Kingdom of Heaven

Excerpts from The Kingdom of Heaven:

In the following pages, Joseph Frankovic shares some of the secrets unveiled to him. The kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God) was very prominent in the preaching of Jesus. Luke tells us, “…He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons, and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to perform healing” (Luke 9:1-2). Curiously, in today’s popular preaching and writing, much more emphasis is placed on the person of Jesus than on the kingdom of heaven. There is more interest in the  final coming, in the rapture, and so forth, than in the many times Jesus comes to those seeking the kingdom of God here and now. – from the Forward

A key verse in the quest for attaining an accurate understanding of the kingdom is Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall he added to you.” This verse serves as an excellent example of what Bible scholars call a parallelism. The ancient Jewish mind enjoyed repeating the same idea in a parallel structure. For instance, Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler…” Here “wine” is paired with “strong drink,” and “mocker” with “brawler.” Hebraic parallelisms also appear in the Greek of the New Testament. Matthew 6:33 is a synonymous parallelism which has been preserved in the Greek. Thus, if one can unlock what “his kingdom” means, one can use that information to unlock what “his righteousness” means. Likewise, if one can unlock what “his righteousness” means, one can unlock what “his kingdom” means. The approach taken here will be to start by unlocking the meaning of “his righteousness.”

In Jewish thought, eternal life and the kingdom of heaven stand out as two distinct concepts. In Hebrew, olam habah basically corresponds to what Christians talk about as eternal life. The kingdom of heaven is a separate term that has to do with God’s redemptive activity and obedience to his will. If one takes a concordance and examines the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” (which are synonyms) one discovers that in the synoptic tradition, the terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” appear about fifteen times in Mark and over thirty times both in Matthew and in Luke. If one examines the expression “eternal life,” one will see that it appears in each of the synoptic gospels about three times.

The Table of Contents includes:

The Danger
His Righteousness
His Kingdom
Heal First, Preach Later
Now Playing or Coming Soon?
Realized Eschatology
Still Growing
Majoring on Majors
The Challenge
Ambiguity Concerning the Kingdom of Heaven in the Synoptic Tradition

Download (PDF, 257KB)

Download this 36-page pdf eBook: Kingdom of Heaven

Reading The Book

In an exchange with a lawyer who asks “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus responds, “What is written in the law? How do you read?”

By “how do you read?” Jesus surely meant, how do you interpret the relevant scriptures. The lawyer linked two verses together using a technique know as gezerah shavah and Jesus said, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

Today the need to read the scripture correctly is as great as it has ever been. The vast majority of differences in the living out of Christianity come from very different “readings” (interpretation) of scripture. This book examines some of the ways it’s done and suggests a Jesus centric approach.

Here are some excerpts:

Joseph Frankovic has recognized the difficulty that modern readers face in the interpretation of the text. He contends that “interpreting the Bible is a question of acute relevance, because how we understand Scripture ultimately determines to a large degree how we put it into practice.” And, of course, as Evangelical Christians we are concerned with making it practical in our daily lives. Several illustrations are given to show how various interpretations can be reached depending on our presuppositions. These presuppositions are the different pairs of glasses that we may use in reading the text. …The approach the author wishes us to consider is what he calls Jesus-centric. You may not agree with everything presented, but after reading it I believe you will have a better understanding of Jesus and how he influences the interpretation of the New Testament, and to a great extent the Old Testament as well. – from the Forward

The challenges, difficulties, and risks of biblical interpretation remain with us whether we are willing to acknowledge them or not. Choosing to ignore them, we can pretend that they are irrelevant. Ignoring them, however, is a response by default. On the other hand, by acknowledging these challenges, difficulties, and risks, we can engage them head-on and strive to find workable solutions for reading the Book. I am not promoting my solution as being the only right answer. Rather I offer it as a fresh approach for helping us to become more effective readers, preachers, and teachers of the Bible.

When reading the New Testament, I start with Jesus in the synoptic gospels, and then very slowly move outward, because I want to strive first to understand what Jesus said about himself. Once I feel that I have done the best possible job of comprehending Jesus’ words in the synoptic tradition, I begin to move out into the remainder of the New Testament to see what others said about him. I strive to be Jesus-centric in the manner that I read, preach, and teach Scripture. Once I identify the emphases that Jesus made in his teachings, I then read those emphases throughout the rest of the Bible, particularly in those places where the historical-critical approach fails to satisfy the demands of Canon. In other words, having identified the emphases of Jesus’ teachings, I then bend the biblical text toward them. I make no apology; I bend the text, but when I do, I strive to bend it toward Jesus.

The Table of Contents includes:

A Survey of Ways to Read Scripture
Translation, Interpretation and Bending the Text
The Challenge
Ancient Writers and Modern Readers
A Different Sort of Book
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Who Needs Order?
What Denomination Was Jesus?
Limitations of the Historical-Critical Method
A Jesus-Centric Approach

Download (PDF, 386KB)

Download the 53 page PDF book now:  Reading The Book by Joseph Frankovic

A Call for New Conversation

Attentive readers of Matthew, Mark and Luke know that Jesus relished speaking about the kingdom of heaven. Responding to his emphasis, prominent New Testament scholars made it a major theme of inquiry in their research. Among such 20th-century scholars were Albert Schweitzer, Charles Dodd, and Joachim Jeremias. They tried to clarify the kingdom of heaven’s temporal nature: Was it a present reality, an approaching eschatological event, or some abstruse fusion of both?[1]

This academic conversation, attempting to reconcile the kingdom of heaven’s presence with its futurity, enhanced our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. To supplement its contribution, however, other conversations should be initiated as well. For example, entering the kingdom of heaven could be compared to and contrasted with inheriting eternal life. I have carried out this exercise and concluded—provisionally—that these two achievements may be described as complementary modes of the same Christian life.[2]

To pursue this idea further, consider what Charles Janeway Stillé, a 19th-century attorney and historian, who served as the tenth Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, once wrote in a chapter on monasticism, chivalry, and the crusades:

In all ages of the world, in all countries, and in nearly all religions, there has been one form of the religious life for the few, and another for the many, although the same religious creed or belief was common to both classes. In most of the religions of the world the line which separated these two classes was that upon one side of which was found asceticism in its highest sense as the rule and practice of religious life, and on the other side a thoroughly orthodox belief combined with a practice by which the ordinary duties of life could be performed and its pleasures enjoyed without a consciousness of violating the obligations of duty.[3]

In this respect, namely, one track for the majority of his supporters and another, more rigorous track for the minority—referred to in Synoptic parlance as “disciples”—Jesus’ teachings may not have been unique.

According to the first three Gospels, entering the kingdom of heaven required sacrifice and discipline. When young men accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow, that is, to enter the kingdom of heaven, they left behind family, property, and careers. Shmuel Safrai, a former professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, already noted similarities between Jesus’ habits and those of other Jewish sages who embraced hasidut, a type of piety favoring poverty and associated with miracle working.[4]

Jesus emphasized the kingdom of heaven, but occasionally he spoke of eternal life. On one occasion, he described the coming of the Son of Man and those who would inherit—note the verb and absolute construction of its object—the kingdom (Matt. 25:34). On another, he fielded a question from a rich young man who sought to know what was necessary for inheriting eternal life (Luke 18:18). To inherit eternal life, the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 25:34—a potentially confusing usage of the word for English readers of this essay—Jesus prescribed merciful, charitable, and upright conduct, but not necessarily celibacy or poverty. A person could keep the Ten Commandments without postponing marriage or liquidating assets and scattering their proceeds to the poor. To echo the language of Stillé, a person could be a fine candidate for obtaining eternal life while engaged in life’s ordinary duties and enjoying its pleasures.

The way in which Stillé paired life’s ordinary duties with enjoying its pleasures reminded me of a verse from Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower, a teaching that may deal with aspects of the kingdom of heaven. In Luke 8:14, Jesus metaphorically spoke of cares (μεριμνῶν) and pleasures (ἡδονῶν) of life (τοῦ βίου). “Cares,” in this context, may be paraphrased as worries that afflict people as they strive to fulfill their responsibilities in life. If my interpolation is accurate, then the Mishnaic Hebrew phrase, “yoke of ordinary duties,” which Rabbi Nehuniah once used in a saying about devotion to Torah (m. Avot 3:5), should be treated as a relevant parallel to Luke’s “cares of life.”

These three men, although separated by many years, addressed conceptually aligned subject matter. Rabbi Nehuniah spoke of two sets of yokes. A man must bear one of them, either that of Torah (עול תורה) or that of ordinary duties (עול דרך ארץ) and ruling (governmental) authority (עול מלכות). He does not carry both; he chooses one set. Accepting, therefore, the yoke of Torah releases him from the yokes of ordinary duties and ruling authority, but casting it aside subjects him to the other two. Stillé wrote of duties and pleasures that cannot be pursued as part of an ascetic life. Jesus compared anxieties and the pursuits of pleasure and material abundance (πλούτου) to thistles that came forth and choked a sower’s seed. These thistles exploited the fertility of the good soil, a possible metaphor for a person who was basically fit to enter the kingdom of heaven, but declined to do so.

When perusing the Synoptic Gospels, most readers proceed unaware that two tracks inhere in Jesus’ teachings. No effort is made, therefore, to keep them in focus simultaneously. This lack of awareness can be attributed, in large part, to the activity of first-century scribes and, in subsequent centuries, to preachers and commentators. The earlier group edited the Synoptic Gospels; the latter broadcasted influential interpretations based upon them. Nevertheless, I am not the first modern expositor to recognize the advantage of adopting this approach for interpreting Jesus’ words.

Professor Krister Stendahl, former dean at Harvard University’s Divinity School, once wrote an essay in which he tried to make sense of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular its most vexing verses. Leading up to the essay’s conclusion, Stendahl noted the closeness between his solution, which he called messianic license, and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is much wisdom in the Roman Catholic distinction between the commandments for the majority and the counsels for those in orders, since the messianic license should not be transformed into a command for everyone. It may well be that such a distinction in itself is a valid one, and that without it the Sermon on the Mount and many other words of the NT lose their serious specificity and become hopelessly watered down to general principles or maxims, which are seldom taken seriously. We may fall into a dishonest romanticism, in which we read and sing about the costly discipleship, but little happens, and the structures of the world quench the Spirit. It may well be that what was wrong with the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels”—the latter understood as messianic license—was not the distinction itself, but the way in which it became institutionalized and identified with the ecclesiastical structures of the Roman tradition.[5]

This distinction between commandments and counsels strikes me as foundational to the interpretive task. I would recommend, however, substitutions in Stendahl’s vocabulary. Those following the commandments are candidates for eternal life, whereas adherents to counsels resemble those who have entered the kingdom of heaven, an achievement that requires more and that cannot be institutionalized. Unfortunately for us, Stendahl did not elaborate upon his insight.

In our renewed conversation, I tried to remove our vantage point to elevated ground, beyond the thicket. The uneven data in the Synoptic Gospels makes the shift in perspective necessary. In some passages, the kingdom of heaven is tied to the present (Luke 11:20). In others, it is eschatological in character (Luke 19:11). In Matthew 18:9 and Mark 9:47, essentially identical verses recorded by two different Synoptic writers, life (eternal) stands in parallel to the kingdom of heaven (God), giving the impression that the phrases are synonymous![6] Within this wild textual environment, irregularities buffalo layman and scholar alike. In the face of these challenges, I recommend stepping back from the data in order to obtain a commanding perspective, one that is conceptually coherent and interdisciplinary, as well as synchronic and diachronic. The results may allow us to locate a useful foothold for surmounting an old interpretive impasse.[7]

*This essay is dedicated as an expression of gratitude to Professor Joseph Faulds of Northeastern State University. I profited much from his courage, curiosity and friendship.

  • [1] Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 189-99.
  • [2] The phrase “modes of the same Christian life” was intended to echo the passage that Charles Janeway Stillé wrote. To articulate the essence of the idea in language derived from the Synoptic Tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke), I would describe these two groups of achievers, those who will inherit eternal life and those who have entered the kingdom of heaven, as constituting the same edah (עדה). Robert L. Lindsey, former pastor of the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, Israel, and Bible translator, suggested that the biblical Hebrew word edah, which refers to a group or body of witnesses, may lie beneath the Greek word ecclesia (ἐκκλησία) in Matthew 16:18. I concur in the main thrust of Lindsey’s conjecture, but disagree—cordially and respectfully—with one of his points.

    In a chapter dealing with Peter’s famous declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s messiah (Luke 9:20), Lindsey wrote, “Here he [Jesus] appears to equate the Kingdom of Heaven with his Edah” (Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 138.) I would offer one caution: when the kingdom of heaven connotes a community, collectively, those who have entered the sphere of God’s reign, it constitutes part of Jesus’ edah. The other part comprises those who have embraced Jesus’ messianic claims and, because of a lifestyle in harmony with the Ten Commandments, stand as fine candidates for inheriting eternal life. What unites both groups as one witnessing body is a shared redemptive experience and a common testimony of lordship.

    This edah is aligned with God’s will. It is a community of facilitators who, among other things, promote the expansion of God’s reign by supporting and nurturing the service of those who have entered the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven, therefore, characterizes Jesus’ edah. It can be spoken of as both being part of his edah and suffusing it; however, I would refrain from linking the two with an equal sign. Consider congregations, such as the one in Corinth, that the Apostle Paul addressed in his letters. They probably were early examples of edot (plural of edah), but should we describe them as synonymous with the kingdom of heaven?

  • [3] Charles J. Stillé, Studies in Medieval History (3rd ed.; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1906), 334. Italics mine.
  • [4] For a general introduction to hasidut, see Shmuel Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965): 15-33. For a study centering on Jesus and his relationship to hasidut, see Shmuel Safrai, “ישו והתנועה החסידית” Proceedings of the World Union of Jewish Studies, div. B, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1-7. In the latter article, written in modern Hebrew, Safrai noted that this stream of hasidut began in the first century B.C.E. and faded from rabbinic Judaism in the beginning of the third century C.E.
  • [5] Krister Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 95.
  • [6] Compare Matthew 5:29, 30; 18:8, 9 and Mark 9:43, 45 with the verses cited above. These verses (and others) motivated me to use the adjective “wild.” Here I will add that an accurate understanding of the kingdom of heaven is not only important for interpreting the Synoptic Tradition, but the Acts of the Apostles, too. The fifth book of the New Testament opens with (Acts 1:3) Jesus speaking about the kingdom of heaven (God) and closes with (Acts 28:31) Paul preaching it.
  • [7] One of David Flusser’s strengths as a scholar was his ability to traverse a morass of details. He strove to reconstruct the larger picture. For example, he gave a very helpful comparison and contrast of Jesus’ approach to discipleship with the social ideology and practice of the Essenes. His conclusions are relevant for this essay (see David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 165-67.

A Short Response to Steven Notley’s “Let the One Who Has Ears to Hear”

Revised: 17-Jun-2009

Readers of Jerusalem Perspective Online owe a debt of gratitude to Steven Notley for his exposition of The Parable of the Sower. He offered us an exegetical, agricultural, and topographical backdrop against which we can read the parable. He also left us with a memorable exhortation with reference to commitment and obedience: Don’t be marginal!

His treatment of the parable demonstrates continuity of language, imagery, and form between Jesus’ didactic methods and those of other Jewish personalities of Roman Antiquity. Yet I wonder if this simple farming parable contains a barely audible word for some readers, particularly Western readers coming from Protestant backgrounds.

Notley noted that Jesus adopted The Four Types as a rhetorical framework for this parable; however, he made no attempt to explain the significance of the fourfold structure for the interpretive task. Christian particularism (which typically finds expression in the assumption that only the Born-Again will inherit eternal life) wafts through much of our preaching. Those who have been exposed to this idea may be inclined to transpose on Jesus’ teaching a “we-they” grid. In the case of this parable, “we” would be the good soil whereas “they” would comprise the other three categories.

The order of The Four Types usually implies ascending gradation from worst to best. When I read The Parable of the Sower, I am inclined to see the third group as representing the category in which most of us fall —including me. We are people with concerns; we work hard to pay our bills and grow our nest eggs; we even indulge in life’s finer pleasures, perhaps more often than not.

Luke the evangelist informed us that as a genre, Jesus’ parables are vehicles for communicating “secrets of the kingdom” (Luke 8:10). I read the Parable of the Sower as illuminating something secretive about the kingdom. Students of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) know that several of Jesus’ most provocative sayings deal with entering the kingdom of heaven. Acceptance of Jesus’ call to discipleship typically meant leaving behind profession, property, and family in order to follow. I imagine that James Dobson already noticed how certain sayings fit rather poorly in an agenda focused on the family. On the other hand, these same sayings characterized the life and service of Mother Teresa. To echo Notley’s language, she did what she heard.

Approaching the interpretive task at hand from this perspective, I see a prickly nuance in this farming parable. The phrase “cares…of life” looks like a conceptual parallel to Rabbi Nehunya’s usage of derech eretz in Mishnah, Avot 3:5. (The same phrase may relate conceptually as well to Matthew 6:25-34.) If so, then from a kingdom-of-heaven perspective, both mundane anxieties (i.e., “cares of life”) and material excesses (i.e., “wealth and the pleasures of life”) thwart leaving it all behind. In my case, I probably could overcome affection for money and the comfort it can bring, but fretting over food, raiment and shelter remains an impediment of colossal proportions for entering his kingdom.

A Brief Critique of George Eldon Ladd’s Views on the Kingdom of God

Recently I read George Eldon Ladd’s seven chapters on the Kingdom of God in his A Theology of the New Testament. A distinguished professor for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary, Ladd passed away in 1982. Eight years before his death, he saw the first edition of his colossal book roll off the presses. Written with seminary students in mind, A Theology of the New Testament has endured the test of time. Throughout the English-speaking world, students and pastors regularly consult its pages. Seminary students become pastors, and pastors preach sermons; therefore, Ladd’s scholarship continues to be influential, and because of its influence, a brief critique of his conclusions is justifiable.

I found myself cheering Ladd onward as I read what he wrote about Jesus’ emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God, or more clearly said in English, the present reality of God’s reign in people’s lives. For example, the professor remarked, “Jesus’ proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom means that God has become redemptively active in history on behalf of his people.” In another place he explained, “The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced.” These statements converge with the thrust of Robert Lindsey’s research on the gospels. Nevertheless, Ladd’s ideas diverge from Lindsey’s conclusions at other points.

As I surveyed Ladd’s book, what struck me was his avoidance of rabbinic sources. A Theology of the New Testament contains 719 pages of text, and scattered among those hundreds of pages are just fifteen references to rabbinic literature. While explaining the Kingdom of God, Ladd made six cursory references to one primary source, namely the mishnaic tractate Avot. The six references appear on one page in two short, consecutive footnotes. Consider, however, what David Flusser once said about rabbinic literature: “Talmudic literature remains our principal source for the interpretation of the synoptic Gospels…”

Solomon Schechter’s classic book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology includes three chapters devoted exclusively to the Kingdom of God. At the point where this eminent Jewish scholar launched into his discussion on the Kingdom of God, he stated: “The concluding words of the last chapter, ‘The kingdom of God,’… have brought us to a theological doctrine described by some Rabbis as the very ‘Truth (or essence) of the Torah.’” Schechter’s words indicate that the Kingdom of God stands as a centerpiece of rabbinic theology. Moreover, the New Testament and rabbinic texts are the only two bodies of literature where the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) appears repeatedly as a technical term. By engaging the rabbinic literature in a superficial manner, Ladd deprived himself of a rich source of information that could have sharpened the results of his research.

Ladd’s second-hand knowledge of rabbinic literature allowed him to mischaracterize the faith of the Jewish people. For example, inspired by his reading of the Mishnah, he remarked, “The focus of rabbinic ethics was upon outward obedience to the letter of the Law.” Contrasting the God of the Old Testament with the God of post-biblical Judaism, Ladd said, “The God of Judaism had withdrawn from the evil world and was no longer redemptively working in history.” In another place, Ladd described Judaism as a religion of merit: “The righteous person was not one who had been freely pardoned by God, but one whose merit outweighed his or her debt.” At the end of the paragraph where this last sentence appears the editor of the revised edition, Donald Hagner, placed an asterisk and added a note directing the reader’s attention to E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In his book, Sanders forcefully refuted such a misrepresentation of the Jewish faith. It is true that Ladd wrote before Sanders, but Schechter and George Foot Moore wrote before Ladd. Sanders elaborated on a topic which Schechter and Moore had already visited.

I suspect that Ladd’s imperfect view of Judaism affected the methodology of his research. As part of a refutation aimed at Joachim Jeremias, who stressed the need to hear Jesus’ parables like his first Jewish audiences heard them, Ladd commented, “The proper life setting of the parables is Jesus’ teachings, not Judaism.” Ladd apparently did not see Jesus as being a genuine, organic part of the Jewish people and their post-biblical, Jewish religion. In my opinion, however, Jesus’ teachings belong wholly to Judaism, and they approach at many points a coterminous relationship with streams of religious thought resident within Judaism of the late Second Temple period. Could Ladd’s perception of post-biblical Judaism as a religion of merit with its ethics focused on external obedience to the letter of the Law have prejudiced his attitude toward rabbinic literary sources? Could it help explain the sparse appearance of references to these sources in his A Theology of the New Testament?

One place where Ladd’s conclusions suffered concerns the Kingdom of God’s conceptual relationship to the Age to Come (and eternal life). Commenting on the Rich Young Ruler story, he equated the two concepts: “The Age to Come and the Kingdom of God are sometimes interchangeable terms. In response to the rich young ruler’s request about the way to eternal life, Jesus indicates that eternal life is the life of the Age to Come (Mk. 10:30).” Yet anyone who spends time reading early rabbinic texts knows that the Kingdom of God is a concept indirectly related to, but distinct from the Age to Come. The former constitutes God’s dynamic, redemptive reign today among people who have made God’s will their will; whereas, the later marks a new age which will come in the wake of a universal, apocalyptic event.

In the case of the Rich Young Ruler story, there is no difficulty in the dialogue beginning with a question about eternal life and ending with the high cost of entry into the Kingdom of God—two distinct concepts. In other passages, this separation cannot be neatly maintained, and Ladd’s approach to the problem is one option. I, however, prefer treating the original context of Jesus’ words as being post-biblical Judaism; therefore, when I encounter dissonance between Jesus’ views on fundamental Jewish concepts and their expression in the literature of the rabbis, I am willing to explore the possibility that the evangelists, or those who contributed to the formation of the synoptic tradition before them, were more responsible than Jesus for the dissonance.

Treasures in Heaven

The image above shows Jonah being swallowed by the great fish as illustrated in the Kennicott Bible of 1476. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the Gospel of Luke we find an interesting sequence of verses:


The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. And behold, something greater than Jonah is here. No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light. The lamp of your body is your eye. When your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light, but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:32-34)

What is the relationship between the preaching of Jonah and putting a lamp on a lampstand? The prophet Jonah in classical Jewish thought calls to mind repentance. In Rabbinic literature we read that many prophets were sent to Jerusalem and the people did not listen, but to Nineveh one prophet was sent, and the people repented.[1]

The sign of Jonah indicated repentance. In fact, during public fasts in ancient Israel the Torah ark was wheeled out into the city square. An elder then addressed the people with these words, “Brethren, it does not say about the men of Nineveh that God saw their sack cloth and fasting, but that God saw their deeds, that they had turned from their wicked ways.”[2]

In the same context as the men of Nineveh, Jesus also mentioned the Queen of the South. What business does the Queen of the South have with the men of Nineveh? The queen and the Ninevites were Gentiles, which to a Jew living in the first century meant that they were sinners (cf. Galatians 2:15). As sinners, no Jew had any serious expectations of them in terms of spirituality or piety. Nevertheless, the Queen of the South and the Ninevites responded to God in a manner that surpassed expectations.

Two verses follow which mention the Greek word luxnos[3] (or “lamp” in English). Verse 33 says: “No one after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand…” Verse 34 adds, “The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body is also full of light…”

Once when teaching about treasures in heaven, I asked the audience the following question: “If I were to assign the task of preaching a sermon from these verses, what would you preach?” One person immediately commented that the content of Luke 11:33 appears also in Matthew 5:15. His textual instincts had told him to flee from this awkward Lukan passage and consult the Matthean parallel. Approaching the text in such a manner reflects textual-critical thinking. This person recognized the difficulty of interpreting the Lukan passage, and before expounding the text, he felt a need to look at the Matthean parallel.

I designed this short exercise in textual criticism in order to demonstrate the importance of giving thought to which version of a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we rely upon as we prepare to preach or teach. Luke 11:33, which reads, “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away…,” is repeated in Matthew 5:15. In Matthew 5:14 Jesus declared, “You are the light of the world…” In Matthew 5:13 he declared, “You are the salt of the earth….” Jesus envisaged his disciples to be like light and salt. In other words, they were to be distinct. These Matthean verses constitute the longer, original context to which Luke 11:33 once belonged.

Luke 11:34, which says, “the lamp of your body is your eye,” is repeated in Matthew 6:22. The Matthean context is a homily about money. Here Luke 11:34 makes better sense because in Hebrew the idiom, “good eye,” means generosity.[4] When reading the synoptic gospels, checking parallel passages is important. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in exegesis.

Jesus on Long-term Investing

We will now direct our attention to the full context of Matthew 6:22 (and Luke 11:34):

Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But, if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 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 despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 6:19-24 represents a homily on maintaining a proper attitude toward money. Luke, however, has dispersed the same homiletic material throughout his gospel. For example, Matthew 6:19-21 parallels Luke 12:33, 34, Matthew 6:22, 23 parallels Luke 11:34-36, and Matthew 6:24 parallels Luke 16:13, which comes after the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward.[5]

Ben Sirach on Laying Up Treasure

In the Apocrypha[6] we find parallels to the phrase “laying up treasures in heaven.” I will quote two of them. The first comes from the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, which was written nearly two centuries before the birth of Jesus:

Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake, and because of his need do not send him away empty. Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.[7] Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction; more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear, it will fight on your behalf against your enemy.[8]

This passage challenges the reader to lay up treasure according to the commandments of the Most High. That reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:20, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal!” Note also Ben Sirach’s exhortation, “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction.” In this sentence, he may have been hinting at Proverbs 10:2: “The treasuries of the wicked are of no benefit, but righteousness rescues from death.” Underneath the English translation “righteousness” stands the Hebrew noun tsedakah,[9] which in the biblical period generally meant “righteousness.”

During the centuries between the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew language evolved. Some words that had meant one thing in the biblical Hebrew now could mean another in the mishnaic Hebrew. The Hebrew noun tsedakah serves as an excellent example of linguistic development between the biblical and mishnaic periods. In the mishnaic Hebrew, tsedakah may mean more than “righteousness”; it often meant “almsgiving.” Consequently, Proverbs 10:2 was understood as a reference to almsgiving.[10] In the first century A.D., a Jew would have translated this verse into English as “charity rescues from death.” I suspect that Ben Sirach had Proverbs 10:2 in mind when he wrote, “…it [almsgiving] will rescue you from all affliction.”[11]

Using Proverbs 10:2 as an example, I have tried to offer a glimpse of the manner in which Jews in Jesus’ day read their Bible. This endeavor is significant because their emphases were not always our emphases. Their preaching and teaching did not sound like our preaching and teaching. And, obviously, their word studies did not resemble our word studies. Moreover, when reading the New Testament, we encounter subjects for which little or no explanation is offered. The writers of the New Testament did not bother to explain certain concepts, because they assumed that their audiences were familiar with them. Examples of such concepts include marriage,[12] the Kingdom of Heaven, and, of course, treasures in heaven. An example is laying up treasures in heaven. First century Jews were very familiar with this idea. For them, treasures in heaven represented a sort of technical phrase and, therefore, required no explanation.

Tobit on Laying Up Treasure

A second parallel comes from another pre-Christian, apocryphal book called Tobit. It, too, is found in versions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches:

Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.

The warning, “Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you” represents an example of a principle known in Hebrew as midah keneged midah. This literally means, “measure for measure.” In Modern English, the same idea may be expressed by the aphoristic sayings “reaping what one sows” and “what goes around comes around.”

What passages from the Bible would generate this identification of God with the poor? I am reminded of Isaiah 57:15 and 58:6-11, and Psalms 34:18. The psalmist sang that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. In a similar vein, Isaiah preached that God dwells with the crushed and lowly of spirit. Thus, the Bible clearly affirms the closeness of the Divine Presence to the lowly, the oppressed and the crushed.

Now we can more clearly see how the principle of midah keneged midah finds expression in this passage. The writer of Tobit was drawing from a complex of verses in the Bible, where God affiliates with the poor, downtrodden and crushed. Because God so closely identifies himself with such people, to turn away from the poor is tantamount to turning one’s back on God. This conclusion gains strength from the logical implications of Proverb 19:17: “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.” The proverb indicates that God has rated the poor as a wise investment. More subtle, but just as significant, one who turns away the poor, rejects God and considers him a bad credit risk.

The passage in Tobit continues: “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.” Tobit’s ethical advice to his son Tobias contains a very early expression of an idea which has become central to Jewish teaching on charity: a person who receives alms is himself required to give alms to another who is less fortunate than he. Approximately six hundred years after the writing of Tobit, the exilarch Mar Zutra declared, “A poor man who sustains himself by receiving charity, even he will give charity to another.”[13]

Luke wrote that Jesus once looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). Then a poor widow came and deposited two copper coins. That caught Jesus’ attention. This poor widow certainly stood as a candidate herself for receiving assistance. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to donate to the temple treasury. Perhaps some ethical instruction similar to Tobit’s echoed in her mind: “Fear not to give according to the little you have.” From this perspective, Jesus’ pointed remark may have been just as much a comment on the charitable under-achievement of the rich as it was on the over-achievement of the widow. She had acted in accordance with what she had been taught. Although the gifts from the rich may have been large, proportionally speaking, the widow’s two copper coins dwarfed their gifts.

Tobit continued his exhortation:

So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.[14]

Here we see a definite allusion to Proverbs 10:2: The Hebrew tsedakah (righteousness) from Proverbs 10:2 was translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament, otherwise known as the Septuagint, as dikaiosunae, which in Koine Greek may mean almsgiving. Interestingly, this passage from Tobit reads very closely to the Septuagint’s Greek version of Proverb 10:2.[15] The manner in which the author of Tobit alluded to Proverbs 10:2 indicates that Jews in Jesus’ day understood the proverb to mean “charity delivers from death.”[16]

We have surveyed these two passages from the Apocrypha for the sake of proper orientation. Ancient Jews placed a premium on charitable deeds. Moreover, reading their Bibles in a manner that accentuated the importance of such deeds, they discovered almsgiving and other charity-related activity throughout the Bible in places (such as Proberbs 10:2) where we as modern readers would not anticipate finding it.

Monobazus on Laying Up Treasure

Rabbinic literature contains a wonderful story about laying up treasures in heaven. In the first century A.D., Helena, Queen of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia, and her son Izates, as Josephus called him, converted to Judaism. At a time of famine in Judea, this royal family purchased grain from Alexandria as well as dried figs from Cyprus, and sent these along with large sums of money to Jerusalem for relief of the poor. Apparently, this was the famine Luke mentioned in Acts 11:27-30. In the rabbinic version of the story, Monobazus, King of Adiabene, the brother of Izates and son of Helena, is singled out as the hero.[17]

According to the rabbis, an argument ensued when relatives learned about the great sums of money the king had spent to feed the starving inhabitants of Jerusalem. His response to his charitably challenged relatives was: “My fathers hoarded their treasures in storehouses here on earth, but I am depositing them in storehouses in heaven.”

The fame of the royal family of Adiabene endures even in our day. In 1863 the French archaeologist F. de Saulcy excavated a majestic tomb in East Jerusalem. The tomb’s grandeur suggested to him that it may have belonged to the kings of Judah, hence its name Tomb of the Kings. Later investigation revealed, however, that this tomb belonged to Queen Helena whose bones, according to Josephus, had been buried there.[18]

New Testament Writers on Laying Up Treasures

As part of a caveat issued against avarice, the epistle writer James mentioned laying up treasures in heaven, but with a negative application. James 5:1-3 says:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!

James was warning people who had pursued a life of opulence that their riches would not endure. Apparently ignoring Jesus’ advice, they had laid up for themselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume.

What about the apostle Paul? Although in his extant writings he did not use the phrase “treasures in heaven” or the accompanying imagery of gold rusting and moths consuming, he did not neglect such a foundational Jewish concept as almsgiving in his teachings. A modern reader might conclude otherwise because Paul expended considerable energy explaining the “mystery”[19] of the gospel and preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus.[20] A revolutionary concept, the mystery of the gospel centered around Paul’s claim that God was now placing his Holy Spirit on uncircumcised Gentiles and extending to them the privilege of being grafted into the redemptive heritage of Israel.

A Digression on the Mysteries of the Gospel

Conventional Jewish thinking wrestled with this proposition. Jesus’ messianic claims were not solely, and perhaps not even primarily, responsible for early Rabbinic Judaism’s distancing of itself from the followers of the Way. Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles are described functioning within the parameters of Judaism. Prior to Stephen’s stoning at the hands of diaspora Jews belonging to the Freedmen Synagogue and the scattering of the Jerusalem Church throughout Judea and Samaria, the esteemed Pharisee Gamaliel came to the apostles’ defense. His wise advice was, “…stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan…is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39). Later, when a riot erupted on the Temple Mount, Jews from Asia accused Paul of preaching against the Law and bringing Greeks into the temple (Acts 21:28). They did not mention anything about Jesus. The source of tension ultimately was stemming from God’s decision to place his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles. Perhaps this helps explain why a voice repeated, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” three times to Peter in a vision (Acts 10:15-16). God had to prepare Peter for Cornelius’ invitation, because entering a Gentile’s home was an uncomfortable proposition for an observant Jew in the land of Israel.[21]

In our day a large number of Jews from the Lubavitch community have come to regard Rabbi Schneerson as the Messiah. Have these Messianic Jews been pushed outside of Judaism? Judaism is able to accommodate Messianism within its ranks, but the idea of God lavishing his Holy Spirit on men with uncircumcised sexual organs is more theologically challenging. For Paul, this stood at the heart of the mystery of the gospel, namely that the Gentiles (or sinners, as Jews called them) had been given an equal share in Israel’s redemptive heritage.

Writing Galatians 2:11-14, Paul described an incident where the new spiritual status of the Gentiles had generated some friction. Peter had lapsed into conduct that offended the non-Jewish believers. Hence, dealing with some practical ramifications of the mystery of the gospel, Paul found himself in Antioch charting a course between the conservative (and perhaps slightly ethnocentric) Jewish faction under James’s Jerusalem-based leadership on the one hand, and some insensitive (and perhaps ungrateful) Gentiles on the other.[22]

Is the mystery about which Paul preached and wrote new to us? Generations of Christians have been living with this mystery of the gospel for nearly two thousand years. Paul was explaining something new and marvelous for his generation. For us living today the mystery remains marvelous, but it is no longer new. Ironically, we feel very comfortable with the mystery of the gospel, perhaps so much so that we run the risk of taking our “engrafted” status for granted. Moreover, no longer is it the mystery of the gospel that we have difficulty understanding, but the other topics addressed in the New Testament that reflect traditional Jewish thinking. Because Christianity’s organic bond with ancient Judaism has eroded badly over the centuries, a number of concepts and topics that would have been clearly understood by first-century Jewish audiences and would not have required explanation have become difficult to comprehend. Jesus and Paul’s expectations for their first-century Jewish audiences were appropriate, but not for twentieth-century Christians who belong to a radically different age and culture.[23]

Returning to Paul’s letter, consider Galatians 2:9, where Paul recorded his brief description of the Jerusalem Council:

…and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James, and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Notice the little phrase, “the very thing I was eager to do.” As Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, he paid special attention to the needs of the poor. Paul did not limit himself to preaching and teaching. He also helped the poor.[24]

Shrinking the Camel

Each of the first three Evangelists recorded the story about a rich, young man who asked Jesus what was necessary to be a candidate for inheriting eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). According to Matthew, the man asked, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” What verse of Scripture motivated that question? In Micah 6:8, the prophet said, “He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you…” Pastor Robert Lindsey suggested that the young man (who most likely posed his question in Hebrew) asked Jesus something close to “What good shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”[25] The link to Micah 6:8 becomes more apparent once the question has been put into Hebrew. The key phrase is “mah tov” literally, “what good.” The rich young ruler had asked a sincere question. He sought to know what God required of him to inherit eternal life.

According to Luke, Jesus answered:

You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.

To this the young man replied, “All these I have observed from my youth.” This young man apparently felt that there was still something more. He was obeying the commandments—you shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, etc.

Now Jesus began to apply the pressure:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

We are told that the young man departed saddened because he had much wealth.

About what did the young man originally come to ask Jesus? Eternal life. With what did Jesus end the discussion? He ended with an invitation to follow him or to become a member of his redemptive movement. Is the Kingdom of Heaven the same thing as eternal life? The NIV Study Bible suggests that the two are synonymous.[26] But, if a person spends time reading ancient rabbinic literature, he or she knows that eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven are two different concepts. Eternal life is basically what we understand it to be, where a person goes after death. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, remains in full force now for those people who have made Jesus, Lord—not tomorrow, not when the Son of Man comes back to judge, but today. People who have said “yes” to Jesus belong to his redemptive movement, which he called the Kingdom of Heaven.[27]

In this story, the rich young man came to Jesus with a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus basically answered, “You know the commandments—keep them.” Although the young man lived in accordance with the commandments, he wanted to experience a deeper level of spirituality and communion with God.[28] Yet, when faced with the cost of discipleship, which included freeing himself from the snare of materialism by laying up treasures in heaven, he hesitated to make Jesus Lord.[29]

Matthew, Mark and Luke each preserve a dialogue, which Jesus had with a lawyer.[30] According to Matthew, the lawyer came and asked Jesus, “What is the great commandment of the Torah?” And a similar discussion ensued.[31] In the end, Jesus complimented the lawyer by saying, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live,” [32] which includes an allusion to Leviticus 18:5.[33] I find it fascinating that Jesus did not deal with the lawyer in the same manner in which he dealt with the young man. Jesus did not offer the lawyer a personal invitation to become a disciple and thereby join God’s unprecedented redemptive movement over which Jesus presides. I suspect that Jesus viewed this conversation between him and the lawyer more in terms of a professional encounter. The lawyer seems to have been sparring with Jesus,[34] but not necessarily searching like the rich young man.

From the Rich Young Ruler story we learn that the phrase “treasure in heaven” functions as a sort of technical term for giving charity to the poor. Surely the concept drew inspiration from Proverbs 19:17. God has rated the poor as a wise investment. He acts as their guarantor. When we turn away from the poor, perhaps we underestimate God’s solvency or doubt his intention to repay his creditors.

The Rich Young Ruler story also indicates that Jesus’ followers or disciples pursue a lifestyle characterized by laying up treasure in heaven. The snare of materialism ranks among the more menacing threats for impeding obedience to God’s will. Jesus forcefully made this point when he said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Over the centuries, passing through the eye of a needle has not become an easier task for a camel, even if our preaching or lifestyles would suggest otherwise.

Yours and Mine

Luke recorded a story that Jesus told about a rich man and Lazarus. The story appears in Luke 16:19-31, and it reads as follows:

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And, besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)

This story illustrates a point that A. Marmorstein made: “Legends were more powerful allies of the theologians and teachers, apologists and preachers, than generally thought of.”[35] Teaching with legends and other story-line forms was an effective mode for communicating and influencing people’s thinking. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus did much teaching in the form of parables and stories. The challenge for modern readers is that Jesus presented theology in story form. Consequently, the responsibility rests upon us to coax the theological implications out of Jesus’ stories and parables.

The ancient sages of Israel sometimes spoke of humanity in terms of a threefold categorization: the saints, the average folk, and the wicked.[36] They observed that the wicked often accumulated wealth and had an easier lot in this world. In other words, good things such as wealth sometimes accrued to people who did not seem to merit them. Conversely, bad things sometimes happened to people who did not seem to deserve them. They also recognized that some people were born into miserable circumstances, while others enjoyed wealth and comfort. Accordingly, they concluded that a person’s lot in this life could be a mitigating factor, when he or she stands at the Great Judgement.[37]

How is the beggar Lazarus described when he was alive? He lived as a poor man who suffered from sores. He had a wretched lot in this life. That is all we hear about Lazarus. He lived mired in poverty and was chronically ill. The story does not comment on his piety—it merely says that he was poor.

Every day Lazarus sat outside the rich man’s gate and slowly wasted away because nobody clothed, fed or nursed him back to health. Lazarus owned nothing, whereas the rich man possessed much, but he made little or no effort to relieve Lazarus’ suffering. Perhaps he assumed that Lazarus deserved his lot because of some undisclosed sin or a simple lack of industriousness. Whatever his reasoning, the rich man certainly had multiple compelling justifications for neglecting Lazarus.

Sometime in the second century A.D. the rabbis formulated a saying that may hold relevance for a discussion about the story of Lazarus and the rich man:

There are four types among people: The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is the average person. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the simpleton. The one who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is the saintly person. The one who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked person.[38]

Why did some rabbis claim that the person who says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” resembles a person from Sodom? The prophet Ezekiel once said something about the people of Sodom that is often overlooked in Christian preaching and teaching. They were proud, had plenty of food, were at ease, but the hand of the poor and the lowly they did not strengthen (Ezekiel 16:49). Therefore, according to Ezekiel, this was the sin of Sodom. Although the cardinal sin of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 was lewd misconduct, in ancient Jewish interpretation, Sodom’s sin became linked to pride and contentment, which resulted in neglect of the poor.[39]

Ezekiel addressed an issue similar in nature to one raised by the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man saw Lazarus sitting outside his gate but did not do anything to relieve his suffering. He may have reasoned, “What is mine is mine, and what is Lazarus’ is Lazarus’.” In Jesus’ day that attitude would have been booked as a spiritual felony. The rabbis emphasized this point by suggesting that even an average person, who thinks what is his is his, runs the risk of being like a Sodomite.


In this study I have tried to bring into focus one area that pious Jews in Jesus’ day stressed for proper conduct. Sometimes their emphases differed from the ones we see in the text. In Ezekiel, we read a verse about Sodom, which identifies the sin of Sodom as a failure to strengthen the hand of the poor. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was finely clothed and ate sumptuously. He was at ease, while poor Lazarus was at his gate.

This simple story highlights a major theme in Jesus’ theology: reaching out to the poor and downtrodden. Ancient Jews referred to such activity as laying up treasures in heaven. This concept constitutes a foundational component in the overall message of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Laying up treasures in heaven pertains to helping the poor as Sirach 29:9-13, Tobit 4:7-11, and Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, and Luke 18:22 indicate. To this collection of passages we may also add Luke 14:12-15: “…when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be paid at the resurrection of the righteous.”[40]

Realizing that laying up treasures in heaven functions as a sort of technical term for helping the poor in Jewish tradition challenges Christians in affluent western countries in a significant way. We regularly drop money into the collection baskets during the morning offertory each Sunday. But for what purposes is this money used? Although maintaining the church building, keeping the property landscaped, and paying the utilities are worthy endeavors, only gifts of time and money that relieve the suffering of the needy is credited to our heavenly bank accounts. At least this is what Jesus and other Jewish sages taught. As David Bivin once preached from the pulpit of the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, “We may be surprised to one day learn that we have little balance in our heavenly bank account, because we were not helping the poor. Jesus said, ‘Lay up treasure in heaven.’ In Hebrew, this heavenly treasure is called tsedakah, or, in English, alms or charity.”[41]

From studying the Bible, I have come to see two places where, as a general principle, God dwells with people. One is with the community of faith. God’s redemptive power flows through people who have made Jesus Lord. Jesus stands at the head of a redemptive movement, and those who are part of it are described as poor in spirit.

The Divine Presence is attracted to people who are poor in spirit. They are spiritually dependent upon God, contrite in spirit, and readily yield to his desires. This reminds us of the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for these type of people constitute the Kingdom of Heaven.” (In English translations of Matthew 5:3, the genitive Greek pronoun αὐτῶν (auton) is treated as a possessive, yet auton would be better translated as a partitive genitive, i.e. “from these” instead of “belonging to these.”)[42]

The other place where God remains active is among the brokenhearted (cf. Isaiah 57:15). Based upon what Scripture says, God dwells with the crushed, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden. People whose dignity has been crushed, whose physical bodies are failing, whose hopes and aspirations have been shattered, whose lives are mired in poverty attract the Divine Presence. Acute and chronic suffering tends to purge a person of pride and self-reliance and to produce in him or her a genuine longing for a touch from God. For that reason Jesus provoked his audiences by suggesting that tax collectors and harlots would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before others.

Laying up treasures in heaven resembles the classical message of the prophets—feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those who are sick and imprisoned—but approached from the perspective of God’s faithfulness in rewarding those who do these kind acts. Laying up treasures in heaven for a follower of Jesus is like higher education for a university professor. It is already an integral part of that person’s life. To make Jesus Lord and to become a participant in the Kingdom of Heaven is to dare to go beyond the classical message of the Prophets. It means being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with our God-given talents, skills, and resources in hand as a partner with God in spreading hope, healing and redemption in a hurting world.

  • [1] Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 31. For an English translation, see Lamentations in Midrash Rabbah (trans. A. Cohen; 3rd ed.; London: Soncino, 1983), 57.
  • [2] M. Taanit 2:1. For an English translation, see The Mishnah (trans. Herbert Danby; Oxford: Oxford University, 1933), 195.
  • [3] For further discussion about Luke’s use of “stichwords,” see Joseph Frankovic, Reading the Book (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1997), 37-38 and David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1988), 152.
  • [4] The precise meaning of the Greek adjective haplous in Matthew 6:22 remains elusive. It may mean “clear, healthy, sound, simple, single, or sincere.” Note that haplous is antithetically paired with the Greek adjective ponaeros, which means “evil, bad, wicked, sick, in poor condition” (see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [5th rev. ed., 1958; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979], 86, 690-91). In light of the context and the pairing of ophthalmos…haplous with “bad eye,” I am inclined to say that the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “bad eye” inspired the Greek phrases “ophthalmos…haplous” and “ophthalmos…ponaeros.” The idiom “good eye” appears in Proverbs 22:9: “A good eye will be blessed, because it has given of its bread to the poor.” Even today in Israel, collectors of charity say, “Give with a good eye.” Note, too, that in Romans 12:8, the noun haplotaes, which is related to haplous, means “generosity.” The idiom “bad eye” appears in m. Avot 5:13.
  • [5] David Flusser has pointed out that Luke joined this saying about serving God and Mammon to the parable because the word “mammon” was common to both (cf. Luke 16:13 and 19) (see Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 152).
  • [6] Editions of the Bible prepared by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include the Wisdom of Ben Sirach. In the wake of the Reformation, abandoning the cannon of the early church (namely the Septuagint) and following the lead of the rabbinic canon, Protestants elected not to include the Apocrypha as part of their Bible.
  • [7] In antiquity, people often hid their valuables in the ground. They viewed this practice as being responsible and prudent, similar to the way people today view storing valuables in a safety deposit box. This sort of thinking is clearly reflected in a variety of ancient sources. From Roman literature, one may cite the behavior of the miser in Aesop’s fable entitled “The Miser.” In Matthew 25:25, one of Jesus’ parabolic characters explains to his demanding master, “So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Writing about the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, Josephus described how Roman soldiers tortured Jewish prisoners in order to learn the location of their buried treasures (Jewish Wars 7:112-114). Lastly, one may call attention to the famous maxim of St Basil, “…and the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.”
  • [8] Sirah 29:9-13. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (ed. Bruce Metzger; expanded ed.; New York: Oxford University, 1977), 166.
  • [9] The development in meaning of the word tsedakah from the biblical to mishnaic period, already finds expression in Daniel 4:24(27), where the Aramaic cognate tsidkah is in parallel with “showing mercy to the poor” (Everyman’s Talmud, 219). For further discussion, see Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 3-8.
  • [10] Everyman’s Talmud, 221. Also is the verse on Tsedakah Box.
  • [11] Note that Ben Sirach claimed that almsgiving protected more effectively than a mighty shield. The Hebrew word tsedakah was often rendered in Greek as dikaiosunae, even when it carried the meaning of almsgiving. Compare Matthew 6:1. Keeping this in mind, one wonders whether the breastplate of righteousness mentioned in Ephesians 6:14 should be understood in similar terms.
  • [12] Overall, the Old and New Testaments have little to say on marriage. Nevertheless, Jewish thinking on the subject was highly developed. As part of Jewish tradition and the Oral Law, Jewish views on marriage and family life have had a limited influence on Christian preaching and teaching. Although the New Testament does not preserve much information about Jesus’ and Paul’s views regarding marriage and the family, I am sure that both were well versed on what Jewish tradition prescribed. I am always amazed to enter a bookstore that caters to Evangelical/Charismatic Christians and see the numerous books that Christian authors have written on marriage. Few of these authors have made any serious attempt to consult Jewish sources on marriage. Yet Jesus and the apostles after him viewed marriage through the lenses of their Jewish religious heritage. Some of that heritage flowed into rabbinic Judaism and today remains preserved in the literature that the rabbis wrote.
  • [13] B. Gittin 7b (top).
  • [14] The entire passage comes from Tobit 4:7-11 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66).
  • [15] Tobit 4:10 differs from Proverbs 10:2 in syntax, the tense of the verb, and eleaemosunae appears in place of dikaiosunae.Unlike dikaiosunae, which carries several meanings, eleaemosunae only means “kind deed” or “charitable giving.” See Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd rev. and augmented ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 249.
  • [16] Note that eleaemosunae is underneath the English “charity” in Tobit 4:10 and “almsgiving” in Tobit 12:9 (The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 66, 73). See also A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (New York: Schocken Books. 1975), 221.
  • [17] For the rabbinic version, see t. Peah 4:18. See also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:17-96.
  • [18] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:4, 92-96.
  • [19] See Romans 11:25-26, Colossians 1:27 and Ephesians 3:3-6.
  • [20] See Acts 19:8, 20:25 and 28:31.
  • [21] Note the effort that the centurion made to prevent Jesus from having to deal with a similar awkward situation (Luke 7:6-8).
  • [22] Regarding the awkward circumstances for social contact between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, see the insightful remarks in Robert Lindsey, Jesus, Lord of Capernaum (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 10-12, 20-21. A brief, helpful discussion of the confrontation between Paul and Peter in Antioch may be found in Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1978), 1-2, 13-20.
  • [23] We must work at developing sensitivity to the text that enables us to identify the major concerns of first-century Jews. They appear throughout the synoptic gospels and epistles, but too often escape the attention of twentieth-century English readers. When there is widespread recognition of this challenge in the church, those sitting in the pews will initiate changes that will bring about a sweeping reform in the way we educate those who stand in our pulpits. For further discussion, see Frankovic, Reading the Book, 47-52.
  • [24] In 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, Paul wrote some advice about giving.

    Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly. And he who sows bountifully, shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And, God is able to make all grace abound unto you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.

    Now follows his proof text from Psalms 112:9: “As it is written, ‘He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor, his righteousness abides forever.’” How did Paul understand the Hebrew word, tsidkato, from Psalms 112:9? It is translated as dikaiosunae autou in the Greek of 2 Corinthians 9:9. How could we translate his righteousness in 2 Corinthians 9:9 more dynamically? Could we say that God’s charitable deeds endure forever? First-century Jews saw a connection between God giving to the poor and his charity (righteousness) abiding forever. They interpreted Psalms 112:9 to mean that God’s redemptive activity endures forever. (Or, if one prefers, in a more narrow sense, his charitable activity endures forever.) God is always reaching out to the poor, to the broken, to the crushed; therefore, his righteousness abides forever! Paul apparently understood Psalms 112:9, which he quoted in 2 Corinthians 9:9, in the same manner the author of Tobit understood Proverbs 10:2. For both writers, tsedakah meant something like charity or almsgiving.

  • [25] See Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973), 127, and David Bivin, “Jerusalem Synoptic Commentary Preview: The Rich Young Ruler Story,” Jerusalem Perspective 38 and 39 (May-Aug. 1993): 15.
  • [26] The NIV Study Bible offers this comment on Matthew 19:16: “eternal life. The first use of this term in Matthew’s Gospel (see v. 29; 25:46). In John it occurs much more frequently, often taking the place of the term ‘kingdom of God (or heaven)’ used in the Synoptics, which treat the following three expressions as synonymous: (1) eternal life…, (2) entering the kingdom of heaven…and (3) being saved” (The NIV Study Bible [ed. Kenneth Barker; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985], 1469, 1470.
  • [27] See Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1998), 7, and Brad Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Austin: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984), 10-17.
  • [28] Matthew has underscored this element of the story. In his gospel the young man asked, “What do I still lack?”
  • [29] Regarding the cost of discipleship, see Luke 14:26-32.
  • [30] See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28.
  • [31] Apparently, Luke was reminded of the Rich Young Ruler story when he wrote about this lawyer. He introduced this story as being about inheriting eternal life. Luke may have realized that Jesus’ allusion to Leviticus 18:5 in verse 28 pertained to eternal life.
  • [32] See Luke 10:28.
  • [33] In Jewish tradition, Leviticus 18:5 was understood to be a reference to eternal life. See Rashi on Leviticus 18:5. See also the references listed for τοῦτο…ζήσῃ in The Greek New Testament (eds. K. Aland, M. Black, C. Martini, B. Metzger, and A. Wikgren; 3rd corrected ed.; West Germany: United Bible Societies, 1983), 253.
  • [34] See Joseph Frankovic, “Is the Sage Worth His Salt?” Jerusalem Perspective 45 (July/August 1994): 12, 13.
  • [35] A. Marmorstein, “The Unity of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual (1924): 469.
  • [36] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [37] See Sifre Zuta, p. 27 and Rosh HaShanah, 16b.
  • [38] M. Avot 5:10. For an alternative English translation, see Danby, 457. Jesus probably knew this saying from Avot in an earlier, simpler form. In the parable of the day laborers in the vineyard and their wages (Matthew 20:1-15), Jesus depicted the landowner, who represents God, as if he is the saint, and the day laborers as if they were average men (or perhaps Sodomites). Note Matthew 20:14-15. See Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 136-37.
  • [39] See also “Emulating the Ways of Sodom,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1999): 38.
  • [40] Years ago, Father Richard Thomas and others working with him at Our Lady’s Youth Center in El Paso, Texas did just what this passage said. They hosted a Christmas meal at a city dump in Juarez, Mexico. What happened that day revolutionized the ministry that Father Thomas continues to oversee in the Juarez and El Paso area.
  • [41] David Bivin, “Doers of the Word” in Sermons from Narkis (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective, 1996), 15.
  • [42] See Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989), 230-35.

A Different Way to Reckon a Day

In Luke 24:7 two men in dazzling apparel reminded the women that “the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” To people living in Europe or North America, rising on the third day could be interpreted that Jesus remained in the tomb over 48 hours. In light of the way ancient Jews calculated time, however, Jesus was in the tomb for a shorter period.[1]

Among the fragments of an ancient rabbinic commentary on Leviticus is a midrashic comment on the phrase “in the third year” from 1 Kings 18:1. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived about 220 C.E. in the Galilee, once remarked, “one month in the first year, one month in the last year, and twelve months in the middle.” According to R. Yohanan’s method of counting, 14 months constituted three years.

Recognizing that sunset marks the beginning of a Jewish day and applying the same logic used by R. Yohanan, one could interpret “on the third day” to mean that Jesus was buried late Friday afternoon and rose anytime after nightfall Saturday. Reckoning time in this way means that Jesus was placed in the tomb on Friday just before the Sabbath commenced, as Luke 23:54 suggests, remained there at least 24 hours until nightfall Saturday and rose from the dead by sunrise Sunday. Thus, Jesus may have been confined to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb for a period of time no longer than about 26 hours.

The phrase “on the third day” is one of numerous examples from the synoptic tradition of the gospels which can be used to demonstrate that social, historical and cultural experience colors the way one reads scripture. Jesus’ social, historical and cultural context was that of late Second Temple Judaism in the land of Israel. Though foreign to us, Jesus’ world may be approached and glimpsed through careful comparative study of the Greek synoptic gospels with the earliest texts from rabbinic literature and other ancient Jewish sources.[2]

Where Little Ones Splash: The Hebrew Roots Movement

Internal critique is as vital as contriteness for maintaining vibrancy in the life of the Church. The New Testament promotes the salutary practice of gentle admonishment among Christians. Paul apparently had this in mind when he penned the phrase “speaking the truth in love.”[1]

Like other popular movements with a reformative dimension, the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) could gain much from constructive self-criticism. Those leading and those supporting the movement should encourage it. For without internal critique, our labors may yield only short-lived benefits and dubious achievements.

Crossing denominational lines, the HRM is more amorphous than delineated, and it includes much diversity. I can, therefore, speak knowledgeably only about the wing of the movement which has been influenced by the Jerusalem-based research of the late Robert Lindsey and David Flusser through the efforts of their Christian students. This wing may be described as being mainly Protestant Evangelical and Charismatic.

Dozens of HR teaching ministries have emerged within the last twenty-five years. Usually educated individuals holding undergraduate, seminary, and even doctorate degrees manage them.[2]  Two principal aims of these ministries are: 1) exposing Christians to the marvelous insights accessible through a Hebraic approach, and 2) equipping laymen to serve as Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, etc.

This model has worked well in that it has allowed the movement to expand steadily among Protestant Evangelical and Charismatic Christians. But, of course, no model is exclusively advantageous. One benefit often comes at the expense of another. This is certainly the case for the current HR model. It has two interrelated weaknesses whose affects will become more salient, if they are not corrected.

First, those who view the HRM as having a reformative role to fill must acknowledge a glaring conflict of interests. Hebraic teaching ministries rely heavily on Protestant Evangelical-Charismatic sources of money. In other words, can those bearing the banner of change succeed at reforming the preaching tradition, when they are financially dependent on funds from individuals and churches which have a strong affection for that same tradition? Obviously, this arrangement favors not disturbing the status quo.[3]

Secondly, educated laymen constitute the main leaders of the HRM. Alongside their important contributions, a paucity of highly trained experts persists. Few of the leaders hold earned graduate degrees from accredited Jewish institutions or Judaica departments at secular universities. As a result, the movement lacks the credibility required to challenge aspects of the preaching tradition. To challenge them successfully and to offer more suitable theological alternatives would require experts working together.

Operating in tandem, these two factors act as restraining forces. Leaders shy away from questioning cherished theological assumptions. Consequently, issues remain unraised and needed theological initiatives cannot be undertaken. For example, consider the following trio:

  1. How do ancient Jewish literary sources affect our view of Scripture? Can our Statements of Faith be improved upon in the light of such sources?
  2. If eternal life and the kingdom of heaven are related, but independent concepts in ancient Judaism, how should we distinguish them one from the other in our preaching and teaching? For example, are there identical demands for receiving eternal life and entering the kingdom of heaven?
  3. Jewish tradition has long praised tsedakah and gemilut hasadim (deeds of charity). Is this same concern emphasized adequately in the HRM? Has it inspired pioneering ministries which excel at feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, etc.?

Here I have given a sampler of issues and initiatives which deserve more attention. Our reluctance to engage them, and other similar ones, is symptomatic of the HRM’s underlying dilemma. Like a swimming pool for toddlers, it lacks a deep end.

The HRM has more to offer than merely rediscovering the biblical feasts and referring to New Testament personalities by their Hebrew names. But to offer more, leaders and supporters must start dredging together in order to remove the shallowness. Such an undertaking will require courage. Co-religionists will be offended, and their ire will be expressed fiscally. It will also require rethinking about material resources. Boldness to chart a new course alongside long-term vision for investing in expertise, may be the right mix for stimulating our succulent Hebrew roots to produce something more exciting than dried traditional fruit.

  • [1] David Bivin, “Doers of the Word,” in Sermons From Narkis (ed. Joseph Frankovic; Jerusalem: Jerusalem Perspective, 1996), 17-19
  • [2] The degrees held are usually in fields other than Judaica or Bible.
  • [3] This also applies to instructors who hold doctorate degrees in Judaica or Bible and lecture at Christian institutions where faculty members must sign a doctrinal statement.

Sunshine For Everybody

Song of Songs Zuta is a rabbinic commentary on the Song of Songs. It may be characterized as exegetical and haggadic. In contrast to the better known Song of Songs Rabbah, Song of Songs Zuta is shorter in length. The words rabbah (great) and zuta (small) imply this contrast.

The learned Jew who compiled Song Zuta wrote his commentary entirely in Hebrew. He did not inform his readers when and where he worked. Solomon Schechter, the first modern, critically-trained scholar to publish an edited transcription of this text, suggested that it had been written in the 10th century C.E.[1] When Schechter made his transcription in the late 19th century, he was apparently unaware of a large fragment of Song Zuta that a Russian Orthodox archimandrite named Antonin had acquired from the genizah (manuscript storage chamber) of the famous Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Later this fragment passed into the possession of the Leningrad, Saltykov–Schedrin library.[2] Certain features of this fragmentary manuscript from the Cairo genizah weigh in against describing Song Zuta as a medieval work.[3]

More recently, several Israeli scholars such as G. Scholem, Z. Rabinowitz, M. Lerner, and M. Hirshman have suggested that Song Zuta was written considerably earlier than Schechter’s date, probably in the 3rd century C.E.[4] In my opinion, Song Zuta was most likely written in Israel between 300 and 600 C.E.[5] The contents of the commentary include numerous tannaic traditions, exclusively tannaic names of rabbis, and seem to fit well within the context of Late Roman Antiquity and the Byzantine period.

The diverse and rich contents of Song Zuta give this little commentary a notable character. Among them are a few passages that may interest students of the synoptic Gospels. For example, consider the commentary’s opening remarks on the Song of Songs:

Rabban Gamliel said, “The Holy One composed it,” just like [Scripture] says, “The Song of Songs.” [In other words,] this song is superior to all other songs. Moreover, the Patriarchs, the righteous, the prophets, and the ministering angels sang it. To whom did they sing it? To The-One-To-Whom-Peace-Belongs. [Consider how] God constantly deals with all of his creatures. The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous. He also makes peace among his angels, thus Scripture says, “He makes peace in his high places” [Job 25:2]. Lightning shoots forth amidst the rain, and the rain does not extinguish its fire, nor does [it] scorch the rain. The expanse of the heavens [stores] water, whereas the sun, moon and stars [contain] fire. These move [through the watery expanse], and [they neither burn its water, nor does its water extinguish their fire].[6]

For the reader who is versed in the synoptic Gospels, one sentence from this passage immediately attracts attention: “The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous.” This sentence resembles part of a longer sentence that the gospel writer Matthew included in his version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. According to the RSV, Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45).

Van Gogh, "Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine" oil on canvas (1890).
Van Gogh, “Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine” oil on canvas (1890).

As a sage, Jesus flourished within the broad and diverse arena of Pharisaic Judaism. He both benefited from and contributed to the achievements of Late Second Temple-period Judaism. Regarding his simple, but profound saying about God making his sun rise and rain fall, I suspect that Jesus borrowed the parallelism from an ever-expanding fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Included in that fund were pithy sayings, proverbs, exegetical traditions, as well as biblical, parabolic, fabulous and anecdotal characters and motifs. Moreover, Jesus’ words were based upon meteorological observation (as much as inspired by a humane reading of Scripture). I would not be surprised, therefore, if somebody were to call to my attention a similar maxim in ancient Greco-Roman literature. In other words, the parallelism may not have necessarily had an exclusively Jewish provenance. In Jesus’ day intense intercourse took place between the dominant Greco-Roman culture and the sub-cultures of the Jewish people. (Note, for example, the Apostle Paul who felt at ease in the dominant culture and the sub-cultures of Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Pharisaic Judaism.)

A similar explanation may be applied to Song Zuta’s version of the saying. Centuries later, its rabbinic author made a “withdrawal” from the fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Between the end of the first century C.E. and the time when Song Zuta was composed, the fund had grown. The rabbis deposited much new material into it. They also drove some of its older material out of circulation.[7] Nevertheless, material having its origins in the Late Second Temple period remained an integral part of the fund. This assumption dovetails with the conclusions of such scholars as Geza Vermes, James Kugel and Avigdor Shinan who have done significant textual-critical research in tracing the history and development of haggadic traditions.[8]

Assuming that the haggadic fund scenario offers the most satisfying explanation, I will speculate further on two points:

  1. This rabbinic version of the saying appears in a truncated form. The Hebrew mind delights in communicating ideas in pairs. Jesus’ words contain a parallelism about the sun rising and the rain falling. In Song Zuta only the first half of the parallelism has been transmitted. Without the benefit of Matt. 5:45, one could argue only with difficulty that the saying in Song Zuta constitutes half of what was probably originally a parallelism.[9]
  2. Jesus and the writer of Song Zuta each contributed to the respective Judaisms (Pharisaic and rabbinic) of their day. Each recycled a maxim already in circulation, and by doing so, each made a distinctive contribution. The distinctiveness of each one’s contribution may be seen in the integration of the recycled saying into a new context. Jesus employed it as part of an exhortation to emulate God. By causing the sun to shine and rain to fall, God expresses good will even toward those who rail against him. The rabbinic writer used the saying in a different way. He called attention to God’s role in spreading peace among the antithetical elements of his universe. Go and marvel at God’s awe-inspiring creation, and emulate his kindness toward your adversary!
  • [1] Solomon Schechter, Agadath Shir HaShirim (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1896), 100-104.
  • [2] See Abraham J. Katsh, “The Antonin Genizah in the Saltykov–Schedrin Public Library in Leningrad” in The Leo Jung Jubilee Volume: Essays in His Honor on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday (ed. M. Kasher; New York: Jewish Center, 1962), 115-131, and Benjamin Richler, Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities, 1994), 8, 61-64.
  • [3] Zvi Rabinowitz, who edited this large Antonin fragment of Song Zuta, expressed reservations about Schechter’s late date and briefly explained his reasons for viewing Song Zuta as having been written centuries earlier (Ginze-Midrash [Israel: University of Tel Aviv, 1977], 252-253).
  • [4] Hirshman wrote, “Rabinowitz suggests in his introduction [to ch. 23 of Ginze-Midrash] that this midrash should perhaps be considered a tannaitic work, and this is also the opinion of a foremost aggadist, M. B. Lerner. This view was espoused by [Gershom] Scholem in Jewish Gnosticism [Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition], 56. I tend to agree with this view, excepting passages that seem to be later additions…” (A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity [trans. Batya Stein; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996], 148).
  • [5] This is essentially the opinion of Shmuel Safrai on the dating of Song Zuta (Private conversation, Jerusalem, April 2001). Song Zuta resembles Midrash Ruth (Ruth Rabbah) in its exegetical-haggadic character, whereas its long eschatological narrative is reminiscent of Sefer Zerubbabel. Cf. H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 344, 363.
  • [6] This translation is based on a manuscript belonging to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America: JTSA R-1681, p. 1a, lines 4-13.
  • [7] Cf. Alan Kensky, “Moses and Jesus: The Birth of the Savior,” Judaism (1992-1993), and Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: The Akedah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993).
  • [8] Cf. Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961); Avigdor Shinan, The Biblical Story as Reflected in Its Aramaic Translations (Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1993); and James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1990).
  • [9] Cf. Brad Young’s “ADDITIONAL NOTE” that he contributed to David Flusser’s study entitled “Johanan Ben Zakkai and Matthew” in his Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (ed. Brad Young; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 493. The rabbinic anecdote about Alexander of Macedon (that Young cites) includes the following exchange between a local king and Alexander: “[The king] asked Alexander, ‘Does rain fall on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’ ‘And does the sun shine on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’” (Lev. Rab. 27:1). The pairing of the “sun shining” with the “rain falling” in the king’s series of rhetorical questions strengthens the claim that this meteorological saying once circulated in the form of a parallelism. (Young cites the places in rabbinic literature where the anecdote is repeated.)

Threading a Needle

Revised 29-Oct.-2015

Over the past few years, I have reflected much on the phrases “to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and “to inherit eternal life.” One important conclusion based on my reading of early rabbinic literature and Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that these are independent concepts sharing a fuzzy area of overlap. Much of the confusion stems from their temporal relationship. Although the Kingdom of Heaven is anchored in the present, it never ends and, therefore, persists into the future. Eternal life belongs to the future, but whether or not a person will inherit it, his or her deeds among the quick here on earth influence that decision.

An important question for teachers of New Testament, systematic, or pastoral theology to consider is the following: Are entering the Kingdom of Heaven and inheriting eternal life identical accomplishments? Or asked another way, are the respective entry and inheritance requirements synonymous? If not, then those teaching in our churches and seminaries should clarify the difference. It may be of enough significance to require a revision of doctrine.

The Rich Young Man story is recounted in each of the first three Gospels. I have noticed that when an expositor explains it, he or she usually depicts the young Jewish fellow in an unflattering way. Either doubt is cast on his sterling record for keeping the commandments, or he is described as avaricious. I prefer giving him the benefit of the doubt and crediting his claim about his devotion to Torah. Note, too, that this passage begins with his question about inheriting eternal life, but ends with Jesus’ famous saying about a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle as a metaphor for a man of means entering the Kingdom of Heaven (or God).

After asking his question and emphasizing fidelity to the commandments from his youth, the man pressed Jesus. He apparently wanted to know if there were yet more—something beyond keeping the commandments and inheriting eternal life. Jesus then offered him a second option: “Sell all that you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me!” Had this young man complied, he would have acquired treasure in heaven and joined Jesus’ band of disciples. In Synoptic parlance, he would have entered the Kingdom of Heaven.

Just like Peter (Luke 5:11) and Levi (Luke 5:28), this man received an invitation to follow. But unlike them, he could not leave everything behind and, therefore, walked away sad. Jesus then seized the moment to make a fiscally challenging declaration: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” In the light of Jesus’ comment, the tax collector Levi had done the unexpected. A wealthy man, he had left everything behind and followed (i.e., entered the Kingdom of Heaven).

This interpretive approach to The Rich Young Man story accepts the exchange between Jesus and the anonymous interlocutor more or less at face value. It is a simple reading of the passage without the insertion of doctrine or dogma. Nevertheless, I am challenged by its implications. For example, I have become more conservative in applying the phrase “to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Although I may be a good candidate for inheriting eternal life—because of my modest pantry of faith and good works and God’s overstocked warehouse of grace—I shy away from describing myself as having entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I reserve such accolade for a saintly few. In essence, rethinking the rich young man’s dilemma has forced me to lower the spiritual assessment of my own life, while raising the standard of entry into the domain of Jesus’ lordship.

Written, Inspired and Profitable

The Bible provides minimal help for anyone trying to write a description of it for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. As a result, such descriptions typically claim more than the Bible discloses about itself.[1]

When formulating a declaration about Scripture, I recommend adhering to the following guidelines:

1) Echo the language which Scripture uses to speak about itself.

2) Reflect an appreciation of how ancient Jews viewed the Bible—the fountainhead of their literary heritage.

3) Demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the achievements of text-critical scholarship, since they constitute a foundation on which all modern English translation rests.[2]

A key New Testament passage for discussing the nature of Scripture is 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

All Scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.[3]

A reader well versed in the New Testament will recognize that the above translation reflects the content of a footnote appearing in some English editions. Preferring the note’s alternate wording for the purpose of this essay, I have rendered the passage’s opening phrase as “All Scripture inspired by God” as opposed to “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Behind the word “Scripture” stands the Greek word γραφή, which is related to the verb γράφειν (to write). Scribes transmitted Scripture by transcribing it. Being written, it was intended to be read (aloud). One can, therefore, characterize Scripture as having a scribal-literary quality. These two verses also establish a close bond between inspiration and profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. When speaking about inspiration, I make a habit of speaking about Scripture’s profitability for instruction or training in the next breath. These concepts are two sides of the same coin and should not be separated one from the other.

At the end of the passage, the desired objective is stated: to prepare a person for an effective life of doing. Although not explicitly mentioned in the immediate context, teachers do have a role to play in the program. Scripture’s usefulness for teaching and training depends not only on the inspiration of the text, but also on that of the teacher. Just as a score of music is ultimately only as good as the conductor who leads, so it is the case with the Bible and those who teach and preach it. A popular rabbinic story about Ben Azzai makes a similar point by tapping the imagery of a different metaphor. On one occasion, while he sat and taught, fire glowed around him.[4]  Ben Azzai’s spontaneous combustion harks back to the giving of God’s fiery Torah. In other words, his auditors were witnessing a sublime event, which was less dramatic, but similar in essence to the one which the original recipients of the Torah at Mt. Sinai had experienced.

1 Chron. 28:19 is a short verse about a text containing building instructions for the temple and its furnishings. It literally says: “All [the specifications of this plan] are in writing and they [come] from the hand of the Lord. I am responsible to explain [them].” At first glance, this verse seems to have little relevance for a discussion centering on 2 Tim. 3:16-17; however, in light of a Talmudic passage, both verses actually address similar issues.

Rabbi Yeremiah once taught the following in the name of another:

[Consider] the scroll which Samuel entrusted to David. It was given in order to be expounded. What is the proof? All of this in writing—This [refers] to its scriptural-literary character. From the hand of the Lord—This [refers] to the Holy Spirit. I am responsible to explain—From this [we learn] that it was given to be expounded.[5]

These remarks belong to a discussion about canonicity. For his part, Rabbi Yeremiah reminded his colleagues that the prophet Samuel gave David a scroll which possessed three defining characteristics of Scripture:[6]

1) The scroll was “in writing,” thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

2) The scroll came “from the hand of the Lord,” meaning that it was inspired like Oral Torah.

3) The scroll was given in order “to be expounded,” meaning that it could serve as the objective of exegesis, thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

The same elements are present in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. The Greek word γραφή (graphae) conveys the idea that Scripture is written. The Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos, i.e., God breathed) parallels the idea of coming “from the hand of the Lord” (i.e., God delivered). The former is regularly called divine inspiration, whereas the latter could be described as divine manipulation. Interestingly, Rabbi Yeremiah attributed this manual act to the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the association of θεόπνευστος with the Holy Spirit (i.e., πνεῦμα ἅγιον) is easy to make, because of the shared etymology. The clause “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” looks like an expanded, but equivalent way of saying “for expounding.”

We now have the benefit of consulting not only an early Christian epistle, but also a conceptual parallel from Talmudic literature before formulating a description of Scripture for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. Ideally, our declarations should echo the content of this old Jewish concept to which the New Testament author subscribed and which the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud included in their compilation. Being inspired (i.e., emanating from the Holy Spirit) and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training are intrinsic attributes of Scripture. These two attributes allow the Bible to play an indispensable and salubrious role in the life of Jewish and Christian communities of faith. When an inspired (and learned) teacher expounds the biblical text, it becomes like a living spring whose cathartic and curative waters nourish, refresh, and stimulate the community, and no matter how often revisited, they remain plentiful and efficacious.

  • [1] An earlier version of this essay was entitled A Jewish Comment about Scripture.
  • [2] Compare the NAB and NASB.
  • [3] Another article that addresses this point is my “Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture.”
  • [4] Lev Rabbah 16:4.
  • [5] J. Meg. 70a (ch 1:1) (Krotoschin ed.).
  • [6] I have benefited from Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1986).

Toward an Unclouded Vision of His Kingdom

At the center of Jesus’ preaching and teaching stood the good news of the kingdom of heaven. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spoke more about the kingdom of heaven than of himself. If, however, we listen carefully to the content of the sermons preached week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade from our pulpits, we cannot easily escape the impression that at best we have a blurred vision of the kingdom of heaven or at worst entirely lost sight of it.

The concern that I have raised here others have already flagged. For example, Krister Stendahl wrote that from the point of the post-resurrection kerygma, “it seems that the kingdom of which Jesus spoke has been swallowed up into personalized christology. The kingdom language with its powerful theological potential has somehow been neutralized and emasculated.” In another place Stendahl warned that “we may so preach Jesus that we lose the vision of the kingdom.”

In an effort to counter the risk we may be running of losing “the vision of the kingdom,” I will enumerate and comment briefly upon three optical aids for keeping it in focus.

The first optical aid is a robust pneumatology (or theology of the Holy Spirit). A Christian must have a keen appreciation for the role of God’s Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who powers the expansion of God’s kingdom. According to Matthew, Jesus once rejoined, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Although I do not promote the silliness so often encountered among Charismatic Christians, their calling attention to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our world today has been salutary and remains relevant to the good news of the kingdom of heaven.

The second aid is a willingness to move with God as he increases his reign. Robert Lindsey, who labored many years in the Greek texts of the Gospels, was fond of paraphrasing Matthew 11:12 in these words: “The kingdom of heaven is breaking forth, and everybody is breaking forth with it.” Jesus sometimes spoke of the kingdom of heaven in language suggesting the impact of God’s redemptive power upon humanity.

God’s redemptive agenda continues to be expansive: the kingdom of heaven is centrifugal. As we align ourselves with God’s program and move with the expansion of his kingdom, we will find ourselves being spun outward, away from our comfort zones, across social, economic, religious and educational lines, and entering the world of the other—the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast and the downtrodden. Jesus spoke as if the good news of the kingdom of heaven would be a windfall for the poor, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. He seemed to single out such people as being the most likely recipients of his proclamation.

The final aid for a clear vision is listening afresh to Jesus’ words within their original historical, religious and social context. A gap exists between the way Jesus read, preached and taught his Hebrew Torah scroll and the way we read, preach and teach our English Bible. This gap can never be closed, but it can certainly be reduced by comparing and contrasting Jesus’ teachings with what we find in post-biblical, ancient Jewish texts such as the Psuedepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic literature.

The expression, the kingdom of heaven, appears repeatedly in only two bodies of ancient Jewish texts—the New Testament and Rabbinic literature. A number of notable Jewish sages contributed to the conceptual evolution of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, who also belonged to the ranks of Israel’s finest sages, made his own distinctive contribution to the concept. Examining, therefore, what these sages said about the kingdom of heaven is a helpful exercise for better understanding Jesus’ unique perspective on it. Too many Christian scholars and clerics have treated as irrelevant, or neglected out of ignorance, the earliest stratum of rabbinic literature. Failing to factor significant data from rabbinic texts into their research, they have arrived at conclusions that in some cases lack preciseness, but in other cases, altogether miss the mark.

Based on my reading of ancient Jewish texts—including the New Testament, I am optimistic that a fresh, unclouded vision for God’s kingdom can be regained. Implementing the three optical aids enumerated above should prove to be a helpful initial prescription for sharpening our vision of his kingdom. I am eager to start seeing it more clearly, and my hope is that you are, too!