David Flusser on the Historical Jesus: An Interview with Roy Blizzard

On the occasion of what would have been Prof. David Flusser’s 98th birthday (Sept. 15), we are pleased to share footage of an interview with Flusser on the historical Jesus that has recently come to light. The interview was conducted by Dr. Roy Blizzard for use in a television series entitled The Quest: In Search of the Jewish Jesus. Only a small portion of the interview made it into the final cut. Here we are pleased to share the interview in full.

In the interview Flusser discusses the language of Jesus, the importance of studying ancient Judaism of the Second Temple period for the understanding of Jesus’ message, and Jesus’ high self-awareness, among other topics.

It seems to me, especially for today, that the world is in a great danger. The purified Judaism of Jesus is one of the few hopes—probably the only hope—to live in our world.

—David Flusser

To read a transcript of the interview, click here.


The Quest: In Search of the Jewish Jesus, hosted by Dr. Roy Blizzard in thirteen episodes and including guest appearances by David Bivin, Robert Lindsey, Brad Young, Halvor Ronning and other important scholars, is about to be re-released on DVD. For more information on this series visit www.BibleScholars.org.
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The Gospel of John’s Jewish-Christian Source

The anonymous author of the Fourth Gospel also composed the Johannine Epistles.[1] According to church tradition, the author of the Fourth Gospel is identified as John, one of the twelve apostles whom Jesus appointed. The Fourth Gospel itself mentions Jesus’ beloved disciple who testifies to and explains the deeds of Jesus (John 21:24).[2] Church tradition identifies John, the disciple and apostle of Jesus, as the beloved disciple and regards him as the author of the gospel that now bears John’s name. Without in-depth study of who the beloved disciple is, we may yet ask whether the author of the Fourth Gospel sought to be identified as the beloved disciple, who is always referred to in the third person, or whether the beloved disciple was merely the source of the ideas and perspective articulated by the author of the Fourth Gospel. Did the anonymous author make reference to the beloved disciple to indicate the source of his authority, making the Fourth Gospel some kind of anonymous pseudepigrapha? Or is the reference to the beloved disciple an allusion to some other kind of source that was the basis of the Fourth Gospel?

Assuming that the Fourth Gospel is a pseudepigrapha, it is difficult to determine exactly what kind of pseudepigrapha it might be. On the one hand, it is possible that the author himself wished to be identified as the beloved disciple, but then it is difficult to comprehend why he so frequently writes in praise of the beloved disciple in the third person. On the other hand, it is possible that the author of the Fourth Gospel used the figure of the beloved disciple as a device for establishing a vague authority for his work without defining it precisely. In the course of this article I will return to this question and suggest that the identity of the beloved disciple is very important as we discuss the Jewish-Christian source that was the basis of the Fourth Gospel.

The Author of the Fourth Gospel

Even apart from the issue of the role and function of the beloved disciple, it is clear that the Fourth Gospel presents a unique theology that was in tension with the Jewish world and the Jewish people. This theology is one that has Jesus speak polemically about “your Torah” (cf. John 8:17; 10:34).[3] The tension with Judaism is certainly more emphatic in the Fourth Gospel than in all the rest of the New Testament. It is difficult to imagine that someone so opposed to Judaism was himself of Jewish origin. Nevertheless, there were various Jewish sects that are unknown to us, and the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles may have belonged to one of these.[4] If the author of the Fourth Gospel was, indeed, Jewish of one kind or another, then careful examination of the Johannine Epistles are likely to clarify his position.[5]

This is not a dollar sign ($), but the combination of the Greek letters Ι, Η, Σ, which are the first three letters in the name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Ιησους, “Jesus”).
This is not a dollar sign ($), but a stylized combination of the Greek letters Ι, Η and Σ, which are the first three letters in the name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Ἰησοῦς, “Jesus”).

In the opening of the second and third epistles attributed to John, the author presents himself as ὁ πρεσβύτερος (ho presbyteros), “the elder.” Scholars have, until now, ignored this fact, which may prove helpful for understanding the function of elders in the early Church. While it is acknowledged that the office of elders was a leadership position that existed since the Church’s beginning, few have noted that the title זָקֵן (zāqēn, “elder”) also appears in the vocabulary of the Jewish sages, where it refers to a person who is trained to publicly transmit the words and teachings of the sages (cf., e.g., m. Taan. 2:1). An elder expounds in public. Their failure to take note of this Jewish institution has caused many scholars to overlook the important information found in Christian literature from Papias and Irenaeus about elders who were not heads of Christian congregations, but who preserved an oral tradition of the deeds and sayings of Jesus as reported by Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of these disciples.[6] We can therefore conjecture that the meaning of πρεσβύτερος in the Johannine Epistles is an elder who hands down traditions in the name of one of Jesus’ disciples. Thus, the author of the Fourth Gospel may have presented himself as handing down the tradition in the name of one of the disciples. Whether this was an authentic tradition or whether this was pseudepigrapha, the author of the Fourth Gospel adapted the received tradition to such an extent that scholars are justified in regarding this Gospel as a pseudepigrapha in which the author expressed his own theological approach and the outlook of the Johannine community.

The Sources of John’s Gospel

The sources of John's Gospel according to Flusser.
The sources of John’s Gospel according to Flusser.

It is currently the prevailing opinion that the Fourth Gospel derives its ideology from the same oral traditions as those from which the other canonical Gospels learned of the words and deeds of Jesus. What is more, some scholars are of the opinion that where the Fourth Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels in matters of historical detail, the Fourth Gospel is often to be preferred.[7] However, an examination of the matter will show that the author of the Fourth Gospel was deeply influenced by the tradition of the Synoptic Gospels. The question is complicated because it is my opinion that the Jewish-Christian source that is at the core of the Fourth Gospel was familiar with the Synoptic Gospels, or, to be more precise, the Jewish-Christian source and the Synoptic Gospels stem from a common tradition. This common tradition influenced the Fourth Gospel in two ways: on one level the author of the Fourth Gospel clearly knew these traditions and used them directly, but on a deeper level these traditions were also known to the Jewish-Christian source that the author of the Fourth Gospel used. Thus, the sources of the synoptic tradition influenced both stages of the composition of the Fourth Gospel. In any case, there are no grounds for reaching a significantly different historical reconstruction of Jesus’ biography from what is presented in the Synoptic Gospels on the basis of the different versions in the Fourth Gospel.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Bultmann put forward the notion that the Fourth Gospel hinges upon seven signs that Jesus performed.[8] Bultmann’s suggestion that the author of the Fourth Gospel relied on a “signs source” served as a launching point for a monograph by Fortna entitled The Gospel of Signs,[9] but in addition Fortna built his argument on the presence in the Fourth Gospel of passages that do not fit the flow of the Gospel’s story. Fortna refers to these phenomena as aporias.[10] Fortna collected all the instances of what he considered to be aporias, and regarded these as the key for reconstructing the Gospel of Signs that Bultmann posited. At the end of the book Fortna attempts to reconstruct the Jewish-Christian source in its entirety, on the premise that by means of the aporias it is possible to distinguish the original source from the adaptations introduced by the author of the Fourth Gospel.[11] It is my opinion that Fortna attempted an impossible task: Fortna’s efforts can only be regarded as an initial tentative reconstruction, and it may be possible to add to the passages he reconstructed further selections that show indications of having belonged to the Jewish-Christian source. Nevertheless, Fortna correctly identified the source embedded in the Fourth Gospel as Jewish-Christian in origin, and his research raises a number of provocative questions. This article is based upon the conclusions of Fortna’s research and explores their significance. I will also point out additional evidence that Fortna overlooked in his important study.

Fortna believed that, for the most part, the Jewish-Christian source did not include many sayings, but was mainly a kind of anthology of different sources that aimed to prove to the Jews that Jesus is indeed the true Messiah.[12] It was for this reason that the author of the Jewish-Christian source emphasized the signs. At this point Fortna, following the rationalist tradition, inserts the clarification (or the objection) that prophets and messiahs have no need for authenticating signs. However, we ought to have some reservations regarding this assertion. For even if the sages believed that the Messiah will not have to prove his authenticity with signs, it is nevertheless clear that alongside the rationalistic approach of the sages there existed a popular belief that the Messiah will perform miracles and will be a supernatural being.

In the very same rabbinic works that express the rationalistic approach, there are also traditions about miracles related to the Messiah that date to at least the second century C.E.[13] Likewise, in medieval apocalyptic works it is a commonplace that the Messiah will be a miraculous being, little different from his portrayal in earlier generations. In the apocryphal books, such as the vision of Ezra, the Messiah is described as a miraculous being (cf. 4 Ezra 13:1-13). The author of 4 Ezra immediately distances himself from the supernatural portrayal of the Messiah, however, by giving the vision an allegorical interpretation (4 Ezra 13:25-58). The scriptural passages that discuss the Messiah, or those that were given messianic interpretations, discuss a miraculous person in whose surroundings, if not by means of his person, the order of creation is transformed. Finally, there are the descriptions of Jesus himself that were discovered in an Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum.[14] There, Josephus explicitly states that when the disciples told the people about the signs they saw when Jesus rose to life, they also claimed that this was the one about whom the prophets foretold numerous miracles. In light of these facts, there is no reason to reject the possibility that the Jewish-Christian source attempted to inspire belief in Jesus precisely on the strength of the signs that it presents. Within certain circles these signs could have been convincing proof of Jesus’ messianic status.

Fortna observed that, in some miracle stories, the author of the Fourth Gospel reports that the miracle took place on the Sabbath only after the miracle is performed, thereby giving the impression that Jesus had profaned the Sabbath. Fortna correctly argues that examples of this phenomenon—a kind of appendix to the miracle story that the narrator forgot to mention at the outset of the story—should be considered as additions that do not stem from the Jewish-Christian source. Such a detail cannot be used to convince Jews that Jesus is the Messiah: the Sabbath-breaking theme is rather the invention of the author of the Fourth Gospel.[15]

Intentions and Tendencies of the Jewish-Christian Source

The Jewish-Christian source that stands behind the canonical Gospel of John attempted to explain to its Jewish audience that, had things happened differently, the Jews would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah. According to the Jewish-Christian source, it was precisely Jesus’ success among a large following of believers that aroused apprehension among the chief priests and Caiaphas at their head. The priestly leadership feared that the Romans would interfere in the internal affairs of the Jewish people if the group surrounding Jesus asserted its independence, and so they handed Jesus over to the Romans. The author of the Jewish-Christian source wanted to make the case that it was this wicked deed on the part of the chief priests and the actions of the Romans that prevented Israel from accepting Jesus as the Messiah. For this reason Israel could still return and take the opportunity that had been missed on account of the socio-political circumstances that were current in the days of the Messiah himself. Thus, the author of the Jewish-Christian source was much more anti-Roman in his outlook than are the canonical Gospels. It is even likely that the tendentious exaggeration of his rhetoric sometimes came at the expense of historical facts.

Crown&Cross
The cross and the crown are two visceral images of kingship–the cross a symbol of the power of Rome, the crown a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven. These two types of kingdom converged in the life and death of Jesus.

Modern scholars, and especially Jewish scholars, often try to determine from these overtly anti-Roman passages the extent of Roman involvement in the life of the historical Jesus. While in the source of the Fourth Gospel there was a degree of anti-Roman sentiment, the Synoptic Gospels were clearly susceptible to the opposite tendency. In their attempt to live peacefully within the Roman empire, the Christian authors toned down anti-Roman rhetoric and minimized Roman involvement in Jesus’ death. A comparison of the traditions is therefore likely to help the researcher make an accurate assessment of the literary and ideological tendencies of the Gospels and of the historical facts. The story of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane will serve as an instructive example of the tendentiousness of the four Gospels.

The author of the Jewish-Christian source, a Jewish nationalist who had no sympathy for the Romans, gives prominence to the guilt of the Romans and of the chief priests in the story of Jesus’ arrest and execution in order to explain why the Jewish people did not accept the Christian faith. According to his view, it was the tumultuous historical circumstances of those days, and not religious concerns, that hindered the gospel and discouraged faith in Jesus. In his overtly anti-Roman conception, the author of the Jewish-Christian source added a detail that is contrary to historical fact, hence we read, “Judas [Iscariot] took the cohort [σπεῖρα] and servants from the chief priests and Pharisees…” (John 18:3), and a little later, “the cohort and the commander of the legion and the servants of the Jews seized Jesus and arrested him” (John 18:12). In the synoptic parallels, by contrast, references to the Roman cohort and the legion commander are missing (Matt. 26:47; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47), and these references in the Fourth Gospel should be regarded as tendentious anti-Roman additions rather than information derived from a more accurate source.

Thus far, our discussion has been based on two interesting points Fortna makes in his book. The author of the Jewish-Christian source, whose outlook was Jewish nationalist, nevertheless emphasized the deep importance for Jews to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. It is fascinating that a work such as this should become the basis of the most blatantly anti-Jewish book in the New Testament. It is impossible to conceive of why this Jewish-Christian source suited the needs of the author of the Fourth Gospel, who emphasizes the supremacy and divinity of Jesus much more than what is found in the Synoptic Gospels. In order to establish and promote the concept of Jesus’ unity with his Father in heaven, wondrously different from that of mere mortals, the author of the Fourth Gospel used a source that emphasized Jesus’ status as the Messiah, Israel’s redeemer.

The Resurrection Appearances in the Fourth Gospel

To demonstrate that the author of the Jewish-Christian source had access to sources that have not reached us via the synoptic tradition, it is sufficient to mention the story of the wedding at Cana, which is completely unknown from other traditions. Also, in its description of Jesus’ travels, this source features scenes in Judea, such as the raising of Lazarus. As already stated, the Jewish-Christian source was also acquainted with the synoptic tradition, but its author developed the whole in accordance with his own style. Fortna’s approach, to the degree that I have accepted it, may help us to appreciate the historical quality of the source that stands behind the Fourth Gospel: it makes clear that the differences in historical detail between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels are bound up with the Jewish-Christian source that paralleled the tradition shared by the other canonical Gospels.[16] Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct the Jewish-Christian source from the materials we have.

It is especially difficult to reconstruct what it may have said about Jesus’ appearances after he was raised to life. However, it may be possible to account for the final chapter in the Fourth Gospel in a different manner. At the end of John, chapter 20, we read this conclusion:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)[17]

But immediately thereafter the author of the Fourth Gospel begins to tell the story of Jesus on the shore of the sea of Tiberias—an additional post-resurrection appearance. This chapter concludes in much the same way as in the previous chapter:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25)

Here the disciple is identified as the author whose testimony is true. It appears that the similarity between the two conclusions and the figure of the beloved disciple who appears in both chapters are evidence that this material was derived from the Jewish-Christian source, and the poor and misleading organization of the material is due to the work of the author of the Fourth Gospel. The verses that conclude chapter 21, which are identified with the beloved disciple, appear to be the original conclusion of the Jewish-Christian source.

According to the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist hailed Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

As already noted, Fortna attempted to reconstruct the entire Jewish-Christian source on the basis of the aporias, places where the author of the Fourth Gospel wove anti-Jewish adaptations and traditions from the Synoptic Gospels into his basic source, which resulted in contradictions and obscurities in the text. However, although Fortna’s reasoning is mainly convincing, Fortna’s reconstruction cannot be regarded as a “finished product,” not only because of his lack of Jewish sensitivity, but also because he is apparently unaware of the problems and difficulties that his reconstruction raises. For example, in the passage that describes Jesus’ arrest (John 18:3) he does not at all sense the difficulty posed by the combination of the Pharisees and chief priests into a single party organized against Jesus.[18] Comparison with the Synoptic Gospels shows that the mention of the Pharisees is a secondary addition to the original story and that the author of the Fourth Gospel is the source of this idea; it does not come from the Jewish-Christian source or from the adapted version in Matthew. Even after the publication of Fortna’s book and despite my agreement with his method, we are still at the beginning of the process: so far we have hovered, as it were, among the clouds over the mountain peaks. We have yet to descend into the deep valleys.

Jesus’ Conversation with the Samaritan Woman

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:6-26) is suffused with the special theology of the author of the Fourth Gospel and his anti-Jewish sentiment. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct from these verses a fragment of the Jewish-Christian source. From the outset, it appears that the conversation does not report an historical event. The conversation is rather a literary creation, somewhat like an Islamic hadith,[19] that was composed in order to clarify the Church’s attitude toward the Samaritans. Jesus, in his time, had warned the apostles not to go to the Samaritans (Matt. 10:5), but from Acts it is clear that Christianity spread in Samaria after members of the Christian congregation fled from Jerusalem in the turmoil that followed the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1). As a result, the question arose within the Church regarding its relationship toward the Samaritans. The official position of the Jewish Christians that has come to light in the new writings published by Pines[20] was that it was necessary for the Samaritans to recognize Jerusalem as the true religious center.

Jesus&SamaritanWoman
Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman. The images in this article are from the stained glass windows in the sanctuary of the Thomaston Baptist Church in Thomaston, Maine.

In the literarily-constructed conversation, the Samaritan woman essentially asks Jesus what the Church’s relationship is toward Samaritans, and, in the manner of the Jewish sages,[21] Jesus’ answer makes it clear that the Samaritans are required to forsake the cult of Gerizim and turn to Jerusalem in as much as they want to be considered Jews. The woman asks, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:19-20), and Jesus answers her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). In modern commentaries it is common to conclude from this verse, and especially from its ending (“salvation is from the Jews”), that the Fourth Gospel is not anti-Jewish, but, to the contrary, relates to the Jews with approval. Theologians, moreover, seek to establish from this same verse the Christian obligation to turn toward the Jews, since Christianity was born from Judaism. Despite appearances, however, this verse should not be regarded as such a principled statement. In his answer to the Samaritan woman Jesus explains that Jerusalem is to be preferred over the cult on Mount Gerizim, for truth is found among the Jews, but the word “salvation” should not be burdened with ideological connotations that go beyond the question under discussion. In his response there is not a word, nor even half a word, relating to the Christian Church or even to a specific group within Judaism.

The author of the Fourth Gospel places this important discussion about the relationship of the Samaritans to Jerusalem into a mystical atmosphere, and in his vague style draws attention away from the original subject of the discussion by moving the focus toward the Christian congregation and its manner of worship, and by interjecting hints of the coming destruction of Jerusalem due to lack of faith. On top of the literarily-constructed conversation that was taken from his Jewish-Christian source and that helps us understand the historical context of the Jewish-Christian community for which it was composed, the author of the Fourth Gospel built a completely new passage. Verse 21 (“The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father”) is an allusion to the destruction of the Temple, and verses 23-24 (“The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”) articulate the author’s unique Christian theology. These verses do not have any meaningful connection to the conversation with the Samaritan woman.

Whosoever drinketh2The Samaritan woman’s response, “I know that Messiah is coming…when he comes, he will show us all things” (John 4:25), that concludes the conversation does not properly connect with Jesus’ words in verse 22 (“salvation is from the Jews”) and even less with the aporia in the continuation, “to worship in spirit and truth.” Here Jesus answers with a declaration that is typical of the author of the Fourth Gospel with his peculiar “I” language: Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι (“I who speak to you am he”; John 4:26). This last verse was composed by the author of the Fourth Gospel, but the words of the Samaritan woman about the Messiah might have belonged to the Jewish-Christian source. If so we cannot say what their precise context may have been or whether the author of the Fourth Gospel borrowed them from a different source or from a different tradition altogether. We have already noted that it is very difficult, given the present state of the text, to arrive at a complete reconstruction such as Fortna attempted.[22]

If my primary hypothesis is correct that the entire conversation is a product of the Jewish-Christian community’s wrestling with the status of Samaritans in the wake of Christianity’s expansion to the region of Samaria, then we learn some important information about the shape and character of the Jewish-Christian source: it included stories that are not historical, stories that did not originate from early traditions that failed to reach the synoptic writers, but rather stories whose origin was the creativity of the Jewish-Christian community itself, stemming from its desire to connect Jesus’ name to the problems that the Church was then facing. The conversation with the Samaritan woman should accordingly be associated with the Jewish-Christian community that existed prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. However it is possible that in the original text the conversation was concerned with a slightly different question—the matter of Christian prayer and the status of Jerusalem, since this too was a central question for the Jewish Christians.[23] So perhaps the conversation was composed after the destruction of the Temple, since even after the destruction turning toward Jerusalem during prayer was a requirement of the Jewish Christians.

Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospel of John

The tradition about John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel is certainly authentic in its broad outlines. Once again, however, it is hazardous to put too much weight on the details of the verses. In this case we can take our lead from an important trait of the editors of sources in general, and of the author of the Fourth Gospel in particular. It appears that the author of the Fourth Gospel transmitted his source in blocks of verses and wove them into one cloth, a method that greatly increases the difficulty of achieving an exact reconstruction. The story of John the Baptist (John 3:22-4:3) belongs to traditions that influenced the Jewish-Christian source that were distinct from those in the Synoptic Gospels: traditions about Jesus’ deeds in Judea.

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And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” (John 1:32).

The Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as a baptizer parallel to, and indeed in competition with, his teacher and master John the Baptist. After the introduction (John 3:22-23), which comes from his Jewish-Christian source, the author of the Fourth Gospel inserts this addition: “For John had not yet been put in prison” (John 3:24). This comment highlights the disagreement between this version of the story and the synoptic tradition given by Mark and Matthew. According to Mark, Jesus began his activities only after John was imprisoned. The author of the Fourth Gospel attempted with this aporia to remove the discrepancy and to create a unified tradition out of the opposing traditions.

It is very difficult to determine with certainty what is original and what is secondary in the context of the story. Verse 25 (“Now there was a debate…concerning purification”)[24] is very likely to be original. The use of “purification” rather than “baptism” is an indication of the Jewish character of this sentence. In the last section of the story, however, we have another aporia. This is confirmed by the marked tension between the first and second verses of John 4: “the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1), versus “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (John 4:2). It again appears that one of the characteristics of the Jewish-Christian source utilized by the author of the Fourth Gospel is the idea that Jesus’ success among the Jewish people was what caused the tragic turn of events in Jesus’ life. This is also how the Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum explains Jesus’ death.[25] The first verse in chapter 4 also fits this idea: Jesus baptized even more than John. His teaching spread among the people. The second verse, with the qualifying tone we observed previously (cf. John 3:24), moderates the comparison, and we may regard John 4:2 as another attempt by the author of the Fourth Gospel to reconcile the opposing traditions. In the course of the discussion, therefore, we have seen two aporias that are a bit unusual from a literary point of view, but that are very similar to the tendency of the other aporias Fortna pointed out in his book.

The Raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel

Let us turn now to the story of the miraculous raising of Lazarus (John 11), an extremely important story that helps clarify the perspective of the Jewish-Christian source. This story describes the central miracle of Jesus’ ministry and serves as the linchpin of the Jewish-Christian author’s case to the Jews. The raising of Lazarus is turned into a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection. Scholars have already noted that the designation “the Jews” in this story is used differently than in the rest of the Fourth Gospel. Here “the Jews” are referred to favorably with none of the hostile or polemical overtones characteristic of the Fourth Gospel as a whole.[26] In my opinion, the conspicuous lack of anti-Jewish sentiment in this story is an indication that the author of the Fourth Gospel derived the entire story from his Jewish-Christian source. If so, then Jesus’ prayer in this story is significant:

And Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, I thank you that you have answered me, and I knew that you always answer me, but for the sake of this crowd that is around me I have spoken, so that they will believe that you send me.” (John 11:41-42)[27]

This prayer is now known to us from an additional source, a Jewish-Christian text preserved in Arabic, where the prayer appears with small but important differences. Instead of the words “this crowd,” which might imply a degree of dissociation, the Arabic source uses the name “Israel”:

I ask you to resuscitate this dead [man], in order that the Children of Israel should know that You have sent me, and that You respond to my prayers.[28]

Jesus’ prayer in the Lazarus story appears to fit the outlook of the Jewish-Christian source. What is more, it seems that we should regard the comment “I knew that you always answer me” as an aporia. For one thing, the “I” language casts suspicion on this comment, since this language is characteristic of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and for another thing, this comment lifts the prayer out of its historical context, giving it a timeless dimension that does not fit the flow of the story.

According to the Jewish-Christian source, Jesus performed this miracle for the Jews, the people of Israel, as a decisive confirmation sign, an intention that is expressed in the verse, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him” (John 11:45). In this way, the author of the Jewish-Christian source makes the purpose of the miracle stories clear and indicates the measure of Jesus’ success: “many…believed in him.” As a result of this success, the rest of the story concerns the worries of the chief priests that the number of believers in Jesus will increase, and their fear that this could lead to Roman intervention.

The Reaction of the Chief Priests to the Raising of Lazarus

In the verses describing the chief priests there appear to be two or three aporias, all of which testify to the great importance the Jewish-Christian source attached to this story, and at the same time demonstrate how the author of the Fourth Gospel sought to insert his own views into the narrative. In the Jewish-Christian source the priests are worried about Jesus’ increasing support among the people and so they invite the Sanhedrin to discuss the situation: “Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Sanhedrin”[29] (John 11:47). Evidently, the author of the Fourth Gospel inserted the Pharisees into the account, in conformity with his tendency to disparage the Pharisees, just as he also inserted them into the previous verse that says, “…some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done” (John 11:46), an addition that has no place in the flow of the story where it is not the Pharisees, but the chief priests, who are worried about the expansion of the movement centered on Jesus. The Jewish-Christian source emphasizes the tension between Jesus and the high priestly leadership, but the author of the Fourth Gospel changed the story by inserting the Pharisees.

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“Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

The secondary addition of the Pharisees, which the author of the Fourth Gospel inserted into the story of the chief priests’ emergency convening of the Sanhedrin, should be considered in relation to verses 51-52. In John 11:50 Caiaphas expresses a blatantly political position, whereas verse 51 attempts to give his position a religious character (“he did not say this of his own accord…”) and repeats what had already been stated in verse 49 (“he was high priest that year”). This repetition, which is unnecessary in so short an interval, functions as a vehicle to lift Caiaphas’ saying out of its political context and impart it with a deeper dimension than what Caiaphas originally intended. It is possible, however, that the end of verse 51 (“he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation”) did appear in some form in the Jewish-Christian source since these words allude to Jesus’ atoning death. Such a concept is generally not found in the Synoptic Gospels, but its absence there does not rule out the possibility of its presence in the Jewish-Christian source. The next verse (“and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”; John 11:52), however, is certainly an addition introduced by the author of the Fourth Gospel. This statement takes the reader out of the historical context of the story by combining non-Jewish believers with the Jews, a consideration that never appears in the Jewish-Christian source. Sensing the story’s central importance in his source, the author of the Fourth Gospel injected it with some of his core ideas while ignoring the aporias his editorial insertions created. In so doing, the author of the Fourth Gospel weakened the Jewish nationalist tendency of his source by applying the concept of atonement to the universal Christian Church.

In the overall story there is a particular difficulty that was caused by the redactional activity of the author of the Fourth Gospel, though it is difficult to understand what his motivation may have been. Those gathered in John 11:48 identify the destruction of the Temple as the danger posed by Jesus’ movement. After this comes Caiaphas’ puzzling announcement, “You know nothing at all,” despite his basic agreement with the Sanhedrin’s assessment of the situation. It therefore seems possible that, in its original form, Caiaphas made the entire argument to the Sanhedrin and we should regard verse 49 as the introduction to the high priest’s case, and that perhaps verse 48 was part of Caiaphas’ oracle, like this:

So the chief priests gathered the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.” Then Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You don’t know anything! Don’t you understand that it is better that one person should die than that the whole people be destroyed? For if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our nation.”

However, as I already observed, it is impossible to arrive at a complete reconstruction of the wording of the Jewish-Christian source, and it is enough for us to highlight the difficulties of this passage and to ask the questions it raises.

In the Fourth Gospel there is no session of the Sanhedrin for the trial of Jesus apart from this meeting, which takes place prior to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It appears to me that there is a degree of historical plausibility to this account, since the implication of the narrative is that Caiaphas sought the Sanhedrin’s permission and support to arrest Jesus. His exclamation, “You don’t know anything,” is the essence of his argument, for his desire was to provoke a reaction based on fears of danger potentially posed by Jesus and his following. Caiaphas attempted to involve the Sanhedrin in his extreme course of action by playing on their fears. Such a session of the Sanhedrin is, of course, possible from an historical perspective, and the same atmosphere of extremism on the part of the chief priests is also found in the Synoptic Gospels.[30]

Thus, the raising of Lazarus and the enthusiasm of the believers in the wake of this miracle are portrayed as the causes of a terrible catastrophe: the handing over of Jesus to the Romans. This idea is the basic premise of the Jewish-Christian source. While it is difficult to accept the precise historical details as the Jewish-Christian source portrayed them, the historical scheme I have outlined has a measure of credibility.

Jesus’ Final Visit to Jerusalem in John’s Gospel

In John 12:12-19 we read about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This story also contains an aporia, but it is neither so clear-cut nor so unambiguous as others we have discussed. Jesus is described as entering the city of Jerusalem in fulfillment of the words of the prophet (John 12:12-15), but it appears that the incomprehension of the disciples is an invention of the author of the Fourth Gospel. The location of verses 17-18 seems particularly difficult, since they are out of order in the narrative flow of the story, and are therefore similar to the aporias. Nevertheless, these verses articulate views characteristic of the Jewish-Christian source, namely the idea that the signs inspired faith among many Jews. In any case, the identification of the speakers in verse 19 as the Pharisees appears to be an addition of the author of the Fourth Gospel according to his usual method. Even if this verse did appear in the Jewish-Christian source, the speakers were surely not Pharisees but only the common people of Israel.

100_4003
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49).

From the same passage we learn an additional clue about the Jewish-Christian source. The story of Lazarus served as a turning point from Jesus’ signs to two far-reaching results. The raising of Lazarus resulted in Israel’s praise for Jesus which in turn led to Jesus’ tragic end. In the opinion of the Jewish-Christian author, it was the duty of the Jews to amend Jesus’ tragic ending by renewing their faith in Jesus’ messianic status.

It is also possible for us to observe the literary and philosophical character of the Jewish-Christian author’s adaptation of one additional point: the acclamation “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). The blessing with which the people of Jerusalem received pilgrims is known to us from parallel sources.[31] According to a rabbinic recollection of the Second Temple period:

The people of Jerusalem used to say, “Save us Lord (Hosanna)!” and the pilgrims would answer, “So be it, Lord!” The people of Jerusalem used to say, “Blessed is he who comes in his name!” and the pilgrims would reply, “We bless you from the house of the Lord!” (Midrash Tehillim on Ps. 118 [ed. Buber, 488])[32]

Whether the Jewish-Christian author knew this custom from the Second Temple period or whether he wrote after the destruction of the Temple, it is clear that he changed the meaning of the usual and accepted blessing for pilgrims into special praise for Jesus. The adaptation is evidence of the author’s awareness that the people of Jerusalem had addressed this blessing to Jesus and to the rest of the Jewish pilgrims alike. This blatant literary adaptation of the historical facts enabled the author to emphasize his religious views even more powerfully.

Conclusion

By now it should be clear that Fortna was correct when he attempted to prove the veracity of the theory that a Jewish-Christian source is at the core of the Fourth Gospel. Nevertheless, the work is not complete, and it will prove fruitful to resume work on the reconstruction, since even the source upon which the Fourth Gospel was based is an adaptation of earlier sources. Such work will broaden our knowledge of the sources of Jesus’ life and deeds and help us understand the history of the Jewish Christians after the death of Jesus. Finally, it is important to reiterate the historical and literary paradox that is the Fourth Gospel. For some reason, a Jewish-Christian source that was focused on Jews, that was written for Jews, that originated in the Jewish world and that espoused a Jewish nationalism stronger than that of Jesus himself became the basis of the Fourth Gospel and its blatant anti-Jewish tendencies.[33]

Translator’s Note: In this translation I have endeavored to remain faithful to Flusser’s original essay, which appeared as מקור נוצרי יהודי לבשורה לפי יוחנן, יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים, תשל″ט) עמ′ 71-60. At certain points, however, Flusser’s laconic style required me to fill in his argument by supplying further information, such as a fuller quotation of his source or a summary sentence that pulled the thoughts together. Whenever possible I consulted other studies Flusser wrote on the topics under discussion. I have also filled in gaps in the essay’s bibliography–JNT.

  • [1] Already among the early church fathers there were those who believed that the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote only the First Epistle of John. See Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (Anchor Bible 30; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), 9-13–JNT.
  • [2] Various scholars have questioned the authenticity of the final chapter of the Fourth Gospel, which summarizes the entire work, and this problem has not yet received a satisfying solution.
  • [3] In the course of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ discussion with Jacob of Kefar Sekaniah, a disciple of Jesus, Jacob says, “In your Torah, it is written…” (b. Avod. Zar. 17a; cf. Eccl. Rab. 1:8 §3). The question remains, however, whether this dissociative language is really that of Jesus’ disciple, Jacob, or whether it is a secondary adaptation of his words. It is likely that this dissociative language (“your Torah”) in rabbinic literature and the Fourth Gospel reflects the developing opinion of the rabbinic sages in the one case, and the author of the Fourth Gospel’s understanding of the connection of Christianity to Judaism in the other. On the encounter between Rabbi Eliezer and Jacob of Kefar Sekaniah, see Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 96 ff.; Joshua Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson, “When Rabbi Eliezer Was Arrested For Heresy,” Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal 10 (2012): 145-181–JNT.
  • [4] See Oscar Cullmann, Der Johanneische Kreis: Sein Platz im Spätjudentum, in der Jüngerschaft Jesu und im Urchristentum (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1975). Cullmann connects the separation from mainstream Judaism to the type of Judaism adhered to in the Johannine community. His opinion is interesting, but he does not fully understand the question of fulfilling the commandments in Judaism.
  • [5] See above, note 1.
  • [6] It is possible that Irenaeus derived his testimony from Papias and that we should therefore regard their words as a single source. See Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.4.
  • [7] On the shaky and exaggerated attempts to attribute greater historical accuracy to the Fourth Gospel, see Charles H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).
  • [8] See Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray et al.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 6-7, 113-114.
  • [9] Robert T. Fortna, The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
  • [10] Fortna (Gospel of Signs, 2) defines the aporias as “the many inconsistencies, disjunctures and hard connections, even contradictions…notably in the narrative portions [of the Fourth Gospel]…which cannot be accounted for by textual criticism”–JNT.
  • [11] See Fortna, Gospel of Signs, 235-245–JNT.
  • [12] See Fortna, Gospel of Signs, 223-225–JNT.
  • [13] Cf. the story of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma in b. Sanh. 98a.
  • [14] The Testimonium Flavianum is the scholarly term for the passage in Josephus that describes the life of Jesus (Ant. 18:63-64). Most scholars agree that this passage was edited by a later Christian copyist–JNT. See Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971); and my article, עדותו של יספוס על ישו, יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים ,תשל″ט) עמ′ 80-72.
  • [15] See Fortna, Gospel of Signs, 52 n. 2.
  • [16] See my article, היחס הספרותי בין שלושת האוונגליונים, יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים ,תשל″ט) עמ′ 49-28.
  • [17] Biblical quotations are according to the RSV–JNT.
  • [18] Cf. Fortna, Gospel of Signs, 115, 146 n. 1–JNT.
  • [19] A hadith is tradition about Muhammed that is not part of the Koran. The collections of hadiths were compiled long after the death of the founder of Islam. See Gordon D. Newby, A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002), 69-70–JNT.
  • [20] See Shlomo Pines, “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries According to a New Source,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 2 (1968): 4, 10. Stern, who disagrees with Pines’ interpretation of the text, provides a complete translation of the Arabic source that Pines examined in his essay. See Samuel M. Stern, “‘Abd Al-Jabbar’s Account of how Christ’s Religion was Falsified by the Adoption of Roman Customs,” Journal of Theological Studies 19.1 (1968): 128-185. See also, John G. Gager, “Did Jewish Christians See the Rise of Islam?” in The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 361-372–JNT.
  • [21] Cf. the Minor Tractate “Kuthim” 2:13 [61b]–JNT.
  • [22] Fortna includes John 4:6-26 in his reconstruction, but in his discussion he does not agree with me to include John 4:20, 22. See Fortna, Gospel of Signs, 189-195–JNT.
  • [23] See Shlomo Pines, “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries According to a New Source,” 4, 10.
  • [24] Flusser’s translation–JNT.
  • [25] See above, note 14.
  • [26] Contrast the negative connotation of “Jews” in John 11:8 with the favorable connotation in John 11:19, 31, 33, 36. See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; Anchor Bible 29 and 29a; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966, 1970), 1:427-428.
  • [27] Flusser’s translation–JNT.
  • [28] See Shlomo Pines, “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries According to a New Source,” 61; idem, “Gospel Quotations and Cognate Topics in ‘Abd Al-Jabbar’s Tathbit in Relation to Early Christian and Judaeo-Christian Readings and Traditions,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 9 (1987): 195-278, esp. 214.
  • [29] Flusser’s translation—JNT.
  • [30] See my article, משפטו ומותו של ישו הנוצרי, יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים ,תשל″ט) עמ′ 149-120‎.
  • [31] See שמואל ספראי, עליה לרגל בימי בית שני (תל אביב: עם הספר, 1966)‏; Shmuel Safrai, Die Wallfahrt im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels (trans. Dafna Mach; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981), 158.
  • [32] See David Flusser, Jesus (3d ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 134-135 n. 2–JNT.
  • [33] The translator wishes to thank Lauren S. Asperschlager for carefully proofreading the final version of this article and for her many helpful comments and suggestions along the way–JNT.

Flusser on Lindsey’s Synoptic Hypothesis

Robert Lindsey has made one of the most important discoveries in the history of modern critical scholarship concerning the interrelationship of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Or, as he rightly says, the Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew, for, like Lindsey, I am sure that Luke was written before Mark, and Mark, in turn, was written before Matthew. Lindsey discovered in 1962 that this was the order of our first three Gospels,[1] and I have tested his conclusions for more than twenty years and found a great deal of evidence in support of this theory.

Lindsey’s discovery was certainly of Providence, for it has led to many further discoveries, many of which I made on the basis of Lindsey’s work. Among the most important of these subsequent discoveries is Lindsey’s realization that within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke lie the literary fragments of more complete stories that formed much of the original Greek translation of the Hebrew proto-story of Jesus. For the past seven years I have watched with fascination and excitement as Lindsey succeeded in isolating and reconstructing many of these hidden, early stories of Jesus and, following his lead, have myself recovered a story or two to add to the list.

Had someone managed to excavate some recessed cavern in the Desert of Judea and found an ancient jar containing Matthew’s eyewitness story of Jesus, newspapers and periodicals would long ago have publicized the discovery. “Finds” made by retranslating to Hebrew Greek texts written nearly two thousand years ago—such as those in our first three Gospels—are considered to be less newsworthy. The reason for the news media’s inattention to Lindsey’s discovery is not hard to find. First, modern scholars of the New Testament are no longer trained to read Greek and think Hebrew, as Lindsey puts it, and, secondly, students of the Gospels have for many years supposed there are other ways of explaining important questions concerning the sources of these texts.

For instance, for nearly a hundred years it has been customary for scholars to suppose that the story and sayings units of our Gospels developed orally. They theorize that early Greek-speaking Christians heard stories about Jesus from the first Jewish believers in him. They retold these stories in Greek and, as they told them, added their own interpretations, often with little regard for historical detail. After some years, various collections of these tales were written down in Greek and formed the sources of our Gospels, so it is said. If the Synoptic Gospels differ in many details it is no wonder: stories transmitted by word-of-mouth are notoriously undependable, and in any case after these stories were first written down each new copier of them made extensive changes to suit his own interests and those of “the Church” of his day.

With such explanations of the nature of our Gospel texts it is no wonder that vast numbers of modern scholars have come to view the Gospel accounts with increasing skepticism. The market for books about Jesus has never been greater, but theories considered scholarly are often built on some esoteric choice of this or that principle of historical research that an earlier generation of New Testament scholars would have found absurd, if not laughable. Lindsey—and I with him—is saying something almost epochally different. He once supposed that his teachers, who taught him this oral approach to the Gospels, were right. He and I are sure today that they were wrong.

I first saw that the oral hypothesis was in error when I compared many of the discussions and sayings in the Gospels with early rabbinic writings. The nuances, the special wording, the themes, the parabolic phrases, the give-and-take of the conversations reported about Jesus are simply too Jewish and rabbinic and Hebraic to be the invention of non-Jewish Greek speakers. I realized that the only way to explain this amazing authenticity is to posit an original story of Jesus that was composed in Hebrew, translated literally to Greek, and transmitted in writing with great fidelity.

Then, in the goodness of God, Lindsey and I met in 1961. Lindsey had the mind of a curious, Hebrew-speaking Christian who had been trained by his Baptist teachers to study the details of any and every text in the Bible. We both wanted to know what Jesus said. In some instances that goal required long and tedious hours with Hebrew and Greek concordances and Gospel synopses and other tools of such study. We often disagreed and often argued over the findings. But gradually we found much more agreement than disagreement.

Lindsey’s comparative study of the Greek materials brought him reluctantly in 1962 to the conclusion that Mark had used Luke in composing his own Gospel, and not vice versa. He came unwillingly to this conclusion because most scholars have long believed that Mark’s Gospel was independently used by the writers of both Matthew and Luke.

On the other hand, Lindsey felt less like the proverbial Johnny out-of-step when he concluded some months later that the accepted view that Matthew copied much of his material from Mark was most certainly correct. Thus, Lindsey’s new understanding of the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels is both innovative and traditional, for although Lindsey’s hypothesis posits the priority of Luke, he maintains the widely accepted suggestions that Luke and Matthew worked independently of one another and that Matthew derived his narrative outline from Mark.

The origin of Lindsey’s conclusion that Mark had used Luke as one of the primary sources for his Gospel was Lindsey’s study of Mark’s wording of stories parallel to those of Luke. Lindsey found that Mark had an associative mind and that as he looked at Luke’s text he was reminded of stories and phrases from several of the Epistles of Paul, the Epistle of James and the book of Acts. From these and other texts, Mark would borrow words and mix them with Luke’s wording as he copied a pericope from Luke. The result was that Luke’s text would almost always translate to Hebrew more easily than Mark’s. In other words, if one wants to get back to the earliest wording of our literally-translated Greek-Hebrew texts, one must almost totally disregard Mark’s text. Mark’s Gospel is valuable and interesting in itself, but it does not preserve the wording of the proto-Greek, Hebrew-like text.

Since Matthew copied many of Mark’s secondary words when in parallel with Mark, one also cannot get much help from Matthew’s Gospel at these points in an attempt to recover the earliest text. However, Matthew and Luke have many passages in common when not in Markan context and those in Matthew are often as Hebraic as the parallels in Luke, and sometimes even more so. Indeed, when Matthew is not directly using Mark, even his texts not paralleled by Mark or Luke are as a rule beautifully Hebraic.

As Lindsey insists, all this evidence points to the existence of a basic source probably known equally to Luke, Mark and Matthew, but known to us best from Matthew and Luke. This basic source (which Lindsey refers to as the Anthology) supplied words and short phrases to Matthew’s text as Matthew copied Mark, and provided almost all the other material we have in our first three Gospels.

The basic source, a Greek document, was not a translation of the Hebrew undertext. Before the creation of the basic source someone came to the eyewitness Hebrew life of Jesus and translated that story word by word to Greek. Later the Greek editor who was responsible for the creation of the basic source took this Greek story of Jesus and, quite clearly, decided to reorganize the individual stories in this scroll. His method of reorganization was odd but interesting: looking at the episodes recorded in the longer narrative he noticed that many of them began with an incident in the life of Jesus in which Jesus (usually as he went from place to place with his disciples) conversed with some person or other and then turned to teach those present a lesson suggested by the incident. This Greek editor also observed that Jesus often used parables as he taught. Many stories could be easily divided into three sections in the following manner:

  • 1. Opening incident
  • 2. Teaching or instruction
  • 3. Twin parables, that is, two parables expressing the same theme

What the author of the reorganized basic source did was to separate sections of the episodes into their component parts. He discarded nothing, but apparently copied opening incidents (which sometimes contained a give-and-take conversation between Jesus and others) and placed them in a special section of the new scroll he was writing. He did the same with teaching sections, placing each teaching section next to other such sections (resulting in such complexes as the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). Finally, he placed parables, which normally came at the end of teaching sections, and placed them in still another section of the new scroll. This reorganization of material according to literary genre is the reason Lindsey refers to the basic source as “the Anthology.”

Proof that this analysis of our pre-synoptic sources is correct can be found in the relative ease with which the original literary units can be reconstructed by piecing together the fragments still preserved in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. These fragments are still intact despite their scattered presence in the Synoptic Gospels. Almost miraculously the pieces come together, like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision. The completing of stories often requires piecing together of passages taken from both Matthew and Luke. The materials in Matthew and Luke are amazingly congruous, but neither Gospel-writer preserved the Anthology in its entirety.

Positing the existence of the Anthology does not solve all our problems, however. Luke quite clearly used the basic source in two forms, one of which was the Anthology itself, and the second some kind of short reconstructed narrative made up of some of the stories he lifted out of the Anthology. Lindsey calls this early attempt at reconstructing part of the Anthology into a continuous narrative the First Reconstruction, or FR. From FR Luke derived his story-order, a story-order Mark picked up from Luke and passed on to Matthew.

In order to avoid confusion, let me put down these steps in the transmission of the story of Jesus in outline form:

  • 1. Original Hebrew story of Jesus
  • 2. Literal, word-by-word Greek translation
  • 3. Reorganized Greek text, or Anthology (Anth.), which separated the materials in a given story on the basis of:
    • A) Incident
    • B) Teaching section
    • C) Parables
  • 4. First Reconstruction, a short, partial gathering together of some of the Anthology’s units.

Lindsey'sStemma3

 

The First Reconstruction is thus a text that selected units from Anth. in an attempt to put at least some of the story fragments from the original Greek translation of the Hebrew biography of Jesus back into a chronological narrative, which the author of FR realized must have existed before the separation and fragmentation caused by the author of Anth. In other words, FR is a short narrative with material that runs parallel to that found in Anth.

Of the synoptic writers, only Luke knew FR. Luke based his order largely on the story outline he found in FR. We see this order of story-units in chapters 3 to 9 and 18 to 24 of Luke, roughly speaking. But at least in Luke’s chapters 9 to 18 Luke mainly copied from Anth. By putting the parts of Luke that show Luke’s use of the FR text back into Hebrew and by making careful comparisons with rabbinic sources, we can often spot editorial notes and special interpretations introduced by the author of FR. It is the presence of some of these additions that has given scholars so many headaches. Among the problems introduced by FR are the “Messianic Secret” (i.e., Jesus’ instruction “Don’t tell anyone I am the Messiah”) and the use of the expression “Kingdom of God” as an equivalent of the more original “coming of the Son of Man.”

Let me explain. We often hear Jesus speaking of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” that is, the Kingdom of God, and by this he clearly means the miraculous healing and deliverance of the sick and demonized through his own agency and in his own day. Jesus also used this Pharisaic term to indicate his community of followers and thus even speaks of a future time when his body of believers will include people “from the east and west and north and south.” But when Jesus speaks of his return “in glory” he refers to it as “the coming of the Son of Man.” For this latter phrase FR has borrowed the expression “the Kingdom of God” and erroneously introduced it with the meaning “the coming of the Son of Man.”

As Mark copied Luke, his knowledge of Anth. appears to have enabled him to recognize the parts of Luke that were not copied from Anth. Mark did not know FR directly, but Mark was impressed with the interpretations and order of the new text he observed Luke using because it often differs in small matters from the parallels in Anth. Mark seems to have enjoyed choosing FR’s interpretations and even expanding them (like the notes on the Messianic Secret). As a general rule, Mark followed the order of FR he found in Luke. This resulted in Mark’s issuing his own reconstruction of Anth., namely, the Gospel of Mark.

Matthew somehow came upon a copy of Mark and recognized immediately that stories from Anth. had been given a new order. Matthew was impressed and used Mark’s order as the basis of his own composition, adding from time to time many of Anth.’s units not given by Mark (i.e., what we refer to as Double Tradition and much of the unique Matthean material). Even as he used Mark, Matthew constantly referred to his copy of Anth. and wove words and phrases from Anth. into the stories he copied from Mark. These insertions from Anth. are easily detected in Matthew, for they appear in Luke’s parallels. They are sometimes called the “minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark.”

Most of the material for Lindsey’s reconstructions of the fragmented stories comes not from the stories included in the work of FR, which dictated the order found in Luke, Mark and Matthew. Rather, it comes from incidents preserved by Luke, teaching units found in both Matthew and Luke, but in separate contexts, teaching units found only in Luke or only in Matthew, and parables often appearing only in Luke or only in Matthew. In Luke these sections are mainly found in chapters 9-18 and happily were little affected by the editorial modification of FR.

It is my guess that all future students of the Synoptic Gospels will be seriously affected by Lindsey’s discovery. Lindsey has rolled back the rug of modern scholarship and revealed the naked floor. That floor has little resemblance to much that has been used to cover it.

More importantly, Lindsey has given an alternative explanation of the “Synoptic Problem.” This explanation drives us back to sources that were both written and transmitted in writing. These sources are so authentic and generally accurate that the entire picture of Jesus can no longer be said to be at the mercy of radically skeptical historical research.

Our sources have remained largely intact. Not only the words of Jesus as found in the parables are original, as some have maintained, but often those in the teaching passages of the Synoptic Gospels go right back to Jesus. Sometimes the original format of the individual stories is recoverable, as well.

Behind all of the synoptic sources stands one great eyewitness. This eyewitness is probably the Matthew of early church tradition who wrote “…in…Hebrew and everyone interpreted…as best he could,” according to the testimony of Papias in about 135 C.E. This Matthew is, of course, not the Greek author of the Gospel attributed to Matthew, although the author of the so-called First Gospel has happily preserved many of the stories recorded by the original Matthew.

Much of what the Hebrew-speaking disciple Matthew wrote is solidly present in the Synoptic Gospels. A reader of these Gospels can depend very largely on their contents. Problems with the text remain, but we now have many more of the answers, and the picture today’s reader can get of Jesus is extremely close to that taught in the early church. In the providence of the Almighty these remarkable documents have been preserved. Lindsey has helped us see how remarkable they are.

This essay, which Flusser evidently wrote in the 1980s, was originally intended to serve as the introduction to a projected book entitled Discovering the Earliest Story of Jesus by Robert L. Lindsey. Lindsey’s book was never completed, however this introduction affords a valuable insight into Flusser’s assessment of Lindsey’s Synoptic Hypothesis. The editors of JerusalemPerspective.com have updated the terminology in this essay to match Lindsey’s at the final stage of his theory’s refinement.
Tom Tilton, Big Birds Flying Across the Sky, Throwing Shadows in Our Eyes (1970).
Tom Tilton, Big Birds Flying Across the Sky, Throwing Shadows in Our Eyes (1970).

Foreword to Robert Lindsey’s A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark

Iam very pleased at having this opportunity to write a foreword to a work which, for the first time, explains in much detail the results of Robert Lindsey’s long and painstaking research on the text of Mark and on the Synoptic Problem.[1] It seems clear that Lindsey’s observations have provided a decisive new clue to understanding the synoptic relationships and an equally important clue to the correct approach to the Gospel of Mark.

At present, the scholarly opinion that the Gospel of Mark was a principal source for the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is all but unanimous. Unfortunately, the occasional voices raised in opposition to this view are usually accompanied by remarks that show a distressing lack of good philological thinking, for in their desire to avoid Markan priority these voices tend to propose theories that run contrary to one or more important facts that have long been known to scholars. Such theories are doomed to oblivion from the start.

The advantage of Lindsey’s theory is that it accepts the view that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke depend on two main sources, and that there also exists a pattern of interdependence between these three Gospels. Lindsey’s delineation of sources has, as far as I know, never been proposed. Even scholars who subscribe to the usual theory of Markan priority are obliged to admit that the idea that Matthew and Luke depend upon an extant Gospel did not arise from the original observation that these Gospels were directly dependent upon Mark, but from the gradual identification of Mark with an earlier gospel called “Ur-Marcus” by many scholars. Thus the idea of combining the so-called Two-source Theory of synoptic dependence with that of successive dependence of one Gospel upon another is a new development in synoptic theory and one that has its analogies to other modern approaches to the literary analysis of interrelated documents.

Lindsey’s approach can, of course, be properly tested only when at least two conditions are met: first, the investigator must study most, if not all, the relevant gospel materials in the light of Lindsey’s theory and, second, the investigator must know enough Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic to follow Lindsey’s arguments. As Lindsey explains, he made his earliest observations while facing the difficulties of translating the Greek text of Mark to Hebrew. Very few people today have the training to use Semitic languages and Greek comparatively, but even the scholar who knows Koine Greek well can, with a bit of effort, detect Mark’s strange use of language. It is impossible to explain the historically and linguistically self-consistent text of Luke as a rewriting of Mark and Q. The same can be said about the parts of Matthew not paralleled in Mark, especially those that are usually assumed to have been copied by Matthew from Q. A scholar must ask why in some Matthean parallels to Mark one finds a more Hebraic, and therefore a seemingly more original, series of words.

The Great Commandment

Let us examine the Great Commandment pericope (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) as an example to illustrate this point:

Luke 10:25-28 Mark 12:28-31 Matthew 22:34-40
L1 Καὶ προσελθὼν εἷς τῶν γραμματέων ἀκούσας αὐτῶν συζητούντων, ἰδὼν ὅτι καλῶς ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς, Οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες ὅτι ἐφίμωσεν τοὺς Σαδδουκαίους συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό.
L2 Καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν λέγων· ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν· καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν νομικὸς πειράζων αὐτόν·
L3 Διδάσκαλε, Διδάσκαλε,
L4 τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;
L5 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν·
L6 Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις; Ποία ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη πάντων; ποία ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ;
L7 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ·
L8 Πρώτη ἐστίν·
L9 Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ, κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστιν,
L10 Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου
L11 ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου
L12 καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου
L13 καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου
L14 καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου.
L15 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή.
L16 δευτέρα αὕτη· Δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ·
L17 καὶ τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν.
L18 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ· Ὀρθῶς ἀπεκρίθης· τοῦτο ποίει καὶ ζήσῃ. μείζων τούτων ἄλλη ἐντολὴ οὐκ ἔστιν. ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.
  • Red = Luke / Mark / Matthew agreement
  • Orange = Luke / Mark agreement
  • Blue = Mark / Matthew agreement
  • Purple = Luke / Matthew minor agreement

In this pericope, both Matthew and Luke retain the expression ἐν τῷ νόμῳ (en tō nomō, “in the Law”) against Mark (L6), and Mark’s expression, ἐντολὴ πρώτη πάντων (entolē prōtē pantōn, “commandment first of all”), becomes in Matthew, ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ (entolē megalē en tō nomō, “great commandment in the Law”). If we suppose that the expression כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה (kelāl gādōl batōrāh, “a great summary [statement] in the Law”) stands behind this phrase, Matthew’s version fits the rabbinic tradition exactly. Against both Mark and Luke, Matthew adds the equally rabbinic “on/upon/from these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (L18; Matt. 22:40). Despite these excellent Hebraic and rabbinic readings, however, it is clear that Matthew combined his source with Mark’s version by writing “great” and “first” in Matthew 22:38. Other Matthean-Lukan agreements against Mark include the appellation “teacher” (L3; Matt. 22:36; Luke 10:25), a title that these two writers appear to use only when uncommitted persons (i.e., non-disciples) speak to Jesus. The careful use of “teacher,” on the part of Luke and Matthew, like their use of the title “Lord” by which the disciples address Jesus, is one of many indications that the Synoptic Gospels have often faithfully preserved the original Hebrew setting.

Thus, Matthew’s Gospel shows that its author depended on more than one source: Matthew agrees with Luke against Mark on the phrase “in the Law,” produces two fascinating rabbinically sophisticated texts against Luke and Mark, and yet manages to combine these with the Markan version. On the other hand, we can demonstrate that Mark knew the original “great commandment” (preserved only in Matthew) from his statement that no “commandment is greater” (L18; Mark 12:31).

Some years ago I had occasion to point out these details to an outstanding New Testament scholar. His explanation was that Matthew “must have been influenced by a secondary oral tradition.” If his explanation is correct, then oral tradition served Matthew in a rather remarkable way, succeeding in both intertwining the text of Mark with that of Matthew and in presenting us with a much more original-sounding story. To someone like me, who has studied ancient texts of all kinds for many years, this explanation seems very strange indeed! The following changes, in just a few short verses, were made by Matthew.

  1. Against Mark and with Luke he wrote “teacher” (L3).
  2. Against Mark and with Luke he wrote “the Law” (L6).
  3. Against Mark and with Luke he omitted the confession of Israel, “Hear, O Israel” (L9).
  4. Against Mark and Luke he omitted “with all your strength” (L13-14).
  5. In Matthew 22:38 he introduced “great” against Mark’s “first” (L6; Mark 12:28).
  6. In Matthew 22:40 he introduced a halachic phrase against both Mark and Luke (L18).

Such a pattern is much more likely to be the work of an author faced with the literary problem of combining two texts, rather than being evidence of an oral tradition. Markan priorists have long held this point of view with regard to Matthew’s use of Mark and Q. Why not suppose that the Matthean-Lukan agreements show that Matthew possessed a text with parallels for a majority of the Markan stories he copied? The important changes of meaning could thus be attributed to the editorial activity of Mark.

In the example cited above, Mark noted the word “great” in his source and decided to change it to “first” (a non-Hebraic usage, since Hebrew uses “first” as a description of time, but not of station). There are other examples of Mark’s replacement of “first” for other apparent synonyms (cf. the synoptic parallels to Mark 6:21; 9:35; 10:44). His other changes, for example, the “Hear, O Israel” and his added homily (Mark 12:32-34), show Mark’s propensity for addition and expansion. Matthew, who possessed both the Markan text and a source parallel to it, a source that was known also to Luke, wove his sources together. It is difficult to imagine that Matthew corrected both sources with the help of floating, oral knowledge, especially since Matthew often betrayed an ignorance of things Jewish even while transmitting remarkably authentic rabbinic material.

“What they might do…”

If we accept Lindsey’s analysis of the Synoptic Problem, it is not surprising that we often find evidence that Luke’s version is the most original and that Matthew has been unduly influenced by Mark, even when he appears to be correcting Mark with the help of another source. The story of the man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6; Matt. 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11) is a case in point. In this story Jesus’ opponents watch to see if he will heal a man on the Sabbath in a way contrary to the halachah. None of the Synoptists suggest that there was any open criticism of Jesus’ action. There is no reason why there should have been such a criticism, for this kind of healing (by command) was not contrary to the halachah. Yet both Mark and Matthew, in almost identical words, state that “the Pharisees” (Mark adds also “the Herodians”) took counsel against Jesus “to destroy him.” Significantly, Luke says only that Jesus’ opponents “discussed among themselves” what to do “to” Jesus.

In a story about a person named Honi (m. Ta’anit 3:8; cf. b. Ta’anit 23a) we have an interesting first-century B.C.E. parallel to the New Testament account. Honi, during a season of drought, had rather impudently demanded rain from God. Certain Pharisees felt that Honi had acted too much like a spoiled child and they rebuked him. Honi, however, had done nothing against Jewish halachah and, in the end, his Pharisaic critic could only say to him, אֲבָל מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לְךָ (avāl māh ’e‘eseh lechā, “But what can I do to you?”), the implication being that nothing could be done to him, for he had not transgressed the halachah.

The incident in the Gospels must have occurred much as Luke preserved it. Jesus looked at the unfortunate man and, in a provoking challenge to all present, said, “Is it permitted to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). He then told the man to stretch out his hand and, as he did so, the hand was healed. There is certainly an implied criticism of Sabbath legalism in Jesus’ words, but he had done nothing that violated the sanctity of the Sabbath. Luke’s “they discussed what to do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11) may only mean “they discussed what could be done to Jesus.” Indeed, as he appears to do in other instances, Luke may have replaced an original phrase in direct discourse, such as, “They said, ‘What can we do to him?'” with the extant statement. If so, the difficulty finds its solution in a simple Hebrew idiom. Mark, however, takes the phrase to mean that “they counselled with each other,” intending to do what a group of high priests later would take counsel together to do, namely, destroy Jesus. Mark has jumped ahead to a later event and attributed motives of a later time to Jesus’ detractors in the synagogue, who, like the Pharisees in the Honi incident, were merely upset with Jesus’ seeming impudence.

Comparison of such rabbinic stories with the synoptic accounts teaches us many lessons. The first is that any normal philological reasoning would indicate the priority of Luke’s account. Water does not flow uphill. It is simply impossible to believe that the Matthean-Markan account could be changed secondarily into the Lukan form. On the other hand, it is easy to explain the secondary action of Mark. The second lesson is that knowledge of language usages in Jesus’ time illuminates the difficult problems of originality in the Synoptic Gospels. The third is that Matthew is secondary to Mark and Mark to Luke, for only in such an order of dependence is it possible to explain how Matthew could adopt Mark’s secondary readings.

The “Trial” of Jesus

The originality of Luke and the secondary readings of Mark (so often followed by Matthew) can be further illustrated in one of the most important parts of the Gospel story, the so-called “trial” of Jesus. Most of the difficulties noted by scholars are the result of concentrating on the Matthean-Markan version of this event to the neglect of Luke’s version. I want to mention two important points connected with this discussion.

The first point has already been dealt with by Paul Winter in his On the Trial of Jesus. Winter noted that in the Gospel of Luke no mention is made of a condemnation of Jesus by the Jewish authorities at Jesus’ “trial.”[2] This surprising fact becomes even more important when it is noted that in the whole of Luke there is no mention anywhere of a verdict passed by a Jewish court, not even in the three predictions of Jesus’ demise in Jerusalem (Luke 9:22, 44; 18:31-33).[3] Although an adherent of the Markan hypothesis, Winter explains this Lukan hiatus as due to a tradition Luke preserved against Mark. The improbability of this explanation becomes immediately clear when we note that Luke does not hesitate to report the delivery of Jesus to Pilate by the Jewish authorities (Luke 23:1), yet omits the Markan “condemnation” (Mark 14:64), and when we note that Mark’s “all judged him worthy of death” (Mark 14:64) can easily be Mark’s interpretation and extension of the conclusion of the high priests’ decision in Luke 22:71: “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it from his own lips.”

The second point concerns the Matthean-Markan agreement that the high priests accused Jesus of blasphemy (Matt. 26:65; Mark 14:64). Scholars have expended great effort to explain the nature of this blasphemy. One scholar even suggested that Jesus “pronounced the unutterable name of God.”

The accusation of blasphemy is absent from Luke, as is the Markan reference to the tearing of the high priest’s clothes. There is only an interrogation by the high priests and a most remarkable description of Jesus’ dialogue with the priests, the rabbinic sophistication of which is no less astounding than the Hebrew word order and idiom of the account. There is every reason to accept the Lukan version in preference to that of Matthew and Mark. According to Luke, Jesus had no trial. There was only an interrogation by the high priests to clarify the claims Jesus made. In doing so, the high priests were searching for an excuse to hand Jesus over to the Roman authorities as a dangerous political insurgent.

Of course, I am not here arguing that the Gospel of Luke is universally more original than Mark, or, especially, than Matthew. Luke occasionally modified his sources; for instance, he deleted almost every Jewish literalism, such as “our Father in the heavens” (e.g., Matt. 5:45; 6:9; 7:21; etc.), which to the Greek mind might have suggested that the Christian God was localized above earth in some superterrestrial Eden. Nevertheless, as Lindsey contends, the Gospel of Luke has not been influenced by the redactic operation of Mark. Fortunately, this understanding, joined with the fact that Matthew has preserved many Hebraically and rabbinically excellent texts, gives us confidence that the Synoptic Gospels are much more historically accurate than modern scholarship has tended to assert. Lindsey’s research is thus an important step in the direction of defining the approach to the Synoptic Gospels that will best help us restore the earliest form of the life and teachings of Jesus.

For Flusser’s assessment of John Mark, the supposed author of the Gospel of Mark, see the sidebar to Lindsey’s article “My Search for the Synoptic Problem’s Solution (1959-1969).”
  • [1] Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973). For an update and emendation of Lindsey’s introduction to this work, see Robert Lindsey, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark” and “The Hebrew Life of Jesus.”
  • [2] Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyer, 1961), 28.
  • [3] It should be noted that the Gospel of John also lacks a session of the Sanhedrin in which Jesus is condemned to death.

Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christianity

That Christianity developed from Jewish roots is a well-known fact. Early Christian literature cannot be viewed as a phenomenon parallel to and separate from Judaism, or as derived from Greek thought. Recent scholarship generally confirms the strong bond between early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, and this is especially the case in the field of research dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thus the artificial constructions of scholars who once sought to build a bridge directly from Hellenism to Christianity are being dismantled, both because of greater knowledge of the Greek world and due to more intensive study of ancient Jewish and Christian thought. In addition to the importance of the scrolls for explaining the formative stages of the second stratum of Christianity, that is, of Paul and of the author of John’s Gospel, the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that many religious concepts that had been considered Greek are actually of Jewish origin. This fact greatly surprised scholars, even though prior to the publication of the scrolls no exact Greek parallels had been found. In this study I do not intend to treat the problem of Greek influence on Judaism and, via the latter, on Christianity. My goal will be to achieve a more modest objective: to present a general survey of the forces that prevailed during the formative generations of Christianity.

Back to Judaism or toward Gnosticism? Aquila and Marcion

A page from Aquila's Greek Translation of 2 Kings (23: 15-19).
A page from Aquila’s Greek Translation of 2 Kings (23: 15-19).

In about 100 C.E. two Gentiles, Aquila the Proselyte and Marcion the Christian heretic, lived in the city of Sinope on the Black Sea. At one time both were orthodox Christians and were preoccupied with the question of the Jewish origins of Christianity. Each reached the opposite conclusion. Aquila recognized the Jewish character of Christianity, was drawn closer to Judaism, eventually became a proselyte, and even translated the Hebrew Bible into a new, and painfully literal, dissonant Greek translation. Through this translation Aquila sought to wrest the Bible from the hands of the Christians, his former coreligionists, who relied for their exegesis on the inexact translations in the accepted Greek translation, the Septuagint.[1] In order to diffuse the Christians’ weapons, Aquila translated, for example, מַשִׁיחַ (mashiaḥ) not as χριστός (christos), but as ἠλειμμένος (ēleimmenos, “anointed”) in order to show that the Bible does not refer to the Christ of the Christians.[2]

Aquila’s contemporary and fellow townsman, Marcion, likewise felt the great differences between Christianity and Judaism. He solved this problem by deciding that Christianity had been falsified by the Jews. Marcion gravitated toward gnostic ideas, and built a religious system that he viewed as a reconstruction of original Christianity prior to its falsification by the Jews. Like Aquila, in order to fortify his view, Marcion engaged in pseudo-philology; he published a “revised” edition of Christian Scriptures without Jewish “falsification.”[3] Marcion differentiated between the [Jewish] God of Justice—whom he described as vengeful and imperfect, the creator of the material world and the giver of the Law—and the unknown God of Christ, the God of Love and Mercy.[4] It is clear that Marcion did not identify the Jewish God with Satan, as did some gnostic thinkers, but rather proposed three supernatural forces: the God of Mercy, the God of Justice, and Satan. Indeed, recently, the famous gnostic library in Egypt has yielded works that also identify belief in three separate forces; the Lord of Hosts of Israel is not completely evil in these writings and differs from Satan. According to Quispel, Valentinian Gnosticism also postulated three distinct forces.[5] It is to be hoped that the continued publication of gnostic documents will make it easier to determine the origins of Marcion’s thought.

Aquila and Marcion, the two Christians from Sinope, serve as warnings lest one approach the problem of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism tendentiously and finish up a pseudo-philologist. The question under discussion may tempt admirers of Hellenism or Jewish apologists toward falsification in order to prove that Christianity originated either from Hellenism or from Judaism, respectively.

Steel engraving of Ferdinand Christian Baur (ca. 1830) by Christoph Friedrich Dörr (1782–1841). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Steel engraving of Ferdinand Christian Baur (ca. 1830) by Christoph Friedrich Dörr (1782–1841). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today, educated Jews generally contend that Jesus was a devout Jew, whereas Paul, the true founder of the new religion, under the influence of Hellenism, abrogated the Law and its commandments (mitzvot). This widely-held view originated from a combination of two scientific systems: late nineteenth-century scholarship of Greco-Roman religions, which concluded that the latter were the source of Paul’s theology,[6] and the system of the Tübingen School, founded by the great German scholar F. C. Bauer (1792-1860), who, influenced by Hegelian philosophy, attempted to explain the development of Christianity by dialectic historical processes. According to the Tübingen School, the first disciples of Jesus did not understand his lofty universalistic teaching and clung to the dead letter of Judaism; it was Paul who understood the spirit of Jesus.[7] The ongoing polemic between the “Judaizing” nascent church of Jerusalem and the followers of Paul eventually ended in a compromise: early Catholicism.

The assumption that Christianity arose from the contradiction between those who observed the commandments and those who negated them was readily accepted in Jewish circles, for Judaism has always understood the meaning of Christianity in these terms. While the abandonment of the commandments was essential for the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles and led to its separation from Judaism, the relationship between the abrogation of the commandments and the ideological systems of Christianity from Paul onward is far from simple. To be sure, the abandonment of the commandments did not create Paulinism and related theological currents. Paul based his opposition to the Law on the theology of election by grace. As the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate, the theology of election comprised the worldview of Jewish circles who scrupulously observed the commandments. The Gospel of John treats extensively the rejection of Israel from the divine plan of salvation, but does not contain a thorough polemic against the Law, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, by stressing that the cult is meaningless, hints at the spiritualizing tendency of the Christian faith. Therefore, if there was a common theological basis to all the above, its purpose was not an ideological justification for the abandonment of the commandments on the part of Christianity. Some scholars who view Hellenism as the font of Christianity erroneously claim late paganism to be a source of Pauline theology.

The opposite contention, that Paulinism caused the abandonment of the commandments and the turning of Christianity towards the Gentiles, is not without its flaws. An unbiased reading of the Synoptic Gospels yields no Pauline influence in all those inauthentic statements that emphasize the chasm between Judaism and Christianity and declare the nullification of the election of Israel and the central place of the Gentiles in the new community. It is noteworthy that the first three Gospels do not contain any clear Pauline influence.

Thus, in spite of the fact that contemporary research has successfully challenged the assumptions of the Tübingen School, many Jewish scholars unwittingly continue to uphold Bauer’s system with the following revision: Jesus was the founder of the Jerusalem Church, which observed the commandments, until Paul abrogated them because he was an assimilated, Hellenized Jew. This view also is accepted by scholars who hold that the religious world of Paul originated in late paganism and that Paulinism emerged from Hellenized Tarsus, from celebrants of the mystery cults, eastern Greek syncretism, popular Greek philosophy, and pre-Christian pagan Gnosticism. Jewish scholars often concur, arguing that the departure from the commandments resulted from Greek influences alien to Judaism.

Internal Forces and the Separation of Christianity from Judaism

When looking at the formation and history of early Christianity, a Jew cannot help seeing it as growing more distant from the Jewish religion. Although this view seems one-sided and subjective, on the whole it is justified. The new Christian religion was born from its mother religion by means of centrifugal forces that were already at work in Judaism. As Christianity developed, those centrifugal forces propelled Christianity away from mainstream Judaism. Therefore, if contradictions and tensions exist between Judaism and Christianity, there is no need to explain them as resulting from external influences.

The emergence and eventual separation of Christianity from Judaism were brought about partially by three consecutive trends within Judaism:

  1. Rabbinic Judaism (among Jesus and his Jerusalem disciples).
  2. The Essene sect, which served as an important basis for the second stratum of Christianity and which formed the religious personalities of Paul and the author of John’s Gospel.
  3. Hellenistic Judaism, which influenced Christian apologetics when Christianity was on the verge of becoming a world religion.

Most scholars agree that the roots of Jesus’ religious thought stem from a Judaism whose traditions were later preserved in Talmudic literature (i.e., “Rabbinic” Judaism), and whose major contemporary representatives were the Pharisees. In spite of the fact that on occasion Jesus sharply criticized certain aspects of Pharisaism, it is clear that his criticism always derived from fundamental solidarity with Israel. Later on, however, his critique served as the point of departure for Christian attacks against the very essence of Judaism. I will cite several examples.

As the spokesman of common people who were not scrupulous in observing the laws of purification, Jesus criticized the purifications of the Pharisees:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and of rapacity. You blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt. 23:25-26; Luke 11:39-41)

In the same vein, during an argument on hand washing, Jesus said: “There is nothing outside a man that by going into him can defile him; but the things that come out of a man are what defile him” (Mark 7:15; Matt. 15:11). Directed against the purification rituals of the Pharisees, this verse was understood by Christians as the abrogation of Jewish dietary proscriptions.[8]

In the matter of Sabbath observance, although the authors of the Synoptic Gospels attempted to present Jesus as intentionally violating the laws of the Sabbath, there was no actual desecration of the Sabbath according to contemporary halachah, with the exception of Jesus’ disciples’ picking of heads of wheat on the Sabbath.[9] It is related that Jesus justified the actions of his disciples saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). The sages also said: “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath.”[10]

Although Jesus’ words are in the spirit of the tradition of the Sages, from the time of the Gospels’ writing Christians viewed this statement as an expression of the fact that the advent of Jesus abolished the commandment of Sabbath observance. Matthew (Matt. 12:8) and Luke (Luke 6:5) already understood the phrase “son of man” in that statement not as simply a human being, but as the Messianic epithet of Jesus. From this erroneous interpretation, both Matthew and Luke glossed over the first part of the statement, which bothered them, and wrote only that the “Son of Man” (i.e., Jesus, the Messiah) is lord of the Sabbath. Had Mark’s version not remained extant, we might have concluded that Jesus actually intended to abolish the Sabbath, or we would assume that the statement was not authentic.

Thus, historical circumstances caused Jesus, who demanded that his disciples be more scrupulous in observance of the commandments than the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), to be transformed by Christian tradition into the one who abolished the commandments. Indeed, even Jesus’ strictness in fulfilling the commandments was interpreted as part of the dialectical process in a polemic against Judaism. An instructive example is Jesus’ rejection of divorce (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:1-12). Jesus answered the Pharisees who argued that Moses permitted the writing of a bill of divorce as follows: “For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5).

Jesus viewed the biblical verse on divorce (Deut. 24:1) simply as a realistic concession to human frailty, whereas from the story of creation (Gen. 1:27; 2:24) Jesus concluded that one must not divorce or be divorced, because in the beginning God intended husband and wife to become “one flesh,” and therefore human beings must not separate what God has joined together (Mark 10:9; Matt. 19:6). Thus, Jesus was stricter in matters of divorce than the Pharisees.[11] Interestingly, during the second century, Gnostics (who, for the most part, rejected the Law) used the case of divorce in the Gospels to prove that not all of the Torah was of divine origin. Jesus himself, the Gnostics argued, had said that permission to divorce was granted by Moses only because of the hardness of our hearts, even though divorce was not in accordance with God’s original design. By exploiting the different sources of authority (God vs. Moses), the Gnostics concluded that the Torah contains both the words of God and those of Moses, which are not divine.[12]

Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees on halachic matters were later erroneously interpreted by Christians as grounds for the rejection of the Torah’s commandments. In the Gospel of John these anti-Pharisaic statements fueled the Christian polemic against the entire people of Israel.

In addition, Jesus was an apocalypticist who anticipated the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Jewish apocalypse always had displayed a somewhat revolutionary stance, the sayings of Jesus about the End of Days include radical statements, which may conveniently—but erroneously—be interpreted as anti-Jewish. Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple and, among other things, said: “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another not made with hands” (Mark 14:58; Matt. 26:61; John 2:19).

The meaning of this authentic saying of Jesus is that at the End of Days the Temple will be rebuilt by God himself, and not by human beings. Luke skipped over this prophecy in his Gospel. However, in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke placed it in the mouths of the false witnesses at the trial of Stephen: “For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [i.e., the Temple] and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14). In addition to the prophecies about the Temple’s destruction, Jesus also prophesied the end of the corrupt Temple leadership (Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). On the basis of the second chapter of Isaiah, Jesus compared Israel to a vineyard and spoke of the vineyard’s wicked tenants. Eventually, the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Since Matthew (or his source) did not understand that the tenants in the parable are a symbol of the corrupt Temple leadership, Matthew transformed them into a symbol of the people of Israel. Accordingly, Matthew added his own interpretation to the parable: “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Matt. 21:43).

On the basis of these selected examples, I hope to prove in this article that these falsifications were not carried out in the spirit of Pauline theology. If any spirit is to be found in these distortions, it is the spirit of hatred towards Judaism and the Jewish people. The spirit of this hatred does not come from a well-formed worldview, however, but stems from historical processes taking place in the formative years of the Church.

The Dead Sea Sect and Christian Anthropology

From the outset, the religious significance of Jesus and his resurrection constituted a principle of the Christian faith. Indeed, early Christians interpreted the death of Jesus as an act of atonement, in the spirit of Jewish martyrology: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Since Jesus was considered the Messiah, atonement for sin came to be regarded by Christians as the main purpose for the Messiah’s coming. But what was the essence of the sin for which Jesus’ death atoned? This question had to be asked because the Christian community was not identical with the Jewish community, and thus it was not possible simply to state that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of Israel. Furthermore, what was the essence of one’s humanity before one’s entry into the Christian community, and how does human nature change after accepting faith in Jesus? Jesus’ words cannot answer these questions, since Jesus did not develop a philosophical system concerning the religious essence of humanity, the metaphysics of sin, or the theological meaning of salvation. In addition to the problem of individual salvation, the early Christians had to determine the religious significance of their existence as a new community severed from the synagogue. Christians had to find an ideological basis for their ecclesiastical consciousness as well as a religious anthropology.

Christianity found the answers to these questions in its second stage, which was especially typified by Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel, as well as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.[13] The theology of this stage of Christianity differed so markedly from its first stage that many scholars have reached the conclusion that its sole creator, Paul, was in fact the second founder of Christianity. According to the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann, Paul, the author of the Fourth Gospel, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews were not interdependent, but each one individually received the ideological basis for his teaching from their separate Christian environments. Bultmann defined the common ground of the three as “the Kerygma of the Hellenistic Christian Communities.”[14] However, when Bultmann first published his work, he could not reflect upon the most important source of beliefs of the second stage of Christianity—the theology of the Dead Sea sect, which is commonly identified with the Essenes.

The theology of the Dead Sea sect posited that humanity is divided into two conflicting camps, the sons of darkness and the sons of light. (The “sons of light” are, of course, the members of the sect.) Hence, Paul (1 Thess. 5:5; cf. Eph. 5:8) and the author of the Fourth Gospel (John 12:36) call Christians “sons of light.” In spite of this dualism, or perhaps because of it, the Dead Sea sect held a radically theocentric outlook, including a doctrine of double predestination:

…before [beings] were, He established all their design, and when they are, they fulfill their task according to their statutes, in accordance with his glorious design, changing nothing within it. (Manual of Discipline, 1QS 3:15-16)

The doctrine of predestination is closely bound up with dualism: “Truly the Spirits of light and darkness were made by Him: upon these Spirits He has founded every work” (1QS 3:25-26). Divine decree determined the fate of human beings as either a son of light or a son of darkness: “For you created the righteous and the wicked” (Hymns of Thanksgiving, 1QH 12:38; cf. 8:14-21).[15] These dualistic postulates, linked to the ideas of predestination, also occur in the writings of Paul and John the Evangelist. The affinity is so great that it is possible to write a full commentary on Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Romans on the basis of excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls.[16]

The doctrine of double predestination—for good or for evil—is the source of the religious anthropology of the Dead Sea sect. The elect are merely those preordained by the good will of God; their election is the result of divine grace on which all human action depends, for all human beings are intrinsically evil.[17] The natural makeup of humans, our essence, is referred to by the sect, and likewise by Paul, by the biblical term “flesh.” The elect of God are redeemed from the sphere of the flesh because God poured out his spirit upon them:

For verily, I know, that righteousness belongs not to a mortal, nor does integrity of way belong to a son of man. Unto God most high are all works of righteousness and a way of a mortal is not, save the spirit that God fashioned for him to make perfect a way for the sons of man, so that they may know all His works through the might of His power and the abundance of His mercies upon all sons of his pleasure. (Hymns of Thanksgiving, 1QH 12:30-33)

These beautiful verses clearly express the anthropology of election by grace that later appears in the writings of Paul. The theology of the Dead Sea sect also resembles Christianity in that it does not reflect the Greek dualism of spiritual and physical spheres, rather the spirit is the agent of divine grace working among the elect. The activities of the spirit in the hearts of the elect are numerous: the spirit purifies humans from sin and grants knowledge to the elect. In both Christianity and the doctrine of the Dead Sea sect, this knowledge is the sole property of the community of the elect—they are the only ones who can achieve it. It is noteworthy that the dualism of flesh and spirit, whether in the scrolls or in early Christianity, is not of Greek origin. Even the concepts πνεῦμα (pneuma, “spirit”) and σάρξ (sarks, “flesh”) are biblical words that acquired new meanings in Christianity.[18]

Thus, the Dead Sea sect had a theology of salvation based on dualism and the doctrine of predestination: the elect were chosen by divine grace and redeemed from the corruption and weakness of the flesh as they received the Holy Spirit.[19] This same anthropology of salvation also occurs in the second stage of Christianity. In the Dead Sea Scrolls salvation is autonomous and does not require any concrete historical event, and because this theology is radically metaphysical and theocentric there is no mediator between God (who, in His infinite mercy, elects whom He wishes) and the elected by grace. Therefore the theology of salvation of the Dead Sea sect required no “Christology,” whereas among Christians this theology served as an explanation for the change in status of the believer, which took place owing to the death of Jesus. The religious concept that links the anthropology of election by grace and Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah is the atonement for sin initiated not by the sinful man, but by God himself. The cornerstone of Christianity is “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), while the theology of election by grace consists of the purification of the elect from carnal sins by divine grace. Because of the external affinity of these concepts, in the second stage of Christianity the metahistorical doctrine of grace became intertwined with the belief in the significance of a definite historical act, the death of the Messiah atoning for sin. Thus, the doctrine of election by grace answered the question as to the nature of sin atoned for by the death of Jesus, that is, sin is the carnal nature of humankind. By granting the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ death, an act of divine grace, elevated the sons of light, the divinely elected, from the sphere of sin.

Even though Paul was not the founder of Christianity, but rather based his ideas on an earlier Jewish religious stratum, his contribution to the formation of Christianity remains highly significant. Paul contributed an original element to the theology of election by grace that served as the basis for the abolition of the Jewish commandments. According to the Dead Sea sect’s theology, the elect were elevated from the sphere of the flesh, not because of their merits, but because of the unique will of God who destined them to be such: “Only through Thy goodness may a man be righteous” (Hymns of Thanksgiving, 1QH 13:16-17). Hence, Paul deduced that there was no special value to the acts of human beings, and thus there was no value in fulfilling the Law, for humans become the elect of God solely through God’s grace and infinite mercy:

For no flesh will be justified by the works of the Law…. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from Law,…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…who are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:20-24)

Thus the theology of election by grace was joined to the belief in the atonement of sins by the death of Jesus and to Paul’s antinomian (antilegalistic) teachings. By a fascinating dialectical process, Paul transformed the doctrine of grace espoused by the sect, which scrupulously observed the Torah’s commandments, into a penetrating justification for their abolition.

The abolition of the commandments and the mission to the Gentiles are the two major trends that brought about the separation of Christianity from Judaism. On both these issues Christianity differs from the Dead Sea sect, which remained a sect within Judaism. Nevertheless, early Christianity also possessed definite sectarian tendencies. The same ideological principles that formed the basis for the sectarian isolationism of the Dead Sea sect penetrated Christianity at its second stage. In their new ideological framework, these ideas aided Christianity in becoming a religion distinct from Judaism.

Christianity and the Dead Sea sect based their sectarianism on both theological and “historical” grounds—the theological principle being that only members of the sect, and not the entire Jewish people, were elected by the grace of God. This doctrine derives from the dualism that divides humanity into “Sons of Light” and “Sons of Darkness.” The historical grounds for their sectarianism are that the new community is the true Israel: according to Paul, the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), or in the words of the sect, “Israel for those who walk in perfection” (Manual of Discipline, 1QS 9:6). The new community is the Israel of the end of days, the remnant of Israel of which the prophets spoke. God had forged a new covenant with this remnant (cf. Jer. 31:31-32), a covenant for the end of days, after the people of Israel had broken the original covenant.[20] This community is the “city of God,” which resembles the Temple in that it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.[21] Baptism, as the rite of initiation into the Christian community, also originated with the Dead Sea sect or in similar circles.[22]

Thus, in addition to its Judaic roots in the first stage of Christianity, the second stage of Christian development also received its inspiration from Jewish circles, although in this case, these were different Jewish circles from those that influenced the religious character of Jesus and his first disciples. At this point, on the basis of these ideological sources, Christianity developed both the theology of salvation from sin and its ecclesiastical consciousness. In its new surroundings, the centrifugal tendencies of the sectarian ideology received greater validity: the new covenant abrogated the old. Paul came to the conclusion that a contradiction existed between election by divine grace and the harmful observance of the commandments.

Hellenistic Judaism and the Christian Apologists

Few ideas of pagan origin penetrated Christianity during its first two stages. The atmosphere changed, however, after the Bar Kochva Rebellion (132-135 C.E.). Christianity, no longer at odds with the Jewish world, embarked upon its struggle to win over the pagan bearers of classical culture. This third stage was the era of Christian apologetics.

In many ways, Christian apologetics was a continuation of Hellenistic Jewish apologetics, in which the universalistic tone of Judaism mingled with Greek humanism, and the Jewish faith in one God mingled with the monotheism of the Greek philosophers. Greek thinkers supplied Hellenistic Judaism with both defensive and offensive ideological ammunition in its struggle against paganism. Jewish thinkers found among pagan savants both a monotheistic tendency and a critique of popular pagan religion. Indeed, Greek thinkers proposed that the gods were really human beings whom the masses had deified because of their merits. Although this assumption did not attack the essence of paganism, Jews (and subsequently Christians) cited it as demonstrating the emptiness of adoration of human beings whom ignorance had made into cult objects. Pointing out the amorality of the Homeric and Greek mythological gods, Jews (and subsequently Christians) attacked paganism with its own ammunition. Thus, the arguments of Hellenistic Judaism (and later on, of Christianity) against idolatry simply constituted a continuation of biblical claims and the statements of Greek authors. It is clear, therefore, that both a thematic connection and an historic link existed between Hellenistic Jewish apologists and their Christian successors. In addition to their similar arguments, both are part of the same literary genres. Nevertheless, there are no studies that answer the question whether Christianity gleaned from Jewish anti-pagan apologetics, either from lost or extant works or from actual debates between Jews and pagans.

In any case, there are two differences between Jewish and Christian apologetics. Christian apologists made great strides in comparison with their Jewish predecessors regarding one issue, but retreated on another. In the polemic against idol worship, the hands of Jewish apologists were tied: while they could fulminate against the cult of man-made objects, they were prevented from attacking cultic acts themselves, such as sacrifices, which had once been part of Judaism.[23] A Christian apologist argued that while the Jews were correct in their opposition to worship of idols, which neither feel nor hear, the Jews erred in offering sacrifices; for the Creator of heaven and earth who supplies all needs does not require anything.[24] In their polemic against sacrifices, the Christians not only made use of the ideas of Greek thinkers, but also developed ideas from the Old and New Testaments. Thus, for example, in Hebrews 13:15-16, the author continues the tradition of the Dead Sea sect, which viewed worship of the Creator as a substitute for sacrifice.

On the other hand, in spite of the consistency of the Christian polemic against sacrifices, their apologists were less adamant than the Jews who claimed that the gods were nonexistent. From the outset, Christian apologists, not satisfied with this Jewish argument, added that the gods were demons, evil spirits, who used their power to deter man from worshiping the one true God.[25] Belief in the power of the gods apparently was so deeply rooted among the Gentiles who converted to Christianity that it was difficult for them to completely deny the existence of the gods. This surrender to the belief of the masses notwithstanding, Christian apologists, like those of Hellenistic Jewry, were intellectual and moralistic.

Both Jewish and Christian apologists attempted to win over people to their religion by stressing its appeal to reason. Therefore, Christology, the belief in salvation by Christ, did not occupy a major place in apologetic literature.[26] The paucity of christological material in the apologetic literature casts serious doubts as to the validity of the view held by many scholars that the pagan world was seized by an insatiable hunger for salvation. As apologetics were the only method of persuasion of which we know, we must assume either that different methods, which spoke to souls longing for salvation, were employed for the masses than for the intellectuals or, perhaps, that scholars have exaggerated the yearning for salvation on the part of pagans.

Pagan Revival and Christian Theology

If Christianity satisfied the longings for salvation by a declining pagan world, then we must assume that from the outset Christianity stemmed from the cultural achievements of the Hellenistic age and that pagan ideas penetrated Christianity even prior to the Bar Kochva rebellion, when the major tendencies of Christianity were formed. However, we have seen that when the second stage of Christianity was completed, and as the age of the “Apostolic Fathers” began, there was no noticeable Greek influence on Christianity.

Despite the explicit testimony of early Christians,[27] scholars sought to discover Greek sources for Christianity. In addition, scholars of Greek culture (particularly German scholars) dragged early Christianity into their work, thereby creating historical constructions that “logically” show Christianity to have been a product of the later Hellenistic world. Among their strange creations are phenomena such as pagan syncretism, the Stoic-Cynic diatribe, Hellenistic mystery religions and, finally, gnostic religions. They drew Christianity into the tensions engendered by deteriorating paganism and claimed that Christianity was formed, to a large extent, under pagan influence. It is noteworthy that most of the parallels between Christianity and paganism that they discovered date from the period of the Church Fathers and not from the first two stages of the development of Christianity. In order to bolster their assumptions, these scholars were forced to antedate pagan phenomena—which they maintained were parallel to Christianity—to a period in which there are no indications of their existence in the sources. The claims of Christianity notwithstanding, do such religious and philosophical phenomena signify deterioration, or do they actually constitute preparation for the marvelous flowering of pagan religiosity of the third and fourth centuries C.E.?

My position, which stands in contradiction to prevailing opinion, can be supported by a perusal of those very same categories mentioned above. Syncretism, or the blending of religions, cults, or various deities, is not uniquely Hellenistic, but rather a common phenomenon in the history of religions. For example, with their conquest of the East in the Hellenistic period, the Greek practice of identifying foreign gods with their own became widespread.[28] Paganism, however, also includes other forms of syncretism. When universalist tendencies similar to monotheism arose, the scope of the activities of a particular god increased as well, and he began to take on the characteristics of other gods. Thus, for example, in ancient Egypt, the god Amon and, later on, Aton, the sun gods, were considered the universal god. Likewise, in late paganism, with the outburst of new religiosity, worshippers of the different gods identified their gods with others and called their god “the one god.”[29] It is noteworthy, however, that such syncretistic phenomena with overtly monotheistic overtones are known only from the second century C.E. onwards, and not from earlier periods.

In the Roman Empire, the flowering of a new pagan religiosity with universalist syncretism was made possible by the proximity of Stoic philosophy to pagan folk religion. The philosopher Cleanthes the Wise identified the monotheistic god of the philosophers with Zeus, and subsequent Stoics regarded the various gods of polytheism as emanations or characteristics of the one god. This last view became more popular during the pagan religious revival under the Roman Empire. It seems that, had Christianity or the invasions of the Barbarians not stopped this development, paganism in the Roman Empire would have reached the heights that it did in Hinduism, in which there is no contradiction between speculative thought and folk beliefs, between philosophy and religion.

The pagan religious revival of Late Antiquity has nothing in common with the basic structure of Christianity. First, the period of high paganism began only in the second century C.E., when the basic tenets of Christianity had already been formed. Secondly, Christianity waged a fierce battle against paganism and was not prepared in any way to identify their God with the pagan gods. Only later did Christianity sanctify pagan customs. This occurred mainly after Constantine, at the time of mass conversions of idolators. A distinct example of the acceptance of pagan customs was Christmas. The feast of the sun, the invincible god of late paganism, became the birthday of Jesus at a late date, and even today no Christian is obliged to believe that Jesus was actually born on that day. Thus Christianity is still aware of the pagan origins of Christmas!

At first, Christianity showed no tendency towards syncretism, whereas paganism was prepared to absorb Jewish and Christian elements. This readiness eventually caused many pagans to convert willingly to Christianity. An openness to Jewish and Christian influences is evident in Hermetic pagan literature. Written in Egypt in the second and third centuries, this literature attests to a deep pagan religiosity and contains clear echoes of biblical and New Testament verses. It is impossible, however, to decide if there is proof of any Hellenistic pagan influence on Christianity, because Hermetic literature was written only after Christianity’s efflorescence, and also because of the Jewish and Christian influences on such literature.

Mystery Religions and the Origins of Christianity

Another alleged source of Christianity is the mystery religions. Indeed, one of the most surprising results of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was that most of the Christian material that was formerly attributed to Hellenistic mystery groups has now been found in the writings of a Jewish sect whose theology is an original development of internal Jewish ideas. It is clear that even the very term “mystery” in the New Testament has the exact religious content as the Hebrew terms רָזִים (rāzim, “mysteries”) or רָזֵי אֵל (rāzē ’ēl, “divine mysteries”) in the scrolls.

It has likewise become clear that many motifs in the theology of baptism were derived from the beliefs and doctrines of Jewish baptists, and not from pagan mystery sects. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that Jewish baptists had connected baptism with receiving the Holy Spirit.[30] The idea of baptism as rebirth (or, according to Paul, as resurrection), however, only appears in the second stratum of Christianity and cannot be found in the writings of the Dead Sea sect. Scholars have attributed it directly to the Hellenistic mystery cults. The Jewish Dead Sea sect, like Christians afterwards, maintained esoteric ideas of the knowledge of the divine mysteries and had a pneumatic ideology of a community of God comprised only of the elect. The affinity of the Dead Sea sect to Christianity is not simply a matter of chance. Most of the Christian doctrines that scholars formerly attributed to the pagan mystery sects have been found in the writings of the Dead Sea sect in a form that makes it easy to trace how Christian doctrines developed from them.

Fragment of a 1st century Roman floor mosaic depicting the birth Mithras, the central figure of one of the most important mystery religions that flourished in Late Antiquity. The mosiac shows Mithras emerging into the light from a dark cave. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Fragment of a 1st century Roman floor mosaic depicting the birth Mithras, the central figure of one of the most important mystery religions that flourished in Late Antiquity. The mosiac shows Mithras emerging into the light from a dark cave. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Many scholars connected the “mystery religions” of late paganism to beliefs in a dead god who returns to life. In spite of the fact that the connection between the two religious phenomena is not always clear and, indeed, not always necessary, we must raise the question as to whether belief in a dead god who is resurrected influenced the formative stages of Christian belief in a Messiah who was killed and then raised from the dead. Today, serious scholars do not deny the historical existence of Jesus and disregard the claim that Christianity originated in a myth that took the form of an historical event that relates the tale of a dead god who comes back to life. Jesus was not the only “Messiah” who was killed by the Romans (see Acts 5:35-37). Indeed, there is no place for the assumption that there is any influence of the myth of a resurrected god in the Synoptic Gospels. In its first stage, the story of Jesus’ resurrection does not bear any resemblance to the pagan myth, and only later does the story of Jesus take on a more mythical form. If, in accordance with Jewish martyrology,[31] Jesus’ death could be understood as making atonement for the sins of the people, then Christians deduced that he died as a willing victim (cf. John 10:11, 17-18). If he died and came back to life, then this meant that Jesus had triumphed over death. If, at the end of days, he will judge the world from heaven, then Jesus must have ascended to heaven and from there he will appear at the end of days. Even in these early stages of Christological development, scholars have not managed to discover tangible influence of a pagan myth.[32]

Thus, not drawn from a tale of a dead god who came back to life, but from internal Christian data, and from the mythic forces deep in the human soul, the myth of Jesus[33] was created. We shall present it briefly in the version of a fourth-century Christian author:

Christ, the son of God, went down to Sheol after his death, and from there, he took out the righteous, and broke the gates of the world. The earth trembled and recognized the power of Jesus. The sun disappeared before its time. The world darkened and the curtain of the Temple was torn. All the elements became mixed up as Christ fought against death for three days until He triumphed and trampled death, breaking its strength. Three days afterwards the sun was restored and shone as it had previously, and Jesus ascended the chariot of victory, accompanied by many of the righteous who had ascended from Sheol: then Christ ordered that the Gates of Heaven be opened before him. And when the Son returned to his Father in heaven, the latter made him a partner in ruling the world.[34]

Obviously, this myth, although not of pagan origin, would have pleased a pagan audience in the period of late pagan revival.

The pagan world would have accepted Christianity with great difficulty if the Christians had not gradually transformed their Messiah into a god. This last step—the epilogue of the internal development of Christianity—was accomplished only among Gentile believers. The Christian belief in the divinity of the Messiah, however, has deep roots in Jewish messianic ideas. Christianity inherited the Jewish apocalyptic belief in a cosmic, supernatural Messiah who would appear with the heavenly clouds (Dan. 7:13).[35] In its second stage, Christianity also adopted the Jewish belief in a Messiah who existed before the creation of the world. This image of the Messiah was identified by Christianity with the pre-existent wisdom of Jewish speculative thought, and with the Λόγος (logos, “word” or “reason”) by which God created the world. Therefore, both the doctrines of the logos and the Incarnation have Jewish foundations from which emerged the divine Messiah or Christ of Christianity. Even in parts of the New Testament, its Christology nearly brought Christianity towards the belief in the divinity of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament, however, retained their Jewish inhibitions which prevented them from proclaiming the absolute divinity of Christ. For Christians of Gentile extraction there was no such inhibition, for their concept of “god” was flexible and they believed in many gods, some of whom were once human. Indeed, even in the early second century, according to the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, the divinity of Jesus remained amorphous. According to Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, Jesus was God who came in the flesh and appeared in human form;[36] whereas Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and a younger colleague of Ignatius, who learned from those who knew Jesus, never called Jesus “God” and called him only “the son of God.”[37] To be sure, the beliefs and ideas of Christianity developed in the direction of the divinity of Jesus, for only as a god could Jesus gain the reverence of the Gentiles.

Gnosticism and Early Christianity

Some modern scholars have proposed that the origins of Christianity lie in Gnosticism. They err on three counts:

  1. By expanding the boundaries of Gnosticism to include phenomena that were not at all gnostic (and thus nearly all late pagan, and even certain Jewish, religious phenomena have been labelled as such).
  2. By assuming that there was pagan Gnosticism.
  3. By antedating Gnosticism to a period prior to Christianity.

What are the salient features of Gnosticism?[38] The most outstanding characteristic, indeed its central point, is the antithesis between the physical material world and the heavenly divine world. The entire physical world is evil, and its master, the God of the Jews, is a weak and ignorant deity, who is at times even considered to be essentially evil. The good and beneficent God is a stranger to the material world, which is controlled by laws of fate that also rule the celestial bodies and the stars. Human beings are prisoners in this world, encased in their physical bodies. Several weird gnostic myths tell of the stages of the liberation of humans from the dreadful slavery of the material world, their taskmaster. The deliverer (who appears in various contexts and under several names, e.g., in Christian Gnosticism he is usually called Christ) brings the elect a message from the heavenly world of light. He reveals the corruption of human beings and their bodies, and even informs them that the God of Scripture is not identical with the good and beneficent heavenly God. Salvation is possible because sparks of the heavenly world have fallen down into the material world and into human beings and it is necessary to liberate such sparks. The secret knowledge of the Gnostic is the memory of one’s heavenly origin to which the enlightened will return as the divine sparks rise out of the material world, by means of various mystical processes, upward into the spiritual heavenly realm. When this is accomplished, the process of salvation will be complete.

Fresco by Filippino Lippi (ca. 1481-1482, Florence) depicting the disputation between Simon Magus and the Apostles Peter and Paul before the Emperor Nero.
Fresco by Filippino Lippi (ca. 1481-1482, Florence) depicting the disputation between Simon Magus and the Apostles Peter and Paul before the Emperor Nero. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gnosticism was essentially a revolution intending to undermine the basic assumptions of Jewish and Christian monotheism. In spite of the presence of pagan ideas in gnostic thought, there was no pagan Gnosticism per se. Despite the presence of Hermetic literature in an Egyptian gnostic library, there is no evidence of a purely pagan Gnosticism. Gnostics were influenced by Hermetic literature just as they were influenced by general pagan works and also the New Testament. Apparently, since no Hellenistic pagan Gnosticism existed prior to the birth of Christianity, the problem is narrowed to the possibility of the influence of Jewish Gnosticism on early Christianity. The existence of Jewish Gnosticism has become more certain, especially since one of the pioneers of Gnosticism was a Samaritan, Simon Magus, who was a contemporary of Paul.[39]

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, the area in which Jewish Gnosticism could have influenced early Christianity has been reduced. Most of the motifs in the New Testament that scholars once attributed to gnostic influence are present in the Dead Sea Scrolls—which certainly do not constitute Jewish gnostic literature. The character of the religious motifs in the scrolls is not only closer to their Christian adaptations, but it is even possible to trace a link between the scrolls and Christianity, whereas gnostic literature merely furnishes distant parallels to Christian ideas.

The following beliefs are held in common by the Dead Sea sect, the second stage of Christianity and Gnosticism: a dualism manifested in the symbolic antagonism between light and darkness, a deterministic worldview, revulsion at the carnal aspects of human existence, the purification of the elect by the spirit, and the importance of esoteric knowledge for the process of salvation. Christianity, however, is closer to the views of the Dead Sea sect and opposed to most gnostic ideas. According to the Christians and to the Dead Sea sect, the God who created the material world is a good and beneficent deity and no other god is superior to him. Gnosticism views the Creator of the World as an evil god or, at least, an imperfect one. Moreover, neither the Dead Sea sect nor Christianity absolutely negated the material world, whereas according to the Gnostics, physical matter is the sphere of demonic forces and cannot be redeemed. Both the second stage of Christianity and the teachings of the Dead Sea sect hold that a divine decree determines who will be the elect of God’s grace (i.e., the Sons of Light), and who will be condemned to everlasting damnation. Gnosticism, by contrast, opposes all divine laws that rule the material world. The elect of the Gnostics are those who liberate themselves from the laws of the physical world and attain the freedom of the world of Divine Light. It is noteworthy that the antagonism between the spirit and the flesh found both in the second stage of Christianity and in the Dead Sea sect is not absolute dualism and cannot in any way be identified with the gnostic dichotomy between matter and spirit. Gnosticism was influenced by Greek thought, which posits that matter is a disturbing element and human beings are incarcerated in their bodies like a prisoner in a cell.

On the other hand, it is possible that Jewish ideas preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been one of the sources of gnostic thought. Gnosticism was a dialectical revolution that occurred in the world of monotheistic religions. The beliefs preserved in the writings of the Dead Sea sect may have constituted a framework within which this gnostic revolution took place. If the dualism between light and darkness and between flesh and spirit is intensified, and can be explained by Greek dualism of matter versus spirit, then the Creator of the World can no longer be identical with a good and beneficent deity. He may then be identified as the “Angel of Darkness,” i.e., the Devil, or at least be regarded as a god lower than the Supreme God. These dualistic assumptions made it possible to conclude that the laws of predestination reigned only in the sphere of the Creator of the Universe, that is, in the sphere of physical matter. The elect or the righteous must liberate themselves from this horrible universe and its laws. Therefore, the Dead Sea sect may be part of a Jewish preliminary stage prior to the emergence of Gnosticism.

One section of the Dead Sea Scrolls comes quite close to the gnostic view, which also maintains that the elements of the heavenly world, contaminated by their contact with this world, will be purified and liberated from the evil that is attached to them. In the Manual of Discipline the following is written about the End of Days:

Then Truth of the world shall arise forever: for [the Truth of the World] is defiled in the ways of wickedness under the dominion of Perversity until the time of judgment. (1QS 4:19-20)

The words of the scroll refer to Habakkuk 1:4:

So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.

“The Truth arising in the world” is thus perverted because the world is under the rule of evil, or Belial, and is “defiled in the ways of wickedness” until, at the end of days, it shall “arise forever.” Coming from the dualism of the sect, the idea expressed here resembles the gnostic doctrine that affirms the pollution of the divine hypostases by the material world in which they are imprisoned. However, the Dead Sea sect did not advocate absolute negation of matter, as can be seen from the rest of the passage:

Then God will cleanse by His truth all the works of every man, and will purify for Himself the [bodily] fabric of every man, to banish all spirit of perversity from his members and purify him of all wicked deeds by the spirit of holiness; and He will cause the spirit of truth to gush forth upon him like lustral water. And lying abominations will come to an end, [and] defilement by the spirit of defilement. (1QS 4:20-22)

Thus, the Dead Sea sect believed that at the End of Days even the bodies of the elect would be purified—an impossibility in Gnosticism, which relates with hostility to the human body, since it is made of physical matter.

It is quite possible that along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish trends of Gnosticism influenced the second stage of Christianity independently. This alleged influence may include those Christian motifs without parallels in the literature of the sect, such as allusions to the opposition of the angels, “principalities,” and powers to the salvific activity of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:38; Eph. 3:10, 6:12; Col. 1:16, 2:15), and, apparently, even other motifs of supernatural Christology. It is difficult to reach definite conclusions, however, since the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of the Egyptian gnostic library is still incomplete. In the meantime, it seems that most of the “gnostic” motifs in the New Testament, which have not been identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls, occur in the same sections of the epistles of the New Testament in which scholars see fragments of Christological mystical hymns. If this scholarly assumption turns out to be correct, then we can assume that, in addition to the theology of the Dead Sea sect, mystical hymns also influenced the second stage of Christianity. These hymns had a definite supernatural approach, close to that of Gnosticism. In any case, such influences came into Christian circles who were influenced by Judaism and not by paganism.

It is clear that Christian Christology differs essentially from the gnostic doctrines of salvation. The basis of Christian belief is the assumption that the Savior became flesh and blood, that he indeed suffered, died and was resurrected. Gnosticism opposed these beliefs because of its opposition to the material world. Christian Gnostics were, for the most part, docetists,[40] that is, they negated the physical basis of Christian salvation. Thus it is not possible that Christian Christology, in and of itself, emerged from the gnostic doctrine of salvation.

The Influence of Greek Philosophy

In spite of the above, it is possible that Greek philosophy did influence early Christianity, albeit minimally, since it did not affect the structure of the Christian religion. The New Testament contains a very strange paradox: the one section heavily influenced by popular Greek philosophy—the Epistle of James, a Christian-Jewish composition—argues against Paulinism.

Greek philosophical influence may have penetrated Christianity both directly from the pagan world, and indirectly from the Jewish Hellenistic world, or even via Palestinian Judaism, which also was to an extent influenced by Hellenism. Palestinian Judaism for its part could have absorbed Greek influences either directly or indirectly via Hellenistic Judaism. However, Hellenistic Judaism was influenced by Palestinian Judaism to a much larger degree than is often thought. Therefore, it is extremely difficult and, in some cases, even impossible to expose the conduits by which Greek philosophical thought passed to early Christianity.

Plato's Academy: Roman mosaic of the 1st cent. B.C.E. from the house of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii.
Plato’s Academy: Roman mosaic of the 1st cent. B.C.E. from the house of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It is clear that the study of Christianity is closely linked to the study of Second Temple Judaism. If it is evident, as we assume, that Christianity developed for the most part from Judaism, this new perspective will even affect answers to questions raised by the study of Judaism itself.

For example, scholars have argued that the interpretation of biblical verses in the writings of Paul, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and other epistles in the New Testament are simply a product of Hellenistic Jewish allegory as it is represented by Philo of Alexandria. It is presumed that the allegorical exegesis of Philo followed the method of Greek allegorical interpretation of Homer. However, a reexamination of the New Testament epistles shows great affinity between rabbinic homiletic exegesis and that of the New Testament. Scholars would then reply that even the rabbinic exegesis was influenced by the Greek allegories of Philo and his colleagues. But, the exegetical method used in the New Testament in the second stage of Christianity for interpreting biblical verses is remarkably similar to the typological interpretation of the Dead Sea sect.

There is no doubt that the method of interpretation found in the Dead Sea Scrolls is merely a branch of Palestinian-Jewish interpretation, without any influence from Philo’ s allegorical methods. Apparently, the assumption that Palestinian Jews directly or indirectly learned to interpret the verses of the Bible from the methods of interpretation that the Greeks applied to verses of Homer is erroneous. Undoubtedly, both rabbinic and sectarian (Essenic) methods of exegesis represent an internal Jewish cultural development and their approach is reflected in the New Testament. In addition, perhaps the Hellenistic Jewish allegorical method represented by Philo of Alexandria is not entirely of Greek origin, but, rather, to a large extent, the product of internal Jewish exegesis.

The second question raised both by the Jewish origins of Christianity and by the character of Second Temple Judaism is the problem of Platonism in the New Testament. For example, do statements that Jesus is truly the bread, the wine, the way, etc., really mean that Jesus is the platonic “idea” of the bread, the wine, or the way? Certainly not! It is clear that the author of the Fourth Gospel did not want Jesus to be considered the archetype of actual bread. Moreover, in the Platonic system, there is no special place of honor for the idea of wine, bread, etc. The question of platonic influence can legitimately be raised with respect to ideas such as heavenly and primordial man, the pre-existence of the Torah and the Messiah, the heavenly Jerusalem, etc. However, platonic philosophy cannot accept the Jewish and Christian notion that the heavenly world will eventually be realized on earth. Perhaps, according to Plato’s method, the connection between the world of ideas and the physical world is something that the philosopher intentionally did not expound upon at length. How great the difference between the thought of the Platonists and the spirituality of Judaism and Christianity! For according to Judaism and Christianity’s understanding, the community of God consists of saints, not only on earth, but also in heaven. Therefore, the supernatural world of Christianity clearly derives from the worldview of Second Temple Judaism, a product of internal Jewish cultural development.[41]

Conclusion

Modern scholarly attempts to find strong Greek influence on early Christianity led to the creation of hypothetical constructions based on the later Greek world whose many literary works are well known. However, most of the phenomena of early Christianity can be fully explained on the basis of extant Jewish sources. The cultural ferment in Second Temple Judaism with its pneumatic phenomena and its way of thinking about the supernatural gave birth to Christianity. If Christianity contains phenomena that did not originate in Second Temple Judaism, they were likely generated by Christianity itself, for Christianity constituted a special third force alongside Judaism and paganism.

  • [1] See Louis Ginzberg, “Aquila,” in Jewish Encyclopedia (ed. Isidore Singer; New York: Ktav, 1912), 2:34-38.
  • [2] See Frederick Field, Origenis Hexaplorum quae Supersunt (Oxford: Clarendon, 1875), 1:xix.
  • [3] To find support for their opposition to Judaism, certain Protestant theologians claim that Marcion was not influenced by Gnosticism.
  • [4] Cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 26:5: “Marcion, a man of Pontus,…is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator,” and also chap. 58.
  • [5] Gilles Quispel, Ptolémée: Lettre a Flora (Paris: ‪Éd. du Cerf, 1949), 12-14.
  • [6] This school is called the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. A description of its methods and an evaluation are found in A. Schweitzer, Geschichte der paulinischen Forschung (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1911), 141-189. (I have not actually seen the book, but learned of it indirectly.) An English translation by W. Montgomery is available: A. Schweitzer, Paul and his Interpreters—A Critical History (London: A. & C. Black, 1912).
  • [7] It is worthwhile tracing the various anti-Jewish tendencies present in modern Christian interpretations. See Jules Isaac, Jésus et Israel (Paris: Fasquelle, 1959).
  • [8] See my discussion in “Jesus’ Place in First-century Judaism and His Influence on Christian Doctrine” under the subheading “Jesus and the Pharisees.”
  • [9] As this is the only occurrence of actual Sabbath desecration in the Synoptic Gospels, it seems that the story is not entirely faithful in all its details.
  • [10] R. Simon b. Menasiah, on Exodus 31:14: “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy to you,” in Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shabbata, 1:27-28 (ed. Jacob Z. Lauterbach; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1935), 3:198.
  • [11] For a recent treatment of Jesus’ stance on divorce as compared to Pharisaic halachah, see Peter J. Tomson, “Divorce Halakhah in Paul and the Jesus Tradition,” in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature (eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson; Leiden: Brill, 2010), 289-332.
  • [12] Quispel, Ptolémée: Lettre a Flora, 4, 4-10.
  • [13] See David Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 23-74.
  • [14] See Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie des Neuen Testaments (‪Tübingen:‬ ‪Mohr [Siebeck]‬, 1958), 48-50.
  • [15] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 25-30.
  • [16] See David Flusser, “From the Essenes to Romans 9:24-33,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 75-87.
  • [17] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 30-35.
  • [18] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 60-71.
  • [19] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 54-60.
  • [20] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 44-50.
  • [21] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 35-44.
  • [22] See Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” 50-54.
  • [23] See David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (eds. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; CRINT I.2; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 1097-1098.
  • [24] Cf. Epistle of Barnabas, chap. 2; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 22.
  • [25] E.g., Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 5-6, 25, 54.
  • [26] Cf. David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine,” 1098.
  • [27] It is well known that the fact that Christianity was a recent innovation bothered the early Christians. This was because in Greco-Roman society a cultural phenomenon was considered significant only if it were very ancient. In their efforts to prove their antiquity, Christians emphasized their connection to Judaism, an ancient religion, and in order to further antedate the history of Christianity, they made use of the Jewish claim that the great Jewish leaders of biblical times were the teachers of the ancient Greek thinkers (cf., e.g., Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 59; idem, Hortatory Address to the Greeks, chap. 22ff.).
  • [28] See David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine,” 1065-1100.
  • [29] On the monotheistic trend in Hellenistic religion, see David Flusser, “The Great Goddess of Samaria,” Israel Exploration Journal 25 (1975): 13-20, and David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine,” 1098.
  • [30] On baptism and the Holy Spirit, see David Flusser, “Yohanan ha-Matbil ve-Kat Midbar Yehudah [John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Sect],” in Jewish Sources in Early Christianity: Studies and Essays (Tel Aviv: Sifriat HaPoalim, 1979), 81-112.
  • [31] See David Flusser, “Martyrology in the Second Temple Period and Early Christianity,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Volume 2, The Jewish Sages and Their Literature (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids, MI and Jerusalem, Israel: Eerdmans, Jerusalem Perspective and Magnes Press, 2009), 248-257.
  • [32] See my discussion in “Jesus’ Place in First-century Judaism and His Influence on Christian Doctrine” under the subheading “The Third Day He Rose Again.”
  • [33] By the “myth of Jesus,” Flusser does not mean belief in the resurrection, but belief in a cosmic divine figure whose story and significance have been divorced from the history and faith of the Jewish people.—JP
  • [34] Julius Firmicus Maternus, De Errore profanarum religionum (ed. K. Ziegler; Munich: Max Hueber, 1953), 24.2.
  • [35] See my discussion in “Jesus’ Place in First-century Judaism and His Influence on Christian Doctrine” under the subheading “And Sits at the Right Hand of God.”
  • [36] Cf. Ign. Eph. 7:2, 18:2; Ign. Rom. 3:3; Ign. Smyrn. 1:1; Ign. Pol. 8:3.
  • [37] E.g., Pol. Phil. 12:2.
  • [38] Until recently our knowledge of Gnosticism came, for the most part, from patristic polemics against Gnosticism. Presently, the gnostic library, discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, is becoming available for scholars. See Jean Doresse, Les Livres secrets des Gnostiques d’Egypte (Paris: Plon, 1958), 115-121.
  • [39] For further discussion of Simon Magus, see David Flusser, “Great Goddess of Samaria,” 18-20.
  • [40] Docetism is a trend that considers the humanity of the suffering Christ on earth as apparent rather than actual.
  • [41] It is also possible that in Judaism the idea of a parallelism between the spiritual and material worlds derives from Persian influences of the Zoroastrian religion, the only religion whose impact on Judaism is significant. According to Zoroastrianism, the spiritual world was created before the material world, and there are parallels to the concepts of the Holy Spirit and archangels and correspondence with Jewish motifs of eschatology and the belief in a final resurrection. Perhaps many of the “mystical” ideas Christianity inherited from Judaism are of Persian origin.

Jesus’ Place in First-century Judaism and His Influence on Christian Doctrine

According to the Christian tradition (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55), it was stated—as being a matter of common knowledge—by Jesus’ contemporaries in his home town Nazareth in Galilee, that he was the son of a carpenter there, and he perhaps became a carpenter himself. In Jewish society in Jesus’ day, carpenters were reputed to be learned[1] and, although Jesus did not receive the academic title “rabbi,” he acquired a considerable amount of Jewish learning. He was extremely well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and its traditional interpretation; he was familiar with Jewish ethical and religious teaching;[2] and he was able to observe the manifold legal prescriptions involved in the Mosaic Law and in Jewish oral tradition.

In the time of Jesus, Jews lived, learned, and faithfully practiced their religion, and their daily life was largely governed by religious precepts. This form of life was natural to Jesus and his contemporaries. Jesus did not seek to abrogate, or even to reform, the Jewish Law. According to Paul, for whom the Jewish Law had become a serious problem, Jesus was “born under the Law to purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law” (Gal. 4:4-5); he “became a servant to the circumcised in order to prove God’s honesty by fulfilling His promises to the fathers” (Rom. 15:8). The evidence in the Synoptic Gospels confirms these statements.

Jesus and the Pharisees

Some church fathers tried to define Jesus’ attitude towards the Law by assuming that he observed the written Law but opposed the oral Law of the Pharisees. This was the position of the Sadducees, but Jesus had nothing in common with this rationalistic conservative movement. The early fathers and the modern scholars who have held this view have based their opinion mainly upon the passage about the washing of hands (Mark 7:1-23). There (Mark 7:8), Jesus says to the Pharisees: “You neglect the commandment of God in order to maintain the tradition of men.” But in Jesus’ time washing hands before meals was not considered to be one of the requirements of the oral Law; it was not even obligatory; it was merely voluntary. According to the Pharisees themselves (Mark 7:5), this custom was simply a “tradition of elders,” it was not part of either the written or the oral Law. Moreover, it was not Jesus himself, but only “some of his disciples” who neglected the custom of hand washing.

The passage about the washing of hands does not justify the assumption that Jesus opposed the Jewish legal practice of his time; but, by the third century, Origen understood it as signifying the rejection of Jewish dietary laws by Jesus (Comm. Matt. 11.12). The overwhelming majority of modern translators thoughtlessly accept Origen’s interpretation when they take Mark 7:19b to mean: “Thus he [Jesus] declared all foods clean”—although the Greek original can hardly be read in this sense.[3]

When we compare Jesus’ words and actions in the Synoptic Gospels with the rabbinic prescriptions of his time, it becomes clear that, even in his most revolutionary actions, he never transgressed the bounds of the contemporary interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Although it was forbidden to cure non-dangerous illnesses on the Sabbath by physical means, it was permitted to cure them by words, and this is what Jesus did. Jesus’ saying that “the Sabbath was made for the sake of man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) has a close parallel in rabbinic literature.[4] Moreover, the occasion on which this statement was made is the only instance of a Sabbath violation in the Synoptic Gospels: it was forbidden to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath. According to Luke 6:1, Jesus’ disciples “were plucking ears of corn, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them.” However, a newly-discovered Jewish-Christian text,[5] and also the so-called Diatessaron, do not say that they were plucking them; according to both these texts the disciples only rubbed the ears in their hands on the Sabbath. Most rabbis did not permit even this, but we have reports that a Galilean sage named Rabbi Yehudah opposed their opinion (b. Shabbat 128a). Thus the only violation of the Sabbath (and this by the disciples and not by Jesus) in the Synoptic Gospels is evidently the result of a misunderstanding on the part of the Greek translator: the original tradition did not speak about plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath, but only about rubbing them, an act which was not universally forbidden.

These questions may seem trivial, yet they are important because Jesus’ attitude towards the Mosaic Law was decisive from two historical points of view—first, for the understanding of Jesus as a Jew of his time, and second, for the effects of his teaching on the Christian Church. There was a real tension between Jesus and the local “orthodoxy” in Galilean villages, but such tension occurs in all religious communities. Charismatic personalities, although they often have opinions which differ from those of the institutional authorities, are not necessarily schismatics or heretics. Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a rebel after his clash with the Sadducean temple authorities in Jerusalem; the Pharisees are not even mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels as a party to the so-called trial of Jesus. They had no real cause to hate him so profoundly as to seek to have him put to death. All the motifs of Jesus’ famous invective against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 are also found in rabbinic literature. Both in Jesus’ diatribe and in the self-criticism of the rabbis, the central polemical motif is the description of the Pharisees as being prone to hypocrisy.[6] Jesus says that “they make up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they will not stir a finger to remove them” (Matt. 23:4). In the Talmud we read about five types of Pharisaic hypocrisy: the first is to “lay the commandments upon men’s shoulders” (y. Berachot 9:5 [14b]; b. Sotah 22b). The indictment of the Pharisees for hypocrisy is naturally stronger in the Essene literature than in Jesus’ words because the Essenes opposed the Pharisaic doctrine itself. Although not a member of the Pharisaic community, Jesus approved of the Pharisaic understanding of the Law:

The doctors of the Law and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses; therefore do what they tell you; pay attention to their words. But do not follow their deeds; for they say one thing and do another. (Matt. 23:2-3)

Pharisaic theology and legal attitudes were those of contemporary non-sectarian Judaism, and this was their strength. Jesus would not disagree with them.

Jesus adhered to the standard Judaism of his time, and from this point of view it is natural that his disciples, and the Jewish Christian community that came after them, should have lived according to the Law. Nevertheless, the mistaken evaluation of Jesus’ criticisms of local bigotry as reservations about Judaism itself, or as an actual repudiation of it, later became a fruitful source of error for Christianity. The necessary condition for this “anti-legalistic” interpretation of Jesus’ words was the fact that Christianity became a religion for Gentiles. In contrast to Judaism and to the religions of other Asian countries, from Persia eastward, the Greco-Roman civilization was not based upon a ritualistic system of precepts and prohibitions. Thus the conquest of the Western world by Christianity was only possible if the new religion abandoned the ritualistic way of life. This step was made possible by the development of a new Christian theology whose most outstanding exponent was the Apostle Paul.

In the apostolic and sub-apostolic period, the Christian Church’s rejection of the Jewish Law was mostly based upon Christology: the death of the Lord was, so to say, the death of Jewish legal obligations. It was only later on, from the third century onward, that the church fathers found in Jesus’ criticism of the institutional bigotry of his opponents an important argument for Christian freedom from Jewish ritual. Although such a reinterpretation of Jesus’ position is historically untenable, the exaggeration of the polemical note in Jesus’ sayings by Christian theologians led to important achievements in Western ethics.

The Golden Rule

The specific moral character of Jesus’ teaching—which, as we have seen, has often been misinterpreted as being opposed to the Judaism of his time—is in truth not as exceptional as one might suppose. The ancient rabbis did not feel a tension between their punctilious occupation with ritual and legal casuistry and their sublime moral and theological message; in this they were similar to the Indian sages. For example, Rabbi Akiva was not only a great expert in Jewish Law, but was also the man who said that the essential message of the Mosaic Law is that one should love one’s neighbor (Sifra, Kedoshim, 4:12; cf. Bereshit Rabbah 24:7). As we know, this was also Jesus’ opinion (Matt. 22:39). Again, Jesus said: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). This precept, the so-called Golden Rule, had already been declared by the Jewish sage Hillel (c. 20 B.C.E.) to be the essence of Judaism (b. Shabbat 31a). Hillel was the founder of one of the two most important rabbinical schools—the other was that of Shammai. Both schools were Pharisaic.

It would be a mistake to think of the Judaism of Jesus’ time as being identical with the religion of the Old Testament or as being a mere development of the ancient faith of Israel. New questions arose and new religious problems had to be solved. The simple ethics of the Bible could no longer satisfy more modern and sophisticated minds, and the social structure of the Ancient Near East no longer existed. A more subtle and more highly differentiated approach to moral and theological problems was needed.[7] The human condition itself had now become more problematic.

One of the central problems of the Hebrew Bible was the righteousness of God: how can God be righteous if good people suffer and the wicked are often happy? In Jesus’ day the righteousness of man had become a problem. Was the traditional strict division of humankind into the righteous and sinners tenable if no person is totally sinful and if no one can achieve complete righteousness? Even if in this life the righteous were to receive recompense from Heaven and the wicked their due punishment, would this be consistent with God’s goodness and mercy? If one knows that recompense from God awaits him for his good deeds, can his actions be dictated by a high morality? Even as early as the beginning of the second century B.C.E., a Jewish sage named Antigonus of Socho had said: “Be not like slaves who serve the master on condition of receiving remuneration, but be like slaves who serve the master not on condition of receiving remuneration” (m. Avot 1:3). According to this saying, heavenly recompense and punishment are certain, but people ought to act as if they did not know this. This saying shows how high the standard of Jewish ethical reflection was at that time. It is natural that in such an atmosphere, an elaborate casuistic approach to ethical problems should develop: it became clear that a slight trespass can easily lead to a heavy sin; that a man who seemed to be righteous could in reality be a great sinner; and that a wicked man could be saved by one truly great deed. This new discriminating moral attitude can be well illustrated by its oldest witness, a passage from the book of Jesus ben Sira (floruit 185 B.C.E.):

Wrath and anger, these also are abominations
And a sinful man clingeth to them,
He that taketh vengeance shall find vengeance from the Lord,
And his sins [God] will surely keep [in memory].
Forgive thy neighbor the injury [done to thee],
And then, when thou prayest, thy sins will be forgiven.
Man cherisheth anger against another,
And doth he seek healing from God?
On a man like himself he hath no mercy;
And doth he make supplication for his own sins?
He, being flesh, nourisheth wrath;
Who will make atonement for his sins?
Remember thy last end, and cease from enmity;
[Remember] corruption and death and abide in the commandments.
Remember the commandments and be not wroth with thy neighbor.
And [remember] the covenant of the Most High and overlook ignorance.
(Sir. 27:30-28:7)

All the motifs which occur here are characteristic of the new sensitivity in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, whose theologoumena Jesus accepted and developed. Through the Gospels they became an inseparable part of Christianity. The new approach to moral theology in Judaism caused ideological controversies in Pharisaic circles. We have seen that love of one’s neighbor was regarded as being the sum total of the Mosaic Law. We have also seen a rabbi teaching that man should perform God’s will without taking into account any divine reward. Certain Pharisaic circles came to the conclusion that it is better to love God unconditionally than to be God-fearing, because the fear of God includes fear of His punishment. There were “Pharisees of love” who opposed the “Pharisees of fear” on the ground that these stood for a lower standard than theirs (y. Berachot 9:5 [14b]; b. Sotah 22b). Jesus saw in the love of God and one’s neighbor the two “great rules in the Law,” on which the whole Law depends (Matt. 22:36-40), and, according to the Gospels (Mark 12:32-34; Luke 10:25-28), he was conforming, in this point, to the teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus added an important corollary to the theses of his Jewish predecessors. The Judaism of his time, or at any rate certain circles in it, forbade people to hate their enemies, and required them to behave in the same way towards sinners as towards the righteous. Jesus called for love even of one’s enemies and even of sinners. This demand of Jesus was evidently too radical for the young Church. In the New Testament love of one’s enemies is mentioned only in Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. The requirement that one should love the sinner became known later through the Synoptic Gospels, but it was not always practiced by Christians.

“A Lowly Spirit and a Humble Mind”

In the Hebrew Bible the religion of Israel was already a message about a God who is both righteous and merciful. Socially unfortunate persons and groups are specially cherished by God, and the community is under an obligation to protect them. According to the Bible, the God of Israel does not favor powerful men and physical force. God rather favors the poor and the meek: “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:11). The consequence of this religious attitude was that Judaism came to regard meekness, humility, and even poverty as positive human qualities. This development had already begun in certain parts of the Hebrew Bible. In the intertestamental period “a lowly spirit and a humble mind” (m. Avot 5:19) became important positive religious values and “a haughty spirit and a proud mind” were marks of fatal wickedness. Many believed that it is better to suffer persecution than to be a persecutor. Naturally, this moral approach was especially widespread in those Pharisaic circles that saw the whole meaning of Judaism in the love of one’s neighbor and in an unconditional love of God. Through Jesus, among other channels, this attitude became one of the most important formative elements of Christianity.

It was not only Pharisaic circles who arrived at a “pietistic” approach to a human being’s relations with God and with his fellow humans. A similar development also occurred in a community that was the second source of Jesus’ teaching, namely in Essenism, which is now well-known through the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essene doctrine of double predestination clearly influenced the Pauline and Johannine theology of election; it was revived in a new logical context by Augustine; and it was finally accepted by Luther and Calvin. Jesus could not accept this theology, but he was deeply influenced by the social doctrines of the Essenes, which were in many points similar to the Pharisaic demand for humility, but were even more radical than this. The main difference was that the Pharisees did not dream about social revolution, and, although they were inclined to recognize the spiritual value of poverty, they did not see it as a positive human and religious value, whereas the Essenes regarded themselves as the אביוני פדותכה (“paupers of salvation”; 1QM 11:9), elected by God to inherit the earth.

This ideology of poverty led the Essenes to despise wealth as dangerous power which leads humankind astray from God. The rabbis, on the other hand, did not stress this danger and often saw in wealth a sign of divine favor. Jesus accepted the Essene position without accepting its full revolutionary implications. He thought that it is difficult for a rich man to be saved (Matt. 19:24), and he warned his disciples:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or he will be devoted to the one and will despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:24)

As in the Essene view, the praise of poverty was linked, in Jesus’ message, with an appreciation of meekness, humility and the acceptance of persecution. The spirit of the Beatitudes is practically the Essene spirit, and the first three Beatitudes even have important parallels in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[8] The author of the Essene Thanksgiving Scroll thanks God:

…for having appointed me in Thy truth a messenger of the peace of Thy goodness, to proclaim to the meek the multitude of Thy mercies, and let them that are of contrite spirit hear salvation from an everlasting source, and for them that mourn everlasting joy. (1QHa 23:14-15)

Jesus’ first three Beatitudes are addressed to the poor in spirit, to the meek and to them that mourn (Matt. 5:3-5). Moreover, עניי רוח (“poor in spirit”) is one of the terms by which the members of the Dead Sea sect described themselves (1QM 14:7; 1QHa 6:3).

Jesus’ Beatitudes are a hymn of hope for the future. A similar hope is expressed in a passage from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish work with Christian interpolations, which has many affinities with the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the Testament of Judah, in the eschatological future:

Those who have died in grief shall arise in joy, and those who have been poor…shall be made rich, and those who were hungry shall be filled, and those who have been weak shall be strong, and those who were put to death for the Lord’s sake shall awake to life. And the harts of Jacob shall run in joyfulness, and the eagles of Israel shall fly in gladness; but the ungodly shall lament and the sinners shall weep, and all the peoples shall glorify the Lord forever. (T. Jud. 25:4-5)

The affinity between this text and both the Beatitudes and the Woes of Jesus (Luke 6:24-25) is clear enough.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the so-called “Two Ways,” which form the first six chapters of the early Christian Didache, are the two Jewish sources which are the most closely akin to Jesus’ moral teaching.[9] Like Jesus’ message, they were inspired by Essene doctrines, but they are not strictly Essene. They, too, are far from the Essene exclusiveness of election and—with the exception of the Testament of Asher—instead of an ideology of hatred of sinners, they preach, as do some Pharisaic circles and Jesus, the love of God and one’s neighbor. But, like Jesus and unlike the Pharisees, they stress the religious ideals of poverty and simplicity of heart: at this point both the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the “Two Ways” in the Didache are close to the Essene spirit. Thus it would appear that these two Jewish sources originated in semi-Essene circles which were influenced by the attitude of the “Pharisees of Love.” It also seems very probable that the Essene theologoumena came to Jesus in a modified form from the fringes of Essenism, and not from Essene orthodoxy. We know of only one man who was close to the Essenes but opposed their sectarian claims: this was John the Baptist. Thus we can suppose that motifs common to Jesus and the Essenes are a fruit of the Baptist’s influence upon Jesus.

“Philanthropy” and the Agapaistic Spirit

From the historical point of view, the most important fact is that through Jesus’ words, as well as through other channels, a special kind of Jewish thought made a central formative impact on European society. This is especially true of that kind of Jewish religious and moral thought which was common both to the Essenes and to certain Pharisaic circles. It is interesting to note that in most cases Christianity accepted those ideas from Jesus which had existed in Judaism before him: the points at which Jesus departed from Judaism and made an original contribution were evidently not recognized, or were too difficult to accept. We have already seen that, even in the New Testament, love for one’s enemy appears only in the words of Jesus himself, and, if this sublime achievement of Jesus became known to Christians later, it has actually been followed only by outstanding individuals and not by Christians en masse. The demand, which often wins intellectual acceptance but is not commonly followed by Christians, is that one should not repay evil with evil; this idea can sometimes be found in Essene literature (e.g., 1QS 9:22-23), and it plays an important part in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. It was also common in “pietistic” Pharisaic circles.

Besides accepting poverty as a positive value, the Christians regarded humility as a typical Christian virtue. Clement of Rome (end of the first century) saw Jesus as the teacher of humbleness of mind: “if the Lord humbled himself, he shall be in this an example for those who come under the yoke of his grace” (1 Clem. 13:2; 16:1-2, 17; see also Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 10:3). It is important to realize that ταπεινός (tapeinos), the Greek word translated here, and in many passages in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, as “humble” has, in Greek, the connotation of “abject” or “abased,” and is “a word which nearly all pagan authors…employ as a term of contempt.”[10] Julian the Apostate even thought that the Christians had adopted the term because they had misunderstood a passage in Plato.

This example is only one of many pieces of evidence that bring out the difference between the ethos of pagan antiquity and the Jewish-Christian spirit. Greco-Roman culture and civilization and Jewish ethics in their Christian shape became the two roots of European thought. The first is well known, but the importance of the second ought also to be stressed. Humanism is based upon these two sources, and it seems that the Jewish-Christian heritage prevails in it, although the impact of Greek philosophy certainly must not be neglected. It could be maintained that this identification with the poor, the humble, the simple and the persecuted constitutes only a plebeian ethos which gives no answers to important social problems. The government of subjects could never be based upon a morality such as this. What can a king or a government learn from the precepts of Jesus, who said:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:25)

The Emperor Julian was perfectly right when, apropos of Jesus’ words: “Sell your possessions and give alms [to the poor]; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old” (Luke 12:33), he affirmed that, if this “political precept” were to be followed, no city, no nation, no house could endure (Against the Galileans frag. 5.).[11]

The government of a Christian state could never be organized exclusively according to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. The practices of the Greeks and the Romans and the Hebrew Bible were always indispensable for Christian statesmanship. But kindness to one’s neighbor, based upon love and not only, as the Greeks preferred, upon rational philosophical understanding, also has positive merits. Compassion towards the outcast and sympathy with the persecuted created a social conscience and led to reforms, revolutionary movements and revolutions, which were not always bad. And the positive valuation of simplicity of heart could sometimes overcome intellectual pride. History has shown that the detached wisdom of the Greeks and the order of the Roman state can lead to a heartless society and to imperialistic oppression and aggression. It became clear that the Greek ideal of philanthropia is not as effective as active love of one’s neighbor. Thus the Jewish heritage in Christianity has had a very beneficial influence upon humankind.

Even as early as the middle of the second century the spread of Christianity was seen as a threat to the established order. A rabbi at that time expressed a feeling which was evidently widespread when he said that one of the eschatological plagues will be that “the [Roman] Kingdom will pass over to Christianity” (m. Sotah 9:15); and later this nightmare became a political reality. One of the irresistible forces which brought about the victory of Christianity was its new morality. Its social attitude was different from the pagan ethos, and it was therefore attractive to large masses of the population. We have seen that this ethical position came to Christianity from certain Jewish circles. Most of these ideas were made known to Christians through the teaching of Jesus, but sometimes they influenced Christianity independently of Jesus, e.g. through Paul. The importance of these achievements for humanity is evident.

“Conceived by the Holy Ghost”

It was not only Jesus’ teachings, but also his life and his real or supposed view of what he was that left their imprint upon human history. Christology is not a pagan invention of the Hellenistic Christian communities. This becomes clear from the Book of Revelation, where the main motifs of fully developed Christology are already present. The author of the book, John of Patmos, has nothing in common with Paul. He was a Hebrew-speaking Jew for whom it was difficult to write in Greek. No Greek influence can be found in his book. His spiritual and probably also his historical home was the Jewish mother church at Jerusalem. His Christology, which is one of the main themes of his book, reflects the beliefs of a section of the Palestinian Jewish Christian community. On this point Jewish Christians did not by any means present a united front. We know that groups which were later regarded by the Church as being heretical stressed the prophetic aspect of Jesus; and his role as the Messiah and his resurrection did not play a great part in their system. This view can sometimes be detected in the older strata of the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel according to Mark, even in its present form, the resurrection is not recorded and, in the short description of it in Matthew we read that, when the disciples saw the resurrected Lord, “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). The doubters did not include Peter and Jesus’ brother James, the future leaders of the mother church: the resurrected Lord appeared to both (1 Cor. 15:5-7).

On the question whether Jesus was the Messiah, the differences between the various Jewish Christian groups possibly reflect an uncertainty about the attitude of Jesus himself. Even during his lifetime some people had hoped that he was the Messiah—the inscription on the Cross proves this definitely. Certainly Jesus saw himself as a prophet, and this belief found expression not only in the New Testament, but also in later Jewish Christian sects. Evidently Jesus never used the term Messiah when speaking about himself or when proclaiming the coming of the Son of Man, probably because politics were too deeply involved in this title. But Jesus must surely have seen himself as being more than a herald of the Kingdom of Heaven and more than a healer and wonder worker. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we did not have any authentic utterances of charismatic Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time. We can now study the Thanksgiving Scroll, a collection of hymns composed by an Essene leader—some scholars think by the Teacher of Righteousness himself, who was the founder of the sect. Here we may observe in another Jewish religious personality in antiquity, besides Jesus, a sublime realization of his own high place in the divine economy of the world. The author of the Essene Thanksgiving Scroll says about himself:

Through me Thou hast illuminated the faces of many and Thou hast become mighty infinitely; for Thou hast made known to me Thy wondrous mysteries and by Thy wondrous secret Thou hast wrought mightily with me; and Thou hast wrought wonders in the presence of many for the sake of Thy glory and to make known Thy mighty works unto all the living. (1QHa 12:27-29)

With these words we may compare the poem of Jesus which was, as is shown by its form, composed in the style of Essene hymnology:

I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise and revealing them to the simple. Yes, Father, such was Thy choice. Everything is entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son may choose to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:25-27)

Here Jesus formulates his claim to be the sole repository and mediator of the divine mysteries expressing the relation between Father and Son. He claims to be God’s son in other authentic sayings, too. In the rabbinic literature, charismatic wonder workers of Jesus’ time are described as having access to God as a beloved son has to his father (m. Ta’anit 3:8).[12] As we have seen, and as can be proved from other sayings, sonship also involved, for Jesus, his task as a prophetic revealer of the will of his heavenly Father. As is well known, the unity between the Father and the Son soon became one of the central points of the Christian faith. Later (I believe), but as early as the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, Jesus became a literal son of God, without an earthly father. It was only when this concept came to be understood in terms of the unity of the Father and the Son that it became a part of trinitarian doctrine. My belief is that originally stories about Jesus’ divine birth were “mythical” explanations of Jesus’ view of himself as being the beloved son of his Father in Heaven. Even the pagan parallels to the story of Jesus’ birth never implied that the hero or the historical personality was a god or that he was identical with his divine father.

“Born of the Virgin Mary”

The idea that a man can be begotten of God without an earthly father seems to us today to be so far from Judaism that it could have developed only in pagan Christianity. The concept is surely at odds with strict Jewish monotheism; but it was not foreign to more mythologically-minded Jewish circles in antiquity. The Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria asserts that:

the persons…such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses…are not represented by him [i.e., by Moses in the Pentateuch] as knowing women…. For he [Moses] shows us Sarah conceiving at the time when God visited her in her solitude [Gen. 21:1], but when she brings forth it is not to the Author of their visitation, but to…Abraham. And even clearer is Moses’ teaching of Leah that God opened her womb [Gen. 29:31]. Now to open the womb belongs to the husband. Yet when she conceived she brought forth not to God…, but to…Jacob…Again Isaac…besought God, and through the power of Him who was thus besought…Rebecca became pregnant [Gen. 25:21]. And without supplication or entreaty did Moses, when he took Zipporah…, find her pregnant through no mortal agency [Exod. 2:22]. (On the Cherubim 40-47)

According to the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, a similar suspicion also arose about the birth of Noah. The nature of the newborn baby was unlike man’s nature. His father, Lamech, became afraid and did not believe that his son was sprung from him: for he was in the likeness of the angels of heaven. He turned to his wife, making her swear by the Most High that she would tell him the whole truth, without lies. Although she swore that the seed and the conception and the fruit were his, he became calm only when he was assured by his grandfather Enoch, the heavenly scribe, that Noah was really his son (1 En. 106:1-19; 1Qap Genar 2:3-21).

The most important parallel to Jesus’ miraculous nativity is to be found in the Book of the Secrets of Enoch (the so-called “Slavonic Enoch”). Some scholars have thought that this book was composed by a Christian, and this is also the opinion of A. Vaillant,[13] though his own edition has proved that there were no Christian interpolations in the original version. The strange story of the supernatural birth of the biblical Melchizedek, contained in this book, is as follows: When Noah’s brother, Nir, was priest of God, his wife conceived from the Word of God. The angry husband wanted to repudiate her, but at that very moment his wife died. The child left the womb of his mother, complete in his body and blessing the Lord with the seal of priesthood upon his breast. Then Nir and his brother recognized that the child was born from the Lord (2 En. 71:1-21). Later, the Archangel Michael took Melchizedek up to Paradise lest he suffer during the deluge (2 En. 72:1-11); for he will be Melchizedek, “a priest forever” (Ps. 110:4).

The phrase “a priest forever” is a quotation from Psalm 110: “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind; you are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4). The phrase, translated in the Septuagint as “after the order,” indicates that the psalm is addressed to some person unknown, but the words are not quite clear from the linguistic point of view. Some commentators have thought that in this psalm God is speaking to Melchizedek himself, and this has given rise to the Jewish tradition which is manifest, inter alia, in Hebrews 7:3: Melchizedek is a priest forever; “he has neither a beginning of his days nor an end of his life, but…continues to be a priest permanently.” This was also the opinion of the author of the Book of the Secrets of Enoch.

We can also understand how a Jewish tradition arose that Melchizedek was born without an earthly father. The same psalm contains a difficult verse (Ps. 110:3) which is translated in the Septuagint: “From the womb, before the morning star, I have begotten thee.” The Greek translator was right: the enigmatic Hebrew text of Psalm 110:3 reflects the Ancient Near Eastern belief that the ruler is symbolically the son of God, a belief that is also reflected in the famous words of Psalm 2: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). If the mythologically-minded reader starts with the assumption that, in Psalm 110, God is addressing Himself to Melchizedek, and if he takes the verse literally, he may come to the conclusion that “the Word of God has created” Melchizedek in the womb of his mother.[14]

The mysterious personality of Melchizedek, as described in Genesis 14 and referred to in Psalm 110, became a magnet for irrational tendencies in post-biblical Judaism. An important fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QMelchizedek) even forecasts the coming of Melchizedek as the Heavenly Judge in the Last Judgement.[15] The origin of this idea is not difficult to explain if one takes Psalm 110 as being addressed to Melchizedek himself. As has been mentioned, the Psalm speaks about a “priest forever.” This could be understood to imply that Melchizedek is an eternal being: “he has neither a beginning of his days nor an end of his life, but…continues to be a priest permanently” (Heb. 7:3). Melchizedek grew to mythical proportions: immortal like Enoch, Elijah and, according to some views, Moses himself. The immortal Melchizedek could become the eschatological judge, especially if we bear in mind the fact that Psalm 110 begins with the words: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at My right hand till I make your enemies your footstool'” (Ps. 110:1). The Qumran exegetes took sitting at the right hand of the Lord to imply sitting in judgement, in keeping with verses from the same psalm: “The Lord is at your right hand: he will shatter kings on the Day of His Wrath. He will execute judgement among the nations….” (Ps. 110:5-6).

If the Essenes interpreted Psalm 110 as referring to Melchizedek, they could also relate Psalm 82 to him. This psalm, which also speaks of God’s judgement, begins with the words: “God [Elohim] has taken His place in the divine council; in the midst of gods He will hold judgement.” The author of the new Essene text took the word Elohim (God) as referring to Melchizedek (11QMelch 2:9-10). This does not necessarily imply that the Essenes credited Melchizedek with being of a divine nature, since the word Elohim could also be interpreted as referring to a judge; but there is some ambiguity in this strange interpretation. Towards the end of the fragment the Essene author interprets in his own way Isaiah 52:7: “…who says to Zion: ‘Your God is king.'” Zion is interpreted as “those who establish the covenant” (11QMelch 2:24), i.e., the Essene community.[16] The text then continues: “Your God, that is….” Unfortunately, the fragment ends abruptly here, but scholars are justified in conjecturing that, here too, our author interpreted the word “Your God” as applying to Melchizedek; he is thought of as being the eschatological ruler of the Essene Community.

Thus Melchizedek, though human, is also a supernatural being with a sort of mythical biography: according to an apocryphal book he was begotten in his mother’s womb by the Word of God; he was immortal, a “priest forever,” and at the End of Days he will be the eschatological heavenly judge. In the Bible he is twice called “God,” and he will be king in the new Jerusalem, which is a symbol of the Essene Community. The Dead Sea Scrolls are Essene and the Book of the Secrets of Enoch is a Jewish work. The mythical motifs relating to Melchizedek were developed from sources in the Hebrew Bible. Hence the example of Melchizedek proves that the time was ripe for the birth of Christianity, not in the Hellenistic world and certainly not in the pagan world, but in the Land of Israel, where Jesus and his first disciples lived.

“And Sits at the Right Hand of God”

According to a Qumran fragment, the Last Judgement will take place on high and Melchizedek will be assisted by all the celestial powers. “‘Belial and the spirits of his lot’ will then be judged,…and Melchizedek will vindicate God’s judgements” (11QMelch 2:12-13). He will not only pass judgement, but will also execute it. At this time he will separate the righteous, who are his lot and heritage, from the wicked, both human and demonic. Melchizedek appears here in a very similar role to that of the Son of Man of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch and of the Gospels:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from the other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left…. And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt. 25:31-46)

 

Crusader mosaic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
Crusader mosaic from Chapel of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

In the New Testament the first verse of Psalm 110 is applied to Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels it is twice quoted by Jesus: in Matthew 22:44 (and parallels) with reference to the Messiah; and in a logion (Luke 22:69 and parallels), which is Jesus’ answer to the question of the High Priest, whether he is the Messiah. Jesus answered: “From now on, the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the Power.”[17] The authenticity of the first saying may perhaps be doubted, but it is extremely difficult to doubt the authenticity of Jesus’ answer to the High Priest; and Jesus’ answer would hardly make sense unless we assume that Jesus identified himself with the Son of Man. I believe that Jesus did make this identification, at least in the end. His lofty conception of what he was comes out in his claim to be the beloved son of his heavenly Father, and thus he could also identify himself with the figure of the Son of Man. As far as is known, he refused to accept explicitly the title of Messiah, but his aversion for this title can be explained by its political content. However, Jesus’ conception of what he was is not only an historical, but also, in a sense, a literary problem: although I myself believe that Jesus had a “messianic self-consciousness,” there is a decided possibility that he never identified himself with the Savior. Even in the text of the Synoptic Gospels he is never represented as claiming to be the Savior, and he always refers to the Son of Man in the third person.

The question of Jesus’ conception of what he was is manifestly very important per se, but it is not decisive in connection with our inquiry, since our purpose here is to trace the Jewish roots of Christology in relation, direct or indirect, with the life and the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and to show that, in principle, the Christian conception of Christ did not originate in paganism, though it could be accepted without any great difficulty by the pagan world because there were parallel ideas there. In my belief, this conception originated in the mythologizing Jewish atmosphere for which there is evidence in apocalyptic circles, in other Jewish apocrypha, and to some extent in rabbinic literature and in Jewish mysticism.

In all Jewish sources the eschatological figure of the Son of Man is always delineated in the same few sharp lines. Although he is a human being, he is also supernatural. He is the eschatological judge of the cosmos: sitting on high upon the throne of God’s Glory, he will judge all humankind and, with the help of the heavenly hosts, will divide the righteous from the sinners. He will also execute the sentence. The vision of the Son of Man was already known to the author of the Book of Daniel; but here his appearance is somehow changed in order to adapt him to a new meaning (Dan. 7:7-27). In Daniel the Son of Man became a collective symbol for the Saints of the Most High, for Israel or the elect. Therefore, although “thrones were placed” and judgement took place, the Son of Man who came “with the clouds of heaven” did not himself judge, but to him was given the everlasting dominion over the world.

In the Book of Daniel, the Son of Man became the symbol of a collective group. As we have seen, the eschatological functions attributed to the biblical Melchizedek in an Essene fragment are identical with those of the Son of Man in other sources. In the Book of Enoch the Son of Man is once—evidently in a later edition—the heavenly scribe, Enoch himself (1 En. 71), and he is twice identified with the Messiah (1 En. 48:10; 52:4). According to the Testament of Abraham, the Son of Man—in Hebrew בן אדם (ben Adam, literally “the Son of Adam”)—is Abel. He will be the eschatological judge because it is the will of God that humankind shall be judged by a human being (T. Ab. 13:3-4).[18]

Although it is not absolutely certain that Jesus identified the Son of Man with the Messiah, this seems highly probable. It was of central importance for the development of the Christian faith that Jesus not only used the title “Son of Man” for the Savior, but also described him in the way in which others conceived of the Son of Man. For Jesus, too, the Son of Man is the heavenly judge, sitting on the glorious throne of God on high in the company of angels. The concept of the Son of Man is the highest, most godlike concept of the Savior that ancient Judaism ever knew. He is the direct representative of God; he, so to speak, reflects the Glory of God. In virtue of being this, he is, according to the Book of Enoch, pre-existent; and this concept is sometimes also hinted at in speculations about the Messiah in the rabbinic literature. This was the way by which the idea that the Savior is identical with the Word by which God created the universe established itself in Christianity. The identification is not peculiarly Christian. It is possible that it is not to be found in Jewish sources; to see in a human Savior an incarnation of God’s Glory might make him too divine to be acceptable to Jews. Yet, before the discovery of the Essene fragment, we could not have imagined that the eschatological judge could be designated by the title “God” even in an unorthodox Jewish document.

“A Name Which Is Above Every Name”

One of the characteristics of post-biblical Judaism was the importance of hypostatic titles of God.[19] This development was the result of the emphasis in Judaism on God’s transcendence. It was practically forbidden to pronounce His biblical name and, instead of naming God, Jews used to speak of the Wisdom, the Spirit, the Word, the Power, or the Glory. But these titles could also be understood as a reflection of God in the world, as the immanence of the transcendent God, and consequently it was impossible in Judaism to speak of more than one hypostasis, and the hypostatic terms were interchangeable. This was also the situation in early Christianity; it was only later, when the doctrine of the Trinity developed, that it became impossible for Christians to identify the Spirit with the Word, since the Word became a term for the Son, and the Holy Spirit became the third person of the Holy Trinity. This was not so at the beginning: Paul could still say that the Lord is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17, 18). A plurality of hypostases, as a system of emanations or as persons engaged in a cosmic drama, is characteristic of the Gnostic attitude and also of the Jewish mysticism of the Middle Ages and of modern times.

The use of hypostatic terms was already extensive in the second century B.C.E., and it is not only typical of rabbinic Judaism but is also to be found in Hellenistic Judaism, in the Wisdom of Solomon, for instance, and in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. When Philo speaks of the Logos, the Word of God, his inspiration comes primarily from Palestinian Judaism and not from the Greek philosophy of Heraclitus and the Stoics. All the Jewish hypostatic terms occur in the New Testament. Thus it seems very unlikely that the term “Logos,” which is actually less important in the New Testament than it might appear to be, will have been derived by Christianity from the works of Philo. In the Christian literature of the apostolic and sub-apostolic period which was produced in Hellenistic Christian communities (e.g., the Pauline corpus), the hypostatic terms and conceptions were derived from Hellenistic Judaism or else directly, through the mother church, from Palestinian Jewry.

The various terms, such as the Wisdom, the Spirit, the Word, the Power and the Glory can describe God himself, his attributes, and his immanence. This ambiguity was dangerous for Jewish (and Christian) monotheism, as is demonstrated by the rise of Gnosticism, but it was fruitful for Christology, and this from the very beginning. This was not an exclusively Christian achievement, as can be shown by citing one example. Even as early as the beginning of the second century B.C.E. the pre-existent Wisdom of God—as it appears in the biblical Book of Proverbs—was identified with the Mosaic Law, which was also conceived of as being pre-existent. The oldest evidence for this concept is the Book of Jesus ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus). In this book Wisdom, which is the personified Law of Moses, says inter alia: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the Earth like a mist” (Sir. 24:3). This means that God’s Wisdom, which is His pre-existent divine Law, is also His creative Word, which issued from His mouth; and His Spirit, which “was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).

If such an identification of some of the hypostases with the eternal Law was possible in Judaism, we can understand how, in as early a stratum of Christian literature as the New Testament itself, all Jewish hypostatic titles of God are named—for instance, Christ sits on the right of the Power, Glory or Greatness—and how Christ himself, being the pre-existent Son of Man, could be invested with all the Jewish titles of God’s immanence—”the Word” being only one of them. Although, as has already been noted, the designations of the Savior have nothing typically Christological about them, the identification of Christ with God’s immanence enhances the superhuman aspect of Christ’s nature and makes him a reflection of God: the union between the Father and the Son is unique and almost complete. Through the identification of the pre-existent Son of Man with the Word, Christ acquired a prehistory before the incarnation: through Him the world was created.

It is evident that Christian teaching about the Father and the Son departs from its Jewish premises. It may be based partly upon what Jesus himself thought that he was: he saw in himself the beloved son of his heavenly Father and probably he went so far as to identify himself with the Son of Man. This is the highest conception of the Savior that was known in ancient Judaism. The Son of Man is the pre-existent divine judge, sitting in heaven on the glorious throne of God. In Christian doctrine the Savior was identified with the immanence of God. Being the Word, Christ was the instrument through which God created the universe. Even the later idea that Jesus was born through the Holy Spirit, without an earthly father, has parallels in Jewish sources.

It is possible that this last concept is hinted at in as early a Christian work as the Book of Revelation, where John of Patmos speaks about the woman who gave birth to a male child (Rev. 12:5, 13).[20] But, even granting that this suggestion is no more than a conjecture, there is no doubt that all the other important Christological concepts of the Church appear in this book: Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, the future king of the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he is the Son of Man, and God’s Word and His son; he was dead and was resurrected; he “has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5-6). His expiatory death is a sacrifice: he is the Lamb who was slain and by his blood he ransomed for God men of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Rev. 5:9).

“As a Lamb to the Slaughter”

As has been noted, there is no indication of any Hellenistic influence upon the Book of Revelation, and it even seems likely that the old suggestion that the book is in opposition to or in tension with Pauline Christianity is not without ground. Thus the Christology of the Book of Revelation seems to have its roots in Jewish Christianity. This also seems very probable in itself because, as we have tried to show, the most important motifs in the Church’s conception of Christ already existed independently in pre-Christian Judaism. The same is also true of the expiatory death of Jesus. A critical reading of the Gospels raises doubts about whether Jesus himself thought of his imminent death as being an expiation for the sins of his people; but the idea that martyrdom is a vicarious suffering for Israel was widespread among the Jewish people.[21] Two quotations will suffice. The Second Book of Maccabees contains the famous description of the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother. According to this passage, the youngest brother said before his death:

I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy to our nation…and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation. (2 Macc. 7:37-38)

In this passage, martyrdom is regarded as being not only an expiatory death, but also a punishment for the sins of the nation. The martyrdom of a father and his seven sons as described in another Jewish book, the Assumption of Moses, reveals another aspect of this concept. In a time of religious persecution the man says to his sons:

Now, therefore, my sons, hear me: for observe and know that neither did our fathers nor their forefathers tempt God, so as to transgress his commands. And you know that this is our strength and thus we will do. Let us fast for the space of three days and on the fourth let us go into a cave which is in the field and let us die rather than transgress the commands of the Lord of lords, the God of our fathers. For, if we do this and die, our blood will be avenged before the Lord. (As. Moses 9:4-7)

The martyrdom itself is left undescribed, partly because the author regards it as being an eschatological event. Immediately after the father’s words there follows a lyrical description of the future heavenly bliss: “And then His kingdom will appear throughout all His creation, and then Satan will be no more and sorrow will depart with him….” (As. Moses 10:1). Thus, according to the Assumption of Moses, the consequence of the martyrdom of the father and his saintly sons will be the revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

From these two quotations and from other Jewish sources we can see how important the idea of the expiatory function of martyrdom was in Judaism. But it should be also observed that the motif of the martyrdom of the Savior is not to be found in ancient Judaism. The historical fact that there was a man who was thought to be, or who thought himself to be, the Messiah, that this man suffered martyrdom, and that his followers did not abandon this belief after the catastrophe but, on the contrary, were actually fortified in their hope by the appearance of the resurrected Savior—all this was of central importance for the Christian faith. Thus the Messianic motifs, originating in Jesus’ view of what he was and in his teaching and in other Jewish sources, were fused into a unity with the Jewish concept of the expiatory force of martyrdom. The pre-existent divine being, incarnated by the will of his heavenly Father, became the Davidic Messiah of Israel, died for our sins, arose from the dead, is sitting at the right hand of God, and will be the eschatological judge of the universe.

“The Third Day He Rose Again”

The nearest parallel to Christology is the faith of the disciples of John the Baptist. John speaks about a mighty one who “will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). This is clearly the typology of the Son of Man. Evidently John did not identify himself with the mighty one, but his disciples regarded him as the Messiah. John the Baptist was of priestly origin and he could therefore be held to be, not the Davidic, but the Aaronic, Messiah. In his lifetime many saw in him the prophet Elijah. According to the Bible, Elijah did not die, but was taken up into heaven (2 Ki. 2:1, 11) and will return at the End of Days (Mal. 4:5-6). If John the Baptist was Elijah, then he was virtually immortal, and it would be very improbable that his death at the hands of Herod Antipas would be the definitive end of his life. Although his body was laid in a tomb by his disciples (Mark 6:29), John the Baptist was believed to have been raised from the dead (Mark 6:14).

It is therefore possible that, when the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus, their sight was, so to speak, sharpened by the knowledge that previously John the Baptist too had been raised from the dead. But, even if this suggestion may appear to be too rationalistic, we have to remember that a belief in immortal men and in ascensions was not as alien to ancient Judaism as it is to modern ideas. We have already mentioned Melchizedek and Elijah; we have also to remember the biblical Enoch; and the list can be enlarged. What is important is the Christological function of this belief in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. By his ascension “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9): the divine Lord returned to his father. The resurrection could be conceived of as being Jesus’ victory over death and sin.

Thus the Jewish prophet from Galilee became the object of a cosmic drama which could bring salvation to the pious spectators. As has been explained, there were two roots from which this drama grew up: the first was Jesus’ conception of himself as being the Son, his message about the coming of the Son of Man, and other Jewish mythical and Messianic doctrines; the other root was Jesus’ tragic death, interpreted in terms of Jewish concepts of martyrdom. When we consider Jesus’ death on the Cross from the standpoint of the history of humankind, we cannot but acknowledge its decisive importance for the genesis and development of Christianity. It is evident that Jesus’ personal tragedy became the very center of Christian teaching: this was the indispensable condition for the kindling of the faith of which Jesus became the object. If the martyr is at the same time the Messiah, then his expiatory death has a cosmic importance. His death becomes the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets:

Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations. (Luke 24:46-47)

His expiatory death fulfilled the purpose of the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of Man. The resurrection restored him to his proper place on high at the side of his Father.

Jesus’ tragic death also won a victory for Jewish moral teaching, which entered Christianity through Jesus himself as well as through other channels, a new place in the new religion. It came to be associated with Christology: the Christian must not resist wicked men,

Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:21-23)

The Christian must be humble because Jesus humbled himself. If, for the Jews as well as for Jesus himself, the love of one’s neighbor was the sum total of the Law, this precept now became both an old and a new commandment, because, by sending His Son to his death to atone for human sins, God revealed His love of sinners.

The Jewish component of Christian faith and ethics has often been underestimated because the Jewish sources are manifold, are in many cases not easily accessible, and are in some points difficult to understand. However, it is not our task to stress this point. Our aim has been simply to bring out the overwhelming direct and indirect importance of the person of Jesus in the context of the history of Christianity.

This article originally appeared as “Jesus in the Context of History” in The Crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism and the Historical Background to the Christian Faith (ed. Arnold Toynbee; New York: World, 1969), 225-234. The article was corrected and updated for publication by Jerusalem Perspective by Lauren S. Asperschlager and Joshua N. Tilton.

  • [1] Jacob Levy, Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midraschim (Berlin: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1924), 3:338. Cf. y. Avodah Zarah 3:1 where Ashian the carpenter reports a halachah in the name of R. Yohanan.
  • [2] See David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparative Studies of Two Major Religious Leaders (eds. James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 93-94.
  • [3] On the interpretation of this difficult verse, see Peter J. Tomson, “Jewish Food Laws in Early Christian Community Discourse,” Semeia 8 (1999): 205-206.
  • [4] Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 31:14 (103b) (eds. Horovitz and Rabin; Jerusalem: Wahermann, 1970), 314.
  • [5] See Shlomo Pines, “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries According to a New Source,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 2 (1966): 63; idem, “Gospel Quotations and Cognate Topics in Abd al-Jabbar’s Tathbit,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 9 (1987): 258-259. See also, Shmuel Safrai, “Sabbath Breakers.”
  • [6] David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (trans. John Glucker; Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1989), 27-31.
  • [7] See David Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 469-492.
  • [8] David Flusser, “Some Notes on the Beatitudes,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 115-125.
  • [9] See Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity (CRINT III.5; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 140-190.
  • [10] Eric Robertson Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 215.
  • [11] Wilmer Cave Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian (LCL; New York: Putnam, 1923), 3:431.
  • [12] On these charismatic wonder workers, see Shmuel Safrai, “Jesus and the Hasidim.”
  • [13] Andre Vaillant, Le livre des secrets d’Henoch, Texte slave et traduction francaise (Paris: Institut D’Etudes Slaves, 1952).
  • [14] Vaillant, Le livre des secrets d’Henoch, 81.
  • [15] David Flusser, “Melchizedek and the Son of Man,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 186-192.
  • [16] The use of the terms Zion or Jerusalem as a symbol for the Christian Church is to be found already in the New Testament (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22).
  • [17] David Flusser, “At the Right Hand of Power,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 301-305.
  • [18] See R. Steven Notley, “Jesus and the Son of Man.”
  • [19] See David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, “The Essene Doctrine of Hypostasis and Rabbi Meir,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 306-316.
  • [20] David Flusser, “Mary and Israel,” in Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective (eds. Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser, and Justin Lang; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986), 11-12.
  • [21] David Flusser, “Martyrology in the Second Temple Period and Early Christianity,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: The Jewish Sages and Their Literature (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 248-257.

The Times of the Gentiles and the Redemption of Jerusalem

When the Israeli soldiers captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, many Christians regarded this event as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in the New Testament: “Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,”[1] (Luke 21:24).[2] There is no need to wonder at this reaction within certain Christian circles, since there has always been a stream within Christianity which looks forward to a return to Zion at the end of days.[3] Their hope is based both on the words of the Hebrew Scriptures and upon certain passages in the New Testament that reflect the hope for Israel’s national redemption. In the modern era there have been Christian movements to allow the Jews to return to their land even before the renewal of the Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel.[4] We have also seen that Jewish revival movements, whether secular or religious, have established their historical right to the Land of Israel by relying on the Scriptures and on Jewish beliefs and ideas that emerged after the Scriptures were written, and many of these movements consider the State of Israel to be “the beginning of the sprouting of redemption.”[5]

Thus today we are met with parallel mentalities among Jews and Christians toward the return to Zion, mentalities that are nourished by the same roots.[6] There is, of course, a key difference between the hopes of the Jews and the parallel hopes of the Christians: the Christians believe that the Messiah who will be revealed at the end of days will be none other than Jesus who has returned. Aside from this, the overwhelming majority of Christians who support Israel, even those who do not believe in the return to Zion at the end of days, believe that all Israel will accept faith in Jesus in the end.[7] This belief in the Christian conversion of the majority of Israel is fed especially by Paul’s words that, in the end, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).[8] We shall return to this statement again in the course of our discussion. Most of the Christians who believe in the return to Zion suppose that this will come prior to the second coming of Jesus and the conversion of the gathered exiles to Christianity,[9] and therefore they regard the return to Zion, the founding of the State of Israel, and the liberation of Jerusalem as important signs of the approach of the end of days.

Every scholar who studies the problem of ancient religion will do well to pay attention to the living expressions of faith in his own day which draw on the same ancient testimonies that the scholar himself is deciphering, for of course the ideas of the faithful in a later period necessarily come from the same sources, and these living expressions may open the scholar’s eyes to the original meaning of the writings themselves. Hence the need for a renewed investigation of Jesus’ words concerning the liberation of Jerusalem from the yoke of the Gentiles in the end of days, and the influence his saying has had on other portions of the New Testament. Such study is likely to deepen our understanding of Christianity’s tangled relationship with, and its ambivalence toward, its Jewish heritage, Judaism and the people of Israel, that have existed since its inception.

Lindsey’s Hypothesis and Jesus’ Prophecy

The prophecy we are discussing is found in the Gospel of Luke (21:20-28), and it is a part of Jesus’ oracle that is included in the first three Gospels (Matt. 24:1-36; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). Scholars refer to this oracle as the “Synoptic Apocalypse”—“apocalypse” because it contains a vision of the end and of the redemption in the regular pattern of apocalyptic literature, and “synoptic” because it is found in the first three Gospels. It appears that this oracle, whether it is based in whole or in part on authentic sayings of Jesus, was not delivered by Jesus in its written form; but as far as our research is concerned the question of the oracle’s authenticity is only of secondary importance.

Most of the scholars who have studied the “Synoptic Apocalypse”[10] espouse the commonly held assumption that even in this passage Matthew and Luke are dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. On account of this assumption these scholars are prevented from approaching this important passage correctly. Recently, Lindsey has investigated the problem of the Synoptic Gospels anew and has arrived at important and fruitful conclusions which are likely to be confirmed by the results of the examination of our topic.[11] It is true that the first three Gospels are based on an earlier source (that included, among other things, Jesus’ apocalyptic oracle), but, according to Lindsey’s theory, only Luke faithfully preserved the source’s original form. Lindsey believes that Mark mainly depends on the Gospel of Luke, even though he also relies on the earlier source, but Mark has thoroughly adapted his sources. Matthew, in turn, depends mainly on Mark, but even he consulted the earlier source from time to time.

Here is one example of the interrelationship between the Gospels:[12] In his words concerning the future persecution of his followers Jesus says, “They will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons and you will come before kings and governors[13] for my sake[14] as a testimony to them [i.e., to the Jewish persecutors] and to the Gentiles.” This is the original conclusion of the saying which was preserved in Matthew (10:18). Luke (21:13) did not pay attention to his source, for, according to the original wording, Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted both at the hands of the Jews and at the hands of the Gentile governors and their kings, and therefore the persecution itself will be a testimony to the Jews and the Gentiles together.[15] Because of his lack of attention to the original meaning Luke wrote that the event “will be a time for you to bear testimony.”[16]

Mark, too, saw the original conclusion of the saying, but the moment he read the words “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” his attitude toward the Synagogue influenced him, and he was reminded of Paul’s attitude in the Epistle to the Romans (chs. 9-11) that first it is necessary to proclaim the Christian gospel to the Gentiles, and only then will all Israel be saved. Therefore, Mark expresses the view: “they will deliver you up…to bear testimony before them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:9-10).[17]

It seems that it was not only the mention of the Gentiles in Mark’s source that inspired his addition concerning the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles. We may also suppose that the word “testimony” strengthened the association with the Church in his mind: according to Acts (1:6-8), Jesus commanded his disciples at the time of his resurrection to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, in other words, to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. Despite the changes that Mark made to his source, it is possible to determine with strong probability that the earlier source read, “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles,” as in Matthew’s version. But Matthew did not use the earlier source exclusively, he also relied on Mark. Although he did preserve the wording of the source, Matthew was nevertheless reluctant to let go of the beautiful idea in Mark 13:10, and therefore he adds it later on, in ch. 24, at the end of the paragraph on persecution in a somewhat expanded form: “And this gospel of the Kingdom shall be proclaimed in all the earth as a testimony to the Gentiles and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

The development of Mark’s words concerning the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles is discussed here at length with the purpose of taking a stand on the problem of the Synoptic Apocalypse in general and on the complex relationship between the Gospels concerning Jesus’ apocalyptic oracle in particular. The second aim of our discussion is to indicate the motive for the turning to the Gentiles, and for that reason, too, we have lengthened our discussion.

Regarding the apocalyptic oracle found in Luke 21, it appears that it is composed of individual units which are concerned with different subjects.[18] After the opening words (vv. 5-6) Jesus begins his oracle and he warns his listeners against those who will prophesy the end before its coming (vv. 7-9). After that, he speaks about the signs that will herald the end of days (vv. 10-11), but before these things the disciples will be persecuted (vv. 12-19). Next he speaks about the destruction of Jerusalem and the troubles that will take place at that time (vv. 20-24), and he again returns to the topic of the end of days (vv. 25-28). The Parable of the Fig Tree (vv. 29-33) and the conclusion of the oracle (vv. 34-36) are beyond the scope of our topic, for it is our intention to discuss Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem.

Here are the versions of the prophecy according to Luke and Mark:

Luke 21:20-28 Mark 13:14-27
(20) But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. (14) But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand),
(21) Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; (15) let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; (16) and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle.
(22) for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.
(23)Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! (17) And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!
(18) Pray that it may not happen in winter.[19]
For great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people; (19) For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be.
(24) they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
(20) And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.
(21) And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it.[20]
(22) False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.
(23)But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.
(25) And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, (24) But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
(26) men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (25) and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
(27) And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (26) And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
(28) Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption[21] is drawing near. (27) And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The line of thought in the prophecy in Luke’s version is clear: the camps of the army surround Jerusalem, and the city will be destroyed. In those days trouble will come upon the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem, and this will be in fulfillment of the words of Scripture. There will be “wrath upon this people,” many will fall and many will be exiled among all the nations, but Jerusalem will not be trampled by the Gentiles forever, for when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled Jerusalem will be set free from their yoke. This will happen at the end of days at the coming of the Son of Man, who is the Messiah. When the events of the end of days begin, “look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It is possible that the detailed description of the end of days in Luke (21:25-27 and parallels, also the beginning of v. 28) is secondary and that in the original version of the prophecy there was only a brief allusion to the end of days. We find support for this hypothesis if we suppose that the prophecy reflects the authentic words of Jesus. If so, then the detailed description of the end of days seems out of place, since Jesus did not speak at length about the signs of the end of days because he thought that the end will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. But the prophecy itself, as we have stated, is intact—except, perhaps, for the eschatological description—and is comprehensible on its own terms.

Prophecies of Redemption

The pattern of destruction at the hands of enemies, of the troubles that accompany it, and of exile and redemption has been established in Israel since the admonition in the book of Leviticus.[22] The prophecy in Luke is especially similar to the words of the elder Tobit in the book of Tobit (14:4-5)[23] concerning the destruction of the First Temple and the return to Zion: Nineveh will be destroyed, even as Jonah the prophet predicted and as the prophets of Israel foretold, and it will all happen in its time; the Children of Israel will be exiled from the good land, Jerusalem will be desolate, and the Temple will be burned down and will be in ruins “for a time.” But God will have compassion on them, and restore them to the Land of Israel; and they will rebuild the Temple “until the times of the age are completed” (or, according to another version, “the time of their yoke”).

There is no doubt that we have the same pattern in Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophecy, except that the book of Tobit speaks of the destruction of the First Temple and the return to Zion,[24] whereas Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Second Temple and the redemption to come in the future. Nevertheless, the two descriptions resemble one another at two points in contrast to the words of Scripture: they both emphasize that the events fulfill the words of the prophets (cf. Luke 21:22), and they both stress, in accordance with the usual outlook of apocalyptic literature, that these things will happen according to the times that God has determined.

The proximity between these two sources becomes especially clear when we recall that in the book of Tobit it says that the Temple will be rebuilt “until the times of the age are completed,” whereas Jesus says that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). The vocabulary in these sources is similar to the phrase “until the completion of the end/עד שלים הקץ” which is in the scroll of the Damascus Covenant (CD 4:8-9).[25] Indeed, it is reasonable to conjecture that the Hebrew source behind Luke read, “until the times of the Gentiles are completed”/עד אשר ישלמו[26] עתות הגויים, since in the covenant between the pieces the LORD said to Abraham, “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”/לֹא־שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי (Gen. 15:16), and the LXX uses the same verb Luke employs.[27] It is clear that the intention of Jesus’ words is that Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles, but will also be set free at the end of days when the time of Rome is completed.

There is an instructive parallel to Luke 21:24 elsewhere in the New Testament. In the Revelation of John the fragment of a Second Temple Jewish source is preserved (Rev. 11:1-13)[28] that speaks about the capture of Jerusalem by the Gentiles. True, they do not capture the Temple itself, only the outer courts, but “they will trample over the holy city for forty-two[29] months” (Rev. 11:2). Here, too, it says, as in Luke, that Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles,[30] though only for a definite period. The rest of the details are different between the two New Testament prophecies and it is clear that they do not have a direct literary relationship. In any case, the prophecy preserved in the Revelation of John clearly antedates the destruction of the Temple, which is not surprising, since it is well known that at that time there were many people in Israel who anticipated the terrible events of the future with dread, and Jesus was among these, as the sources testify. Already at the time when he began his last journey to Jerusalem Jesus prophesied the destruction of the city, the murder of the prophets, and the destruction of the Temple (Luke 13:31-35; Matt. 23:37-39). There is, therefore, no reason to deny the possibility that the prophecy of destruction in Luke 21:20-24 was delivered by Jesus himself. And although this prophecy mentions the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of an enemy, and the massacre and the exile of its inhabitants to distant lands, one cannot deny that one might expect this from the Roman enemy, especially since the deeds of Pompey had not been erased from that generation’s memory. If so, dread of the threatening future and the yearning for Israel’s salvation from the yoke of the wicked empire had the potential to bring the prophetic-apocalyptic pattern to Jesus’ mind and to prompt him to prophesy the destruction and redemption.

If, however, someone should argue on the basis of the number of concrete details that are mentioned in the prophecy (such as the camps surrounding Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews “among all nations”) that the prophecy was not delivered by Jesus, but was rather placed in his mouth sometime after the destruction had taken place, we would point out that there is still no need to suppose that the entire prophecy was composed only after the destruction of the Temple. We shall see that there is reason to believe that the expectation that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” rests on the same foundation as the Epistle to the Romans, which Paul wrote long before the destruction. If so, then it is enough even for the advocates of extreme skepticism to believe that at least the kernel of the prophecy we are discussing came from Jesus himself.

One thing is certain: the entire prophecy of the destruction and redemption in Luke is infused with the Jewish spirit of those days, including its fears and its hopes. Jerusalem will not be desolate and trampled by Gentiles forever; the day will come when their time will be finished, and then, when the upheavals of the last day break out, “look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus turns to his disciples, for of course they, like the rest of the Children of Israel, were afraid of those future “days of vengeance,” during which the Scriptures would be fulfilled (Luke 21:22) and of the “wrath upon this people” (Luke 21:23), but they were also sure that at the end the redemption of Israel would come, which would, of course, be their own redemption.

Solidarity with Israel

From the examination of the contents of the prophecy there is no reason to doubt that Jesus the Jew was able to speak in this way to his Jewish disciples. And if the prophecy was not delivered in whole or in part by Jesus himself, then clearly it was spoken in the contemporary style that was current among Jewish-Christian circles who possessed a fully Jewish identity. In any case, this prophecy could not have been composed by Luke, a Gentile Christian, since there is no doubt that this was not the product of the burning questions in his heart. It appears, moreover, from an examination of their different approaches to their relationship toward Jerusalem that the author of the prophecy, whomever he may have been, was among those who opposed the revolt against Rome. He did not share the belief or the hope that Jerusalem would survive the war. His fundamentally defeatist approach is seen in the words Matthew includes at the end of the prophecy: “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath” (Matt. 24:20). His pessimism is also evident from the core of the prophecy concerning the destruction, exile and redemption, in which Jerusalem resists and falls.[31]

This illumination depicts Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and shows the siege of Jerusalem foretold in his prophecy. The illumination is from the evangelistary of Otto III ca.1000 C.E. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As regards the course of our investigation, the fact that the prophecy of the destruction was already an integral part of Jesus’ eschatological oracle in the original source that was in Luke’s hands (and which was also known to Mark and to Matthew) is decisive. According to this common source the oracle was spoken in Jerusalem when the disciples said to Jesus that the Temple was magnificent with its beautiful stones, to which Jesus replied: “‘As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ And they asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?'” (Luke 21:5-7 and parallels). In the first three Gospels Jesus answers this question with his eschatological oracle. Since Jesus was asked about the future destruction of the Temple it is certain that in his oracle he would have to give an answer to this question, but an explicit answer pertaining to the destruction appears only in the version of the oracle found in Luke:[32] “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near… and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24).[33] Mark and Matthew, following Mark’s lead, do not speak about the destruction of Jerusalem at all. This fact itself demonstrates the secondary nature of Mark’s testimony in comparison with Luke’s version.

The Jewish nationalist tendency that appears in the prophecy of the destruction and redemption was, of course, problematic for later Christian commentators and scholars who either ignored it or who explained it away with various interpretations. It was especially difficult—except for specific Christian sects who were expecting the end times—to admit that the meaning of the words “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” was an allusion to the end of the Gentiles’ reign over the people of Israel.[34] Already in early manuscripts of Luke it is sometimes possible to find “corrections” of the offending words: one important manuscript skips over “times of the Gentiles,” and a number of other manuscripts read “until they are fulfilled and the times of the Gentiles come.”[35] This “correction” which turns the original meaning on its head was formed under the influence of Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans 11:25: “until the full number of the Gentiles come in” through their acceptance of the Christian faith. In this manner a number of manuscripts changed “the times of the Gentiles” in Luke into the age of the Christian Church made up of the nations of the world.

Mark’s Sectarian Redaction

We have already observed that Mark and, in his footsteps, Matthew pass over the destruction of Jerusalem in silence. But this change is only one aspect of Mark’s tendentious adaptation. All of the political and nationalist sentiments that we recognized in Luke are absent, and in their place Mark’s new version discusses the fate of the early Christian Church. By means of these changes, Jesus’ prophecy of destruction and redemption is transformed into a thoroughly apocalyptic text. In the entire section in Mark there is only one historical allusion, and even that is obscure: “when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mark 13:14). The opinion of scholars is divided over which event Mark may have alluded to, but it seems to me that one thing rises above all doubt: the “desolating sacrilege,” which is taken from Daniel, appears in Mark because the original source speaks about the “desolation” of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20).

From the foregoing it clearly arises that Mark does not speak at all about the camps that surround Jerusalem, nor about the “days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (Luke 21:22). It is also clear that in Mark there is no allusion to the wrath, the massacre, or the exile that will come “on this people” (Luke 21:23-24), or to the prophecy that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” In its place Mark, in his own editorial style, adapts the wordsgreat distress shall be upon the earth” (Luke 21:23) and writes “in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not shortened the days,[36] no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days” (Mark 13:19-20).

The idea and the language of these verses is taken from apocalyptic vocabulary. To this category of thought belongs the idea that God is likely to hasten the coming of salvation for the sake of the elect.[37] This hope is based on an understanding of the prophet Isaiah who wrote: “I am the LORD; in its time I will hasten it” (Isa. 60:22). Already we find that Ben Sira prayed: “Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time, and let people recount thy mighty deeds” (Sir. 36:8). The Sages said, “It is written: In its time. But it is also written: I will hasten. If they are worthy, I will hasten, if they are not worthy, then in its time,” (b. Sanh. 98a).[38] It is important to point out that in Mark, and Matthew following him, the idea of the hastening of the end is related to the words of Daniel: And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (Dan. 12:1).[39] An expression similar to the hastening of the end in the last days and to the verse in Daniel may be found, aside from Mark, also in the War Scroll from Qumran (1QM 1:11-12): “The sons of light and the lot of darkness shall battle together… It will be a time of suffering fo[r al]l the nation redeemed by God. Of all their sufferings, none will be like this, hastening[40] till eternal redemption is fulfilled.”[41]

The intention of Luke’s statement that “great distress shall be upon the earth” (Luke 21:23) is to describe the hardships that will come upon Israel in the days of the destruction, whereas Mark alludes to the distress of the end of days which God will cut short for the sake of his elect (Mark 13:19-20). It is no coincidence that there is so close a proximity between the words of the Dead Sea Scrolls and precisely these words from Mark, for we must of course remember that in the entire oracle Mark does not mention Israel’s tragedy or its redemption, but speaks instead about the “elect of God,” the name by which the members of the Dead Sea sect who separated from the people referred to themselves.[42] Among all the Gospels the Christians are called “elect” in a technical sense exclusively in the chapter which is before us (as well as in Matthew’s parallel account),[43] and it is clear that this terminology was influenced by the language spoken among the apocalyptic groups that existed in those days.

Three times Mark speaks about the Christian elect. The first we have discussed already. The second mention of the elect is in the continuation of his words in a passage unique to Mark: “False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:21-23).[44] The third mention, however, is the most instructive. It appears in the place where Luke introduces the hope of the redemption: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). In the place of this obviously nationalistic expression Mark writes, “And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:27).

Two things have, therefore, become clear: Jesus’ prophetic oracle was delivered to explain his earlier prophecy concerning the destruction of the Temple, and it follows that in the original form of the oracle it was necessary to include a prophecy of the destruction. This is the case in Luke. There the prophecy is expressed in a spirit of complete solidarity with the rest of Israel with respect to its fears and its hopes for a final redemption and the liberation of Jerusalem from the yoke of the Gentiles. Mark, in contrast, skips over all the historical events that are mentioned in Luke and over Israel’s hope for political redemption, and in its place his attention is directed solely toward the end of days and the fate of the Christian congregation, that is, the congregation of the elect.

From the Four Winds

As we have observed, Mark concludes the prophecy with these words: “And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:26-27). This is how Mark transfers Israel’s hope for the gathering of the exiles at the end of days to the Christian congregation. This outlook is not unique to Mark, however. The same concept can already be discerned in the earliest of Paul’s epistles. In the First Epistle to the Thessalonians Paul says:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven… and the dead in Christ will rise first, and we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:16-17).

In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians Paul speaks “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him” (2 Thess. 2:1).

In an early Christian writing called the Didache, a blessing for mealtimes dating to the first century has been preserved, in which the first Christians prayed, “Be mindful LORD (or “Lord”) of your church to preserve it from all evil and to perfect it in your love. And, once it is sanctified, gather it from the four winds, into the kingdom which you have prepared for it,” (Did. 10:5).[45] In the prayer before the meal they said, “As this fragment lay scattered upon the mountains and became a single [fragment] when it had been gathered, may your church be gathered into your kingdom from the ends of the earth,” (Did. 9:4). It is understood that, in spite of its Jewish origin, the gathering of the Christian exiles reflected in each of the texts we have presented does not have the historical reality that is inherent in Israel’s hope for the gathering of the exiles. From Mark’s version of the prophecy and from what we find in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:16-17), it becomes evident that the Christian elect will be gathered in “the ends of heaven” and that they will be taken together “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” and according to the prayers in the Didache the Christian congregation will be gathered to Jesus’ kingdom.

Nevertheless, in the second century C.E. there were Christians who linked their belief in the gathering of the Christian congregation at the end of days to the Jewish hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. According to the testimony of Justin Martyr,[46] who was one of them, they believed that upon the rebuilding of Jerusalem the Christian congregation will be gathered therein and they will celebrate with Christ together with the patriarchs, the prophets and the saints from the house of Israel, and the proselytes who lived before Jesus. Justin espoused the opinion that at the end of days Christ will reign over the world for a thousand years. He was, accordingly, one of the Chiliasts who are known to us since the beginning of Christianity,[47] a stream that is renewed from time to time in various and strange forms. It is worth pointing out that with Justin the idea of the gathering of the exiles is clothed in distinctly Christian garb: in the Christian congregation at the end of days only the righteous of Israel who lived before the coming of Jesus will be present.[48]

It is clear that from the very beginning of Christianity, within Jewish circles who looked favorably on the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world, the idea of the gathering of the exiles served, in its Christianized form, as an ideological justification for turning to the Gentiles. At that time the Christians believed that the end of days was near and this was the moment when Jesus would return with great power and glory. If Jesus was to gather the elect in the future “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” then the Christian gospel must, perforce, come to the elect in all the world in order that Jesus may gather them when he comes. Even though the writings of the New Testament do not express this idea all that clearly, this becomes very evident from the data that are in the sources.

Paul, who presents the idea of a miraculous eschatological gathering of all the faithful by Christ, also acted during the time of his journeys in order to spread the Christian faith among the Gentiles according to a plan whose main goal was to bring the Christian proclamation to the ends of the earth as quickly as possible. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes that from Jerusalem and its surroundings and as far as Illyricum the gospel of the Messiah has spread out: in other words, the gospel spread out from Jerusalem into all the eastern world, and now that there is no more room among these regions it is his desire to come to Rome and from there to cross over to Spain (Rom. 15:19-24). Paul, as we know, did not succeed in carrying out his program, but the plan itself is entirely comprehensible.[49] In chapters 9-11 of the same epistle[50] Paul also espoused the notion that it is first necessary for the “full number of the Gentiles” to receive the Christian faith, and only after this will all Israel be saved. According to Paul this process will lead to the end of days—and Paul believed that the coming of Christ was very near. This fact indicates that the prophecy of the gathering of the Christian congregation form the ends of the world by the Messiah was one of the motives behind Paul’s wide-ranging activities among the Gentiles.

On the other hand, it is clear that Paul himself did not invent this motive, first, because of the manner in which he handed it on to his readers, and second, because it also appears in prayers included in a writing that does not belong to the Pauline tradition, the Didache. It is impossible to know who it was that transferred the concept of the gathering of the exiles to the Christian congregation, but it seems that this motive was formed at the moment when the new faith began to spread successfully among the nations of the world. At the time when the Jewish hope was transferred to the new congregation the notion took hold that from the beginning it was necessary to proclaim the gospel to all nations (Mark 13:10), and so arose the belief that when Jesus the Messiah comes in the clouds with great power and glory, “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:26-27). A belief from this source was not only likely to be embraced by the first Christian missionaries, but was also acceptable to members of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem who looked favorably upon the spread of faith in the Messiah among the Gentiles.

To the Ends of the Earth

In any case, we have in our hands an important witness that testifies that the Jewish-Christians linked the command to spread the Christian faith to the ends of the earth to their belief in the redemption of Jerusalem. Those followers of Jesus who believed that he was the Messiah undoubtedly thought that he would be their redeemer, and therefore they were greatly disappointed when Jesus was crucified. Their hope was renewed only by the belief that Jesus had indeed arisen to life. According to Luke their disappointment was voiced at the hour of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in Emmaus when one of them said, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). But the intense hope of Jesus’ disciples for Israel’s redemption by Jesus was not weakened on account of their belief in his resurrection, since the redemption had clearly not come. Therefore we hear this penetrating question regarding Israel’s redemption in the mouths of Jesus’ disciples again in the continuation of Luke’s story (Acts 1:6-8), and only at the end, just before his ascension into heaven, do they receive an answer from Jesus to their question:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

On the one hand, this account reflects the hope of Jesus’ earliest followers for the redemption of Israel by their Messiah. On the other hand, included in this account is the command to spread faith in Jesus throughout the world. It was incumbent upon Jesus’ apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and, from there, “to the ends of the earth.”

Evidently (and we will make this argument more clearly below), in the story which is before us the two ideas are bound by a causal connection: the disciples are not able to know when the longed for redemption will come, but the first step is for them to spread the Christian faith “to the ends of the earth.” It appears, therefore, that the spread of Christianity is a precondition for Israel’s redemption. It is possible that there is a relationship between the idea that is included in Acts and the ancient Christian hope that at the end of days their Messiah will gather the faithful from the ends of the earth: when the faith is presented to all the nations of the world Jesus the Messiah will be able to gather the faithful and then the redemption of Israel will come. It is worth mentioning that, according to Israel’s tradition, in the last days those from the nations of the world who believe in the God of Israel will also be saved. The Jewish-Christians believed that the Messiah had already come,[51] and thus, according to their opinion, when the Messiah returns those from the nations of the world who believe in this Messiah will be saved together with Israel.[52] Consequently, it was necessary to spread the true faith among the Gentiles so that in the hour of Israel’s redemption the righteous among the nations of the world who believe may also be saved. Therefore, according to this ideology, the spread of the Christian faith “to the ends of the earth” is the necessary preparation for the return of Jesus.

It is true that it is not stated in Acts 1:6-8 that Israel’s redemption will come on the heels of the spread of the Gospel “to the ends of the earth,” and the disciples are merely warned against thinking about the timing of the final redemption, which is known only to God. Nevertheless, we may suppose that for Luke, or for the tradition he reports, it was more important to warn the Christians of his time against a vain hope for the immediate coming of Jesus, and therefore the original meaning of the story in Acts was blurred and the logical connection between the redemption of Israel and the spread of the faith in Jesus “to the ends of the earth” was also obscured.[53] The continuation of our discussion, it seems to me, will confirm our hypothesis that the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in Acts, despite its present form, does, in fact, reflect the ideology that the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world is for Israel’s benefit, given that it is the precondition for the redemption of Israel.

The missionary ideology we have discussed calls Jesus’ words in Luke to mind:

Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled…. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:24-28).

True, the original meaning of this saying is that Israel’s subjugation by the Gentiles will continue until the age of the Gentiles, or, in other words, the age of the Roman empire, is ended. The original meaning notwithstanding, the words “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” can also be understood as if Jesus had said, “Until they are fulfilled and there will be times of the Gentiles,” and we have already seen that there were scribes who “corrected” the Scriptures in this way. According to this new, albeit inaccurate, understanding which is reflected in a number of manuscripts of Luke, Israel’s redemption will come when the times of the fullness of the Gentiles arrive, which is to say, at the time when the Gentiles receive the true faith (i.e., Christianity). Even though it is not explicitly stated in the present version of the story in Acts, according to our hypothesis this is precisely the original ideology it reflects. Was this ideology, which was understood to be present in Jesus’ prophecy itself, actually based on this new understanding of Jesus’ words in Luke?

Among the first Christians of Jewish descent who had a strong Jewish national consciousness there were some who were not enamored with the spread of the faith in the Messiah among the nations of the world, especially after it was determined that the Gentiles would not be required to keep the Torah’s commandments. The members of a Jewish-Christian sect known as the Ebionites named Paul “the enemy”[54] since they regarded him as the person to whom Jesus alluded in the Parable of the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) in which a man sows good seed in a field, but while his workers are asleep an enemy comes and sows tares among the wheat, and the man tells his workers: “An enemy has done this.” Thus, according to the Ebionites, Jesus himself had already prophesied the coming of Paul who would sow tares (i.e., the Gentiles) among the wheat. In recently published Jewish-Christian texts[55] the members of the Christian Church are blamed for giving up the Hebrew language in favor of many other languages, which neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke. The people who speak these foreign languages are not Jews, and what is more, they know nothing about God or the commandments, whereas the Jewish-Christians used the language of Abraham and his descendants, which was also the language of Jesus, and they were capable of convincing the Children of Israel of the truth of the Christian faith.

The author of this Jewish-Christian text argues that the Christians erred in turning to the nations of the world instead of to the Jews, and that by doing so they missed the opportunity to spread the faith among Jesus’ own people. Shlomo Pines, the editor of this text, correctly argues that the slant of this source is opposed to Paul’s mission and to the outlook he expressed most clearly in Romans, since these resulted in the Christianization of the Gentiles and the Jews’ refusal to accept the new faith. These results embody the complete mockery of the process of redemption that, in their opinion, includes Israel alone at its final stage. It is reasonable, therefore, that in their derision of Paul, the Jewish-Christians who opposed the spread of faith in the Messiah among the nations of the world found fuel for their arguments in Romans.

The Full Number of Gentiles

It is indeed clear that the missionary ideology articulated in Romans is, in its presentation, the product of Paul’s philosophy, but evidently his presentation was nothing other than a new expression of similar ideologies that were earlier than Paul. We have already mentioned the outlook presented in 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul’s letters to reach our hands, that Jesus will gather his elect from the four winds. This idea is likely to have encouraged the Christian missionaries in the spread of their faith “to the ends of the earth.” In the first three Gospels the command to go to the Gentiles is placed in the mouth of Jesus himself. We have already seen that, according to Mark, Jesus spoke about the proclamation of the gospel to all the Gentiles prior to his crucifixion (Mark 13:10). From Mark the idea crossed over to Matthew (24:14). In addition, according to Matthew 28:19, Jesus again commanded his disciples to go to all the Gentiles after his resurrection,[56] and the same can also be found in Luke 24:47.[57] In the saying we have just mentioned, Jesus tells his disciples after his resurrection that they are to begin in Jerusalem. We also find the idea that the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles began in Jerusalem in Romans 15:19, and we saw in Acts 1:6-8 that the risen Jesus mentions Jerusalem at the head of the list precisely when he commands the disciples to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” There can be no doubt that for the Christian missionaries who turned to the Gentiles this mention of Jerusalem as the starting point for the spread of the Christian faith served to justify their activity to the hesitations of the mother church in Jerusalem. As we have observed, there is a tight connection in the story in Acts 1:6-8 between the ideology of the spread of Christianity and the Jewish consciousness of the first Christians in Jerusalem: not only is Jerusalem named as the starting point of the Christian mission, but the logical connection between the turning to the nations of the world and Israel’s redemption remains.

A link such as this, albeit in its own peculiar form, also exists in chapters 9-11 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Let us briefly summarize the logical argument of these chapters. Paul is attempting to explain why the people of Israel, who are also his kindred and Jesus’ people as well, and to whom “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4), have not accepted the faith in Jesus, whereas the nations of the world have received it. According to Paul, God has not forsaken Israel (Rom. 11:1). And if Israel has failed by not accepting the Christian faith, it is clear that this failure “means riches for the world and riches for the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:12), thanks to the coming of Christianity precisely to the Gentiles. And what is more, if the outcome of Israel’s failure is such blessing for the nations of the world, then how much greater blessing would be in store when the fullness of Israel accepts the Christian faith in the end? “A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and then all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26).[58]

Upon close examination, it appears that Paul’s paradoxical notion serves as an answer to the arguments of those Jewish-Christians who opposed the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles, since they regarded it as the final abolition of any possibility of spreading the gospel among the Jews. To this argument Paul replies that the hope for Israel’s acceptance of the Christian faith has not vanished because of the turning to the Gentiles, since in the end “all Israel will be saved.” In Romans the ideology of the spread of Christianity to the ends of the earth also comes to expression, for Paul speaks about the acceptance of Christianity by “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25). Aside from this there is a clear similarity between the ideology in Romans and the outlook expressed at the opening of Acts (1:6-8). In these two sources there is a relationship between the spread of Christianity throughout the entire world and the redemption of Jerusalem, but whereas in the context of Acts Israel’s redemption is discussed with a national-political meaning,[59] there can be no doubt that if Paul says that in the end “all Israel will be saved” then his meaning is that Israel will come to accept the Christian faith after the “full number of the Gentiles”[60] have received it.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that the passage in Acts reflects the ideology of the mission to the Gentiles, whose adherents held on to the Jewish nationalist aspirations which still burned in the hearts of the members of the Christian church in Jerusalem. This was not the case with Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. True, he has not forgotten the good of Israel, but his main interest is in the religious sphere pertaining to the salvific acceptance of the Christian faith, which will, according to Paul, be the justification even of Israel. The story in Acts comes to calm the spirits of those believers who asked if at this time their Messiah will restore the kingdom to Israel. By contrast, Paul’s statement in Romans that “salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Rom. 11:11)[61] serves, among other things, as a response to the Jewish-Christian question whether the Christian missionaries’ turning to the nations of the world does not endanger the success of the Christian mission among the Jews, for whose sake Christianity, of course, came into being. In other words, Paul argues that it is necessary to arouse jealousy in Israel’s heart toward the nations of the world who have won salvation, because the outcome of this jealousy will be that even Israel will desire to win this good gift,[62] and in this way God’s promise to Israel will in the end be fulfilled and “all Israel will be saved.” The outlook that lies at the foundation of the story in Acts is clearly more interested in Israel’s national deliverance than in the religious-theological ideology articulated in Romans.

We have presented the opinion that the logical connection in the story in Acts between the spread of Christianity “to the ends of the earth” and the return of the kingdom to Israel may indicate a specific dependency of this story on Jesus’ prophecy of the redemption found in Luke 21:24. There it is stated that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” after which time Israel’s redemption will come (Luke 21:28). Those who supported the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles were able to understand from these words (even though this does not agree with their natural meaning) that the redemption of Israel will come when “the full number of Gentiles” accept Christianity, and, according to this prophecy, the turn to the Gentiles was for Israel’s benefit since, of course, its success was linked to the redemption of Israel. My hypothesis is that this erroneous understanding of Jesus’ words contributed to the missionary ideology that lies at the foundation of the story in Acts 1:6-8. The link between the turn to the Gentiles and Israel’s redemption is actually turned completely upside down if we look at Paul’s statements in Romans 11:25-26 and compare them with Jesus’ statements in Luke 21:24-28:

Jesus Paul
Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, A hardening has come upon part of Israel,
until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled… until the full number of the Gentiles come in,
Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near. and so all Israel will be saved.

 

Despite the similarity between these two passages, there is a profound difference in their approach. We have already emphasized that if Jesus said “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” then his meaning referred to the liberation of Jerusalem from the yoke of the Romans and the end of their rule in the world, whereas Paul, in a manner similar to Acts, referred to the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world which will reach “to the ends of the earth,” and “the full number of the Gentiles” will receive it. In Acts, as with Luke, at least the conclusion of the process will be redemption for Israel when the Messiah will “restore the kingdom to Israel.” It is true that even Paul admits that in the end “all Israel will be saved,” but his meaning refers to the acceptance of faith in Jesus.[63] In this way every hint of Israel’s redemption from the troubles that haunted them has disappeared.

Conclusion

On the basis of philological analysis and by the comparison of passages from the New Testament, we have learned about a chapter in the ideological history of the first Christians. Luke has handed down to us a prophecy from the mouth of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Gentiles, but her subjugation will not last forever. Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled and then, when the end comes upon the reign of the wicked empire, Jerusalem will be liberated and redemption will come to Israel. It seems that there is no reason to doubt that the prophecy was indeed spoken by Jesus himself who, according to the analysis of the surviving sources, possessed a Jewish consciousness common to Israel in his time.

In any case, there is no doubt that only Luke among the Synoptic Gospels preserves the prophecy in more or less the original form. Mark fundamentally adapted it in a manner inspired by an apocalyptic spirit, and he eliminated from the prophecy all of its national-political coloring: the people of Israel no longer arouse fears or hopes, but rather the elect, i.e., the members of the Christian congregation. The Gospel of Matthew copied the prophecy from Mark’s edited version. But the Jewish-Christians did not surrender their hope for Israel’s redemption, as is shown by the story in Acts 1:6-8 concerning the disciples’ conversation with Jesus which took place after he was raised to life: they ask him whether the kingdom will now be restored to Israel, and Jesus does not dismiss their hope for Israel’s redemption, he merely says that it is impossible for human beings to know when the redemption will come, and it is at this moment that he commands his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Even in this form of the story, which is the product of the author’s editing, there is a logical connection between the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world and the redemption of Israel. This fact suggests that the ideology behind this story was influenced, among other things, by Jesus’ prophecy.

The words “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” were interpreted as referring to the entrance of “the full number of the Gentiles” into the Christian congregation, and so it came about that the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world came to be regarded as the precondition for Israel’s redemption. But this concept is actually flipped upside down if we look at Paul’s statement concerning the salvation of Israel (Rom. 11:25-26). Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” only after “the full number of the Gentiles come in.” The link between Paul and the prophecy in Luke is clear, but the ideology reflected in Paul’s statement testifies to a second stage of its development as compared to the prophecy in Luke. In Acts the end of the age of the Gentiles is not mentioned, but rather the spread of Christianity to the ends of the earth. Here the hope for Israel’s redemption has not vanished. For Paul, too, the interpretation of “the full number of the Gentiles” refers to the acceptance of Christianity by the nations of the world, but by the words “all Israel will be saved” Paul means that in the end all Israel will accept Christianity as well.

We are able to decipher these steps in the development of the relationship of the first Christians toward the people of Israel and its fate because we have paid attention to those Christians who are friendly toward Israel in the present time and who interpret the writings of the New Testament from the perspective of their hope for the end of days. It is no coincidence that the three passages we have examined are immovable property for such Christians and the basis of their solidarity with Israel. They understand these passages at face value, in opposition to the majority opinion of church-goers and scholars. They see in the story from Acts and in Jesus’ prophecy in Luke a promise in the mouth of Jesus himself that Israel shall indeed gain national independence, and that Jerusalem will be liberated from the yoke of the Gentiles. In their opinion these prophecies have been fulfilled by the establishment of the State of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War.

Paul’s statement that in the end “all Israel will be saved” has been made very real across a broad spectrum of Christian expression since the Second World War, and it serves as the basis of the outlook that in our own day there is spiritual significance to the establishment of Israel as a people and a religion. The three passages from the New Testament we have discussed demonstrate that love, just as much as hate, sharpens the sense of sight, and the scholar is rewarded for this achievement. It is incumbent upon scholars to be conscious of the beliefs and widespread opinions of their time even though they are likely to arrive at different conclusions from those who espouse the “authentic” interpretation of the present day. And even if the prophecies a scholar has been occupied with seem to have come true, when we look back we discover that the process of distancing from the hope for Israel’s national redemption began precisely among the first Christians, to the point where the prophecy of the liberation of Jerusalem and of the redemption of Israel became the basis from which to justify the spread of Christianity among the nations of the world, and in the place of Israel’s redemption came the hope that the Jews would convert to Christianity.

Additional Note: The fact that Luke alone does not hold back from presenting Jesus’ prophecy of the liberation of Jerusalem also becomes evident from another Lukan passage (Luke 2:22-38) which explicitly mentions “the redemption of Jerusalem.” In the story of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, which is saturated with Jewish messianism, two people appear. The first of these, named Simeon, was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” The figure of speech “I will see the consolation” is already found in the mouths of Simeon b. Shetah and Judah b. Tabi, and in the generation of the destruction it was also attributed to R. Eleazar b. R. Zadok. See צ′ לרינמן, אוצר אמרי אבות , א′, (ירושלים, 1959), עמ′ 372-371. The second person is Anna, daughter of Phanuel, who, as Luke tells us, “spoke of him [i.e., Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (λύτρωσιν Ἰερουσαλήμ). For the Jews of that period there was one specific meaning for the words “the redemption of Jerusalem”—liberation from the foreign yoke. There are, of course, manuscripts of Luke that change the wording in order to weaken its meaning and they speak, for instance, of those who were “looking for redemption in Jerusalem.” The mention of the hope for “the redemption of Jerusalem” in Luke 2:38 strengthens the hypothesis that Luke wrote his book before the Great Revolt against Rome, for otherwise it is difficult to explain how he was able to make use of the slogan that was stamped on the rebels’ coins, “Freedom for Zion” or “For the Redemption of Zion,” and on the coins from the Bar Kokhvah Revolt that read “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.” [See now David Flusser, “Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem” (above, n. 18), 243—JNT.]

This article originally appeared as: נבואה על שחרור ירושלים בברית ההדשה, ארץ ישראל י (תשל″א) עמ′ 236-226 and was reprinted in יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים, תשל″ט)‏. The article was translated by Joshua N. Tilton. Joshua wishes to thank his wife, Lauren Asperschlager, for her careful proofreading of this article.

  • [1] Hans Bietenhard, Das tausendjährige Reich (Zürich: Buchdruckererei F. Graf-Lehmann, 1955), 96-98, 108-111, 114-116. Bietenhard approaches the prophecy not only as a scholar, but also as a believing Christian who endeavors to learn from the New Testament the correct relationship of the Church to Israel and its future.
  • [2] [Scriptural quotations follow the RSV, occasionally with slight adaptations—JNT.]
  • [3] On this stream which has existed in Christianity since the time of the early Church Fathers, see Bietenhard, Das tausendjährige Reich, 90-94. Bietenhard is correct in his statement that an exhaustive study of Christian Zionism has yet to be written.
  • [4] See, for example, מ. ורטה, רעיון שיבת ציון במחשבה הפרוטסטאנטית באנגליה בשנים ציון לג (תשכ″ח) עמ′ 179-145.
  • [5] National Prayer for Peace. It would be desirable to conduct a philological study of the differences that have appeared in this prayer over time until it reached its present accepted form.
  • [6] On the beliefs of the Sages and their opinions regarding the redemption, see especially Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (trans. I. Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975), 1:649-690.
  • [7] On Jerome’s stance, see Bietenhard, Das tausendjährige Reich, 91-92. For Augustine’s statement (on the basis of the conclusion of Malachi) that this will be accomplished by the prophet Elijah who will “return” Israel to the Christian faith, see Civ. XX, 29, 30:3-5.
  • [8] It is interesting that, in his commentary, Calvin admits that in the opinion of many the name “Israel” is understood to refer to the Jewish people, but he himself believes that “Israel” refers here to the Church composed of Jews and Gentiles. See Ioannis Calvini, Novum Testamenum Commentarii (ed. August Tholuck; Berlin: Apud Gustavum Eichler, 1831), 5:179-180. [For an English translation see, John Calvin, Commentary upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans (trans. Henry Beveridge; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 330—JNT.] Hugo Grotius came close to this interpretation, even though he was aware of the statement in the Mishnah that “All Israel has a portion in the world to come,” (m. Sanh. 10:1). Grotius believed that Paul’s prophecy was fulfilled after the destruction of the Temple when many Jews converted to Christianity. See also Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963), 281-282; Johannes Munck, Christus und Israel—Eine Auslegung von Röm. 9-11 (Kobenhavn: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1956), 24, 101ff.
  • [9] The theory that this will be the order of events, and its wide acceptance within the apocalyptic stream of modern Christianity, obviously warrants further study. In any case, it already appears in an article by the Jesuits of Chile written in 1790: Manuel Lacunza, La Venida del Mesías en Gloria y Majestad (I found this author in a publication prepared by Mario Gongora which appeared in 1969 in the series Escridores coloniales de Chile, Editorial Universitaria SA). The article was published in English in 1827 and 1833 by Edward Irving (1792-1834), the Scottish priest who founded the sect known as the Catholic Apostolic Church.
  • [10] See H. Conzelmann, “Geschichte und Eschaton nach Mk. 13,” ZNW 50 (1959): 210-221; Lars Hartmann, Prophecy Interpreted—The Formation of Some Jewish Apocalyptic Texts of the Eschatological Discourse Mark 13 (Paris: Gleerup, 1966); Jan Lamprecht, Die Redaktion der Markus-Apokalypse—Literarische Analyse und Strukturuntersuchung (Analecta Biblica 28; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1967).
  • [11] R. L. Lindsey, “A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” Novum Testamentum 6 (1963): 239-263; idem, “A New Two-Source Solution to the Synoptic Problem“; idem, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Jerusalem: Dugith, 1969). See especially the aforementioned article in Novum Testamentum (p. 243), where a diagram which makes it possible to recognize the sources behind Mark 13 may be found. It is worth pointing out that Matthew removes the parallel statements in Luke 21:12-16 and Mark 13:9-12 from the prophecy in ch. 24 and places them earlier in Matt. 10:17-22. I want to thank Dr. Lindsey for the many important things he taught me while I was preparing this article. See also ד. פלוסר, ״היחס הספרותי בין שלושת האוונגליונים,״ יהדות ומקורות הנצרות; מחקרים ומסות (תל אביב: ספרית פועלים, תשל″ט)‏.
  • [12] Another example: According to Matthew, when Jesus spoke about the troubles to come he said, “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath” (Matt. 24:20). Mark 13:18 omits any mention of the Sabbath, while Luke omits the entire sentence.
  • [13] So reads Luke 21:12. The hypothesis that Luke was familiar with the verse in its original form is proved by his statement in Acts 9:15.
  • [14] So Mark 13:9 and Matt. 10:18; Luke 21:12 reads “for my name’s sake.”
  • [15] See Robert Lindsey’s commentary on this passage in his article, “From Luke to Mark to Matthew: A Discussion of the Sources of Markan “Pick-ups” and the Use of a Basic Non-canonical Source by All the Synoptists” under the subheading “An Examination of the Editorial Activity of the First Reconstructor” (L34-49).
  • [16] [In other words, in Luke’s version the disciples’ words, and not the persecution itself, have become the testimony. That this is Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ prophecy is shown, for example, in Acts 26 where Paul testifies before King Agrippa II (cf. Acts 26:28)—JNT.]
  • [17] The language of this verse is influenced by Luke 21:9, 24.
  • [18] For a similar idea, but in relation to Mark 13, see Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1957), 636-644. [See now David Flusser, “Additional Considerations: Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem” in Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 238—JNT.]
  • [19] On this verse and on Matthew’s version which is closer to the original, see above n.12.
  • [20] This verse is taken from Luke 17:23.
  • [21] This is the only place in the Gospels where the Greek word ἀπολύτρωσις appears with the meaning “redemption.” It also appears in Paul’s epistles and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. But, the use of precisely this Greek word for the redemption of Israel does not prove that this verse is Luke’s invention. We cannot discuss the Parable of the Fig Tree here (Matt. 24:32-36; Mark 13:28-32; Luke 21:29-33). After the parable we read: So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place (Mark 13:29-30, and similar to this in Matthew and Luke). In the place of he is near, at the very gates, Luke reads the kingdom of God is near (21:31). Even though this sentence, especially in Luke’s version, looks similar to Luke’s doublet in 21:28, evidently the original meaning was that the years of this generation will not pass by before the destruction comes.
  • [22] [Sic. It appears to the translator that Flusser intended to refer here to Genesis, rather than Leviticus. Elsewhere Flusser writes, “The oldest example of this paradigm is found in God’s words to Abraham (Gen. 15:13-16). There the destruction is lacking, but Abraham’s descendants will be strangers in a foreign country and will be enslaved and ill-treated; afterwards, however, they will come back,” (Jesus [Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001], 241)—JNT.]
  • [23] This proximity is pointed out by Adolf Schlatter, Das Evangelium des Lukas (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1960), 2:418. See also the interpretation of Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke (ICC; New York: Scribners, 1920), 483. [See now David Flusser, “Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem” (above, n. 18), 241-242—JNT.]
  • [24] After which, the author describes things that will come in the future from his own point in history: the gathering of all the exiles, and the wondrous Jerusalem at the end of days.
  • [25] See also in the continuation line 10, “ובשלום הקץ” as well as the notes in Rabin’s published version. [Quotations of the DSS follow Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (2 vols.; Brill: Leiden, 1997-1998)—JNT.]
  • [26] We may also conjecture that this is the verbal root that the author of Tobit also employed. This book, too, has come to us only in Greek versions.
  • [27] Gen. 15:16: ἀναπεπλήρωνται αἱ ἁμαρτίαι; Luke 21:24: ἄχρι οὗ πληρωθῶσιν καιροὶ ἐθνῶν.
  • [28] This is the opinion of the majority of scholars. I intend to discuss the identity of this source elsewhere. [See now David Flusser, “Hystaspes and John of Patmos” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 390-453—JNT.] For our purposes the historiography of the author of 2 Maccabees is especially important. For him it is a sign of kindness that God brings troubles on the people of Israel, which he does in order to correct them, whereas for the rest of the peoples the LORD delays their punishment “until they have reached the full measure of their sins”/μέχρι τοῦ καταντήσαντας αὐτοὺς πρὸς ἐκπλήρωσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (2 Macc. 6:14). See also P. Félix-Marie Abel, Les Livres des Maccabées (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1949), 365. Aside from Gen. 15:16 and Deut. 8:20, Abel also mentions Matt. 23:32 and 1 Thess. 2:16.

    The latter arouses great interest: At the end of his career Paul determined that when the full number of Gentiles have entered “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26), but in the earliest of Paul’s surviving epistles he says that the Jews murdered the Lord Jesus and the prophetsand drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins”/εἰς τὸ ἀναπληρῶσαι αὐτῶν τὰς ἁμαρτίας πάντοτε. “But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!These statements by Paul concerning the Jews are likely to have relied, in their form and vocabulary, on Jesus’ statement about the Gentiles found in Luke 21:24. Also, these statements show Paul’s thoughts at the beginning of his career before he developed a new approach to the “Jewish Problem” on the basis of the broader Christian ideology.

    In addition, we should note that at the end of this verse from his earliest epistle (1 Thess. 2:16), Paul repeats the statement from the Testament of Levi (6:11) against the people of Shechem.

  • [29] This number is derived from Daniel 7:25; 12:7.
  • [30] For the same idea and vocabulary see Dan. 8:10-13.
  • [31] See my article “Jerusalem in Second Temple Literature” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: The Jewish Sages and their Literature (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 44-75.
  • [32] It is true that in his answer as it is recorded in Luke Jesus speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem and not about the destruction of the Temple, but it is clear that the destruction of the Temple is included in the city’s destruction.
  • [33] It seems highly probable that before the anonymous author composed the apocalyptic oracle, Jesus’ answer included only what appears in Luke 21:20-24, 28. According to this hypothesis, Jesus foretold the Roman camps surrounding Jerusalem as a sign of the destruction. See also Luke 19:41-43.
  • [34] There is no reason to doubt this interpretation. In this verse the Gentiles are twice mentioned: “the Gentiles will trample Jerusalem until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Clearly, then, the Gentiles who oppress Jerusalem and trample her are identical with the Gentiles whose time will one day come to an end.
  • [35] Or, “when the times are fulfilled they will belong to the Gentiles.” The meaning is the same.
  • [36] ἐκολόβωσεν κύριος τὰς ἡμέρας. For this special use of the Greek verb κολοβόω there is only one parallel. It is found in 3 (Greek Apocalypse of) Baruch, where it is explained that God punished the moon and cut short its days ἐκολόβωσεν τὰς ἡμέρας αὐτῆς. Cf. the edition edited by Jean-Claude Picard, “Apocalypsis Baruchi Graece” in Testamentum Iobi, Apocalypsis Baruchi Graece (PVTG 2; Leiden: Brill, 1967), 91. [Picard’s text can now be accessed online at The Online Critical Pseudepigrapha: http://ocp.tyndale.ca—JNT.]
  • [37] On this idea see especially Y. Yadin, The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness (trans. B. Rabin and C. Rabin; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
  • [38] See also the materials gathered by August Strobel, Untersuchungen zum eschatologischen Verzögerungsproblem (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 92.
  • [39] Similar vocabulary is found in Exod. 9:18; 11:6; Joel 2:2.
  • [40] We should add Ps. Philo’s Biblical Antiquities 19:13 and the Letter of Barnabas 4:3 to Yadin’s list of sources that mention the hastening of the end.
  • [41] See also the following passages from the War Scroll:

    כיא היאה עת צרה לישר[אל תעו]דת מלחמה בכל הגויים וגורל אל בפדות עולמים

    For this will be a time of suffering for Isra[el and a servi]ce of war against all the nations. For God’s lot there will be everlasting redemption. (1QM xv, 1)

    ומעז לוא נהיתה כמוהה

    From of old there has not been anything similar. (1QM xviii, 10)

  • [42] On this see my “Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes in Pesher Nahum” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Qumran and Apocalypticism (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 214-257. In the War Scroll the relationship of the sect toward the rest of Israel is closer than in the other Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • [43] A slightly similar use can be found in Luke 18:7. There is no connection between Matt. 22:14 and the use in our chapter. On the use of the title “the elect” for the Christian congregation in the rest of the New Testament, see Taylor, Mark (above, n. 18), 514-515.
  • [44] The beginning of this passage is based on the saying in Luke 17:23. This passage is nothing other than a free paraphrase of what is written in Mark 13:5-6; Luke 21:8; Matt. 24:4-5; and the same is also true for Luke 17:20-21; Matt. 24:11.
  • [45] [Quotations of the Didache follow Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity (CRINT III.5; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002)—JNT.]
  • [46] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 80 [cf. ch. 139—JNT].
  • [47] Adolf von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1931), 1:614-620.
  • [48] [See now David Flusser, “Matthew’s Verus Israel” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 568ff.—JNT.]
  • [49] Günther Bornkamm, Paulus (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1969), 68-78.
  • [50] Munck, Christus und Israel (above, n. 8).
  • [51] It is true that the sources permit us to suppose that not all of the Jewish-Christians believed in Jesus’ messiahship, but as far as our interests are concerned this fact is of no importance.
  • [52] It is interesting that, of all the Gospel writers, it was only Luke, a Gentile, who preserved in three places mention of the hope of the first Christians (who were Jews) for the redemption of their people. The first place is the passage in Jesus’ prophetic oracle (Luke 21:23-28), where to all appearances the statements reflect the authentic words of Jesus. The second place is the description of Jesus’ appearance in Emmaus where the disciples speak of Jesus as the one who would redeem Israel in the future (Luke 24:21). The third place is in Acts 1:6-8. In these three places where Israel’s national redemption is discussed there is no distinction made between those who believe in Jesus and the rest of Israel. Aside from these three places, all of which are found in Luke’s compositions, there is only one allusion to Israel’s salvation at the end of days. This is Paul’s statement in Romans that “all Israel will be saved,” even though this statement does not have a political meaning since the salvation comes to Israel as a result of accepting faith in Jesus.
  • [53] Clearly for Luke this story serves as an opportunity to record a kind of program for his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. The statement “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” is nothing other than a description of the way the Christian faith spread as it is depicted by Luke in Acts. It is interesting that for Luke it was important that the new teaching should go out from Jerusalem. This does not derive from actual historical circumstances, but rather from the missionary ideology which comes to expression, for instance, in Paul’s mention of Jerusalem in Romans 15:19 even though Paul did not begin his missionary activities in Jerusalem! We learn from this that the missionary ideology originated prior to Paul.
  • [54] Georg Strecker, Das Judenchristentum in den Pseudoklementinen (Berlin: Akademie, 1958), 187.
  • [55] Shlomo Pines, “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries According to a New Source,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 2 (1968): 253-254, 256-257.
  • [56] On the original form of this saying see my article, “The Conclusion of Matthew in a New Jewish Christian Source,” Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute 5 (1966-1967): 110-120.
  • [57] See also the additional ending of Mark 16:15-17.
  • [58] Hugo Gratius was already aware of how close this statement is to m. Sanh. 10:1.
  • [59] In Acts the disciples ask Jesus whether he will now restore the kingdom to Israel. From the vocabulary in the two places where Israel’s redemption is mentioned in Luke (21:24-28; 24:21) it becomes clear that in these places, too, it is the political redemption of Israel that is intended.
  • [60] The Christian religious meaning of the concept of salvation that is found in Romans 11:26 emerges, among other places, from the statementif you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved(Rom. 10:9), and also in Rom. 11:11.
  • [61] The expression is based on a midrash of Deut. 32:21: “I will stir them to jealousy with those who are no people,” a verse Paul had already made use of in Rom. 10:19.
  • [62] See Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (above, n. 8), 271.
  • [63] See above, n. 60.

“It Is Said to the Elders”: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deserves endless study,[1] and the more one studies ancient Jewish sources, the clearer the meaning of these words of Jesus becomes.

Even at first glance, Matthew 5:17-48, the core of the Sermon on the Mount, has a distinctly Jewish feel. On the surface, however, this sermon can give the dangerous and deceiving impression that it sharply opposes the spirit of Judaism. Some time ago a critic sent me his thesis in which he concluded that the only original material in this exegetical homily was its antitheses where Jesus highlights his unique approach by introducing his comments with, “But I tell you.” One New Testament commentary suggests that in this pericope Jesus is not contrasting his ethic with the interpretation of Scripture in his day, but with the Torah itself.[2] In this article I will attempt to treat this matter more carefully and fairly than many exegetes do when they analyze Jesus’ words.

“But I say to you!”

There exists a paradoxical contrast between the Jewish contents of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and its antithetic form.[3] The main reason for this is the repeated use of the phrase ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (“But I say to you!”).[4] This phrase creates a sense of conflict between Jesus and Judaism because the pronoun ἐγὼ (“I”) at the opening of the phrase is unnecessary in Greek. It would have been sufficient simply to say λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν, since the speaker is already implied by the form of the verb. This is what we observe, for example, in Luke 6:27 where Jesus expresses the contrast between those addressed by his cries of woe (in vv. 24-26) and his listeners: Ἀλλὰ ὑμῖν λέγω τοῖς ἀκούουσιν (“But to you that listen, I say….”). Here we notice the personal pronoun is lacking. The presence of the first person pronoun in Matthew’s antithetical statements, therefore, must indicate emphasis. Matthew’s emphatic “But I say to you” gives the impression that Jesus’ message stands in contrast to the spirit of Judaism.

But the contrast is not merely between varying opinions or interpretations. Matthew’s use of ἐγὼ appears to put the focus on Jesus’ person and unique status. This impression is confirmed when we read, at the conclusion of the sermon, that Jesus “taught them as one having authority and unlike their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).[5] It is especially noteworthy, therefore, that the emphatic “I” is missing in the text of Luke, since this statement is paralleled in Matthew 5:44 where the emphatic use of the personal pronoun appears.[6] This fact raises the possibility that the presence of ἐγὼ in Matthew’s antitheses does not reflect the original form of Jesus’ statement, but is instead the result of the final editor’s redactive activity.[7] If this is the case, then the paradoxical tension between the Jewish content of Jesus’ sermon and its antithetical form disappears. The tension was artificially introduced by the final editor of Matthew, and was not originally part of Jesus’ message.

The Sadducees and the Abuse of Scripture

In my article on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (see note 1), I discussed Jesus’ use of the “exegetical homily.” In the antitheses Jesus employs the rabbinic rule of interpretation known in Hebrew as kal vahomer,[8] where one draws a logical deduction about a “heavier” (more important or more complex) situation from a “lighter” (less important or less complex) situation, or the other way around.[9] But the last two sections of this homily represent an exception. Instead of making a saying ethically sharper, Jesus states an objection to an inhumane interpretation of two biblical sayings. In both cases the Pharisaic scribes could not have been Jesus’ opponents.

In the first case (Matt. 5:38-42), Jesus objects to an overly literal understanding of Exodus 21:24 (“an eye for an eye”). According to Megillat Ta’anit, the Boethusians, an offshoot of the Sadducees, were remembered for brutally meting out the principle of “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” in a literal fashion.[10] The Pharisees, on the other hand, interpreted this principle as requiring the payment of damages equal to the harm caused by an injury. It therefore seems likely that Jesus directs his critique toward the Boethusian Sadducees in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.[11]

A second case (Matt. 5:43-48) may also be directed against a Sadducean abuse of Scripture. Here Jesus objects to an abstruse paraphrase of the command to love one’s neighbor found in Leviticus 19:18. The Greek text of Matthew 5:43 reads, Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου (“You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”) Such an inhuman perversion of the command to love is not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Neither does it express the intention of the Jewish message; it rather represents a vulgar teaching of retaliation similar to the Sadducean application of Exodus 21:24 discussed above. How then did this coarse paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 originate? Leviticus 19:18 only says, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). In biblical Hebrew, however, the word רֵעַ (“neighbor”) also has the meaning “friend.” Thus, some understood the Hebrew verse to mean, “Love your friend and hate your enemy.” Had the translator of Matthew’s Hebrew source paid more attention to the point of Jesus’ critique, he would have translated רֵעַ as φίλος (“friend”) rather than πλησίον (“neighbor”) in Matthew 5:43. But evidently the translator recognized the allusion to Leviticus 19:18 and followed the Septuagint’s Greek translation without any serious reflection.

The idea that one should love one’s friend and hate one’s enemy is still with us today. It was a common ethical rule among the early Greeks. Socrates unsuccessfully opposed it. The closest parallel to the pseudo-quotation in Matthew 5:43 is a saying by the Greek Archilochos (650 B.C.E.): [ἐπ]ίσταμαί τοι τὸν φιλ[έο]ν[τα] μὲν φ[ι]λεῖν[, τὸ]ν δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἐχθαίρειν (“I know how to love the friend and hate the enemy”).[12] Although today the command to love the friend and hate the enemy seems non-Jewish, this understanding of Leviticus 19:18 does represent the exegetical method of some in those days. It was evidently a group of Sadducees whose vulgar and barbaric abuse of scripture Jesus disputed. These groups justified their ethic of retaliation by interpreting Leviticus 19:18 as though it said: “You shall love your friend as yourself. You shall love him who is close to you as your friend,” or more paraphrastically, “Treat the other as he treats you—the friend with love, the enemy with hate.”

“The Elders” and Pharisaic Interpretation of Scripture

Recently, the following theory has been postulated:[13] Since the antitheses stand in contrast to the Torah of Moses, we can understand this controversy without reference to contemporary Jewish sources. I must counter that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explicitly mentions the opinion of the “elders” twice (Matt. 5:21, 33).

The first reference to the elders is especially important and instructive:[14] “You have heard that it was said to the elders: ‘You shall not murder! And anyone who murders must answer for it before the court’ (or, alternately: ‘will be subject to judgment’)” (Matt. 5:21). Jesus regarded this application of the commandment as unsatisfactory. Rather, he wished to apply this rule to the person who is angry with his brother. Similarly, we read in the Didache: “My child, flee from all evil and from everything like it. Do not be an angry person, for anger leads to murder…” (Did. 3:1-2). Jesus’ view, already current in Jewish circles, is thus an example of the refinement of the Torah’s commandments against the interpretive tradition of the “elders.”

With the aid of rabbinic sources the “elders” can be identified. In the time of Jesus, the ten commandments, or at least the instructions in Exodus 20:13, were understood to teach the basic prohibitions without giving specific penalties for their infringement. An early rabbinic commentary on Exodus 20:13 (“You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal”) states that this passage constitutes a general warning against these offenses:

You Must Not Murder. Why is this said? Because it says: “Whoever sheds human blood,” etc. (Gen. 9.6). We have thus heard the penalty [for murder] but we have not heard the prohibition; therefore it says here: “You must not murder.”[15]

Genesis 9:6 is interpreted the same way in the Targumim. Targum Onkelos to this Genesis passage runs:

Whoever sheds the blood of man—and this is confirmed by witnesses—is deemed guilty by the judges. And whoever sheds the blood of man without witnesses, the Lord himself will punish him at the last judgment.

Thus we see that with the support of Genesis 9:6 the warning against manslaughter was made into a general law: He who commits murder shall be deemed guilty and be punished by the court. Since this exegetical maneuver is presupposed in the Sermon on the Mount, we may conclude that the “elders” refers to the generations before the time of Jesus who had been instructed to apply the commandments in this manner. And we may further conclude that this approach was developed by Pharisaic interpreters since their exegetical method was preserved in later rabbinic literature.

Acanthus leaves flank a rosette pattern on a limestone block that once decorated the beautiful fourth-century synagogue of Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
Acanthus leaves flank a rosette pattern on a limestone block that once decorated the beautiful fourth-century synagogue of Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Jesus reacted against this Pharisaic approach to the commandments. Rather than seeking to define the prohibition and the penalty for murder, Jesus sought to expound the commandments in such a way as to prevent murder from happening, by rooting out the evil impulse from the human heart: “You have heard that it was said to the elders, ‘You must not murder, and anyone who does murder is subject to the court.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to the court. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ is subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says ‘You fool!’ is subject to the fire of Gehenna” (Matt. 5:21-22). In this respect Jesus shows himself to be close to the pious Jewish circles who produced the Two Ways, which was later incorporated into the Didache.[16] We can now see that Jesus’ critique in Matt. 5:21 is directed, not against the Torah itself, but against a particular exegetical approach to the commandments that was current among certain Pharisaic circles in his day.

The “elders” are, therefore, justifiably mentioned in Matthew 5:21. Does the same hold true for the second reference to “elders” in Matthew 5:33: “You have heard that it is said to the elders, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord’”? The quotation referred to in this antithesis is not a direct biblical quotation, but an amalgamation of biblical verses (cf. Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12). This fact in itself supports our supposition that Jesus is taking issue not with the Torah’s commandments but with their application by preceding generations of Pharisaic interpreters. In Matthew 5:33 the elders maintain that everyone must keep their oaths, that no one should make false oaths. The saying of the elders, therefore, appears to be a traditional halakhic prohibition directed against making an oath hastily.[17] In contrast, Jesus—like the Essenes (Josephus, Antiq. 2:195)—held that one should never utter an oath of any kind because this so easily leads to a false oath. Jesus’ ruling is consequently a sharpening of the Torah’s commandment. It neither abolishes the opinion of the elders cited by Jesus, nor the biblical commandment itself.

Conclusion

The fact that the “elders” are mentioned only in Matthew 5:21 and 33 points to the reliability of what is transmitted since the interpretations Jesus attributes to them are attested in later rabbinic literature. Nevertheless, redactional changes in the text are not excluded. Indeed, the opposite occurs, since the difficult phrase, “You have heard that it is said to the elders” (which is incomprehensible in its Hebrew context) can hardly be original. But because the word “elders” correctly appears in both of the above cases it is still possible to recover its original meaning. The usual translation, “You have heard that it is said by the elders” cannot be correct, whether from the standpoint of content, or from a linguistic point of view.[18] If by “elders,” Moses or his contemporaries or the rabbis were intended, then Matthew would have expressed this explicitly.

One may, therefore, suppose that this phrase in Matthew 5:21 and 33 originated through combining two previously independent formulas, namely the quotation formula “It is said” and the introductory formula “You have heard from the elders.”[19] In rabbinic literature, “It is said” is the most commonly used formula to introduce a quotation from the Hebrew Bible.[20] The formula “It is said” is likewise placed before biblical quotations in Matthew 5:27, 31, 38, 43. The “elders” would in those places be a disturbing element, since here Jesus is citing scripture and not a traditional halakhic interpretation.[21]

In Matthew 5:21 and 33, however, Jesus is not directly quoting scripture, but makes reference to Pharisaic interpretations taught to earlier generations. Mention of the “elders” in these verses is therefore warranted. As we have said, the original form may have been, “You have heard from the elders.” In any case, the mention of the elders confirms our contention that the antitheses are not directed against the commandments themselves, but against the explanation and application of these verses that were developed and taught by certain Pharisaic sages.[22]

Concerning the formula, “But I say unto you,” we have seen (especially from the context of Luke 6:27) that the original formula was not so emphatic or antithetic as Matthew’s version suggests.

This article is an emendation and updating by Joshua N. Tilton of David Flusser, “‘It Is Said to the Elders’: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount,” Mishkhan 17-18 (1992-1993): 115-119.

  • [1] Cf. inter alia David Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (ed. Heinz Kremers; Duisburg: Braun, 1973), 102-113; idem, “A Rabbinic Parallel to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 494-508.
  • [2] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 505-509.
  • [3] By antithesis we mean an opposite or contradictory statement. We say that the Sermon on the Mount has an antithetical form because Jesus draws a contrast between his interpretations that ‘establish’ or correctly apply Torah, versus faulty interpretations that tend to weaken or ‘abolish’ Torah.
  • [4] Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44; 16:18; Luke 11:9; 16:9; as well as Matt. 21:27 (= Mark 11:33; Luke 20:8), have nothing to do with our subject.
  • [5] This concluding remark is indicative of Matthew’s editorial activity. The final editor of Matthew has taken this sentence from its original context in the story of the exorcism at the Capernaum Synagogue (Luke 4:31-37 = Mark 1:21-28) in order to use it as his final comment on the Sermon on the Mount. On this unfortunate tendency in Matthew’s final redaction, see David Flusser, “The Synagogue and the Church in the Synoptic Gospels,” in Jesus’ Last Week (ed. R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 23, 36; idem, Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 249.
  • [6] The same “I” is also missing in the Sermon of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9 = Luke 3:8) and even in Matthew 5:20.
  • [7] See Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its place in Early Judaism and Christianity (CRINT III.5; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 213 n. 63.
  • [8] Wilhelm Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der jüdischen Traditionsliteratur (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1905), 1:172-174; 2:189-190.
  • [9] The kal vahomer style of reasoning in Matt. 5:21-37 becomes clear when the Sermon on the Mount is compared with the Jewish Two Ways, which was incorporated into the Didache. See Flusser, “A Rabbinic Parallel to the Sermon on the Mount,” 496-498; van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 232.
  • [10] The Scholion to the 4th (14th) of Tammuz explains: ועוד שהיו ביתוסין אומר, עין תחת עין, שן תחת שן—הפיל אדם שנו של חברו יפיל את שנו, סמא את עינו של חברו יסמא את עינו יהו שוים כאחד (And additionally, the Boethusians used to say: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’–if someone knocked out his fellow’s tooth, he shall knock out his tooth; if someone blinded his fellow’s eye, he shall blind his eye, and they will be equal).
  • [11] See “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” (note 1 above) 103, n. 2; and van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 208 n. 44.
  • [12] Archilochos Pap. Ox. 22, 2310 in Albrecht Dihle, Die Goldene Regel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962), 32-33. The coarse ethic can also be documented in the early period of ancient Israel. When David mourned over his son Absalom, Joab walked into the house of the king and reproached David because he had dishonoured those who had saved his life: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you” (2 Sam. 19:7 MT [19:6 ET]). The Qumranic parallel to Matt. 5:43 is: לאהוב כול בני אור… ולשנוא כול בני חושך (“To love all the Sons of Light… and to hate all the Sons of Darkness”) (1QS I, 9-11; cf. also Josephus, Bell. 2.139). This sentiment has another presupposition, the ethical dualism of the Essenes, according to which the entire world is believed to be divided into black and white, good and evil, those God loves and those he hates.
  • [13] See note 2.
  • [14] For this insight I thank my student Serge Ruzer. See Serge Ruzer, “The Technique of Composite Citation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-22, 33-37),” RB 103.1 (1996): 65-75; and idem, “Antitheses in Matthew 5: Midrashic Aspects of Exegetical Techniques,” in Mapping the New Testament: Early Christian Writings as a Witness for Jewish Biblical Exegesis (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 11-34. To Matt. 5:21, see especially Martin McNamara, The New Testament and the Palestine Targum of the Pentateuch, Analecta Biblica 27 (Rome: 1966), 126-131.
  • [15] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael to Exod. 20:13 (ed. S. H. Horovitz and I. A. Rabin; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 232. Translation based on that of Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Philadelphia: JPS, 2004), 2:333.
  • [16] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 193-237.
  • [17] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 196 n. 8, 211.
  • [18] The Greek phrase, Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, is literally “to the elders” or “to the ancient ones.”
  • [19] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 209-212.
  • [20] See Mekhilta to Exod. 20:13 (ed. S. H. Horovitz and I. A. Rabin; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 232-233.
  • [21] See W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:6; 2:11-12. Bacher (1:6, n. 1) understood that this rabbinic formula is reflected in our passages.
  • [22] See van de Sandt and Flusser, The Didache, 213-214.

Gamaliel and Nicodemus

The Pharisee Gamaliel is mentioned twice in the New Testament (Acts 5:34; 22:3). In Acts 5:34 he appears as an advocate of the nascent congregation of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and is called “a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, held in honor by all the people.” Then, in Acts 22:3, Paul says that he was “brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel.” Indeed, Gamaliel was an important spiritual leader of the Pharisees and a Jewish scholar. He also is well known from Jewish sources.

The Pharisees were one of the three main Jewish parties in the first century: the Pharisees (the Jewish sages); the Sadducees (a small but mighty party of high priests, rationalists who “say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit,” Acts 23:8); and the Essenes (a sect whose writings are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered beginning in 1947).

If we want to understand Gamaliel’s defense of the Apostles, we have to know the political implications of Jesus’ trial. The Apostles were arrested by the “high priest and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17-18). The Temple guard brought the Apostles before the Sanhedrin “without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people” (Acts 5:26). Evidently the Sadducees knew that the sympathy of the Jewish people in Jerusalem was on the side of Jesus’ movement of disciples. When finally the Apostles were brought before the council, the high priest questioned them, saying: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:27-28).

The Apostles, preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, could not avoid mentioning the active role of the Sadducean high priest in the trial of Jesus, which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Indeed, when we read the Gospels, we see that the high priests were the main instigators of Jesus’ death. One of the aims of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem was to sound a note of warning about the future destruction of the Temple: Jesus did not accuse the Romans, but the Sadducees, whose source of power was their rule over the Temple. The Sadducean high priests were not loved by the people. They were a small, aristocratic and wealthy party of high priests. Therefore, they were very nervous about Jesus’ prophecy of doom, since the people, who did not love them, were in this point on Jesus’ side: “all the people hung upon his words” (Luke 19:48).

The high priest did not dare arrest Jesus during the daylight hours, but only under cover of night, bringing Jesus to the house of the high priest. The next morning they handed Jesus over to Pilate. Even after that, they continued to plot against Jesus, because Jesus was not merely a perceived threat, but an actual danger to the high priestly aristocracy. Later, as the Apostles preached the gospel in Jerusalem, by mentioning the active role of the high priests in Jesus’ trial, they, as it were, “brought Jesus’ blood” upon the high priests. Just as the Sadducees were active in Jesus’ trial, so later they also persecuted the nascent church. We even know the names of these high priests: “Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:6).

Gamaliel’s intervention before the Sanhedrin was, from an ideological point of view, a reaction against the cruelty of the Sadducean party.[1] The case of Jesus and his followers evidently became for the Pharisees a test case in their struggle against the inhumane approach of the Sadducean high-priesthood. We learn from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that in the year 62 C.E. Jesus’ brother James was executed after an irregular session of the court. Following this atrocity, the Pharisees brought about the deposition of the officiating high priest, the son of Annas and brother-in-law of Caiaphas, by appealing to king Agrippa (Josephus, Antiq. 20:200-201).

Saint Stephen Mourned by Saints Gamaliel and Nicodemus. Carlo Saraceni, c. 1615, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Saint Stephen Mourned by Saints Gamaliel and Nicodemus.
Carlo Saraceni, c. 1615, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Gamaliel’s defense of the apostles before the Sanhedrin also shows his meek nature. The Pharisaic movement was at that time divided into two opposing schools. One school was that of Shammai: members of his movement were rigid and conservative; God, not man, was for them the aim of their religious attitude. The other Pharisaic school was that of Hillel: in the center of its interest was the human being, created according to God’s image. For the members of this movement, the essence of Judaism was love for one’s fellow human being. Through this humanistic approach to one’s fellow, one could reach God, who had created all humankind in His image. These rival schools fought for hegemony over the Pharisaic movement, and only in the second century did the school of Hillel finally prevail.

Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel. He came from Babylon to Jerusalem in Herod’s time. He was one of the most outstanding thinkers in the long history of the Jewish people. His influence on Jesus’ teaching has not been fully recognized by scholarship.[2] His meekness, humility and patience were legendary, but, at the same time, he had the strength of character to make unpopular rulings. As he said: “In the place where there is no man, be a man!” (m. Avot 2:6).

Gamaliel’s descendants led the Jewish people through the centuries as its presidents in the land of Israel. Their leadership was a happy circumstance both for Judaism and Christianity. When I say “for Christianity,” I refer to Hillel’s influence upon the teachings of Jesus and the role of Gamaliel in a decisive hour at the early church’s beginnings. Gamaliel saved the lives of Jesus’ apostles, and also influenced Paul’s ethics, even after Paul’s conversion.[3]

Paul’s conversion is a central moment both in the history of Christianity and in the history of humankind. His revolutionary experience completely changed his attitude to his Jewish heritage and created his dialectical approach to the Law. But, on the other hand, even if Paul had gained new and unexpected values, he did not see his previous path in a wholly negative light. He saw no cause to reject Pharisaic ideas that fit his new viewpoint. As a Christian of Pharisaic stock, he recognized the important value of Pharisaic ethics and therefore embedded them in his new faith.

Jesus accepted some doctrines from the Pharisaic school of Hillel such as “Do unto others” as a summary of the Torah, tolerance, and the Kingdom of Heaven. Although some might suppose that Paul’s ethical teaching should be explained by appealing to the influence of the words of Jesus, who was himself influenced by the teachings of Hillel, I do not think that this is the correct explanation of the similarity between Jesus’ and Paul’s moral approach. When Paul uses Jesus as his authority, he states this explicitly. Paul does not do this when he teaches ethics to the young Christian community. He does not say that he received these instructions from Jesus. And it should be recognized that Paul’s ethical advice does not possess the specific color of Jesus’ voice. Thus, it seems more likely that Paul inherited these Jewish ethical views from his Pharisaic past, when he was a disciple of Gamaliel.

In any case, with respect to his moral theology, Paul is clearly an heir of the school of Hillel. This can be seen from his stress upon humility, respect for the other, and his high appreciation of the solidarity of humankind, which are typical of the positions of the school of Hillel. For Paul, as for Hillel, love for one’s neighbor was the summary of the Law. Even Paul’s universalistic openness to the Gentiles is prefigured in the position of the Hillelites, in contrast to the school of Shammai that did not readily accept proselytes.

When he became a follower of Jesus, Paul naturally abandoned many of his Pharisaic positions. Being sure of his salvation through Christ, his attitude toward the Law changed. But Paul did not reject the ethical side of the teaching of his former master, Gamaliel. On the contrary, Hillelite ethics were now linked by Paul to his Christology. By the transmission of his Pharisaic ethical heritage, Paul contributed to the ethical aspect of Christian civilization.

Thus, Gamaliel played an important role in the history of the Church. Not only did he save the Apostles from death, he also contributed, through Paul, to the moral theology of Christianity, and this surely was not a small gift bestowed by Judaism upon the new faith.

Nicodemus

In the New Testament Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John. In John 3:1-13 we read of “a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews,” who came to Jesus in order to learn from him, and that Jesus knew Nicodemus was a “teacher of Israel.” Later, in a debate about Jesus, Nicodemus defends Jesus, saying that Jesus has to be heard. He was answered: “Are you from Galilee, too? Search and you will find that no prophet is to rise from Galilee” (John 7:50-52). These men evidently mocked Nicodemus’ Galilean origin. And finally, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus, together with Joseph of Arimathea, participated in Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-42). We know little from the New Testament about the Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews,” but we learn more about him from rabbinic sources.

Nicodemus is identical with one of the three richest men in Jerusalem, Nicodemus the son of Gurion (b. Giṭ. 56a; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 6; Lam. R. 1.5.31; Eccles. R. 7.12.1). Ze’ev Safrai has recently shown that the family of Nicodemus the son of Gurion originated in Galilee, as recorded in John 7:50-52 (cf. t. Eruvin 3(4):17).[4] Nicodemus’ family came to Jerusalem and became very important there. We know from rabbinic literature that Nicodemus, like Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50), became a member of the council of Jerusalem (Lam. R. 1.5.31; Eccles. R. 7.12.1). One of the honorary tasks of council members was to perform acts of mercy. This was what Nicodemus and his colleague, Joseph of Arimathea, did when they performed the burial of Jesus, a man who was crucified by the Romans.

Rabbinic sources reveal that Nicodemus was a deeply pious man. Once, when Jerusalem’s water cisterns dried up, he negotiated with the Roman authorities and obtained from them a great quantity of water for the inhabitants. According to Nicodemus’ agreement with the Romans, if no rain came by a certain deadline, he would have to repay a very large sum to the Romans. When rain did not come, Nicodemus prayed fervently to God and the rain came (b. Ta’anit 19b-20a; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 6). This story shows not only Nicodemus’ piety, but also his good connections with the Roman authorities due to his being a member of the council of Jerusalem. Thus, it is probable that Nicodemus used his access to the Romans to obtain Jesus’ body.

Evidently, there were even stronger ties between Jesus and Nicodemus. But, in order to clarify this affinity, we need to understand Nicodemus’ place in the Jewish political map of his day.

The tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans occurred 40 years after Jesus was crucified, but the first acts of this tragedy began even before Jesus’ birth and were caused by the active, armed resistance of Jewish nationalists against the Roman occupation of Judea. These militants were known as Zealots. One of them was Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), one of the Twelve. This apostle had surely abandoned the idea of political hatred when he became a disciple of a man whose message was all-embracing love. Another activist was Barabbas, who was imprisoned with Jesus. He was “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19).

The Zealots waged guerrilla warfare against the Roman occupation. They were not the only insurgents against the Roman yoke in the empire, but Jews suffered more from Roman imperialism than other nations because the Romans were pagans who were insensitive to the Jewish devotion to a single god, and because the spirit of freedom is inherent to Judaism. Even so, a great part of the Jewish people opposed insurrection, seeing that it would lead to a horrible catastrophe. Jesus was not the only Jew who predicted the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. There was, for example, another Jesus who predicted the Temple’s destruction (Josephus, War 6:300-309).

When the oppression became unbearable, the Zealots started an open revolt against the Roman empire. Most of the members of Nicodemus’ family opposed the revolt. One of them, Gurion, was later executed by Zealot insurgents (Josephus, War 4:358). According to a rabbinic source (b. Giṭ. 56a), the Zealots burned the granaries of three wealthy patricians, one of them being Nicodemus, in order to force the people to fight against Rome. Evidently, Nicodemus died during the war, probably from the hunger that ravaged the city. After the war his daughter lived in extreme poverty. The famous rabbi, Yohanan the son of Zaccai, who before the destruction had signed the daughter’s marriage contract as a witness (t. Ketubot 5:9-10; b. Ketubot 66b; Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael [Horowitz-Rabin edition], pp. 203-204), later saw her horrible state of poverty and said: “Blessed be Israel. If you do the will of God, no people and nation can rule over you. When you do not do the will of God, you become the subject of a despised nation!” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael [Horowitz-Rabin edition], Yitro 1, p. 203; Sifre, Devarim 305 [Finkelstein edition], p. 325; b. Ket. 66b; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 17 [Schechter edition], p. 65).

Nicodemus and his family were friends of Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai, and we can guess that this friendship was not based solely on personal sympathy.[5] Both the Pharisee Nicodemus and the famous Pharisee rabbi adhered to the anti-Zealot party which opposed the rebellion against Rome. The rabbi escaped Jerusalem during the war, joined the Romans, tried vainly to save the Temple, and after the war was permitted by the Romans to reorganize Jewish learning and administration (b. Giṭ. 56b; Lam. R. i. 5; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ver. A, ch. 4).[6] These historical details are very important for understanding the similarity of Nicodemus and Jesus’ views.

Zealotism originated in the more nationalistic and rigid Pharisaic school of Shammai. Nicodemus’ friend, Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai, on the other hand, was a prominent Hillelite. It is natural that the Hillelites, including Nicodemus, could not accept the militant views of the Zealots, since the School of Hillel propagated universalistic love for one’s neighbor. Thus, the peace party was wholly Hillelite.

There are strong indications in the Gospels that Jesus, too, rejected the Zealot approach. A slogan of the Hillelite peace-party was “the Kingdom of Heaven.”[7] The Hillelites believed that one could be redeemed only through repentance and acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and not through rebellion against Roman imperialism. This path involved purification from sin as well as doing the will of the Heavenly Father (m. Avot 3:6). Jesus developed the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven in a unique way, but there is no doubt that his starting point was the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven as developed by the anti-Zealot Hillelites to whom the Pharisee Nicodemus belonged.

The use of rabbinic sources for the life and death of Nicodemus helps us understand the specific Jewish trends that are at the roots of Christianity. We can now understand why the Pharisaic patrician, Nicodemus, came to Jesus in order to learn from him. This Galilean was a pious man and surely admired Jesus, “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Nicodemus belonged to the Hillelite anti-Zealot circles to whom Jesus himself was close. In the end, Nicodemus, together with another member of the Jerusalem council, Joseph of Arimathea, helped to bury Jesus. Later, when the destruction that Jesus predicted came, Nicodemus and his family became one of the innumerable victims of the catastrophe they wanted to avoid.

 

This article, originally published as “Gamaliel, the Teacher of the Law” in El Olivo 15 (1982): 41-48, has been here emended and updated by Lauren S. Asperschlager, David N. Bivin, Joshua N. Tilton.

  • [1] On Gamaliel’s intervention on behalf of the Apostles, see Peter J. Tomson, “Gamaliel’s Counsel and the Apologetic Strategy of Luke-Acts,” in The Unity of Luke-Acts (J. Verheyden, ed.; Leuven: Peeters, 1999), 585-604.
  • [2] See my essays, “Hillel’s Self-Awareness and Jesus” and “I Am in the Midst of Them (Mt. 18:20),” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 509-514, 515-525; and “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus (James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns, eds.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 71-107.
  • [3] On the Hillelite influence in Paul’s writings, see Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), esp. 266.
  • [4] Ze’ev Safrai, Galilee Studies (Jerusalem: 1985), 44; idem “Nakdimon b. Guryon: A Galilean Aristocrat in Jerusalem,” in The Beginnings of Christianity (Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor, eds.; Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2005), 297-314.
  • [5] Like Jesus and Nicodemus, Rabban Yohanan the son of Zaccai was of Galilean origin.
  • [6] On the historicity of these rabbinic traditions, see Shmuel Safrai’s discussion in A History of the Jewish People (H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 319-20.
  • [7] See my discussion of the Kingdom of Heaven in The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 76-78.

Interview with Professor David Flusser

In 1977 David Flusser was interviewed for a BBC documentary produced by Peter Armstrong entitled, “Who Was Jesus?” An excerpt of this documentary was recently made available to the public. Watch a clip of Flusser’s interview below.

The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments

Translated by Halvor Ronning[1]

Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Steen[2]

In August 1769 Lavater urged Moses Mendelssohn to undergo conversion to Christianity, thereby causing much distress to Mendelssohn.[3] For our subject it is especially productive to consider the letter that Mendelssohn wrote to the Crown Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel.[4] Among other things, he wrote: “The founder of the Christian religion never explicitly said he wanted to remove the Mosaic Law, nor to dispense with the Jews. Such a notion, I do not find in any of the Evangelists. For a long time the apostles and disciples still had their doubts as to whether Gentile believers must accept the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. Eventually, it was decided ‘not to lay too heavy a burden upon them’ (Acts 15:28). This agrees completely with the teaching of the rabbis, as I noted in my letter to Lavater. But as regards the Jews, when they accept Christianity, I find no basis in the New Testament for exempting them from the Mosaic commandments. On the contrary, the apostle himself had Timothy circumcised. Therefore, it should be clear that there is no way that I could free myself from the Mosaic Law.”

When Mendelssohn spoke of “the teaching of the rabbis,” he was referring to what he had written to Lavater, “All our rabbis are united in teaching that the written and oral commandments, of which our religion consists, are binding only on our nation…all other peoples of the earth, we believe, are commanded by God to obey the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs.”[5]

In order to clarify this latter statement, Mendelssohn gave a list of those ordinances that the peoples of the earth must obey. “The seven main commandments of the Noahides, which encompass the essential ordinances of natural law, are avoidance of: 1) idolatry; 2) blasphemy; 3) shedding of blood; 4) incest[6] ; 5) theft; 6) perverting of justice—these six ordinances were understood to have been revealed to Adam—and finally, 7) the prohibition, revealed to Noah, against eating from the limb of a living animal (b. Avod. Zar. 64; Maimonides on Kings 8,10).”[7]

Mendelssohn’s fundamental insights were:

a) According to the New Testament, a Jew is not obligated to abandon the Mosaic Law when he or she accepts Christianity. It follows, then, that Christians who are of Jewish origin, the so-called Jewish Christians, are obligated to observe Torah according to the teaching of the Apostolic Church.

b) According to Acts it was decided not to lay too heavy a burden on the Gentile believers. Rather, they were to be freed from the Mosaic Law and were obligated to follow only the prohibitions that make up the so-called Apostolic Decree.

c) This teaching of the Early Church is completely compatible with the unanimous rabbinic view that the Mosaic Law is obligatory for the Jewish people only, and that God has directed the rest of the peoples of the earth to follow only the seven main Noahide commandments.

Mendelssohn’s conclusions are historically correct as was demonstrated in an earlier article.[8] In this article we will discuss the two forms of the Apostolic Decree, the canonical and the non-canonical.

Mendelssohn equated the rabbinic Noahide commandments with the prohibitions of the Apostolic Council. Since the Apostolic Decree differs significantly from the rabbinic Noahide commandments, was he precise in making this equation? The rabbis listed seven Noahide commandments. According to Acts 15:19-20, the apostles accepted the suggestion of James, the Lord’s brother, that “one should not make difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles, but rather should require of them only that they abstain from defilement of idols, from fornication, from strangled [meat] and from blood.” The Mishnah, likewise, refers to defilement as a result of idolatry (m. Shab. 9:1). From Acts 15:28-29 and 21:25, the parallels to Acts 15:19-20, we learn that the early church understood “the defilement of idols” to mean, “meat offered to idols.”

The “western” text of Acts, whose most important representative is Codex Bezae, presents us with an alternative form of the Apostolic Decree. In 1905 Gotthold Resch drew attention to the importance of this alternative form.[9] According to the western text, Gentiles who turn to God are to avoid meat sacrificed to idols, blood and fornication. Resch correctly understood that “blood” refers to murder, and not to the eating of blood. In the western form of the text, at Acts 15:20 and 15:29, there is an addition: “Whatever you do not want others to do to you, you should not do to others.” This is the usual negative form of the so-called Golden Rule.[10]

In our view, Resch succeeded in presenting the philological proof that the western text of the Apostolic Decree is the more original, but his theological understanding was limited to his contemporary situation. Furthermore, the historical support that he adduces for his arguments is often of little value. For this reason his suggestion was quickly forgotten, despite being happily accepted at the time by Harnack. Today it is generally accepted that the usual, or canonical, form of the Apostolic Decree is the more original.

One exception to this consensus is Harald Sahlin.[11] He argued correctly that, “The Decree must be understood against its Jewish background…the formulation ‘idolatry, blood and fornication’ is almost identical to the well-known rabbinic formulation of the three central sins, ‘idolatry, bloodshed and fornication.’” We would argue that the rabbinic and the western text of the Apostolic Decree, are not identical by chance, and that this identity is decisive proof for the authenticity of the western text. Resch did discern the matter correctly, but failed to prove decisively the correctness of his observation. His reason for preferring the western form of the Apostolic Decree was his mistaken notion that its ethical content expressed the break with Jewish ceremonial requirements that was supposedly intended by Jesus and finally spelled out by the Apostles.

Resch’s studies of the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree helped three Jewish researchers independently to get on the right track.[12] All three noted the relationship between the western form of the Apostolic Decree and the decision of the rabbinic synod of Lydda. This synod met in the year 120 C.E. and handed down the following decision: “Of all the trespasses forbidden in the Torah it holds true that if you are told, ‘trespass or be killed,’ you may trespass them all, except for idolatry, fornication and bloodshed [murder].”[13]

It is enlightening to take a closer look at the words of the third researcher, Gedalyahu Alon, to learn from them and also to apply them to other areas of Jewish and Christian traditions of faith. Alon demonstrated that there was a tendency in ancient Judaism (and later in Christianity) to summarize the essence of one’s religion in formulations. Such a formulation could be called a credo, a confession of faith, or a statement of principles [Regula]. The purpose of such declarations was to achieve a formulation of the quintessence of Judaism. Alon rightly commented that the aim of these ancient Jewish definitions was not usually to make a dogmatic statement about the contents of the faith, but rather to set out the essence of the Jewish ethic—the fruit of which is the performance of individual commandments.[14] Moreover, these moral rules, whether positive commands or prohibitions, are not the “light” but the “heavy” commandments. At issue is the keeping of the “least of these commandments,” to use the language of Matthew 5:19. Reference to commandments as “light” usually occurs when the point being made is that small trespasses soon lead to large trespasses.[15]

It would be worthwhile to examine in ancient Judaism the various axiomatic statements of the essence of Judaism. Sometimes this can be accomplished by looking at ancient Jewish catalogues of virtues and vices, or by considering the so-called “household codes” found in the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Especially widespread was the view that the Ten Commandments are to be considered the expression of the religion of Israel,[16] with preference given to the second half of the Decalogue. In order to define the essence of Judaism, people used formulations such as the Golden Rule, or selected Bible verses. Not only in Matthew 22:34-40, but also in Jewish sources, two main rules were adduced: one must love God (Deut. 6:5); one must love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18).[17] In the rabbinic view, the command to love one’s neighbor (or its equivalent, the Golden Rule) was seen as the essence of the Mosaic Law. This tendency makes it clear why it was that the summation of the Torah was understood to be the second half of the Decalogue, which deals with prohibitions relating to one’s neighbor.

Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page
Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page

The last five commandments of the Decalogue served as a starting point for new formulations. Sometimes, not all of the last five were quoted, and sometimes other ethical admonitions were inserted into this list. In terms of genre, these formulations were attached either to the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) or, to its equivalent, the Golden Rule. To this genre belong the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).[18] The fact that following Jesus’ words we find the command to honor one’s parents, which according to the original Jewish reckoning belongs to the first half of the Decalogue, seems to indicate that the command to honor one’s parents was only later added to Jesus’ words. Matthew concluded Jesus’ words to the youth with the command to love one’s neighbor. Admittedly, this conclusion is not original, but it is stylistically genuine: love for one’s neighbor, according to the understanding at that time, does belong to the second half of the Decalogue.

Another especially important example of a summation of the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-18) on the basis of the second half of the Decalogue is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48).[19] Here, too, we find that not all of the five commandments of the second half of the Decalogue are dealt with, but that other ethical requirements are introduced. Again, the unit is concluded with the command to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 5:43-48)—entirely in accord with the rules of this genre.

For our purposes the most important representative of this genre is the early Christian Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache),[20] or, more precisely, its Jewish source, the so-called “Two Ways.” In the first part of this document (chapters 1-4), the way of life is described; in the second part (chapters 5-6), the way of death: “This now is the way of life. First, you shall love God who created you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Moreover, anything that you do not want to happen to you, you shall not do to another” (Didache 1:2). We see that the way of life is characterized by both the double rule of loving God and neighbor, and also by the Golden Rule.

To this same genre belongs the western form of the Apostolic Decree, in our opinion the Decree’s more original formulation. Two of the three sins it lists are found in the second half of the Decalogue—bloodshed (i.e, murder) and fornication—the sixth and seventh commandments,[21] and the other central sin, idolatry, is mentioned in the first half of the Ten.[22] Accordingly, it is stylistically authentic that in the first two references to the Apostolic Decree according to the western text (Acts 15:19-20 and 15:28-29), the decree concludes with the negative form of the Golden Rule. However, in the third reference to the Decree (Acts 21:25), the Golden Rule would have disturbed the context. It is difficult to decide whether the Golden Rule really belongs to the Apostolic Decree. Those who doubt that it belongs can note the fact that it is lacking in the canonical text, and that in Matthew 19:16-19 the command to love one’s neighbor is a Matthean addition. However, as we have pointed out, the Golden Rule fits the Apostolic Decree in terms of genre authenticity.[23]

The western form of the Apostolic Decree is composed of three sins.[24] These are the sins that a Jew cannot commit under any circumstances. Additionally, these three sins are the first three Noahide commandments. We align ourselves with Alon’s view that these three sins express the focus of ethical behavior. They are also a succinct formulation of that which Judaism most strongly abhors and seeks to avoid. In a special way, the list defines the essence of Judaism. This is true for this list and for other such summary statements in Judaism (and in Christianity). There is often a peculiar dialectic that is involved; ancient Judaism did not attempt to establish dogmatic confessions of faith, but rather to lay down rules of ethics. Attempts to encapsulate the essence of Judaism kept their distance from the ceremonial, ritualistic, legalistic side of Judaism. One reason for this paradox is that religions like Judaism, in which the legal side is strongly developed, do not need to concern themselves with the legalities when they come to summarize the essential, because the legal aspect is taken for granted. In Judaism, existence, as formulated through these summary statements, is essentially theological-ethical.[25] Accordingly, Rabbi Akiva, who knew how to spin myriad halachoth from every tittle of Torah,[26] nevertheless declared that the command to love one’s neighbor is the greatest principle of Jewish learning (Lev. 19:18).[27]

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn

Understanding how existence is summarized in Judaism is important for the correct understanding of the western form of the Apostolic Decree, which is composed of the three Jewish prime sins. As long as it has to do with the inner Jewish ethic, it is the ethical-theological aspect, and not the ritual, that is the definitive factor in the choice of these three sins. However, when one steps out of inner Jewish boundaries in an attempt to determine correct behavior for non-Jews, there is a tendency to erect ritual limits. For Jews ritual limits are superfluous, since they are already “under the law.” This truth will become clearer in the course of our study as we now turn to the developmental stages of the Noahide commandments, comparing the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree with the canonical form.

This list, like other formulations of its kind, was originally designed to shed light on the essence of Judaism as a religious system and lay bare its roots. Granted that such formulations are aimed at expressing the essential, nevertheless, whether they do or do not intend it, they cast a certain shadow over everything else and gain an intrinsic worth and independence. This is especially so in the case of the normative, formulated Christian confessions of faith, which led to the labeling of others with differing opinions as heretics. Ancient Judaism did not have such creedal statements, yet, after a fashion, the Jewish regulae fidei do present a certain self-understanding. The “three-sin doctrine” was well suited not just to express the inner Jewish way-of-life in the face of external pressures, but also to provide minimal moral limitations for non-Jewish God-fearers. The western text of the Apostolic Decree admonished believing Gentiles to avoid the three crucial sins, and we assume that these were at the time the original content of the Noahide commandments. Thus, the early apostolic church simply accepted Jewish legal practice relating to believing non-Jews.

Unfortunately, our sources do not allow us to determine what were the external circumstances that led the early church to begin using the Lydda ruling as a measure applicable to its own needs for discipline. We know only that the ruling came into use by the church sometime after 120 C.E., almost certainly before the year 200.[28] At that time, exclusion from the church was the punishment for lapsing into idolatry, sexual transgression and murder. If the morally fallen were truly repentant, they could not attain forgiveness during their lifetime, however, they were still granted a hope of forgiveness in the world to come. At that time the three major sins in Christian circles were called the peccata capitalia (capital sins) or the peccata mortalia (mortal sins).[29] The oldest witness to this trio of sins is Irenaeus who wrote (between 180 and 185 C.E.) that the unjust, idolaters and whores had lost eternal life and would be thrown into everlasting fire.[30] Furthermore, two church fathers, Tertullian and Hippolytus, mention the three mortal sins.[31] Apparently, Hippolytus, as well as Tertullian, emphasized the importance of the mortal sins in connection with the laxity of Pope Kallistus. We may conclude that the original text of the Apostolic Decree prohibited the three primary sins and that these prohibitions were the same prohibitions that early Judaism laid down for non-Jewish God-fearers. These were also the sins that, according to the Lydda decision, no Jew could commit even if it meant the loss of one’s own life. This Jewish ruling was accepted by the church in the course of the second century. It was applied to Christians who had sinned greatly and whose repentance was not adequate. The result was that the church was influenced twice by the Jewish prohibition of the three prime sins: the first time by the original form of the Noahide commandments in the older (Western) form of the Apostolic Decree; the second time by the disciplinary decision reached at Lydda, which was followed by similar disciplinary measures in the early church. From the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree, Tertullian concluded that after Christian baptism one’s violation of the three mortal sins could not be atoned for by repentance. In referring to the mortal sins, the first sin he mentioned was offerings to idols (sacrificia), yet in his commentary, he spoke of worshiping idols (idolatria).[32] In addition, the later ecclesiastical writers sometimes changed the wording of the Apostolic Decree by substituting “meat offered to idols” for “idolatry,” because they, too, identified the Apostolic Decree, in which meat offered to idols was prohibited, with the later ecclesiastical rules of discipline, according to which idolatry was unforgiveable.

From this proceeds an important fact that one can check on the basis of the texts. The western form of the Apostolic Decree also spoke of meat offered to idols. This means that from the prohibition of idolatry in the three Noahide commandments, the apostles derived the prohibition of meat offered to idols. That idolatry was forbidden to all believing Christians was, of course, totally obvious; however, the eating of the meat sacrificed to idols was not so obvious. Paul and the Revelation of John provide testimony that the Apostolic Decree expressly forbid Christians the eating of meat offered to idols.[33] John of Patmos, who in Rev. 2:24-25 is certainly referring to the Apostolic Decree when he says, “I will not impose any other burden on you,”[34] prohibits in Rev. 2:14 and 2:20 the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Anyone who takes a look at 1 Cor. 8 and 1 Cor. 10:14-11:1 will see that Paul also dealt with the problem of the prohibition of meat offered to idols and found a penetrating solution.[35] In other words, the apostles took the Jewish rejection of idolatry and sharpened it by forbidding the Christians of Gentile origin to eat offerings to idols.

We assume that under no circumstances was a Jew to trespass the three capital sins, but also that non-Jews were equally obligated if they wanted to participate in the salvation of Israel. We assume, therefore, that by a decision of the apostolic church in Jerusalem, these mortal sins also were forbidden to believers of Gentile origin. We now turn to the Jewish background of the Apostolic Decree and ask ourselves whether or not, of the seven Noahide commandments, it was indeed these three that were especially suited to be carried over to the behavior of non-Jews. In rabbinic literature it is assumed that Ishmael, the son of Abraham, and Esau[36] and the inhabitants of Sodom had all committed the three central sins.[37] Debauchery[38] and the giving of false testimony[39] were considered as serious as idolatry, fornication and murder. It is evident also here that the decisive seriousness of the three major sins relates not only to the non-Jews (Ishmael, Esau, Sodom), but to all mankind and, therefore, includes Jews. On the Day of Atonement the scapegoat brings reconciliation for the uncleanness of the children of Israel as regards idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder).[40] These three sins apply not only to inner-Jewish but also to extra-Jewish matters as well, since these sins are part of the Jewish religious system as well as being universally applicable—they are foundational principles.[41]

Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).
Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).

We have determined that in their original form the Noahide commandments were limited to three prohibitions.

The number three is as suitable for such a list as is seven. Three is the number of the Noahide main commandments in the Book of Jubilees, but they are not identical with the usual triad.

In the twenty-eighth Jubilee Noah began to offer to his grandchildren the ordinances and commandments that he knew. He prescribed and testified to his children that they should act justly and that they should cover the shame of their nakedness and that they should bless their Creator and honor their father and mother and that each should love his neighbor and that each should protect himself from fornication and uncleanness and all injustice. The reason being that it was because of these three that the flood covered the earth. (Jub. 7:20-21)

Here we have, along with other moral ordinances, three prohibitions attributed to Noah: fornication, uncleanness, and injustice. Similar descriptions are given about the antediluvian giants and about Sodom:

And he (Abraham) told them (his children) about the judgment upon the giants and the judgment of Sodom, how they were judged because of their badness, because of fornication and uncleanness and perversity with each other and fornication worthy of death. “So you must keep yourselves from all fornication and uncleanness and from every taint of sin.” (Jub. 20:5-6)

About the judgments at the end of time it is said: “All this will come over this evil generation because the earth allowed such sins in the impurity of fornication and in blemishing and in the hideousness of their deeds” since “all their work is impurity and hideousness and all their works are blemishing and impurity and perversity” (Jub. 23:14, 17).

And in Jub. 30:15 there is threat of discipline and curse:

…both when someone does these deeds, and also when one makes his eyes blind to these deeds, when they act impurely and when they profane the holiness of the Lord and stain His Holy Name—they will all be judged….

All these places in the Book of Jubilees deal with the same theme, in which the three sins are named that brought the Flood upon the earth, namely, fornication, uncleanness and injustice (Jub. 7:20f).[42]

A closely related list of three main sins is found in the Damascus Document (CD 4:13-19).[43] The Book of Jubilees was composed in the second century B.C.E. and belongs to the same Jewish movement as that out of which the Essene sect of Qumran arose. The Damascus Document comes from a sister congregation of this sect; fragments of this document were found in the caves of Qumran. In the Damascus Document there is reference to Isa. 24:17:

“Terror and pit and snare confront you, O inhabitant of the earth.” The meaning of this refers to the three nets of Belial about which Levi, the son of Jacob, has said that he [Belial] uses them to ensnare Israel and he gives them the appearance of three types of righteousness; the first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is defiling the sanctuary. Whoever escapes one of these nets falls into the next, and whoever escapes that net falls into the next.[44]

The Damascus Document here mentions—doubtless on the backdrop of the older Testament of Levi[45] —three main sins, namely, fornication, riches, and profanation of the Holy, whereas the Book of Jubilees (7:20f.) names fornication, impurity and injustice as the three main sins. That the two triads are related cannot be doubted; it is only that the list in the Damascus document has become more “Essenic.” Fornication remains, but instead of speaking in general about impurity and injustice, the Damascus Document speaks of impurity of Satan (Belial) and of riches.

It is known that the “poor in spirit,” the Essenes, saw in riches a gate that leads to sin, and considered the contemporary devil in Jerusalem as unclean. If we compare the three Noahide prohibitions of the Book of Jubilees with the rabbinic and early Christian triads, we notice the following: the two triads agree not only in respect to fornication, but also in that they both relate to Noahides, that is, non-Jews. However, in contrast to the triad of the book of Jubilees (and the related triad in the Damascus Document), the rabbinic and early Christian triads list idolatry, murder and fornication as the three major sins. And it is precisely this latter triad that also is included in the normative form of the seven Noahides commandments, in the decision of Lydda, and in the early church’s list of mortal sins. These same three serious trespasses are the ones forbidden in the extra-canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

From what we have seen in the Book of Jubilees (and in the Damascus Document), it is obvious that there existed three Noahide prohibitions from the beginning. This supports our assumption that the original Noahide commandments named only the three mortal sins and that the apostolic church simply applied these to the Noahide God-fearers who had come to faith in Christ. In support of our argument is a generally known fact that is also decisive, that is, the seven Noahide commandments that are now binding in Judaism, are first mentioned only after the Hadrianic persecution, that is, from the second half of the second century.

It is therefore not an accident that the contents of the Apostolic Decree were at that time identical with the Noahide commandments. It is very noteworthy that in both cases a similar tendency was at work, a tendency that was responsible for the present usual forms both of the Noahide commandments and of the Apostolic Decree. In both cases there was a tendency to enhance the basic universally human ethical principles by means of additional ritual requirements for Gentile God-fearers who were not ritually bound. Such requirements for those who already lived under the law were superfluous.

For the Apostolic Decree, taken formally, the change was simple: one need only add the word “strangled.”[46] Blood is thereby not understood as shedding of blood, i.e., murder, but as the prohibition of eating blood. This shows that the simple change in the text is not to be explained primarily as a matter of literary-critical considerations, but that this other version, the canonical text, is preserving an actual practice that set in within certain circles of the ancient church. There is no lack of evidence that there were Christians who observed the eating regulations of the canonical Apostolic Decree. We can even assume that the Christians who were the teachers of Mohammed were followers of this “halachic” tradition, a tradition that we know from the canonical text of the Apostolic Council. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain the similarity of the verses in the Koran about eating meat with the usual form of the Apostolic Decree.[47]

We will now seek to show that the halachic approach of the canonical Apostolic Decree is based on the Jewish regulations for Noahides. However, we must not forget that in the time of the Church Fathers the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree did not exist off in some hidden corner. The most important of the Church Fathers knew it and used it.

From rabbinic sources it is easy to see that there was a tendency not to be restricted just to the seven Noahide commandments. Various rabbis wanted to impose additional rules on the God-fearers from among the nations. Some even went so far as to propose thirty Noahide commandments.[48] Naturally, one can ask whether the additional suggested regulations were actually so intended, i.e., as a further burden—though well-meant—to be laid on the Gentiles, or whether at least part of this list of extra-canonical Noahide commandments simply came out of the period before the seven Noahide commandments were fixed in their normative form. The usual form of the Apostolic Decree demonstrates that the second option is the correct one, and points to the fact that these earlier, non-normative Noahide rules were in fact observed by some of the God-fearers. This is the only way one can explain how the prohibitions of blood and the strangled parallels show up precisely in the Jewish “extra-canonical” forms of the commandments.[49] As to the meaning of “things strangled” in the canonical formulation of the Apostolic Decree, one needs to consult the old church fathers because they still observed this regulation.[50] Origen names as strangled any meat from which the blood had not been extracted. John Chrysostom defines it as “meat with the blood of the soul.” [51] He points to Gen. 9:4: “the flesh in its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.”

What is important is that Judaism used exactly the same verse to draw conclusions about the prohibition of eating morsels of the living. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), referring to the matter of strangulation, asserts that Gentile Christians of his day no longer felt bound to abstain from eating the meat of a bird from which its blood had not been drained, or a hare killed by a blow to the neck (without a bleeding wound), evidence that such abstention had been practiced previously by Gentile Christians. [52] What was meant in this matter was that “the meat of such animals that were neither slaughtered nor shot, but killed in some external way without the spilling of blood, so that their blood—without any wound through which it could bleed—was trapped in them.”[53] In the most important text[54] of the tannaic discussion of the Noahide commandments we read:

If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel[55] said: “The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal.” (t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-8 [p. 473f.])

There existed, therefore, the opinion that not only was it forbidden for a God-fearer from among the Gentiles to eat a piece of a living animal, but that this God-fearer was also not allowed to eat the blood of a living animal. As one can deduce from the canonical Apostolic Decree, this was not just a matter of learned reflection by a rabbinic authority, rather in ancient times there really were God-fearers who actually did abstain from the blood of animals.

The rabbinic sources that speak about the prohibitions of strangulation and blood for Noahides seem to show that both variants of the Apostolic Decree, i.e., both the extra-canonical and the canonical, are nothing other than variants of the Jewish regulations for non-Jews, before these regulations stabilized into the customary seven Noahide commandments. How could it have been otherwise? Once Gentiles, too, began coming to faith in the Messiah Jesus, it was natural to apply the Noahide commandments to them. At first, according to the “extra-canonical” text, they were required to follow the oldest form of the Noahide commandments, that is, abstaining from the three central sins: idolatry, fornication and bloodshed. Later the text was adapted to a second form of the Noahide commandments, one probably practiced by Christians native to another locale, the commandments that Jews of that local expected of God-fearing Gentiles. It was this second form that eventually became the dominant textual variant.

Let us take a closer look at the earlier stages of the present seven Noahide commandments. As has been demonstrated, there were only three such stages. The first stage consisted of the prohibition of the three main sins. The second stage involved the five basic principles without which the maintenance of human social order is unthinkable. The third stage was the six Adamic commandments. [56] At the end of this development stand the customary seven Noahide commandments.

We do not want to argue that this is a matter of a strict historical development; we would rather speak in terms of the development of a principle. Also when considered chronologically, these four systems of expressing the basic principles existed contemporaneously. To what extent each of the four formulations were not more than ideologically learned constructions, or to what extent they also had practical applications, is difficult for us to discern today. But one should not forget that both practice-oriented regulations and also “philosophical” principles of justice were meaningful, and not only in Judaism. In any case, it is certain that at least the first and the last stages did function as halachically concrete regulations. As to the primarily halachic meaning of the seven Noahide commandments, we need not elaborate.

As to the first stage, we have concluded that these original three prohibitions required by the Jewish religion system, were also the ones required of non-Jews. The immutable prohibitions against idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder) were adopted by the church in the course of the second century. (Whether or not the five basic principles and the six Adamic commandments actually influenced the behavior of people we cannot know.)

Perhaps the developmental history of the five basic principles, without which the maintenance of human social order would be unthinkable, is the most interesting.[57] Added to the three prime sins are the sins of theft[58] and blasphemy.

“My judgments” [Lev. 18:4], these are the words of the Torah, which, if they had not been written, would have had to be written and added. They are the following[59] : theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and bloodshed. Had these not been written, they would have had to be written and added.

Afterwards, more such regulations of ritual nature were added against which objections were raised both by human reasoning and also by the Gentiles. Five of the customary Noahide commandments are mentioned here as being natural laws that can be derived from human and humanitarian necessity. Perhaps it is no accident that these five ordinances are negative rather than positive commandments. These five natural laws are also an extension of the three major sins. One could perhaps surmise that the five basic laws are a pure invention of the rabbis that came about by simply excluding two of the seven Noahide commandments. This is not the case, because these same five serious sins can be found in an entirely different kind of Jewish source, the so-called Didache.[60] It has earlier been noted that Didache 3:1-6 is an independent unit which the Jewish writer of this tractate has adapted to the context. The unit belongs to a genre already mentioned. Other instances of this genre are the seven Noahide commandments and their earlier stages, as well as the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48). As we will see, Didache 3:1-6 is related to both the Noahide commandments and also to the Sermon on the Mount. But before we demonstrate this, we will attempt a reconstruction of the unit as it may have been worded before it was adapted by the composer of the Jewish source of the Didache[61] :

3:1 My child, flee from every evil thing and what resembles it.

3:2 Don’t be prone to anger, because anger leads to murder.

3:3 Don’t be lustful, because lust leads to fornication.

3:4 Don’t be a bird watcher, because bird watching leads to idolatry.

3:5 Don’t be a liar, because lying leads to theft.

3:6 Don’t be a complainer, because complaining leads to blasphemy.[62]

The relatedness between the background of Didache 3:1-6 and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be doubted. The warning against evil and all that is similar to it (Did. 3:1) corresponds to the admonition of Jesus to attend to the least of the commandments as well as the most important (Matt. 5:17-20). That anger leads to murder is not something we learn only in Didache 3:2, but also in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22). We learn in Didache 3:3 that lustful cravings lead to fornication; the same is said in Matt. 5:27-28. Additionally, both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Didache we find the same approach as in the general introductory warning to the sixth and seventh commandments in the Decalogue, in fact, the same method of movement from “light” to “heavy.” The relationship between the Didache and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount can be said to be firmly established.

It is important to note that in Didache 3:1-6, fornication, idolatry, theft and blasphemy are listed as the heavy sins. About this last heavy sin, Wengst rightly commented: “When murmuring leads to blasphemy, murmuring is hereby presented as quarreling with destiny, though it has been sent by God. Whoever, then, complains against his destiny stands in constant danger of blaspheming God.” [63] But the most noteworthy thing about the heavy sins mentioned in Didache 3:1-6 is that they are identical with the list of the five central sins in older rabbinic sources (see Sifra on Lev. 18:4, and b. Yoma 67b), namely, theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and murder (lit., shedding of blood). One must not forget that these are five of the seven Noahide commandments.[64]

Before indicating the importance of this section of Didache for the chronology of the history of the Noahide commandments, let us take a closer look at one of the heavy sins, the sin of blasphemy against God; it is found in the Didache, in rabbinic teaching, and in the Noahide commandments.[65] This fits very well with the parenthetical section of the Didache, since it, as well as the entire Jewish source, is meant primarily for Jews—and so the mention of blasphemy is understandable. Surely this source was also meant for pious God-fearing non-Jews, and, therefore, could have been edited and expanded by a very early Christian of Gentile background; it arose from the teaching of the twelve apostles. The distant possibility did exist that a pious non-Jewish, God-fearer might blaspheme God in a weak moment. But the general Jewish view at the time was that a non-Jew was not obligated to believe specifically in the God of Israel—he was only to avoid idolatrous worship. The prohibition of blasphemy against God is easy then to understand as a warning to Jews against a really terrible sin, but what is the prohibition against the blasphemy of God doing among the ordinances that are binding on all mankind? It is not difficult to suppose that a universalistic definition of Judaism involved a binding formulation of the prohibition of blasphemy as applying to all of mankind. However this may be, the prohibition against blasphemy does show up among the universalistic Noahide commandments as representative of the sin of atheism, which throughout all antiquity was considered criminal. Plutarch (De Iside et osiride, ch. 23) says that faith is implanted in nearly all people at birth. According to Gen. 20:11, Abraham excuses himself before Abimelech for passing off his wife as his sister: “I thought that there is no fear of God in this place, and therefore you might kill me because of my wife.”

In the Septuagint the word for “fear of God” in this passage is translated as theosebeia, which means reverence for God, piety or religion.[66] The idea is that if one is at a place where there is no religion, in that place life is not secure. In a Midrash on this verse, we read:

Fear of God is a great thing, because as regards anyone who fears Heaven (i.e., God), it can be assumed that he does not sin, but in contrast, as regards anyone who has no fear of God, it can be assumed that there is no sin from which he will desist. [67]

It seems, then, that the general rejection of irreligiosity makes it plausible that the prohibition of blasphemy against God was meant also to be applied to non-Jews.

Now we return to the five basic sins enumerated in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Didache. The appearance of the same catalog of sins both in Jewish sources and in the Didache demonstrates that this list of the five basic sins did not come to life as some kind of learned reduction of the seven Noahide commandments. The reason is that these five, “heavy” sins are found in a completely different context in the Didache, and they serve a completely different function there than they do in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Noahide commandments. The dating of the lists therefore depends on the dating of the early Christian Didache. The final form of this document came into existence before the end of the first century, but the Jewish source is older than the Didache. We tend toward the assumption that Didache 3:1-6 was an independent unit and was taken over by the author of the Jewish source. It would seem advisable to set the time of origin of this passage as not later than 50 C.E. This leads to the conclusion that the five commandments’ composition took place at the same time the apostolic church was applying the three prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to Christians of Gentile origin. The second stage of the Noahide commandments’ existence, then, most likely was at the time when the Noahide commandments’ early form was still authoritative for the relationship of non-Jews to Judaism.

We have attempted to demonstrate that the list of the five basic commandments is not a matter of some historico-cultural theory of development from Adam to Noah. To what extent the six Adamic commandments arose independently of the seven Noahide commandments is very difficult to determine.

How many obligations were laid [by God] on Adam, the first human? The sages have taught: “Adam was required to observe six prohibitions: idolatry, blasphemy, justice, bloodshed, fornication and theft.” (Deut. Rab. 2:17, on Deut. 4:41)

In contrast to the seven Noahide commandments, the eating of a limb of a living animal is lacking, and in comparison with the list of the five basic ordinances, justice has been added. May we assume that justice, in contrast to all the prohibitions, is to be considered a positive commandment? That is not at all sure. The universal necessity of having some structured system of justice is basically there to hinder criminal capriciousness in dealing with people’s rights. Thus, the command to respect justice in the Adamic and Noahide versions of the commandments is also to be understood primarily as a negative commandment.

To the six Adamic commandments the descendants of Noah received a seventh, namely, the prohibition against eating a limb of a living animal. Biblically considered, this prohibition was senseless before the Flood, since according to God’s will Adam lived as a vegetarian. Noahides were allowed meat, but with limitations. There were limitations also for the non-Jews, but they were not adopted in the “canonical” form of the seven Noahide commandments. As we have attempted to demonstrate, it is precisely the ritual food laws of the secondary form of the Apostolic Decree that go back to two extra-canonical Jewish restrictions. The original form of the Apostolic Decree was purely ethical and was identical with the three Mosaic obligations for non-Jews, i.e., with the original (three) Noahide commandments.

 This progressive ritualization needs a short explanation. Neither the original, purely ethical form nor the two final “ritualized” forms are difficult to explain. The Noahide commandments and the closely related Apostolic Decree go back to formulations of the basic ideas of Judaism. The content of such summaries is ethical and universal. These summaries are by their nature intended as generally applicable and aimed at all mankind, also the non-Jews. That is how they could be considered as binding for non-Jews.

But is the purely ethical enough for the natural law of mankind? The five basic ordinances already added to the primary sins both the prohibitions of theft and blasphemy, and the six Adamic commandments added the obligation of justice. Judaism—whose self-definition involves being bound by rituals—can manage with purely ethical definitions of basic principles. But does that mean that non-Jews should live with no ritual obligations whatsoever? This is why a moral-ritualistic obligation appears amid the Noahide commandments, that is, the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. There were other practical suggestions in this direction, and two of these prohibitions were adopted in the canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

We started out to show that the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree was the original, and that the original content of the Noahide commandments was the prohibition of the three sins of idolatry, murder and fornication.[68] The Apostolic Decree sharpened the prohibition of idolatry and expressly forbid the eating of meat offered to idols. A proof for the importance in Judaism of the three major prohibitions is the decision of Lydda, according to which no circumstance would justify a Jew’s committing these three sins. This decision also was taken over by the young church into its discipline in the course of the second century. We also have tried to show that the original prohibition of these three central sins developed into the seven Noahide commandments. The canonical Apostolic Decree also developed out of Jewish premises. It appears to us that the results of our investigation not only have meaningful implications for the history of early Christendom, but they also cast light on the relationship between early Judaism and Christianity.

 

Appendix

Title page of Toland's book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.
Title page of Toland’s book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.

At the beginning of this essay, we referred to the words of Moses Mendelssohn. He was of the opinion that, according to New Testament teaching, a Jew, even if a believer in the Messiah, was still obligated to keep the Jewish ordinances. In contrast, a Christian of Gentile background, in accordance with Jewish halachah, is bound by the Noahide commandments. A similar view had been reached earlier by the English deist, John Toland (1670-1722) in his book, “Nazarenus.”[69] Unfortunately, this important book did not receive sufficient recognition. We could find no evidence that Toland’s work was known to scholars of the German Enlightenment. We must suppose that Mendelssohn, too, had no knowledge of Toland’s thinking.

Toland viewed the twin streams of the early church—the Torah-keeping Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians, as the “original plan of Christianity” from which it would be damaging to deviate. That is why he says, similarly to the later Mendelssohn, that: “It follows indeed that the Jews, whether becoming Christians or not, are forever bound to the Law of Moses, as not limited; and he that thinks they were absolved from the observation of it by Jesus, or that it is a fault in them still to adhere to it, does err not knowing the Scriptures” (Introduction, VI).

Toland held the view that Jewish Christians were forever obligated to observe the Law of Moses, while the Christians of Gentile background, who lived among them, needed only to observe the Noahide commandments, abstaining from eating blood and making offerings to idols.[70] He, of course, knew only the “canonical” text of the Apostolic Decree; however, he tended to accept the hypothesis of a researcher from the century before who had surmised that the mention of the strangled offerings was a secondary interpolation, since it was not mentioned by many of the old church fathers.[71] Resch reached the same conclusion. This subject is worthy of further investigation.

  • [1] The translator would like to thank Horst Krüger, Christina Krüger, and especially Dr. Guido Baltes, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this translation.
  • [2] This article’s translation to English was made possible through the generous financial assistance of Paul, Clarice and Jeffery Steen, the loving father, mother and brother of Gregory. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Dr. Volker Hampel and Neukirchener Verlag (http://www.neukirchener-verlagsgesellschaft.de) for permission to publish this article in English.
  • [3] David Flusser, “Lavater and Nathan, the Wise,” in Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984): 82-93.
  • [4] M. Mendelssohn, Schriften zum Judentum (1930), 1:303.
  • [5] Ibid., 10-11.
  • [6] “Fornication” would be a more accurate translation.
  • [7] Regarding the Noahide commandments, see E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (1909; reprint 1970), 2:178f.; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (1926), 3:36-38; A. Lichenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (1981). The most important reference is t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-6 (473, 12-25). See also Gen. Rab. 17.17 (on Gen. 2:17; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 149-151), and notes; Gen. Rab. 34.8 (on Gen. 8:19 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 316-17).
  • [8] D. Flusser, “Die Christenheit nach dem Apostelkonzil,” in Antijudaismus im Neuen Testament: Exegetische und systematische Beiträge (eds. W. P. Eckert, N. P. Levinson and M. Stöhr; 1967), 60-81.
  • [9] G. Resch, “Das Aposteldekret nach seiner ausserkanonischen Textgestalt untersucht,” in Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, NTF (1905), 3:1-179.
  • [10] A. Diehle, Die Goldene Regel (1962), 107.
  • [11] H. Sahlin, “Die drei Kardinalsünden und das Neue Testament,” Studia Theologica 20.1 (1970): 93-112, esp. 109. Regarding the three central sins, see also L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (1947), 5:292, n. 147; cf. 6:388, n. 16.
  • [12] The three Jewish researchers are: L. Venetianer, Die Beschlüsse zu Lydda und das Aposteldekret zu Jerusalem, Festschrift für A. Schwarz (1917), 417-19; M. Guttmann, Das Judentum und sein Umwelt (1917), 118; and G. Alon, “The Halachah in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in Studies in Jewish History (1978), 1:274-94 (Hebrew), published previously in Tarbiz 11 (1939-1940).
  • [13] See Billerbeck, 1:221-24.
  • [14] G. Alon, op. cit., 279, n. 27.
  • [15] Cf. D. Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Heinz Kremers (ed.), Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (Duisburger Hochschulbeitraege 2) (1977), 102-113. In rabbinic parlance, one can speak of “great” and “small” commandments (Billerbeck, 1:903f.).
  • [16] Cf. D. Flusser, “The Ten Commandments and the New Testament,” in The Ten Commandments (ed. Ben-Zion Segal; 1985), 118-187 (Hebrew); see also G. Alon, op. cit., 278, and Y. Amir, “Die Zehn Gebote bei Philon von Alexandrien,” in ibid., Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien (1983), 131-63. On p. 135 Amir refers to a midrash: “Just like in the ocean there are little waves between two huge waves, so likewise between every pair of the ten commandments there are the individual prescriptions and regulations of the Torah” (j. Shek. 1, 9, 60d). A similar notion is found in the case of Hananiah, the nephew of Yehoshua: see W. Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten (1903), 1:388. Similar is Gen. Rab. 8, line 16 (ed. Ch. Albeck; 1940), and see the note to that line. Targum Jonathan to Exod. 24:12 reads: “I will give you stone tablets on which the words of the Torah are explained, and the 613 commandments.”
  • [17] Cf. D. Flusser, “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” in ibid., Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984), 35-53 (see also n. 40).
  • [18] Ibid., 166-69.
  • [19] D. Flusser, op. cit. (see n. 16), 175-77.
  • [20] The most recent annotated editions of the Didache are: K. Wengst, Schriften des Urchristentums (1984), 3-100, and La doctrine des Douze Apotres (Didache), SC 248 (eds. W. Rordorf and A. Tuillier; 1978); there (203-226) one finds a critical edition of the Jewish sources of the text. Regarding these Jewish sources, see also D. Flusser, “The Two Ways,” in Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (1982), 235-252 (Hebrew). Regarding Philo, see p. 239 in that article. For our purposes, an important list of sins can be found in Philo in his discussion of the individual laws (Spec. Laws 2, 13): “theft, temple robbery, addiction, adultery, bodily injury, murder or like scandalous deeds.” The list is given in the context of the second half of the Decalogue, but more important is the similarity with the description of a disobedient Jew in Rom. 2:21-22: “You who instruct others, do you learn nothing yourself? You who preach that one ought not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idolatry, do you rob your temple?”
  • [21] The seven Noahide commandments include yet a third commandment from the second half of the Decalogue, namely, the prohibition of robbery (there, as a fifth commandment). The Hebrew word for “robbery” (as well as the verb “to rob”) gained the meaning of “theft.” The old biblical word for robbery was not used any more in the spoken language. In the Noahide commandments, then, we see that the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue are preserved. But in the “canonical” form of the Apostolic Decree, by contrast, all the prohibitions of the second half of the Decalogue have disappeared. From bloodshed, we have moved to the eating of blood, and the prohibition of meat offered to idols is shifted to the first half of the Decalogue. On the text of the Apostolic Decree see also B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971), 429-35. For more recent literature see n. 12, and M. Simon, The Apostolic Decree and Its Setting in the Ancient Church, BJRL 52 (1969-1970), 437-60, and F. Siegert, Gottesfuerchtige und Sympatisanten, JSJ (1973), 109-164.
  • [22] The Apostolic Decree is mentioned in Acts three times: Acts 15:19-20; 28-29; 21:25. In the first formulation, Gentiles are admonished to avoid the “pollutions of idols.” This corresponds to the “contamination by idolatry” referred to in m. Shab. 9:1. In the second and third formulations, meat offered to idols is mentioned specifically.
  • [23] From G. Resch, op. cit., 15-17, one can learn that sometimes the Golden Rule was in fact attached to the canonical form of the Apostolic Decree. One cannot, however, therefore automatically conclude that the Golden Rule belongs to the Apostolic Decree; in these cases, we may be dealing with a mixed textual form.
  • [24] Who was the first to formulate the western form cannot be determined. W. Bacher (op. cit., vol. 2, 336) has mentioned a saying from the School of Ishmael (b. Ber. 19a, Tractate Tehilim on Ps 125, at the end): “Uttering slander is as great a sin as the three capital sins” (idolatry, murder and fornication). See also j. Peah 15d; Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 49:9 (see notes in M. Margulies edition, 664). S. Schechter also discusses the three capital sins in Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961), 205-207 and 222-27 (see esp., 222). See n. 31 below.
  • [25] In m. Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) these commandments are scarcely mentioned.
  • [26] W. Bacher, op. cit., vol. 1, 263f.
  • [27] Ibid., vol. 4, 278.
  • [28] Regarding the three mortal sins in the ancient church, see among others W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1965), 56, 75, 374, 378. Although no friend of the Jews, Frend did recognize the Jewish parallels to the early Christian “mortal” sins. Cf. also A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmensgeschichte (1913), 1:439-44, and K. Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XI: “Fruehe Bussgeschichte” (1973), esp. 91, 183 189. Especially important is the decision of the rigoristic Synod of Elvira (Spain, 306), which begins as follows: “Qui post idoli idolaturus accesserit et fecerit quo est crimen capitale, quia est summi sceleris, placuit nec infine eum communionem accipere. Flamines, qui post fidem lavacri et regenerationis sacrificaverunt, eo quod geminaverint scelera accedente nomicidio vel triplicaverint facinus cohaerente moechia, placuit eos nec in finem accipere communionem” (Acta et symbola conciliorum, ed. E. J. Jonkers, Textus minores, vol. XIX, [1954], 5). One sees here how similar is the position taken regarding the three mortal sins to the decision of Lydda.
  • [29] Cf. A. Blaise, Dictionnaire latino francais des autors chretiens (1954), 130.
  • [30] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:27. Perhaps the reference to the three mortal sins can be placed even earlier. At the end of the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:15) it is said: “Outside are the dogs, the poisoners, the fornicators, the murderers, and the idolaters and all those who love and do lies”; similarly also in Rev. 21:8. This implies the application of a measure of discipline for preventing the acceptance of such sinners into the congregation and the expulsion of such when discovered. H. Kraft, Die Offenbarung Johannes (1974), 279f., is on the right track.
  • [31] Regarding Tertullian, see B. Altaner and A. Stuiber, Patrologie (1966), 189; regarding Hippolytus, see loc. cit., 166. Hippolytus writes against Pope Callistus (217-222) in Refutation of All Heresies 9:11-13. Tertullian writes about the mortal sins in De pudicitia, probably his last work. When he wrote about the “pontifex maximus, quod est episcopus episcoporum” who was lax in church discipline, it is argued by some that he did not mean, as Hippolytus did, Pope Callistus. See the bibliography in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (ed. F. L. Cross; 1974), 221, s.v. “Callistus.” The three mortal sins are mentioned by Hippolytus in a surviving fragment of his commentary on Proverbs (GCS 1:163f.).
  • [32] Tertullian, De pudicitia, ch. 12; similarly also Augustine (see G. Resch, op. cit., 12, n. 21).
  • [33] See also G. Resch, op. cit., 21f.41 and 37, n. 1.
  • [34] Cf. W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis (1906; repr. 1966), 221.
  • [35] Cf. also H. Conzelmann, Der erste Brief an die Korinther (1969), 162-64. Also in Did. 6:2-3 the non-Jews are warned against meat offered to idols.
  • [36] t. Sot. 6:6 on Esau; Gen. Rab. 63.12 (on Gen. 25:29; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 694-95).
  • [37] t. Sanh. 13:8. See the Aramaic Targums on Gen. 13:13.
  • [38] S. Eli. Rab. 13 (ed. M. Friedmann, p. 61).
  • [39] See n. 25.
  • [40] Sifra to Lev. 16:16 and b. Shevi. 7b.
  • [41] This is not the place to discuss whether the concept of natural law existed in ancient Judaism, however, this issue has been discussed. See I. Heinemann, Die Lehre vom ungeschriebenen Gesetz im juedischen Schrifttum, HUCA 4 (1921), 149-171 and H. A. Wolfson, Philo (1948), 2:180-191. It is perhaps preferable to speak of the Jewish categories of injustice and foundational principles, which include, as we will see, the Noahide commandments, both in their early stages as well as in their final form.
  • [42] On pp. 39-40 of “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” quoted above (n. 18), D. Flusser has shown that the Book of Jubilees is the earliest witness for the double command of love.
  • [43] Cf. H. Kosmala, “The Three Nets of Belial,” ASTI 4 (1965): 91-113.
  • [44] This explanation is meant to paraphrase Isa. 24:18.
  • [45] Cf. J. Becker, Die Testamente der zwoelf Patriachen [T. 12 Patr.], JSHRZ 3 (1974), 227. See the translation on pp. 139-152.
  • [46] Porneia (fornication) is missing in some manuscripts of Acts 15:20, 29, but not of Acts 21:25! See also M. Simon, op. cit., 430f.
  • [47] The Koran 2:168: “He (Allah) has forbidden for you only carrion and blood and pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah,” i.e., meat offered to idols. The same statement is found in 6:145 and 16:115f. In 5:4 the Islamic eating regulations are extended: “Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah (by slaughtering); the strangled, the slain, what has died by falling or by being gored, a carcass of an animal killed by wild beasts (except for what you purify), and what has been slaughtered on (idol) stones” [Ronning’s English trans. of M. Henig’s German translation of 1966]. Cf. also G. Resch, op. cit., 28f.
  • [48] Cf. A. Sperbaum, “The Thirty Noahide Commandments of Rav Samuel ben Hofni,” Sinai 72 (1973): 205-221 (Hebrew); A. Sperbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (1978), 52-58 (Hebrew).
  • [49] It seems to us that variations in respect to what belongs in the Noahide commandments does not have much to do with the differences between the Pauline and the Petrine views of Christian legal requirements. It can be assumed that at the time the entire church accepted the Apostolic Decree with its three central sins as authoritatively binding. The difference is that Peter considered the Apostolic Decree as the minimum required, and Paul as the maximum. Peter and his followers represented the general Jewish opinion of the time, which was that the Noahide commandments were binding on God-fearers, but that it was up to them to willingly assume more of the standard Jewish practices. See also D. Flusser, op. cit. (n. 9).
  • [50] Cf. Resch, op. cit., 23-26.
  • [51] Hom. Gen. 27.
  • [52] Augustine, Faust. 32.13.
  • [53] G. Resch, op. cit., 24.
  • [54] The sentence about strangulation in b. Hull. 102b is misunderstood.
  • [55] Billerbeck (II, 738) notes the opinion of R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel preserved in b. Sanh. 59a. R. Hananiah interprets Gen. 9:4 as follows: “Its blood, while it is still living, you shall not eat.”
  • [56] In addition to the three central sins, the additional three stages are discussed in Billerbeck III, 36-38.
  • [57] The text is found in Sifra to Lev. 18:4 (ed. Weiss, 86a), and in b. Yoma 67b.
  • [58] This also includes theft (see n. 22 above).
  • [59] This is the correct reading.
  • [60] For bibliography see n. 21. We were alerted to the importance of this passage by Malcolm Lowe.
  • [61] In the unit Did. 3:2-6, each of the verses is composed of two halves. We consider the first half of each verse to be the original. For example, in the first half of Did. 3:4 reference is made to “bird watcher” (augur; soothsayer; diviner of omens); in the second half, to “enchanter,” “astrologer” and “magician.” We have retained “bird watcher,” although we cannot be sure of exactly what pagan superstition we are being warned. In the first half of Did. 3:3, “fornication” is mentioned; in the second half, “adultery.” We have retained “fornication” in our reconstruction; nevertheless, “adultery” appears to be the original reading since it appears in the Decalogue and also in Matt. 5:27-28.
  • [62] On the basis of this unit in the Didache (3:1-6) one recognizes once again how complex are the relationships between the various homilies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. We will compare the reconstruction of the unit, which we have just made, with the list in 1 Cor. 10:5-11 of the sins of Israel in the wilderness, for the sake of which they had to remain in the wilderness. “These things are examples for us. They happened so that we will not lust after evil the way that they lusted. Don’t be idolaters like some of them…Let us not commit fornication like some of them did fornicate…Don’t complain like some of them complained…”

    The similarities:

    1 Cor. 10:6 lustful Didache 3:3 lust
    1 Cor. 10:7 idolaters Didache 3:4 idolatry
    1 Cor. 10:8 fornicators Didache 3:3 fornication
    1 Cor. 10:10 complainers Didache 3:6 complaining

    In the four parallel expressions we find two “light” sins (lust and complaining) and two “heavy” sins (idolatry and fornication).

  • [63] Cf. K. Wengst, op. cit., 71, n. 19.
  • [64] A very interesting historico-spiritual investigation of the Noahide commandments can be found at the beginning of the Introduction to Tractate Berachot in the Babylonian Talmud, which was composed by Nissim Gaon from Kairuan, North Africa (ca. 990-1062). Regarding the five basic principles, see also E. E. Urbach, The Sages (1979), 320f.
  • [65] Regarding the prohibition of blasphemy for non-Jews, see b. Sanh. 56a. The Talmud deduces this Noahide prohibition from Lev. 24:16; the story tells of a blasphemer, whose father was Egyptian—only later did having a Jewish mother become decisive for whether one was Jewish—and this passage closes with these words: “Whether the person involved is a stranger or a native, if he blasphemes the Name [of the Lord], he shall be put to death.”
  • [66] Cf. W. Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Woeterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1958), 708.
  • [67] Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 20:11 (M. Margulies edition, 330)
  • [68] That the original Noahide commandments were only three comes directly out of b. Sanh. 57a: “A Noahide is to be executed on the basis of three transgressions: fornication, bloodshed and blasphemy,” that is, he will not be executed for transgression of the other commandments.
  • [69] J. Toland, Nazarenus or Jewish, Gentile or Mahometan Christianity (1718). For the text of Toland’s work, see: https://archive.org/details/nazarenusorjewis00tola.
  • [70] Op. cit., 65 and 68.
  • [71] Ibid., 181. This scholar was Curcelleus. Toland, in n. 38, cites Curcelleus: “Sed merito nobis suspecta est, cum a multis Patribus non agnoscatur, immo tamquam supposita diserte reiiciatur” (Diatriba de esu snguinis, chapter 11, p. 131). The scholar was not aware that there were manuscripts of the New Testament in which the word “strangled” is missing.

Excerpts from David Flusser’s The Sage from Galilee


The late David Flusser was one of the world’s foremost Jewish authorities on the New Testament and early Christianity. The Sage from Galilee is Flusser’s biography of Jesus (written in collaboration with his student, R. Steven Notley). In this biography, Flusser tells what he learned in a lifetime of studying the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The book is especially significant for researchers of the Synoptic Gospels because Flusser follows the synoptic theory of the late Robert Lindsey. Together, Flusser and Lindsey laid the foundations for a school of New Testament research, today known as the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. In the first chapter of the book (p. 4), Flusser states his intention to “apply the methods of literary criticism and Lindsey’ s [synoptic] solution to unlock these ancient sources [i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke].”

In the Preface to Sage (pp. xviii-xix), Flusser writes:

I grew up in the strongly Catholic, Bohemian town of Príbram. The town was one of the great centers of pilgrimage in Central Europe. Because of the humane atmosphere in Czechoslovakia at that time, I did not experience any sort of Christian aversion to my Jewish background. In particular, I never heard any accusation of deicide directed against my people. As a student at the University of Prague, I became acquainted with Josef Perl, a pastor and member of the Unity of Bohemian Brethren, and I spent many evenings conversing with him at the local YMCA in Prague. The strong emphasis which this pastor and his fellow brethren place on the teaching of Jesus and on the early, believing community in Jerusalem stirred in me a healthy, positive interest in Jesus, and influenced the very understanding of my own Jewish faith as well. Interacting with these Bohemian Brethren played a decisive role in the cultivation of my scholarly interests; their influence was one of the foremost reasons that I decided to occupy myself with the person and message of Jesus.

Later in life I became interested in the history of the Bohemian Brethren, and I discovered links between this group and other similar movements in the past and present. I have since had the honor to become acquainted with members of one such movement having spiritual links to the Bohemian Brethren—the Mennonites in Canada and the United States. When my German book on Jesus was first published, a leading Mennonite asked me if the book were Christian or Jewish. I replied, “If the Christians would be Mennonites, then my work would be a Christian book.” What I have set out to do here is to illuminate and interpret, at least in part, Jesus’ person and opinions within the framework of his time and people. My ambition is simply to serve as a mouthpiece for Jesus’ message today.

Here is an excerpt from “Love,” Chapter 5 of Sage (pp. 55, 57, 60):

The germ of revolution in Jesus’ preaching does not emerge from his criticism of Jewish law, but from other premises altogether. These premises did not originate with Jesus. On the contrary, his critical assault stemmed from attitudes already established before his time. Revolution broke through at three points: the radical interpretation of the commandment of mutual love, the call for a new morality, and the idea of the kingdom of heaven….

Luke 6:36 is a parallel to Matthew 5:48: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The best way of translating this saying is, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” [New English Bible]. Matthew 5:48 is merely the conclusion to a short homily where Jesus teaches that God reaches out in love to all people, regardless of their attitude and behavior toward him, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In this Jesus is not far from the humane attitude of other Jews. Rabbi Abbahu said, “Greater is the day of rainfall than the day of resurrection. For the latter benefits only the pious, whereas the former benefits pious and sinners alike” [b. Ta’anit 7a]. Rabbi Abbahu lived about 300 A.D., but there is a similar saying dating from Jesus’ time. Thus, it is no wonder that in such a spiritual atmosphere Jesus drew his daring conclusion: “Love your enemies!” (Matt. 5:44). In other words, “Return love to those who hate you” or: “Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27)….

A man’s relationship to his neighbor ought, therefore, to be determined by the fact that he is one with him both in his good and in his evil characteristics. This is not far from Jesus’ commandment to love, but Jesus went further and broke the last fetters still restricting the ancient Jewish commandment to love one’s neighbor. We have already seen that Rabbi Hanina believed that one ought to love the righteous and not hate the sinner. Jesus said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). It is true that in those days semi-Essene circles had reached similar conclusions from different presuppositions, and Jesus’ moral teaching was influenced by these circles. Yet, influences do not explain everything.

Following is an excerpt from “Ethics,” Chapter 6 of Sage (p. 75):

On one occasion someone brought the news to Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices…. It was then, more or less, a general opinion that calamity—and illness—was a punishment for sin. It could be argued, therefore, that these men were greater sinners than other Galileans. Jesus did not reject this general opinion, but at the same time he rejected the current application of this view as simplistic. Instead of the vulgar ethics, he called to Israel, “Repent or perish!” He illustrated his call for a national repentance by the following parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). Later on, being in Jerusalem he saw the imminent catastrophe as almost inevitable (Luke 19:40-41). The future destruction of Jerusalem could have been avoided, if it had chosen the way of peace and repentance.

Jesus’ concept of the righteousness of God, therefore, is incommensurable with reason. Man cannot measure it, but he can grasp it. It leads to the preaching of the kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first last. It leads also from the Sermon on the Mount to Golgotha, where the just man dies a criminal’s death. It is at once profoundly moral, and yet beyond good and evil. In this paradoxical scheme, all the “important,” customary virtues, and the well-knit personality, worldly dignity, and the proud insistence upon the formal fulfillment of the law, are fragmentary and empty. Socrates questioned the intellectual side of man. Jesus questioned the moral. Both were executed. Can this be mere chance?

David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus' Genius. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007.
David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007.

Here is an excerpt from “The Kingdom of Heaven,” Chapter 7 of Sage (pp. 80-82):

For Jesus and the rabbis, the kingdom of God is both present and future, but their perspectives are different. When Jesus was asked when the kingdom was to come, he said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). Elsewhere he said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). According to Jesus, therefore, there are individuals who are already in the kingdom of heaven. This is not exactly the same sense in which the rabbis understood the kingdom. For them the kingdom had always been an unchanging reality, but for Jesus there was a specific point in time when the kingdom began to break out upon earth. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is breaking through, and those who break through, seize it” (Matt. 11:12). According to Luke 16:16, “every one forces his way in.” Both of these dominical sayings reflect an ancient Jewish homily on Micah 2:13.

This, then, is the “realized eschatology” of Jesus. He is the only Jew of ancient times known to us who preached not only that people were on the threshold of the end of time, but that the new age of salvation had already begun…. for Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not only the eschatological rule of God that has dawned already, but a divinely willed movement that spreads among people throughout the earth. The kingdom of heaven is not simply a matter of God’s kingship, but also the domain of his rule, an expanding realm embracing ever more and more people, a realm into which one may enter and find one’s inheritance, a realm where there are both great and small. That is why Jesus called the twelve to be fishers of men [Matt. 4:19] and to heal and preach everywhere. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:5-16). For this reason he demanded of some that they should leave everything behind and follow him. We do not mean to assert that Jesus wanted to found a church or even a single community, but that he wanted to start a movement. Stated in exaggerated ecclesiological terms, we might say that the eruption of the kingdom of heaven is a process in which ultimately the invisible Church becomes identical with the visible.

That which Jesus recognized and desired is fulfilled in the message of the kingdom. There God’s unconditional love for all becomes visible, and the barriers between sinner and righteous are shattered. Human dignity becomes null and void, the last become first, and the first become last. The poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourners, and the persecuted inherit the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ message of the kingdom, however, the strictly social factor does not seem to be the decisive thing. His revolution has to do chiefly with the transvaluation of all the usual moral values, and hence his promise is specially for sinners. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31-32). Jesus found resonance among the social outcasts and the despised, just as John the Baptist had done before him.

Even the non-eschatological ethical teaching of Jesus can presumably be oriented toward his message of the kingdom. Since Satan and his powers will be overthrown and the present world-order shattered, it is to be regarded almost with indifference, and ought not to be strengthened by opposition. Therefore, one should not resist evildoers; one should love one’s enemy and not provoke the Roman Empire to attack. For when the kingdom of God appears, all this will vanish.

Finally, here is an excerpt from “Death,” Chapter 11 of Sage (pp. 144-145):

I am convinced that there are reliable reports that the Crucified One “appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” Last of all, he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (1 Cor. 15:3-8). When Jesus answered the high priest’s question about his Messiahship with the words, “From now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God,” did he believe that he would escape the fate that threatened him? Or, as is more likely, did he believe that he would rise from the dead? In any event, the high priest correctly understood that by Jesus’ words he was confessing that he was the Messiah. Therefore they said, “What need have we of further witnesses? You have heard it from his own mouth” (Luke 22:71). Jesus was taken straightway to Pilate.