A Cupful of Hope on the Seder Table

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Nowadays, in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we still have all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam leading the women in song. At right, Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. At left, Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17, Num. 26:46), another Scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.
Miriam leading the women in song. At right, Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. At left, Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another Scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

 A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned.  Detail from a painting by Ricky Rothenberg.
A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

Passover 2015 Miriam Kadesh Barnea
The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that has brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

Miriam's well from Riky
Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (m. Avot 5:6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (b. Taan. 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg (rikiro.art@gmail.com) for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.
Friends for life, through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.
Friends for life, through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.
Learn more about Miriam Feinberg Vamosh at www.miriamfeinbergvamosh.com.

And Where Did You Go for the Seder?

Then Moses said to the people, “Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the LORD brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast…. For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the LORD. Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders. On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ …For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand. You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year.” (Exod. 13:3-10; NIV)

Originally Published: 20-Apr-2003

We are now in the middle of Passover week and one frequently hears the question, “And where did you go for the Seder [the special home service on the first night of Passover]?” Answers are varied: “To my family’s home.” “To friends.” “To a hotel in Eilat.”

Wednesday evening, David and I ate the Passover meal with our son, Natan, our daughter-in-law, Liat, and sixteen family members and friends at Liat’s parent’s home in Moshav Yad Hashmonah, a ten-minute drive from our home.

Like other Passover Seder tables, ours was beautifully set and readied with the traditional platters of food symbolic of the Israelites’ bondage in and exodus from Egypt.

After reading the first part of the Haggadah, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, we ate with great gusto the delicious dinner. Olga had made chicken soup with matzah balls. A tasty fish dish had been prepared by a guest who was born in Libya. Others had brought chicken and various salads and vegetables.

The Haggadah concluded with the singing of psalms of deliverance and praise. They were not sung in the quiet, worshipful way we sing in church, but with rapturous loud voices, hands slapping on the table to the beat of the songs. After all, if we had seen the hand of God helping us escape from a country ruled by an oppressor and our enemies totally annihilated, wouldn’t we sing for joy?

The next day, all over Israel, the celebration of Passover continued with extended families and friends sitting outside on their porches and patios. Children played while the aroma of grilled meat wafted on the air.

During the weeks preceding Passover, nearly every Jewish home is thoroughly cleaned. By Passover eve all items containing leaven have been removed from cupboards and closets. As in past years, once again we were the recipients of sacks filled with food containing leaven cleaned out of our wonderful neighbors’ kitchens.

In place of bread, matzah, a cracker bread made from unleavened flour, is eaten during the entire week. There are probably more than a hundred ways to eat matzah, including frying it after soaking it in beaten eggs. Cakes and various pastries also are made with matzah flour. Personally, I enjoy eating matzah spread with peanut butter and jam, or with butter and honey!

Just before Passover week begins, supermarkets cover with sheets of white paper the shelves containing items with leaven, but the supermarkets remain open during the week—and continue to do a thriving business.

When we read the Haggadah, David and I never cease to be amazed at the story of God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt. As believers in Yeshua (Jesus), this deliverance is even more poignant.

Elijah Prays About Rain

Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit. (James 5:17-18)[1]

Elijah: An Unlikely Example

Toward the end of his Epistle, James exhorts his readers to pray with faith for the healing of the sick. When we read that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16), we might have expected James to cite the example of Abraham.[2] Genesis 20:17 might have served as the perfect prooftext: “Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech.” Citing Abraham as an example to prove that the prayer of faith offered by a righteous man is powerful would seem the obvious choice given the combination of faith and righteousness exhibited by Abraham (Gen. 15:6).[3] The example of Elijah that was provided by James, however, seems less obvious and more difficult. Less obvious because the example of Elijah does not fit James’ case very neatly—What, after all, do prayers about rain have to do with prayers for healing?—and more difficult, because what James relates about Elijah—that he actually prayed that the rains would cease, that the drought lasted for three and a half years, and that finally he prayed that the rains would return—is not actually reported in the Hebrew Bible. Clearly there is something strange about the example of Elijah that is offered by James. In this article we will examine James’ treatment of Elijah in the light of ancient Jewish sources and attempt to understand what lies behind the surprising claims that James makes about the famous prophet.

A Man of Prayer

The most shocking element with regard to James’ treatment of Elijah surely must be the assertion that Elijah prayed about rain. According to 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah swore an oath before King Ahab that there would be a drought in the land: “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word,” but we do not learn that any prayer was uttered by the prophet. Similarly in 1 Kings 18:41, after the contest with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, Elijah merely announced to Ahab that the rains would return, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” We do not read that the rains returned as a result of Elijah’s prayer. Thus while Scripture clearly indicates that it was Elijah who was responsible for the drought and, after three years, its cessation, in neither case does Scripture say that Elijah’s power over rain was in any way connected with prayer. Nevertheless, there are prayers that Scripture does attribute to Elijah. 1 Kings 17 reports how Elijah prayed on behalf of a widow’s dead son, and how, in response to his prayer, the child was restored to life. Elijah’s prayers are answered again in 1 Kings 18, when fire descends from heaven and consumes the offering on Mt. Carmel. Furthermore, it should be noted that from an early period there seems to be evidence that in Jewish tradition the number and importance of Elijah’s prayers was expanded. Already in the Wisdom of Ben Sira we read the following:

The prophet Elijah arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch. He brought a famine upon them, and by his zeal he made them few in number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire. How glorious you were, O Elijah, in your wondrous deeds! And who has the right to boast which you have? You who raised a corpse from death and from Hades, by the word of the Most High. (Sir. 48:1-5)

Although Ben Sira does not say that Elijah’s extraordinary deeds were accomplished by prayer, of those deeds that were accomplished by the “word of the Lord,” the raising of the widow’s son and the fire on Mt. Carmel certainly did involve prayer. Did Ben Sira understand that the shutting of the heavens and the calling of fire down upon King Ahaziah’s soldiers involved prayer as well? While it is impossible to say with certainty, it seems that Ben Sira believed that all of Elijah’s miraculous feats were accomplished via the same means, and we do know that later traditions attributed these miraculous deeds to prayer.

It is, perhaps, easiest to understand how Jewish tradition might attribute Elijah’s summons of fire to the power of prayer. The first time this miracle was accomplished by the prophet, Scripture records the words of Elijah’s prayer (1 Kgs. 18:36-37). When 2 Kings 1 reports how Elijah twice called down fire on King Ahaziah’s men, Jewish readers might naturally have assumed that Elijah accomplished these miracles too only by prayer, even though the biblical text does not explicitly say so. And indeed, in Josephus’ retelling of 2 Kings, he is careful to mention the role of prayer in the confrontation:

And, when the officer who had been sent found Elijah sitting on the top of a hill, he ordered him to come down and go to the king, saying that he had so ordered, and, if he refused, he would force him to go against his will. But Elijah said to him that to prove whether he was a true prophet he would pray for fire to fall from heaven and destroy both his soldiers and himself; and when he prayed, a whirlwind of fire came down and consumed both the officer and those with him. When the destruction of these men was reported to the king, he became very angry and sent against Elijah another officer with the same number of soldiers as he had sent with the first one. And when this one also threatened the prophet that he would seize him by force and take him away if he did not come down willingly, Elijah prayed against him, and a fire destroyed him as it had the officer before him. (Ant. 9.2.1 §23-24; italics mine)[4]

Elijah Prays For Rain

Elijah’s prayer for fire to descend on Mt. Carmel seems to have been important for the attribution of other prayers to Elijah as well. 1 Kings 18:37 records that as Elijah prayed for God to prove his supremacy over Ba‘al, the prophet pleaded, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O LORD, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.” Believing that no word in the Bible is superfluous, ancient Jewish exegetes wondered why Elijah needed to repeat himself saying, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me,” when “Answer me,” would have sufficed. Targum Yonatan resolved this difficulty by rendering 1 Kings 18:37 as follows:

Receive my prayer, Lord, with the fire; receive my prayer, Lord, with rain; and may this people know by your doing for them the sign, that you, Lord, are God’…[5]

In this way the targum not only improved Elijah’s prayer by making explicit mention of the need for heavenly fire, but an exegetical basis for the tradition of Elijah’s prayer for rain was established.[6] Elijah’s prayer for rain is attested in other Jewish sources as well. The apocalyptic work 4 Ezra, which was written in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, includes Elijah in a list of the righteous (cf. v. 41[111]) whose prayers were answered. “Elijah,” we are told, “[prayed—JNT] for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live” (7:39 [109]). A tradition preserved in m. Ta’anit 2:4, also seems to suggest that Elijah prayed for rain when it says,

May he that answered Elijah in Carmel answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day. Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest prayer![7]

Elijah Prays for the Rains to Cease

Along with the early Jewish traditions of Elijah’s prayers for rain, we also find traditions that had Elijah pray for the rains to stop. We have already made reference to Ben Sira which includes the shutting up of the heavens among those deeds which were accomplished by the “word of the Lord.” These deeds were associated with prayer either in Scripture or in later traditions, and Ben Sira’s testimony indicates that from an early period Elijah’s miracles were all lumped into the same category, suggesting, perhaps, that they were all accomplished by similar means. But if we find only a hint from Ben Sira that Elijah prayed that the rains would cease, this claim is made explicit in talmudic literature. A rabbinic retelling of Elijah’s story tells us that after Elijah announced the drought to the king of Israel “he prayed, and the key of rain was given to him” (b. Sanhedrin 113a).[8] Similarly we find that in contexts where prayers for rain are discussed Elijah is often cited, giving the impression that the Rabbis believed that Elijah had prayed that the rains would cease.[9] What these sources tell us is that when James claimed that Elijah prayed about rain he was reading the Bible in the same way other Jewish interpreters were reading it. James belonged to a tradition that attributed the quality of prayerfulness to Elijah, emphasizing the prayers that are mentioned in Scripture, and finding prayers where they were not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. Coming from such a tradition it was only natural that James would cite Elijah when he sought for a biblical example of a praying saint whose prayers were powerful in their effects.[10]

What Sort of Man Was Elijah?

The Jerusalem Talmud preserves a tradition that seems to indicate some tension between the tradition that the shutting up of the heavens was accomplished by prayer and the more scriptural version that Elijah had authority of his own to cause the rains to cease:

It is written, “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’” (1 Kings 17:1). R. Berekhiah said, “R. Yosé and rabbis: One said that he was listened to both as to dew and as to rain. The other said, ‘As to rain, he was listened to, but as to dew, he was not listened to.’” He who said, “As to rain he was listened to, and as to dew, he was not listened to,” derives support from the following verse: “[After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying], ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’” (1 Kings 18:1). As to the view of him who said, “Both as to rain and as to dew, he was listened to,” then where was his vow against dew released? Said R. Tanhum of Adrayya, “The ones who hold that view maintain that a vow, part of which has been released is wholly nullified.” There is he who proposes that [the nullification of the vow—JNT] was in connection with the son of Zarephath: “And he cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son (1 Kings 17:20)?’” Said R. Judah bar Pazzi, “[This may be compared] to someone who stole a doctor’s medicine kit. When he had gone out, his son was hurt. He came back to the physician and said to him, ‘My Lord, physician, heal my son.’ He said to him, ‘Go and return with my kit, for all sorts of medicines are in it. Then I shall heal your son.’ So the Holy One, blessed be he, said to Elijah, ‘Go and release your vow against the coming of dew, for the dead will rise up only through dew, and then I shall resurrect the son of Zarephath.’” (y. Ta’anit 1:1 [62c-d])[11]

In this passage the Rabbis on either side of the debate have to contend with the incongruity between Elijah’s declaration that neither rain nor dew would fall, and God’s summons of Elijah to announce to King Ahab the return of the rains. Why did God not have Elijah proclaim a return of the dew as well? Different solutions for this problem were proposed depending on the view of Elijah that was taken. For those who assumed that the drought came about because Elijah had prayed, the solution was simple: God answered Elijah’s prayer that the rains cease, but the prayer that dew cease went unanswered.[12] But for those who believed that Elijah had the power to cause rains and dew to cease on his own authority, by making a vow, the situation was more complicated: they needed to locate the moment when Elijah released the vow pertaining to dew. In the talmudic discussion above, R. Tanhum advocated the opinion that the dew was released at the same time as the rain, since the nullification of any part of a vow nullifies the whole. The second opinion is that the vow was released when Elijah prayed for the widow’s son.[13] The essence of the rabbinic debate seems to arise from the question: What sort of man was Elijah? Was Elijah the sort of person who could control nature by virtue of his own authority, someone of whom it could be said, “even the winds and the sea obey him,” or was he “a man of like nature with ourselves” who had to pray in order for nature to be influenced? The several sources we have analyzed seem to come down on the side of Elijah’s being similar to us, and therefore they emphasized Elijah’s need to pray.[14] Since James makes it clear which side of the debate he was on (James 5:17) it is hardly surprising to find that he emphasized Elijah’s prayerfulness.[15]

“The Prayer of a Righteous Man Has Great Power in its Effects”

So far we have discovered that James’ claim that Elijah prayed about rain is not so surprising in light of traditional Jewish interpretations that attributed many more prayers to Elijah than the few recorded in Scripture. We have now to examine James’ description of the results of Elijah’s prayers, since they too are not what we would have expected from a plain reading of 1 Kings. We begin with the outcome of Elijah’s prayer for rain since it may help us draw some conclusions with regard to the outcome of his prayer that the rains might cease. According to James 5:18, when Elijah prayed, “the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.” Although this is a lovely description of the revival of the land after a long drought, no such description is included in 1 Kings. Instead we read that having seen a cloud rising from the sea Elijah warned the king that the rain was coming, “And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel” (1 Kgs. 18:45). Since the description in 1 Kings does not resemble the description in James, we might profitably ask where James’ description comes from. In a brief notice Mitchell Dahood[16] suggested that rather than relying on any description of the rains in 1 Kings, James borrowed language from Psalm 85 where it is written, “Yea, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” (v. 12). This suggestion was made in the course of an argument that attempted to show that “good” טוב should sometimes be rendered as “rain.” If the argument is accepted the parallel between the Psalm and our statement in James is rather nice:

Ps. 85:12 James 5:18
Yea, the LORD the heaven
will give what is good, gave rain,
and our land and the earth
will yield its increase. brought forth its fruit.

As Dahood noted, the correspondence becomes stronger when we recall that “Heaven” can be used to designate the name of God. The main difference, then, is a shift from the future tense in the Psalm to the past tense in James. Sometime later, another scholar, responding to Dahood, proffered an additional example when “good” and “rain” appear to be interchangeable.[17] Robert Gordon noted that the Targum to Hosea 2:23 reads mitrâ “rain” in some manuscripts while it reads tûbâ in others. Now, while it was not Gordon’s purpose to pursue the connection with James 5:18, but only to supply a further example of the linguistic connection between “good” and “rain,” had he done so he could hardly have escaped recognizing the striking similarity between the Targum’s rendering of Hosea 2:23 and our verse in James. Hosea’s prophecy, as it is appears in the Hebrew Bible, reads, “‘In that day I will respond,’ declares the LORD—‘I will respond to the [heavens], and they will respond to the earth; and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine, and the oil, and they will respond to Jezreel,’” (Hos. 2:21-22 [23-24 MT]).[18] The Targum, however, has: “At that time I will listen to your prayer, says the Lord; I will command the heavens and they shall send down rain on the earth. And the earth will produce corn and wine and oil, and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people.”[19] In this way the Targum colorfully substitutes the repeated use of the verb לענות “to respond” with other verbs in order to illustrate the chain reaction that was initiated by prayer. Prayer is introduced at the beginning of the verse perhaps to supply a direct object for the first occurrence of the verb לענות. When we compare the Targum with James we find several points of correspondence:

James 5:18 Hosea Targum 2:23-24
Then he prayed again At that time I will listen to your prayer, says the Lord;
and the heaven I will command the heavens
gave rain, and they shall send down rain on the earth.
and the earth And the earth
brought forth its fruit. will produce corn and wine and oil
and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people.

In both James and the Targum prayer is mentioned, as are the heavens giving rain and the earth producing fruit. Only the last part of the targumic quotation lacks a parallel in James. Nevertheless this omission can be accounted for. The final clause, which the Targum renders as “and they shall supply them to the exiles of my people,” appears in the MT as “and they will respond to Jezreel.” Jezreel, we will remember, also features in 1 Kings 18:45 (cited above) in connection with the rains, and again in the following verse we read that Elijah ran ahead of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. With the connection afforded by Jezreel it would not have been too difficult for James to have read the verses in Hosea as though they were referring to the heavens opening at the end of the drought in the days of Elijah. The targumic addition of prayer would have made the Hosea passage that much more suitable, provided that the tradition was current in the first century. Indeed, perhaps we ought to regard James 5:18 as evidence that the targumic rendering of these verses in Hosea is, in fact, quite early. Thus far we have seen that James drew upon midrashic tradition in his description of Elijah. James does not seem to have been engaging in creative exegesis himself, rather it appears that James was familiar with midrashic interpretations and drew upon already established traditions in his treatment of Elijah. Since traditional interpretations have accounted for James’ assertion that Elijah prayed about rain and for his description of the result of Elijah’s prayer for rain, we will now inquire whether such interpretations might account for James’ description of Elijah’s prayer that the rains would cease as well.

Three Years And Six Months

According to James, Elijah “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” John Lightfoot presented the problem well when he wrote, “That there was no rain for three years together, is evident enough from I Kings xvii, &c.: but whence comes this addition of six months?”[20] According to 1 Kings the duration of the drought is not given with any great precision. In 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah announced that there would be neither dew nor rain “these years” except at his word, and in 1 Kings 18:1 we find that the LORD spoke to Elijah “in the third year” telling him to go to Ahab so that God could give rain to the earth. We are not told, however, how long it took for Elijah to meet up with Ahab, nor how long it took to organize the contest with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, nor when the rains actually fell. Most ancient Jewish sources are rather discreet with respect to the chronology as well. Still, the standard line seems to be that the drought lasted for three years. This is the duration given by the chronography Seder Olam. In chapter 7 of that work we read: “In the year 13 of Ahab there was a great famine in Samaria for three years.”[21] There are other sources, however, that seem to try out other chronologies. Josephus, for instance, seems to indicate that the drought may have lasted only a single year when he cites the historical account of Menander to prove the accuracy of the biblical data:

This rainless time is also mentioned by Menander in his account of the acts of Ithōbalos, the king of Tyre in these words: “There was a drought in his reign, which lasted from the month Hyperberetaios until the month of Hyperberetaios of the following year. But he made supplication to the gods, whereupon a heavy thunderstorm broke out. He it was who founded the city of Botrys in Phoenicia, and the city Auza in Libya.” This, then, is what Menander wrote, referring to the drought which came in Achab’s reign, for it was in his time that Ithōbalos was king of Tyre. (Ant. 8.13.2 §324)

Leviticus Rabbah also contains a tradition that shortens the length of the famine. In this tradition the Rabbis discuss certain periods of tribulation which were said to have lasted “many days” but which were actually rather short in duration. Among the periods of tribulation cited is the drought in the days of Elijah:

And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, etc…. R. Berekiah and R. Helbo said in the name of R. Johanan: Three months at the beginning, three months at the end, and twelve in between make eighteen months; are these then ‘many days’?—[No], but those were days of distress, and Scripture therefore designates them as ‘many.’ (Lev. R. 19.5)[22]

Although these traditions, which aim to shorten the length of the drought, may appear strange to us, we should bear in mind that the wording of 1 Kings 18:1 would indicate to Jewish ears that the drought had actually lasted less than three years. “In the third year” means that the third year of the drought had not been completed when the word of the LORD came to Elijah. The aggadic tradition shortened the length of the famine even more by counting part of a year as a whole,[23] thus the three months could be counted as year one, a full year could be counted as year two, and the last three months would be counted as “in the third year.”[24] The only other source that agrees with James regarding the length of the drought is also found in the New Testament, in Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. There, in Luke 4:25, Jesus makes reference to “the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land.” This agreement between Luke and James, along with other parallels to the gospels, raises interesting questions with regard to the relationship of James to the Synoptic or pre-synoptic tradition, but the attestation in Luke to the three and a half years is not particularly helpful for our inquiry since Jesus offers no justification for the chronological tradition he cites. Casting about for an explanation for this anomalous tradition many scholars have proposed that the three years and six months are somehow related to the apocalyptic “time, times, and half a time” known from Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, where “time” equals a year, “times” equals two years, and “half a time” equals six months. Despite the similarity between the apocalyptic number and the duration of Elijah’s drought, scholars fail to adequately explain why an apocalyptic number would be attached to the events of the distant past. Assigning the number to the End of Days would seem more befitting. Joseph Fitzmyer, who opts in favor of the apocalyptic explanation, nevertheless concedes that “this apocalyptic detail is meaningless in the Lucan account,”[25] the same might be said of James.[26] If apocalyptic motivations do not satisfactorily explain the additional six months, might there be other motivations that would prove more satisfying? Some commentators have attempted to find a solution in the natural cycle of rainy and dry periods that prevail in the land of Israel.[27] This solution proposes that the drought was proclaimed in the fall, at the time when the early rains were expected, and ended with the coming of the autumn rains three years later. To these three years are added the previous six months of the dry season, which were not a part of the divine punishment but were, nevertheless, lacking in rain. Lightfoot further justifies this opinion by noting that while James and Jesus claim that the drought lasted three and a half years they never claim that this was the length of time for which Elijah shut up the heavens. He prefers to see both statements as true; Elijah supernaturally shut up the heavens for three years, but the drought itself lasted three years and six months.[28] Such attempts to harmonize the scriptural data with the claims made by James and Jesus, however, are fundamentally flawed. The harmonizing solution is founded on the supposition that Jesus and James somehow had knowledge of what really happened all that time ago in the days of Elijah.

Liturgical Pressures

Rather than positing secret channels of information from Elijah’s time accessible only to Jesus and James, a better approach would be to look for motivations or pressures current at the end of the Second Temple period which might compel someone who read 1 Kings to conclude that Elijah’s drought must have lasted three years and six months. One such pressure that comes to mind, and which we have already discussed, is the trend that made Elijah into a man of prayer. As we have seen, the prayers of Elijah that are recorded in Scripture were given greater emphasis by later writers, and prayers that Elijah ought to have prayed were attributed to him by these same writers. Elijah was a man of prayer, and Elijah’s prayers were answered. Yet as Elijah’s reputation as a man of prayer swelled, early Jewish exegetes must have become uncomfortable with the notion that Elijah prayed against the order of the liturgy. Indeed, we have already seen that Elijah’s prayers for rain were cited in the liturgy for times of drought and that his example is cited as precedent for how prayers for rain ought to be said.[29] There must have been some pressure to show that Elijah’s prayers were made at liturgically correct times. From the Mishnah we learn about the times when it is appropriate to pray for rains and when it is not:

From what time do they make mention of ‘the Power of Rain’? R. Eliezer says: From the first Festival-day of the Feast [of Tabernacles]. R. Joshua says: From the Last Festival-day of the Feast. R. Joshua said to him: Since rain is but a sign of a curse at the Feast, why should they make mention of it? R. Eliezer answered: I did not, indeed, say ‘pray for’ but ‘make mention of’ [the rain]: ‘Who maketh the winds to blow and sendeth down the rain’—in its due season. He said to him: If so a man may make mention thereof at all times. They pray for rain only near to the time of rain. R. Judah says: When one passes before the ark on the last day of the Fastival-day of the Feast [of Tabernacles—JNT], the last alone makes mention thereof. On the first Festival-day of Passover, the first alone makes mention thereof; the last makes no mention thereof. Until what time should they pray for rain? R. Judah says: Until Passover is over. R. Meir says: Until the end of Nisan, for it is written, And he causeth to come down for you the rain, the former rain and the latter rain in the first [month] (Joel 2:23). (m. Ta’anit 1:2)

Although we find here some variation of opinion all are agreed that it is incumbent upon one to pray that rains come in their season; accordingly prayers for rain begin around Tabernacles and end around Passover. In order to be liturgically correct one prays for rain six months out of the year and refrains from prayer in the remaining six months. We also note the opinion of R. Joshua that rain which comes out of the proper season is a sign of divine displeasure. This is also borne out by another mishnah which states:

If Nisan ended and then the rain fell, it is a sign of [God‘s] curse, for it is written, Is it not wheat harvest to-day? I will call unto the Lord that he send thunder and rain, and ye shall know and see that great is your wickedness which ye have wrought in the sight of God to ask for yourselves a king (I Sam 12:17). (m. Ta’anit 1:7)

This mishnah comes at the end of a set of instructions which sets out the order for prayer and fasting which is to be followed if the rains should delay. As the rains hold off, the prayers and fasting becomes more and more intense until the proper season for rain is passed. If it should rain thereafter the storms were liable to destroy whatever crop the farmers had managed to eek out, as they did in the days of Samuel. Since Elijah’s prayer for rain was for the lifting of a drought, at a time when the LORD’s displeasure had subsided, there would be pressure to place that prayer in a season when the answer to his prayer would bring a blessing and not further affliction. All this goes to show the likelihood that there was pressure for liturgically and agriculturally sensitive persons to place Elijah’s prayers at the right time. This pressure could be relieved if Elijah’s prayer for the heavens to shut came at the season when prayers for rain ceased, that is, around the time of Passover, and if Elijah’s prayer that the heavens would open were made to coincide with the season for resuming prayers for rain, that is, around the time of Tabernacles. One way to make this chronology work is to suppose that the drought lasted three years and six months.[30]

An Exegetical Basis

So far we have established that there was a motivating force that might explain the need for someone to conclude that Elijah’s drought lasted three and a half years. We have next to inquire whether there were any exegetical justification for this conclusion. We have already mentioned one source (Leviticus Rabbah 19.5) which does base its chronology on a close reading of 1 Kings, with the conclusion that the drought lasted eighteen months. This source based its chronology on the words “many days” ימים רבים that appear in 1 Kings 18:1. How Rabbi Yohanan in Leviticus Rabbah determined that ימים רבים should equal a year and a half is a bit of a mystery. There are certain aggadic traditions that make ימים equal one full year.[31] If ימים could be taken to mean a year we would expect that ימים רבים would be taken to imply several years, and in various aggadic contexts this is what we in fact find. ימים רבים can be read for whatever number of years the aggadist required.[32] Given the elasticity of ימים רבים in aggadic contexts, could it be that R. Yohanan made ימים רבים equal six months simply because this suited his purpose? This solution, however, raises a certain question. Why would eighteen months be a particularly suitable span in our context? Rabbi Yohanan’s purpose was to show that when times of tribulation are called “many days” this is only because that is how they seem, even though in reality they are actually few in number. The aggadist accomplished his purpose by creatively reconciling his eighteen month chronology (not a long time in R. Yohanan’s opinion) with the Bible’s statement that Elijah was sent to put an end to the drought “in the third year,” by appealing to the words ימים רבים. His solution was to propose that there were three months of drought at the end of the first year, a second full year of drought, and finally three months of drought at the beginning of the third year. The solution works well enough, but R. Yohanan’s purpose might have been served even better had he made the days even shorter, for example, making the drought last fourteen months (the last month in the first year, a full year, and the first month in the third year). In fact, a variant of this midrash in Esther Rabbah 2.2 does exactly that. One reasonable explanation for why R. Yohanan would have made “many days” equal eighteen months, even though a shorter period would have worked better, is that he had inherited the eighteen month tradition from some other source, a source which had its own purposes for making “many days” equal a year and a half. As we have seen, the “liturgical” explanation supplies a reason why someone might have wanted the drought to end in the opposite season from when it had started. If R. Yohanan had inherited the tradition “ימים רבים equals 18 months” from a liturgically and agriculturally sensitive source, he did not inherit those sensitivities. Although R. Yohanan does not specify when the full year was supposed to have begun, whether it was at Passover or at Tabernacles, the rains would have ceased and resumed out of season. That R. Yohanan could have made his point better by shortening the length of the drought even further, and that he destroys what we suppose was the original purpose for making ימים רבים equal eighteen months, strengthens our opinion that R. Yohanan relied on an earlier tradition which he either did not fully understand or the intentions of which he simply disregarded. But eighteen months is still a far cry from three and a half years. At this point we must turn back to the text of 1 Kings. There we find that, apart from the notice that Elijah was sent to King Ahab “in the third year,” there are three other time-markers that could be used to determine the chronology of the drought. After Elijah announced the drought to Ahab, he fled and hid in a brook, where he had water to drink and was supplied with food by ravens. In 1 Kings 17:7, however, we learn that “after a while (ימים) the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.” As a result, Elijah took up residence with a widow and her son, and they were miraculously provided with sustenance: “and she, and he, and her household ate for [literally—JNT] days (1 Kgs. ימים)” (17:15). Finally we read that “after many days (ימים רבים) the word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kgs. 18:1) sending him to Ahab. These time-markers are admittedly imprecise, but they are the raw materials of midrash. As we have seen, ימים is commonly read as one complete year.[33] We have also become familiar with the equation “ימים רבים equals 18 months” from R. Yohanan or his sources. Taken together, ימים plus ימים plus ימים רבים equals three years and six months. Given the liturgical pressures which might cause someone to search for a chronology that would allow Elijah to pray that the heavens would be shut up around the time when prayers for rain cease, and to pray for the rains to return around the time when it would be liturgically mandated, and given the exegetical hooks to hang such an interpretation on, it is not surprising to find that a tradition promoting a three and a half year chronology was developed. That this tradition was preserved in James, and in a saying of Jesus, may simply be an accident. Our suggestion is that the three and a half year chronology for the drought had, at one time, a fairly wide currency, and that both James and Jesus were familiar with such a tradition and utilized it almost without thinking, since in neither place was the length of Elijah’s drought an important part of the argument.[34] Rather the tradition already existed, and it just so happened to be preserved in the pages of the New Testament.

Why Elijah?

The preceding discussion has shown that James drew upon tradition much more than Scripture when he described the prophet Elijah. Can James’ reliance upon traditional patterns of thought help us to explain his choice of Elijah’s prayers for rain to serve as an example that the prayers of the righteous are able to heal the sick? As we observed at the outset, Elijah’s prayers for rain are hardly an obvious choice for an example, especially when we recall that James might have chosen instead to cite Elijah’s prayer for the widow’s son to prove that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man” (James 5:15). After all, Elijah’s prayer for the widow’s son did not merely make a sick person well, it restored the dead to life! In the context of prayers for healing, what could possibly have brought prayers for rain to mind? As it turns out, in the late Second Temple Period there were certain individuals with whom effective prayers for both healing and for rain were associated. From the first century B.C.E. through to the beginning of the Amoraic Period there existed a Jewish movement, located mainly in the Galilee, whose adherents were known as the Hasidim. In several studies Shmuel Safrai has attempted to portray the distinctive nature of this group and to describe its relationship to other Jewish movements that existed in the Second Temple Period.[35] One of the distinctive characteristics of individuals who are called Hasidim in Rabbinic Literature was their intimacy with God. This special relationship made the Hasidim particularly bold in prayer. The Mishnah recalls one such Hasid who was asked to pray that it might rain:

Once they said to Onias the Circle-maker, “Pray that rain may fall.” He answered, “Go out and bring in the Passover ovens that they be not softened.” He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, “O Lord of the world, thy children have turned their faces to me, for that I am like a son of the house before thee. I swear by thy great name that I will not stir hence until thou have pity on thy children.” Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of good will, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation [and continued] until the Israelites went up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, “Like as thou didst pray for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!” (m. Ta’anit 3:8)

Onias had such faith that his prayer would be answered that he instructed the people to make preparations before the rains came. His faith was based on his assurance that his relationship with God was like that of a father to a son. Other Hasidim were remembered for their prayers for the sick. Of Hanina ben Dosa, a Hasid who lived from before the destruction of the Second Temple and in the generation thereafter,

They tell…that he used to pray over the sick and say, “This one will live,” or “This one will die.” They said to him, “How knowest thou?” He replied, “If my prayer is fluent in my mouth I know that he is accepted; and if it is not, I know that he is rejected.” (m. Ber. 5:5)

The Talmuds record several occasions when Hanina ben Dosa effected healing through prayer. This same Hasid is also remembered for his prayers for rain:

R. Hanina b. Dosa was walking along a road when rain came down upon him. He said: ‘Lord of the Universe! All the world is comfortable and Hanina is afflicted!’ The rain stopped. As he came home, he said: ‘Lord of the Universe! All the world is afflicted and Hanina is comfortable!’ The rain came again. (b. Yoma 53b; cf. b. Ta’anit 24b)

Just like Elijah in James, Hanina ben Dosa prayed that it might not rain and the rains ceased, then he prayed again and the heavens opened and poured forth rains. Perhaps in a first century context prayers for rain and prayers for healing were linked in the minds of the people. If a person could pray effectively for one he could also pray for the other and confidently expect an answer. It might also be the case that James had a certain affinity for the Hasidim. Like them, James expressed a concern for the poor and a negative attitude toward wealth. James also has a strong emphasis on the importance of good deeds, particularly on behalf of the unfortunate (cf. James 1:27). Hanina ben Dosa used to say “He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom does not endure” (m. Avot 3:10). This sounds similar to James 3:13, ”Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of his wisdom.” If James were close to the world of the Hasidim, he might all the more easily have associated prayers for rain with prayers for healing.[36]

Conclusions

From this study we have seen that James’ extraordinary treatment of Elijah makes sense when we appreciate that James read the Scriptures through the lens of traditional Jewish interpretations. As we have seen, James both received and handed down the tradition that made Elijah into a man of prayer, he took for granted the prayers that tradition had attributed to the prophet, and he inherited and transmitted the three and half year chronology for the drought which the pressures of making Elijah into a man of prayer combined with liturgical sensitivities produced. It does not seem necessary, therefore, to suppose that James himself was actively involved in creative exegesis of the Elijah narrative, rather he seems to have utilized the traditions he had received in the course of his own arguments.[37] We conclude, therefore, that James should be considered an important witness to the traditions about Elijah that were current in his own time, and a source that can help us understand the development of traditions concerning Elijah in later generations.

  • [1] This article is dedicated to my wife, Lauren Sue. All biblical quotations are taken from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
  • [2] An earlier form of this article was presented as a seminar paper to Dr. Serge Ruzer to fulfill the course requirement for Reading the New Testament as Second Temple Literature, a graduate course offered at the Hebrew University in 2006-2007. I would like to thank Dr. Ruzer for his many helpful suggestions, and especially for challenging me to consider how the figure of Abraham should be considered in this context. Responsibility for the content of this article, however, is mine.
  • [3] See my article, “The Approval of Abraham: Traditions of God’s Acceptance of Abraham in Early Jewish and Christian Sources.”
  • [4] All quotations come from the Loeb Classical Library (Josephus, vol. 6 [R. Marcus trans.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press], 1937).
  • [5] Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets, in The Aramaic Bible, vol. 10 (Daniel J. Harrington and Anthony J. Saldarini trans.; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987).
  • [6] B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, Anchor Bible, vol. 37 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), without recourse to the ancient sources, also concludes that Elijah’s prayer for rain, “Is the one uttered on Mount Carmel…the reader is expected to reconstruct the order of events for himself” (p. 61).
  • [7] All quotations of the Mishnah come from the translation of H. Danby (The Mishnah [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933]). Our mishnah describes the liturgy for public prayer in times of drought. Elijah is included among a whole company of biblical heroes, including Abraham, Joshua, Samuel, and David, who were answered by God (see below). According to a baraita in the Babylonian Talmud, there was a variant tradition in which “some…attribute ‘crying’ (צעקה) to Elijah and ‘praying’ (תפילה) to Samuel.” The talmudic discussion finds this variant tradition hard to account for because in the case “of Samuel Scripture uses the words ‘praying’ and ‘crying’, but of Elijah Scripture uses only [the word] ‘praying’ but never ‘crying.'”  The Talmud offers a solution by explaining that “[When Elijah says], Hear me, O Lord, hear me; that is an expression of ‘crying’,” (b.Ta’anit 17a).  In fact, however, Scripture neither uses the word ‘praying’ nor ‘crying’ to describe Elijah’s activity on Mt. Carmel.  Apparently for the Talmdists the tradition that Elijah’s prayed on Carmel was so well established that it could be assumed, while creative exegesis was required to prove that Elijah cried out. Our mishnah requires further comment because which prayer of Elijah it refers to is not not made explicit. We have already discovered that Jewish tradition identified two prayers of Elijah on Mt. Carmel: a prayer for fire to descend and a prayer that the rains would return. It is therefore necessary to ascertain which of these prayers our mishnah had in mind. Fortunately, there is both internal and external evidence which can help us to arrive at an answer.  In the first place, the tradition preserved in m. Ta’anit 2:4 can be compared with the tradition already cited from 4 Ezra to support the hypothesis that the prayer referred to in our mishnah should be identified as Elijah’s prayer for rain. The two traditions are apparently related as we shall see when they are placed in parallel columns:

    4 Ezra 7:36[106]-41[111]

    m.Ta’anit 2:4

    (1) I answered and said, “How then do we find that first Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, [Thus] after the first he says, ‘May he that answered Abraham our father in mount Moriah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, redeemer of Israel!’
    (2) and Moses for our fathers who sinned in the desert, After the second he says, ‘May he that answered our fathers at the Red Sea answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that art mindful of things forgotten!’
    (3) and Joshua after him for Israel in the days of Achan, After the third he says, ‘May he that answered Joshua in Gilgal answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest the blowing of the shofar!’
    (4) and Samuel in the days of Saul, After the fourth he says, ‘May he that answered Samuel at Mizpah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest them that cry!’
    (7) and Elijah for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live, After the fifth he says, ‘May he that answered Elijah in Carmel answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hearest prayer!’
    (8) and Hezekiah for the people in the days of Senacherib, After the sixth he says, ‘May he that answered Jonah in the belly of the fish answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou that answerest in time of trouble!’
    (5) and David for the plague, (6) and Solomon for those in the sanctuary, After the seventh he says, ‘May he that answered David and his son Solomon in Jerusalem answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.  Blessed art thou, O Lord, that hast compassion on the land!’
    and may others prayed for many?  If therefore the righteous have prayed for the ungodly now, when corruption has increased and unrighteousness has multiplied, why will it not be so then as well?

    In the columns above the order of the individuals cited in 4 Ezra has been rearranged to match the order of their appearance in the Mishnah, but the numbers in parenthesis indicate their original sequence in 4 Ezra. This presentation demonstrates that although the traditions preserved in m. Ta‘anit and 4 Ezra appear in very different contexts, their similarity is great. Both lists enumerate righteous individuals from Israel’s history whose prayers were heard by God. And as we observe, the two lists are nearly identical. With the exception of Moses vs. the forefathers at the Red Sea and Jonah vs. Hezekiah, the two lists are in full agreement with respect to the individuals who are included. Indeed, when we consider that Moses was also present at the Red Sea, and when we further take into account that parallel versions of our mishnah in the Tosefta and in the Babylonian Talmud do, in fact, make mention of Moses (as D. Levine has noted in “A Temple Prayer for Fast-Days,” in Liturgical Perspectives: Prayer and Poetry in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Esther Chazon; Boston: Brill, 2003), 100, n. 11), then the only real discrepancy between the lists in our mishnah and in 4 Ezra is between Jonah and Hezekiah. The strong agreement between the two lists suggest that 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit were both drawing on a common source.  Since that source was known to the author of 4 Ezra it is likely that it existed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Joseph Heinemann proposed on other grounds that the tradition found in m. Ta’anit 2:4 originated before the Temple’s destruction (Prayer in the Talmud [New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1977]; 108-110). Given the likelihood that a common source stands behind the lists in 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit 2:4, we might suppose that since 4 Ezra identifies Elijah’s prayer as his prayer for rain, this is evidence that the prayer of Elijah mentioned in m. Ta’anit should likewise be identified as Elijah’s prayer for rain. Unfortunately, however, the situation is not quite so straight forward. Comparison of the two traditions reveals that although the lists show strong agreement between the individuals who are cited, there is less agreement with respect to which prayers of those individuals are cited. For example, both 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit mention Abraham, but whereas 4 Ezra makes reference to Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, m.Ta’anit refers to Abraham’s prayer on mount Moriah. The differences between the two lists with respect to which prayers they reference can be accounted for by the contexts in which the lists appear.  The list in 4 Ezra is recited in protest by the visionary when he is told that on the day of judgement it will no longer possible for the righteous to intercede for the ungodly.  In response to this news, the visionary lists biblical examples of prayers offered by the saints on behalf of sinners. The visionary argues that if it was possible for the righteous to pray for the ungodly in the past, then it should continue to be possible to pray for sinners in the future. The list in m. Ta‘anit 2:4, by contrast, is part of the public liturgy for prayer in times of drought. The list draws attention to biblical examples of prayers that resulted in deliverance for the people of Israel.  In most of these examples God answered the prayers through natural phenomena. Thus Samuel’s prayer was answered when “the LORD thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:10). Joshua’s prayer, although difficult to identify, probably refers to the occasion when Israel’s enemies were struck down by hailstones (Joshua 10:11). (Scripture does not actually mention any prayer of Joshua at Gilgal, but Joshua 10:9 does describe how Joshua’s troops surprised the enemy after an all-night march from Gilgal, and according to Ben Sira 46:5-6 “He called upon the Most High…and the great Lord answered him with hailstones of mighty power.”) Similarly, Solomon’s prayer in Jerusalem probably refers to his request that God hear the people’s prayer for rain in times of drought (1 Kgs. 8:35-36 = 2 Chr. 6:27-27). The list in m. Ta’anit highlights instances in which God answered prayer by exercising his mastery over nature. The lack of agreement between the two lists with respect to which prayers are referenced cautions us against drawing a hasty conclusion regarding the identification of Elijah’s prayer in m. Ta’anit on the basis of the evidence from 4 Ezra. But this is where the internal evidence comes to our aid. Elijah’s prayer for rain perfectly fits the context of 4 Ezra which recalls the intercession of the righteous on behalf of the ungodly. 4 Ezra, in fact, recalls two prayers of Elijah: prayer for rain and prayer for the one who was dead.  This last prayer refers to Elijah’s prayer for the widow of Zarephath’s son. When her son died she reproached Elijah saying “You have come to bring my sin to remembrance” (1 Kings 17:18). Elijah’s prayer for rain was likewise intercessory. Elijah certainly did not regard the Children of Israel as worthy of the blessing of rain. On Horeb Elijah points out to God just how undeserving the Children of Israel are (1 Kgs. 19:10), and when he cries out to God on Mt. Carmel it is for God to prove to Israel that the LORD is turning back the hearts that have strayed from him. The context of m. Ta’anit, in which the prayers of the saints for the salvation of Israel in the past are invoked as the community prayed for rain in the present, likewise suggests that Elijah’s prayer for rain, and not his prayer for fire, is intended. It hardly seems likely that in a time of drought the people would be eager to remind God of his ability to send down fire, whereas reminding God how he answered Elijah’s prayer for rain would be entirely appropriate. Thus Elijah’s prayer for rain is one example where we would expect the lists in 4 Ezra and m. Ta’anit to agree. With Elijah, the themes of intercession from 4 Ezra, and of God’s mastery over nature from m. Ta’anit converge. Not one of the arguments for identifying Elijah’s prayer as his prayer for rain in m. Ta’anit is conclusive on its own. But taken together, the internal and external evidence seems to weigh in favor of the hypothesis that our mishnah did indeed intend to refer to Elijah’s prayer for rain.

  • [8] A. Pope and R. Buth explain that “the expression ‘to give someone the key(s)’ was understood by the Jews to mean giving that person authority,” (“Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” Notes on Translation 119 [1987], 13). See also L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society [2003]), 997, n. 12.
  • [9] Cf. y. Ta‘anit 1:1 [62c-d], and b. Ta’anit 3a-b.
  • [10] We also must note that according to The Lives of the Prophets Codex Q (Marchalianus) 21:5, “Elijah prayed, and it did not rain for three years, and after three years he prayed again and abundant rain came” (J. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (D. Hare trans.; New York: Doubleday, 1985). This passage, however, does not appear in other manuscripts of The Lives of the Prophets and it is usually considered a late addition. D. Satran (Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine: Reassessing the Lives of the Prophets [New York: E. J. Brill], 1995) writes that “the vitae of Elijah and Elisha…appear to have been adumbrated in Codex Q by long sections which depend directly and solely on the narratives from 1 and 2 Kings” (p. 51 n. 33; emphasis mine). This assertion is difficult to sustain when we recall that 1 Kings has no knowledge of Elijah praying about rain. Rather than relying on 1 Kings, The Lives of the Prophets may be relying on James 5:17-18. The wording and structure are remarkably similar, only the results of Elijah’s prayers differ in the two sources. Whereas James has relied upon traditional embellishments in his description of the results of Elijah’s prayers, The Lives of the Prophets adheres more closely to what we find in 1 Kings.
  • [11] J. Neusner (trans.), Talmud of the Land of Israel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
  • [12] According to b. Ta’anit 3a the Sages did not make prayer for dew obligatory since “we know that dew is never withheld.” This knowledge is derived from the incongruity between 1 Kings 17:1 and 18:1 and probably depends on the notion that Elijah’s prayer for the suspension of dew went unanswered.
  • [13] In b. Sanhedrin 113a there is a midrash on 1 Kings 17, where we find that after declaring that there will be neither dew nor rain Elijah prayed, “and the key of rain was given him” (cf. b. Ta’anit 2a-b). When the widow’s son died Elijah was compelled to return the key of rain to God in exchange for the key of resurrection since God said, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, Two are in the hands of the disciple and [only] one in the hand of the Master?”
  • [14] For those who wished to emphasize Elijah’s prayerfulness, the two scriptural instances of Elijah’s effective prayers left something to be desired, since neither account explicitly uses the word prayer. Thus in the description of Elijah’s prayers for the widow’s son, although we are twice informed that Elijah “cried to the LORD” (1 Kgs. 17:20,21) and we are further told that “the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah” (v. 22) the word prayer itself is never actually used. Targum Yonatan to 1 Kings 17, however, replaces Elijah’s cries to the LORD with ”he prayed before the LORD” in vs. 20 & 21, and in v. 22 it states that the LORD received Elijah’s prayer (Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets The Aramaic Bible, vol. 10 (Daniel J. Harrington and Anthony J. Saldarini trans.; Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987). The biblical account of Elijah’s prayer on Mt. Carmel similarly fails to use the word prayer. Josephus resolves this difficulty by explicitly stating that Elijah “began to pray” (Ant. 8.13.5 §342). And, as we have seen above, Targum Yonatan has Elijah say, “Receive my prayer, Lord.” What we have discovered then, is that the later retellings of Elijah’s story amplified the prophet’s prayerfulness both by emphasizing the prayers that Scripture admits, and by inventing prayers for him that Scripture did not mention.
  • [15] James, who wants not only to make Elijah a man of prayer like us, but a man who prayed effectively, avoids mention of the unanswered prayer for dew.
  • [16] M. Dahood “A Note on tob ‘Rain,” Biblica 54.3 (1973): 404.
  • [17] R. Gordon, “On BH tob ‘Rain’” Biblica 57.2 (1976): 111.
  • [18] Here I have followed the NIV since, in this instance, the translation is more literal and will help make matters clearer later on. I have, however, amended the translation to read “heavens” rather than “skies” for שמים for the sake of consistency.
  • [19] Kevin J. Cathcart and Robert P. Gordon (trans.), Targum of the Minor Prophets: The Aramaic Bible, vol. 14 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989).
  • [20] J. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989 [reprint from Oxford University Press, 1859]), 3:72-73.
  • [21] H. Guggenheimer (trans.), Seder Olam: The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).
  • [22] H. Freedman and M. Simon (trans.), Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Soncino, 1977).
  • [23] Cf. B. Thiering, “The Three and a Half Years of Elijah,” Novum Testamentum, 23.1 (1981): 42-43.
  • [24] Esther Rabbah 2.2 attests to a variant in the tradition; here the length of the drought is counted as 14 months (one full year with one month on either end). The parallel in Yalkut Shimeoni has 18 months.
  • [25] J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (AB28; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 1:538.
  • [26] The best reason for supposing that the three years and six months of Elijah’s drought are derived from apocalyptic sources is the testimony of Revelation 11 wherein the two witnesses shut up the heavens for the period of their prophesying which equals three and a half years. Many scholars have identified the two witnesses as Moses and Elijah based on the miracles they performed (Cf. D. Flusser, “Hystaspes and John of Patmos,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988], 421-422; R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993], 275). Two of the miracles, the consuming fire and shutting the heavens, are strongly reminiscent of Elijah. Rather than seeing the three and a half years of drought as an apocalyptic number, however, it is more likely that this span was another clue provided by the revelator for the identification of the witnesses.
  • [27] See, for example, Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament,  74-75) and E. Bishop, “Three and a Half Years,” The Expository Times 61.4 (1950): 126-127.
  • [28] Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament, 73.
  • [29] See above, note 9. In Zechariah 10:1 the prophet advises the people of Israel to “Ask rain from the LORD in the season of the spring rain.”
  • [30] We will also note that James exhibits knowledge of the agricultural cycle of rains which prevail in the land of Israel by referring to “the early and the late rain” in 5:7. See P. Davis “Palestinian Traditions in the Epistle of James,” in James the Just and Christian Origins (ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 47-48.
  • [31] So for example when in Genesis 24:55 Rebekah’s family requests that “the maiden remain with us a while (ימים), at least ten days,” the Babylonian Talmud asks, “What could be meant by yamim? If it be suggested ‘two days’, do people, [it might be retorted,] speak in such a manner? [If when] they suggested to him two days he said no, would they then suggest ten days? Yamim must consequently mean a year” (b. Ket. 57b, cf. Targum Onkelos and Targum Pseudo-Yonatan to Gen. 24:55). Similarly, when in Numbers 9:22 the movements of the Mishkan are described and we are told that “Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time (ימים), that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out; but when it was taken they set out,” the Targumim read, “Whether it be two days or a month, or a complete year” (so Pseudo-Yonatan, cf. Onkelos).
  • [32] In halakhic contexts, however, ימים רבים can have a very different meaning. Leviticus 15:25 states that “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days (ימים רבים), not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness…” For the Rabbis it was important to specify just how many ‘many days’ were, accordingly we find that “It was taught in the school of R. Hiyya: ‘days’ (ימים) means ‘two days,’ ‘many days’ (ימים רבים) means ‘three days’” (Lev. R. 19.5; cf. Targum Ps-Y to Lev. 15:25; b. Ket 75ab. Git. 46aEst. R. 2.2). See further Guggenheimer’s (cited above, n. 20) helpful discussion (p. 6, n. 5).
  • [33] See note 31 above.
  • [34] The same might be said for the three and a half years associated with Elijah in Revelation 11.
  • [35] S. Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965): 15-33; “The Pharisees and the Hasidim,” Sidic Journal of the Service International de Documentation Judeo-Chretienne 10.2 (1977): 12-16; “Jesus and the Hasidic Movement,” Proceedings of the 10th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division B, vol. 1 (1990): 1-7 (Hebrew); “Jesus and the Hasidim,” JerPersp 42-44 (1994): 3-22.
  • [36] Epiphanius, a bishop of the late 4th century, records the fascinating tradition that James himself “once…raised his hands to heaven and prayed during a drought, and heaven immediately gave rain,” (Panarion 78:14). Does this traditon describe an historical event or did it originate from the statements about Elijah’s prayer in James’ Epistle? Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra has suggested that Epiphanius’ testimony was part of a later Christian attempt to portray James as a high priest (The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 246 ff.).  But might the tradition that James prayed for rain have been incorporated from another source, one that described his affinities with the Hasidim? Huub van de Sandt compared the Epistle of James to the literature of the pious Jewish Sages in “James 4,1-4 in the Light of the Jewish Two Ways Tradition 3,1-6” Biblica 88.1 (2007): 39-63; and idem, “Law and Ethics in Matthew’s Antitheses and James’s Letter: A Reorientation of Halakah in Line with the Jewish Two Ways 3:1-6” in Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in their Jewish and Christian Setting (ed. Sandt and Zangenberg; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008): 315-338.
  • [37] I would like to thank Dr. Serge Ruzer for helping me to clarify this point.

The Theological Significance of the Parable in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament


One of the finest articles ever written on rabbinic parables and the parables of Jesus was published in 1972 in the now defunct Christian News from Israel. The article is a classic, but, unfortunately, no longer available. Jerusalem Perspective is pleased to resurrect this milestone article together with the responses of founding Jerusalem School members, the late Robert L. Lindsey and David Flusser.[1]


When he was alone, the Twelve and others who were around him questioned him about the parables. He replied, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12; NEB)

These lines have always been something of a crux interpretum. Yet the consensus of modern scholarship seems to be on the side of Frederick C. Grant, who, pointing out that “quite patently (Jesus’) parables were a device to aid his hearers’ understanding, not to prevent it,” finds it necessary to describe Mark’s theory as “perverse.”[2]

Whatever may have been the original significance of Mark’s words or their justification with regard to the parables as spoken by Jesus, there can be very little doubt that they are a fairly accurate description of what has happened to the parables in the long history of their interpretations—not only the traditional allegorical ones, with their built-in arbitrariness, but also much of the voluminous writing on the subject which has appeared since Jülicher administered the coup de grace to the allegorical understanding of the past.

When we see modern scholars going into contortions to perform a neat separation between similitudes and parables proper, between illustrations and allegories, invoking the canons of Greek rhetoric and even turning to Buddhist sources for prototypes, we can well imagine a modern Mark who might characterize all such efforts as “looking and looking, but seeing nothing.”[3]

All of which is not to say that this type of work is altogether without value. Eta Linnemann is certainly right when, for example, she tells us that “the image in the similitude is taken from real life as everyone knows it,” whereas “in the parables proper…we are told freely composed stories.”[4] But the question remains whether that kind of analysis gets us any closer to an understanding of what the parables are all about. Joachim Jeremias seems more to the point when he dismisses the distinction drawn between metaphor, simile, parable, similitude, allegory, illustration and so forth “as a fruitless labour in the end, since the Hebrew mashal and the Aramaic mathla embraced all these categories and many more without distinction,” and when he warns us that “to force the parables of Jesus into the categories of Greek rhetoric is to impose upon them an alien law.”[5]

The warning of Jeremias is based upon an understanding of the particular environment within which Jesus functioned. It was the environment of Palestinian Judaism, in which the mashal type of teaching, inherited from the Hebrew Bible, was—as C. H. Dodd correctly observed—“a common and well-understood method of illustration, and the parables of Jesus are similar in form to Rabbinic parables.”[6] Ignaz Ziegler was able to list some 937 parables dealing with comparisons based on “a king” or “the kingdom.”[7] While most of those parables belong to the period after the fall of Bethar in 135 C.E., Israel Abrahams surmised that “some of the oldest parables in which heroes are kings, perhaps dealt in their original forms with ordinary men, and kings was probably substituted for men in some of them (both Rabbinic and Synoptic) by later redactors.”[8] We by no means wish to imply that all of the Rabbinic parables invariably compared religious themes, such as the nature of God, to earthly kings. That was not the case. W. O. E. Oesterley notes, in addition to the royal parables, also those “which present a scene of a feast, and those which deal with some agricultural topic, such as a field or a vineyard.”[9] There were many others as well.

But an important point to be made in this connection is that we would unnecessarily limit our field of vision were we to confine our observation to those Rabbinic statements which are either specifically labelled as a mashal or begin with one of the mashal’s typical introductory formulae. The mashal was but one of the methods of teaching one of the two aspects of Torah.

Torah, for the Pharisaic Jew, was God’s revelation, and, as such, had to have a message for the present. To deduce the message for the present from the wording of the ancient text involved the process of midrash. That term “denotes both the occupation, the expounding and searching of Scripture, and its result, the exposition arrived at.”[10] In later usage, the term midrash came to denote the non-legal utterances of the Rabbis but in the earliest sources, those of the Tannaitic period, midrash was applied to both legal and non-legal interpretations of Scripture.[11]

Two other terms from the early Rabbinic period are somewhat more precise in distinguishing the legal from the non-legal teachings. Halakhah (“the way”) is the term used for the legal rulings.[12] And Haggadah (or, in Aramaic, Aggadah) is the term for the non-legal teachings. The word Haggadah originated in the exegeticalterminus technicusmaggid hakathubh (“the Scripture verse says, or implies”), but, already in very early times, the noun Aggadah came to be exclusively applied to non-legal interpretations.[13]

Moreover, “Halakhah and Aggadah do not exist solely and exclusively in connection with Holy Scripture. Among those who accept the oral tradition as a source of revelation…Halakhah, direction for the conduct of life, is also a quite independent entity, having existence apart from Scripture. In the same way, Haggadah can also exist independently, being no more than a religious tale of an edifying or apologetic tenor.”[14]

We can go even further than this and assert that whatever theology the ancient Rabbis had was taught and understood by them as Aggadah. That is why the wider connotation of Aggadah, rather than only the narrower subdivision of mashal, is important to us in our present investigation. We shall continue to refer to Aggadah throughout the remainder of our presentation.

The theological significance of the Aggadah was stated in the Siphre, the Tannaitic Midrash to Deuteronomy, in the following terms:

Is it your desire to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence? Then study Haggadah, for, by so doing, you get to know Him by Whose word the world came into existence, and you attach yourself to His ways.[15]

It is the merit of the German scholar, Paul Fiebig, that he, perhaps more than anyone else, has endeavoured to demonstrate in detail how the parables of Jesus have to be read in the light of the contemporary literature of Aggadah.[16] Yet it can hardly be conceded that Fiebig was sufficiently at home in the whole realm of Rabbinic literature to warrant the occasional generalizations in which he engages—such as when he asserts that the eschatological-messianic theme “completely recedes into the background in the direction taken by Rabbinic thinking,” or that “for Jesus, the great religious themes and basic ideas move far more into the foreground than they do in the parables of the Rabbis.”[17]

But then, alas, Fiebig is not alone among those aware of Jesus’ Palestinian Jewish background who feel compelled to fault the teachings of the Rabbis in comparison with those of Jesus. Somehow, this whole area of scholarship is still awaiting its liberation from the fetters of polemics and apologetics.

Thus, Gustaf Dalman, another great Christian scholar of Rabbinics, emphasizes that:

one and the same parable or proverb can be used for quite different purposes… He who pays attention to this will find that our Lord not only occasionally, but always deviates from the Rabbis, notwithstanding the similar application made of the same material in both cases.[18]

Again, Oesterley not only stresses that difference, but also introduces a value judgment:

One cannot…fail to notice the immense difference both in subject-matter and treatment and, above all, in application, between the Gospel parables and those of the Rabbis; interesting and instructive as the latter often are, they stand on an altogether lower plane…

We are convinced that any impartial reader of the two sets of parables, the Gospel and the Rabbinical, will be forced to admit that the latter compare very unfavourably with the former.[19]

Rudolf Bultmann, too, finds it necessary to point out that, while the New Testament parables do indeed correspond to the Rabbinic parables in a formal sense, both as a whole and in details, the Rabbinic parables are often forced and artificial, whereas the New Testament parables are the product of a greater originality in intuition.[20]

The list of authorities could be considerably extended. But enough has probably been quoted to illustrate the tendenz. It is, in a way, an understandable tendenz. It also has its theological significance. In the pre-modern period, when traditional Christian dogma was widely accepted, and when people believed in the Virgin Birth, in the Incarnation, and in a literal Resurrection, we find no attempt to demonstrate the “originality” of Jesus’ “contribution” to mankind’s religious thought. Nor were artistic and aesthetic criteria invoked to prove the inferiority of Rabbinic teaching. It was a simple case of accepting Christianity as the truth, and of regarding that which was not Christian as either untrue or superseded.

But, with the decline of traditional belief in the supernatural, it became necessary—for those who wanted to be both Christian and modernist—to resort to more terrestrial criteria to prove that Jesus was superior to his Rabbinic contemporaries. Thus, with Harnack, one endeavoured to show that Jesus’ ethical teachings were superior to those of the Pharisees and the Rabbis,[21] and, with Jülicher and Bultmann, one detected Jesus’ greater skill and originality in parabolic teaching.

It is not our intention to question the spiritual contributions made by Jesus, or to deny his individual originality—any more than we would think of questioning and denying the contributions and the originality of a Hillel, a Rabbi Akiba, or a Rabbi Ishmael. But that is just the point. There would seem to be no real need, in evaluating a religious genius, to downgrade indiscriminately all of his contemporaries. It need not be a case of “either/or.” It could be a matter of “both…and.” At any rate, it is the latter attitude which we shall seek to pursue.

Something that Eta Linnemann stressed may serve as the point of departure for our undertaking:

For the original listeners to the parables of Jesus we cannot presuppose the belief that he is the Christ…. Jesus stood before these listeners as a carpenter from Nazareth, as a wandering Rabbi. Like many at that time who wandered up and down the land with their disciples, as a preacher of repentance, of whom some supposed that he was a prophet. No acknowledged proof of divine authority gave weight to what he said, so that men had to listen to it in advance as a word of revelation. For even his miracles were no sort of authorization. Jesus was not the only wonder worker of his time…, and miracles were not an unequivocal proof for his contemporaries that the power of God was at work in the wonder worker.[22]

In the circumstances, it is perhaps easier for a believing Jew than for a believing Christian to approach the New Testament parables in the frame of mind of the original audiences to which they were addressed. And, when a modern Jew does so, he is quite liable to react in just the way in which Ignaz Ziegler did:

Jesus was an Aggadist, as were, to a greater or lesser extent, all of his learned Pharisaic contemporaries. He did not have to learn the art of parable-making from anybody, for that art was being practised and cultivated in all of the alleys and in all of the synagogues.[23]

Yet all three Synoptic Gospels testify to the strong impression which Jesus made on his listeners: “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”[24] The meaning of that verse is somewhat problematical. Joseph Klausner may be right when he sees the difference between the scribes and Jesus in the fact that the former made frequent references to the Scriptures in their parabolic teachings, while the latter did not, and that, while the Tannaim and their successors, the Amoraim, mainly practised Scripture exposition and only incidentally used parables, the reverse was the case with Jesus.[25] Also, it is not improbable that, in Jesus’ parabolic teaching, there was more of the force of the speaker’s own personality and the directness of his teaching than the audience was accustomed to hear from the average scribe, who tended to couch his message in the more conventional style of the schools.

But we cannot really be sure. And that, for two reasons. In the first place, Jesus may have been more of a Scripture exegete than the Gospels, in their present form, would allow him to have been. If Joachim Jeremias is right in arguing for the authenticity of the context, in Luke l0, in which the parable of the Good Samaritan is found,[26] we would have an instance where Jesus used a parable for midrashic Scripture exegesis. Perhaps some of Jesus’ other parables, too, may originally have been part of his exposition of Bible passages—even though, for reasons of their own, the Evangelists may have seen fit to rearrange the material.

And that leads us to the second problem: the history of the transmission of ancient texts. If we read the parables of Jesus side by side with the parables preserved in the early Rabbinic texts, we shall have to agree with Israel Abrahams, who said: “Not only were the New Testament parables elaborated by the Evangelists far more than the Talmudic were by the Rabbis, but the former have been rendered with inimitable skill and felicity, while the latter have received no such accession of charm.”[27]

To illustrate, let us take a parable of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who died circa 80 C.E.), as preserved in the Tannaitic Tosephta. Yohanan was commenting on the fact that the first set of the tablets of the Law is described, in Exodus 32:16, as being “the work of God,” whereas Moses had to furnish his own raw material for the second set.

To what is the matter like? To a human king who married a woman. He brought the scribe, and the ink, and the pen, and the document, and the witnesses. When she disgraced herself, she had to bring everything. It was sufficient for her that the king would give her his own recognizable signature.[28]

So far the Tosephta. In a much later Rabbinic work, the Midrash Debharim Rabba, which, in its present form, probably dates from the tenth century, we find the following version of the same parable:

They asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: “Why was the first set of tablets the work of God, and the second set the work of man?”

He said to them: To what is this matter like? To a king who took a wife. He brought the scribe, and his own paper (sc. for the marriage contract), and his own (wedding) diadem. And he brought her into his house. The king (then) saw her sporting with one of his slaves. The king was angry with her, and he threw her out. Her agent (thereupon) came to him, and said to him: “My lord, do you not know whence you have taken her? Was it not from among the slaves? And, since she grew up among the slaves, her heart is still bold with them, and she is learning from them.”

The king said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with her? You bring your own paper and scribe; and, behold, here is my signature!”

Thus did Moses say to the Holy One, praised be He, when Israel did that deed (i.e., the making of the golden calf). He said to Him: “Do you not know whence you have taken them? Did you not bring them forth out of Egypt, a place of idolatry?”

The Holy One, praised be He, said to him: “What do you want? That I become reconciled with them? (Then) bring your own tablets; and, behold, here is My signature!”[29]

Now, there can be very little doubt that the original first-century Rabbi Yohanan said considerably less than is here put into his mouth. But, by the same token, it stands to reason that he also must have said more than the bare sketch preserved in the Tosephta. Indeed, it is doubtful whether we could be able at all to interpret the laconic passage in the Tosephta were it not for the more elaborate versions contained in the later Rabbinic literature. As for Rabbi Yohanan’s ipsissima verba, I am afraid that we may never know them.

David Halivni has pointed out that the transmission of materials by the masters of the Rabbinic tradition was not simply a mechanical process, but one in which the thoughts of the transmitters and their relation to the material became part of the transmitted material itself.[30]

Of course, a far shorter period of time elapsed between Jesus’ utterance of the parables and their being edited by the Evangelists than was the case with Rabbi Yohanan’s parable and later Rabbinic literature. Thus, in the case of the parables of Jesus, there was less time for the material to “grow.” Nevertheless, far more skilled editorial work went into the making of the Gospels than into the editing of Rabbinic sources. As Jacob Neusner has aptly remarked, “to no individual in the history of Tannaitic and Amoraic Judaism was half so much attention ever devoted as was given to Jesus.”[31]

This, incidentally, underlines the precariousness of the task, often too lightly undertaken, of comparing the parabolic utterances of the Jesus of the Gospels with those of the early Rabbis—on the basis of purely aesthetic criteria alone.

While there was less time for the parables of Jesus to “grow” than there was for the Rabbinic parables, accretions there nevertheless were. This is obvious from the variations occurring within the parallels of the Synoptic Gospels themselves. It is also taken for granted in modern New Testament scholarship—as when there is a recognition of the fact that parables, originally addressed by Jesus to those who disagreed with him, were recast by the early Church in such a way that they could be read as teachings which Jesus addressed to his own disciples.[32]

And thus we return to our original question: What did Jesus say in his parables? What was it that made his listeners think of Jesus as “one having authority”?

The answer, it must be said, depends upon the kind of Jesus that you have in mind; for, in determining what Jesus did or did not say, various scholars are guided by their overall impression of the role which Jesus actually played. Occasionally, those scholarly views tend to cancel each other out. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, pictures a Jesus whose teachings were different both from the Judaism of his own time and from the Christianity of later generations. Consequently, Bultmann will accept as genuine parables of Jesus only those “where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where, on the other hand, we find no specifically Christian features.”[33]

By way of contrast, Leo Baeck, while also ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the tendencies and purposes of the generations which came after the first generation of disciples, will accept as genuine words and deeds of Jesus only those which exemplify “the way of life and the social structure, the climate of thought and feeling, the way of speaking and the style of Jesus’ own environment and time.”[34]

Thus, while Bultmann and Baeck agree in ruling out of consideration any material which reflects the views of the later Church rather than those of Jesus, they disagree precisely on what it was that Jesus himself taught. For Bultmann, the yardstick is the contrast to contemporary Jewish piety; for Baeck, it is the agreement.

Further complications arise from the kind of simplistic and fallacious reasoning in which a number of scholars tend to indulge. Schematically, we can represent it as follows:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Jesus taught in parables.
  • Ergo : Jesus’ parables led to his crucifixion.

This point of view is, of course, never put quite as simply, although some scholars come perilously close to doing so. Witness Charles W. F. Smith:

Jesus used parables and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related and it is necessary to understand the connection…[35]

The parables were not simply vehicles of teaching. They were instruments forged for warfare and the means by which his strategy was vindicated—until no further words could serve, but only an act. The parables are the precipitate of a campaign, the final step of which was his surrender to the cross.[36]

Joachim Jeremias, too, thinks that the parables “were predominantly concerned with a situation of conflict,” and he, too, calls them “weapons of warfare.”[37] In the same vein, Dan Otto Via, Jr., states:

Jesus’ behaviour, which challenged the Jewish world of fixed religious values, precipitated a conflict that resulted in his death. Inasmuch as his parables are interpretations of his behaviour, they are a part of the provocation of his conflict; hence he risked his life through his word.[38]

Needless to say, the underlying assumption of this view, however formulated, is that the message which Jesus preached was religiously so offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries that, to silence him once and for all, he had to be put to death. But it is really nothing more than an assumption. Suppose, for example, that one began with a different assumption—with the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans was a political execution which had nothing whatsoever to do with the religious message of his parables. And that is not even an assumption. It is a fact; for, as S. G. F. Brandon has demonstrated very clearly:

Ironic though it be, the most certain thing known about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was crucified by the Romans as a rebel against their government in Judaea.[39]

Or suppose that one accepts the conclusion of Haim H. Cohn, the Israeli Supreme Court Justice, who argues that, so far from being responsible for Jesus’ death, the Sanhedrin actually tried—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to save Jesus from the hands of the Roman authorities.[40] What would happen to that whole syllogistic structure which leads from the crucifixion to the contents of the parables? It would certainly be unable to withstand the onslaught; and a new interpretation of the parables would have to come into being.

Yet even without such an onslaught, carried out with the weapons of more recent scholarship, the syllogistic structure—apart from its logical fallacy—is doomed to fall on account of its inherent weakness. For it was built on an inadequate knowledge of the very nature of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism.

Did Jesus come into conflict with assorted scribes and Pharisees? No doubt, he did! But so did the Pharisees among themselves—all of the time. Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism is an argumentative kind of religion. There is hardly a single item of either Halakhah or Aggadah in the entire range of Rabbinic literature which is not contested by one Rabbi or another. That kind of conflict is the very life-blood of Rabbinic Judaism. What is more, even in those cases where a decision was reached by majority vote, the dissenting opinion continued to be transmitted as part of the tradition. The Talmud is a record of discussions, not a law code. That was the situation in matters of Halakhah. When it came to Aggadah, to matters theological, with one or two rare exceptions, no vote was ever taken; and different—often contradictory—views were taught side by side. They had to be, for the Aggadah was dialectical. As Emil L. Fackenheim describes it:

Divine power transcends all things human—yet divine Love becomes involved with things human, and man, made a partner of God, can “as it were” augment or diminish divine power. Israel’s election is a divinely imposed fate—and a free human choice. Man must wait for redemption as though all depended on God—and work for it as though all depended on man. The Messiah will come when all men are just—or all wicked. These affirmations must be held together unless thought is to lose either divine infinity or finite humanity, or the relation between them. Yet they cannot be held together except in stories, parables, and metaphors.[41]

Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism was anything but a rigid and monolithic structure. The fact that Rabbi X came into conflict with Rabbi Y certainly did not mean that henceforth Rabbi Y would be after Rabbi X’s blood. They might even submit to a Heavenly Voice proclaiming: “Both of them are the words of the Living God!” as did the constantly feuding schools of Hillel and Shammai.[42]

It is, therefore, with utter amazement that someone schooled in the Rabbinic tradition comes across Eta Linnemann’s final comment on the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). After explaining that Jesus was teaching about the unconditional goodness of God, and was thereby attacking the merit system of Pharisaic Judaism, she concludes by saying:

But those who remain closed to his word must raise the demand: “Crucify him, this man blasphemes God.”[43]

Must they really? It is true enough that many Pharisees and Rabbis did subscribe to Ben He He’s maxim, “According to the labour is the reward.”[44]  It is furthermore true that the alleged Rabbinic parallel to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard differs in one crucial respect from the parable told by Jesus. In the latter, the labourers hired in the eleventh hour receive a full day’s wages even though they have only worked for one hour. In the former, the man who received a full day’s wages for two hours’ work is said to have actually earned them, because, during those two hours, he accomplished more than the rest of the labourers had done all day long.[45]

But it is likewise true that Arthur Marmorstein was able to write a whole book of 199 pages about the Rabbinic doctrine of merits,[46] a book in which he traces the changing fate of that particular doctrine. It was a doctrine more firmly held in some generations than in others; one, moreover, which never lacked its opponents among the ranks of the Rabbis. Yet we never find that those who challenged the doctrine were threatened by their opponents with crucifixion.

Nor, to the best of our knowledge, was that threat uttered against Rabbi Yudan bar Hanan, when he taught in the name of R. Berekhiah:

The Holy One, praised be He, said to Israel: “My children, if you see that the merit of the patriarchs is giving way, and that the merit of the matriarchs is declining, go and cleave unto steadfast love (hesed); as it is said [Isa. 54:10], ‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed.’ ‘The mountains may depart’—that refers to the merit of the patriarchs; ‘and the hills be removed’—that refers to the merit of the matriarchs. From now on it is a case of ‘but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord Who has compassion on you.’”[47]

For that matter, there is no record of the crucifixion of the Rabbi who taught the following Aggadah:

“And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” [Exod. 33:19].

At that time the Holy One, praised be He, showed him (Moses) all the treasuries of the reward prepared for the righteous.

He (Moses) said to Him: “Sovereign of the Universe, to whom does this treasury belong?”

He (God) said to him: “It belongs to those who act righteously.”

“And whose is that?”

“It belongs to those who support orphans.”

And similarly in the case of every single treasury—until he saw a particularly large treasury.

He [Moses] said to Him: “Whose is this?”

He [God] said to him: “To him who has (sc. merit), I give of his own. But to him who has none, I give (sc. out of this treasury) for nothing (hinnam = lit. gratis, derived from hen = grace); as it is said: ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.’”[48]

A sermon like that, addressed to a congregation reared in the more conventional doctrine of “According to the labour is the reward,” would attract attention and stimulate thought. Indeed, it might even cause some astonishment at the preacher and marvel at his self-assured “authority.” But the question of “blasphemy” would not occur to anyone. Why, then, should we assume that Jesus’ audience reacted any differently to the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard?

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.
Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from an 11th century Byzantine Gospel text.

Still, once one has made up one’s mind that everything Jesus taught in his parables must have been offensive to his Pharisaic contemporaries, one tries to find “offence” everywhere.

A case in point is Linnemann’s treatment of the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The fact that the father showed greater affection for, or made more fuss over, the returning prodigal than in respect of the conventionally obedient elder brother means—to her—that Jesus turned “the world upside down,” and she is careful to underline the fact that a man who would thus turn the world upside down must also be ready “to suffer it that people will ‘put him out of the world’ for the sake of the order of the world.”[49]

It would take us too far afield to cite all the numerous passages from the Aggadah which deal with the doctrine of repentance, and which seem to suggest that anyone who did not accept the message of the parable of The Prodigal Son would not have been within the mainstream of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. Suffice it to draw attention to a significant literary curiosity.

The Talmud contains the following statement:

Rabbi Abbahu said: The place occupied by repentant sinners cannot be attained even by the completely righteous; as it is said (Isa. 57:19): “Peace, peace, to him that is far off, and to him that is near.” What is the meaning of “far off”? It means someone originally far off (i.e., the sinner who is far from God). And what is the meaning of “near”? It means one who was originally (and still is) near (to God).[50]

This passage is quoted by an eighth-century scholar, Rabbi Aha Gaon—with one significant change. After the statement that the repentant sinners are superior to the completely righteous, Rabbi Aha inserts the following words:

What are repentant sinners like? (The matter can be compared) to a king who had two sons; one walked in the way of goodness, and one became depraved.[51]

Louis Ginzberg, who edited this manuscript, surmises that Rabbi Aha must have had those words in his text of the Talmud, even though later editions of the Talmud no longer contain them. Ginzberg also asserts that they are “the short, original form of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.”[52]

Israel Abrahams, commenting on this text, finds that Rabbi Aha’s reading of the talmudic passage “looks like a reminiscence of Luke’s Parable,” and goes on to say that “it may have been removed from the Talmud text by scribes more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.”[53]

We are not interested at the moment in the question of priorities, i.e., did the Aggadah borrow it from Jesus, or did Jesus utilize aggadic material? Nor are we concerned with the question of who removed the words from the text of the Talmud. It is a rather unlikely hypothesis to think of scribes “more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.” For Rabbi Abbahu, who knew Greek, was famous as a controversialist with Christians.[54]

What is of great importance to us, however, is the simple fact that the parable of The Prodigal Son fitted in so easily and naturally with the Rabbinic scheme of things that it could be used by the Rabbis themselves to illustrate a Rabbinic statement on the subject of repentant sinners. That would hardly have been the case had that parable been meant to “turn the world upside down”—if, by “world,” we mean the world of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism!

As a final illustration, we may be permitted to refer to The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the attempt to play Jesus off against his Jewish contemporaries, this parable plays a very significant role. Robert W. Funk summarizes it as follows:

The scribes and Pharisees sought to relate (the law) to everyday existence in countless ways, but it grew less relevant with each step…Jesus attempted nothing less than to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.[55]

While we do not subscribe to Funk’s evaluation of the Rabbinic interpretation of the law, we shall grant him his point for argument’s sake, and confine ourselves to an examination of how, if at all, Jesus’ telling of the parable of The Good Samaritan was an attempt “to shatter the whole tradition that had obscured the law.”

To begin with, we hold, with Jeremias,[56] that there is no reason to detach the parable from its present context.[57] The difficulty, noted by a number of scholars, that the lawyer asks, “Whom must I treat as a neighbour?” while Jesus’ parable answers the question, “Who acted as a neighbour?” is only an apparent difficulty. As Jeremias points out, neither Jesus nor the lawyer is seeking a definition of “neighbour,” but, rather, the extent of the conception of “neighbour.” “The only difference between them is that the scribe is looking at the matter from a theoretical point of view, while Jesus illuminates the question with a practical example.”[58]

It is obvious that Jesus is intent upon giving the conception of “neighbour” its widest possible extent, and upon broadening the lawyer’s horizon. Therefore, the man in the parable, who exemplifies the love of neighbour, is not a representative of the clergy, a priest or a Levite. He is not even a fellow Jew, but a Samaritan. And the fact that a Samaritan is given the role of the merciful neighbour was, according to Linnemann, “surprising and offensive to Jesus’ hearers.”[59] According to Robert W. Funk, Jesus’ question at the end, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour?” is “a question on which the Jew chokes.”[60]

That Jesus meant to “surprise” with this parable is quite likely. It is certainly surprising to be told that your own religious teachings are better put into practice by an outsider than by your own religious leadership. The Rabbis, too, occasionally liked to hold up the behaviour of non-Jews as examples to be followed by Jews.

Rabbi Akiba said: For three things I love the Medes. When they cut meat, they cut it only on the table; when they kiss, they only kiss the hand; and when they hold counsel, they do so only in the field…

Rabban Gamaliel said: For three things I love the Persians. They are modest in their eating habits, modest in the bathroom, and modest in their sexual relations.[61]

But the Rabbis’ use of this teaching device went beyond an admiration of the non-Jews’ good manners and etiquette. They did not shrink from using it in expounding one of the Ten Commandments! In a question, strikingly similar to the lawyer’s question in Luke 10, the disciples asked Rabbi Eliezer: “How far does the honour due father and mother extend?” And the Rabbi answered:

Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama ben Nethina, did in Ashkelon!

We are then informed that Dama ben Nethina was head of the city council in Ashkelon. He once refused to disturb his father’s sleep, when, by doing so, he could have made a great profit. He would never sit down on the stone on which his father sat; and, after his father’s death, Dama turned this stone into an object of worship. (A curious point for a Rabbi to single out by way of praise!) And he treated his mother with the utmost deference even when, on one occasion, she insulted him in the presence of the entire city council.[62]

Judging by the record, in both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud, no offence was taken at this illustration. Now, if invoking the heathen of Ashkelon in an exposition of Exodus 20:12 caused no offence in the case of Rabbi Eliezer, it is difficult to see why invoking the Samaritan in an exposition of Leviticus 19:18 should have been so particularly offensive in the case of Jesus.

Admittedly, the relations between Jews and Samaritans were not particularly friendly. But why should the Samaritan not be thought capable of acting the good neighbour? After all, within a strictly legalistic context, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel once stated:

Whatever commandment the Samaritans have adopted, they are very strict in the observance thereof—stricter than the Jews.[63]

At the time of Jesus, the Halakhah treated the Samaritans in some respects as Jews, and in other respects as Gentiles. It was not until the third century C.E., long after the time of Jesus, that the decision was reached not to regard the Samaritans as Jews.[64]

We are, therefore, no more able to see the “offence” in the parable of The Good Samaritan than we have been able to see it in The Labourers in the Vineyard or in The Prodigal Son. What we are able to see is a Jesus who impresses by his directness of approach, his skill in the use of the parable, and his ability to draw his listeners into the problematik of his presentation. But he does all that within the ambience of the Pharisaic-Rabbinic world of thought and within the broad limits of the realm of Aggadah. The fact that Jesus and the Rabbis spoke the same language and shared the same world of thought must not, however, be taken to imply that a Jesus, or a Hillel, or a Rabbi Akiba did not each have his own very specific emphases. Nor does it mean that either Jesus or the Rabbis were primarily concerned with religious commonplaces or moral generalities. The very concreteness of their language made that impossible. But it is also the very concreteness of their language—the use of parables instead of dogmatic formulations, of folklore motifs in place of theological constructs—which prevents the philosophical dissipation of their central affirmations. Therein lies the abiding theological significance of the parables of Jesus and the Aggadah of the Rabbis—and perhaps not least for an age like ours, when the religious heritage of Jerusalem and the philosophical heritage of Athens almost seem to have reached the end of their common journey through the history of human thought.

 

David Flusser’s Response

Petuchowski’s article is an important step in the progress of scholarship. Even the best recent books dealing with the parables have neglected the fact that Jesus’ parables are not as unique as they seem to be. They are part and parcel of rabbinic tradition. This simple truth has been forgotten because a German scholar, Jülicher, decided that there is practically no connection between Jesus’ and the rabbinic parables; Jülicher even thought that the other Jews were influenced by him.

Until now, dissident scholars have tried to find concrete sources for Jesus’ parables: they pick out this or that rabbinic parable to show that Jesus had known it and had transformed it in his own way. But the correct approach would be to use the method of the Russian formalists and study the form of the Jewish parable itself, its motifs and literary functions. Most motifs are common to the parables of the rabbis and of Jesus. Two themes are dominant: workers (or slaves), their labour and compensation, and the banquet and the invited guests, but even the image of the net appears in a parable of Jesus and a saying of Rabbi Akiba. A master of this kind of oral literature can, with the help of these motifs, describe an interesting, often paradoxical, situation, which, at the same time, evokes a realistic impression. Occasionally, the situation is so striking that others like to use the new creation, but even so, strictly speaking, they do not repeat a specific parable, but rather change its components, combining them with other popular themes. This happened, for instance, in Jesus’ famous parable of the Sower. The archetype, so to say, appears in Mishna Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:15: “There are four types of students: Quick to learn and quick to forget…slow to learn and slow to forget…quick to learn and slow to forget and slow to learn and quick to forget…” Jesus worked out this scheme in an “impressionistic” way and applied it to four kinds of soil. That types of disciples, or spiritual rabbis, were compared with various objects is also known from rabbinic literature, take again Mishna Avoth 5:18. Let me cite an example of a rabbinic parable: “This world resembles a householder who hired workers and inspected them to see who really worked…both for those who really worked and for those who did not really work, all was prepared for a banquet” (Seder Eliahu Rabba, ed. Isch Schalom, p. 5). Here, the theme of workers and their work and the banquet motif are dovetailed. Even the paradox of this parable resembles the way of Jesus: both the good and the bad workers are invited to the banquet. The parable is used in an eschatological sense, for the banquet motif is very apt for that purpose: the Gentiles will not partake of the banquet but be condemned to Gehenna, because they speak against the Children of Israel. But the simile itself could also be used for many other purposes and here it is not very well adapted to its aim.

A good parabolist, evidently, had not only to produce tension within the simile itself, but also to forge a dialectical link between the simile and its application. When one does not clarify one’s parable, the simile only offers hints of the object of the teaching, and even then not unequivocally. A parable may explain the meaning of human life, the eschatological expectation, the proper and false behaviour of Man towards God, the study of Torah, Israel’s election. It may even be used, as in later rabbinic literature, to elucidate biblical narratives or individual verses.

The parable itself, then, unilluminated, is really difficult to understand, and there may often be more than one possible meaning. Jesus was right to stress the point that a parable is harder of comprehension than a plain teaching. The study of his parables in connection with rabbinic ones will surely throw light on the development of this genre in rabbinic literature and its typology.

Robert L. Lindsey’s Response

Dr. Petuchowski has very correctly assessed the liberal-Christian point of view of many scholars as one leading to serious distortion of the insistent Jewishness of the New Testament. He is unquestionably right in attacking the shallowness with which many Christians approach and reproach the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition.

It is of the greatest importance that the approach to the New Testament include a careful and critical understanding of the characteristics of each of the Gospels and their inter-relationship. Although the priority of the Gospel of Mark has long been taken for granted, the consensus of much of the scholarship today is that we cannot view this “assured result of criticism” as self-evident. It is certain that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve materials more historically authentic and deriving from earlier sources than the text we have of Mark. This means not only that Mark is full of readings which are secondary but that we often have, at least in Luke, a far less redacted story.

Luke’s story does not implicate the Pharisees in the arrest of Jesus. The blame is placed on the “high priests,” namely, the ruling Sadducean family which largely controlled the affairs of the Temple and of whom the Essenes complained so bitterly. Luke even has a report that some of the Pharisees warned Jesus against Herod Antipas and, in his book of Acts of the Apostles, he makes it clear that many of the first Jewish Christians were Pharisees in background. It is surely significant that he never suggests that the Sadducees joined the Jesus movement.

Thus, the tendency to chastise the “scribes and Pharisees”—a phrase very frequent in Mark and even more so in Matthew—is almost surely due to Mark’s editorial policy to stereotype and dramatize; in this instance, as even Rudolf Bultmann noted, Mark and Matthew show the ever-growing trend of “the tradition” to involve the Pharisees in the fate of Jesus. Since there are other and serious reasons for accepting Luke’s story as the earliest and, in general, the most exact, we have a further illustration of his preservation of good texts—here, of a picture of the Pharisees which seems to accord with the best that we can learn of the Jewish movements of the first century.

As for the propensity of Christian scholars to see in Jesus’ use of parables a teaching method which led more or less automatically to opposition from the organized movements of the period, one is reminded how Jesus himself argued against those who accused him of casting out demons with the help of the Prince of demons. “If I cast out demons by the aid of the Prince of the demons,” said he, “by whose aid do your sons cast out demons?” If Jesus automatically aroused violent antagonism by using the parabolic method, would not the rabbis have provoked it by their own use of simile and allegory? We must look for other causes than this happy aggadism for the fateful conflict over Jesus.

There is a strong possibility that the famous passage in Mark (4:10-12) about Jesus’ purpose in using parables is more original than it seems. Many have supposed that Mark is suggesting that Jesus deliberately used parables to hide his message. Scholars claim that Jesus could have said nothing of the kind, for, obviously, the whole purpose of the stories that he tells is to make a point; the conjecture is that Mark changed Jesus’ words for his own “theological” reasons.

The puzzle of the passage, which Petuchowski labels a crux interpretum for modern scholars, is the use of the strong Greek word translated “so that.” Luke’s parallel, which—I argue—is earlier, and closer to the original Hebrew undertext, quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples: “To you it is given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God. To the rest (the message comes) in parables so that seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not understand” (Luke 8:10). When we translate this passage word for word into Hebrew from the Greek we get a good Hebrew text and we are immediately in the Jewish world of 30-40 C.E. “Secrets” is a Qumranic term, the Kingdom of God is the rabbinic malchut shamayim. Thus, as in other Gospel contexts, Jesus is shown as picking up Qumranic and rabbinic terms and combining them; we need not suppose that this passage is the invention of non-Jewish circles.

More importantly, the expression “seeing they shall not see and hearing they shall not hear” is a plain hint of Isaiah 6:9-10, in which the prophet is bidden to tell the people:

Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and be healed.

These verses, like so much of Isaiah, were on the lips of all Jews in the time of Jesus. He had only to hint at the special, classical Hebraism “seeing to see” and “hearing to hear” for all to recognize the kind of people whom he was describing. They knew Isaiah had spoken to his generation in supreme irony, much as a mother might to a rebellious child. Her hope—and the hope of Isaiah under God—is to shock the rebel into a right perception of his erroneous ways.

There are, then, excellent reasons for surmising that this saying is one of the ipsissima verba of Jesus and that the “so that” is a vital part of the hint of Isaiah. One might paraphrase the words of Jesus: “You are my disciples and have willingly followed me, so you understand what I am talking about. These other people have to be told as Isaiah told the people of his day, line upon line, precept upon precept. By using parables, I am trying to cure them of their spiritual blindness.” Everything that we know of Jesus fits this interpretation—he taught in Hebrew, made wordplays on the Hebrew Scriptures as did the Essenes and the rabbis, and had a prophetic concern for his own people. Our New Testament problems, as Petuchowski has so well said, are mostly due to the ignorance of Jewish thought and expression in the first century—and, let me add, a failure to recognize Greek texts which have descended from literal translations of written Hebrew sources.

  • [1] Reprinted from Christian News from Israel 23.2 (10) (1972): 76-86. Used with permission. Christian News from Israel was a publication of the Government of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Many outstanding articles were published in this journal during the approximately thirty years of its existence, beginning in 1950. However, unfortunately, it is next to impossible to find copies of this now-defunct journal—even large libraries seldom possess it. Jerusalem Perspective reprints this article with the permission of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, thus resurrecting Petuchowski’s fine work. At the time the article was written, Petuchowski was Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Theology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a visiting Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. We have preserved the spelling of the original Christian New from Israel article, which was according to British usage. Flusser and Lindsey’s responses appeared in the following issue: Christian News from Israel 23.3 (11) (1973): 147-50.
  • [2] In The Interpreter’s Bible (ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al.; Vol. VII; New York and Nashville, 1951), 699ff. But cf. T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (2nd ed.; Cambridge, 1935), 57-81.
  • [3] See Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (offset of 1910 edition; Darmstadt, 1969), 1:25-118, for a survey of this kind of interpretation including Jülicher’s own. For a more recent attempt to classify the various types of parable, see Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables (New York and Evanston, 1966), 3ff.
  • [4] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 3ff.
  • [5] Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York, 1953), 20. See also Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (New York, Evanston and London, 1966), 126.
  • [6] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (revised ed.; London, 1936), 15.
  • [7] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch be leuchtet durch die römische Kaiserzeit (Breslau, 1903), passim.
  • [8] Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (2 vols.; Cambridge, 1917-1924), 1:99.
  • [9] W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London, 1936), 10ff.
  • [10] J. W. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen, 1954), 54ff.
  • [11] Cf. W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der jüdischen Traditionsliteratur (Leipzig, 1905), 1:25-7, 103-5.
  • [12] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:42ff.
  • [13] See Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie, 1:30-37.
  • [14] Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics, 56ff.
  • [15] SiphreEqebh, paragraph 49, ed. Finkelstein (Berlin, 1939), 115. The statement there is attributed to the doreshe haggadoth. A variant reading has doreshe reshumoth, probably a group of allegorists. See Jacob Z. Lauterbach, “The Ancient Jewish Allegorists in Talmud and Midrash,” Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series, Vol. 1 [1910/11]): 291-333, 503-31, and Isaak Heinemann, Altjüdische Allegoristik (Breslau, 1936), 66ff.
  • [16] See Paul Fiebig, Altjüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu (Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904): Die Gleichnisreden Jesu im Lichte der Rabbinischen Gleichnisse des neutestamentlichen Zeitalters(Tübingen, 1912); and Der Erzählungsstil der Evangelien (Leipzig, 1925).
  • [17] Fiebig, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 128ff.
  • [18] Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua (London, 1929), 223.
  • [19] Oesterley, The Gospel Parables, 10ff.
  • [20] In R.G.G. (2nd ed.), 1241, as quoted by Theodor Guttmann, Hamashal Bithequphath Hatannaim (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 1949), 71. Guttmann attempts to rebut Bultmann’s charge by saying that Bultmann’s distinction might possibly be correct in the case of some of the post-Tannaitic parables, but that it does not hold in the case of the Tannaitic parables, i.e., those of the period closest to the New Testament.
  • [21] Cf. Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity? (New York, 1957), passim.
  • [22] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 35.
  • [23] Ignaz Ziegler, Die Königsgleichnisse des Midrasch, xxii. Jülicher, too, was aware of the aggadic nature of Jesus’ discourse, but he could not get himself to admit that Jesus shared that much with the Rabbis. That is why Jülicher makes a pathetic attempt to divorce the aggadic realm from the purview of Rabbinic concern. “The Rabbi, as such, has one method of teaching only—the Halachah. The scribe is already bound by his very name to forgo originality. He is to be but a channel for the wisdom streaming forth from every word of the Scriptures. The Haggadah, that independent melting down of Scriptural bullion in the fire of imagination and soul, it is not the product of the Rabbinic, but of the Hebraic spirit… It is the voice of the people which can be heard in such pictures. The Haggadah together with its flowers, the parables, grew up in the home—to be sure, in the Hebrew home with its intimate, happy and pure family life. The Rabbi and his Halakhah is (sic) an outgrowth of the school. That is why the Jewish Rabbi, as a Rabbi, had to despise the haggadic element. But, as a human being, as a son of his people, he was nevertheless unable ever to get away from it altogether. Jesus did not want to get away from it. God had saved him from the school” (Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 1:172ff.). It did not seem to have dawned on Jülicher that such Haggadah as is available to us has come down to us for no other reason than that the Rabbis, in their schools(!), have preserved it. He seems also completely unaware of the fact that, in Rabbinic Judaism, it was usually one and the same person (e.g., Hillel, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai) who was both a master of the Halakhah and a master of the Aggadah. There is, of course, no denying that the Aggadah represented the more popular element in Rabbinic teaching. But, in reading the literature, one hardly gets the impression that the Rabbis, as Rabbis, had to “despise” that element, or that they yielded to it only with the utmost reluctance. On the contrary, as Max Kadushin points out (The Rabbinic Mind [2nd ed.; New York, Toronto, London, 1965], 87): “Characteristic of the Rabbis’ relation to the folk, of the identity of their interests with those of the folk, is the Rabbis’ own attitude toward Haggadah. They did not view it as something fit only for the masses, but to which they themselves were superior; on the contrary, they felt themselves deeply in need of Haggadah, regarding it as one of the great divisions of Torah, and the study of which was incumbent upon them…. Younger scholars were stimulated toward becoming skillful in Haggadah as well as in Halakhah.” And see Isaak Heinemann, Darkhe Ha-Aggadah (2nd ed.; Jerusalem, 5714), 16. Yet there are indeed a few isolated passages in Rabbinic literature which disparage the Aggadah. Leo Baeck has examined those passages in great detail, finding it possible to relate them to very specific circumstances, viz., the usage of aggadic hermeneutics by Christians of the second century, in the allegorical and christological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (Leo Baeck, Aus drei Jahrtausenden [2nd ed.; Tübingen, 1958], 176-85.)
  • [24] Mark 1:22; Matthew 7:29; Luke 4:32.
  • [25] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1946), 264ff.
  • [26] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [27] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:96. See also A. Marmorstein’s observation that the sermons, contained in the Aggadah, are so brief and laconic that it is not always possible for us to reconstruct the entire sermon on the basis of the mere sketch which has been preserved (Arthur Marmorstein, Talmud und Neues Testament [Vinkovci, 1908], 47.)
  • [28] Tosephta Baba Kamma 7:4, ed. Zuckermandel, 357ff.
  • [29] Midrash Debharim RabbaEqebh, section 17, ed. Lieberman (Jerusalem, 1964), 91. The parallels in TanhumaKi Tissa, chapter 30, and Yalqut Shime’oniKi Tissa, section 397, introduce yet a further motif, viz., the bride’s agent destroys the original marriage contract.
  • [30] David Halivni, Sources and Traditions (Tel Aviv, 1968), 15 (Hebrew).
  • [31] Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend (Leiden, 1970), 2.
  • [32] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 42ff.
  • [33] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York and Evanston, 1963), 205.
  • [34] Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia 1958), 99ff.
  • [35] Charles W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia, 1948), 17.
  • [36] Smith, The Jesus of the Parables, 272ff.
  • [37] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 21.
  • [38] Dan Otto Via, Jr., The Parables (Philadelphia, 1967), 192.
  • [39] S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York, 1967), 1 and passim. And see his, “The Trial of Jesus,” in Judaism 20:1 (Winter 1971): 43-8.
  • [40] Haim H. Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (Tel Aviv, 1968), passim (Hebrew).
  • [41] Emil L. Fackenheim, Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington and London, 1968), 16ff.
  • [42] B. Erubhin 13b; b. Gittin 6b.
  • [43] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 88.
  • [44] Mishnah Abhoth 5:23.
  • [45] J. Berakhoth II, 8, Krotoshin ed., 5c; Canticles Rabba 6:2.
  • [46] Arthur Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (London, 1920).
  • [47] J. Sanhedrin X, 1, Krotoshin ed., 27d.
  • [48] Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 16, ed. Buber, 58b. Parallels which name different “good deeds” are found in Midrash TanhumaKi Tissa, section 28, and Exodus Rabba 45:6.
  • [49] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 80ff.
  • [50] B. Sanhedrin 99a.
  • [51] Louis Ginzberg, Geonica (2nd ed.; New York, 1968), 2:376–7.
  • [52] Ginzberg, Geonica, 2:351.
  • [53] Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1:92.
  • [54] S. Mendelson, “Abbahu,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1:36-7.
  • [55] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 221ff.
  • [56] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [57] Cf. also Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 208ff. Funk summarizes the position of Birger Gerhardsson: “Since the rabbis were fond of the parable in the exposition of scripture, it is not surprising that the lawyer’s question, which had to do with an exegetical point (what is the meaning of re‘akha in the text?), evokes a parable as a midrash on the text.”
  • [58] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 205.
  • [59] Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, 53.
  • [60] Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, 212ff.
  • [61] B. Berakhoth 8b.
  • [62] B. Kiddushin 31a; j. Pe’ah I, 1, Krotoshin ed., 15c; and cf. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 2:36ff.
  • [63] B. Hullin 4a.
  • [64] See Maurice Simon, “Introduction” to Tractate Kuthim, in A. Cohen, ed., The Minor Tractates of the Talmud, Vol. II (London, 1965).

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.)

Being There

One of the strongest impressions I have from my first year in Israel (1963-1964) was taking part in a Passover Seder (the joyous home celebration of Passover). It happened that during this first year in Israel my first contact with the Jewish people took place—there were no Jews living in Cleveland, Oklahoma, where I grew up.

As I and the other participants read the Haggadah, the book of worship used at the Seder service, we came to the place where it is written, “In every generation it is a man’s duty to look upon himself as if he personally came out of Egypt…for it was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One (blessed is he!) redeemed; he redeemed us as well with them!”

These startling conclusions were derived by ancient Jewish scholars from two passages of Scripture:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (Exod. 13:6-8; RVS)

When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers.” (Deut. 6:20-23; RSV)

Being a Christian and being familiar with the New Testament, I was shocked, but said to myself in amazement: “Yes, it’s true, I was there! I was there when we fled Egypt. I was there when we crossed the Red Sea. I was there when we wandered in the wilderness.”

As a Christian I knew something about vicariously being there: when Adam sinned, I sinned; when Jesus died on the cross, I died on the cross—in him, I was there—when Jesus was buried, I was buried with him; when he rose from the dead, I rose with him. As Paul states in Romans 6:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:3-5; RSV)

Not too long ago I received a letter from a Jerusalem Perspective reader, a Baptist pastor. He wrote:

I think I have heard you say something like, after a “Gentile” follows Jesus as Messiah, becomes a part of Israel spiritually, and has gone into the mikveh (baptism, for ritual cleansing?), he is no longer a Gentile, per se. If he is no longer a Gentile, is he a Jew? Or is he JUST a “spiritual Jew,” or a “Gentile in the gate,” or a God-fearer? What is legitimate to call him? So, am I a Jew now? I would be glad to be one! But I want to be very careful about what I say so as not to offend Jews or others unnecessarily.

I responded:

My position is that, according to the New Testament, a pagan [a heathen, a Gentile; in Hebrew, goi] who becomes a follower of Jesus and enters the Kingdom of Heaven—in Christian parlance, “gets saved”—also becomes part of the commonwealth of Israel. If you prefer the term “spiritual Jew”—and your congregants will!—that’s OK, but I don’t think Jewishness has ever been anything other than a spiritual matter. Are you a Jew? In some sense, yes. Your Jewish neighbors won’t be able to understand this; therefore, it would probably be best to introduce yourself to them as a Christian.

Reading the Passover Seder for the first time, I reflected:  “I believe that I died with Jesus, that, vicariously, I was there with him. Could I, born a Gentile, also believe that I took part in the Exodus from Egypt? Yes, I was there, too! Having joined the commonwealth of Israel, my ancestors include Moses, Aaron and the others who fled Egypt.” As Paul said:

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…. (1 Cor. 10:1-2; RSV)

The Corinthian Christians were a classic “Gentile” community, yet Paul wrote to them as if they were Jews:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. (1 Cor. 5:1; RSV)

You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. (1 Cor. 12:2; RVS)

To the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were…separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. [Note Paul’s assumption that now these former Gentiles are no longer alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise.] But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ…. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Eph. 2:11-13, 19; RSV)

It doesn’t matter that I was born a non-Jew; I have become part of “the commonwealth of Israel.” I have been joined to the people of Israel. Isn’t that exactly what the leaders of Jesus’ first community of disciples ruled?

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question…. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith…. We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are”….

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia… It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things…. (Acts 15:1-2, 4-9, 11, 22-23, 28-29; NIV)

I think it can be said that Paul’s greatest challenge was to explain his mission to the formerly pagan and to defend himself against false charges that were leveled against him by Jewish members of the early church. Further, I think it can be argued that most, if not all, of Paul’s letters were written to explain what he called “the mystery of Christ” or “mystery of the gospel,” that is, that people of non-Jewish origin could, through Jesus, become part of Israel without the necessity of keeping all the commandments of Torah and having to be circumcised.

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 3:4-6; NIV)

Every Christian must answer the question, “Were you there with the Israelites when they left Egypt?” just as he or she must answer the question, “Were you there with Jesus when he was crucified?” for there is a strong connection between the Exodus from Egypt and Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection.

We followers of Jesus were in fact there, at the Red Sea and at Calvary’s cross, and we must not exclude ourselves from this experience, saying, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Our spiritual well-being hinges on a personal identification with, and participation in, these events—on being able to say with the mouth and believe with the heart, “I was there.” Furthermore, we must be able to give a definite answer to the question, “Am I Jew or Gentile (part of God’s people or part of those whose God is not the God of Israel)?”