The Shema in Early Jewish Teaching

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A careful investigation of early sources suggests that Deuteronomy 6:4 must have been the first portion from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus committed to memory.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4), known as the Shema, is a foundational teaching of both Judaism and Jesus.

A careful investigation of early sources suggests that Deuteronomy 6:4 must have been the first portion from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus committed to memory.[1] According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 42a), Jewish boys were taught this biblical passage as soon as they could speak. Since the Talmud specifies that “the father must teach him [i.e., the son],” we may confidently assume that Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was responsible for the fulfilling of this task.

This text from the Torah of Moses comprises only six Hebrew words: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָד (shema yisrael adonai elohenu adonai ekhad). It is important to note that it is located in the book of Deuteronomy, which in Jesus’ day was the most widely circulated and popular book of the Pentateuch.

We know that Deuteronomy carried this broad influence for two main reasons: 1) the New Testament has more quotations from Deuteronomy than from any other book of Moses, and 2) among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, more separate copies of the scroll of Deuteronomy were found than of any other Mosaic writing.

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  • [1] This article is adapted from Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989), 122-125, and used by permission.

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  • Marvin Wilson

    Marvin Wilson

    Marvin R. Wilson was, until his retirement in 2018, the Harold J. Ockenga Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He has been honored four times at Gordon commencements with the senior faculty award for “Excellence in Teaching.” His field-trip course…
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