Hebrew or Aramaic? Some Evidence from Inscriptions

Modern interest in the Aramaic language arose with the “discovery” of the Aramaic-speaking churches of the east in the sixteenth century. Here, finally, it was believed, Jesus’ “mother-tongue” had been found, and the earliest treatises about the Jewish vernacular in the time of Jesus were written by de Rossi (1772)[1] and Pfannkuche (1798)[2] on the basis of this assumption. These treatises remained the only ones in the field until the studies of Dalman in 1894 and following.[3] Throughout these approximately one hundred years, scholars firmly believed in the exclusive use of Aramaic, and this belief permeated works of New Testament scholarship. By the end of the nineteenth century this belief had almost reached the status of infallibility.

For this reason, even the word “Hebrew” in the New Testament, as well as in Josephus and Philo, was believed to refer to the Aramaic language. Wordlists of Semitic terms in the New Testament were compiled and carefully checked against the Aramaic lexicon known at that time; however, these lists were never equally crosschecked against the Hebrew lexicon. In this way, even some clearly Hebrew terms ended up in the lists of Aramaic words. As Joseph A. Fitzmyer, one of the world’s more prominent Aramaic scholars, admitted in 1975 in hindsight: “…the way in which claims are sometimes made for the Aramaic substratum of the sayings of Jesus, when the evidence is merely “Semitic” in general, or, worse still, derived from some other Semitic language, e.g., Hebrew, should no longer be countenanced.”[4]

What we have to keep in mind is how thin was the evidence upon which scholars based their observations. They did not have the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cairo Genizah. There were no Bar Kochva letters or documents from Nahal Hever. There was no Targum Neofiti and no Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira. Archaeology in the Holy Land had only just begun and the epigraphic evidence was minimal. Therefore, some of the scholarly conclusions of these pioneers in the field, as learned as the conclusions were in their day, have to be revised from today’s perspective. For example, in 1798 Pfannkuche referred to the “Year 1” coins as proof that Aramaic was the vernacular as early as Hasmonean times. Today we know that these coins were minted during the first Jewish revolt and their language is Hebrew. Pfannkuche and Dalman dated the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan to Hellenistic times and believed they reflected the language spoken at the time of Jesus. Today these Targums are dated centuries later, and so is their language. Julius Wellhausen noticed the late date of the Targumic language and acknowledged that no textual evidence for “Palestinian Jewish Aramaic” was available. Therefore, he took most of his Aramaic material from the Palestinian-Christian lectionaries of the third and fourth centuries A.D.[5]

For these scholarly giants, the virtual absence of any Hebrew literature or epigraphic evidence from the period in question was a determining factor in their assuming the disappearance of the Hebrew language.

While many of the fundamental assumptions of Pfannkuche, Dalman and Wellhausen are still repeated today, the basis of evidence has changed drastically, mostly due to the discovery of new texts, documents, coins and inscriptions. When it comes to language issues, most students of the New Testament tend to rely on secondary literature rather than on primary sources. Even many New Testament scholars do not regularly read archaeological journals and excavation reports. Neither do they follow the trails of linguistic studies.

Examining the new Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphic material from the Second Temple period can be of great value for the heated debate on language use. Unfortunately, there are no comprehensive surveys of the evidence available in scholarly literature. Even worse, there are no recent catalogues of the relevant inscriptions and documents. This may be the case partly due to the fact that things have changed so dramatically: The most recent comprehensive catalogue of Jewish epigraphic material, the Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, dates back to 1952.[6] A more recent project, the three-volume Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis[7] covers all of the Mediterranean, but has left out the Land of Israel in view of the upcoming Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae Palaestinae.[8] The projected number of inscriptions and documents in the CIIP is about 10,000, compared to 533 in the CIJ. This gives us some idea of how vastly things have changed since the time of Dalman. It should be noted, though, that the CIIP also will include material from Jordan and the whole Arabian Peninsula.

For the time being, therefore, we are forced to rely on older catalogues and less comprehensive collections of Jewish material. Coming to our aid is a catalogue of 897 ossuaries compiled by L. Y. Rahmani.[9] This catalogue is of great importance since ossuaries can be dated roughly to approximately 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. Since 1994, more than 200 additional ossuaries have been discovered, many of which have been published in a variety of publications. To these belong the ossuaries from the Caiaphas tomb in Talpiyot,[10] from Mount Scopus,[11] Giv’at Shapira,[12] Akeldama,[13] multiple sites in the Galilee,[14] and ossuaries in the catalogue of the German Protestant Institute in Jerusalem.[15] Other important collections of epigraphic material are those from the excavations of Masada,[16] the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem[17] and the City of David.[18] The inscriptions from the Beth Shearim necropolis, only partly contained in CIJ, were later published completely in the official excavation reports, and are included in the statistics below.[19] We also can add the papyri and letters from the Judean desert included in the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series.[20]

The epigraphic material collected in these corpora could be categorized as follows: Greek (g), Bilingual Greek-Aramaic (ga), Bilingual Greek-Hebrew (gh), Aramaic (a), Hebrew (h) and others (o). However, since much of the evidence is inconclusive, we could introduce the following subcategories: texts that are clearly identifiable as Aramaic or Hebrew (a1 and h1), others that have only secondary language markers, such as the use of bar/ ben or bat/berah in the eponyms (a2 and h2), and those that are not unambiguously Aramaic or Hebrew (ah), for example, a personal name. Finally, among the bilingual texts, there are also those that are not unequivocally Greek-Hebrew or Greek-Aramaic (gn = Greek Neutral).

Using these categories, the data from the collections mentioned above can be summarized as follows (in this order): t-g-o / ga-gn-gh / a1-a2-ah-h2-h1, where “t” is the total number:

1. Texts from the CIJ catalogue (Frey 1952):

t

g

o

ga

gn

gh

a1

a2

ah

h2

h1

Ossuary inscriptions from Jerusalem
(II B.C. – II A.D.)

178

63

0

2

10

4

6

18

49

18

5

Jaffa necropolis
(II/III A.D.)

69

45

0

0

15

2

3

1

1

2

0

Beth She’arim necropolis
(II/III A.D.)

279

221

10

0

8

8

3

0

0

0

45

Remaining CIJ inscriptions
(II B.C.-I A.D.)

28

7

0

0

0

0

2

3

8

1

6

Remaining CIJ inscriptions
(II A.D.-VII A.D.)

89

24

0

1

1

7

24

5

11

0

18

2. Texts from other major collections and recent excavations:

t

g

o

ga

gn

gh

a1

a2

ah

h2

h1

Ossuary inscriptions from Jerusalem (Rahmani)[21]

233

73

3

3

10

2

18

35

69

13

7

More recent ossuary inscriptions (200 samples)

48

18

0

1

0

2

2

3

13

4

3

Masada inscriptions

904

92

106

0

0

0

36

29

607

12

6

Jewish Quarter and City of David excavations

35

1

1

27

4

2

DJD (all non-literary texts)

282

85

22

0

0

7

51

0

19

0

98

DJD (Bar Kochva letters only)

26

2

0

0

0

0

8

0

3

0

13

DJD (economic documents only)[22]

95

40

14

0

0

0

27

0

1

0

12

Of the 2,142 inscriptions and documents catalogued here, a total of 146 can clearly be identified as being written in Aramaic (a1), while a total of 200 can be identified as being written in Hebrew (h1). If we count only those that can be dated to the Second Temple period, the ratio will be 116 Aramaic texts to 137 Hebrew texts. These are not absolute numbers, of course, since there is a significant overlap between some of the catalogues. However, the overall ratio of Aramaic to Hebrew does not change.

Although this tabulation is not comprehensive, it includes the most important major collections of inscriptions currently published. It will be possible to compile more comprehensive statistics as soon as CIIP is available. In addition, these quantitative data need to be qualified as to the context, function and value of each corpus. I have done this qualifying in a forthcoming publication. In it, I have shown that both Hebrew and Aramaic are used in all spheres of life, by all kinds of people, and in all geographic regions of the land. A slight preference for Hebrew can be seen in religious contexts, while a slight preference for Aramaic can be seen in economic and administrative contexts; however, neither to the exclusion of the other.

One also should note the inscriptions of Jewish coinage published by Ya’akov Meshorer:[23] the inscriptions of all Jewish coins from the Second Temple period, with only one exception, are in Hebrew. The exception is one series of coins with Aramaic inscriptions (in Paleo-Hebrew script) minted by Alexander Jannai in 78 B.C. However, since Jannai at other times also minted coins with Hebrew inscriptions, this one exception can hardly be evidence for the replacement of one language by the other.

The above preliminary statistical survey of inscriptions should make one thing clear: we cannot speak of a predominance of one language over the other. In almost every case, we find a typical “bell-shaped” curve, with most of the material inconclusive and equal numbers of Hebrew and Aramaic on both sides of the scale. If any, then there is a slight numerical prevalence of Hebrew over Aramaic, especially in the case of coins. These statistics must be supplemented with data from literary texts, with further linguistic research on the character and history of Mishnaic Hebrew (such as that already done by M. S. Hirsch, Y. Kutscher, M. Bar-Asher, and others), and with historical studies. The lists of Semitic words in the New Testament should be re-examined on the basis of more recent and more precise lexical data such as that now available in Sokoloff’s lexicons[24] and the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. Finally, the frequent claim that John, Luke, Josephus and Philo could only have meant “Aramaic” when they wrote “Hebrew” must now be re-evaluated in light of the obviously trilingual Jewish society in the land of Israel in the Second Temple period.

  • [1] Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi Della Lingua Propria Di Cristo E Degli Ebrei Nazionali Della Palestina Da Tempi de Maccabei (Parma: Stamperia Reale, 1772).
  • [2] Heinrich Friedrich Pfannkuche, “Über die palästinische Landessprache in dem Zeitalter Christi und der Apostel. Ein Versuch, zum Theil nach de Rossi entworfen,” in: Allgemeine Bibliothek der biblischen Literatur (ed. Johann Gottfried Eichhorn; Achter Band; Drittes Stück; Leipzig: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1798), 365-80.
  • [3] Gustaf Dalman, Grammatik des jüdisch-palästinischen Aramäisch nach den Idiomen des palästinischen Talmud und Midrasch, des Onkelostargum (cod. Sorini 84) und der jerusalemischen Targume zum Pentateuch (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1894); idem, Aramäische Dialektproben: Lesestücke zur Grammatik des jüdisch-palästinischen Aramäisch zumeist nach Handschriften des Britischen Museums (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1896); Gustaf Dalman and G. H. Händler, Aramäisch-neuhebräisches Handwörterbuch zu Targum, Talmud und Midrasch. Mit Vokalisation der Targumischen Wörter nach südarabischen Handschriften und besonderer Bezeichnung des Wortschatzes des Onkelostargum (Frankfurt a.M.: Kaufmann, 1897); Gustaf Dalman, Die Worte Jesu: mit Berücksichtigung des nachkanonischen jüdischen Schrifttums und der aramäischen Sprache erörtert (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1898).
  • [4] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament” (1975), reprinted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramaean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979): 5.
  • [5] Julius Wellhausen, Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1905), 38-42.
  • [6] Jean Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum. Recueil des Inscriptions Juives qui vont du IIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ au VIIe siècle de Notre Ère. Vol II: Asie-Afrique. Sussidi allo studio delle antichità cristiane III (Roma: Pontificio Institutu di Archeologia Cristiana, 1952).
  • [7] David Noy, Alexander Panayotov and Hanswulf Bloedhorn, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. I. Eastern Europe. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 101 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004); Walter Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. II. Asia Minor. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 99 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004); David Noy and Hanswulf Bloedhorn Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. III. Syria and Cyprus. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 102 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004).
  • [8] Cf. the progress report of the project: Hannah M. Cotton, Leah Di Segni, Werner Eck and Benjamin Isaac, “Corpus Inscriptionum Judaeae/Palestinae,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 127 (1999): 307-08.
  • [9] L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: The Israel Antiquities Authority and The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994).
  • [10] Ronny Reich, “Ossuary Inscriptions from the ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb,” Atiqot 21 (1992): 72-77; idem, “Ossuary Inscriptions from the Caiaphas Tomb, JerPersp 33-34 (Jul./Oct. 1991): 13-21, 29; Zvi Greenhut, “Discovery of the Caiaphas Family Tomb,” JerPersp 33-34 (Jul./Oct. 1991): 6-12, 13.
  • [11] Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, “Jerusalem, Mt. Skopus,” Excavations and Surveys in Israel 13 (1995): 72-74.
  • [12] Lili Gershuny and Boaz Zissu, “Tombs of the Second Temple Period at Giv’at Shapira, Jerusalem,” Atiqot 30 (1996): 45-59 (Hebrew) and 128-30 (English summary).
  • [13] Tamar Shadmi, “The Ossuaries and the Sarcophagus” (chpt. 2), in Israel Antiquities Authorities Report 1: The Akeldama Tombs (eds. Gideon Avni and Zvi Greenhut; Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1996), 41-55.
  • [14] Mordechai Aviam and Danny Syon, “Jewish Ossilegium in Galilee,” in What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Essays on Classical, Jewish, and Early Christian Art and Archaeology in Honor of Gideon Foerster, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 1 (ed. Leonard V. Rutgers; Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 151-87. 
  • [15] Volkmar Fritz and Roland Deines, “Catalogue of the Jewish Ossuaries in the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology,” Israel Exploration Journal 49 (1999): 222-41. Yigael Yadin and Josef Naveh, The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions, in Masada, I (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989), 1-68, Pls.1-59.
  • [16] Yigael Yadin and Josef Naveh, The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions, in Masada, I (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989), 1-68, Pls.1-59.
  • [17] Esther Eshel, “Hebrew and Aramaic Inscriptions from the Jewish Quarter,” in Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem (conducted by Nahman Avigad, 1969-1982); Volume III: Area E and Other Studies (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Institute of Archeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006), 389-407.
  • [18] Joseph Naveh, “Hebrew and Aramaic Inscriptions,” in Excavations at the City of David 1978-1985 (directed by Yigal Shiloh); Volume VI: Inscriptions (Qedem, Monographs of the Institute of Archeology 41) (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2000), 1-14.
  • [19] Benjamin Mazar, Beth She’arim I: Catacombs 1-4 (report on the 1936-1940 ecavations; Jerusalem: Massada Press, 1973); Moshe Schwabe and Baruch Lifshitz, Beth She’arim II: The Greek Inscriptions(Jerusalem: Massada Press, 1974); Nahman Avigad, Beth She’arim III: Catacombs 12-23 (report on the 1953-1958 excavations; Jerusalem: Massada Press, 1976).
  • [20] For an overview and bibliography, see Emmanuel Tov, “The Texts from the Judaean Desert,” indices and introduction to Discoveries in the Judaean Desert: Volume 39 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 143-64. 
  • [21] I am indebted to David Bivin who analyzed the inscriptions in the Rahmani catalogue and provided me with these statistics.
  • [22] Cf. Hanan Eshel, “On the Use of Hebrew in Economic Documents from the Judaean Desert“ in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005), 245-58.
  • [23] Ya’acov Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage (2 vol.; Dix Hills, NY: Amphora Books, 1982); recent additions in, idem, “Ancient Jewish Coinage, Addendum I,” Israel Numismatic Journal 11 (1991): 104-132. 
  • [24] Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period (2d ed.; Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2002); idem, A Dictionary of Judean Aramaic (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2003).

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.)

Jesus’ Yoke and Burden

Revised: 25-Nov-2014
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30; NIV).

Although extraordinarily beautiful, Jesus’ saying recorded in Matthew 11:28-30 is enigmatic. What is this saying’s meaning, and what were Jesus’ “yoke” and “burden”?[1]

A Context-less Saying

The “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” passage (Matt 11:28-30) is unique to Matthew’s gospel—we find no parallels to it in the other three gospels. Furthermore, the setting for the Matthew 11:28-30 passage is difficult to establish. The passage appears following the “Woes on the Cities of Galilee” (Matt 11:20-24) and “Jesus’ Thanksgiving to the Father” (Matt 11:25-27) pericopae, neither pericope seemingly providing a context for Jesus’ “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” teaching. Luke’s gospel, too, preserves the “Woes on the Cities of Galilee” (Luke 10:13-5) and “Jesus’ Thanksgiving to the Father” (Luke 10:21-22), but places the two passages in the context of the “Sending Out and Return of the Seventy.”

It appears that the original context for Jesus’ “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” saying has been lost; however, in spite of this, passages in the apocryphal book of Ben Sira may help us determine Jesus’ intent. The Ben Sira texts indicate that Jesus was speaking of the study of Torah (Written and Oral) and the rigors of first-century discipleship.

Keys to Understanding Jesus’ Saying

In Ben Sira (also known as “Ecclesiasticus,” and “The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach”), a Greek book of the Apocrypha that predates Jesus by over one hundred years, there exists an astounding parallel[2] to Jesus’ words:

Draw near to me, you unlearned, and lodge in the house of study. Why are you slow, and what do you say about these things, your souls being very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, “Buy her [wisdom] for yourselves without money.[3] Put your neck under (her) yoke, and let your soul receive instruction. She is to be found nearby.[4] See with your eyes how, with only a little labor, I have gotten much rest. Get learning with a great sum of money, and by means of her acquire much gold.” (Ben Sira 51:23-28)

These verses, whose themes are wisdom and learning, also survived (with some variations) in a Hebrew manuscript (ms. B) that was discovered in 1898 in the so-called Cairo Genizah, a Cairo synagogue’s burial place for worn-out manuscripts containing Scripture:

Turn to me, you unlearned, and lodge in my house of study [beit midrash]. How long will you be lacking these things while your soul remains very thirsty? I opened my mouth and spoke of her [i.e., wisdom]: “Buy yourselves wisdom without money. Put [lit., bring] your necks under her yoke, and let your soul carry her burden. She is near those who seek her, and the person who gives his soul [i.e., life] finds her. See with your eyes that I was insignificant, but I persevered until I found her.” (translation mine)

The Ben Sira 51 passage contains the same themes found in Matthew 11:28-30: “Drawing near to a source of instruction”;[5] the taking up of a yoke, or burden; and the labor of learning that results in the finding of rest. “With only a little labor I have gotten much rest” (Ben Sira 51:27) implies that “the yoke is easy” (Matt 11:30). Ben Sira’s “Let your soul receive instruction” is similar to Jesus’ “Learn from me.” Key words found in the two passages include: “find/found,” “your souls,”[6] “yoke” and “burden” [in Matt and the Hebrew version of Ben Sira].

A second Ben Sira passage about Wisdom adds to our understanding of Jesus’ saying:

Listen, my son, and accept my judgment; do not reject my counsel. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Put your shoulder under her and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek,[7] and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. Then her fetters will become for you a strong protection, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds are a cord of blue. You will wear her like a glorious robe, and put her on like a crown of gladness (Ben Sira 6:23-31; RSV).[8]

This Ben Sira passage, like the Ben Sira 51 passage, has much in common with Matthew 11:28-30: “Put…your neck into her collar” and “Put your shoulder under her” are like Jesus’ “Take my yoke upon you.” In the phrase, “Do not fret under her bonds,” we find the equivalent of “burden.” “Come to her with all your soul” reminds us of Jesus’ “Come to me.” “You will find the rest she gives” is echoed by Jesus (Matt 11:29). “Yoke” is mentioned in both passages. Ben Sira has “your soul,” while “your souls” is found in Jesus’ words. “Her yoke…and her bonds” is paralleled by Jesus’ “my yoke…my burden.” According to Ben Sira, wisdom’s yoke, that is, the burden of study, will become joy, strong protection, a golden ornament, a cord of blue, a glorious robe and a crown of gladness. In other words, although the yoke is a burden, the bearer will experience it as easy and light.

tn_Plowing_in_Plains_of_Jezreelwr
Two pairs of yoked oxen plowing in the Jezreel Valley on May 4, 1894. Photograph courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

Probably like the Ben Sira passages above, Matthew 11:28-30 is a learning context. Jesus was not contrasting his burden to the heavy burdens of the Pharisees to which he referred elsewhere (Matt 23:4), but rather, as he extended an invitation to prospective students to join his band of traveling students, alluding to the burden, or cost, of discipleship.

Although the Matthew 11 passage lacks a setting, and therefore, it is difficult to be sure of Jesus’ intention, Ben Sira 51:23-28 and Ben Sira 6:23-31 help us to understand Jesus’ intention. Some commentators discount the importance of the Ben Sira passages; however, they contain manifold parallels to Jesus’ call. In fact, there are so many parallels in Ben Sira 51 that some authorities have suggested that Jesus, or the editor of his biography, was quoting from Ben Sira. Although not quoting, it appears likely that Jesus was alluding to Ben Sira.

A Possible Context for Matthew 11:28-30?

Although Matthew 11:28-30’s context is difficult to establish, there do seem to be other sayings of Jesus with which we might associate it, for example, sayings whose theme is discipleship. Robert Lindsey suggested that Jesus’ original “Cost of Being Jesus’ Disciple”[9] teaching included the following verses (in the following order):

Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16b; Luke 18:19-25, 28-30)
Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44)
Valuable Pearl (Matt 13:45-46)
Cost of Discipleship (Luke 14:26-27)
Tower Builder (Luke 14:28-30)
King Going to War (Luke 14:31-33)

Conclusion

The life of a disciple was not a bed of roses. In the Mishnah it is referred to as “a painful existence”: “This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure [Ezek 4:11], sleep on the ground, live a painful existence, and labor [studying] the Torah” (m. Avot 6:4; translation mine).

Like other sages of his day, Jesus clearly indicated that a disciple’s existence would be difficult: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). In other words, his disciple would lead an itinerant lifestyle without permanent accommodations. Jesus also warned, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27; NIV). In other words, the life of a student engaged in the study of the Torah with him would be rigorous, and great sacrifice would be required.[10] Such a lifestyle would necessarily be characterized by extreme dedication to the task and to the teacher: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62; NIV); “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22; NIV).

On the one hand, Jesus advised students who considered joining his school of disciples, which he called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven,” to consider very carefully the price they would have to pay (Luke 14:26-27), giving two illustrations to make his point (Luke 14:28-33). On the other hand, Jesus promised students that they would be more than compensated for whatever sacrifices they were required to make (“the yoke would be easy”). When Peter exclaimed, “Look, we have left our possessions (or, our families) to follow you (Luke 18:28)—typical of the situation of first-century Jewish students who were intent on gaining Torah wisdom—Jesus responded, “No one has left house [i.e., family]…for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven [i.e., Jesus’ beit midrash] who will not receive much more in this life….” (Luke 18:29-30). In other words, the joy and satisfaction that a student of Jesus received far outweighed the sacrifices that he was required to make. Jesus taught that the value of being part of the Kingdom of Heaven was inestimable; it was like the value of buried treasure or a priceless fine pearl (Matt 13:44-46).

In his “Comfort for the Heavy-Laden” teaching, Jesus extended a call to prospective disciples. As these pupils well knew, the study of Torah was a yoke, a heavy burden. “But,” said Jesus, “my yoke is easy,” that is, “studying Torah with me will be so exhilarating that you won’t even notice the yoke’s weight. You will labor strenuously, but never get tired!”

Commentary

δεῦτε πρός με (come to me)

Likely, “Come to me” was an invitation to study in Jesus’ school, to become his disciple.[11] According to Ben Sira, it was Wisdom who invited people to come to her, find rest and accept her yoke (Sir 6:26, 28, 30 [Hebrew]; 24:19; 51:26).

πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι (all the weary and burdened)

Perhaps the phrase “weary and burdened” is an example of hendiadys, that is, the two verbs express a single concept, e.g., “bone tired,” “tired because of a heavy load,” “weary of a load.”[12]

Jesus’ words may reflect Jeremiah 31:25: “I will give drink to the weary and fill the faint.”[13] The Septuagint’s rendering of this verse (= Jer. 38:25) is: “I gave drink to every thirsty soul and filled every hungry soul.”

κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς (and I will give you rest)

The “I will give you rest” promise is probably Jesus’ assurance to prospective disciples that, by studying Torah with him, the arduous life of a disciple would seem easy. “I will give you rest” could also be Jesus’ claim that his teaching was authoritative. The words reminds us of his argument preserved in Matthew 5:17-19 that his interpretation of the Torah was correct and that his interpretation established the meaning of the Torah’s words.[14] Since in the minds of members of his audience, “yoke” was strongly connected with study of Torah and the keeping of its commandments, when Jesus went on (in Matt 11:29) to say, “Take my yoke upon you,” his words could have implied, “Accept my interpretation of the Torah’s commandments.”

Into Jesus’ invitation to potential disciples, perhaps even the disciples of other teachers, Jesus may have inserted a messianic claim—the Messiah was expected to bring rest for the righteous.[15] More startlingly, Jesus’ alluded[16] to Exodus 33:14: “The LORD replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest [וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ, va-hanikhoti lach]'” (NIV).[17] By using the words, “and I will give you rest,” Jesus spoke in a way that only God speaks.

ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς (take my yoke upon you)

The command “Take” is synonymous with “Come” in the preceding sentence (vs. 28). Rest is promised for three actions: for the coming to Jesus (to learn his approach to Torah), for the taking upon oneself his yoke (that is, joining his “Kingdom of Heaven” school), and for the learning from him.

“Yoke” probably refers to the hardships connected with advanced study of Torah and the rigors of being a disciple (at that time, a full-time disciple of a sage was roughly the equivalent of the post-doctoral student of today). “Yoke” also could have been a reference to obedience to the commandments of the Torah,[18] or to Jesus’ interpretation of them.[19]

καὶ μάθετε ἀπ᾿ ἐμοῦ ὅτι πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ (and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart)

A few scholars have suggested that the words, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,” were not part of the saying that Jesus uttered, but were added to the Gospel accounts long after Jesus’ time.[20] However, if it is true that by this statement (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus was extending an invitation to prospective students, then “learn from me” well fits the context. We should notice that the Greek does not read, “learn of me,” but, “learn from me,” meaning, perhaps, “Come, study in my traveling school.”[21]

One should compare Jesus’ self-characterization, “meek [πραΰς, prays] and humble [ταπεινός, tapeinos],” with the description of Moses: “Now Moses was a very humble man [עָנָו, anav; LXX’s trans., πραΰς, prays], more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3; JPS). Perhaps Jesus was hinting that he was the “prophet like Moses” prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18.[22]

καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν (and you will find rest for your souls)

This is an obvious allusion to Jeremiah 6:16: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ But you said, ‘We will not walk in it'” (NIV). Here, too, by using “and you will find rest for your souls,” Jesus could have been speaking as only God speaks. On the other hand, “and you will find rest for your souls” could be a latter addition to the text, drawn by the mention of “rest” in the preceding verse, that is, Matthew, or a later scribe might have remembered the “rest” in Jeremiah 6:16, and added it here out of place.[23]

ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστὸς καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν (for my yoke is easy and my burden is light)

The Greek adjective χρηστός (chrestos, easy) appears in the New Testament only here, in Luke 6:35 and 1 Peter 2:3; the Greek adjective ἐλαφρός (elaphros, light; insignificant] only here and in 2 Corinthians 4:17. Although these two words appear in the Gospels only in the same short Matthean passage, they probably did not originate with the author of Matthew, or his Greek source(s), but with the conjectured earlier Hebrew stage of the Gospel’s transmission: the two words appear in a passage that is full of Hebrew parallelism and translates easily to Hebrew.[24]

In what sense was Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light? When Peter pointed out that he and his fellow disciples had left “family” to follow him (Luke 18:28), Jesus replied that all who had left home and family to follow him would receive “much more” in this life (Luke 18:29-30). “To receive much more” appears to be Jesus’ promise that the life of a student in his school would be an exhilarating experience, true happiness.[25] One can be invigorated by a heavy workload when the work is interesting. On the other hand, boredom and frustration can make even the smallest amount of work exhausting.

In attempting to understand the meaning of “burden” (Greek: φορτίον, phortion) of which Jesus here speaks, one cannot ignore his use of “heavy burdens” (φορτία βαρέα, phortia barea [phortia is the plural of phortion]) in Matthew 23:4, nor the use of “burden” (Greek: βάρος, baros, burden, load, weight) in a letter sent from the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:28).[26]

1. The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice [lit., “they say and do not do”]. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. (Matt 23:2-4; RSV)

Jesus stated that the scribes and Pharisees bound “heavy burdens” and placed them on people’s shoulders. These burdens were the Pharisees’ religious rulings, the commandments of the Oral Torah, as confirmed by the word “bind,” a Hebraism for “to give a halachic prohibition,”[27] and the double parallelism of Matthew 23:3-4: the parallel to “heavy burdens” is “everything they tell you”—“tell” was a Hebraism for “to give a religious ruling, lay down a halachah”—and the contrast to “tell” is “do” (“they preach [literally, say], but do not practice [literally, do]”). In contrast to most authorities, I assume that the “burden” of Matthew 11:30 does not refer to the burden of keeping the Pharisees’ oral commandments,[28] but to the heavy burden of sacrifice and deprivation that a sage’s disciple was required to bear in order to gain a thorough knowledge of Torah.[29] The word “bind” and the plural “burdens” in Matthew 23:24 help to confirm this assumption.

Likely, Jesus’ “my burden is light” was part of an invitation he extended to those who might join his traveling school of disciples, which, at other times, he called the Kingdom of Heaven.[30] The parallels in chapters 6 and 51 of Ben Sira indicate that in Matthew 11 Jesus was speaking of the labor of study to acquire (God’s) wisdom, not the labor involved in keeping the oral commandments.[31] Obviously, Jesus did not think that observance of the Torah’s commandments—oral as well as written—was unimportant. After all, it was he who said, “Practice and observe whatever they [the Pharisees] tell you” (Matt 23:3). He was confident that thorough study and proper understanding of the Torah would result in observance of its commandments.

2. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” (Acts 15:28; RSV)

The word “burden” in Acts 15:28 (referred to as a yoke in Acts 15:10, and as an annoyance in Acts 15:19), like the word “burdens” in Matthew 23:4, probably referred to the responsibility of keeping the commandments as they were interpreted by contemporary Jewish religious authorities,[32] and not to the painful and demanding life of study in the peripatetic school of a Torah scholar, of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 11:28-30.

I see no reason for doubting the authenticity of Peter’s assertion in Acts 15:10 that the commandments were a “yoke.”[33] Ancient rabbinic sources also speak of the commandments as a yoke and burden,[34] and Jewish teachers used the words “yoke” and “burden” as synonyms for “mitzvah,” “mitzvoth” and “Torah.”[35]

A Reconstruction of the Hypothetical Hebrew Original

Matthew 11:28
בֹּאוּ אֵלַי כָּל הַיְּגֵעִים וְהָעֲמוּסִים וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָכֶם (bo’u elai kol ha-yege’im ve-ha-amusim, va-hanikhoti lachem, come to me all the weary and burdened, and I will lighten your burden.)

Matthew 11:29
קְחוּ אֶת עֻלִּי עֲלֵיכֶם וְלִמְדוּ מִמֶּנִּי כִּי עָנָו אֲנִי וּשְׁפַל רוּחַ וּמִצְאוּ מַרְגּוֹעַ לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם (kekhu et uli alechem ve-limdu mimeni, ki anav ani u-shefal ruakh u-mits’u margo’a le-nafshotechem, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am humble and lowly of spirit, and you will find rest for your souls)

Matthew 11:30
כִּי עֻלִּי נָעִים וְמַשָֹאִי קַל (ki uli na’im ve-masa’i kal, for my yoke is pleasant and my burden is light)

Dynamic translation of Hebrew reconstruction:

Everyone who is exhausted, overloaded, I invite you to join me. “I will lighten your burden” [Exod 33:14]. Shoulder my yoke in order to learn from me, because I am humble and you will find spiritual rest, for my yoke [that is, the yoke with which I will harness you] does not chafe, and my burden [that is, the load I will put on you] is light.

  • [1] One should consult the standard commentaries on this passage. In addition, see S. Bacchiocchi, “Matthew 11.28-30: Jesus’ Rest and the Sabbath,” AUSS 22 (1984): 289-316; Hans Dieter Betz, “The Logion of the Easy Yoke and of Rest,” JBL 86 (1967): 10-24; J. J. C. Cox, “‘Bearers of Heavy Burdens,’ A Significant Textual Variant,” AUSS 9 (1971): 1-15; M. Maher, “‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt xi.29),” NTS 22 (1975): 97-102; G. N. Stanton, “Matthew 11.28-30: Comfortable Words?” ExpTim 94 (1982): 3-9.
  • [2] Commentators, for example, Geza Vermes (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus [London: Allen Lane, 2003], 330), note the parallel between Jesus’ saying and the passage in Ben Sira, but usually only refer to it in passing. Some scholars suggest that Ben Sira’s influence on Jesus’ words is slight: Robert H. Gundry writes, “At most…the passage in Sira exercised an indirect and vague influence on Matthew” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution [2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 220). A minority of scholars view the close similarity between Jesus’ saying and Ben Sira’s as evidence that Matt 11:28-30 was not originally uttered by Jesus, but was put into his mouth by a later editor: “A substantial scholarly opinion holds that Matthew 11:28-30 does not stem from Jesus, but is an excerpt from an otherwise unknown Jewish sapiential book. The term ‘yoke’, a common expression in rabbinic literature, is used only here in the Gospels and Jesus is nowhere else called ‘lowly’ (tapeinos). But the strongest argument against associating this saying with him is that much of his moral message was neither easy nor light” (Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 330-31). A number of commentators, however, see the Ben Sira 51 passage’s importance, even suggesting that Jesus may have alluded to or quoted Ben Sira. See Konrad Weiss (TDNT 9:85), Karl Heinrich Rengstorf (TDNT 2:900, n. 22), and others, recently, Vermes (see above); Gundry (see above); Willoughby C. Allen: “There seems to be an undoubted dependence of these words [Matt 11:28-30] upon Ecclus [i.e., Ben Sira] 50, 51” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew [ICC; 3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1912], 123-24); W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann speak of “the dependence of these verses [Matt 11:28-30] in the Greek on the LXX of Ecclus 51” (Matthew [AB 26; Garden City: Doubleday, 1971], 146).)
  • [3] “Buy without money” reminds us of Isa 55:1: “Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money; Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost” (JPS).
  • [4] Perhaps a reference to Deut 30:11-14: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (RSV).
  • [5] The invitation “Come to me” extended by Wisdom is also found in Prov 8:1-5; 9:1-6; and Sir 24:19-21: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce. For the remembrance of me is sweeter than honey, and my inheritance sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more” (RSV).
  • [6] The reference in Ben Sira 51:24 to “thirsty souls” reminds us of Jesus’ Beatitude 4 (Matt 5:6).
  • [7] The “seek…you will find” causes one to reflect that perhaps Matt 11:28-30 belongs to the same context as, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt 7:7-8 = Luke 11:9-10).
  • [8] Portions of this passage are extant in three Hebrew manuscripts: Genizah A; Genizah B and Qumran. The Qumran text reads, “Study and investigate, seek and find; and when you have gotten hold of her, do not let go. For in the end, you will find rest, and she will become enjoyable” (Ben Sira 6:27-28; translation mine).
  • [9] This “contextual” reconstruction was put forward in Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 93. See David Bivin, “Cost of Entering the Kingdom of Heaven complex.”
  • [10] See David Bivin, “First-century Discipleship,” Jerusalem Perspective 13 (Oct. 1988): 1-2.
  • [11] According to Donald A. Hagner, “The invitation to come to Jesus is an invitation to discipleship, that is, to follow him and his teaching. ‘Yoke’ (dzugon) is a common metaphor for the law, both in Judaism (m. ‘Abot 3:5; m. Ber. 2:2; cf. 1QH 6:19) and in the NT (Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1). When Jesus invites people with the words…‘take my yoke upon you,’ he invites them to follow his own teaching as the definitive interpretation of the law (see on 5:17-20). The same point is stressed in the next clause…‘learn from me'” (Matthew [WBC 33A-33B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993-1995], 324).
  • [12] See David Bivin, “Hendiadys in the Synoptic Gospels,” Jerusalem Perspective 52 (Jul.-Sept. 1997): 14-15.
  • [13] Robert H. Gundry writes: “‘Who are weary and burdened’ in vs. 28a echoes Jer 31:25: ‘for I have satisfied the weary [LXX: thirsty] soul, and every faint [LXX: hungry] soul I have replenished.’ ‘And I will give you refreshment’ in verse 28b echoes the very same words in Exod 33:14. ‘And you will find refreshment for your souls’ in verse 29d is a verbatim quotation of Jer. 6:16” (Matthew, 219).
  • [14] See David Bivin, “Matthew 5:17: ‘Destroy’ the Law” and “Matthew 5:19: The Importance of ‘Light’ Commandments.”
  • [15] Samuel Tobias Lachs points out that “one of the blessings forthcoming in the messianic age will be the giving of rest to the weary pious” (A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1987], 196. Lachs cites En. 48.4, Pesiq. Rab Kah. 27 [163a], and Pesiq. Rab. 32 [149a] in support of his statement [196, n. 1].)
  • [16] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., imply that “and I will give you rest” did not come originally from the mouth of Jesus, but is a quotation from Exod 33:14 that was inserted by a later editor: “The closest OT parallel to Jesus’ words, ‘and I will give you rest,’ is Exod 33.14, where God says to Moses: ‘and I will give you rest’…Note that whereas in the OT text it is God, not Moses, who gives rest, in the NT Jesus gives it. Once more, then, Jesus is greater than Moses” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew [ICC; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-1997], 2:287.
  • [17] The sense of וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ (va-hanikhoti lach) is probably not “and I will give you rest” in the absolute sense, that is, total or complete rest, but as the JPS renders, “I will lighten your burden.”
  • [18] F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, commenting on the use of “yoke” in Acts 15:10, state: “Zygon (‘ol) was commonly used by Jewish writers in the sense of ‘obligation'” (The Acts of the Apostles [5 vols.; London: Macmillan , 1920-33], 4:173-74); however, Jackson and Lake give no examples of “yoke” used in the sense of “obligation.” Davies and Allison remark: “The word [yoke] came to be a metaphor for obedience, subordination, servitude” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:289). According to Gundry, citing Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1; Sir 51:26; Pss. Sol. 7:9; 19:32; m. ‘Abot 3:6; 2 Apoc. Bar. 41:3; and b. Ber.13a, “yoke” is a well-known metaphor for obedience (Matthew, 219). Konrad Weiss comments: “In rabbinic texts מַשָּׂא [masa’, burden]…has…the transf[igurative] sense of ‘obligation,’ ‘duty’ (jBer. 3, 1 [5d, 53-56. 61])” (“φορτίον,” TDNT 9:85).

    If when he said, “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus spoke of the keeping of commandments, Jesus might have been speaking as only God speaks. By calling this yoke “my yoke” (and the burden “my burden”), Jesus could have been making a shocking statement. The keeping of commandments was referred to as a yoke, but it is unlikely that a sage would have made the claim that this yoke was “his.”

    Jesus made abundant messianic statements. By alluding to Scripture, he claimed to be the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7:13 (Luke 22:69, 19:10; Matt 25:31; see Randall Buth, “Jesus’ Most Important Title”); the “Green Tree” of Ezekiel 20:47 (Luke 23:31); the “King” (Matt 25:34); “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5); and “Greater than Jonah and Solomon” (Luke 11:31-32 ). (By others, Jesus was referred to by such messianic titles as “Lord” [Luke 5:8]; “Son of God” [Luke 1:35]; “Son of David” [Luke 18:38]; and the “Prophet Like Moses,” the Last Redeemer of Deuteronomy 18:15 [Luke 7:16; see David Bivin, “‘Prophet’ as a Messianic Title” ].) However, an audacious claim was almost never Jesus’ main thrust. Into his teaching, which addressed specific situations and a wide variety of general subjects, he inserted, naturally and almost unconsciously, very subtle allusions to Scriptures that had been interpreted messianically by contemporary teachers and their predecessors.

    Some of Jesus’ allusions seem to be more than “mere” messianic claims. In delivering his teaching, apparently, he sometimes spoke as only God speaks. For instance, in the preface to his Parable of the House Built on Solid Foundations, Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does [i.e., keeps, observes] them will be like a wise man…” (Matt 7:24; Luke 6:47), employing “my words” when he spoke of hearing and doing God’s commandments. Likewise, he proclaimed, “I will build my community [congregation, assembly]…” (Matt 16:18). Jesus’ “my yoke” (= “my burden”) in Matthew 11:29-30 should be compared to his “my words” and “my community.” Jesus also spoke like God when he said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), a clear reference to Ezekiel 34 where it is God who says repeatedly that he will seek and save his lost sheep. By claiming to be the “Seeker and Saver of the Lost,” Jesus assumed a function of God, that of being the “Shepherd of the Lost Sheep.”

    Did Jesus’ “come to me,” “I will give you rest,” “my yoke” and “my burden” indicate his high messianic consciousness, or, were these phrases simply the words of a first-century Jewish teacher calling prospective pupils to his school? Or both? These question have been thoroughly debated in scholarly publications.

  • [19] In Hagner’s opinion, “When Jesus invites people with the words…‘take my yoke upon you,’ he invites them to follow his own teaching as the definitive interpretation of the law (see on 5:17-20). The same point is stressed in the next clause…‘learn from me'” (Matthew, 324).
  • [20] Davies and Allison have suggested that the author of Matthew (or the author of Matthew’s source or sources), inserted into the gospel (in Matt 1:1-8:1; 17:1-8; 11:25-30) “a developed Mosaic/exodus typology” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:296). This editor’s purpose, according to Davies and Allison, was to compare and contrast Jesus with Moses. According to them, Matt 11:28-30 did not come from the mouth of Jesus, but from a member, or members, of the early church: “Can we trace the saying [Matt 11:28-30] to Jesus?…we have serious reservations. The implicit identification of Jesus with Wisdom and Torah is more at home in the early church than the teaching of Jesus” (2:293). However, after suggesting that the whole of the saying is secondary, Davies and Allison analyze the saying’s parallelism (the characteristic of Semitic, but not of Greek, style, that is so prominent in Matthew 11:28-30. On the one hand, they view Jesus’ saying as the work of a editor, but, on the other hand, recognizing the saying’s tight Semitic parallelism, they trim away elements of the saying that in their view spoil this parallelism, believing them to be still later additions. Davies and Allison assume that the author of Matthew wrote in Greek but “knew Hebrew and probably also Aramaic” (1:80), and this is one of the reasons his work is so Semitic. “The Matthean Semitisms…reflect the evangelist’s own style of thought” (1:85). However, it is more probably that the author of Matthew was using a source, or sources, that had been translated from Hebrew (or Aramaic). It is less likely that a Hebrew or Aramaic speaker would be confident enough to write in his second language, in this case, in Greek; or that a Greek speaker, whose second language was Hebrew or Aramaic, could compose such Hebraic and un-Greek-like Greek. It is more likely that the extremely Semitic text of Matthew originated in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and was translated to Greek.

    Davies and Allison would like Matt 11:29 to read, “Take my yoke upon you and you will find rest for yourselves.” They assert that the line “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” “wrecks” the parallelism of Matthew 11:28-30, and contains “redactional” vocabulary (2:290). The vocabulary items termed “redactional” by Davies and Allison are: “μανθάνω [learn]: Mt: 3; Mk: 1; Lk: 0; πραΰς [meek; Mt: 3; Mk: 0; Lk: 0]; (ἐν) τῇ καρδίᾳ [(in) the heart]: Mt: 8; Mk: 1; Lk: 5. Five times Matthew follows (ἐν) τῇ καρδίᾳ with something other than a genitive personal pronoun; Mark and Luke never do this” (2:290, n. 244).

    It is unlikely that a Greek writer could create the sophisticated parallelism and scriptural allusion that we find in Matthew 11:28-30. The saying was probably first uttered or written in a Semitic language, probably Hebrew or Aramaic. The Semitic doubling of nouns, adjectives and verbs, and its tight parallelism warn us to be extremely cautious about removing elements of the saying. “Learn from me” can stand without “wrecking” the parallelism, as Davies and Allison claim it does. It can be argued that the phrase “for I am gentle and humble in heart” was added later, and is thus secondary, but it is difficult to make this argument since the phrase has a Hebraic-like doublet, “meek and lowly of heart,” embedded within it.

  • [21] For the Greek verb μανθάνειν (manthanein, to study) with the preposition ἀπό (apo, from), see Matt 24:32 = Mark 13:28 and Josephus Ant. 8:317 (“He [Ahab] learned from her [Jezebel] to worship her native gods”).
  • [22] The NIV’s rendering of πραΰς (prays) in Matt 11:29 is “gentle.” But prays is the Septuagint’s usual translation of עָנָו (anav, meek), so Jesus might have used the same Hebrew word, anav, that described Moses. Prays is also the Septuagint’s translation of עָנִי (ani, humble), for instance, in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion; Raise a shout, Fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, Yet ani [עָנִי], riding on an ass, On a donkey foaled by a she-ass” (JPS).
  • [23] I assume that Matt 11:29 originally read, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Davies and Allison, while suggesting that the whole of Matthew 11:28-30 did not come from the mouth of Jesus, but was the creation of Matthew or his source, include “and you will find rest for your souls” in their reconstruction of the passage (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:290). Davies and Allison argue that “Matthew agrees with the LXX against the MT in both the verbal form and the plural ψυχαῖς [souls]; but ἀνάπαυσις [rest] is not from the Greek OT. Matthew or his source exchanged Jeremiah’s ἁγνισμόν [tranquility] for ἀνάπαυσις in order to gain a link with 28b (ἀναπαύσω)” (2:291). They view these textual agreements and disagreements as evidence that “and you will find rest for yourselves” was created by the editor of Matthew. I also see them as evidence that “and you will find rest for your souls” was added by the Matthean editor, but, in that case, it probably was not part of the Semitic stratum.
  • [24] An interesting parallel to Matt 11:30 is found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. Paraphrasing 1 Kings 12:4, Josephus writes: “…they [Jeroboam and the leaders of the people] urged him [Rehoboam] to lighten their bondage somewhat and to be more lenient [χρηστότερον, chrestoteron, easier] than his father [Solomon], for, they said, the yoke [ζυγὸν, zygon] they had borne under him had been heavy [βαρὺν, baryn]…” (Ant. 8:213; trans. Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library).
  • [25] See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY 47: Rich Man Declines the Kingdom of Heaven,” Comment to L120.
  • [26] One also might consider 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome [βαρεῖαι, bareiai]” (NIV), since in this verse we have a Greek adjective for “heavy, burdensome” in reference to God’s commandments. However, it is possible that the writer of 1 John was influenced by Matt 11:28-30 and Matthew 23:4, and perhaps also by Acts 15. The author, like most modern commentators, may have wrongly interpreted Matt 11:28-30 in light of Matthew 23:4.
  • [27] “Bind” and its opposite, “loose,” are rabbinic idioms for “prohibit” and “permit” in reference to legal rulings. See David Bivin, “‘Binding’ and ‘Loosing.'”
  • [28] Most commentators express an extreme bias towards the Pharisees and the Oral Torah. Weiss writes: “Jesus indignantly describes the rules the Pharisaic rabbis lay on the righteous as…‘heavy burdens that cannot be borne,’ Mt. 23:4…The real concerns of the Law…are overwhelmed by casuistic and ritualistic obligations, i.e., by these φορτία [burdens]. This helps us to understand the Saviour’s call…in which Jesus promises refreshment to the weary and heavy-laden if they accept His φορτίον [burden], Mt. 11:28-30” (“φορτίον,” TDNT 9:85). Karl Heinrich Rengstorf states: “The saying [Mt. 11:29 f.]… is obviously formulated as a conscious paradox. How can a ζυγός [yoke] be easy? But the paradox evaporates when we remember who is speaking and to whom. Jesus is clearly speaking to those who already bear a ζυγός, for He refers expressly to His ζυγός, to the ζυγός of the Messiah, contrasting this with another ζυγός, with the other ζυγός. But this other ζυγός can only be that of worship under the Law, which involves the oppressive labour and attitude of the slave. This is clear from Mt. 23:4, where we find the image of the burden used. In this saying, therefore, a contrast is drawn between the Messianic ζυγός of Jesus and the ζυγός of legalism” (“ζυγός in the NT,” TDNT 2:899-900). Albright and Mann opine: “An easy yoke and a light burden are offered in exchange for the arbitrary demands of Pharisaic legalism and the uncertainties of ever-proliferating case law” (W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew [AB 26; Garden City: Doubleday, 1971], 146). Gundry writes: “…the burden Jesus puts on his disciples in chap. 11 contrasts with the burdens the scribes and Pharisees put on their followers in chap. 23. Confirmation that Matthew intends his readers to relate the two passages in this way comes from his omitting “you burden” in 23:4 (again cf. Luke 11:46)” (Matthew, 219). Gundry also speaks of “the overbearing conceit of the scribes and Pharisees in their quest for public recognition” (Matthew, 220). Hagner speaks of “the burdensome and tiring way of the Pharisees” (Matthew, 325), and “the overwhelming nomism of the Pharisees,” stating that their rulings “involved a complicated casuistry” (Matthew, 323). In his view, the Pharisees were Jesus’ “primary rivals” (Matthew, 324). For a more accurate appraisal of the Pharisees and their teaching, see David Flusser, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001), 66-73, 89, 150, 182-3, 202-3.
  • [29] For the privations that a first-century disciple was expected to endure, see David Bivin, “First-century Discipleship.”
  • [30] As Gundry points out, “learning from Jesus defines the taking of his yoke on oneself” (Matthew, 218). Hagner connects Matthew 11:28-30 with Matthew 23, but understands that Jesus’ Matt 11 saying has to do with discipleship, and that Jesus was speaking as Wisdom did in Ben Sira 51, and even as God spoke to Moses in Exod 33:14 (Matthew, 323). Israel Abrahams also was not mislead. He noted that “The Pharisaic view [which in his opinion was also Jesus’ view] is well brought out in…the Apocalypse of Baruch, xli. 3, 4 [= 2 Baruch 51:3-4 in Charlesworth ed.]: ‘For lo! I see many of thy people who have withdrawn from thy covenant, and cast from them the yoke of thy law. But others again I have seen who have forsaken their vanity, and fled for refuge beneath thy wings.’ Galled by the yoke, or feeling it a profitless burden, the one casts it off. But another, willingly assuming it, finds it no yoke, but a refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels [2 vols.; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1924], 2:14).
  • [31] Nor was Jesus suggesting, in Matthew 11:28-30, new, lighter commandments as replacements for the commandments of the Torah. He would never have contrasted his commandments with God’s commandments: “Until the end of time, not the smallest letter of God’s Torah will ever pass away from the Torah,” he said (Matt 5:18). Furthermore, Jesus himself observed the commandments, even commandments of the Oral Torah. See David Bivin, “Did Jesus Observe The Oral Torah? – Blessing,” “Oral Torah: Unutterable Name,” and “Oral Torah: The Hem of His Garment.”
  • [32] Apparently, the prohibitions that leaders of the new community of Jesus proscribed for members not of Jewish origin were only three: “Thou shalt not commit idolatry”; “Thou shalt not commit murder”; and “Thou shalt not engage in sexual immorality,” (probably, the taking part in cult prostitution at pagan temples) (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 ). See David Bivin, “Acts 15:20: How Many Commandments Were Jesus’ Followers of Non-Jewish Parentage Commanded to Keep?” (forthcoming).
  • [33] It is possible, as some authorities (e.g., Jackson and Lake, The Acts of the Apostles, 4:174) have suggested, that the continuation of Peter’s comment, “that neither we nor our forefathers have been able to bear [i.e., keep],” is a later addition to the text, since it is unlikely that Peter or any of his Jewish contemporaries would have said that the commandments could not be kept. See, for instance, the statement of a rich man who approached Jesus: “All these (commandments) I have done [i.e., kept] from my youth” (Luke 18:21). Notice that Jesus did not take issue with the man’s statement.
  • [34] Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korkhah said, “Why does the Shema passage [Deut 6:4-9] precede the “So if you faithfully obey” passage [Deut 11:13-21]? So that a person may first accept the kingdom of heaven, and only afterwards the yoke of the commandments” (m. Ber. 2:2). (Note that in printed texts of the Mishnah we find the reading, “So that a person may first accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven…”; however, in ancient Judaism, the “Kingdom of Heaven” was never thought of as a burden, or yoke, and this is reflected in tannaic sources—Codex Kaufmann, the most reliable manuscript of the Mishnah, reads, “So that a person may first accept the kingdom of heaven…”)
  • [35] As mentioned above (see section on “take my yoke upon you”), in their comments on Acts 15:10, Jackson and Lake note that “yoke” was used by Jewish writers in the sense of “obligation,” but give no evidence for such usage (The Acts of the Apostles, 4:173-74). I am indebted to James W. Fox for six examples showing that “burden” could be used in the sense of mitzvah and mitzvoth (Isa 43:23; Midr. Gen. 72:4; Midr. Lev. 13:2; b. Yoma 9a; 75bb. Shabb. 146b).

Leah’s Tender Eyes

Revised: 14-May-13

The King James Version translates Genesis 29:17 as follows: “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” The New International Version has, “Leah had weak[1] eyes”; while the New American Bible reads, “Leah had lovely eyes.” The Hebrew text reads, literally, “And the eyes of Leah were tender, and [i.e., but] Rachel was beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance.”

The Septuagint, the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, used the Greek adjective ἀσθενεῖς (astheneis, weak; feeble, sickly) to describe Leah’s eyes. The uncertainty of the Targums (Aramaic translations of Scripture) about how to translate the Hebrew adjective רַכּוֹת (rakot, tender, delicate) created a plethora of paraphrases: Targum Onkelos: “And the eyes of Leah were beautiful”; Targum Jonathan: “And the eyes of Leah were moist[2] from weeping and praying before the LORD that he would not destine her for Esau the wicked”; Palestinian (Geniza) Targum: “And the eyes of Leah[…] because she would cry and pray not to emerge in the lot of Esau;[3] Targum Neofiti: “And the eyes of Leah were raised in prayer, begging that she be married to the just Jacob.”

E. A. Speiser is able to capture in English translation the nuances of biblical Hebrew better than any modern Bible translator or commentator. In his commentary on Genesis[4] he translated Genesis 29:17, “Leah had tender eyes, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” and commented:

“Tender,” not necessarily “weak,” for the basic sense of Hebrew rach is “dainty, delicate”; cf. Genesis 33:13 [“frail, tender” (children)]. The traditional translation has been influenced by the popular etymology of the name Leah as “weak.” What the narrative appears to be saying is that Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was an outstanding beauty.

It appears to me that Speiser is right. The Hebrew word order demands a contrast between Leah and Rachel. The second ו (vav, and) has to be understood as carrying the sense, “but, however.” The contrast cannot be “Leah was ugly, but Rachel was beautiful,” since the text does not contrast Rachel’s eyes with Leah’s, or Rachel’s body with Leah’s, but rather one part of Leah with the whole of Rachel. Therefore, the contrast is: Leah’s eyes were beautiful, but Rachel was beautiful in all parts of her body.

Perhaps Leah did have exceptional eyes, or perhaps she was so plain that her friends commented only on her eyes: “She has pretty eyes!”—a compliment that said less about her eyes than the rest of her body.

  • [1] In a footnote, the NIV adds: “Or delicate.”
  • [2] Or, “dripping, running.”
  • [3] Or, “that the fate of Esau would not befall her.”
  • [4] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (The Anchor Bible, vol. 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 224.

Design and Maintenance of First-century Ritual Immersion Baths

Archeologists and other scholars have not written prolifically about ancient mikvaot (or ritual immersion baths). Nevertheless, ritual immersion in the first century C.E. constitutes an important element of the overall historical, social and religious background of the New Testament. Here, Ronny Reich explains in non-technical language the intricacies of the design and maintenance of ancient mikvaot.

What we know about ritual immersion in the late Second Temple period derives mainly from archaeological digs, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature. The archaeological remains of mikvaot (ritual immersion pools; singular: mikveh) and the Dead Sea Scrolls date precisely from this period; whereas, the data coming from rabbinic literature, primarily from the Mishnah and Sifra, have been preserved in texts compiled and edited 150 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Despite the gap in time between the close of the Second Temple period in 70 C.E. and the completion of the Mishnah and Sifra at approximately 250 C.E., these early rabbinic texts contain information that dovetails remarkably with the archaeological record, and therefore, is relevant for studying ritual immersion in the late Second Temple period.

In the tractate Mikvaot, one of the tractates of the Mishnah, and in Parashah Metsora and Parashah Shemini, two sections of Sifra, the rabbis recorded highlights of their discussions resolving various problems concerning ritual immersion. From their discussions we learn five requirements for a ritually proper mikveh:

  1. Water provided by God (in rabbinic parlance, “By the hands of Heaven”). Rain or spring water had to flow naturally, without direct human intervention, into a mikveh. Channels, gutters and ducts were allowed for directing into a mikveh the course of flowing or running water; however, water drawn by human hands and poured into a mikveh did not satisfy this requirement.
  2. Built into the ground. A mikveh had to be built into the ground. This eliminated the possibility of a precast immersion chamber, or of an immersion chamber elevated above ground, for instance, a mikveh on the second floor of a building.
  3. Dimensions of one cubit by one cubit to a height of three cubits (a cubit is about 46 cm.). A mikveh had to hold a volume of water with the following minimum dimensions: one square cubit with a depth of three cubits (1 x 1 x 3 cubits). Translated into architectural terms, this meant that the floor of a mikveh had a minimum area of one square cubit with plastered walls rising to a height of at least three cubits (ca. 1.4 meters). A mikveh with these minimum dimensions held approximately forty seahs (ca. 350 liters) of water.[1]
  4. Water that is not seeping. The water inside a mikveh had to be stationary, or, in rabbinic terminology, not “crawling” (zohalin). In other words, the walls of an immersion chamber had to be watertight. Leakage or seepage rendered a mikveh unfit for immersion.
  5. Water with the appearance of water. The water in a mikveh had to look like water. Scattered surface debris, algae, or spots of mold on the plastered walls did not alter the water’s appearance beyond recognition. If, however, a large pot of milk fell into a mikveh, and its water became clouded so that the appearance changed, the milky water would have to be removed and replaced with new water.

When these five requirements were satisfied, then there existed what the rabbis called shi’ur mikveh (measure of a mikveh), in other words, a mikveh whose water was ritually efficacious. Such a mikveh and its water could impart ritual purity to most individuals who were in a ritually impure state. Two exceptions were a person who had been suffering from an unnatural discharge of fluid from the body and someone who had come into contact with a corpse. Ritually impure utensils and vessels, excluding those made from clay (cf. Lev. 11:33), if immersed in a ritually efficacious mikveh, became pure. Such a mikveh could impart ritual purity to hand-drawn water, too. This last ritually efficacious function allowed for a way to circumvent certain restrictions imposed by requirement no. 1.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Ritual Immersion

Over one hundred years ago, Solomon Schechter identified two incomplete medieval manuscripts of the Damascus Document in a genizah of the Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. In the middle of the twentieth century, much older fragments of the Damascus Document were discovered in Caves 4, 5 and 6 at Qumran. In this ancient, pre-Christian text, we find the following remarks about ritual immersion:

No one shall immerse in dirty water or in an amount too shallow to cover oneself. Nor shall one purify oneself with water contained in a vessel. And as for the water of every rock-pool too shallow to cover a person, if someone who is unclean comes into contact with it, that person renders its water as unclean as vessel-drawn water. (Damascus Document 10.10-13)

Rock-hewn steps descending to a mikveh (ritual immersion pool) which was discovered in 1968 during the Temple Mount Excavations. The low divider built on top of the stairs enabled a ritually clean person to exit the pool by a different path and thus avoid contact with an entering unclean person (cf. Mishnah, Shekalim 8:2). Photo: David Bivin.
Rock-hewn steps descending to a mikveh (ritual immersion pool) which was discovered in 1968 during the Temple Mount Excavations. The low divider built on top of the stairs enabled a ritually clean person to exit the pool by a different path and thus avoid contact with an entering unclean person (cf. Mishnah, Shekalim 8:2). Photo: David Bivin.

Here the writer of the Damascus Document addressed concerns approaching those addressed more comprehensively in the later rabbinic literature. Prohibiting immersion in dirty water—exactly what nuance “dirty” carries here is not certain—parallels requirement no. 5. Designating the depth of water sufficient for a person to immerse parallels requirement no. 3. Prohibiting purification with water contained in a vessel parallels requirement no. 1. Rabbinic discussion also contains a faint echo of the stipulation about someone who is unclean touching a pool of insufficient area and with water of insufficient depth to cover oneself.

In the first century the sectarians living at Qumran expressly forbade immersing in dirty water, even if that water had flowed naturally into a pool without direct human intervention.[2] The rabbis permitted immersing in a mikveh on condition that its water maintained the appearance of water. Nevertheless, regular maintenance for amikveh must have been taken seriously whether or not a community’s halachah required clear, clean water. From a practical perspective, immersing in a mikveh with turbid water or a thick layer of sediment on its floor could not have been an attractive experience.

The Archaeological Record

In Hasmonean Jericho some Jewish residents enjoyed the benefit of private mikvaot whose water flowed from springs. Flowing spring water facilitated maintenance. To clean or repair a spring-fed mikveh, one simply had to keep the duct carrying the water from the spring plugged and to bail the water out of the immersion chamber. Once dry, the mikveh could be swept clean, repaired, and then refilled easily by unplugging the duct and replugging it once sufficient water had entered the chamber.

In Jerusalem, residents apparently employed a different strategy for filling and maintaining mikvaot. The one major spring within the city sits low on the eastern slopes of the City of David, below where the vast majority of homes were located in the first century. Accordingly, residents with private mikvaot depended on the annual winter rains to fill them. Gutters and channels funneled rainwater off of housetops and from open courtyards.

Masada's southern mikveh (of the rain-fed, double-chambered design. Top Right: Plan of the southern mikveh at Masada: A. Rainwater collection pool (dormant chamber); B. Active immersion chamber; C. Pool for washing of hands and feet; d. Settling trough. Illustration: Janet Frankovic
Masada’s southern mikveh (of the rain-fed, double-chambered design. Top Right: Plan of the southern mikveh at Masada: A. Rainwater collection pool (dormant chamber); B. Active immersion chamber; C. Pool for washing of hands and feet; d. Settling trough. Illustration: Janet Frankovic

The sages perfected a principle that enabled owners of rain-fed mikvaot to replenish lost water due to evaporation and exiting bathers. They determined that whenever the physical dimensions of a mikveh and the properties of its water met the requirements for shi’ur mikveh, then its water purified upon contact any amount of ritually impure water, that is, hand-drawn water (Mishnah, Mikvaot 6:1). Their ruling carries an echo of what we already read in the Damascus Document: “And as for the water of every rock-pool too shallow to cover a person, if someone who is unclean comes into contact with it, that person renders its water as unclean as vessel-drawn water.” For the sectarians at Qumran, a rock-pool with enough area and a depth sufficient for a man to immerse resisted ritual impurity. The sectarians surely understood the reverse to be true by implication, namely, that a rock-pool adequate for immersion imparted purity to the bather. The rabbis, however, explicitly said that a mikveh and its water that satisfied the five requirements of shi’ur mikveh both resisted and imparted ritual purity.

Already being applied in the late Second Temple period, this principle helps explain how the water level in a rain-fed mikveh was maintained. Applying the sages’ principle, one simply had to add hand-drawn water to a mikveh that satisfied the requirements of shi’ur mikveh.

Cleaning and repairing a rain-fed mikveh during the summer was apparently problematic. How could ritually pure rainwater be channeled into a mikveh during the rainless summer months? To clean such a mikveh, a caretaker presumably skimmed debris off the surface with a strainer and removed sediment from the bottom with a siphoning tool. But what about repairing a leak? Emptying a rain-fed immersion chamber by hand meant waiting for the winter rains to replenish its water.

In Jerusalem, archaeologists have unearthed almost exclusively single-chambered, rain-fed mikvaot from the late Second Temple period. Excavations at Herodium and Masada also revealed a preponderance of single-chambered, rain-fed mikvaot. A second type of installation that archaeologists unearthed in relatively small numbers, both in Jerusalem and other places, was a double-chambered, rain-fed mikveh. Double-chambered, rain-fed mikvaot were found in slightly higher numbers outside of Jerusalem in more arid regions.

Ironically, the first-century, double-chambered mikvaot are far better known to laypersons than the much more numerous single-chambered mikvaot because of the eminent Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin. When excavating at Masada, Yadin identified first the double-chambered type as being a first-century mikveh, and accordingly, he publicized widely his identification. Moreover, modern observant Jews use exclusively double-chambered mikvaot. The fact that modern Jews still were using a type of mikveh known from archaeological excavations dating from the first century generated much interest, while the much more numerous single-chambered type received little attention.

The double-chambered design facilitated maintenance. Each chamber met the requirements for shi’ur mikveh, and both were connected by a duct. Depending on whether or not the two chambers of a double-chambered installation shared a common wall, the connecting duct could be very short; or, it could be longer in order to traverse the distance between two chambers not sharing a common wall. Exploiting the ritually purifying properties of a mikveh’s water, ancient Jews were able to empty, clean, repair and refill this type of mikveh.

Once the active immersion chamber had been emptied by keeping the common duct plugged and bailing out the water, it was swept clean, repaired and filled with impure, hand-drawn water. The ritually impure water was then easily purified by removing the plug in the duct connecting the active and dormant chambers. The moment ritually pure water from the dormant chamber came into contact with ritually impure water from the active chamber, the later became ritually pure. Then the plug could be returned to its place. The water in the dormant chamber remained ritually pure and undepleted. This procedure allowed caretakers of double-chambered mikvaot to maintain them easily, and if need arose, to empty, clean, repair and refill them with cistern water—something that could not be done to single-chambered mikvaot.

Conclusion

In the case of mikvaot from the late Second Temple period, the archaeological and literary records complement one another in a remarkable way. The literary records tell us that a mikveh must have a floor with an area of at least one square cubit and a depth of three or more cubits. Archaeologists found immersion chambers conforming to these minimum specifications. The literary records also inform us that a mikveh and its water satisfying the requirements of shi’ur mikveh purify ritually impure water on contact, a principle that encouraged the development of a design whereby an active chamber and a dormant chamber were connected by a common duct. Archaeologists have discovered this type of mikveh, too. But something that archaeological excavations alone could show graphically was just how numerous mikvaot were in the late Second Temple period. In Jerusalem alone, archaeologists have unearthed over 150 mikvaot from the first century!

  • [1] In reality, however, nearly every stepped water installation that archaeologists excavated exceeded these minimum dimensions. I suspect, therefore, that these stepped installations functioned as mikvaot.
  • [2] At Qumran archaeologists found numerous water installations, both with and without steps. B. G. Wood has demonstrated that the stepless installations contained sufficient water to support a population of 200 people; therefore, he concluded that the stepped installations were immersion-related (“To Dip or to Sprinkle? The Qumran Cisterns in Perspective,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 256 [1984]: 45-60). At least ten stepped chambers were found. Six of them were similar in craftsmanship and architectural details to mikvaot excavated in other places. Water for the Qumran community came from winter rains that washed down the Qumran Canyon and were diverted into the settlement through an aqueduct.