Research by Robert L. Lindsey has helped clarify the process by which gospel texts were preserved and transmitted. Luke desired, he said in his prologue, to present to Theophilus an “orderly” account. Such ordering is to be noted in Matthew and Mark, as well. These attempts at ordering help us understand why so many of the synoptic gospel stories appear in a different chronological order from gospel to gospel.
Jewish teachers of first-century Israel lacked the sophisticated methods of mass communication we have today. Consequently, the sages of Jesus’ day spent much of their time traveling throughout the country, much like the biblical prophets, to communicate their teachings and interpretations of Scripture.
By the time Jesus began his public ministry, he had not only received the thorough religious training typical of the average Jew of his day, he had probably spent years studying with an outstanding sage (or sages) in the Galilee. Jesus thus appeared on the scene as a respected sage himself. He was recognized as such by his contemporaries, as passages in the New Testament illustrate.
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus, like all observant Jews of the first century, wore tsitsiyot. These are the tassels that were attached to the four corners of one’s robe as commanded in Numbers 15 and Deuteronomy 22. Jesus’ observance of this commandment is dramatically illustrated by the story of the woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years.
Tithing is a biblical commandment set forth in Leviticus 27:30-33, Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and Deuteronomy 26:12-14. Most Christians would probably agree that Jesus observed this commandment since the New Testament clearly states, “having been born under the Torah, he committed no sin” (Gal. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15). However, the question is, did Jesus observe the commandment to tithe as it was interpreted in the Oral Torah? The biblical commandment was to tithe only on grain, wine and oil. The sages extended this commandment to include tithing on “anything used for food.”
When a sage felt that a colleague had misinterpreted a passage of Scripture, he would say, “You are canceling (or, uprooting) the Torah!” In other words, “You are so misinterpreting Scripture that you are negating or canceling part of it.” Needless to say, in most cases, his colleague strongly disagreed. What was “canceling” the Torah for one teacher was “fulfilling” it for another.
The original understanding of the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7), was that one must keep one’s vows when swearing by God’s name. Israel’s ancient sages eventually came to interpret this commandment to mean using the LORD’s name lightly or frivolously. To avoid the risk of employing the divine name irreverently, the sages ruled that one should not utter it at all.
Jesus apparently attached great importance to the Oral Torah (unwritten in his day), and it seems he considered it to be authoritative. When Jesus admonished his disciples to “do and observe everything they [the scribes and Pharisees] command you” (Matt. 23:3), he was referring to the Pharisees’ oral traditions and interpretations of the Written Torah. The Written Torah itself could not have been in question, for it was accepted by all sects of Judaism, and Jesus himself said, “Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than one ‘yod’ or even one ‘kotz” from the Torah’ (Matt. 5:18).
It is not surprising to find the word “amen” attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. “Amen” appears elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in the epistles of Paul, who usually used it to conclude an expression of praise to God. Nor is it odd that “amen” was simply transliterated from Hebrew into Greek. Its use had become so common in Greek-speaking synagogues and churches that the New Testament writers generally felt translation unnecessary. What is unusual is to find “amen” used as the beginning of a statement rather than as a response.
One may contend that there existed a basic text of Jesus’ life story written in Hebrew. One arrives at this assumption not merely on the basis of the church fathers’ writings, but because the Greek texts of the synoptic gospels show so much evidence of being “translation Greek,” that is, Greek that contains Hebrew idioms and sentence structures.