sensibly".

Clearly when Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake, it is in order to delay the ending of the company; the notice that, on his second return from prayer, "their eyes were heavy neither wist they what to answer him" means that as yet, though dozing, they are not fully asleep; and on his third return, when he finds that they are, he knows that he must go on alone. This is not to minimise the theological moral of the scene; but it is firmly rooted in the rabbinic customs of Passover eve. In the sectarian Manual of Discipline, one of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, falling asleep in the assembly is treated as a grave offence. Luke's narrative, incidentally, is briefer than Matthew's and Mark's shorn of all these technical rabbinic points. We need not decide whether Luke himself did not appreciate them or whether he thought that his readers would be unlikely to.

Jesus' Burial Without "Disgrace"
The rabbinic concepts most easily missed are those which are strange to our way of thinking, not yet established in the Old Testament and no longer prominent in modern Judaism. There was in the New Testament era a curious rabbinic notion of "disgrace", the influence of which is discernible in the reports about the death of Jesus. The opponents of Jesus seem to have dwelt on the "disgraceful", "scandalous" aspects of his end; the Evangelists, though not denying his suffering, are yet understandably concerned to collect all facts that would mitigate the "disgrace". "Disgrace'' as conceived by the Rabbis might befall not only a living person but also a corpse. In general, an executed criminal was first buried in a public plot and only a year later transferred to the family grave. Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was at once buried in the family grave of Joseph of Arimathaea, newly built. Luke and John do not mention that it was a family grave, but at least they also state that it was a grave where no one had been buried before; so it could not be a public plot used on previous occasions. The Gospel of Matthew does not go into this point at all.

Again, as a rule an executed criminal was buried unanointed. According to the Gospel of John, however, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus anointed the body of Jesus; indeed John emphasises that it was done in the approved Jewish fashion. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not include this scene. But here, too, the "disgrace" is relieved: for the anointing of the living Jesus by a woman at Bethany is taken to be an anointing of his dead body in advance. The rite of anointing was performed, in however unorthodox a manner. John, who has the proper anointing after death, does not ascribe to the anointing by Mary at Bethany the significance of a burial rite. The Gospel of Luke neither mentions an anointing after death nor contains the idea of a burial rite by anticipation.

The most serious "disgrace" in the rabbinic sense was such mutilation as might look like impeding bodily resurrection. About the period of the New Testament bodily resurrection became a cardinal tenet of the Pharisees. Such was the importance attached to it that they carried out a far-reaching reform of time-honoured institutions of the criminal law. The old methods of stoning and burning were replaced by new ones of so-called stoning and so-called burning which, though not less cruel, avoided any visible damage to the skeleton, and strangulation became the most acceptable mode of execution.

It is with these trends in mind that we must read the circumstantial and insistent account in the Gospel of John of how it came that Jesus' legs were not broken. The Christians shared the belief of the Pharisees in bodily resurrection; more than that, they affirmed that Jesus, after being crucified, actually walked the earth again. A breaking of the bones would have given a handle to their antagonists. John quotes the Old Testament provision laying down that the Passover lamb must remain intact. Critics hold that his story of the omission to break Jesus' legs is not based on tradition but derives from his wish to assimilate Jesus to the lamb. When we consider the rabbinic concept of "disgrace", it is far more likely that the story does go back to an early stage in the controversy about the risen Jesus. John's starting-point was not the quotation on which he built the story, but the story he supported by reference to the Passover lamb, a symbol, by its intactness, of the assurance of resurrection, individual as well as national.

Four Categories of Questions
At times a consideration of the rabbinic material will illumine not only the meaning of a New Testament narrative but the composition of a chapter. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the following four questions are discussed in the same section:
(1) Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?
(2) If a man dies without issue and his widow marries his brother, this one also dies and she marries another brother, and so on till she has been married to seven - when they all rise from the dead, whose wife will she be?
(3)Which is the most important commandment?
(4) How can the Messiah be the son of David seeing that David in his Psalms calls him his Lord?
At first sight there seems to be no rational connection between these questions at all. Yet there is a simple reason for their being put together. The Rabbis of the time divided questions into four categories: questions of wisdom, where you ask concerning a point of law; questions of mockery, where you scoff at beliefs of the community, above all that in bodily resurrection; questions of conduct, where you are interested in the principles of a moral life; and questions of exegesis, where you want an explanation of an apparent contradiction in Scripture. The four questions in Matthew and Mark represent the four categories established by the Rabbis. "Is it lawful to pay tribute?" is a question of wisdom, about a point of law. "Whose wife will the widow of seven brothers be when they rise?" is a question of mockery, ridiculing bodily resurrection. "Which is the first commandment? " is a question of conduct about the basis of a moral life. And "How can the Messiah be David's son and David's Lord at the same time?" is a question of exegesis, concerning an apparent contradiction in Scripture.

We can be even more specific about the model on which this chapter in Matthew and Mark is designed. It will be remembered that the first three questions about tribute to Caesar, the widow, and the greatest commandment are put to Jesus by various people, while the fourth question, about David's son and David's Lord, is put by Jesus himself. The Jewish Passover eve liturgy refers to four types of sons and the instruction in the meaning of the Passover festival appropriate to each of them. One of the sons puts a question of wisdom, one a question of mockery, and one a question of conduct; but in the case of the fourth, the father himself opens the instruction. This cannot be coincidence. The inference is that the New Testament chapter was composed in close analogy to the Passover eve liturgy, in fact by an early Christian who still celebrated the Jewish Passover and replaced or supplemented a traditional section respecting the old exodus by one, similar in structure, dealing with the ministry of Jesus. It may have been Mark, or perhaps even Peter. In the Gospel of Matthew, the original nature of the four questions seems less fully appreciated than in Mark, and in Luke the entire structure is abandoned.

Apostolic Succession
In a number of cases the results to be gained from a study of the Rabbis have a bearing on live problems affecting Christian law or institutions. The historical discussion of Imposition of Hands and Apostolic Succession suffers from the failure to distinguish between two kinds of Imposition of Hands, designated by different terms in the Hebrew-Aramaic sources: a gentle placing of the hands on a person to be blessed, and a heavy leaning. The gentle placing mediated some beneficial influence. The heavy leaning meant the pouring of one's personality into another being. In first-century rabbinic Judaism this rite of leaning was practically confined to two occasions: the sacrificial cult, when you leaned your hands on the animal to be offered, and ordination, when a Rabbi leaned his hands on a disciple, thereby passing on his personality and creating another Rabbi, another true successor of Moses. Jesus performed Imposition of Hands in the sense of a gentle placing, to bless or to heal. But he never performed it in the sense of a heavy leaning, to ordain. Apart from the fact that he was not ordained himself, the idea of Jesus communicating his personality to another man would be impossible. In the early Church, however, the rite of leaning was extended far beyond its rabbinic range, at least in the circles contemplated in the Acts of the Apostles. There the distributors of charity, though they were not receiving ordination proper, were appointed in this way; and so were Paul and Barnabas when they were sent out by their fellow teachers on a special mission, though they already ranked among the leaders of the Church and there could be no question of promotion from disciple to master. Of this extended use of the rite of leaning, which reflects an enormous religious self-confidence and enthusiasm, and perhaps some liking for the magic involved, no trace is preserved in the Epistles of Paul.

However, the Christian equivalent of rabbinic ordination appears in the Epistles to Timothy. It is clear that the author had made Timothy a bishop by leaning his hands on him, and that Timothy was entitled to use this method for installing others. Just so, in that age any ordained Rabbi had the right to ordain others. One passage in the First Epistle has created difficulty, where it looks as if Timothy had become a bishop by "the laying on of the hands of the presbytery"- the presbytery, not the author of the Epistles. But the usual translation is misleading. The Greek stands for a rabbinic phrase which signifies "the leaning on to appoint a Rabbi". Properly translated, therefore, the passage says, not that Timothy was installed by "the laying on of the hands of the presbytery", but by "the laying on of the hands for the presbytery", "for the office of an ordained Elder, a Rabbi", or in the new, Christian organisation "by the laying on of the hands for the office of a bishop". This is the earliest evidence of the appointment of a bishop by his master leaning his hands on him; and the rabbinic phrase only underlines the closeness of the transaction to the model of Jewish ordination at the same time the passage should no longer be quoted as attesting the existence in the Church of that period of a body called the presbytery.

Pronouncement on Divorce
The pronouncement by Jesus on divorce, as transmitted in the Gospel of Mark, should be read against the background of contemporary Jewish thought. As argument against divorce, Jesus quotes a verse from the story of the creation, in the First Book of Moses: "Male and female created he them". At first sight it is difficult to perceive why this verse should support the rejection of divorce; indeed it might be held to favour divorce, since God created male and female, independent beings. The clue lies in the doctrine of the ancient Rabbis, who saw in this verse an allusion to the original Adam before Eve was taken out of him. In the eyes of those Rabbis "Male and female created he them" conveyed the teaching that the original Adam was male and female in one. It does not matter whether or not we agree with their interpretation of this verse: Jesus had to proceed from it. Obviously, understood in this way, the verse was a powerful argument against divorce. In the ideal creation, man and woman had constituted one being. Marriage approaches that state; divorce followed by re-marriage is a denial of it; and it is that whether the wife leaves her husband to marry someone else or - and here we arrive at a consequence diverging from traditional Judaism - whether the husband leaves his wife to re-marry. In either case it is a breaking into two of an original whole. It is on this basis alone that we can appreciate the force of the words added by Jesus: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put assunder". Once again the reference is to the ideal world, when male and female had been united.

This view of the pronouncement is confirmed when we look at the controversy about divorce as a whole. Jesus is asked about this issue by the Pharisees. His reply is founded, we submit, on a rabbinic interpretation of the verse he adduces. Later, at home, his disciples ask him again for his opinion on the subject, and now he informs them in so many words that divorce followed by remarriage is adultery. Why should the disciples ask again in private if the public reply to his enemies has been fully intelligible? That reply, quoting "Male and female created he them", must contain some esoteric, mysterious doctrine. It is the rabbinic doctrine of the original Adam, male and female, of which at least the consequences in respect of marriage were not familiar to the uninitiated.

* David Daube is Professor at the School of Law, University of California, Berkeley. He is well known for his writings on Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament, cf. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, University of London, 1956.
(Talk given on the B.B.C. Third Programme and printed in The Listener, 6 September 1956. Reprinted here with kind permission of the author).


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