Jesus and the Jews of his day didn’t read the scriptures the way you and I do, and today I’m going to prove it.
Last week was illuminating for some and distressing for others. We talked about what I think are the brilliant ways that the Old Testament’s writers borrowed from Babylon to talk about a God whose chief interest was not the mighty Babylonian Empire, but the people on its underside. We talked about the first books of the Bible, which were not written by Moses, but by a post-exile nationalist. Finally, we talked about Adam, who is less an historical character and more a mythological character who was crafted to symbolize the struggle and hope of the nation of Israel.
Those who struggled the most with last week’s installment for the most part observed a contradiction between two facts: (1) my whole argument depended on Moses not writing the first books of the Bible and (2) Jesus on many occasions says or implies that the Torah came from Moses.
Jesus really does do that. And repeatedly.
(Despite the concern’s undeniable validity, I’m always amused when it comes in the form of “You obviously haven’t read what Jesus said.”)
Really, I take this concern seriously.
So seriously, that this and the next week’s installments are all about that concern.
Today, we will talk about the Essenes of Qumran and how scholars believe they influenced the New Testament’s writers. Next week, we will talk about Jesus, who came to Earth, pitched his tent among us, and became a Pharisee (yes, he did that).
What I’m going to talk about today and next week has caused me to love Jesus even more than I already did.
So, let’s go for it.
The Jewish Sects of the New Testament
First, the Essenes are best understood in the context of greater Judaism, so I first need to talk about the Jews themselves. We Christians talk about them a lot, certainly, but in my experience our discussions mostly operate to support our conceptions of ourselves. When we talk about Judaism, we are usually projecting onto it the things we don’t want in Christianity.
In these next two weeks, I will try to avoid doing that.
The writers of 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles tell us that the high priest when King Solomon finished the temple in Jerusalem was a man named Zadok. Nine centuries later, the “sons of Zadok“—you know them as the Sadducees—were one of the Jewish sects of the first century. True to their name, these sons of Zadok were all about their Temple. The Temple was their identity.
The Sadducees were the priestly order, the elite, and—unlike the Pharisees, about whom I’ll talk shortly—they believed that the only acceptable way to worship God was in the Temple (which is why the Sadducees died out when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE). They affirmed the Torah, but not the other parts of the Hebrew Bible—what Jews call “the Prophets” and “the Writings” (the Nevi’im and Ketuvim).
They also had no regard for Greek ideas like eternal life and resurrection (I’ll highlight that in two weeks).
If you were to sit down at the bar with a Sadducee, he would tell you that the purpose of life was literally what the Torah says it was: God’s provision in this life at the cost of making the right sacrifices in the right ways in the Temple in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, the Pharisees sought to distance Judaism from the trappings and elitism of the Temple. They were the democratizers of Judaism. They brought Judaism down from the unapproachable mountain to the people.
Their distinguishing characteristic were the rabbis. The rabbis traveled throughout Judea making among the ordinary people disciples of the Torah and the other scriptures. To them, personal prayer and study of the Hebrew Bible (the “Tanahk”) were each an acceptable means of worshiping God, even on par with the Temple worship of the Sadducees.
The Pharisees interpreted the Torah more liberally than the Sadducees, especially with the way they permitted the observance in the home of certain Jewish holidays that were originally commanded to be in the temple.
This comes as a surprise to most modern Christians.
We often use the phrase “legalistic Pharisee” to describe someone who is hyper technical about commands in the text. While I hate that phrase, at least “legalistic Sadducee” would be more accurate.
The Caves of Qumran
Now that we’ve talked about the Pharisees and Sadducees, let’s talk about the Essenes.
Israel and Rome went to war in 66 CE, and it didn’t go well for Israel. Within four years, Rome completely destroyed Jerusalem and within another three years completely destroyed the Jewish mountain city of Masada.
During the war, the Roman army led by Titus (who would succeed Vespasian to the throne as emperor of Rome) surrounded and accepted the surrender of an army led by Flavius Josephus, an Israeli general and governor over Galilee.
After his surrender, Josephus accepted an offer of commission from the Roman Senate to become a Roman citizen and write a history of the Jewish people for the Roman government.
Which deserves an applause. By any measure, that is a spectacular rebound!
It’s hard to overstate how much Jewish history we know because of two of his works—The Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews. In The Jewish War, Josephus provides a detailed account of each of the Jewish sects. He describes the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and also the Essenes, a small group sworn to poverty that lived in the wilderness of Qumran near the Dead Sea. For nearly two thousand years, we knew little of the Essenes other than what was written in The Jewish War.
And then came a goat.
In 1948 in the Dead Sea region near Khirbet Qumran, a goat under the watch of an Arab Bedouin shepherd ran away from the herd, up a hill, and into a cave. The shepherd, hoping to scare the goat back down the hill, threw a rock into the cave, but the sound from the impact didn’t make the usual sound of a rock against limestone.
Instead, it made a ping sound.
That shepherd could have had no idea that the impact came from what was the first of what would be hundreds of scrolls that archeologists and scholars of ancient Hebrew call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even when the shepherd found the scrolls, he could have had no idea what he had; the Bedouin were neither literate nor Hebrew speakers.
After a series of discreet payoffs and handoffs reminiscent of a le Carré spy novel, the scrolls eventually ended up in the hands of Professor Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew University, who immediately set out to publish the contents of the scrolls for the general population. Once the scrolls were published, scholars quickly and widely recognized them from Josephus as belonging to the Essenes of Qumran.
Scholars widely believe that when Titus’s army marched into Judea during that war I mentioned, the Essene community stored their most important scrolls in the caves located above Khirbet Qumran and fled south to a Masada in hopes of one day returning to Qumran and their scrolls.
But, they never returned.
As an aside, on the very night that Professor Sukenik brought home the first discovered Qumran texts, the United Nations voted to approve a plan to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Professor Sukenik noted in his diary that on the day the UN established an Israeli state, he held documents untouched literally since the last time there was an Israeli state.
Over a series of decades, more documents in other caves above Khirbet Qumran were discovered. While the first cave had seven documents (a great find by itself), the fourth cave contained more than five hundred documents!
In sum, archeologists have recovered over nine hundred documents from the caves of Qumran—unquestionably one of the great finds in archeological history.
So, what did the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the Essenes, and what does that have to do with the Bible?
The Qumran Yahad
We’re going to talk about some of those documents, but first let me introduce you to the Essenes, who were as much a community as a Jewish sect.
We learn as much about how the community thought of itself from the Serekh ha-Yahad (סרך היחד) (“The Community Rule”) as any other Dead Sea scroll. The Community Rule strikingly identifies differences between itself and the mainstream Jews of the time.
The document begins with the community—the Yahad—and the covenant each member would make to disavow worldly possessions in favor of a communal lifestyle.
The community was led by a so-called—and unidentified—”Teacher of Righteousness” and referred to itself as the “Sons of Light“. Imbued in the text of the Community Rule is the posture of a minority group that saw itself as oppressed by the mainstream Jewish sects, whom the Community Rule and many other Dead Sea scrolls refer to repeatedly as the “Sons of Darkness“, and which were led by the so-called—and also unidentified—”Liar.”
Keep these names and phrases in mind because they show up throughout virtually all Qumran literature, which we’ll be talking about today.
The Essenes thought of Yaweh in much the same way as other Jews. Where they differed with the Pharisees and Sadducees was in the strictness with which they interpreted the Torah. The Serekh ha-Yahad begins by instructing the Yahad “not to deviate in the smallest detail from any of the words of God.” Of course, all Jews would basically ascent to that statement, but, as you will see, the Essene community really took it to a special level.
Here’s an example.
It’s well known that ceremonial cleanliness is a major theme in Jewish law, and the book of Leviticus lists any number of ceremonially unclean things for Jews to avoid. Further—and similar to the properties of coodies as understood by every single 1st grade child—the state of “uncleanliness” can be transported upon contact from person to person or even thing to thing.
- So, if an unclean animal such as a pig touched an otherwise clean object like a water jug, on contact the water jug would become unclean.
- And any person who touched the water jug would become unclean.
- And if water from the unclean jug was poured into a clean jug, the clean jug would become unclean.
All Jews would be in agreement so far.
But what would happen if a clean water jug poured water into an unclean water jug? Would the uncleanliness travel up the downward-pouring water to the clean water jug?
This is something Jews actually debated. Really.
The Pharisees said “nah”.
The Essenes said “oh, most certainly yes”.
You may think this disagreement . . . well . . . small, but it was because of this that the Community Rule instructed the Sons of Light to “hate the Sons of Darkness with the vengeance of God.” The foundation of the Yahad that we find in the Community Rule and other Qumran texts—most notably the apocalyptic “War Scroll“—is life as a cosmic battle between the Sons of Light (themselves) and the Sons of Darkness (all other Jews).
(Though not terribly removed from many of the stupid controversies I’ve personally witnessed from time to time in my own churches of Christ.)
One more example.
The Community Rule specifically commands the Yahad “not to advance their holy times and not to postpone any of their festivals.”
What does this mean?
Generally when reading an ancient document that makes such a stern prohibition like this, you can assume that other sects were doing the thing.
And they were.
The book of Exodus commands Jews not to do any work—including cooking—on Saturday, the Sabbath day. But Saturday is not the only Sabbath Day. The book of Leviticus also commands Jews to observe a Sabbath during some Jewish holidays. So, imagine if a Jewish holiday fell on the day immediately before or after Saturday. All work and cooking would be forbidden for two consecutive days.
First of all, fasting two days in a row is painful enough, but in this time of no refrigerators, this would also be a logistical problem.
On years when this would have been an issue, the Pharisees and the Sadducees solved the problem simply by adjusting the calendar. Nothing in the Torah explicitly forbids this, but nothing authorizes it. And so the Essenes argued against it from silence in the text.
And lived all alone.
Why do I provide these examples? Is it just to show how smart and important I am?
I provide these examples because if you want to appreciate the main points of my discussion today, you need to appreciate how strictly the Essenes interpreted their text.
So, let’s get back to one of the original questions. How might the Essenes have been so influential to the writers of the New Testament?
Matthew c3 introduces New Testament readers to John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness whom the gospels describe in the likeness of another inhabitant of the wilderness, the prophet Elijah. Matthew tells us that people went out to him from all over Israel to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River.
If you’ve read the Old Testament enough times, in the back of your mind you’ve probably wondered whether you might have been missing something.
Where did John get the idea to immerse people in water for the forgiveness of sins?
There’s nothing in the Old Testament that commands or even hints at this. Of course, Jews have a long legacy of ritual cleansing before meals and other events as a means of obtaining “ceremonial cleanliness”, but in Judaism uncleanliness and sinfulness are not the same thing. To the Jews, forgiveness of sin is done through the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement, not through ritual cleansing in water.
It turns out, for all the strictness with which these Essenes interpreted the Hebrew text, they were the pioneers of the Christian tradition of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor John the Baptist, nor Jesus Christ invented baptism for the forgiveness of sins. That small, poverty-sworn group in Qumran did.
So, was John the Baptist an Essene?
Or was he at least raised as an Essene?
Again, the text never mentions the Essenes explicitly, but the case is strong.
In addition to the Essene’s practice of baptism and the fact that the Essenes apparently lived in the wilderness near the Jordan River—what the Essenes tell us about themselves is even more striking.
- They committed themselves to poverty and an ascetic lifestyle,
- their main enemies were what they perceived as the overly permissive Pharisees,
- they only wore clothes and ate food from within their community, and
- they wrote in a distinctly apocalyptic tone.
If you were to make a list of each core Essene characteristic, you could easily find them in John the Baptist.
And the Essenes even called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.”
Have you heard that phrase before?
Are you beginning to see it?
Because I’ve barely started.
Sons of Light
As I said earlier, the first command of the Community Rule, the Serekh ha-Yahad, commands the sons of light to hate the sons of darkness with the vengeance of God. As I mentioned earlier, the battle between light and darkness saturates Qumran literature.
So, you might wonder: do any of the New Testament authors talk this way?
The apostle John recorded that Jesus told his disciples to “Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become sons of light.”
Is that it?
The battle between light and darkness is the driving theme behind the entire gospel of John. Like the Big Bang of the universe, John’s gospel begins with an explosion of light. Here’s the beginning of chapter 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
Light light light light light . . . all mixed in with John the Baptist, who we just observed was the early pioneer out in the wilderness of the Essene baptism. It is this man whom John the apostle calls a witness to, what else, but the . . . light.
And once John finishes with chapter one, he doesn’t put on the brakes. Really, he takes the light-dark-light-dark theme into overdrive.
- This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. John c3 v19
- Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. John c3 v20
- But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. John c3 v21
- John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. John c5 v35
- When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John c8 v12
- While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. John c9 v5
- Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. John c11 v9
- It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light. John c11 v10
- Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. John c12 v35
- I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. John c12 v46
Did John endorse every view of the Essene community? I doubt it. I don’t think John endorsed every view of the Essenes any more than the Old Testament writers endorsed every view of the Babylonians.
Like Ralph did in the Old Testament, John borrowed.
The Pesher Habakkuk
If I ended this part of my essay on the Bible right here, sure, it would be cool. But I promise I’ve saved the most important part for last. In this last section, I discuss the Pesher Habakkuk, arguably the single most important Dead Sea Scroll for unlocking the mystery of the New Testament authors’ treatment of the Old Testament text. Pesher is the Hebrew word for “commentary” or “interpreting.”
If you want to understand why I’m not concerned with Jesus’s mentions of Moses, do not skip this part.
The original Old Testament book of Habakkuk is written from the perspective of the prophet Habakkuk, whom God warns of the coming Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.
Habakkuk c1 v5–7
Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.”
Read the above text. There should be no doubt—none whatsoever—that Habakkuk’s writing concerned Babylon (or, in some translations, the Chaldeans—same thing). I made it bold for you just to make it easy. Again, Babylon. No one other than Babylon. And in fact, Babylon was the new world power during the time when Habakkuk was written and in fact did destroy Jerusalem.
So, there is no reason to believe Habakkuk was talking about anyone other than Babylon.
Are you with me?
So let’s go to the 1st century BCE Pesher Habakkuk. Early in the text, the writer quotes Habakkuk c1 v5–7, but something remarkable happens.
The pesher writer disagrees with you.
“Interpreted, this concerns the Romans, who are quick and valiant in war, causing many to perish.” Pesher Habakkuk, column 1 lines 10–12 (emphasis added)
Perhaps you’re just skimming this whole essay.
But I have to ask.
Did you notice that?
I hope you did because of the ridiculous amount of time I spent emphasizing it for you. The author of the pesher completely ignored the original meaning of the text and reinterpreted it in light of his present circumstances. Almost like saying, “I know you thought—and maybe even Habakkuk thought—he was writing about Babylon, but I really don’t care.”
Remember, this was written by an Essene. These are the guys who read the text more strictly than everyone else.
Habakkuk c2 v2
In Habakkuk c2 v2, God gives Habakkuk a vision and commands him: “Write down the vision, and make it plain on the tablets.” Throughout the book of Habakkuk, God explains to Habakkuk how the Babylonians will exercise dominion on the Earth, but will eventually lose it.
For the pesher writer, however, the text spoke to something entirely different. The Essenes were distinctly apocalyptic among Jews. That is shorthand for saying that they believed in an end of time, a concept you won’t find in the Torah.
But what you and I wouldn’t see, the pesher writer fills in for us.
The pesher writer says: “And God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to a final generation, but he did not tell him when it would come to an end.”
Habakkuk literally says nothing like this.
Habakkuk is concerned with the fall and rise of Jerusalem. But from the perspective of the pesher writer, this world seemed hopelessly miserable and unredeemable. What Habakkuk wrote about had happened centuries earlier, and the yahad needed something that could speak to their present despair. The yahad was determined to find their apocalyptic views in any text—even in texts that had nothing to do with the end of times.
Let’s never forget in this academic discussion that we are dealing with real human people.
Moving on, why should Habakkuk write down the vision “plainly” on tablets? Verse two continues, “so that he who reads it may read it speedily.” Again, the most natural way of reading this is God telling Habakkuk to write down the vision so at a later date other readers can access it easily.
Not so, says the pesher, for it tells us, “This concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God will make known all the mysteries of the words of his servants the Prophets.”
For someone like me who was raised to value the “historical-grammatical” method of interpretation, the Pesher Habakkuk is almost comical at this point. If any one of us reasoned in the pulpit on Sunday in this manner, we would be summoned before the church elders.
Habakkuk c2 v4
Habakkuk c2 v4 is one of the most famous passages in all of scripture: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Jews to this day understand this to mean that the righteous person will prosper through (1) his or her faith in Yaweh and (2) the Torah he gave to Moses.
But again, the pesher writer contends that everyone here is mistaken. He writes, “This concerns all those . . . whom God will deliver . . . because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.”
In other words, Habakkuk c2 v4 is not about faith in God, but faith in the leader of the Qumran sect.
(Hint: Habakkuk wasn’t writing about the Essenes.)
Maybe this all doesn’t impress you very much, but to me, it’s stunning.
And understand, there are many pesher texts: Pesher Isaiah, Pesher Hosea, Pesher Nahum, Pesher Zephaniah, Pesher Psalms are notable examples.
I grew up thinking that the most faithful way to interpret a text was to ascribe to it its original meaning. Or at least try to do that.
Reinterpreting texts was somehow dishonest. It was what those activist judges supposedly do.
Is the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in good company with 1st century ancient Hebrews?
You may consider yourself what is often called a “strict constructionist”—one who tries to interpret a text based on the literal meaning of what words most naturally meant in their time. And you may be surprised that a group of Jews who interpreted their text so strictly also interpreted it so liberally.
But, as I’m about to show you, the people who wrote the Bible you have read and carried to church each Sunday were even more liberal with the text than the Essenes.
They were even more liberal than the Pharisees.
Pesher in the New Testament
“Live By His Faith”
Earlier, we saw how the Pesher Habakkuk interprets Habakkuk c2 v4 to mean faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.
However, each time, the writer uses the passage to mean something other than what it originally did. In each case, the writer uses it to say that the righteous will live by (1) faith in a man who lived on the Earth and (2) departing from the Torah.
Again, the mainstream Jews understood Habakkuk c2 v4 to mean—and it probably did originally mean—faith in Yaweh and his Torah.
Nobody—not the Essenes, not anybody—thought Habakkuk c2 v4 was an invitation to leave the Torah. But the New Testament writers were perfectly willing to re-read old texts in light of present circumstances.
And it didn’t stop with Habakkuk.
Out of Egypt
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. Hosea c11 v1
In the big picture, the Old Testament tells the story of God rescuing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and settling them in the land of Israel. However, the story continues that despite God’s provision, the Israelites repeatedly rejected God’s commandments as given through Moses. When we read the above passage from Hosea, this is what we are reading. Hosea isn’t predicting a single thing. He is describing something that had already happened.
Also, I think every human being alive would agree that the “son” Hosea is talking about is Israel.
But, Matthew, like the Pesher writer, thinks you’re wrong. In Matthew c2, we are told that because King Herod tried to kill every firstborn child in Israel, Jesus’s parents hid away in Egypt until they returned and settled in Nazareth. Matthew, once again—by our standards—playing fast and loose with the text, gives us this commentary:
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew c2 v14–15
Can you imagine how Matthew’s first readers would have reacted to that? Think about what a daring thing it would have been to write that. If you wanted to be a pesher writer, you needed some big cajones!
When you go back to Hosea, Matthew’s assertion is stunning. It probably was uncomfortable in his time, but is even more uncomfortable to the modern reader.
The Virgin Birth
In Matthew c1 v23, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive and that her son would save people from their sins. After this, Matthew comments that this was to fulfill what was prophesied in Isaiah c7 v14.
But did Isaiah do that?
In Isaiah c7, King Ahaz of Judah learns that Israel and Syria are planning to invade Judah. Isaiah then prophesies to King Ahaz that God will not thwart the military invasion. To prove this prophecy, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign, but Ahaz responds that he would not put God to a test.
Isaiah responds, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Jews from Isaiah’s day to the present had much to say about Isaiah c7 v14, but not that this boy would be the Messiah. The text, which has much to say about Judah’s deliverance from Israel and Syria, has nothing to say about a Messiah. Further, in the original Hebrew of Isaiah c7 v14, the word “almah” meant only a young woman who had not yet given birth. For a woman to be an almah, it did not matter than she was a virgin. That said, the Greek translation that Matthew had rendered almah as “parthenos”, a Greek word that specifically means “virgin”. This gave Matthew the opportunity to interpret Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah.
An opportunity upon which he seized.
Humorously, while neither Mark, Luke, or John mention anything about a virgin birth, when the Revised Standard Version translators in 1952 rendered almah as “young woman”, conservative Christians accused the translators of tampering with the Christian Bible.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I mentioned earlier that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul or any kind of resurrection. So, in Matthew c22, the Sadducees approach Jesus—who emphatically taught that people would be resurrected.
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Rabbi,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
This question is obviously meant to trap Jesus into admitting that, in this time when women were mere property of their husband’s, the resurrection was going to invite some nasty property disputes in this so-called Heaven he had been preaching about. Jesus had none of it. According to the McNeal Revised Version*, Jesus responded, “There is no property in Heaven.”
*(Not an actual translation.)
But Jesus wasn’t done. Thinly veiled behind the Sadducees’s question was the insinuation that the resurrection of the dead was a bunch of hogwash.
What Jesus did next was straight out of the pesher tradition I’ve belabored today.
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
On its face, Jesus’s words seem innocuous enough until you read how wildly Jesus used Exodus c3.
In Exodus c3, God appears to Moses in a burning bush and identifies himself to Moses as the same God whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped. Literally no one ever had read Exodus c3 and concluded that it had anything to do with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still being alive.
Did Jesus, the Son of God, take scripture out of its original context?
Which, by the way, is funny to me because this text is so frequently used by people who want to prove that Moses wrote the first books of the Bible.
Are you beginning to see why I see it differently?
(Not asking you to agree with me. Just to see that I’m not totally insane.)
This passage is also used as a proof text for Jesus being better at the scriptures than everyone else.
I agree that he was.
But how was he better?
Were his historical-grammatical hermeneutical chops the best?
Were the Jews just lazy and not very interested in their scriptures?
Or was Jesus the best at the scriptures because he dared to stretch their meaning even further than anyone else ever dreamed?
And what’s even more amazing to me is that the Pharisees witnessed the whole discussion . . . and loved it! Jesus’s pesher take wasn’t controversial!
“Well said, teacher!” they said.
Can you even handle this?
I sometimes get criticized for over elaborating on certain topics, and I have a long history of this. When you observe me do this about a particular topic, what you’re seeing is an insecurity of mine. I expect my audience will not be receptive to what I’m saying.
Here’s what you need to understand.
I really could have kept going. I cut out an astounding amount of material.
If you want more examples of the theme I’ve described, here are a few others:
- John’s use of Isaiah c40 v3;
- Jesus’s use of Psalm 82 in John c10;
- Paul’s use of Genesis c12 v7, c13 v15, and c24 v7 in Galatians c3 v15-29;
- Paul’s use of Isaiah c49 in 2 Corinthians c6 v1-2;
- and more.
To the first century Jew, faithfulness to the text meant testing its boundaries and creatively applying it in order to “discover” the true heart of God. This is so different than our stereotype of them and our common usage of the text.
We have to remember this when we read the New Testament. The New Testament writers—like the Old Testament writers—had agendas. And they read the Old Testament with agendas. They were not these automatons who lacked control over what they wrote.
The New Testament writers were convicted that a carpenter’s son from Galilee named Jesus was God in the flesh, and they re-read their text to conform to those new convictions.
On the foundation I have laid today, next week we’ll talk about Jesus as a first century Pharisee.