Notes on the New Testament as a Witness for Broader Jewish Patterns in Jesus’ Times

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This essay probes a number of Matthean and Lukan contributions to the shared Synoptic narrative, in search of possible reflections of contemporaneous Jewish customs and beliefs with broader circulation.

If the argument for the Jewish matrix of the early Jesus-centered tradition is taken seriously, the New Testament sources should be expected not only to react to elements of that matrix, but also to reflect them. It is here that study of the Jewish setting of early Christianity for the sake of better understanding the latter morphs into the investigation of early Jesus movement sources as witnesses for broader Jewish tendencies. Scholars of Qumran developed salient methods and insights that allow us to learn from the Scrolls not only about the particular group that seems to have produced them, but also about its rivals as well as “wider Judaism.” It stands to reason that a similar effort can contribute to critical assessment of the “witness value” of the earliest Christian writings: We can suppose that much of the material found there mirrors more general patterns of broader Jewish thought and practice. This effort becomes even more meaningful when the New Testament provides the earliest attestation for those patterns.

I dedicated two book-length discussions to the New Testament’s corroborations of contemporaneous Jewish beliefs. The earlier book, Mapping the New Testament,[1] dealt with tendencies in biblical exegesis, while the most recent volume, Early Jewish Messianism in the New Testament,[2] focused on nascent Christian tradition’s reflections of broader messianic trends. The present essay will comment on a number of additional instances in which the New Testament attests to common Jewish customs, rituals, and accompanying beliefs. Some of the cases to be addressed are widely known and have received due attention in the research, whereas others have so far been overlooked and require further elaboration. I focus here upon traditions represented in Lukan and Matthean contributions to the Gospel narrative, thus clearly expressing the narrative strategies of the authors. What information about broader first-century C.E. Jewish mores can be gleaned from them?

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This discussion, while far from exhaustive, can provide a road map for further investigation.

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  • Serge Ruzer

    Serge Ruzer

    Serge Ruzer is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion. He has authored numerous articles and books on the Jewish background of the New Testament. Among the most important of these are Mapping the New…
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