From Allegro to Zeitlin

Gresham’s Law (Economics): the theory that if two kinds of money in circulation have the same denominational value but different intrinsic value, the money with higher intrinsic value (called good) will be hoarded and eventually driven out of circulation by the money with lesser intrinsic value (called bad).” (From The American Heritage Dictionary, expounded by Sir Thomas Gresham [1519?-1579], English financier.)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham by an unknown artist, ca. 1565.
Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham by an unknown artist, ca. 1565.

Gresham’s Law ought to be applied also to the world of scholarship, and then it may be called the Gresham-Broshi Law. This law asserts that false, sensational and “light” pseudo-information tends to drive genuine, serious and good information out of circulation.

There is little doubt that any intelligent reader will be able to marshal convincing evidence in defense of our law. I shall therefore bring only two examples, both from the field of archaeology (not only because it is the subject with which I am best acquainted, but also because, it seems, it is the branch of knowledge suffering most from the effects of this law).

Example one: For every one hundred persons who know (and quote) Erich von Deniken, there are barely ten who know who William Foxwell Albright, the Nestor of Biblical archaeology, was, and hardly one who knows the name of Henri Frankfort, one of the most profound and original students of the Ancient Near East.

This is certainly a sad fact, because von Deniken is not only a silly, unscrupulous ignoramus, but is also a man who has been convicted twice for fraud. As everybody knows, he has advanced absurd theories employing creatures from outer space and spacecraft in order to solve archaeological quasi-problems. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies (in many languages) and the millions who did not read his books could benefit from movies that were made to propagate his theories. Von Deniken, we are told, is one of the most sought-after and best paid lecturers in Germany.

Example two: The search for Noah’s Ark. There is hardly a year in which we are not informed by the news media about an expedition leaving for or returning from Mount Ararat, or about some frozen logs found on one of the ice caps in northeastern Anatolia—logs that someone or other says are the remains of Noah’s Ark. Not long ago I was asked by a radio reporter to comment on one of those Ararat reports, and I answered that my hunch is that most of the expeditions are on the payroll of the CIA. That could be true, but it is more likely they are simply seeking to make headlines, out to bamboozle a bored world.

Of all the archaeological finds in the land of Israel, the most important are undoubtedly the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since their discovery some fifty years ago, they have been the subject of wild theorizing, heated debates and irresponsible rumors. This unwholesome situation is due partly to the consistent avoidance by the authors of the Scrolls of historical names (with two or three glaring exceptions) and identifiable historical events (again with just two exceptions). It can also be attributed partly to the shock of novelty. For almost a century archaeologists working in the Holy Land were extremely happy to find an inscription with a couple of lines, and here they were confronted with the remains of a whole library.

To a great extent the Scrolls have been a victim of the Gresham-Broshi Law, both when scholars offered poor speculations in good faith and when fantastic conjectures were offered and malicious rumors spread. The gullibility of the public proved the said law to be quite valid.

The list of the scholars who issued “bad currency” is quite long, and to discuss all of them and their theories would require a bulky, book-length treatise. So here I will deal with only two: the one that opens the alphabetical list, John Allegro, and the one that closes it, Solomon Zeitlin.

Let us start with the latter, the elder of the two, the late Solomon Zeitlin (1892-1976), professor of Rabbinics at Dropsie College in Philadelphia.

After the Scrolls were brought to the world’s attention in 1949, Zeitlin devoted himself doggedly to the task of proving that they were really forgeries, or, at best, just late Medieval manuscripts. With erudition, acuteness and unusual zeal, and mincing no words, he pursued his goal of demonstrating that the Scrolls were a hoax.

Zeitlin used not only unconventional language, but also unconventional methods, unheard of in serious scholarly circles. When the first Bar-Kochva letter was discovered, he, of course, called it a forgery. His main argument was that the opening formula of address was unknown among the Jews, Hellenes and Romans.

Scholars were quick to point out to Zeitlin that this very same formula was to be found in midrashic literature. Zeitlin’s unusual answer is worth quoting: “…my purpose in not mentioning the supposed letter in the Midrash being to see if the Jewish writers dealing with these matters would investigate midrashic literature critically and historically.”

A young John Allegro at work on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the "Scrollery" of Jerusalem's Rockefeller Museum. Allegro is aligning fragments of the Qumran Nahum Commentary.
A young John Allegro at work on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the “Scrollery” of Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. Allegro is aligning fragments of the Qumran Nahum Commentary.

The late John Marco Allegro (1923-1988) belongs to another opera. He did not argue that the Scrolls were forged. Rather, he spread wild hypotheses and pernicious rumors. Allegro, who taught comparative Semitic philology at the University of Manchester, was in the 1950s a member of the international team that studied and edited the Scrolls assembled in the Rockefeller Museum. He wrote quite a few mediocre books and papers on the Scrolls. His major publication, on material from Qumran Cave 4 (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, Vol. V), was so full of errors that the critical review article by John Strugnell (120 pages) was longer than the book reviewed (91 pages).

Allegro gained immense popularity in the 1950s and 1960s owing to sensational broadcasts he made over the BBC and interviews he gave to the press. One of his “conjectures” that stirred great commotion was that the Teacher of Righteousness, the leader of the Dead Sea Sect, had been crucified. According to Allegro, the Sect expected a Messiah and was looking forward to the return of the dead leader in this role.

This is, of course, sheer nonsense, as there is not even the slightest evidence in the Scrolls to suggest that the Teacher of Righteousness did not die a natural death. Allegro’s attempt to discredit the originality of Christianity by making the Teacher a precursor of Jesus Christ found many credulous listeners.

The_Sacred_Mushroom_and_the_Cross_coverA later work by Allegro was his book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. One of its basic theses is that the Semites always worshipped the mushroom as a symbol of male and female fertility. Of this book Strugnell said, “[Allegro], once a promising young scholar, has been turned into a babbler of sciolitic bawdry by an overdose of the hallucinogenic mushroom amanita muscaria.”

I recently returned from the United States where I delivered a dozen lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls. No one could ask for better audiences than I had—well educated, earnest and very sympathetic. The question-and-answer sessions were a lecturer’s delight: people eager to know asking quite intelligent questions. Unfortunately, however, many questions were products of Allegro and Zeitlin: “What about the claims that the Scrolls are a forgery?” “Is it true that the Catholic Church is keeping some disturbing material secret?”

Proof of the correctness of the Gresham-Broshi Law.

The above is a revision by the author of an article that appeared in The Jerusalem Post of November 2, 1979.

Robert L. Lindsey and His Synoptic Theory

In his The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings, Finnish scholar Risto Santala appraises the synoptic theory of Robert L. Lindsey and its importance for New Testament studies.

The question as to how the Gospels were put together has occupied scholars for the past two hundred years. It is generally thought that the accounts of Jesus and his acts were transmitted orally until they were written down in Greek between the years 70-100 A.D. This puts the Gospel of John at an even later date.

Augustinian Hypothesis
Augustinian Hypothesis

These assumptions are certainly no more than working hypotheses by means of which attempts have been made to establish the relationship of the Gospels to one another. At the beginning of the fifth century A.D. Augustine concluded that the order of writing of the Synoptic Gospels was Matthew, Mark and Luke, with Mark using Matthew, and Luke using both Matthew and Mark. The originator of the “synoptic” concept, J. J. Griesbach, considered Matthew’s Gospel to have been written first, Luke’s second and Mark’s last, with Luke using Matthew, and Mark using Matthew and Luke (see B. C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew [Cambridge, 1951]).

Griesbach Hypothesis
Griesbach Hypothesis

What conclusions have been reached by Robert Lindsey? In answering this question, it must be borne in mind that the Gospels were originally communicated orally to the people in Aramaic and even, it would appear, recorded in a written form in both Aramaic and Hebrew. The church fathers Papias, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius, leaning on tradition, record sayings to the effect that Matthew wrote his Gospel initially “in Hebrew,” “among Hebrews,” “for those of the Jews who became Christians” and “in their mother tongue” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III 39, 16; V 8, 2; VI 25, 4; and III 24, 6.) Critics often consider “Hebrew” to mean “Aramaic.” Comparative linguistic studies ought, however, to be capable of revealing which language’s structure and concepts best correspond to the Greek phraseology.

About thirty years ago Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Dr. Robert L. Lindsey, a Baptist pastor in Jerusalem, began to study the syntactic peculiarities of the Greek New Testament. They observed that in hundreds of places the sentence structure betrayed Semitic influence and that it was easier to restore a possible Hebrew original than an Aramaic one. No passages were found which could have been expressed only in Aramaic.

Lindsey’s Hypothesis

Lindsey was surprised to observe that Mark quoted Luke and not the other way around. Hundreds of proofs of this accumulated. In addition, there appeared to be about 150 places in Mark which were the result of the influence of the Acts of the Apostles, and some showed that Mark also knew the letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Colossians and the letter of James. Based on this evidence Lindsey came to the conclusion that Mark had “amplified” Luke’s account.

It is interesting to note that the antecedence of Luke with regard to Mark was also pointed out by E. A. Abbott and W. Lockton. Lockton collected around 600 proofs of the earlier date of Luke, concluding: “Mark used Luke, which is the earliest of our gospels, and Matthew drew upon Luke and Mark” (see A. H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament [London, 1953], p. 64).

As a friend of Dr. Lindsey and living in Jerusalem I had the privilege of following the development of his theory, but for some time I remained detached from his opinions. When, however, I began to examine his theory more closely, its basic soundness became more and more apparent. Three things in particular seem to me to be clear:

1. If it is true that the shortest version of the Gospels is to be considered the earliest, then Mark cannot be prior to Luke because Mark especially is fond of the kind of ribuyim or “amplification” typical of the Midrash literature—even though Mark as a whole is the shortest, his individual stories are longer. This is apparent in, for example, the account of the attempt by Jesus’ mother and brothers to see him (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21).

2. If it is true that Mark knew Acts and six of Paul’s letters, and that seems quite possible, then again there is no doubt that he borrowed from Luke….

3. The texts of the Gospels betray several written sources; therefore, there is good reason to reject the idea—fashionable today—of the compelling significance of oral tradition.

David Flusser points out that Lindsey’s theory can be verified only when at least two conditions are met: “The investigator must first study most, if not all, the relevant Gospel materials in the light of the theory and, secondly, he must know enough Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic to understand the argument” (Foreword to Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 2nd ed. [Jerusalem, 1973], p. 2).

Lindsey’s theory challenges scholars to reexamine that which was formerly considered self-evident, and to study the Jewish roots of the Gospels. It may well be that these ideas will change the theories of Gospel origins as radically as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls changed attitudes regarding the Jewish character of the Gospel of John. At the same time they make possible an early date for the Gospels’ composition. If the Greek form of the Gospels originated, as John A. T. Robinson supposes, within ten to thirty years of Jesus’ death (Redating the New Testament [London, 1976]), we can join with Paul in exclaiming: “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance!”

SantalaNT[In the concluding chapter of his The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings, Santala writes:] What fruit, then, has this New Testament study yielded? Probably the most important thing is to recognize that the Aramaic Targum of Jonathan and the Midrash contain a powerful messianic theme. And this theme is still reflected in Mediaeval rabbinic exegesis, particularly in the commentaries of Rashi. Secondly, the Gospels and Paul’s letters display a mode of presentation and way of thinking typical of the synagogue preaching literature. Furthermore, we can see today just how powerfully the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has affected scholars’ understanding of the Gospel of John and Pauline theology. Even critical and unprejudiced scholars such as John A. T. Robinson have had to date the origin of the Gospels earlier than even a writer branded as a fundamentalist could ever have dreamed. And Lindsey’s theory has begun to shake the working hypothesis—ossified in the minds of theologians—that Mark was the earliest evangelist. For these reasons, it might turn out, as Robinson reckons, that the “Introductions to the New Testament” used as textbooks in theological seminaries will have to be revised.


Abridged and adapted from Risto Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings (Jerusalem, Israel: Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 1993), pp. 50-53, 56, 251, and used by permission.

Were Women Segregated in the Ancient Synagogue?

Did women play a passive role in the synagogue congregations of antiquity? Were they separated from male members of the congregation during prayer and study, as is the case today? According to Professor Shmuel Safrai, the answer to both questions is a resounding “No.”

When discussing the form and character of the synagogue, one should consider data from the land of Israel along with data from the Diaspora; there is no justification for treating them separately. The sources we will consider here pertain to synagogues in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple, throughout the land of Israel during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, and in the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, Syria and Greece.

The sources reveal that women regularly attended the synagogue and took part in its services, listening to sermons and to the reading of the Torah. Women also studied in the bet midrash (study hall).

A Woman’s Obligation

Prayer was a religious obligation not just of men, but also of women:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from recitation of the Shema and from putting on phylacteries, but are not exempt from praying [the Eighteen Benedictions], affixing a mezuzah [to the doorpost of their house], or saying the blessing after meals.[1]

Women, like men, were obligated to pray the “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer daily. Rabban Gamaliel said: “One must say the ‘Eighteen’ every day.”[2] Although it was usual to pray the Eighteen Benedictions in an assembly of the congregation, women—and men—were permitted to pray them privately.

When this prayer was recited publicly—in the synagogue, for instance—ten individuals were necessary to create a religious quorum. It is important to note that women could be counted as part of the ten. The idea that ten males are required for this quorum is not found in Jewish sources until at least 500 C.E.[3]

Women Frequented the Synagogue

There are many stories in rabbinic literature about women going to synagogue. Note, for instance, this halachah, which implies that it was as natural for women to go to the synagogue as to the bathhouse:

An Israelite may put meat on the coals [to cook] and let a Gentile come and turn it until he [the Israelite] returns from the synagogue or study hall without having to worry [that the meat will become prohibited]. An [Israelite] woman may put a pot on a stove and let a Gentile woman come and stir it until she [the Israelite woman] returns from the bathhouse or the synagogue without having to worry [that the contents of the pot will become prohibited].[4]

Another relevant halachah is transmitted in the name of Rabbi Simlai:

In a village, all of whose residents are priests, when they pronounce the priestly blessing [in the synagogue], whom do they bless? Their brothers in the north, their brothers in the south, their brothers in the east, their brothers in the west. And who responds “Amen”? The women and children.[5]

In ruling that in the synagogue of a village of priests, women and children are permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing, Rabbi Simlai obviously was making the assumption that the women were in attendance.

Greater Attendance on the Sabbath

Especially on the Sabbath, women and children went to synagogue:

It is right to translate for the general public and the women and children every Torah portion and the reading from the Prophets. That is why it was ruled: “On the Sabbath the people come [to the synagogue] early and leave late.” They come early in order to recite the Shema at sunrise like the strictly observant, and leave late in order to hear the commentary on the Torah portion. On festivals, however, the people come late because they [the women] have to prepare the festive meal [eaten after families return home from the synagogue].[6]

For testimony from the Jewish Diaspora, one could mention the journeys of Paul as related in the book of Acts. Luke informs us that on a number of occasions Paul met women in synagogues. When Paul reached Philippi on the Macedonian border, he went out of the town on the Sabbath to “a [Jewish] place of prayer” by the river and there spoke to the women (Acts 16:13). Here the writer emphasizes the presence of women because he intends to tell later about the Christian baptism of Lydia the God-fearer. Similarly, when Paul came to Thessalonica, important women were drawn to his teaching (Acts 17:4).

According to one source, even young girls attended synagogue services:

Young Israelite girls would go to the synagogues to gain a reward for those who brought them and to gain a reward for themselves.[7]

Daily Attendance

Some traditions depict women attending the synagogue every day.

It is told of one woman who grew very old and came before Rabbi Yose ben Halafta and said to him: “Rabbi I have grown too old, and now my life is one of disgrace since I cannot taste any food or drink, and I wish to be relieved of this world.”
He said to her: “What commandment do you take care to observe every day?”
She said to him: “I take care that, every day, even if I have something very important to do, I leave it until later and get up early to go to the synagogue.“[8]

Elsewhere, we read about a widow who had a synagogue in her neighborhood, but who walked some distance every day to pray in Rabbi Yohanan’s study hall [where services were conducted]:

He [Rabbi Yohanan] said to her: “My daughter, don’t you have a synagogue in your own neighborhood?”
She said to him: “Teacher, don’t I receive a reward for my steps [i.e., for the extra distance I walk]?”[9]

Rabbi Yohanan is surprised that the woman attends a synagogue outside her own neighborhood; he is not surprised by her synagogue attendance.

Women Came to Learn

There is a story[10] about a woman who went to synagogue every Friday night to hear Rabbi Meir teach Torah: “Rabbi Meir would go to teach in the synagogue of Hammath [near Tiberias] every Sabbath eve, and [there][11] one woman would go to hear his teaching.”[12]

The Midrash to Deuteronomy 29:10-11 informs us that women customarily went to the bet midrash (lit., “house of study,” but used here in its wider sense as a synonym for “synagogue”) even though they did not always understand the words of the teacher. On the text, “You stand here today…your children and your wives,” Midrash ha-Gadol comments: “Even though they may not be thoroughly trained [thus not able to argue halachic points], your wives come to receive a reward.” From this comment we may assume that men and women participated in synagogue study sessions and synagogue services, which also included teaching.

On the text, “More blessed than the women in the tent” (Jdg. 5:24), the Targum adds: “She [Yael] will be blessed like one of the women who serve [i.e., study] in the study halls.”[13] This statement indicates that women were present in synagogue study halls. It is significant that “service in the study hall” is one of the conditions for acceptance as a haver (member).[14]

Halachah Assumes Women’s Attendance

baraita in Tractate Niddah presupposes that women were present with men in the synagogue: “She may not come to the Temple [in her days of menstruation]; likewise, it is not permitted for her to enter the study hall or synagogue.”[15] Elsewhere, this prohibition is repeated: “She is not permitted to enter the synagogue until she immerses herself [following the end of her menstrual period].”[16]

Although this halachah is especially strict;[17] apparently, its observance was widespread. For example, the author of the Syriac Didascalia (sixth cent. C.E.) chastened the Jewish-Christian women of his community because they did not go to church during their menstrual period.[18] My point is this: Although Jewish women did not attend synagogue services or study sessions while they were menstruating; ordinarily, they participated just as fully as the men.

The Geonim, heads of the talmudic academies in Babylonia from the seventh to eleventh centuries C.E., received many queries about women’s attendance at synagogue. Their view, with few exceptions, was that women should attend synagogue.[19] The language of the responsa (see JP Glossary) suggests that women went to the synagogue. Here, for example, are the words of the Gaon Sherira (tenth cent. C.E.):

There are women who refrain from going to the synagogue [during their menses], but they should not refrain because there is no valid reason for doing so. If [they refrain] because they think the synagogue is like the Temple, then why, after immersing themselves, do they not go? If [they refrain] because they have not made atonement [by offering a sacrifice in the Temple]…then they would never be able to go until, in some future day, they brought a sacrifice to the rebuilt Temple. If, on the other hand, they [the synagogues] are not like the Temple, then they should go. After all, we are all ritually unclean due to contact with the dead, contact with creeping things, or to pollution [through contact with semen as a result of sexual intercourse or nocturnal emissions], yet we go.[20]

There is another halachic source that takes for granted the presence of women in the synagogue. The source discusses the case of a jealous husband (see Num. 5:14) who forbids his wife to go to synagogue.

Rabbi Yose [320-350 C.E.] asked: “Can a husband be jealous of a hundred men?” Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Bun said: “If he [the husband] ordered her not to go to the synagogue, then she goes with him.”[21]

This discussion is an attempt to clarify to what degree a man may limit his wife’s synagogue attendance. Rabbi Yose argues that it would be ridiculous for a husband to claim that his wife is giving or receiving affection from every male in the congregation; therefore, the husband is not permitted to limit his wife’s synagogue attendance. Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Bun agrees, but he rules that a husband can forbid his wife to go alone to the synagogue. If women did not attend synagogue, or, if they attended but were secluded and kept from the gaze of men, the husband would have no cause for apprehension and this discussion would be pointless.

A Special Section for Women?

Where did women sit in the synagogue and study hall? Did they sit in a special women’s section (ezrat nashim), separated from the men by a partition (mehitsah)? Or was the women’s section a gallery such as we find in synagogues built in recent centuries?

In 1884 Leopold Loew published an article in which he argued that there is no evidence for the separation of the sexes in ancient synagogues of the land of Israel.[22] He claimed that the first reference to a mehitsah is connected with the Babylonian amora Abaye (fourth cent. C.E.) in the Babylonian Talmud.[23] Loew pointed out that this is the only literary evidence for the separation of men and women by a divider and it is unrelated to the synagogue. The source relates that at a certain assembly of men and women the sage Abaye set up a row of pitchers and the sage Rava set up a row of reeds. This would seem to refer to a temporary divider—probably a partition erected during a banquet or similar gathering—not to a permanent structure. Rashi (eleventh cent.) expresses hesitancy regarding the meaning of the passage. He comments: “A place for groups of men and women for a sermon or a wedding ceremony.”

Loew’s suggestion has not been accepted by most scholars. They have rejected it for several reasons.[24] However, there is justification for reexamining Loew’s suggestion, not only on the basis of literary sources, but also on the basis of archaeological excavation of synagogues during the last decades, both in the land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

The Women’s Court

Scholars have also sought to prove the existence of an ezrat nashim in the ancient synagogue from the existence of a court in the Temple called Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Court), and from the existence of a gallery, along three of the court’s sides, built specially for women. From this gallery women watched the annual Water Drawing Celebration that took place in the Women’s Court during the nights[25] of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles): the women were separated from the men during these festivities.[26]

Here we need to clarify the question of the Women’s Court. The sages viewed Jerusalem as divided into three levels of holiness, and drew a parallel between the Tabernacle and the Temple:

Just as there were three camps in the wilderness: the camp of the Shechinah, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites; so there are three camps in Jerusalem: from the entrance to Jerusalem to the entrance to the Temple Mount—the camp of the Israelites; from the entrance to the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s Gate—the camp of the Levites; from Nicanor’s Gate to the interior [of the Temple]—the camp of the Shechinah.[27]

Note that the Women’s Court is given no special status, and no distinction is made between men and women regarding admittance to the camps, or areas, of Jerusalem.[28] The Mishnah lists ten degrees of sanctity within the land of Israel, the fourth of which is the Women’s Court.[29] The sanctity of the Women’s Court derived from the regulation that no tevul yom (literally, “immersed on that day”) was to enter it. Tevul yom refers to a person who has incurred one of the uncleannesses for which Scripture ordains “he shall be unclean until evening,” has immersed him or herself in a mikveh, and now awaits the day’s end to be ritually pure.[30] The Torah did not prohibit a tevul yom from entering the camp of the Levites; this Temple stricture was a later, further precaution instituted by the sages.[31] Moreover, the Women’s Court was one of the Temple’s later architectural developments and has no halachic status.[32]

In rabbinic literature we find no distinctions between men and women regarding the areas of the Temple to which they had access such as we find between pure and impure persons, laypersons and priests, blemished and unblemished priests.[33] Like men, women offered their sacrifices at the altar in the Priests’ Court, passing through the Israelites’ Court (the men’s court) to reach the altar. A baraita says: “A woman was not seen in the [Priests’] Court unless she was bringing a sacrifice.”[34] From this it is evident that when women offered their sacrifices in the Temple, they did enter the Priests’ Court. If, for instance, a woman offered a wave offering such as first fruits, she went up to the altar, waved the offering, and placed it beside the altar.[35] Similarly, a Sotah (a woman suspected of adultery by her husband, Num. 5:11-31), whose sacrifice also required waving, entered the Priests’ Court to do so. The Nazirite’s sacrifice was also waved in the Priests’ Court (Num. 6:1-21), and rabbinic literature discusses theoretical and actual cases of women who were Nazirites.[36]

Usually, however, women did not enter the Priests’ Court and would only approach the gate between the Women’s Court and the Israelites’ Court. Josephus states explicitly that women were not allowed to enter the Israelites’ Court,[37] but it appears that Josephus is describing the ordinary situation, since his statement is confuted by tannaic traditions which report that women did enter the Israelites’ Court as they made their way to the Priests’ Court.[38]

Nor was the Women’s Court used exclusively by women. Laymen and priests who came to the Temple passed through the Women’s Court on their way to the interior courts—Josephus relates that those who were ritually clean passed through the Women’s Court together with their wives.[39] In the Women’s Court’s four corners were four chambers that were directly connected with the Temple services and used by those who came to offer sacrifices. For instance, in the southeastern corner was the Nazirites’ Chamber, used by both men and women. In another chamber were to be found the musical instruments of the Levites.[40] All the special, public ceremonies that developed in the Second Temple period took place in the Women’s Court: it was there on the Day of Atonement that the high priest read the Torah before the people,[41] and there, every seven years, they held the Hakhel, the assembly during the Feast of Tabernacles of “men, women, children and aliens” for the public reading of Torah (Deut. 31:10-13).[42]

The Great Enactment

The Water Drawing Celebration deserves special consideration because during these festivities men and women were separated. The festivities were held in the Women’s Court, which was illuminated by four huge oil lamps. Dancing and singing went on all night, while on the fifteen steps leading from the Women’s Court to the Israelites’ Court, the Levites played various musical instruments.[43] In the Mishnah we read: “Originally, it [the Women’s Court] was smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded by a gallery so that the women could see from above and the men from below but there would be no intermingling.”[44] However, the Mishnah as well as the baraitot of Tractate Sukkah make it clear that this separation occurred only during the Water Drawing Celebration: “At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they [the priests and Levites] descended [the fifteen steps that led from the Israelites’ Court] to the Women’s Court where they made a great enactment.“[45] Both Talmuds and Tosefta explain that the “great enactment” was the ruling that men and women were to be separated during the Water Drawing Celebration.[46]

It is difficult to know how this enactment was carried out. Was a temporary structure erected each year—which is hard to imagine—or was a permanent gallery built?[47] At any rate, it is clear that the separation was in force only during the Water Drawing Celebration when dancing continued all night. Both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, attempting to find scriptural basis for this custom, deduce it from the verse that commands separation at a future time of mourning:

If, in the future [the time alluded to in the prooftext, Zech. 12:12], when they will be engaged in mourning and the evil inclination will have no power over them [i.e., at such a time, a lapse in sexual conduct is less likely], the Torah [i.e., Zech. 12:12, in the statement “with their wives by themselves”] nevertheless says, “Men by themselves and women by themselves”; how much more so now [during the Water Drawing Celebration, a time when there is a much greater possibility of sexual misconduct] when they are engaged in celebrating and the evil inclination holds sway over them.[48]

However, as already mentioned, throughout the rest of the year men and women intermingled in the Women’s Court.

Massacre in Alexandria

There is another source frequently cited in scholarly literature as proof that in the ancient synagogue there existed an ezrat nashim—a baraita in the Jerusalem Talmud that recounts the massacre of the Jews of Alexandria by the wicked Roman emperor Trajan:

And the [Roman] legions surrounded them and killed them. He [Trajan] said to their wives: “If you obey the legions, I will not kill you.” They said to him:”What you have done below, do [also] above.”[49]

Scholars have supposed this massacre took place in a synagogue: the men, gathered on the ground floor, were killed first, and then the women in the women’s balcony. As proof that the incident took place in a synagogue, they quote the beginning of the story: “He came and found them engaged in studying the Torah verse, ‘The LORD will bring a nation upon you from afar, from the ends of the earth… [Deut. 28:49].’”[50] However, there is no need to suppose that the massacre took place in a synagogue. The later addition of Scripture verses to historical accounts is typical of aggadic literature. Here, a verse was added to the massacre story to teach that the massacre was decreed by God.

A different version of the Alexandrian massacre tradition appears twice in Lamentations Rabbah: “They said to him: ‘Do below what you have done above.’” In other words, Trajan had first killed the men, who were above, and then the women, who were below.[51] Furthermore, at this point, the text of the Jerusalem Talmud may be corrupt: the writer of Me’or Eynayim (sixteenth cent. C.E.) quotes the tradition about Trajan from the Jerusalem Talmud, but in the following language: “What you have done above, do below.”[52]

Thus, it appears that the reality of the Alexandrian massacre tradition is of fortress walls on which defenders were standing and fighting. First, the Roman forces scaled the walls and killed the defenders. Then they went down inside the fortress and massacred the women.

Philo and the Therapeutae

Scholarly literature often represents Philo as saying that Moses ordered the separation of men and women in the synagogue.[53] No such statement is to be found in extant texts of Philo, although he deals several times with the subject of synagogues, and even discusses the attendance of women at synagogues. His opinion is that women should go to the synagogue when the marketplace is empty so they will not be exposed to the market’s carnival-like atmosphere—women had to pass through the marketplace on their way to synagogue—but he never mentions a requirement of separation of the sexes.[54]

In describing the Therapeutae, Philo notes that when they partook of their common meals in their sanctuary, the men sat on the right and the women on the left and there was a partition between them.[55] However, one should not generalize from the Therapeutae sect about the situation in the synagogue. Indeed, one might even infer that Philo’s emphasis on the Therapeutae’s segregation of men and women implies there was no such segregation in the synagogue.

Synagogue Ruins

Isometric drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema' synagogue (showing traffic patterns). Notice the stairs leading from the synagogue's central hall to a balcony, the roof-like structure facing the two rows of columns. The excavators found little evidence for the balcony entrance opposite the stairway. From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel and James F. Strange, Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema', Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 59, Figure 3.10.
Isometric drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema’ synagogue (showing traffic patterns). Notice the stairs leading from the synagogue’s central hall to a balcony, the roof-like structure facing the two rows of columns. The excavators found little evidence for the balcony entrance opposite the stairway. From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel and James F. Strange, Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 59, Figure 3.10.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that a number of ancient synagogues had balconies, for example, the synagogues of Capernaum, Chorazin, Hammath and Beth Alpha. Some scholars have concluded that these balconies were used as women’s galleries.[56] Scholars, perhaps influenced by modern Jewish custom, drew this conclusion based on the assumption that the balconies fulfilled the same function as the gallery in the Women’s Court of the Temple. But the existence of balconies in ancient synagogues does not necessarily mean the balconies were intended for women. Rabbinic sources mention various functions for synagogue balconies and upper rooms, but there is never a connection made between these structures and women.[57] Moreover, in some of the synagogues that have balconies, the stairway leading to the balcony originates in the central hall of the synagogue. (This is true of the Khirbet Shema synagogue, for instance.) To reach the staircase, a woman would have had to intermingle with the men in the central hall, a contradiction to the theory that men and women did not mix in the synagogue.

Clerestory reconstruction drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema' synagogue and "North Building" (to the synagogue's right). From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel, and James F. Strange, Ancient Excavations at Khirbet Shema', Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 66 Figure 3.11.
Clerestory reconstruction drawing of the fourth-century C.E. Khirbet Shema’ synagogue and “North Building” (to the synagogue’s right). From Eric M. Meyers, A. Thomas Kraabel, and James F. Strange, Ancient Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, Upper Galilee, Israel 1970-1972 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1976), 66 Figure 3.11.

Many ancient synagogues did not even have a second room or a balcony where women could be isolated—for example, the mid-third-century C.E. Dura-Europos synagogue. Dura-Europos, located in the Syrian desert on the west bank of the Euphrates River, midway between modern Aleppo and Baghdad, was a caravan stop and military fortress. Astride the ancient highway between the great centers of Jewish culture and population in Babylonia and the land of Israel, it was only natural for Dura-Europos to have a Jewish colony.

The Dura-Europos synagogue was the largest room (interior dimensions: 13.65 m. x 7.68 m.) of a complex of rooms and courtyard. Built into its interior walls and floor was a plastered bench that completely encircled the hall. The bench was interrupted only by the hall’s two entrances, both on its eastern side. The main entrance was in the center of the eastern wall, and a smaller entrance was located at the hall’s southeastern corner. About a decade before the synagogue was destroyed, a second tier was added above the floor-level bench, increasing the hall’s seating capacity from 65 to 124.

Reconstruction plans of the mid-third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos (upper drawing) and the earlier synagogue (lower drawing) discovered underneath it. From Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), Plans VI and VIII.2.
Reconstruction plans of the mid-third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos (upper drawing) and the earlier synagogue (lower drawing) discovered underneath it. From Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), Plans VI and VIII.2.

There is little to indicate the synagogue had a women’s gallery: the hall has no partitions; there are no dividers along the benches; there are no balconies; there were no rooms adjoining the hall. Nevertheless, Carl H. Kraeling, who wrote the synagogue excavation report, concluded that the southern entrance of the synagogue had been the women’s entrance and that the benches along the hall’s southern wall had been reserved for women.[58] He reached this conclusion because the benches along the southern wall, in contrast to the benches along the other three walls, have intermediate steps to the upper tier—presumably to allow easier access for the women—and because the benches closest to the southern entrance, those along the southern wall and those between the two entrances, have no raised footrests—presumably omitted in the women’s section for the sake of modesty.

Beneath the synagogue, remains of an earlier synagogue (165-200 C.E.) were uncovered. Apparently, this earlier synagogue also had no interior divisions. To the left of the main entrance, just outside the earlier synagogue’s southern entrance, there is a rectangular room (Room 7).[59] Kraeling designated this room a women’s gallery, concluding that at first the Jews of Dura-Europos were conservative like their brethren in the land of Israel, but later when they built the new synagogue, they were more liberal and allowed the women to sit inside the synagogue in a designated area.

There is no basis to assume that Room 7 is a women’s gallery. If that room was indeed a women’s gallery, why did it disappear when the synagogue was rebuilt? One must assume that this room was only an annex, like those that have been found in other ancient synagogues. Moreover, there is no basis to assume that the southern-wall benches of the new synagogue were reserved for women. Architectural features to facilitate ascent to the upper tier of benches are found throughout the hall, and even next to the ark. In addition, the benches between the two entrances have no raised footrests, yet also have no intermediate steps leading to the upper tier.

Fresco from the west wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue.
Fresco from the west wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue.

One cannot doubt the Jewishness of the Dura-Europos community: the synagogue’s frescoes contain traditional Jewish themes, and the Jewish quarter adjoining the synagogue was built in conformity to the halachot of eruv hatserot (see JP Glossary), the regulations for creating common courtyards—yet this synagogue has no dividers or partitions.

Synagogue Inscriptions

Much may be learned from the scores of synagogue inscriptions that have come to light. These have been found on synagogue entrances, gates and mosaic floors, and in synagogue courtyards, guest houses and ritual baths. Some inscriptions even list the synagogue’s architectural components. If a women’s gallery had existed, the writer of a synagogue inscription might easily have mentioned it; however, no inscription has come to light that mentions a women’s gallery.

I will mention only three synagogue inscriptions, one from Jerusalem dating from the Second Temple period, and two from the Diaspora dating from a later period.

The Theodotos inscription was found in Jerusalem and dates from the end of the first century B.C.E. The inscription, written in Greek, reads:

Theodotos, son of Vettenus…built this synagogue for the reading of Torah and for instruction in the commandments, and [he also built] the guest house with its rooms and water installations as lodging for needy [pilgrims] from the Diaspora.[60]

The Theodotos inscription, a dedication from a first-century B.C.E. synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo by David Harris.)
The Theodotos inscription, a dedication from a first-century B.C.E. synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo by David Harris.)

A Greek inscription on a column from the third-century C.E. synagogue at Stobi (on the border between Macedonia and Greece, near the modern town of Bitolj [Monastir], Yugoslavia) reads:

He [Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos] built the rooms of this holy place and the hall with its rectangular portico.[61]

In the continuation of the inscription “upper rooms” are mentioned.

A Greek inscription from the fourth-century C.E. synagogue in Sida in Asia Minor mentions a benefactor who “covered the synagogue’s benches with marble, and had two pillars and two seven-branched candelabra made.”[62]

Ancient Churches

The earliest churches have no structures that indicate a separation between men and women.[63] If women were segregated in the ancient synagogue, it is unlikely that Christians, who received their institution of the church from the Jews, would have eliminated this segregation at such an early stage. In this instance, it is likely that Jewish practice determined Christian practice.

In one of the golden-throated orator John Chrysostom’s sermons he disparaged the synagogue as a disgraceful place in which men and women intermingle.[64] Chrysostom’s intent was to ridicule the Jews and, no doubt, he exaggerated immensely, but it is difficult to imagine there would have been any point to his attacks if Jewish women had indeed sat in a special gallery or behind a permanent partition?

Unconvincing Evidence

The evidence put forward to argue that the sexes were segregated in the ancient synagogue is not convincing. While rabbinic sources spell out regulations down to the smallest details of the synagogue’s construction, seating arrangements and order of service, these sources make no mention of a special women’s section or a separating partition.[65] That women were obligated to pray and definitely went to the synagogue, yet rabbinic literature never mentions a women’s gallery, strongly argues against its existence.

The assumption the balconies found in some ancient synagogues are women’s galleries is unsupported. Furthermore, many ancient synagogues had neither a balcony nor a second room. Early churches, patterned after the synagogue model, likewise have no structures that indicate a physical separation of the sexes. Synagogue inscriptions, while sometimes mentioning various architectural elements of synagogues, never refer to a women’s gallery.

The earliest clear-cut evidence for separation of men and women in the synagogue and synagogue study hall is found in the midrash Pirke Mashiah (Chapters of the Messiah) in its description of the redemption.[66] This midrash, which almost certainly dates from the Arab period, describes the enormous bet midrash of the future. While the women stand behind a divider made of reeds, God himself teaches Torah and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel explains God’s teaching to the people. We can assume that this description reflects current practice in the local synagogues and study halls with which the author was acquainted. The author of Pirke Mashiah lived in a Muslim land, and local Jewish custom had likely been influenced by its environment: Muslim practice was—and still is—to separate men and women in the mosque.


In the Second Temple period, women were religiously the equals of men: ancient Jewish sources from the land of Israel and from the Diaspora show that women frequented the synagogue and studied in the bet midrash (study hall). Women could be members of the quorum of ten needed to pray the “Eighteen Benedictions,” a central prayer of the daily synagogue liturgy; and, like men, women were permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing.

There is no real evidence for the assumption that the sexes were segregated in the ancient synagogue. Women did not sit, as they do in today’s synagogues, in a special women’s gallery, or in a special women’s section separated from the men by a partition. The balconies found in the ruins of ancient synagogues are not necessarily women’s galleries. The existence of a Temple court called the Women’s Court also provides no support for the assumption that women were relegated to a balcony or special section of the synagogue. Women were not confined to the Women’s Court, nor was it exclusively for women. In it, women and men—both laymen and priests—mingled freely.

It is true that women were eventually required to watch the annual Water Drawing Celebration festivities from a special gallery above the floor of the Women’s Court. However, this separation was very brief: it was in force only for five or six nights of the year.[67] Therefore, the separation of men and women during the Water Drawing Celebration cannot be proof that there was a women’s section in the early synagogue.

  • [1] Mishnah, Berachot 3:3. Women were also obligated to listen to the reading of the scroll of Esther at Purim (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 4a; Arachin 3a).
  • [2] Mishnah, Berachot 4:3.
  • [3] See Shmuel Safrai, “The Place of Women in First-century Synagogues,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (Sept./Oct. 1993): 3.
  • [4]baraita found in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 38b-39a.
  • [5] Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9d (end of chpt. 5); cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38b.
  • [6] Tractate Soferim 18:6.
  • [7] Tractate Soferim, end of chpt. 18.
  • [8] Yalkut Shim’oni, Ekev, remez 871 (Midrash Yelamdenu, an early rabbinic collection, is cited as the source); Yalkut Mishle 943; Sefer ha-Likutim V, 131a (ed. L. Greenhut, 1901). See Buber’s introduction to Midrash Proverbs, p. 32.
  • [9] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 22a.
  • [10] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 16d (chpt. 1); Leviticus Rabbah 9:9; Numbers Rabbah 9:20; Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15.
  • [11] Midrash ha-Gadol on Numbers (ed. Fisch, p. 122) adds taman (there).
  • [12] Literally, “go to hear his voice.” The Midrash ha-Gadol adds darish, i.e., “go to hear his voice preaching.”
  • [13] Evidently, women were not present in the study halls in Babylonia as they were in the land of Israel and in the Hellenistic Diaspora. See Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 18a.
  • [14] Mishnah, Demai 2:3.
  • [15] Ch. M. Horowitz, Niddah (Frankfurt, 1890), 30-33.
  • [16] Ibid., 48.
  • [17] This baraita seems severe, but many strict halachot no doubt had their origins in ancient traditions, traces of which have survived in tannaic literature. See Saul Lieberman’s comments on Sefer Metivot pertaining to purification after childbirth in B. M. Lewin’s edition (1934), 115ff.
  • [18] Achelis-Flemming, Die Syrische Didascalia (1908), 141; Harnack-Golhardt, Texte und Untersuchungen 25 (1904). Cf. Arthur Marmorstein, “Spuren Karäischen Einfluses in der gaonäischen Halacha,” Schwartz Festschrift (Vienna, 1917), 460; idem, “Judaism and Christianity,” Hebrew Union College Annual 10 (1935): 230.
  • [19] Only the Gaon Zemah forbade menstruating women from entering the synagogue. Cf. Otsar ha-Geonim, Berachot, pp. 48-49.
  • [20] Sefer Kol Bo, “Laws of the Niddah.”
  • [21] Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 16c (chpt. 1).
  • [22] Leopold Loew, “Der Synagogale Ritus,” Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 33 (1884): 364-374; later republished in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Immanuel Loew (1898), 4:55-71.
  • [23] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 81a.
  • [24] See Emil Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi II4 (1901-1911), 527; cf. revised English version of Schürer’s work, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135), ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 2:447-448, note 98; Jean Juster, Les Juifs dans l’Empire romain (1914), 1:458; Samuel Krauss, Synagogale Altertümer (1922), 357; idem, The History of Synagogues in Israel (1955), 339; Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1920), 1:313-326; E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), 48; but cf. I. L. Elbogen, Der jüdische Gottesdienst (1931), 466-469.
  • [25] The festivities of the Water Drawing Celebration took place every night of the Feast of Sukkot excluding Sabbath and festival day itself, six nights if the first day of Sukkot fell on a Sabbath, five nights if it did not (Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1).
  • [26] Tosefta, Sukkah 4:1; Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b.
  • [27] Tosefta, Kelim Bava Kamma 1:12; Sifre Numbers, Naso 1; to 5:2 (ed. Horovitz, p. 4); Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 116b; Numbers Rabbah 7:8.
  • [28] Cf. Shmuel Safrai, “The Role of Women in the Temple,” Jerusalem Perspective 21 (Jul./Aug. 1989): 5-6.
  • [29] Mishnah, Kelim 1:6-9: “There are ten levels of sanctity: the land of Israel is holier than any other land…the walled cities [of the land of Israel] are even holier…[the area] within the walls [of Jerusalem] is even holier…the Temple Mount is even holier…the rampart [which surrounds the wall of the three inner courts] is even holier…the Women’s Court is even holier…the Israelites’ Court is even holier…the Priests’ Court is even holier…the area between the porch and the altar is even holier…the sanctuary is even holier…the Holy of Holy is even holier.”
  • [30] Mishnah, Kelim 1:8.
  • [31] Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 92b; Yevamot 7b; Zevahim 32b; cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Eruvin 22c (chpt. 5).
  • [32] Cf. Adolf Büchler, “The Fore-court of Women and the Brass Gate in the Temple of Jerusalem,” Jewish Quarterly Review 10 (1898): 667-718. Büchler suggests that the Women’s Court was created only in the last days of the Second Temple, but his arguments are unconvincing. Nevertheless, he is surely right in asserting that the Women’s Court was not one of the most ancient parts of the Temple.
  • [33] The anonymous sage who is quoted by Rabbi Joseph Ashkenazi (16th cent. C.E.) was right: “I have not found a text that says the Israelites’ Court is holier than the Women’s Court because women do not enter it. One may conclude, therefore, that women were not prohibited [from entering the Israelites’ Court]” (Melechet Shlomoh on Mishnah, Kelim 1:8).
  • [34] Tosefta, Arachin 2:1.
  • [35] Mishnah, Bikkurim 1:5; 3:6.
  • [36] Cf. Tosafot on Kiddushin 52b, to the paragraph, “Ve-chi ishah ba-’azarah, minayin?”
  • [37] Antiquities 15:419; War 5:199, 227.
  • [38] Büchler erred in accepting Josephus’ description. Cf. Büchler, op. cit., 697, note 1.
  • [39] Antiquities 15:418.
  • [40] Mishnah, Middot 2:5-6.
  • [41] Mishnah, Yoma 7:1; Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b.
  • [42] Mishnah, Sotah 7:8; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 41b.
  • [43] Mishnah, Sukkah 5:1-4.
  • [44] Mishnah, Middot 2:5.
  • [45] Mishnah, Sukkah 5:2.
  • [46] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b; Tosefta, Sukkah 4:1.
  • [47] Cf. Rashi’s commentary on this passage (Sukkah 51b), and Ch. Albeck’s commentary on the Mishnah (Sukkah 5:2).
  • [48] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5); Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b.
  • [49] Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 55b (chpt. 5).
  • [50] Meir Ish Shalom was the first to make this suggestion (see Bet Talmud 4:200; cf. Sukenik, loc. cit.).
  • [51] Lamentations Rabbah, chpt. 1 (ed. Buber, p. 83); chpt. 4 (ed. Buber, p. 152).
  • [52] Ed. D. Kassel, p. 181.
  • [53] Based on Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica 12:8. The source of this misunderstanding is apparently Juster (Les Juifs dans l’Empire romain, 1:458), from whom it has been copied by several other scholars.
  • [54] The Special Laws 3:171 (cf. Against Flaccus 89). See I. Heinemann, Philons griechische und jüdische Bildung (1932, repr. 1962), 234, and F. H. Colson’s note to 7:640 in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Philo. Philo also discusses matters pertaining to synagogues in his work Every Good Man Is Free, but without mentioning a women’s gallery.
  • [55] The Contemplative Life 69, 32.
  • [56] Cf. H. Kohl and C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (1916, repr. 1973), 35, plate II; Sukenik, loc. cit.; Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (Jerusalem, 1932), 15.
  • [57] Cf., for example, Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 5d (end of chpt. 2); Shabbat 3a (chpt. 2); Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 92a.
  • [58] Cf. Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 8:16, 23.
  • [59] Ibid., plan VIII and p. 31.
  • [60] This inscription was published several times. See J.-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum (1952), inscription 1404, 2:332-335. Cf. also Moshe Schwabe, Sefer Yerushalaim (1956), 1:362-365 (Hebrew).
  • [61] Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum (1936), inscription 694, 1:504-507. See Frey for a list of articles that discuss this inscription.
  • [62] Frey, inscription 781, 2:38-39. See Frey for a list of articles that discuss this inscription.
  • [63] Michael Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and its Art (1938), 100-134; John Winter Crowfoot, Early Churches in Palestine (1941), 1-8.
  • [64] Chrysostom, Orations against the Jews (Adversus Judaeos) I, 2.
  • [65] Cf. Tosefta, Megillah, chpt. 3; Tractate Soferim; Mishneh TorahTefillah, chpt. 11.
  • [66] Bet ha-Midrash (1855), 3:75.
  • [67] See footnote 25.

Paraphrastic Gospels

As Robert Lindsey realized in 1962, Mark reworked Luke’s Gospel in writing his own. Mark liked to substitute synonyms for nearly anything that Luke wrote. If, for instance, Luke used the singular of a noun, Mark substituted the plural form of the same noun in writing his Gospel. And vice versa: if Luke used the plural, Mark substituted the singular. In this article, Robert Lindsey surveys a unique substitution category found in Mark’s Gospel: the replacing of one verse of Scripture with another.

The four Evangelists of the Greek New Testament, though concurring at many points, demonstrate a remarkable degree of disparity when retelling their versions of the life of Jesus. This is especially true of Mark and John.[1] Their accounts are very early Greek paraphrases of the gospel records.[2] Mark’s Gospel predates John’s by about forty years, and it will be the Markan paraphrastic method that will occupy our attention here.

When reading Matthew, Mark and Luke in modern translation, a reader generally cannot see the differences in wording of the underlying Greek texts. This is because the differences are often synonymic. If perceptible at all, they can easily escape notice. In scores of places, where Luke used a certain word or phrase, Mark used an equivalent, but different word or phrase. The best way to grasp how Mark operates is to look at examples from the Gospels themselves.

Markan Synonyms

In Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26, there is a story about a paralytic who is carried to Jesus on some sort of stretcher. Matthew and Luke agree against Mark that the paralytic was carried on a κλίνη (kline).[3] Mark has chosen κράβαττος (krabattos) as a synonym.[4] The variance is reflected in the New American Standard BibleKline is translated as “bed” and krabattos as “pallet.”

Added Detail and Dramatization

Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus' garment.
Late third-century fresco from the catacombs in Rome depicting the woman who touched one of the tassels (tsitsiyot) of Jesus’ garment.

A slightly different example is found in the story about the woman with a hemorrhage. Matthew 9:20 and Luke 8:44 both say that the woman “came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,” whereas Mark 5:27 says that “she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.” In this case, the slight change from προσελθοῦσα (proselthousa; coming, approaching) to ἐλθοῦσα (elthousa; coming) is not reflected in English translations;[5] but Mark’s addition of ἐν τῷ ὄχκῳ (en to ochlo, in the crowd) and omission of τοῦ κρασπέδου (tou kraspedou, the fringe) are.[6] Furthermore, Mark 5:26 includes details that are absent in Matthew and Luke: the woman “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent everything she had, but instead of getting better she grew worse.” These added details are characteristic of Mark’s method. He enjoys enriching his story with vivid tidbits of information. In Mark 1:41 he reports that Jesus was moved with compassion; in Mark 4:38, that Jesus was fast asleep on a cushion; in Mark 6:39, that the people sat on green grass; and in Mark 6:13, that the twelve anointed the sick with oil.[7]

Replacement of Scripture Quotations

The above synonymic interchanges and supplemental details are mild examples of Mark’s paraphrastic tendencies. To catch a glimpse of more dramatic ways in which Mark paraphrastically handled his primary written source (i.e., Luke’s Gospel), we need only examine Mark’s quotations from Scripture. When Luke quotes from Scripture, Mark usually cites a different verse or alters Luke’s verse by expanding or changing certain of its features.

Isaiah or Malachi?

In Matthew 3:1-6, Mark 1:1-6 and Luke 3:1-6, John’s preparatory ministry is described. To clarify John’s role, Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. He specifically informs the reader that the quotation comes from the prophet Isaiah. Mark, too, says that he is quoting from Isaiah, but only includes Isaiah 40:3. Perhaps compensating for the dropping of Isaiah 40:4-5, Mark inserts (before the quotation from Isaiah!), “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” For one reason or another Mark does not inform the reader that he has introduced Malachi 3:1 into a context supposedly representing what was said by Isaiah.

Emmanuel Tzanes-  St. Mark the Evangelist
Icon of St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What motivated Mark to do such a thing? It appears that Mark has been influenced by a second gospel story that speaks about John the Baptist. In Luke 7:27, Jesus claimed John to be the one whom the prophet Malachi described. Despite the fact that John did not formally join Jesus’ movement, Jesus strongly affirmed John’s ministry by saying that “none of those ‘born of women’ is greater than John.” Having been impressed by such marvelous statements about John, Mark lifted Malachi 3:1 from this second John the Baptist context. When he placed the Malachi verse from Luke 7:27 into the first John the Baptist context of Luke 3:4, he inadvertently ended up suggesting that the compound reference stems from Isaiah. Note also that Mark chose to drop, in its entirety, the second John the Baptist context at the place where Jesus affirms John’s role of heralding the Coming One.[8] The placement of the Malachi verse at the beginning of his Gospel in the context of John’s preaching and baptizing activities strongly suggests that Mark knew the material preserved in Luke 7:24-35, but opted not to include it in his retelling of the gospel story. Instead, he merely hinted at Jesus’ affirming witness of John by relocating a key verse.

Psalms or Isaiah?

Earliest known representation of the Jewish form of baptism. This fresco, found in the second-century Callistus catacomb in Rome, depicts Jesus after he had immersed himself being assisted out of the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Earliest known depiction of Jesus’ baptism. After immersing himself, Jesus climbs out of the Jordan River with John the Baptist’s assistance. A dove hovers in the upper left corner of the image. This fresco was found in the late second-century crypt of Lucina in the catacombs of Rome.

According to Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism quoted Psalms 2:7: “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.”[9] According to Mark 1:11, however, the heavenly voice said: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” which is apparently a combination of Psalms 2:7, Isaiah 44:2 and 62:4.[10]

Psalms 31 or 22?

The last words Jesus spoke on the cross are not identical in the first three Gospels. Luke records that Jesus quoted from Psalms 31:5: “Into your hands [literally, ‘hand’] I entrust my spirit. You will redeem me, O LORD; you are a faithful God” (Luke 23:46). Mark, however, writes that Jesus quoted in Aramaic from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you far from delivering me, from the words of my groaning?” (Mark 15:34). Mark’s version is certainly difficult to grapple with theologically. Did God abandon Jesus? Or is this simply another example of Mark’s editorial replacement habit? Throughout his Gospel, Mark does portray Jesus as being abandoned by family members, trusted disciples, and here, perhaps, even by God.

As Shmuel Safrai has noted, “It seems likely that Jesus, who in the last days before his crucifixion had already told his disciples of his impending death and its meaning, would recite in his final moments the verse from Psalm 31, ‘Into your hands I entrust my spirit,’ rather than the verse from Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”[11] Luke has preserved a magnificent glimpse of Jesus as an observant Jew. Psalms 31:5 is even today still part of the standard, Jewish deathbed confession.[12] This prayer is exactly what one would anticipate on the lips of a dying, observant Jew.

Editorial Changes

These differences between Mark and Luke in quotations of Scripture appear to be due to the editorial changes of one of the authors. In nearly every case, evidence exists suggesting that Luke’s text is earlier, more Hebraic, or more comprehensible. To my mind, Mark had Luke’s Gospel before him as he wrote and did not hesitate to lace the story with additional elements.


How does Mark’s paraphrastic habit affect our perception of the formation of Scripture? Ancient Jews, including the followers of Jesus, did not make the often arbitrary distinction moderns make between translation and interpretation.[13] This ancient attitude can be readily seen when we study the Septuagint and targums vis-à-vis the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint and targums are often as much paraphrastic interpretations as they are translations. The eminent Jewish scholar, Saul Lieberman, once described the Septuagint as the oldest of the preserved midrashim.[14] Moreover, Josephus, a famous contemporary of Mark, claimed in his Jewish Antiquities to be recording in Greek a precise account of Israel’s history based upon the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (Ant. 1:5, 17), but according to modern standards, produced a free, paraphrastic retelling of the biblical narrative.

Thus, Mark’s manner of writing should neither surprise nor undermine our concept of the formation of Scripture. Rather, our concept of the formation of Scripture must be broad enough and sufficiently informed to accommodate Mark’s methods. The ancient records indicate that Jews and Christians living in the first two centuries of this era embraced an understanding of inspiration of Scripture that was broader and less rigid than that embraced by many Christians today. Our views of inspiration often place demands on the Synoptic Gospels that they were never intended to bear. The Jesus who is forced out of the text under such demands tends to have a steamrolled appearance. He usually resembles one of us—a good Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, or whatever the denominational orientation of the reader may be. To correct our habits, we must strive to see the Gospels as an organic part of Second Temple-period Judaism’s rich diversity. Only then can we come to terms with Mark’s method and begin to bring the demands we place on the gospel texts in line with those they are able to bear.

Editors’ note: Out of esteem for our teacher, Robert Lindsey, we have collaborated to make this article and his “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus” (Jerusalem Perspective 49 [Oct.-Dec. 1995], 10-17, 38) available to our readers. These articles mark the end of Robert Lindsey’s scholarly career. With his health waning and incapacitated by a series of strokes that accompanied the diabetes from which he suffered, Dr. Lindsey was able to complete only a first or second draft of each article. Though we could not preserve Dr. Lindsey’s writing style, great effort was made to preserve faithfully the content of his articles. We are responsible for the articles’ conclusions and footnotes. — David Bivin and Joseph Frankovic

  • [1] A rule of thumb is: Opposite a parallel story in Luke, Mark will change up to fifty percent of Luke’s words; where Matthew has a story parallel to Mark, Matthew will copy about seventy percent of the words found in Mark, but give, against Mark, about ten percent of the words Luke uses; where John has a story parallel to one found in the synoptic tradition, he will have phrases reflecting one or more of the synoptic documents, resulting in a mixing of the words, especially the words of Mark and Luke—less often copying readings from Matthean parallels.
  • [2] One helpful way of viewing John’s Gospel is in light of the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Exodus and wilderness experience. It is a theological reflection on the past and a restating of the commandments, to prepare the Israelites for the transition from a nomadic to an agriculturally based, sedentary lifestyle. In particular, certain aspects of the biblical commandments were developed and emphasized to meet new challenges. The Gospel of John is similar. It represents a theological development in the presentation of who Jesus is. Moreover, John’s method is freer than Mark’s.
  • [3] Cf. Matt. 9:2 with Luke 5:18, and Matt. 9:6 with Luke 5:24. In Luke 5:24 the word κλινίδιον (klinidion, a little bed), the diminutive of κλίνη (kline), is used.
  • [4] Cf. Mark 2:4, 11.
  • [5] The change from proselthousa to elthousa in Mark 5:27 and the change from kline to krabattos in Mark 2:1-12, both examples from the Triple Tradition, are places where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. Such agreements are termed “minor agreements” by scholars. For the significance of these minor agreements against Mark, see Nigel Turner, “The Minor Verbal Agreements of Mt. and Lk. Against Mk.,” Studia Evangelica 73 (1959): 223-234; and E. P. Sanders, “The Overlaps of Mark and Q and the Synoptic Problem,” New Testament Studies 19 (1973): 453-465.
  • [6] The Greek κράσπεδον (kraspedon) is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew צִיצִית (tsitsit, tassel). Cf. Numbers 15:38. Matthew and Luke make clear that the woman touched the braided tassels that were attached to the corners of an observant Jew’s garment.
  • [7] Some scholars term the additional details provided by Mark “Markan freshness” and view such additions as evidence of the primitive nature or originality of Mark. These extra details, however, are often lifted from other books of the New Testament or the Septuagint. Already at the turn of the twentieth century Benjamin Bacon had noticed Mark’s habit of lifting material from other sources. See Bacon’s comments to Mark 1:1 (Hosea 1:2, LXX), Mark 1:13 (Naphtali 8:4), Mark 6:13 (James 5:14), Mark 6:23 (Esther 5:3), and Mark 7:19 (Acts 10:15; 11:9) in The Beginnings of the Gospel Story: A Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Sources and Structure of the Gospel According to Mark, with Expository notes upon the text, for English Readers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1909), 8, 13, 66, 75, 89.
  • [8] Cf. Matt. 11:7-19 and Luke 7:24-35.
  • [9] In most English translations all three synoptic writers appear to agree upon the words of the heavenly voice: “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Yet, there is a variant reading for Luke 3:22. This reading is attested by the fifth-sixth-century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis manuscript, the Old Latin manuscripts, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and by several church fathers. The variant reading is, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” This is a quotation from Psalms 2:7 and is much more suitable in the context of Jesus’ baptism, the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke’s text was likely “corrected” by a scribe to bring it into alignment with Matt. 3:17 and Mark 1:11. This scribal tendency of aligning the wording of one synoptic text with the other two can be seen in numerous places, if we pay close attention to the readings of the various New Testament manuscripts.

    For a discussion of this variant reading, see Alfred R. C. Leaney, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, in Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958), 110-111. Though agreeing with the editors of the United Bible Societies’ third corrected edition, who accept the reading, “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased,” Joseph A. Fitzmyer has a helpful discussion of the variant in The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981), 485.

  • [10] Mark may have been influenced by Luke 20:13 in his choice of “beloved.”
  • [11] Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (Jan./Feb. 1991): 8. Note that Stephen also quoted from Psalms 31:5 as he was being put to death (Acts 7:59; cf. John 19:30), and Peter exhorted those who were sharing the sufferings of Jesus to commit their souls to God (1 Pet. 4:19).
  • [12] Cf. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz (rev. ed.; New York: Bloch Publishing, 1948), 1065.
  • [13] See Joseph Frankovic, “Pieces to the Synoptic Puzzle: Papias and Luke 1:1-4,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (1993): 12-13.
  • [14] Saul Lieberman,Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994), 50.

Gergesa: Site of the Demoniac’s Healing

The steep slope of the "precipice," swept bare by a recent fire (view west across the lake). (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)
The steep slope of the “precipice,” swept bare by a recent fire (view west across the lake). (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)

One of the miracles performed by Jesus during his stay with the Sea of Galilee fishermen is known in Christian tradition as the “Healing of the Demon-possessed Man,” and also, more popularly, as the “Miracle of the Swine” (Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). The story actually begins at Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived for a time at the house of Jonah the fisherman and his sons, Simon Peter and Andrew.

One day Jesus wished to get away from the crowds that were surrounding him. It was winter, the season when fishermen, then as now, took their boats to sea in the afternoon, to the sardine fishing grounds near Gergesa, about eight kilometers across the water from Capernaum. Jesus went down to the harbor at Capernaum and entered the boat of one of his disciples. He sailed with his disciples “over to the other side.”

On this particular winter day, Jesus performed not one, but two miracles. The first had to do with the weather: his boat and the other boats that set out for the fishing grounds were suddenly struck by a great storm, and “waves beat into the boat” (Mark 4:37). Such sudden storms are typical of the Sea of Galilee in winter. The frightened disciples clustered around their master, who happened to be sleeping peacefully in the stern of the boat. They woke him and asked fearfully, “Master, don’t you care if we die?”

So Jesus rose and “rebuked” the wind and told it to be calm, and the storm stopped. Then he rebuked his disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And the boat came safely to the other side.

As Jesus got out of the boat and stepped ashore, a man approached him who was clearly what today we would call psychotic. In the manner of the time, he claimed that “a legion of devils” lived inside him, “possessed” him, and he begged Jesus to cure him.

Jesus agreed to drive out the devils, and sent them into a herd of swine that happened to be feeding on a nearby hill. The suddenly crazed swine ran violently down a ridge and jumped off a precipice into the Sea of Galilee, where they drowned.

Site of the Miracle

Remains of the Kursi harbor's breakwater were completely exposed in the 1989-1991 drought (view to the south). In the distance, behind the grove of trees on the shore, can be seen the precipice from which, according to tradition, the swine plunged into the lake.
Remains of the Kursi harbor’s breakwater were completely exposed in the 1989-1991 drought (view to the south). In the distance, behind the grove of trees on the shore, can be seen the precipice from which, according to tradition, the swine plunged into the lake.

Where did this miracle take place? There are three candidates. The best manuscript of the synoptic gospels, Codex Vaticanus, reads “the land of the Gerasenes” in Mark and Luke’s accounts of the miracle, and “the land of the Gadarenes” in Matthew’s; however, there is also good manuscript evidence for a third site: “the land of the Gergesenes.” Therefore, did the miracle take place near Gergesa, known today as Kursi, on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; or did it take place in the region of the Greek city of Gadara, south of the Sea of Galilee, where an Arab village known as Um Keis later occupied the site; or did it occur even further south, near the Greek city of Gerasa?

The Jerusalem Talmud, redacted in Tiberias on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, provides a clue. It connects the area around Susita-Hippos, near Kursi, with the Girgashites, one of the seven Canaanite nations at the time of the Israelite conquest.

Small stone anchors and fishing net weights that were found on the lake shore a few hundred meters south of Kursi harbor moments before they were photographed. Twine and small screwdrivers mark the holes in the stones.
Small stone anchors and fishing net weights that were found on the lake shore a few hundred meters south of Kursi harbor moments before they were photographed. Twine and small screwdrivers mark the holes in the stones.

Another ancient name with a similar sound is connected with the Susita region, namely, the Geshurites, who lived in an Aramaic kingdom that existed in King David’s time east of the lake. The Septuagint gives “Gergesites” for “Geshurites” (Josh. 12:5). The Midrash, too, refers to “Gergeshta [the Aramaic equivalent of Gergesa], on the eastern side of Lake Tiberias.” According to the Midrash, in the future, when Gog, the hostile force from the land of Magog, invades Israel and is defeated in an apocalyptic war, God will point to the graves of Gog, which will extend from Jerusalem to Gergeshta. All this seems to indicate that, of the three names, Gergesa is the most accurate and most firmly rooted in geography and tradition, and that the plain of Kursi is in fact the land of the Gergesenes, or part of it.

Already in the third century, the early church father Origen reached the conclusion that the names Gadara and Gerasa are suspect. He uses the name Gergesa in describing an ancient town close to the lake where there was a precipice near the shore. This, Origen says, was the place where the demons drove the swine into the lake. The name Gergesa, he adds, was prophetic, in that the Hebrew word garesh means “to drive out”; and indeed, the residents of this town did drive out Jesus. No other church father has provided a clearer geographical designation.

A stone threshold lying on its side, a remnant of the public building that, perhaps, was the synagogue at Kursi. At one end of this basalt threshold is a socket (marked by an inserted reed; at upper right). Originally, a door hinge rested in the socket. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)
A stone threshold lying on its side, a remnant of the public building that, perhaps, was the synagogue at Kursi. At one end of this basalt threshold is a socket (marked by an inserted reed; at upper right). Originally, a door hinge rested in the socket. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)

How did the names Gerasa and Gadara enter the gospel accounts? In the opinion of the renowned scholar Gustaf Dalman (Sacred Sites and Ways, p. 178), it may be assumed that the name Gerasa was employed by a gospel writer who was unfamiliar with the geography of the region. The name Gergesa sounded strange to him; therefore, he “corrected” it, substituting a similar sounding and familiar name—Gerasa, the name of a well-known Greek city east of the Jordan. Then, Dalman suggests, another gospel writer who was more familiar with the local geography, in an attempt to correct the error, substituted Gadara, the name of a Greek city located above the Yarmuk River on a ridge southeast of the lake.

There is a certain geographic basis for the name Gadara, since the city’s domain extended to the southeastern shore of the lake (see my forthcoming The “Land of the Gadarenes”: New Light on an Old Sea of Galilee Puzzle). This latter gospel writer, however, did not know the fishing and sailing habits of Sea of Galilee fishermen; consequently, he, too, erred. The boat of Jesus’ disciples was on its way, together with other fishing boats from Capernaum, to the sardine fishing grounds of Kursi, where, in winter, work starts shortly before sunset. Gergesa (Kursi) is across the lake from Capernaum, a distance of only eight kilometers; but the district of Gadara is not “across to the other side” (Mark 4:35; Luke 8:22), rather it is at the other, or southern, end of the lake, a distance of over sixteen kilometers from Capernaum. Fishermen, cautious by nature, were not in the habit of sailing such distances, particularly in the dangerous winter season.

The Land of the Gergesenes

On the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, five kilometers north of modern Kibbutz Ein Gev, a small peninsula extends into the lake. At this point, roughly parallel to the shore, there is a small valley three kilometers long and about one-half kilometer wide. The valley continues into the lake forming a wide shoal. This shoal is, and has always been, the best sardine fishing grounds in the lake.

The beautiful Valley of Kursi (view to the north), probably the "land of the Gergesenes" (Luke 8:26. (Photo courtesy of Mendel Nun.)
The beautiful Valley of Kursi (view to the north), probably the “land of the Gergesenes” (Luke 8:26. (Photo courtesy of Mendel Nun.)

The valley and its shoal make up the delta of a stream that descends from the Golan Heights. The canyon formed by the stream is known in Arabic as Wadi Samak, meaning “Canyon of Fish.” The name may indeed be very ancient, for the word “samak” means fish in Aramaic and Ugaritic.

The Valley of Kursi—the “land of the Gergesenes” in the New Testament—with its abundant water supply, fertile land, and fishing grounds, has been inhabited since time immemorial. The mouth of the Samak Canyon is unique—wide, rectangular, steep, and closed at the back, to the east. It looks like a giant armchair, which is probably the origin of its name: Kursi (variant, Kursa) means “armchair” in Semitic languages.

Kursi in Jewish Sources

Map of the Sea of Galilee's ancient harbors. Sixteen harbors have recently been discovered, thirteen of them by the author.
Map of the Sea of Galilee’s ancient harbors. Sixteen harbors have recently been discovered, thirteen of them by the author.

A settlement named Kursi, or Kursa, is mentioned several times in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, but with no clues as to the site’s location. According to one of these talmudic traditions, the pagan temple of Nebo occupied a site named Kursi (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 11b); but there is no indication whether the temple was in the land of Israel or in Babylon. The Jerusalem Talmud mentions the burial, by residents of Kursa, of a man from a nearby village (j. Moed Katan 82c, chpt. 3, halachah 5). The Jerusalem Talmud also mentions a second-century C.E. sage named Ya’akov ben Korshai, that is, Jacob of Korsha or Kurs(h)a (j. Shabbat 12c, chpt. 10, halachah 5; j. Pesahim 37b, chpt. 10, halachah 1).

At the close of the Second Temple period, Gergesa was part of the territory of the Greek city of Hippos, and its name does not appear in the list of villages that had purely Jewish population and were required to pay taxes and donations to the temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Avanish, a neighboring village on the southern bank of the Samak, does appear in the list. From this evidence and the gospel story of the Gergesene demoniac, it may be assumed that non-Jews as well as Jews lived in Gergesa.

The Fishing Harbor

After the Six Day War in June 1967, remains of a Jewish settlement from the Roman-Byzantine period began to come to light. In 1970, archaeologists carried out an underwater survey along the lake’s coast near Tel Kursi. The divers discovered the foundations of an anchorage. These, no doubt, are the ruins of the ancient harbor of Gergesa.

A perfect row of heavy basalt foundation stones, remains of the massive breakwater that protected Kursi’s harbor. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)

The remains of this harbor can be seen from the shore during most months of the year—provided one knows what to look for. A breakwater, encircling an area of 1,500 square meters, juts out from the shore, curves slightly for 150 meters and rejoins the shore. The harbor is one hundred meters long, with a maximum width of twenty-five meters. The entrance was at the northern, calmer side. As it leaves the shore, the breakwater is four meters wide, and five to six meters wide further out, as protection against storms from the south and west. The workmanship of the breakwater is excellent: the layers of basalt boulders have chiseled outer surfaces.

Ruins (interior) of the holding tank for the live fish. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)
Ruins (interior) of the holding tank for the live fish. (Photo courtesy of Janet Frankovic.)

The harbor is the heart of a complex of facilities that made up a fishing village. North of the anchorage, the remains of a plastered rectangular storage tank, three by three and a half meters, can be distinguished. (Although originally built on the shore, well out of danger from high waves, the tank is now partially submerged because the lake’s level has been raised nearly a meter by modern engineers.) The tank was used to store fish brought in several times a day by dragnet hauls. A supply of fresh running water made it possible to keep the catch alive for several days. This ancient method is more sophisticated than recent methods: until the 1950s fishermen had to drag their catch behind their boats in wooden cages. The tank received its water not from the lake, but via an aqueduct that carried water in special terra-cotta pipe from the Samak stream. The rectangular foundations of a quay (eight by five meters) can be seen between the tank and the lake. Here fishermen unloaded their catch and bargained with the fishmongers.

Foundations of a large building with a mosaic floor were found to the north of the tank. More than a hundred lead dragnet sinkers were found in proximity to the building, connecting their use to the time the building functioned, perhaps as the harbor and fish market’s administrative center. Pottery unearthed from silt covering the inside of the harbor dates to the Roman-Byzantine period. Remains of the settlement, which flourished here from before the Arab conquest, are dispersed for about half a kilometer along the shore. At a later period, the settlement was limited to the tell itself, which grew to a height of six meters and covered an area of three acres. Remains of a Roman road leading from the main road to the settlement were found by the author in 1975.

At the northern end of the site, wave action has exposed part of a large building containing two layers of a colored mosaic floor. The building is surrounded by broken columns and marble fragments. This is apparently the synagogue of Kursi, “the synagogue of Jonadab son of Rechab in Kursia above the Lake of Tiberias,” which is mentioned in an eleventh-century list of holy sites for Jewish pilgrims, a kind of pilgrim’s guidebook.

The discovery of Kursi’s harbor paved the way for surveys of other ancient harbors surrounding the lake. To date, sixteen such harbors have been discovered.

Plan of the Kursi-Gergesa harbor. Note the two surviving sections of the pipe that carried water from the aqueduct to the fish tank. (Drawing by Mendel Nun.)
Plan of the Kursi-Gergesa harbor. Note the two surviving sections of the pipe that carried water from the aqueduct to the fish tank. (Drawing by Mendel Nun.)

Stewards of God’s Keys

Jesus gave his disciple Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and promised that whatever Peter “bound” and “loosed” on earth would be “bound” and “loosed” in heaven. What scriptural allusions lurk beneath these expressions and what are their implications? How does the Jewish literary background of Matthew 16:19 help us better appreciate Jesus’ words?

Pirke Avot, also known as The Sayings of the Fathers, or, simply Avot, is unquestionably one of the most valuable rabbinic texts for comparative study with the synoptic gospels.[1] Spanning time from the emergence of Hellenism in ancient Israel through the first two centuries of the Christian era, Avot is a collection of maxims to which some sixty sages and rabbis have contributed.[2] The deceptively simple sayings of Avot carry potent theological and ethical implications that have been driven firmly and purposely into the consciousness of Judaism.[3] Moreover, the theology and ethic, and the language and imagery through which they are communicated, stem directly from the conceptual world of the biblical text. This has motivated individuals like the Gaon of Vilna, an eighteenth-century A.D. rabbi-scholar, and others, to demonstrate how the sayings of Avot have their origin, or parallel, in Scripture.[4]

Scripture Lurks Beneath

The ubiquitous presence of Scripture lurking beneath the maxims of Avot may be visualized as a massive iceberg bobbing in an Arctic sea, breaking the water’s surface at some points, but with the bulk of its mass remaining just below. The most obvious way Scripture penetrates the surface of the text is when a Bible verse is quoted as a proof. For example, in response to a question concerning what is the evil way from which a man should distance himself, Rabbi Shim’on said:

The one who borrows but does not repay, because the one who borrows from man is like one who borrows from God, which agrees with what is written in Scripture: “The wicked borrows but does not repay, whereas the righteous is compassionate and gives.”[5]

In most cases, however, the scriptural connection is not explicitly stated and requires some effort to identify. For example, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah told the following parable:

Every person whose learning exceeds his or her deeds, what does this person resemble? A tree whose branches are dense but roots are sparse. A wind comes, and uprooting the tree, turns it upside down. But every person whose deeds exceed his or her learning, what does this person resemble? A tree whose branches are sparse but roots are dense. Even if every type of wind were to come against this tree, it would not move the tree from its place.[6]

The imagery of this parable is reminiscent of Jeremiah 17:6, 8, and in some manuscripts these verses have been appended to the parable.[7]

Doubled Allusions

A more sophisticated example of how Scripture lurks beneath a maxim occurs when a sage alludes not to a single verse, but to a pair of verses. Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi once said, “Be as mindful of a light commandment as of a weighty commandment, for you do not know the reward of each commandment.”[8] Rabbi Yehudah has tapped into a complex of ideas generated by the bringing together of Deuteronomy 5:16, a weighty commandment from the Decalogue carrying a promise of prosperity, and Deuteronomy 22:7, a light commandment carrying the same promise. The hermeneutic that enabled these verses to be juxtaposed operates on a concordance-like principle. The phrase לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ (lema’an yitav lak, so that it may go well with you) and the idea of lengthened days appear in both verses.[9] This method of joining verses and interpreting them in light of one another was popular among ancient Jewish sages, and very much second nature, because, when memorizing the Bible, they not only memorized according to its natural progression, but atomized and recombined Scripture from disparate contexts on the basis of hermeneutic principles or already existing traditions. This way of memorizing could be compared to a child who, after learning the alphabet, decides to memorize it repeatedly backwards, inverted, and in various other ways, one of which may include A, Z, B, Y, C, X, etc. When a sage links a verse from the Torah to another from the Prophets, and both of these to another from the third section of the Jewish canon, the Writings,[10] the process is called חֲרִיזָה (harizah, stringing).

Atomizing and Recombining Scripture

What has been discussed so far in reference to Avot, namely, the explicit quoting of Scripture, the making of allusions to Scripture, and the atomizing and recombining of Scripture, is equally applicable to the synoptic gospels. Like in the rabbinic maxims, Jesus occasionally quoted verses straight from the Bible. For example, in Matthew 11:10, Jesus applied Malachi 3:1 to John the Baptist. More common, however, are allusions or hints at verses of Scripture. A fine example of this technique is Matthew 11:12, where Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as “breaking forth.”[11] “Breaking forth” is an allusion to Micah 2:13. In this passage the one who breaks forth, הַפּווֹרֵץ (haporets), suddenly appears. Jewish tradition regards the title haporets as a code-like word for a complex of ideas dealing with the Messiah.[12]

Instances of individuals hinting at Scripture abound in the synoptic tradition, but fewer are the places where a modern reader can catch a glimpse of Jesus or others combining verses based on a common word.[13] Whether the combining is an example from rabbinic literature or the synoptic gospels, the hermeneutic principle is the same, an associative or concordance-like linking of verses on the basis of common phraseology or even merely vocabulary. The method is reflected in a rabbinic form of interpretation, applied to legal sections of the Torah, called gezerah shavah.[14] The aim of this article is to demonstrate that the words Jesus spoke to Peter regarding the keys of the kingdom of heaven should be viewed as an example of this associative thought process that so easily separates and recombines Scripture.

Keys and Kingdom

In Matthew 16:19 one reads the following:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.[15]

The verse readily divides into two parts. The first part (19a) is about the giving of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the second part (19b) speaks about binding and loosing. For the sake of mounting a case in clear, logical increments, discussion will focus first on 19b.

It is widely recognized in both academic[16] and popular[17] commentaries that the language of 19b resembles that of Isaiah 22:22. The presence of the word “keys” in 19a also strengthens the association with Isaiah 22:22.

Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder; when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open. And I will drive him like a peg in a firm place….[18]

From a rabbinic interpretation of 2 Kings 24:16 found in Sifre Deuteronomy,[19] one learns that Isaiah 22:22 had been absorbed into a complex of material dealing with the teaching and learning of Torah:

“…the craftsmen and the smiths.” Veheharash [and the craftsmen], when he [i.e., the teacher] speaks everyone remains silent. Vehamasger [and the locksmith], he opens one topic of instruction and closes another to establish that which is written in Scripture, “He opens and no one closes; he closes and no one opens.”[20]

Kingdom Authority

Twena Keys
Illustration by Helen Twena.

It is possible that the expression “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16:19b is distantly related to this complex to which Isaiah 22:22 and Sifre Deuteronomy’s exposition on 2 Kings 24:16 belong. Scholars have spent much ink trying to pinpoint the meaning of Jesus’ words in 19b. Despite all efforts, the exact meaning remains very elusive. Let it be said, however, that Jesus bestowed on Peter an authority to be exercised within and on behalf of the community of believers that would emerge fully after Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter’s designation as steward of the kingdom’s keys may have broad-based implications. He may have been invested, on the one hand, with the responsibility to ensure that Jesus’ unique teaching of Torah was properly applied among those constituting this new redemptive movement,[21] which Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, and, on the other, with the authority to move God to redemptive action,[22] which Jesus also spoke of in terms of the kingdom of heaven. In either or both cases, within the parameters of meaning allowed by the term kingdom of heaven in the synoptic gospels, God would be promising to establish what a righteous person, namely Peter, decrees.

Kingdom Responsibility

Returning to Matthew 16:19a, one reads, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The bundle of keys that were given to Peter are those that a steward would carry. They are symbols of responsibilities delegated to a reliable party.[23] In the Babylonian Talmud a story is told about priests to whom keys were entrusted. The tale is introduced with תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן (tanu rabanan, our teachers taught), which indicates its earlier origins.[24]

Our rabbis taught: “At the time of the destruction of the first temple, groups of young priests gathered together with the keys of the temple in their hands. They ascended to the roof of the temple and said before God: ‘Master of the Universe! Since we have failed at being faithful stewards, let these keys be given back to you!’ They threw them toward heaven, and something like the form of a hand received the keys from them. Then, throwing themselves from the roof, they fell into the fire below. Concerning them the Prophet Isaiah lamented: ‘The oracle of the Valley of Vision: What is your problem now, that all of you have ascended to the roofs? You who were full of noise, a boisterous town, a jubilant city. Your slain were not slain with the sword, nor were they casualties of war.’”[25]

This story supplies two important bits of information. One is that the keys to the temple had a supernatural character. Belonging to God, the keys were entrusted by him to the priests, and, therefore, after publicly confessing their failure as stewards, the priests returned the keys to their owner. The other is that the stewards of the keys were required to be faithful or reliable.

Another version of this story appears in 2 Baruch 10:18, which like Isaiah 22:22 is cited by commentators on Matthew 16:19.[26] The text in 2 Baruch reads as follows:

You priests, take the keys of the sanctuary, and throw them up to heaven above, and give them to the Lord and say, “Guard your house yourself, for we have been found to be false stewards!”[27]

2 Baruch is believed to have been written in the land of Israel about 110 A.D. by a Jewish author.[28] This version differs significantly in two ways from that found in the Babylonian Talmud. One difference is that no mention is made of the priests throwing themselves from the temple roof. The second difference is that no proof text has been appended to the story. In the Talmud’s version the proof is Isaiah 22:1-2, which demands the detail of the suicidal action of the priests. When one reads the story in 2 Baruch, the emphasis is on the failure of the priests as faithful stewards. The tacking on of Isaiah 22:1-2 suggests that by the time the story was retold in the Talmud, it had assumed a literary function that deviated from its first telling. The story’s added features, namely, the death jump of the priests, and the tying of this new element to Isaiah 22:1-2, are indicative of a later stage in development. Therefore, the version in 2 Baruch almost certainly represents the earlier form.

Faithful Stewards and Their Keys

Now the question should be asked: What passage of Scripture inspired the earlier, more original form of the story found in 2 Baruch? The leading candidate is 1 Chronicles 9:26-27:

The four chief gatekeepers, who were Levites, were in an office of trust, and were responsible for the chambers and the treasuries of the temple. They spent the night in the temple precincts, because they were responsible for guarding them; and they were in charge of opening the temple’s gates [lit., in charge of the keys] every morning.

C. F. Keil commented on בֶּאֱמוּנָה (be’emunah, “in good faith,” or what is translated above, “in an office of trust”) that these Levites “had been recognized to be faithful.”[29] Thus, this passage contains the two elements that would be necessary to generate the story found in 2 Baruch: the idea that the priests were “faithful” stewards, and the idea that they were responsible for the keys of the temple. Note that the biblical text does not state who entrusted the keys to the priests; however, the story in 2 Baruch implies that God was the giver.

In New Testament commentaries that make an effort to include discussion of rabbinic sources, one often finds Isaiah 22:22 and 2 Baruch 10:18 or Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 29a listed as relevant parallels to Matthew 16:19. The question that must be asked is, how do Isaiah 22:22 and the tale in 2 Baruch 10:18 fit together? If the story of the irresponsible priests was spawned by 1 Chronicles 9: 26-27, then this question may be answered easily. The link is the Hebrew word מַפְתֵּחַ (mafte’ah, key). Moreover, Targum Jonathan renders the Hebrew מַפְתֵּחַ בֵּית דָּוִד (mafte’ah bet david, the key[s] of the house of David) of Isaiah 22:22 into Aramaic as מַפְתֵּחַ בֵּית מִקְדְּשָׁא (mafte’ah bet mikdesha’, the key[s] of the temple).[30] This means that in the world of Jewish exegesis Isaiah 22:22 and 1 Chronicles 9:27 are speaking of the same key(s).[31] Though Targum Jonathan is not a particularly early text in regard to the date when it was revised and edited into its current form—what scholars call the final date of redaction—it does contain, according to Bruce Chilton, two strata belonging to the tannaic period and one to the amoraic period.[32] He further suggests that the Aramaic rendering of Isaiah 22 may have its origins in material stemming from the period before the temple’s demise in 70 A.D.[33]

Tangible Images from Daily Life

Ancient Jewish sages like Jesus and the contributors to Avot were concrete thinkers. Their sayings are laced with tangible images drawn from daily life in order to facilitate comprehension. For example, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say, “If all the sages of Israel were on one side of a pair of scales and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other, he would outweigh them all.”[34] The point of the saying is very clear: As a sage, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is in a league by himself.

It is interesting that the agoranomos, or Roman official appointed to oversee the local marketplace, carried a set of standard weights to ensure fair business practices. These standard weights were, moreover, sometimes fashioned into bust-like representations of the agoranomos himself![35] Thus, those who heard Yohanan ben Zakkai’s saying probably saw in their mind’s eye a pair of scales with a miniature chess-piece-like bust of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on one side, and an array of similar busts on the other. This raises the question: What sort of realia from the Second Temple period might underlie Jesus’ response to Peter? Perhaps it was the set of keys used by the priests to lock the gates at the Neilah, or closing ceremony, of the temple in the evening.[36] This blessing and dismissing of the people must have been a powerful image in many people’s minds, and a main feature of that event was likely the shutting of the gates with big, special keys. These special keys would have served the same function in Jesus’ day as the earlier set mentioned in 1 Chronicles 9:26-27.


What is gained by recognizing the allusion to Isaiah 22:22 and 1 Chronicles 9:26-27 in Jesus’ words to Peter? Matthew 6:17-19 is one of the most Hebraic passages in terms of language, expression and thought to be found in the synoptic tradition. The expressions בָּשָׂר וָדָּם (basar vadam), or “flesh and blood,”[37] and אָבִי שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם (avi shebashamayim), or “my Father who is in heaven,”[38] are examples par excellence of mishnaic Hebrew idioms embedded in the Greek of the gospels. After using these Hebrew idioms, Jesus makes a wordplay with Peter’s name, פֶּטְרוֹס (petros), and the word פֶּטְרָא (petra’).[39] The wordplay is apparently the earliest known expression of a tradition that appears in a late rabbinic text about God’s searching for a reliable individual upon whom he can build.[40]

In the midrash, that individual is Abraham; but for Jesus, it is Peter. The motif of reliability is carried into verse 19 with the words “keys of the kingdom.” From 1 Chronicles 9:26-27 and the tale in 2 Baruch 10:18 one learns that God’s keys are given only to responsible, reliable parties. Because Peter is “solid” as rock, he is deemed worthy to be steward over the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Like the faithful Levitical priests, to whom God entrusted the keys of the temple, Peter now has been entrusted with the keys of the kingdom. With these keys comes authority. That authority, expressed through the Hebrew idioms “binding” and “loosing,” or in plain English, “prohibiting” and “sanctioning,” is backed by God.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:19 are another remarkable example of ancient Jewish exegesis preserved in the synoptic tradition. Without a second thought, Jesus answered Peter with biblically saturated language. His words contained an allusion to a complex of ideas to which Isaiah 22:22 and 1 Chronicles 9:26-27 belonged. A central motif of the complex is that God’s keys are entrusted only to solid, trustworthy individuals. This same motif is also at the heart of Jesus’ wordplay in Matthew 16:18. And like all ancient Jewish sages, when teaching Jesus relied heavily on tangible images from daily life. Indeed, Peter and Jesus’ other disciples were familiar with keys, but the keys of the kingdom were not a metaphorical image merely based on ordinary house keys.[41] Rather, the imagery derives its richness from the supernatural keys described in 2 Baruch 10:18 and perhaps from their later counterparts employed at the Neilah ceremony in the first century. Though the expression “keys of the kingdom of heaven” remains difficult to interpret, familiarity with ancient Jewish exegesis allows us to enjoy the subtler aspects of Jesus’ words and move one step closer toward unlocking their precise meaning.

  • [1] Note that the last chapter of Avot, chapter 6, known as “Acquisition of the Torah,” is a later addition. See Hanoch Albeck’s comments to Order Nezikin in The Mishnah (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, and Tel Aviv: Dvir Co., 1988), 351, 381.
  • [2] The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz, rev. ed. (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1948), 610.
  • [3] Modern western thinking tends to neglect the fact that ancient Judaism relied upon parables, proverbs, maxims, songs, poetry, prayers, stories and legends to transmit its theology. Regarding the last of these, A. Marmorstein wrote, “Legends were more powerful allies of the theologians and teachers, apologists and preachers, than generally thought of” (“The Unity of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual l [1924]: 469). Also compare Murray Salisbury, “Hebrew Proverbs and How to Translate Them,” in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, ed. Robert Bergen (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994), 434. Moreover, in time Avot was incorporated into the Jewish prayer book and became the prescribed text for reading on Sabbath afternoons. The theological influence of the Jewish prayer book on Jewish thinking has been and continues to be far-reaching. Regarding its influence, Jakob Petuchowski wrote, “By the side of its technical theological tractates, Judaism has had its prayer book—next to the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Psalms, practically the only ‘theological’ vade mecum which many Jews, throughout the centuries have had at their immediate disposal” (“Theology and Poetry in the Liturgy of the Synagogue,” in Standing before God: Studies on Prayer in Scriptures and Tradition with Essays, eds. A. Finkel and L. Frizzell [New York: Ktav, 1981], 225). On the parables of Jesus and their theological implications, see Brad H. Young’s two books: Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), and Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
  • [4] The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Hertz, 610.
  • [5] Avot 2:9 (ms. Kaufmann, 339). For an English translation, see The Mishnah, trans. Herbert Danby (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 449. The proof text is Ps. 37:21.
  • [6] Avot 3:17 (ms. Kaufmann, 342). Note that the author has incorporated the corrections found in the text and margins of the manuscript into this English translation.
  • [7] Cf. Avot 3:17 (ed. Albeck, 368) and Danby’s English translation, The Mishnah, 452 n. 8. For an additional example of an allusion to Scripture, compare Avot 3:16 and Eccl. 9:12, and see Albeck’s comment to וּמְצוּדָה פְּרוּסָה (umetsudah perusah, and a seine is spread), 367.
  • [8] Avot 2:1 (Ms. Kaufmann, 338). Cf. also Albeck, 357, and Danby, 447.
  • [9] Cf. Exod. 20:12. Also note that in Matt. 5:19 Jesus alludes to this same complex.
  • [10] See the story about Rabbi Shim’on ben Azzai, and after it, Rabbi Levi’s stringing of Lev. 13:45, 2 Kgs. 8:5 and Ps. 50:16 (Leviticus Rabbah 16:4 [ed. Margulies, 354-355]). For an English translation of this story and Rabbi Levi’s “stringing,” see Midrash Rabbah, eds. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon (London: The Soncino Press, 1939), 4:205-206. Rabbi Shim’on ben Azzai flourished early in the second century A.D., and Rabbi Levi late in the third century A.D. Also see חָרַז (haraz), definition no. 2 in Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (repr. New York: Jastrow Publishers, 1967), 500. An example of חֲרִיזָה (harizah, stringing) is found in Luke 9:35 in the Transfiguration story. The voice from the cloud strings together (in reverse order!) a phrase from the Torah (Deut. 18:15), a phrase from the Prophets (Isa. 42:1) and a phrase from the Writings (Ps. 2:7).
  • [11] Underneath the Greek ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται (e basileia ton ouranon biazetai) is likely the Hebrew מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם פּוֹרֶצֶת (malchut shamayim poretset, the kingdom of heaven is bursting forth). Cf. Matt. 11:12 in the New International Version, which translates this phrase as “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing.” See David Flusser, Jesus in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1968), 40, 87. See also Robert L. Lindsey, “The Kingdom of God: God’s Power Among Believers,” Jerusalem Perspective 24 (1990): 6-8. Cf. David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (New York: Arno Press, 1973; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, no date), 286-287.

    David Flusser was the first to recognize that the deponent Greek verb βιάζεται (biazetai) should be translated with an active instead of passive meaning, and that its Hebrew equivalent is פּוֹרֶצֶת (poretset). For an explanation of deponent verbs, see James Allen Hewett, New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 88.

  • [12] The eminent Hebraist Edward Pococke commented regarding Mic. 2:13 that it is easy to apply to John the title haporets (the “one who breaks open the way”) and by doing so “we have in the words, a most illustrious prophecy of Christ, and his forerunner John the Baptist” (A Commentary on the Prophecy of Micah [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1676], 24). In 1988, an Oral Roberts University student, David Hill, rediscovered Pococke’s comment on Mic. 2:13.

    Arriving independently at a conclusion similar to Pococke’s, David Flusser based his inference on the following rabbinic sources:

    a. Rabbi David Kimhi’s comment on עָלָה הַפֹּרֵץ (‘alah haporets, the breaker will go up) in Micah 2:13. Kimhi comments, בדברי רז”ל ובדרש הפורץ זה אליהו מלכם זה צמח בן דוד (bedivre razal uvaderash haporets zeh ‘eliyahu malkam zeh tsemah ben david), that is, “In the words of the sages and in midrash, ‘the breaker’ is Elijah, ‘their king’ is ‘Branch,’ the son of David.”

    b. Pesikta Rabbati 35, to Zech. 2:14 (ed. M. Friedmann, 161a):

    Three days before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come…he will say to them [the people of Israel]: “Peace has come to the world….” On the second day, Elijah will come…and say: “Good has come to the world….” On the third day he will come and say, “Salvation has come to the world….” At that time, the Holy One, blessed be he, will show his glory and his kingdom to all the inhabitants of the world. He will redeem Israel, appearing at their head, as it is said, “The breaker goes up before them. They break out and pass through the gate, leaving by it. Their king passes through before them, the LORD at their head” [Mic. 2:13].

    c. The comment on Mic. 2:13 found in Metsudat David:

    The breaker goes up. Before they go up, the one who breaks through thorn fences and prickly hedges goes up before them in order to clear the way. Thus, it is said concerning the prophet Elijah that he will come before [God’s] redemption to direct the hearts of Israel to their father who is in heaven, to be a gateway to that redemption, as it is said, “Behold I am sending the prophet Elijah…and he will turn the heart[s] of fathers….” (Mal. 4:5-6). They break through. Those returning from exile also will break through fences and hedges and pass through the breach as if it were a gate and a way by which they can leave the Exile, that is to say, they will have the courage to turn to God in repentance, and as a result, they will depart the Diaspora. Their king passes on before them. As they return their king will pass on before them. He is the King Messiah. He will march at the head of them all, for at that time he, too, will restore his Shechinah to Zion.

    The comment of Rabbi David Kimhi (c. 1200 A.D.) and that of Metsudat David, a seventeenth-century commentary from Prague, may be found in Mikraot Gedolot: Nevi’im Acharonim, 317b. My English translation of Pesikta Rabbati 35 can be compared with Pesikta Rabbati, trans. William Braude (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 2:675. Also note that Gen. 38:29 is part of the same complex. See Genesis Rabbah 85:14 (ed. Albeck, 1049; English trans.: Soncino ed., 2:799).

  • [13] In Luke 19:46 Jesus combines Isa. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11 because of the common word beti (my house). Note that the Masoretic text of Jer. 7:11 reads הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה (habayit hazeh, this house); however, the Septuagint has ὁ οῖκός μου (ho oikos mou), which is equivalent to בֵּיתִי (beti). (See Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!” Jerusalem Perspective 46 & 47 [1994]: 24-29.) In Luke 10:27 a lawyer combines Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. The presence of וְאָהַבְתָּ (ve’ahavta, and you shall love) in both verses certainly helped in motivating this combination. In Luke 22:69-70 Jesus and the chief priests and scribes have a sophisticated exchange of words. The priests and scribes in an instant link Jesus’ allusion to Ps. 110 with Ps. 2 based on the common word יְלִדְתִּיךָ (yelideticha, I have given birth to you) that appears in Ps. 2:7 and Ps. 110:3. (Note the variant vocalization for the Masoretic יַלְדֻתֶךָ (yaldutecha [your youth] preserved in the tradition of the Septuagint.) For a discussion of the variant vocalization, yelideticha for yaldutecha in Ps. 110:3, see David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 192. Flusser is to be credited for recognizing the combining of Ps. 110:3 and Ps. 2:7 in Luke 22:69-70 (cf. Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark [2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973], xxi).
  • [14] See Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, in Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994), 57-60. See also גְּזֵרָה (gezerah), definition no. 4 in Jastrow’s dictionary, 232.
  • [15] Matt. 16:19, from the NASB. Incidentally, Professor Flusser views Matt. 16:17-19 as an authentic saying stemming from Jesus himself. He does, however, express reservations about the word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia, assembly; congregation; church) being original. See Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 516 n. 5.
  • [16] Cf. Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1922-1960), 1:736.
  • [17] Cf. the parallel verses listed in the New American Standard Bible: The Open Bible Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), 931.
  • [18] Isa. 22:22-23a, from the NASB.
  • [19] Sifre Deuteronomy is an early rabbinic commentary on Deuteronomy that is identified as stemming from the exegetical school of Rabbi Akiva. It belongs to a group of halachic midrashim that were compiled in the land of Israel sometime toward the end of the second century A.D.
  • [20] Sifre Deuteronomy, Piska 321 (ed. Finkelstein, 370). For an English translation, see Reuven Hammer, Sifre: A Taanaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 332, 500 n. 18.
  • [21] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison have listed thirteen possible interpretations for 19b (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, The International Critical Commentary [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991], 2:635-639). Note particularly “interpretation (X).” See also John Lightfoot’s list of examples from rabbinic literature of the expressions אָסַר (‘asar, to tie, bind; forbid) and הִתִּיר (hitir, to untie, loose; permit) (A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989], 2:236-241). Cf. also Josephus’ use of δεσμεῖν (desmein) and λύειν (lyein), Septuagintal equivalents of ‘asar and hitir respectively, in describing the administrative power of the Pharisees (The Jewish War 1:111). Note, too, that Mal. 2:5-7 identifies the giving of instruction as one of the Levites’ functions.
  • [22] See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 59b, where Job 22:28 is interpreted as referring to the righteous, and Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, where the Sanhedrin sends a message to Honi the Circle Drawer. Cf. also Bava Metsi’a 85a; Moed Katan 16b; Shabbat 63a; Tanhuma, Tavo 1 (ed. Wilna, 669). Note, too, the verse from the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10); Jesus’ remark to the disciples in Luke 10:18; and the Assumption of Moses 10:1, “Then his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have an end. Yea, sorrow will be led away with him” (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1983], 1:931). The reference to the Assumption of Moses comes from Flusser, Jesus, 37. See Young, Theologian, 201.
  • [23] Cf. Davies and Allison, 638 n. 129, where Beare’s comment is cited.
  • [24] The phrase תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן (tanu rabanan) is a technical expression used in rabbinic literature. The root תנה (tav-nun-he) already appears in the Bible (Judg. 5:11). Cf. תָּנָה, entry II, Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979), 1072 . Cf. also the more common biblical verb שָׁנָה (shanah), entry III, ibid., 1040. The roots תנה (tav-nun-he) and שנה (shin-nun-he) carry the basic meaning of “to recite, repeat.” In Mishnaic Hebrew the root תנה (tav-nun-he) assumed a more specialized meaning. Cf. the entry תני in Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990), 585, and the entry תני in Jastrow’s dictionary, 1681.

    A tanna was a person who committed to memory the text of the Mishnah and subsequently recited it in the academies. See Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, in Greek in Jewish Palestine/Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 88. Note that the root of the word Mishnah is שנה (shin-nun-he) and the expression “tannaic” comes from the root תנה (tav-nun-he). The period of the Mishnah, or simply the tannaic period, begins with Hillel and closes with Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, in other words, from the last third of the first century B.C. until approximately 230 A.D. When a tradition stemming from the tannaic period appears in a rabbinic text compiled in a later period, such as the Babylonian Talmud, the tradition is often introduced with תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן (tanu rabanan), meaning literally, “our teachers repeated.” See Aryeh Carmell, Aiding Talmud Study (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1991), 70-71.

  • [25] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 29a. Cf. Leviticus Rabbah 19:6 (ed. Margulies, 436-437).
  • [26] See, for example, Strack and Billerbeck, 737.
  • [27] The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:624; and The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H. F. D. Sparks (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1989), 846. Cf. also 4 Baruch 4:3-4.
  • [28] The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:617. Cf. also Sparks, 837.
  • [29] C. F. Keil, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, in Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 3:166.
  • [30] The Bible in Aramaic, ed. Alexander Sperber, (Leiden: Brill, 1962), 3:43. Cf. also Rashi on Isa. 22:22.
  • [31] Note that the root אמן (‘alef-mem-nun) appears in 1 Chron. 9:26 in the form of אֱמוּנָה (emunah, faithfulness) with regard to the Levites, and in Isa. 22:23 in the form of נֶאֱמָן (ne’eman, faithful) with regard to a firm or faithful place.
  • [32] Bruce Chilton, Targumic Approaches to the Gospels, in Studies in Judaism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 72.
  • [33] Ibid., 58.
  • [34] Mishnah, Avot 2:8 (ed. Albeck, 360) and Danby’s English translation, The Mishnah, 448.
  • [35] Professor Burt Visotzky of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America made the suggestion in a classroom lecture that the bust-like representations of the agaranomoi may be the realia behind Avot 2:8. A lead anthropoid-shaped weight found in Gaza bears an inscription that reads, “Under the magistrature of Aurelios Bellicos Telemaque, agoranomos. Year 287.” The date, “year 287,” refers to the era of Gaza that began in 61 B.C. See Frederic Manns, Some Weights of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods, in Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, trans. Godfrey Kloetzli (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1984), 14, 19, 25-29, but especially 11-12.
  • [36] Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:1 (ed. Albeck, 341) and Danby’s English translation, The Mishnah, 199. Cf. Jastrow’s dictionary, entry נְעִילָה, 919.
  • [37] Cf. Mechilta, Shirata 1; to Exod. 15:1 [ed. Horovitz-Rabin, 118, line 14]; and Leviticus Rabbah 18:5 (ed. Margulies, 410-412).
  • [38] Cf. the similar expression, אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם (avicha shebashamayim, your [sgl.] father who is in heaven), in Avot 5:20 (ed. Albeck, 380) and Danby’s English translation, The Mishnah, 458.
  • [39] See David Bivin, “Matthew 16:18: The Petros-petra Wordplay—Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?” Jerusalem Perspective 46 & 47 (Sept.-Dec. 1994), 32-38; and George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 538.
  • [40] The rabbinic text to which I refer is Yalkut Shim’oni to Num. 23:9, §766:

    It can be compared to a king who desired to build a palace. He began digging, searching for solid rock on which he could lay foundations, but he found only mire. He dug in several other sites, always with the same results. However, the king did not give up. He dug in still another location. This time he struck solid rock [petra’].

    “Here,” he said, “I will build,” and he laid foundations and built.

    In the same manner, the Holy One, blessed is he, before he created the world, sat and examined the generation of Enosh and the generation of the Flood.

    “How can I create the world when those wicked people will appear and provoke me to anger?” he said.

    When, however, the Holy One, blessed is he, saw Abraham, he said, “Here I have found solid rock [petra’] on which I can build and upon which I can lay the world’s foundations.” (Bivin’s translation in “The Petros-petra Wordplay,” p. 34)

  • [41] In the Cave of Letters near Ein Gedi six keys of various sizes were found (Locus 65). The keys date from the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 A.D.). See The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, ed. Ephraim Stern (Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society and Carta, 1993), 3:830. For a photograph of two of the keys and other household items, see Moshe Pearlman, The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book (Jerusalem: Israel Museum Products, 1988), 85

The Power of Parables

Esteeming the Parable

Parables, both rabbinic and synoptic, have roots running deep in the fertile soil of Hebrew Scripture, whence they draw imagery and ultimately their theology. In a fifth-century A.D. text written in the land of Israel, Rabbi Levi[1] tells the following parable:

To what may the sons of Israel be compared? It is like a man who has a son, whom he places on his shoulders and takes for a stroll through the market. When the son sees something desirable he says to his father, “Buy that for me!” and he buys it for him. This happens not once, but three times. Then the son sees a man and asks him, “Have you seen my father?” His father retorts, “Foolish one! You are riding on my shoulders! Everything you want I am getting for you, and you say to this man, ‘Have you seen my father?’” What did his father do? He tossed the child from his shoulders, and a dog came and snapped at him.[2]

Illustration by Helen Twena
Illustration by Helen Twena

Rabbi Levi told this vivid story in order to explain the relationship between two verses of Scripture. In Exodus 17:7, despite having been escorted by the seven clouds of glory, given water, manna and even quail in the wilderness, the Israelites said, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”[3] The next verse, Exodus 17:8, reads: “Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim.”[4] Amalek is the dog that suddenly appears and snaps at the child.

The rich and humorous imagery of this parable, especially that of the father carrying his son, was inspired by the biblical text. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses recounts to the children of Israel how God carried them in the wilderness “just as a man carries his son.”[5] This image makes a powerful theological statement. Moreover, the prophets, too, speak of God as a loving father rearing his children. Hosea, speaking on behalf of God, laments, “When Israel was a youth I loved him…it is I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them in my arms.”[6]

God is also depicted as a gentle, loving father in the parables of the Synoptic Gospels. Most outstanding is Luke’s parable of the Lost Son[7] where the father dashes off to embrace the son who had spurned him. The episode brings to mind verses like Exodus 34:6, Psalms 86:5, 15, and Jonah 4:2, which speak of God’s patience and readiness to forgive. Relevant is one sage’s interpretation of Psalms 32:10: “Even if an evil person repents and trusts in the Lord, loving-kindness will surround him.”[8] These verses and the midrashic interpretation of Psalms 32:10 teach that God stands ready to forgive and receive any who make a move toward repentance.[9] This is one of the theological truths that drives the Lost Son parable.

There are also synoptic parables where God is cast as a king.[10] Parables comparing God to a king abound in the Midrash.[11] Like the motif of God as a father, God as a king has its origins in the Torah. Indeed, God may be spoken of in terms of absolute, universal sovereignty, but the sages and especially Jesus inclined toward speaking of his reigning presence in the lives of people who had joyfully embraced him as the one true God. In other words, yielding to God and accepting the responsibilities of his kingship is tantamount to enthroning him as king. Israel did this after passing through the Red Sea when they sang, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever!”[12] The sages believed it was here that Israel first accepted the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, declared God to be king.[13] In Deuteronomy 33:5, Moses refers to God explicitly as king. The prophets add much to the imagery of God’s kingship. Interestingly, Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, says: “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King…who makes a way through the sea and a path through the mighty waters.”[14] He, too, like the sages, saw God’s kingship as having been manifested in the great redemptive act at the Red Sea. In the Book of Psalms God is referred to as king in numerous places. One Psalmist proclaimed: “The LORD sits as King forever.”[15]

Illustration by Helen Twena
Illustration by Helen Twena

The portrait of God as a caring father or exalted king has its roots in the five books of the Torah. The prophets, themselves students of the Torah, contributed to the development of those motifs. But it was left to the sages of Israel to take the foundation laid by the Torah and the timber supplied by the Prophets and Psalmists and build their parables. Nearly all parables are organic outgrowths of the biblical text’s conceptual world. The imagery and motifs they employ and message they convey emanate from that conceptual textual world. Therefore, parables are a most effective way of communicating complex theological concepts[16] in a manner that both the simple and sophisticated can appreciate. As the sages say, “Let not the parable be lightly esteemed in your eyes, since by means of the parable a man can master the words of Torah”[17] —and perhaps the teachings of Jesus, too.

Enjoying the Art of a Parableteller

Rabbi Abba bar Yudan once told a parable in the name of Rabbi Aha:[18]

It is like a prince who was emotionally disturbed. Once, he grabbed a pickax in order to mutilate his father. His pedagogue said to him, “Don’t trouble yourself! Give me the pickax and I will do the job!” Catching a glimpse [of what the pedagogue did], the king said to him, “I know what your intention was. You thought it better that the offense be blamed on you rather than on my son. I swear to you that you will never depart from my palace. You will eat from the abundance of my table, and collect twenty-four stipends.”[19]

Rabbi Aha’s parable is one of numerous examples where the Midrash attempts to explain Aaron’s conduct in the episode of the Golden Calf.[20] In this case, by comparing Aaron’s actions to those of a noble pedagogue who shields the king’s son from blame, the parable whitewashes Aaron, despite the fact that the biblical story points to him as a leading candidate for culpability.[21]

The Noble Pedagogue is indicative of most parables, whether they be synoptic or rabbinic. The plot is off to a dashing start by the end of the first sentence: neurotic prince heads toward king with pickax in hand. The characters are familiar to the listener. He or she can formulate some idea of how a prince, pedagogue and king might respond in such a crisis. One character, however, defies expectations. Instead of fleeing the scene or defending the king, the pedagogue rushes toward the son and offers to do the gruesome deed for him—a surprising revelation for the listener. The twist in the fast-moving plot has knocked the audience off balance. But the tension is resolved as rapidly as it has been created, with the disclosure of the pedagogue’s motive. Indeed, the audience breathes a sigh of relief, probably followed by some laughter.[22] The darshan (expositor) has succeeded brilliantly.

A rapid development of plot with a shocking or humorous twist, or both, is a standard feature of the parables of Jesus. For example, tension mounts in the parable of the Talents[23] as three servants who have been entrusted with large sums of money await the king’s imminent return. The audience is distressed to learn, however, that after returning, the king punishes harshly the well-intentioned servant who buried his one talent for safekeeping.

Particularly noteworthy is the parable of the Prodigal Son,[24] where, after callously rejecting his father, a Jewish lad finds himself longing to eat the food of pigs.[25] In the end, he returns to his father, who unabashedly hikes up his robe, sprints and embraces the son who has shamed him. But there is more. The parable is about a man with two sons. What about the other son, the “good” son who remained at home? The audience learns that he, too, has failed to accept the bountiful, unconditional love of his father. That relationship is also in need of restoration, a sobering thought when one realizes that this son’s conduct is meant to address shortcomings prevalent among the community of faith.

When reading or hearing a parable of Jesus, one should be ready to gasp or chuckle. Jesus had tremendous creative genius. He recognized that humor, especially irony, is a powerful teaching tool.[26] Moreover, Jesus knew human nature—people love to hear a good story. Thus, it is no wonder that Jesus capitalized on the parable to capture the imagination of his audiences and communicate indispensable truths with far-reaching ethical and moral implications regarding man’s relationship to his fellow and his Creator.[27]

Grasping the Profound

In a famous parable, which is repeated several places in the Midrash[28] and Talmud,[29] the sages tackle the problem of man’s dual nature. Which is more responsible for an individual’s conduct, the body or the soul? How will God factor in this dual nature when he judges an individual at the resurrection of the dead? Indeed, throughout history philosophers have written treatises speculating on various aspects of the coexistence of the body and soul. But not the rabbis; they told parables.

Rabbi Ishmael[30] taught: “It resembles a king who had an orchard of choice early figs. He posted in it two watchmen, one of whom was lame, and the other blind. He charged them, ‘Guard carefully the early figs!’ Then he left them and went his way. ‘I see choice early figs,’ said the lame man. ‘Let’s eat them!’ said the blind man. ‘Am I able to walk?’ the lame man responded. ‘Am I able to see?’ the blind man replied. What did they do? The lame man sat on the shoulders of the blind man, and they picked and ate the early figs. Then each went to his post. After a number of days the king came and said to them, ‘Where are the early figs?’ ‘Can I see?’ answered the blind man. ‘Can I walk?’ answered the lame man. What did the shrewd king do? He set the lame man on the shoulders of the blind man and judged them as one.”[31]

Illustration by Helen Twena
Illustration by Helen Twena

Though certainly not exhausting the subject, the parable of the Two Watchmen is a fresh and entertaining approach to an elusive interrelationship. Here, a sage has marshaled his parabolic skills and succeeded in reducing an abstract concept to concrete images. R. Ishmael employed what is familiar and mundane to clarify what is unfamiliar and complex.

The characters are known to the audience from daily life. Kings were a standard feature in the ancient world. Watchmen, too, were commonly employed during the harvest season. No doubt some in the audience boosted their income with such seasonal employment. The plot of the parable also reflects reality. Landlords appointed watchmen over their cultivated land and departed to tend other business.[32]

Using characters and plots drawn from the realities of daily life, the sages made it easy for the audience to identify with the content of a parable, which aided their comprehension of its message. The simple and tangible served as a springboard for gaining a glimpse of the profound. Education was not a prerequisite. Even the simple could listen to the parable of the Two Watchmen, laugh and comprehend that, as George Foot Moore explained, “Sin, however it may be analyzed, is the sin of the man, not of either half of his nature.”[33]

Jesus also told parables with characters and plots drawn from realities of life.[34] Using a set of twin parables,[35] he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed and leaven in order to illustrate the dynamic expansion of the redemptive movement he was leading. In another, he spoke about four types of soil into which seed fell to teach about four types of disciples.[36] And elsewhere he told a parable about a slave, who having had an enormous debt canceled by a king imprisoned a fellow slave who owed him a fraction of that amount, to bring into sharp focus the implications of one’s unwillingness to forgive his fellow.[37]

Illustration by Helen Twena
Illustration by Helen Twena

These images, characters and motifs were meant to enhance comprehension. Everyone listening had seen the way a little leaven caused dough to rise, or the persistent growth of a small mustard seed. Many in the audience had sown fields themselves and knew all too well that only rich, fertile soil produced high crop yields. Indeed, most of Jesus’ listeners had at one time or another loaned money or incurred a debt, or both. Thus, having actually lived out certain aspects of the Unforgiving Slave’s plot, they could react from personal experience to the tension generated by the man’s odious conduct. Moreover, the original language of the parable, Hebrew,[38] greatly facilitated bridging the gap between the abstract and the tangible. Beneath the Greek ὀφειλέτης (opheiletes, debtor) of Matthew 18:24 is likely the Hebrew חיב (hayav). The Hebrew hayav can mean both “indebted” and “guilty of transgression.”[39]

From the copious evidence available from comparative study of rabbinic parables, and the internal evidence of the synoptic parables themselves,[40] one arrives at the inescapable conclusion that Jesus spoke in parables not to conceal but to clarify. Jesus was an indefatigable teacher.[41] He taught his audiences much about God’s love, grace, forgiveness and justice, about human nature, and about the redemptive movement he was leading, which he called the Kingdom of Heaven. To communicate these profound concepts, he relied upon parables with their simple characters, familiar motifs and realistic plots. They worked. Instead of walking away bored or confused, Jesus’ listeners departed smiling and enlightened.

*Illustrations by Helen Twena.

  • [1] Rabbi Levi flourished late in the third century A.D. He was appointed by Rabbi Yohanan as a salaried darshan (expositor) at the bet midrash in Tiberias. A master of aggadah, he excelled in telling parables. See the entry “Levi” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), 11:75.
  • [2] Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 3:1 (ed. Mandelbaum, p. 35). See Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 84-88. See especially Young’s comment on p. 88: “All in all the parable of ‘The Spoiled Son’ emphasizes the intimacy between the people of Israel and their Father in heaven by picturing this relationship in terms of the closeness of family ties. Thus this parable is much more than an illustration of a biblical text and may very well exemplify early rabbinic preaching which by no means should be characterized as dry, legalistic or pedantic.”
  • [3] From the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
  • [4] From the NASB.
  • [5] Deut. 1:31, from the NASB.
  • [6] Hosea 11:1, 3, from the NASB. Cf. Jer. 3:19 and Jer. 31:9.
  • [7] Lk. 15:11-32.
  • [8] Leviticus Rabbah 15:4 (ed. Margulies, p. 330).
  • [9] Cf. Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2, §2 (Midrash Rabbah, Soncino ed., 9:232): “R. Jassa said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: “My sons, present to me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass.”’”
  • [10] E.g., Mt. 18:23-35 and Mt. 22:1-14. See David Bivin, “King Parables,” Jerusalem Perspective 45 (Jul./Aug. 1994): 14-15.
  • [11] See the entry “Parable” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 13:74-75.
  • [12] Exod. 15:18, from the NASB. See Brad H. Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984), 10-17.
  • [13] See Leviticus Rabbah 2:4 (ed. Margulies, p. 42). See also Louis Ginzberg’s helpful discussion of the kingdom of heaven in “The Religion of the Jews at the Time of Jesus,” Hebrew Union College Annual 1 (1924), 311-314.
  • [14] Isa. 43:15-16, from the NASB. See also Isa. 33:22, Jer. 10:10, Mic. 2:13, Zeph. 3:15 and Mal. 1:14.
  • [15] Ps. 29:10, from the NASB.
  • [16] See Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) for an excellent treatment of how Jesus communicated and taught his theology. Much of it was in parables.
  • [17] Song of Songs Rabbah 1:1, §8-9 (Midrash Rabbah, Soncino ed. 9:10).
  • [18] The technical expression “in the name of” simply means that R. Abba bar Yudan heard the parable directly from R. Aha, or from someone else who credited R. Aha with the parable. The sages were careful to preserve the names of earlier sages who were responsible for transmitting a tradition. R. Abba bar Yudan and R. Aha both lived in the land of Israel in the first half of the fourth century A.D.
  • [19] Leviticus Rabbah 10:3 (ed. Margulies, pp. 201-202).
  • [20] See Exod. 32.
  • [21] Cf. Deut. 9:20.
  • [22] In addition to having a shocking twist in plot, the parable makes use of humor. The pedagogue’s offer to assist the son is humorous. Moreover, when one rethinks the parable knowing that the king represents God, the pedagogue, Aaron, and the emotionally disturbed son, Israel, one cannot help but chuckle at the comparisons.
  • [23] Mt. 25:14-30. Brad Young suggests that this parable was probably told by Jesus to illustrate the importance of serving God out of love rather than fear. Fear paralyzes and prevents an individual from being an effective participant in God’s redemptive movement (private communication). Cf. 1 John 4:18.
  • [24] Lk. 15:11-32. See Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables, 239-41.
  • [25] The obvious irony is that pigs are the premier example of non-kosher animals.
  • [26] This is an important point that Elton Trueblood makes throughout his book, The Humor of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964). For Jesus’ use of irony, see especially pp. 53-67.
  • [27] Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables, 320.
  • [28] The earliest midrashim where this parable is mentioned are Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 2; to Exod. 15:1[ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 125) and Mechilta de-Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai to Exod. 15:1 (ed. Epstein-Melamed, pp. 76-77).
  • [29] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a-b.
  • [30] R. Ishmael ben Elisha was one of the most outstanding rabbinic figures of the tannaic period. A child when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple (70 A.D.), he was taken captive to Rome but returned to the land of Israel after being ransomed by R. Yehoshua. Though not likely, R. Ishmael may have lived to see the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 A.D.). His closest colleague was the great R. Akiva, with whom he disputed on matters of halachah, aggadah and methods of exegesis. See the entry “Ishmael ben Elisha” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 9:83-86.
  • [31] Leviticus Rabbah 4:5 (ed. Margulies, pp. 88-89). The motif of a blind man and a lame man collaborating has its origins in the literature of ancient India. The rabbinic form of the parable has been shaped by Hellenistic-Jewish influences. See Luitpold Wallach, “The Parable of the Blind and the Lame,” Journal of Biblical Literature 62 (1943), 333-39. See also Young’s discussion of this parable in Jesus and His Jewish Parables, 64-68.
  • [32] The parable’s plot is believable, except of course for the hiring of two guards with physical limitations. This was probably intended to be humorous. Interestingly, the version of the parable that appears in Tanhuma, Va-Yikra 6 (ed. Wilna, p. 183a) and Tanhuma, Va-Yikra 12 (ed. Buber, p. 4b), gives the reason for the king’s decision to employ a blind guard and a lame guard: “If I post there a watchman who can see and walk, he will eat the early fruit himself.” Cf. Wallach’s comments about this sentence and the Tanhuma version of the parable, ibid., 337-38.
  • [33] George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 1:486-87.
  • [34] See Young’s remarks concerning the realia that may underlie the plots of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan parables (Jesus and His Jewish Parables, 239-41).
  • [35] Mt. 13:31-33; Lk. 13:18-20. Cf. Robert L. Lindsey, “Jesus’ Twin Parables,” Jerusalem Perspective 41 (Nov./Dec. 1993): 3-6, 12.
  • [36] Mt. 13:3-9; Mk. 4:3-9; Lk. 8:4-8. Compare the explanations of the parable of the Sower: Mt. 13:18-23; Mk. 4:13-20; Lk. 8:11-15. Matthew and Mark use the words “sower” and “sown” throughout their explanations whereas Luke focuses attention on the soil into which the seed fell. In other words, the emphasis is on the soil, which represents one of four types of disciples. (See Young’s insightful treatment of the Sower in his forthcoming The Parables of Jesus in Light of Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation.) Cf. Leviticus Rabbah 2:1 (ed. Margulies, p. 35): “It is the way of the world that one thousand individuals begin studying Bible, and a hundred of them finish. A hundred individuals begin studying Mishnah, and ten of them finish. Ten individuals begin studying Talmud, and one of them finishes.” Cf. Mishnah, Avot 5:12, 15: “There are four qualities in disciples: he who quickly understands and quickly forgets…he who understands with difficulty and forgets with difficulty…he who understands quickly and forgets with difficulty…he who understands with difficulty and forgets quickly…. There are four qualities among those that sit before the wise: they are like a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, or a sieve” (Joseph Hertz, Sayings of the Fathers with a new English Translation and a Commentary [New York: Behrman House, 1945], 95, 97).
  • [37] Mt. 18:23-35.
  • [38] See Young’s discussion on the original language of parables (Jesus and His Jewish Parables, 40-42.
  • [39] Cf. the translation of this verse in Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation of the New Testament. See Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (repr. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950), 428.
  • [40] Cf. Robert L. Lindsey’s response (pp. 148-150 in “A Panel of Commentary on Petuchowski’s Discussion of the Parable,” Christian News from Israel 23 [1973], 144-51) to Jacob Petuchowski’s excellent article, “The Theological Significance of the Parable in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament,” Christian News from Israel 23 (1972), 76-86.
  • [41] Even on the cross, Jesus taught a final message of hope by quoting from Psalm 22. See Hayim Goren Perelmuter, Siblings: Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity at Their Beginnings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 14-15.

Matthew 16:18: The Petros-petra Wordplay—Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?

Revised: 11-Dec-2014

The pinnacle of the gospel drama may be Jesus’ dramatic statement, “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my church.” The saying seems to contain an obvious Greek wordplay, perhaps indicating that Jesus spoke in Greek. However, it is possible that “Petros…petra” is a Hebrew wordplay.[1]

The recognition that the synoptic gospels are derived from a Semitic source or sources seems essential to any productive methodology of interpretation. Often, unless one translates the Greek texts of the synoptic gospels to Hebrew, one cannot fully understand their meaning. For example, when the Beatitudes are translated to Hebrew, one sees that they are not eschatological, but, like the beatitudes of the Hebrew Scriptures,[2] speak of rewards in the here and now.

Greek Wordplay?

The Greek words πέτρος (petros) and πέτρα (petra) employed by Jesus in Matthew 16:18 make a nice wordplay. This Greek wordplay appears to be a direct contradiction to the assumption that Jesus taught in Hebrew. If Jesus delivered this saying in Hebrew, as many scholars in Israel assume, how could it have contained a Greek wordplay?

The Siq (“pass”), the narrow winding canyon that leads to Petra, the fabulous rock-hewn Nabatean city would of the Dead Sea. The walls of the canyon tower 150-300 feet high, and at the final turn there comes into view the exquisite El Khazneh (“the Treasury”). Photo taken by David Bivin. Copyright

Some scholars have suggested an Aramaic background to Jesus’ saying. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Professor Emeritus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and one of the world’s most distinguished New Testament scholars, suggests that Jesus employed an Aramaic wordplay (Kepha-kepha) in his response to Peter’s declaration.[3]  However, Fitzmyer acknowledges a difficulty: he wonders why the Matthean Jesus did not say, “On this petros I will build….”[4] This difficulty is a product of Fitzmyer’s Aramaic reconstruction. He has been forced in Aramaic to reconstruct Jesus’ wordplay using only one word;[5]  therefore, he is unable to preserve the wordplay reflected in Greek, a play on two different words.

Fitzmyer’s Aramaic hypothesis presents other difficulties: one, Peter is known in the synoptic gospels only by the names Simon and Petros. Peter’s Aramaic name, Kepha (Cephas), is not used in these sources.[6] Two, in this period Jewish sages ordinarily taught in Hebrew, not in Aramaic.[7]

A Solution

A possible solution to these difficulties is to assume that both petros and petra are Hebrew words, and that Jesus spoke to Peter in Hebrew. Jesus probably said אַתָּה פֶּטְרוֹס וְעַל הַפֶּטְרָא הַזּוֹ אֶבְנֶה אֶת עֲדָתִי (atah petros ve-al ha-petra ha-zo evneh et adati; You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my community).[8] The wordplay is פֶּטְרוֹס (petros)…פֶּטְרָא (petra).

The Greek petra was borrowed by ancient Hebrew speakers like the French words détente, gaffe and cliché have been borrowed by modern speakers of English. Such loanwords gain currency because they have a special flavor or satisfy a deficiency in the host language. Not only did petra become a Hebrew word, but petra is the key word in a rabbinic interpretation (preserved in Hebrew) that is strikingly similar to Jesus’ declaration to Peter.

Petra in a Midrash

An anonymous interpreter, commenting on Numbers 23:9, “I see him from the top of the rocks,”[9] described the dilemma that God confronted when he wished to create the world:[10]

משל למלך שהיה מבקש לבנות. היה חופר ויורד ומבקש ליתן תמליום והיה מוצא בצים של מים וכן במקומות הרבה. לא עשה אלא חפר במקום אחר. היה מוצא למטה פטרא. אמר כאן אני בונה ונתן תמליום ובנה. כך הקב″ה היה מבקש לבראות העולם והיה יושב ומתבונן בדור אנוש ובדור המבול. אמר היאך אני בורא את העולם ורשעים אלו עומדין ומכעיסין אותי? כיון שצפה הקב″ה באברהם שעתיד לעמוד אמר הרי מצאתי פטרא לבנות עליה וליסד את העולם.‏

It can be compared to a king who desired to build a palace. He began digging, searching for solid rock on which he could lay foundations, but he found only mire. He dug in several other sites, always with the same results. However, the king did not give up. He dug in still another location. This time he struck solid rock [petra].

“Here,” he said, “I will build,” and he laid foundations and built.

In the same manner, the Holy One, blessed is he, before he created the world, sat and examined the generation of Enosh and the generation of the Flood. “How can I create the world when those wicked people will appear and provoke me to anger?” he said.

When, however, the Holy One, blessed is he, saw Abraham, he said, “Here I have found solid rock [petra][11] on which I can build and upon which I can lay the world’s foundations.” (Yalkut Shim’oni to Num. 23:9 )[12]

Perhaps the tomb of a Nabatean king, the Khazneh (“Treasury”) is the most magnificent of Petra’s rock-carved structures. Dating from the first-second centuries A.D., this 130-foot-high façade carved out of rose-red Nubian sandstone occupies the lower part of a sheer cliff. Photo taken in 1965 by David Bivin. Copyright

Yalkut Shim’oni is a very late (13th century A.D.) collection of midrash; however, it contains much early material.[13] Some scholars might argue that this rabbinic source can tell us nothing about what a first-century Jewish sage may have said.[14] Yet the similarity between Jesus’ declaration and the above midrash is too great to be coincidental. It seems likely that Jesus alluded to a tradition with which his disciples were familiar, the tradition that God built the world on the sure foundation of a dependable man.

It appears that Jesus used his disciple’s unusual nickname to launch his teaching about the petra on which he would build. He took advantage of the similarity in meaning and sound between Petros and petra to hint at a tradition about Abraham. One can capture the flavor of Jesus’ statement with the translation, “You are Rocky, and on this bedrock I will build my community.”[15]

Petros, a Hebrew Name

Along with petrapetros entered the Hebrew language: Petros was the father of a sage of the land of Israel, Rabbi Yose ben Petros,[16] who was active around 200-250 A.D., placing his father, Petros, as early as the second half of the second century A.D. There also was a town or village marketplace named Petros in the vicinity of Antipatris, near Lydda.[17]  Although there is still no unequivocal early occurrence of the Hebrew name Petros,[18] these examples demonstrate that Hebrew speakers could borrow the Greek word petros and use it as a personal name.

Apparently, Jesus’ most prominent disciple bore two Hebrew names: שִׁמְעוֹן (Shim’on)[19] , and פֶּטְרוֹס (Petros), Peter’s nickname.

“Cephas,” the Aramaic equivalent of the nickname “Petros,” seems to be the name by which Peter went in the Greek-speaking diaspora. Since Petros was not a Greek name, native Greek speakers would have been amused and distracted by the mention of a man named “stone.”

A Hebrew Hypothesis

A Hebrew hypothesis provides solutions to the difficulties raised by Fitzmyer’s suggested reconstruction of Matthew 16:18: It preserves the Petros-petra wordplay that is reflected in Greek, a contrast between two different though related words; it permits one to reconstruct Jesus’ saying using Petros, one of Peter’s names in the synoptic gospels; it lets Jesus speak in the language of contemporary Jewish sages—Hebrew.

Obelisk tomb, another of the rock-carved monuments at Petra, capital of the ancient Nabatean kingdom. Although much eroded by wind-blown sand, this façade, carved from the side of a cliff, give silent testimony to the magnificence that once was Petra’s. Photo taken in 1965 by David Bivin. Copyright

A Hebrew hypothesis can also explain why the name Petros is not attested in the Greek language until it is used in the New Testament.[20] Provincials who spoke Greek as their second or third language borrowed the Greek word petros and used it as a personal name in their local language, Hebrew.[21] Until it appeared in Greek in the New Testament, the name Petros may have existed only in Hebrew.


Simply put, our argument is this: there is a rabbinic interpretation that contains the Greek loanword petra. Jesus’ statement to Peter contains the word petra. The similarity of the two teachings is so great that coincidence seems improbable; it seems likely that Jesus alluded to the rabbinic interpretation. If so, he probably said petra in Hebrew. If petra is Hebrew, then Petros, which Jesus paired with petra, is probably Hebrew. The likelihood of this assumption is strengthened by the evidence from rabbinic sources: Hebrew speakers borrowed the Greek word petros and used it as a personal name. If the Petros-petra wordplay is Hebrew, then Jesus could have delivered his famous utterance to Peter in Hebrew.

  • [1] See my, “Hebraisms in the New Testament,” Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.; ed. Geoffrey Khan; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 198-201,  and the JP version, “Hebraisms in the New Testament.”
  • [2] For example, Ps. 1:1-3.
  • [3] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Aramaic Kepha’ and Peter’s name in the New Testament,” Text and Interpretation: Studies in the New Testament presented to Matthew Black, ed. Ernest Best and R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 121-132. Fitzmyer suggests that in Aramaic Jesus said: antah hu Kepha we’al kepha den ebneh… (You are Kepha [Cephas], and on this kepha [rock] I will build…).
  • [4] Substituting the Greek masculine petros for the Greek feminine petra, the reading of all Greek manuscripts. See Fitzmyer, ibid., pp. 130-131: “The problem that confronts one is to explain why there is in the Matthean passage a translation of the Aramaic substratum, which is claimed to have the same word kepha twice, by two Greek words, πέτρος and πέτρα… If the underlying Aramaic of Matt. xvi.18 had kepha twice, then we should expect σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ τούτῳ τῷ πέτρῳ οἰκοδομήσω….” Cf. Fitzmyer’s recent comments in response to a magazine reader’s letter (“Queries & Comments,”Biblical Archaeology Review 19.3 [1993], 70). For Fitzmyer’s Aramaic reconstruction to be correct, the Greek text should read, “on this petros I will build….”
  • [5] The word כֵּפָא (kepha). The only difference between Kepha and kepha in Fitzmyer’s reconstruction is the capitalization of the former. This distinction, however, does not exist in Aramaic, since in Aramaic there are no capital letters.
  • [6] Paul gives us eight of the nine references to Cephas in the New Testament (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Gal. 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14). The only other occurrence of “Cephas” is in John 1:42.
  • [7] See Shmuel Safrai, “Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 30 (Jan./Feb. 1991), 5-6, 13.
  • [8] The Hebrew reconstruction פֶּטְרוֹס (Petros) for the Greek Πέτρος (Petros) was first put forward in Jerusalem Perspective magazine. See the entry “Peter” in “Comments on the Hebrew Reconstruction” under the heading “Matthew 19:27 = Mark 10:28 = Luke 18:28,” “Jerusalem Synoptic Commentary Preview: The Rich Young Ruler Story,” ed. David N. Bivin, Jerusalem Perspective 38 & 39 (May-Aug. 1993), 23-24; notes 76-84. See now, David N. Bivin, “Cost of Entering the Kingdom of Heaven” complex at A Reconstruction of the Conjectured Hebrew Life of Yeshua. In August 2014 a scholarly version of this article appeared as “Jesus’ Petros-petra Wordplay (Matt 16:18): Is It Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?” in The Language Environment of First-century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels 2 (JCP 26; ed. Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley; Leiden: Brill, 2014), 375-394. Jerusalem Perspective’s Premium Content subscribers may click here to read the electronic version of the article. Purchase the print edition of the volume here. Purchase the electronic edition of the volume here.
  • [9] As rendered by the overly literal New American Standard Bible.
  • [10] The interpreter dug deep into Scripture to find the answer to the question, “Who is this rock [literally, ‘rocks,’ tsu·RIM, pl. of tsur] that God saw in advance [me·ROSH, taken to mean ‘in advance’ rather than ‘from the top’]?” The interpreter’s answer: “Abraham.” This he deduced from Isa. 51:1-2, which equates Abraham with “the rock”—”Look to the rock [tsur] from which you were hewn…. Look to Abraham, your father.”

    Based on a knowledge of who “the rock” is, the interpreter then created a parable that illustrates the great esteem in which God held Abraham: “When God decided to create the world, he looked into the future and realized that his plans would be frustrated by evil persons. There was nothing solid on which he could build. However, he saw one faithful person—Abraham. This was the solid foundation God needed. God then went ahead with his plans.” Compare the rabbinic saying, “On account of Abraham both this world and the world to come were created” (Tanhuma, Chaye Sarah 6 [ed. Buber, p. 60a]).

    Abraham’s identification as “the rock” may be confirmed in another source. In Mechilta de-Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai to Exod. 18:12 (ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 131, line 22), there appears the curious phrase אברהם בפינה (av·ra·HAM ba·pi·NAH, Abraham in [or, at] the corner). (See the discussion in M. B. Lerner, “Comments and Novellae on Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai,” Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple, Mishna and Talmud Period: Studies in Honor of Shmuel Safrai, ed. Isaiah Gafni, Aharon Oppenheimer and Menahem Stern [Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1993], pp. 373-375 [Hebrew]). Shmuel Safrai suggests that this phrase should be read אברהם הפינה (av·ra·HAM ha·pi·NAH, that is, “Abraham the corner[stone]” (private communication).

  • [11] Note that the interpreter employs in Hebrew the Greek loanword פֶּטְרָא petra), although in the two Bible passages from which the midrash is derived (Num. 23:9 and Isa. 51:1-2), it is the Hebrew word צוּר (tsur) that is used. At the time this midrash was created, the biblical word tsur had fallen into disuse in Hebrew, having been replaced by other words such as the loanword petra.

    The Hebrew word petra appears elsewhere in rabbinic literature, for example, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 36a top, chpt. 5, halachah 4; and Kilaim 27b, chpt. 1, halachah 9. In the latter, as in Luke 8:6, 13, there is a sower who sows on petra, or bedrock. These examples prove that the word פֶּטְרָא (petra) had entered post-biblical Hebrew at least by rabbinic times.

  • [12] This occurrence of petra was already noted by Marcus Jastrow in his A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (repr. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950), p. 1162, entry “פִּיטְרָא III, פִּיטְרָה.”
  • [13] The author of Yalkut Shim’oni identifies Midrash Yelamdenu as the source of the Abraham-petra midrash. According to Shmuel Safrai, Midrash Yelamdenu, which has survived in Tanhuma and other midrashic works, can be dated to the fifth century A.D. (private communication). However, Midrash Yelamdenu contains many traditions that are even earlier. This could be expected since the midrash is divided according to a triennial cycle of Torah readings, the division used in the land of Israel in the first century A.D. (cf. Encyclopaedia Judaica [Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971], 15:794). Further evidence for the antiquity of the Abraham-petra midrash is the occurrence of Greek loanwords: פטרא (petra) is the Greek πέτρα (petra), and תמליוס (temelyos), the word translated “foundations” in the Abraham-petra midrash, is the Greek θεμέλιος (themelios). The frequent occurrence of Greek loanwords in a rabbinic passage may be an indication that the passage dates from the Second Temple period when Greek still heavily influenced Hebrew.
  • [14] For an opposing view, see Shmuel Safrai, “The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source.”
  • [15] It is very difficult to determine whether the petra in Jesus’ saying refers to Peter’s declaration or to Peter himself. Commentators, and theologians, are divided on this question. Two major suggestions have been put forward by scholars: that the petra is Peter; that the petra is Peter’s declaration, “You are the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20).

    In favor of petra being a reference to Peter: 1) Jesus hinted at the Abraham-petra midrash. Since this midrash speaks of God finding a man (Abraham) on whom he could build, then Jesus was probably hinting that he had found a man like Abraham (i.e., Peter) on whom he could build. 2) In the following verse (Matt 16:19), Jesus invests Peter with great authority in the kingdom of Heaven (Jesus’ movement), giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven.” We learn from the book of Acts that Peter was indeed the leader and spokesman of the early church.

    In favor of petra referring to Peter’s declaration: 1) The word “this” in the phrase “and on this rock” seems to indicate a switch to a subject other than Peter. By using עָלֶיךָ (alecha, on you [I will build]), for example, Jesus could have clearly indicated Peter had he wanted. The words “and on this rock” following “you are Peter” only make sense if Jesus was speaking about Peter to others. Since he is not, there must be a switch to a subject other than Peter. 2) Jesus may have alluded to the Num. 23:9 midrash, not to introduce the “dependable man” motif, but rather the “solid foundation” motif. 3) Jesus may have hinted at this midrash to indicate that he would build, not on a man, but rather on Peter’s declaration.

  • [16] Genesis Rabbah 94:5 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1175), 62:2 (p. 672), 92:2 (p. 1139); Exodus Rabbah 52:3; Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan 82d bot., chpt. 3; Avodah Zarah 42c, chpt. 3, halachah 1; and elsewhere.
  • [17] In Tosefta, Demai 1:11, there is a reference to the marketplace of the town or village of Petros—שוק של פטרוס (shuk shel Petros). Shaul Lieberman comments that Petros is “apparently located in the vicinity of Antipatris” (Tosefta ki-fshutah to Demai 1:1, p. 199). Michael Avi-Yonah identifies the site Petros with Kh. Budrus (Palestine Grid 147 152), located about seven kilometers east of Lydda/Lod (Historical Geography of Palestine: From the End of the Babylonian Exile up to the Arab Conquest [Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1962], p. 107 [Hebrew]).
  • [18] There may now be an early example of Petros in Hebrew (or Aramaic). On a fragment of leather from Qumran Cave 4 (4QM130), James H. Charlesworth has identified what may be the first instance of Semitic Petros from the time of Peter (“Has the Name ‘Peter’ Been Found Among the Dead Sea Scrolls?” in Christen und Christliches in Qumran, ed. Bernhard Mayer [Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 1991], pp. 213-225). Petros, spelled פיטרוס, is found in a list of names that includes Magnus, Malkiah, Mephibosheth, Hyrcanus, Yannai, Aquila, Zakariel, Eli and Omriel.
  • [19] Σίμων (Simon [Luke 4:38; 5:3, 4, 5, 8, 10; 22:31; 24:34; Matt 10:2 = Mark 3:16 = Luke 6:14; Matt 16:16, 17]) and Συμεών (Simeon [Acts 15:14; 2 Pet. 1:1]), both used in the New Testament to refer to Peter, are apparently the transliterations of the Semitic שִׁמְעוֹן (Shim’on). Both Greek names were used by the authors of the Septuagint to transliterate שִׁמְעוֹן.

    Based on first-century literary and epigraphic sources, Shim’on was by far the most common Jewish male name of the period—approximately twenty percent of the Jews we know by name from the Second Temple period were named Shim’on (see Rachel Hachlili, “Names and Nicknames of Jews in Second Temple Times,” Eretz-Israel 17 [1984], 188-211 [Hebrew]; Tal Ilan, “Names of Hasmoneans in the Second Temple Period,” Eretz-Israel 19 [1987], 238-241 [Hebrew]).

  • [20] It is surprising, but the name Petros was apparently never used in Greek before its appearance in the New Testament (see the entry “Πέτρος” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and ed. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich [University of Chicago Press and Cambridge University Press, 1957], p. 660).
  • [21] My Hebrew-speaking Israeli neighbors in Mevaseret Zion (ten kilometers west of Jerusalem) had a dog named “Star.” Like the Greek word petros (stone), the English word “star” is not usually a personal name. This Israeli family, however, for whom English is a second language, liked the word “star” and used it as a name for their dog.

Is the Sage Worth His Salt?

The Gospels record that questions were sometimes put to the sage Jesus of Nazareth in order to “test” him. According to Joseph Frankovic, the questioner’s intent may not always have been hostile.

In a rabbinic text written in the land of Israel about a century after the founding of the Byzantine Empire a story is told about Rabbi Yannai.[1] The story begins in this manner:

Once while Rabbi Yannai was walking on a road he met a man who was finely dressed. He said to him, “Rabbi, would you consider an invitation to our home?”

The man replied, “Whatever pleases you.”

Rabbi Yannai escorted the man into his home. He examined his knowledge of Bible, but found him wanting. He examined his knowledge of Mishnah, but found him wanting. He examined his knowledge of Talmud, but found him wanting. He examined his knowledge of Aggadah, but found him wanting….[2]

Having failed Yannai’s expectations four times, the poor guest demonstrates his absolute ignorance of the teaching of the sages when he declines an invitation to recite the standard blessing for the meal. The reason is clear: he does not know it.[3]

Instead of leading the blessing, the guest agrees to recite after Yannai, who says, “A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.” But like many rabbinic stories, the plot has a startling twist, and in the end it is Yannai who is found wanting.

To an American or European, Yannai’s behavior would be offensive, but to an ancient Jew living in Israel during the third or fourth century, it would have been tolerable. Why? Yannai erroneously assumed his guest to be a learned student of the sages.[4] The chance meeting that took place on the road is, therefore, one that involved two individuals devoted to a life of Torah, at least this is what Yannai thought.

In antiquity when two sages crossed paths, it was not unusual for the hometown sage to ask the other a difficult question regarding the Torah, even before any sort of greetings were exchanged.[5] Apparently, this practice established a sort of rabbinic pecking order. Non-local or up-and-coming sages were questioned in public in order to ascertain their level of expertise. Those who answered wisely earned for themselves a respected reputation. Those who did not, well…there were always other career options.

This aspect of rabbinic culture was probably in its inceptive stages in the time of Jesus. Passages such as Luke 10:25-37 and Mark 10:2-9, where Jesus is asked publicly an “offensive” question, should be read with the above background information in mind. These passages, rightly understood, can provide an important corrective for certain misconceptions that Christian preaching and teaching have sometimes fostered.[6]

When a lawyer or a Pharisee directs a question toward Jesus, one need not assume that his motives are wicked. Jesus is indeed being tested, but within the expected cultural parameters of his day and age. In some cases, the lawyer or Pharisee may be sincerely offering a difficult question about Torah to Jesus, the young Galilean sage with a budding reputation, and in others, just checking to see if the new sage in town is really worth his salt.

  • [1] Yannai was a Galilean sage who flourished at the very beginning of the third century A.D. It is possible that this story reflects conditions from the same period in which Yannai lived.
  • [2] Leviticus Rabbah 9:3 (ed. Margulies, pp. 176-177). The English translation has been done by the author.
  • [3] Margulies comments: שאפילו ברכת מזון לא ידע (“that even the “Grace after Meals” he didn’t know”; line 11, p. 177).
  • [4] Margulies comments: וטעה בו רבי ינאי וחשב שהוא תלמיד חכם (“Rabbi Yannai mistakenly thought that he was a learned student of the sages”; line 1, p. 177)
  • [5] Compare Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 108a and Bava Batra 22a. In Shabbat 108a the story is told of Rav’s arrival in Nehardea. Karna was sent by Shmuel in order to test Rav’s expertise. Rav, Shmuel, and Karna flourished in Babylonia at the beginning of the third century A.D. In Bava Batra 22a a similar story is told about Rav Dimi of Nehardea. He was denied the privilege of selling his dried figs in the market of Mahoza when he failed to answer Rav Adda bar Abba’s question about the case of a basket that is eaten and then excreted by an elephant. Adda bar Abba was sent by Rava to examine Rav Dimi of Nehardea. (These two sources were brought to the author’s attention by Professor Richard Kalmin of The Jewish Theological Seminary.) Rava, Adda and Dimi lived during the fourth century A.D. in Babylonia. See the entry “Dimi of Nehardea” in Encyclopaedia Judaica 6:49. Note the Aramaic idiom, פוק (זיל) תְּהֵי ליה בקַנְקַנֵּיה (go and smell his jar), which appears in both stories. It means “to examine a person’s mental capacity.” See Marcus Jastrow’s A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, p. 1395.
  • [6] This article touches upon the larger issue of the relationship of Jesus to the leaders of the Jewish people, namely the Pharisees. Traditionally, the Pharisees have been viewed as enemies of Jesus, who seek to kill him. Two important works for rethinking Christianity’s attitude toward the Pharisees are David Flusser’s Foreword to Robert L. Lindsey’s A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, pp. 4-5; and Adolph Büchler’s discussion of Honi and his prayer for rain in Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety from 70 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., especially p. 254.

Jesus and the Hasidim

How do we define Jesus within first-century Jewish society? To which of the various Jewish sects does he belong? Was he a Pharisee, an Essene? After years of painstaking research, Shmuel Safrai has identified a new stream within the Judaism of Jesus’ time: the Hasidic movement. This may be a major breakthrough in New Testament studies, as well, because the picture Safrai paints of the Hasidim is amazingly similar to what we know about Jesus. Jesus, who was quite close to the Hasidim and perhaps even involved with some of them, does not reflect Galilean boorishness or ignorance, but rather the dynamism and ongoing creativity of Jewish life in Galilee.

Josephus relates that there were three schools of thought among the people of Israel: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.[1] The Dead Sea sect likewise divided Israel into these three groups.[2] Rabbinic literature, however, mentions only Pharisees and Sadducees, referring obliquely at best to the existence of the Essenes.[3]

Jesus was closer to the world of the Pharisees than to that of the Sadducees or Essenes. He certainly did not share beliefs, religious outlook or social views with the Sadducees, and he would have had little in common with the isolationist views of the Essenes and their overt hostility toward anyone who did not accept their stringent views on ritual purity. Even if one accepts the premises of certain modern scholars regarding similarities between various sayings in the synoptic Gospels and the literature of the Dead Sea sect, there is an enormous distance between Jesus and the Essenes. Jesus made this clear with his statement that the “sons of this world” are superior to the “sons of light” (Luke 16:8).

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus’ education and understanding of Torah was in agreement with the Pharisees’ norms, based on both the Written and Oral Torah (Luke 2:41-47). He even taught his disciples and followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses, so be careful to observe everything they tell you” (Matt. 23:2-3). The expression “seat of Moses” is also found in midrashic literature[4] and such seats have actually been found in ancient synagogues.[5] Jesus, however, warned the people not to behave like the Pharisees, because “they say, but do not do” (Matt. 23:3).

A Seat of Moses was uncovered in the excavations of the synagogue at Chorazin. (The original is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.) On the front of this seat is an Aramaic inscription remembering Yudan. The Seat of Moses was the place of authority in the synagogue (Matt 23:2), and the place where a teacher sat to teach.Photo courtesy of

Jesus contributed the required annual half-shekel for the Temple, an innovation of the Pharisees or their predecessors. This innovation was accepted by neither Sadducees nor Essenes.[6] Jesus expressed his opinion that “the sons are free [of taxes],” that is, he and the people were exempt from this payment, but in the end he contributed for both himself and Peter. When the tax collectors asked Peter whether his master would give the half-shekel, Peter’s reply was quite simple: “Yes.”[7]

It is not known whether the Sadducees took part in synagogue services, nor whether the Essenes frequented the synagogue. Jesus, however, customarily went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, to read from the Torah and the Prophets and afterwards to teach from them.[8] All of this is in keeping with halachah and the practice described in tannaic literature.[9]

Jesus’ method of public instruction was also in keeping with Pharisaic practice. He employed educational techniques such as the parable that were common only in Pharisaic teaching, and some of the basic themes in his teaching such as “kingdom of heaven” and “repentance,” are found only in the teaching of the sages.[10] The prayers of Jesus and the motifs they contain are likewise similar to those of the sages.[11]

However, the world of the Pharisees was not monolithic. The many differences between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai pertained not only to specific details in halachah, but also to the basic underlying principles of halachah and religious and social thought. There is much that needs to be clarified regarding the place of Jesus and his teachings in relation to this Pharisaic world.

In the present study we shall examine the relationship of Jesus to the Hasidim, who, if they did not actually belong to the Pharisaic movement, were quite close to it. I have shown in previous studies that a Hasidic movement existed from the first century B.C.E. until the end of the tannaic period and beginning of the amoraic period when it was largely absorbed into the world of the sages.[12] The Hasidic world of ethics and religious values was similar to that of the Pharisees, and they learned Torah from them. Yet the Hasidim developed their own religious and social outlook on life. In many instances, the Hasidim had halachic traditions that were not in keeping with the accepted halachah of the time and in some cases even opposed to it. They also had customs and modes of behavior that were not always identical with those of the sages.

There is relatively little material available on the Hasidim since only a small amount of literature in rabbinic sources can be identified as Hasidic.[13] The main sources of information are Hasidic tales,[14] a small number of aggadic[15] and halachic teachings cited in their name, and anti-Hasidic stories found in rabbinic literature.[16] However, this material is sufficient to give us a basic understanding of their unique world and the differences in outlook and beliefs between them and the sages.

Judea and Galilee

All the references to Hasidim in the Second Temple period relate to Galilee.[17] However, the commonly accepted belief that Galilee was on a lower Jewish cultural level than Judea is without basis. There are a number of pejorative statements in rabbinic literature regarding Galileans, but similar statements are found regarding other regions such as the “South” (i.e., Judea), and Nehardea in Babylonia. Both the “South” and Nehardea were great Torah centers in spite of the occasional derogatory remark in rabbinic literature.[18]

One of many beautiful spots in the Galilee region: The Plain of Gennesaret spreads out below the Arbel cliffs. About five miles long and two miles wide, this stretch of land alongside the Sea of Galilee’s northwest shore was renowned for its fertility.Photo by Todd Bolen (

Gedaliahu Alon was among the first to point out the true nature of cultural and religious life in Galilee in the first century C.E., and particularly in the period immediately after the destruction of the Temple.[19] Alon convincingly showed that there were sages in Galilee at this time, and that the Torah was taught there in public. In fact, according to Alon, the religious and moral behavior of the Galileans was in many respects on a higher level than that of the Judeans. The Galileans observed both the Torah and the teachings of the sages. The anti-Galilean statements mentioned above simply represent a degree of popular sentiment in Judea that sometimes looked down on Galilee.

However, even Alon accepted the Torah hierarchy established in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chpt. 27 (ed. Schechter, 85):[20] “At first they used to say grain in Judea, straw in Galilee and chaff in Peraea [Transjordan]. Later on they determined that there is no grain in Judea, but only straw, no straw in Galilee, but only chaff, and there is neither in Peraea.” This saying refers to the cultural level of these various regions and would seem to indicate that Judea ranked first.

If this saying included Jerusalem in Judea, then certainly Judea did supersede Galilee and Transjordan because of the religious institutions in Jerusalem such as the Sanhedrin, and because of the many Torah scholars and scribes who lived or resided temporarily in Jerusalem, many of whom came from Galilee. If, however, Jerusalem is removed from this cultural equation—and Jerusalem did have its own independent cultural and religious existence—then it is beyond doubt that the cultural and religious level in Galilee was higher than that in Judea.

The references in rabbinic literature to Galilean sages teaching in their academies (literally, houses of study) and in the open air in Galilee, exhorting the people to higher moral standards, stressing observance of Torah and seeking to strengthen ties to Jerusalem and the Temple, are many times more frequent than the references to such activities by their counterparts in Judea. Wherever life in Galilee is compared to that in Judea, whether explicitly or not, it is clear that Galilee came before Judea in terms of Torah, Jewish life and the entire complex of Jewish culture.[21] Thus, the existence of the Hasidic movement in Galilee in the late Second Temple period and at the beginning of the tannaic period does not reflect a low level of Torah life in Galilee nor a minimal amount of Pharisaic influence there, but rather the existence of a fruitful, creative and committed Jewish existence both in the intellectual sphere and in the more practical aspects of life. Jesus, who was quite close to the Hasidim and perhaps even involved with some of them, does not therefore reflect Galilean boorishness or ignorance, but rather the dynamism and ongoing creativity of Jewish life in Galilee.

Father-Son Relationship

All the Gospels present Jesus’ relationship to God as that of a son to his father. One finds in Jesus’ teachings dozens of references to God in phrases such as “your father,” “our father,” “our father in heaven,” “your father in heaven,” “my father,” “my father in heaven” or just “father.”[22] These occur repeatedly, whether in direct conversation between Jesus and God or in Jesus’ words to disciples or the public.[23]

These phrases are especially prevalent in Matthew, Luke and John, but somewhat rarer in Mark. Once, however, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus even uses the phrase abba (abba means “father” in both Hebrew and Aramaic): “And he said, ‘Abba, father’” (ἀββὰ ὁ πατήρ, abba ho patēr).[24] This concept also appears in the Epistle to the Romans 8:15: “For you received a spirit of adoption by which we cry, ‘Abba, father’” (ἀββὰ ὁ πατήρ, abba ho patēr). Similarly in the Epistle to the Galatians 4:6: “Because you are sons, God sent the spirit of his son into our hearts crying ‘Abba, father’” (ἀββὰ ὁ πατήρ, abba ho patēr).

Those scholars who claim that the dual usage of abba and father is not simply a later editorial clarification of Mark but rather Mark’s original version are undoubtedly right, since this is the version that also appears in the Epistle to the Romans and in the Epistle to the Galatians.[25] The Hebrew might be reconstructed as “abba ha-av” (“father, the [O!] father”) or “abba avi” (“father, my father”). Then abba would be interpreted as a proper noun referring to God with “father” modifying it. The concept that Israel is the “son” of God is quite common in rabbinic literature, especially in prayers, and the phrase “our father” referring to God is often employed to refer to the relationship between the people of Israel and God.[26] However, the use of the intimate “my father in heaven” is found only once in a rabbinic text and that text belongs to Hasidic literature.

The phrase “my father in heaven” in any form does not appear in the Mishnah, Tosefta or either of the two Talmuds, and it is rarely found in aggadic midrashim. It does appear twice in halachic midrashim, but not as direct address or supplication to God. In Mechilta, Rabbi Natan describes the martyrdom of the people of Israel during the period of the Hadrianic decrees (fourth decade of the second century C.E.), and states: “These plagues have caused my father in heaven to love me even more.”[27]

The second halachic midrash in which the phrase appears is given in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah:

…one should not say, “I could never wear sha’atnez [clothing of wool and linen woven together], eat pork, or engage in illicit sexual acts.” Rather, one should say, “It is possible, but I will not do these things since my father in heaven has forbidden them.”[28]

These are the only rabbinic uses of the phrase “my father in heaven.” On the other hand, the phrase appears no fewer than seventeen times in Seder Eliyahu, and almost always in direct address: “My father in heaven, remember your mercy,” “May it be your will, my father in heaven,”[29] and the like.[30]

Seder Eliyahu is unique in terms of its content and dates to quite an early period.[31] More importantly, it reflects what remains of Hasidic literature embedded within the greater corpus of rabbinic literature.[32] Only in this Hasidic work does one find “my father” used in direct address between a “son” and his heavenly father. In the rest of rabbinic literature one finds only the more neutral “our father in heaven” or “our father, our king,” with the plural possessive pronoun.

A more explicit example of how the Hasidim saw themselves and how the sages saw them—as sons of their heavenly father—is found in one of the earliest references to the Hasidim, the story of Honi the Circle Drawer (first century B.C.E.) and the people’s request that he pray for rain. Honi prays to God and says: “Your sons turned to me because I am like a member [lit., ‘son’] of your household.” Shim’on ben Shetah, who was not very happy with the manner in which Honi addressed God, sent him a message:

If you were not Honi, I would have decreed a ban against you. But what can I do with you? You are impertinent in making demands of God, but he does what you want. You are just like a son who wheedles and cajoles his father and gets his way. Regarding you the verse states, “May your father and mother be glad, and may she who gave you birth rejoice” [Proverbs 23:25].[33]

The people of Israel are quite often referred to collectively as the “sons” of God; however, hardly ever is anyone, sage or otherwise, referred to as “son” when the father is clearly God.

Regarding Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a resident of the Galilean settlement of Araba and one of the central figures in the Hasidic movement at the end of the Second Temple period (first cent. C.E.), the Babylonian sage Rav said:

Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horev and proclaims, “The whole world is provided with food on account of my son Hanina, while my son Hanina is satisfied with a kav of carobs from one Sabbath eve to another.”[34]

It is likewise related that when Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai asked Hanina ben Dosa to pray for the recovery of his sick son, his wife turned to him and said: “And is Hanina greater than you?” Rabban Yohanan answered, “No, but he is like a slave of his master the king, and I am like a minister of the king.”[35] In tannaic literature a slave is not someone who works in the fields of his master’s farm, but rather one who serves his master in a very intimate relationship. The minister of a king is an important figure in the kingdom, but must maintain a proper distance from the king. In this saying, Rabban Yohanan admits that Hanina has a more intimate and privileged relationship with God than he.

The Babylonian Talmud contains a series of stories about Hasidic charismatics who could cause rain to fall. Ta‘anit 23b tells of one such Hasid, Hanan Ha-Nehba, the son of Honi’s daughter. During periods of drought young children were sent to him and they would tug on the folds of his garment and beg, “Abba, abba, give us rain.” Then Hanan would pray, “Master of the Universe, do this for these who are unable to distinguish between a father who can give rain and one who cannot.”

It appears from the above passages that the Hasidim and those associated with them, including Jesus, considered their relationship with God to be one of extreme familiarity. It is true that already in the Bible the people of Israel are referred to as sons or children of God: “You are the sons of the LORD your God” (Deut. 14:1). Likewise, in rabbinic teaching Israel is called “sons” of God: “Beloved are Israel for they were called sons of God; still greater was the love in that it was made known to them that they were called sons of God.”[36] One sage stated that even when Israel sins, they still are sons of the LORD their God.”[37] However, in Hasidic circles the relationship of a Hasid to God was not just one of “child of God,” but of a son who can brazenly make requests of his father that someone else cannot make. The Hasid addressed God as “abba,” “my father,” or “my father in heaven,” and the LORD responded the way he responded to “Hanina, my son.”

Miracle Workers

Most of the passages pertaining to Hasidim refer to their causing rain to fall, healing the sick or exorcising demons that caused the people much fear. The first literary reference to the Hasidic movement is the reference to Honi the Circle Drawer in the Mishnah, Ta‘anit 3:8: “Pray for rain to fall.”[38] The Gemara to this mishnah, in both Talmuds, expands upon the rain theme and the Hasidim who were called upon to bring down rain.[39] For instance, it is stated, “If you see a generation over whom the heavens are rust-colored[40] like copper so that neither dew nor rain falls…go to the Hasid of that generation that he may intercede abundantly.”[41] In a story about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa it is stated that “he used to pray for the sick.”[42] Further stories tell of exorcism of evil spirits by Hanina ben Dosa and other Hasidim.[43]

It should be stressed that all the stories indicate that people turned to the Hasidim and to no other group to effect cures or exorcise evil spirits. People may occasionally have turned to more mainstream sages to pray for rain within the framework of the ceremonies connected with drought, but they went only to Hasidim to cure illness or chase away spirits.

Even in the case of rain, there is a difference between the Hasidim and the sages. The sage prayed for rain as part of a public prayer ritual—sometimes his prayers were answered and sometimes they were not.[44] The Hasid prayed privately and as a son beseeching his father. Thus, for example, Honi the Circle Drawer was in Jerusalem not far from the Temple when he was asked to pray for rain, but he did not choose to pray in the Temple. Rather he sought solitude to beseech his father in heaven. Abba Hilkiyah, the grandson of Honi, or “the Hasid of the village of Umi” as he is known in a different version of the story, did not pray for rain in public or in the course of a public ceremony as did Rabbi Akiva and other sages, but went to the second floor of his house and there, together with his wife, prayed for rain.[45] Hanan Ha-Nehba, another grandson of Honi, used to pray in a similar manner when the little children grabbed the folds of his garment and begged him to bring rain.[46] Unlike the sages, though, the prayers of the Hasidim were always answered.

Tannaic halachah does not formulate demands based on the presupposition that miracles will occur. The Halachah in some cases demands the sacrifice of one’s life to avoid committing a transgression,[47] and makes no promise of relief or salvation through a miracle. The sages taught that when danger threatens, a person engaged in prayer should remove himself from the danger.[48] A person who prays for rain or healing receives no assurance that his prayers will be answered on the spot. Furthermore, according to tannaic halachah in both Mishnah and baraita, if non-Jews threaten to destroy a Jewish city unless a certain Jew is handed over to them, the residents of the city should hand over the person and not depend on a miracle to save the city.[49]

The behavior and actions of the Hasidim show their opposition to this realistic view of the sages. The Hasidic perspective on miracles is found as early as the days of Honi and continues until the end of the tannaic period and beginning of the amoraic period. Thus, for instance, Honi not only begged God, like a little child begs his father, to bring down rain, but was so confident of the results of his prayer that he told those who had asked him to pray for rain: “Go bring in your Passover ovens [made of clay] so that they will not be softened by the rain.”[50] The Hasid of the village of Umi went up to the roof with his wife to pray for rain, sure of success. Out of a sense of modesty, he did discuss with his wife the possibility that it might not rain, but it was obvious to him that his prayer would be answered.[51]

The same confidence is also apparent in the actions of Hanina ben Dosa. The fifth chapter of Mishnah tractate Berachot is a reservoir of Hasidic teaching. It contains very little halachah, primarily describing the deeds of the “first Hasidim” and the Hasid Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.[52] The first mishnah in chapter five states that one should not stop in the middle of reciting the Eighteen Benedictions: “Even if the king asks after his health he should not respond, nor even if a snake winds itself around his leg.” This halachah is not in keeping with the normative view that at any time or in any situation, if there is doubt concerning danger to human life, one should act to preserve life, even if it means violating commandments of the Torah. Unquestionably, it is permissible to interrupt one’s prayer or move out of danger if one’s life is endangered.

The two Talmuds try to interpret this mishnah so that it will not conflict with normative halachah. Thus, both Talmuds explain that one does not respond to the greeting of a king of Israel during the reciting of the Eighteen Benedictions—a Jewish king would undoubtedly understand—but “in the case of a Gentile king, one always responds to his greeting.”[53] One does not interrupt the “Eighteen” if a snake winds itself around one’s leg, but one can do so, according to the Talmuds, in the case of a scorpion.[54] However, the plain meaning of the mishnah is that one does not interrupt the Eighteen Benedictions even in the case of mortal danger. A “king” in rabbinic literature is usually a Gentile king, and the danger posed by poisonous snakes was well-known.

There are midrashic accounts[55] as well as stories in the Talmuds[56] about Hasidim who stood and prayed beside a road or in an open field and did not interrupt their prayer to return the greeting of a passing official or when a snake approached. Not only were they not harmed, the snake that bit one of them actually died. The Midrash compares the king and the snake and finds them quite similar: “Just as the snake hisses and kills, so also the kingdom hisses at a man and kills him.”[57] The snake is dangerous and kills just as the “kingdom,” that is, the Roman Empire, kills.

The central idea of Mishnah Tractate Berachot’s fifth chapter is that one should never interrupt the “Eighteen,” even when one’s life is threatened. The Hasidim, who acted in accordance with this dictum, were always saved from danger. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa took the snake that died after biting him, put it on his shoulder and went to the house of study. When he arrived, he exclaimed: “See, my children, the viper does not kill; it is sin that kills!”[58]

In the Mishnah, Berachot 5:5, we find the following account:

They used to remark about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa that he would pray for the sick and say, “This one will live and this one will die.” They said to him, “How do you know?” He said, “If the prayer comes out of my mouth fluently, I know that it is granted; but if not, I know that it is rejected.”

Both Talmuds tell of Hanina ben Dosa’s prayers for the son of Rabban Gamaliel and for the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.[59] The Jerusalem Talmud relates the story about Rabban Gamaliel’s son:

It happened that the son of Rabban Gamaliel became ill and he sent two disciples to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. He [Hanina] said to them, “Wait while I go to my upper room,” and he went upstairs. When he came down, he said, “I am certain that Rabban Gamaliel’s son is much better now.” At that very moment, Rabban Gamaliel’s son asked for something to eat.

The version in the Babylonian Talmud is similar. In other words, Rabbi Hanina prayed and was certain that his prayer was answered.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, as well as other Hasidim, also exorcised demons found near springs, and evil spirits that had entered the bodies of people.[60] There are, however, no accounts of the sages exorcising evil spirits. This was apparently an activity that was peculiar to the Hasidim.

An interesting story, although somewhat later than the ones mentioned above, is that of Ulla bar Kosher.[61] It is related that the Roman authorities tried to arrest him and that he fled to Lod. Soldiers surrounded the city and gave an ultimatum: unless Ulla were handed over to them, they would destroy the entire city. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, convinced Ulla to surrender himself, and the city was saved. However, the prophet Elijah, who used to appear to Rabbi Yehoshua on a regular basis, ceased at this point to appear to him.[62] When Elijah finally did appear to him again, after Rabbi Yehoshua had fasted many times, Rabbi Yehoshua asked him why he had stopped coming to him. Elijah answered: “Do I appear to informers?” Rabbi Yehoshua responded by saying that he had acted in accordance with halachah and with the mishnah which state that if non-Jews demand that a specific person be handed over, “he should be handed over in order that they [the rest] not be killed.”[63] The prophet Elijah, however, was angered by this view and said: “Is this the teaching (literally, ‘mishnah’) of the Hasidim?” According to the teaching of the Hasidim, the residents of the city would not have been harmed had they refused to hand Ulla over to the authorities. Elijah blamed Rabbi Yehoshua for not trusting in God’s intervention.

Miracles were an integral part of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of his followers. The synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John contain many references to the healing of the sick, lepers and paralyzed, the casting out of demons and the raising of the dead. The Gospels mention that Jesus went from synagogue to synagogue in Galilee in order to cast out demons.[64] It is related a number of times that Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, resulting in discussions about the relationship between man and the Sabbath.[65] Jesus’ acts of healing caused non-Jews to seek him out, and he expressed his views regarding them.[66] Jesus even came in contact with Samaritans in the course of his healing ministry, and he compared the different responses of a Samaritan leper and some Jewish lepers he had healed.[67]

Jesus stressed that curative and miraculous power comes from faith.[68] Thus, for example, his disciples did not succeed in healing a young boy possessed by a demon because they lacked sufficient faith; only Jesus, through his faith, was able to heal him.[69] When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to spread his teachings and foster his mission, he commanded them, “Proclaim: ‘The kingdom of heaven is here!’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons.”[70] The Gospels even mention one man who was not Jesus’ disciple who was casting out demons through the name of Jesus.[71] In the passage appended to the end of the Gospel of Mark,[72] Jesus appears after his crucifixion and states, “In my name they will cast out demons…they will pick up snakes, and if they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them. They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.”[73]

Jesus’ miracles are much more numerous than those described in the literature of the Hasidim, or in stories about Hasidim found in rabbinic literature. However it is important to remember that rabbinic literature was not written for the purpose of transmitting the biographies and histories of Hasidim. Stories about the deeds and sayings of Hasidim are only a small part of rabbinic literature. The sages were not interested as such in the Hasidim, and most of the stories about them have survived because of an interest in the response of a sage to the saying or deed of a Hasid. For example, the story about Honi the Circle Drawer and his prayer for rain was included in rabbinic literature to give Shim’on ben Shetah’s response. The healings of Hanina ben Dosa were preserved to show the reactions of Rabban Gamaliel and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.

Yet, even this small corpus of Hasidic material enables one to see many similarities in language and detail between the miracles of Jesus and those of the Hasidim. In the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s exorcism of an evil spirit, Hanina spoke to the spirit: “Why do you torment a daughter of Abraham our father?”[74] Jesus responded in a similar manner when the head of the synagogue in Capernaum asked him why he was healing on the Sabbath: “Shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed on the Sabbath from what bound her?”[75]

In the story of the centurion’s slave (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10), it is reported that Jesus healed the slave without going to the house where he was lying. In the slightly different version of the story found in John 4:43-53, it is added that Jesus informed the man that his son would live, and upon returning home the man discovered that his son had indeed been healed at one o’clock, the exact time Jesus had told him this. In almost identical language the Jerusalem Talmud describes the healing (mentioned above) of Rabban Gamaliel’s son by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. The version of the story that appears in the Babylonian Talmud is quite similar, except that there it is stated: “At that very moment his fever broke and he asked us for water to drink.”[76]

There are two interesting expressions found in the addendum to the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) that can be understood quite well in light of what we know about the Hasidim. Jesus promised his disciples that they would “pick up snakes,”[77] and should they drink deadly poison, it would not hurt them. Jesus’ promise about handling snakes is reminiscent of the story about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.[78] When he was bitten by a reptile, he was not harmed; rather the reptile died. Jesus promised his disciples that when they were sent in his name on preaching and healing missions, snakes would not be able to harm them.[79]

Jesus’ statement about drinking poison can also be understood against the background of Hasidic practice and beliefs. The halachah states that it is forbidden to drink water or other beverages that have been left in an open container, since a snake may have drunk from it and left its venom in the liquid. This ruling is repeated a number of times in rabbinic literature.[80]

There is plentiful evidence that the people did refrain from drinking beverages that had been left uncovered, and that observance of this halachah was widespread.[81] A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud[82] mentions a certain Hasid who used to ridicule[83] those who were careful not to drink liquids that had been sitting in an open container. However, the Hasid “came down with a high fever and was seen sitting and teaching on the Day of Atonement with a bowl of water in his hand.” The story is anti-Hasidic and was given in rabbinic literature to show the consequences of disregarding the rulings of the sages. This particular Hasid was apparently also a sage and he taught in public on the Day of Atonement. He was forced to drink water (ordinarily a violation of the fast) to keep his fever down, thus suffering public embarrassment for his presumption, and proving that no one, not even a Hasid, could violate this prohibition with impunity.

It is inconceivable that this Hasid was irresponsible or that he made light of the sages’ view out of disrespect for the commandments. Undoubtedly, he was certain that “the snake does not kill,” and, like Hanina ben Dosa who would not interrupt his prayer because of a snake, felt that being careful not to drink uncovered water was an unnecessary hindrance to his religious activities. Notice that Jesus gave his disciples authority over the forces of nature;[84] in effect, he assured them that, when on a mission for him, they would be able to drink from stagnant pools of water along the road without suffering harm.

Poverty and Wealth

All historical, literary and archaeological sources testify that the economic situation of the Jews in the Land of Israel was good at the end of the Second Temple Period, and following the destruction of the Temple. Although the country lacked mineral resources and did not play a role in international commerce, intensive farming enabled the residents of the land to earn an adequate living. As Josephus states: “We do not reside along a seacoast and we do not enjoy commercial trade…but rather our cities are far from the sea and we labor cultivating our fertile land.”[85]

This is also the general picture provided by rabbinic literature and the New Testament. Poverty occurred only at such specific times as the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple, the period after the Bar-Kochva Revolt, and the period of anarchy in the third century. There does not seem to have been general economic suffering at other times, and stories about the sages do not mention their poverty except during these difficult periods.

There are various traditions, such as those about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus[86] and the Babylonian traditions about Hillel,[87] which mention the poverty of the sages while they were disciples when they had left their parents’ homes to devote all their time to studying Torah. One also thinks of the disciples to whom Peter referred when he said, “Behold, we have left our homes and followed you” (Luke 18:28). However, these sages had no difficulty supporting themselves when they were older, and there were many who were affluent and had considerable possessions. Overall, poverty did not characterize the world of the sages during either the Second Temple period or the Yavneh period (70-132 C.E.).

The sages did not see personal wealth as evil, but taught that one ought not acquire it unjustly nor use it to persecute the poor.[88] Wealth should not exempt one from communal responsibilities and from the study of Torah, or from behaving with humility.[89]

Among the sages there were those who were well-to-do, and some who were quite wealthy. Hillel was comfortably well off, and after the Second Temple period there were wealthy sages such as Rabbi Eleazar ben Harsom,[90] Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah[91] and Rabbi Tarfon.[92] That is not to say that there were not poor sages such as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah,[93] Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri[94] and others. There was, however, no ill feeling toward the wealthy sages, and we find positive sentiments expressed about Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, for instance, even by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah.[95]

It should be pointed out that prestige was not a function of economic status, at least at this time. Although it was later stated that “Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] honors the wealthy,”[96] in the official decisions of the Usha period (140 C.E.ff.), and even earlier during the Yavneh period of Rabban Gamaliel, it was explicitly stated that one should not give away to the needy more than a fifth of one’s possessions.[97] Both Talmuds relate regarding Rabbi Yesheveav, a Yavneh period sage, that “he went and distributed all his possessions to the needy,” and the sages protested that his action went counter to their teaching that one should give no more than a fifth of one’s possessions to the poor.[98]

Rabbi Yesheveav, generally referred to as “Rabbi Yesheveav the scribe,” was one of the ten martyrs who were put to death in the period of religious persecution after the Bar-Kochva Revolt.[99] In Song of Songs Rabbah he is described in the following manner:

The tenth [martyr] was Rabbi Yesheveav from among the last of the Hasidim. When Rabbi[100] saw him, he recited over him the following verse: “Help LORD, for the godly man [Hebrew: חָסִיד, Hasid] is no more” [Ps. 12:2].[101]

If this late midrash actually preserves an earlier tradition reflecting the tannaic period, and Rabbi Yesheveav is in fact a Hasid (“among the last of the Hasidim”), then his actions in distributing all his possessions would be quite understandable.

In Hasidic thought, penury is considered the ideal state that leads to all the other positive and praiseworthy qualities of character. Moreover, the stories about Hasidim usually stress their poverty. Rabbinic sources, on the other hand, generally mention the poverty of sages only during especially difficult times economically.

In discussing the ideology of poverty in Hasidic thought, it is worthwhile to examine a teaching of Hillel the Elder during whose time (end of first century B.C.E.-beginning of first century C.E.) there was already a degree of tension between the sages and the Hasidim.[102] It is stated in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 9b:

Elijah said to Bar He He, and others say, to Rabbi Eleazar, “What is the meaning of the verse [Isaiah 48:10], ‘Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver [literally, “and not with silver,” which could be understood, “because you have no money”]; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction [the word for “affliction” can also mean “poverty”]’? This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, examined every good quality and found none better for Israel than poverty.”[103]

The notion that the ideal quality for Israel is poverty was not the commonly accepted view among the sages, but was certainly prevalent in Hasidic thought. As I have shown elsewhere,[104] the early midrashic works Seder Eliyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyahu Zuta (together known as Seder Eliyahu) represent some of the most important remnants of Hasidic thinking. These works do not really purport to speak in the name of Elijah, and nowhere in these works is it stated or even hinted that Elijah himself authored the statements. Although the Babylonian Talmud ascribes these works to Elijah,[105] the author of Seder Eliyahu makes no such claim.[106] In the discussion found in two places in Seder Eliyahu pertaining to the tribe to which Elijah belonged,[107] this question is presented in the same manner in which it is discussed in Genesis Rabbah.[108] The sages discuss the matter among themselves and then Elijah appears before them and states, “I am from the seed of Rachel.” Another passage in Seder Eliyahu deals with Elijah in the third person in the same way that the work discusses other biblical figures.[109] In these examples, Elijah appears and speaks, but is not the author of the work.

In Seder Eliyahu Zuta,[110] there is a teaching on the value of poverty which is based on Isaiah 48:10 quoted above, but this time it is not Elijah who speaks. The teaching is simply a continuation of the midrashic discussion on the poor and wealthy; and although the two sources apparently are not dependent upon each other for this teaching, their language is almost identical.

The Babylonian Talmud does occasionally cite from Seder Eliyahu in the name of Tanna d’ve Eliyahu (“a teaching of the school of Eliyahu”) or Tannu Rabbanan (“our rabbis taught”), or even without ascribing authorship.[111] The Hasidic teaching referred to above in the Babylonian Talmud (Hagigah 9b) is cited in the name of Elijah; however, in the fifth chapter of Seder Eliyahu Zuta, this same teaching appears without reference to Elijah within the framework of a detailed discussion on the value of poverty, and continues:

Because of poverty they fear the LORD… one becomes a doer of good deeds only because of poverty; one becomes a giver of charity only because of poverty; one becomes a doer of charitable deeds only because of poverty; one becomes a fearer of God only because of poverty.

The idea is repeated once more in another passage in this midrash, in a teaching about the behavior of man:

A person becomes a Hasid to suffer all things. He is given an angel who treats him in the manner of the Hasidim…and says, “You save the afflicted [the word for ‘afflicted’ can also mean ‘poor’], but your eyes are on the haughty [‘the rich,’ in this context] to humble them” [2 Samuel 22:28]. “You save the afflicted”—[this refers to a] people for whom poverty is becoming.[112]

Seder Eliyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyahu Zuta are Hasidic works and date from the Second Temple period, not the First Temple period. Although the Babylonian Talmud states that Elijah is the author of Seder Eliyahu, and some of the sayings in the Babylonian Talmud such as Elijah’s statement to Bar He He in Hagigah 9b are attributed to Elijah, nowhere in Seder Eliyahu itself is it claimed that Elijah is the author of the work.

I have shown elsewhere that the small compilation known as Derech Eretz Zuta is one of the most marked expressions of the Hasidic movement and served as the basis for both Seder Eliyahu Rabbah and Zuta.[113] At the beginning of this work, in all versions of the text, there is a description of the characteristics of the sage: “he is humble…a fearer of sin, judges a man according to his deeds, and says, ‘I have no need of anything found in this world.’” These are basically the characteristics of the Hasid as found in Avot 5:10 in the Mishnah: “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours—[this is the attitude of] a Hasid.”

There are many references to the poverty of the Hasidim. One of the first descriptions of Hasidic poverty is the beautiful and detailed story about the Hasid of the village of Umi.[114] This story is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. In both versions the story’s contents are very similar;[115] however, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the episode concerns a Hasid from Umi while in the Babylonian Talmud the story refers to Abba Hilkiyah, a grandson of Honi the Circle Drawer. The Hasid’s poverty is stressed throughout the entire account: he was a day laborer; the tallith (mantle) he was so careful about was not his own, but was borrowed so that he might be able to pray;[116] to protect his sandals and keep them from wearing out, he did not wear them unless it was absolutely necessary; there was not much food in his house.

The west side of Jerusalem’s old city (photographed from the south). Clearly discernable is the rectangular platform, all that remains of the Second Temple, constructed by King Herod the Great. Photo by Todd Bolen (

There are also many references to the poverty of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, the most prominent of the Hasidic personalities. Under pressure from his wife, he petitioned Heaven and was given the golden leg of a table. Later, however, he asked that it be taken back since he was afraid that this wealth might take away from his portion in the world to come,[117] that is, he feared that he would have a two-legged table in the World to Come—in Hanina’s time, tables had three legs. The vast wealth of Eleazar ben Azariah, of Rabbi Tarfon, and of other sages, did not seem to cause them concern that their heavenly reward would be reduced.

At the beginning of both Song of Songs Rabbah and Ecclesiastes Rabbah it is related that once Rabbi Hanina was not able to join the residents of his town in bringing sacrifices to Jerusalem. The author of the account relates that Hanina was too poor to take a votive offering up to Jerusalem, and therefore took “a stone from the wilderness of his town,” dressed it and took it to Jerusalem.[118] Most likely, this stone was for King Herod’s Temple Mount construction project, which continued even after the death of Herod until close to the Great Revolt which began in 66 C.E.

Tractate Ta‘anit 24b-25a of the Babylonian Talmud gives a number of stories about the poverty of Hanina and the miraculous ways in which God delivered him out of his distress. The Babylonian Talmud records several times the saying of Rav:

Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horev and proclaims, “The whole world is provided with food on account of my son Hanina, while my son Hanina is satisfied with a kav[119] of carobs from one Sabbath eve to another.”[120]

Another poverty stricken Hasid was Abba Tahnah. Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:7 relates that once on the Sabbath eve when Abba Tahnah was returning home carrying a load of sticks, he was accosted by a man afflicted with boils lying at the side of the road who begged him to help him into the city. Although for a moment he hesitated, he put down his load and got the stricken person into the city. Afterwards, he returned for his sticks and entered the city at dusk, very close to the beginning of the Sabbath, causing some people to question his piety.[121] Abba Tahnah himself was afraid that he might have desecrated the Sabbath, “but at that very moment God made the sun shine,” giving Abba Tahnah additional time before the beginning of Sabbath. Abba Tahnah had only hesitated to help the afflicted man because that would have meant leaving the sticks he had gathered and possible losing them. He had thought to himself: “If this should happen, how will I support myself and my family?” Collecting firewood to support oneself is a classic indication of a poor person in the literature of the period. Abba Hilkiyah also supported himself in this manner, and so did Rabbi Akiva before he became famous,[122] as did Hillel, according to the text of the Babylonian Talmud.[123]

Midrashim composed in the land of Israel preserve the following saying of Rabbi Akiva: “Poverty becomes Israel like a red strap across the breast of a white horse.”[124] The thrust of this saying is that poverty, like other afflictions, leads Israel to repentance. Although poverty might have some positive results, Rabbi Akiva considered it an evil that one should not seek. For the Hasidim, however, poverty was intrinsically beneficial and they strove to be poor.

The idea that poverty brings one closer to God and his kingdom is found explicitly in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:24 we read: “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” This sentiment is echoed in Luke 16:13, and in Matthew it is found within the context of verses 25-34 which stress that one should not worry about not having food or clothing, indicating the futility of praying for such things.

In 1976 David Flusser and I published an article on Matthew 6:24, in which we argued that this verse corresponds to certain aspects of rabbinic thought, and we attributed the negative attitude toward wealth to the influence of Essene teachings.[125] Now, however, it would seem that this negative attitude derives more from the similarity of Jesus’ world view to that of the Hasidim. The life style of Jesus, his attitude to society and to both the Written and Oral Law, the domain of the sages, his manner of teaching and his association with his disciples were much more similar to the Hasidim than to the Essenes. In fact, Jesus really had very little in common with the Essenes.

Jesus’ position regarding wealth can also be seen quite clearly in the story of the wealthy young man found in Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. Each of the Gospels differs slightly in its version of the conversation between the rich man and Jesus, but they all agree on one thing: Jesus made the acceptance of the young man into the kingdom of heaven conditional upon his giving away his money and possessions to the poor. All three Gospels also include Jesus’ admonition that it is very difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Numerous ritual immersion pools were uncovered in the excavation of the Essene settlement at Qumran. This mikvah evidences the site’s destruction by earthquake in 31 B.C.E. Photo: Todd Bolen (

What Jesus demanded of the wealthy young man is exactly what Rabbi Yesheveav did when he distributed all his possessions among the needy, to the chagrin of Rabban Gamaliel and the other sages, as mentioned above.[126]

One may conclude that it was generally accepted within the rabbinic world that a person ought not give away all his money to the poor and thereby become poor himself, and a burden to society. Poverty was not an ideal that one should strive to attain, and the sages did not see any necessary ethical or spiritual value in being poor. One finds in Hasidic teaching, however, that poverty was an ideal and that the poverty which characterized the Hasidim was a deliberate choice. But the Hasidim were not impoverished simply because their devotion to the performance of good deeds prevented them from working enough to support themselves. Rather, they were happy with little and even emphasized the value of poverty as a virtue and means of spiritual attainment.

Torah Study

Jewish literature throughout the entire Second Temple period stressed the meaning and importance of the study of Torah. This emphasis is seen in several Psalms which date from the beginning of the Second Temple period, and especially in the writings of such Jewish authors as Philo and Josephus. The study of Torah in a variety of forms—in private, in a group together with a sage and his disciples, by disciples alone, or public study—is described by numerous authors of the Second Temple period.

Torah study was particularly important to the Pharisees and to those groups associated with them. Most of the sayings or deeds described in the Mishnah Tractate Avot reflect the importance of studying Torah,[127] and it is an important motif in a number of works of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, such as IV Ezra and Baruch, which reflect an outlook similar to that of the sages. The Dead Sea sect also emphasized the importance of Torah study, although not to the extent that the sages did.

Unlike the sages,[128] however, the Hasidim did not seek a balance between “study” and “deed,” but maintained that the deed is to be preferred even at the expense of Torah study.[129] When they mentioned the saying in the Mishnah that refers to the fruits of certain deeds that are enjoyed in the world to come, they deleted the saying’s conclusion which states that “the study of Torah is equal to them all.”[130]

Similarly, in the teaching and deeds of Jesus there is no reference to the study of Torah. Jesus does deal with various aspects of everyday life, and in addition to the many teachings of Jesus on repentance, salvation and the expectation of the kingdom of heaven, there are also stories about Jesus’ behavior and his requests and demands of those who followed him. Jesus sometimes rebuked those of little faith or those who did not believe in the future redemption or who were immodest, and the like. Yet, according to the Gospels, Jesus never raised the issue of Torah study.

The lack of references to the study of Torah in the teaching of Jesus does not derive from his estrangement from Torah or from his ignorance of it. Everything attributed to Jesus testifies to his rich cultural background and wide knowledge, and many of his sayings, parables and deeds suggest considerable sophistication. The content of his teaching also illustrates a wide knowledge of ancient literary sources, whether of Bible, biblical interpretation or Midrash.

Jesus’ apparent neglect of the topic of Torah study should be understood in light of the importance that he, like the Hasidim, gave to living out one’s values. By not speaking of the study of Torah he gave more emphasis to the importance of the deed in the life of man and his quest for the kingdom of heaven.

The accounts of the actions and responses of Jesus are perhaps more consistent and even more extreme regarding the dichotomy between study and deed than is apparent in the limited amount of Hasidic literature. Jesus does not try to prove that the deed is preferable to study, but by his speech and behavior he exemplifies the importance of man’s deeds and wholly ignores the significance of the study of Torah.


I do not claim that Jesus was actually a Hasid or a member in any form or fashion of the basically Galilean Hasidic movement of his time. I have, however, endeavored to show the similarity and affinity between Jesus and the Hasidim in teaching, lifestyle, behavior and relationship with the sages.

The stories about Jesus do not mention that anyone ever approached him with the request that he pray for rain. Perhaps there were no droughts during Jesus’ brief ministry, but more likely the very nature of the request to a Hasid to bring rain precluded Jesus’ involvement in such a matter. The Hasidim were usually approached by the establishment or by sages who often sent young children to arouse their feelings of compassion. It took years for a Hasid to become so well-known that the establishment would turn to him in an emergency, and it appears from the Gospel records that Jesus’ public career was so short that he may not yet have come to the attention of the establishment as a miracle worker.

The healing of the sick was a different matter. In such cases the afflicted person himself, his mother, father or master sought out Jesus. Thus, his healing and his exorcism of demons did not take place in the framework of communal prayer or in the synagogue, but were the result of personal requests directed towards someone who was thought capable of such miracles.

The accounts of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are far more numerous than those of Hanina ben Dosa, Honi or other such charismatics. It is important to remember, however, that while the Gospels intended to relate Jesus’ entire history from before his birth to his crucifixion, rabbinic literature had no intention of presenting the history of the Hasidim. The stories about the Hasidim are generally cited in rabbinic literature to portray the response of the sages to their actions. Thus, we have very few “halachot [rulings] of the Hasidim”[131] (= “mishnah of the Hasidim”).[132]

For example, the story about the rain Honi caused to fall was not related to recount his success, but rather as support for the ruling that the shofar is not sounded and a public fast is not declared in the case of “excessive rainfall.”[133] Likewise, the healing by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was not related for the greater glory of this sage; but, it seems, to point out the difference between a “member of the king’s household” and a “minister of the king.”[134]

It is also necessary to remember that the entire corpus of material pertaining to the lives and activities of the Hasidim deals almost exclusively with miracles wrought by them. There is a relatively small amount of material pertaining to Hasidim themselves, and no halachic statements at all are given in their names. Even such a famous Hasid as Hanina ben Dosa, who is referred to quite often in the Talmuds and the Midrash, has only a few aggadic sayings cited in his name in Avot,[135] and these are cited to emphasize his saintliness. Similarly, there are just a few aggadic sayings of Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair, and these are given only to illustrate the teaching of the Hasidim.[136]

Basically, we have only veiled references to Hasidic teachings in a literature that is close in spirit but not identical to theirs. This is enough, however, to show us how similar Jesus was to this first-century Galilean group. For the most part, his deeds were in keeping with the tenets of that group.


This article originally appeared in a special triple issue of Jerusalem Perspective. For a free PDF download of this JP special issue, click here.


  • [1] Josephus, War 2:119-166; Antiq. 18:11-22.
  • [2] See David Flusser, “Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes in Pesher Nahum,” Alon Memorial Volume (Tel Aviv, 1970), 133-168 (Hebrew). English translation in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Qumran and Apocalypticism (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 214-257—Ed.
  • [3] See Ze’ev Safrai, “Bene-Rechav, the Essenes and the Concept of Going to the Desert in the Teachings of the Sages,” Annual of Bar Ilan University 16/17 (1979): 37-58 (Hebrew).
  • [4] The expression קָתֶדְרָא דְּמֹשֶה (qātedrā’ demosheh, “the seat of Moses”) is mentioned in the teaching of Rav Aha in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 1 (ed. Mandelbaum, 12). The first scholar to point this out was W. Bacher, “Le siege de Moise,” REJ 34 (1897): 299.
  • [5] E. L. Sukenik, “Kathedra De Moshe in Ancient Synagogues,” Tarbiz 1 (1930): 145-151 (Hebrew). See the comments of J. N. Epstein ad loc., 152.
  • [6] On the opposition of the Sadducees to this levy, see Megillat Ta‘anit itself (beginning), and also its scholium (ed. H. Lichtenstein, Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 [1931-32], 318, 323). On the view of the Essenes, see J. Liver, “The Half-Shekel in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Tarbiz 31 (1962): 18-22 (Hebrew), and David Flusser, “The Half-Shekel in the Gospels and in the Teaching of the Dead Sea Sect,” Tarbiz 31 (1962), 150-156 (Hebrew). English translation in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Qumran and Apocalypticism (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 327-333—Ed. For a new source pertaining to this subject, see the Temple Scroll, XXXIX, 7-10. For proof of the view that the half-shekel tax as we know it from the last few generations of the Second Temple period was an innovation of the Pharisees or their spiritual ancestors, see J. Liver, “The Half-Shekel,” Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1961), 54-67 (Hebrew).
  • [7] Matt. 17:24-27, and see David Flusser’s article cited in note 6.
  • [8] Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:39. It is especially important to note Luke 4:16ff., which mentions Jesus’ reading of the Torah and Prophets, and afterwards, his derashah (sermon).
  • [9] The tannaic and amoraic sources that mention the functions of the synagogue emphasize mainly the reading and teaching of Torah. Whenever the synagogue is mentioned in the Gospels or in Acts, it is within the context of reading or studying of the Torah and not in relation to prayer, which is the same general picture found in tannaic literature. For our purposes it is sufficient to cite the baraita in Tosefta (= T), Megillah 2:18 (parallels in the Babylonian Talmud [= BT] and the Jerusalem Talmud [= JT]:

    Synagogues—one does not treat them frivolously. One should not enter them when the sun beats down to get out of the sun, nor when it is cold to get out of the cold, nor when it is raining to get out of the rain. One does not eat in them, nor does one drink in them. And one should not sleep in them, nor promenade in them, nor adorn oneself there. Rather, in them one reads [the Torah], studies, preaches and gives public eulogies.

    The baraita in listing the functions of the synagogue—reading the Torah, studying, preaching and eulogizing—does not mention prayer. There certainly was prayer in the synagogue, but clearly its major function, as demonstrated by rabbinic literature and the Gospels, was to facilitate the public reading of the Torah, study and preaching. For additional sources, see Shmuel Safrai, “Gathering in the Synagogue on the Sabbath and on Weekdays,” Ancient Synagogues in Israel, BAR International Series 499 (1989): 7-15.

  • [10] Although there were Hasidic sages, too, in this article Prof. Safrai usually uses “sages” as a synonym for “Pharisees,” and as the opposite of “Hasidim.” -Ed.
  • [11] See Bradford Young, The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer (Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).
  • [12] Shmuel Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” The Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1956): 15-33. A somewhat expanded version of this article was published in Eretz Israel and Its Sages in the Period of the Mishnah and Talmud (Tel Aviv, 1983), 144-160 (Hebrew). See also my “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” Zion 50 (1985): 133-154 (Hebrew).
  • [13] Such as chapter five of Tractate Berachot in the Mishnah (= M), and several chapters of Derech Eretz Zuta. See Eretz Israel and Its Sages, 152-155, and “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 149-151.
  • [14] The earliest Hasidic story is that of Honi the Circle Drawer in M Ta‘anit 3:8, and the collections of Hasidic stories in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Tractate Ta‘anit. See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 141-143.
  • [15] Such as the saying of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa in M Avot 3:9, and the baraita attributed to Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair (see note 129) that is found in a number of sources composed in the land of Israel, as well as in Babylonian sources. See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 148.
  • [16] Such as the story about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah who was sent by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to Ramat Bene Anat and there had occasion to admonish a priestly Hasid who was seemingly ignorant of a number of laws of ritual purity mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chap. 12 [ed. Schechter, 56]; Version B, Chap. 27 [ed. Schechter, 56-57]). Similarly, see the statement of Hillel: “The am ha-aretz [a person who is not knowledgeable in the commandments] cannot be a Hasid” (M Avot 2:5). See also the rather sharp statement of Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai in Pirka de-Rabbenu Ha-Kadosh, Bava de-Arba (ed. Schenblum, 21b).
  • [17] See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 134-138.
  • [18] Gedaliahu Alon (The History of the Jews in the Land of Israel in the Period of the Mishnah and Talmud [Tel Aviv, 1952], 1:320 [Hebrew]) gives an example from JT Pesahim V, 32a. In this passage Rabbi Yohanan (thus in the parallel in BT Pesahim 62b) states that he has received a tradition from his predecessors “not to teach aggadah to Babylonians or Southerners because they are vulgar and have inadequate knowledge of Torah.” One could add to this the saying found in JT Sanhedrin I, 18d: “Why is the calendrical year not intercalated in Lod [a town located in the ‘South,’ i.e., Judea]? Because they [the residents of Lod] are vulgar and have inadequate knowledge of Torah.” See also Shmuel Safrai, “The Places for the Sanctification of the New Moon and the Intercalation of the Year after the Destruction of the Temple,” Tarbiz 35 (1966): 27-38 (Hebrew).
  • [19] Alon, History of the Jews, 318-323.
  • [20] Ibid., 320, n. 150.
  • [21] For a detailed discussion of this subject, see Shmuel Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” Immanuel 24/25 (1990): 147-186. Click here to read this article on—Ed.
  • [22] “Your [singular] father” appears in Matt. 6:4; 6:6; 6:18; 13:43, et al. “Your [plural] father” appears in Matt. 6:8; 6:15; Luke 6:36; 12:32, et al. “Our father” or “Our father in heaven” appears in Matt. 6:1; 6:9; Mark 11:25, et al.
  • [23] Luke 10:21-22; Luke 22:42; John 2:16; 17:1, et al.
  • [24] Mark 14:36, but in Matt. 26:39 we find πάτερ μου (pater mou, “my father”), and in Luke 22:42 only πάτερ (pater, “father”).
  • [25] See the commentary of Vincent Taylor (The Gospel According to St. Mark, 2nd ed. [London, 1966], 553), and others. However, according to Robert Lindsey, abba ho patēr (“Abba, father”) is a typical Markan “pickup,” that is, a rare word or phrase that Mark knew and used as a synonym opposite Luke’s more original wording. Abba appears only three times in the New Testament, once in Mark and twice in Paul’s letters, always in the phrase abba ho pater. Paul used abba, perhaps adding ho patēr as an explanation for his Greek readers. Mark, in his midrashic way, picked up the whole phrase and substituted it opposite Luke’s pater, an acceptable Greek translation of אַבָּא (’abā, “Abba”). Matthew agrees with Luke against Mark in using pater (“father”); Matthew’s pater mou (“my father”) in Matt. 26:39 may preserve אָבִי (’āvi).
  • [26] See Alon Goshen-Gottstein, God and Israel as Father and Son in Tannaitic Literature, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1987 (Hebrew).
  • [27] Mechilta, De-Va-Hodesh, Yitro 6 (ed. Horovitz-Rabin, 227, lines 6-10). This saying is also found in Leviticus Rabbah 32:1 (ed. Margulies, 735-736) and in Midrash Psalms 12 (ed. Buber, 109). It likewise appears in Midrash Tannaim (ed. Hoffmann, 164), though apparently the author of Midrash Tannaim, like the author of Midrash Ha-Gadol (ed. Margulies, 570), copied it from Mechilta or from Leviticus Rabbah. The saying is also found in Sefer Ve-Hizhir on Exodus, 25b, and in Lekah Tov on Exodus 20:6 (ed. Buber, 136).
  • [28] Sifra, Kedoshim (ed. Weiss, 93d).
  • [29] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 18 (p. 112); 20 (p. 121).
  • [30] The other places in Seder Eliyahu where God is addressed as “my father in heaven” are Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 10 (p. 51); 11 (p. 63); 17 (p. 83); 18 (pp. 89, 106); 19 (pp. 110, 111, 112 [four times], 119); 24 (p. 134); 28 (p. 149); 29 (pp. 157, 163).
  • [31] Seder Eliyahu is much earlier than supposed by many scholars and probably dates to around the third century C.E.
  • [32] See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 150-151.
  • [33] M Ta‘anit 3:8, and T Ta‘anit 3:1.
  • [34] BT Berachot 17b; Ta‘anit 24b; Hullin 86a. God is also said to have called Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Eleazar ben Hyrcanus “Eleazar my son” (BT Ta‘anit 25a; Tanhuma, Hukat 8 [ed. Wilna, 565]), and Rabbi Meir “Meir my son” (BT Hagigah 15b). In these instances, however, the expression “my son” is not used with the same sense of intimacy as in the stories of Hasidim.
  • [35] BT Berachot 34b.
  • [36] M Avot 3:14. Cf. Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chpt. 39 (ed. Schechter, 118) and Version B, Chpt. 44 (ed. Schechter, 124).
  • [37] This was the opinion of Rabbi Meir (Sifre Deuteronomy 96 [ed. Finkelstein, 157]). Cf. BT Yoma 22b. See the commentary of Rabbenu Hillel and the comments of Finkelstein ad loc.
  • [38] The same language is used in T Ta‘anit 3:1: “It once happened that they requested of a Hasid, ‘Pray for rain to fall.’”
  • [39] BT Ta‘anit 23a-25b; JT Ta‘anit I, 64a-b.
  • [40] משתוכין (mishtōchin). See Aruch Completum 8:183, s.v.שתך, meaning “to become rusted.”
  • [41] BT Ta‘anit 8a.
  • [42] M Berachot 5:5. See the similar tradition in JT Berachot V, 9d.
  • [43] In Yihusei Tannaim ve-Amoraim (ed. Maimon, Jerusalem, 1963), Rabbi Yehudah ben Kalonymus ben Meir of Speyer cites two traditions of unknown origin regarding forces controlled by Rabbi Hanina (p. 438). The first tells of winds which were under his power and the second of an evil spirit which used to disturb a woman neighbor of his. Rabbi Hanina said to the evil spirit: “Why do you torment a daughter of Abraham our father?” In Leviticus Rabbah 24:3 (ed. Margulies, 553) there is a story about Abba Yose ben Yohanan of Tsaytur who overcame an evil spirit. In Tanhuma, Kedoshim 9 (in both versions of the text: ed. Buber, 77; ed. Wilna, 443), it is related about the same sage: “A Hasid by the name of Rabbi Yose of Tsaytur was there.” The Babylonian Talmud preserves the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s confrontation with Igrath the daughter of Mahalath, the queen of demons. Hanina commanded her to stay out of settled areas, but when she pleaded with him to “leave her a little room,” he allowed her freedom to enter on Wednesday nights and the eve of Sabbaths (Pesahim 112b). See also, Tanhuma, Va-Yigash 3 (ed. Wilna, 134), which relates how Rabbi Hanina made a lion swear never to appear again in the land of Israel.
  • [44] See the stories about Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva in BT Ta‘anit 25b, and those about Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in JT Ta‘anit III, 66c.
  • [45] JT Ta‘anit I, 64b-c; BT Ta‘anit 23a-b.
  • [46] BT Ta‘anit 23a-b. The Babylonian Talmud exhibits a tendency to connect persons who perform similar deeds to the same family. The Hasid from Umi and Hanan Ha-Nehba successfully prayed for rain; thus, they are identified in the Babylonian Talmud as the grandsons of Honi the Circle Drawer. See Shmuel Safrai, “Tales of the Sages in Palestinian Tradition and the Babylonian Talmud,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971): 229-232.
  • [47] BT Sanhedrin 74a; JP Sanhedrin III, 21b; Shevi’it IV, 35b; Sifra Ahare Mot 13 (ed. Weiss, 86b).
  • [48] JT Berachot V, 9a; BT Berachot 33a.
  • [49] See especially JT Terumot VIII, 46b.
  • [50] M Ta‘anit 3:8.
  • [51] JT Ta‘anit I, 64b-c; BT Ta‘anit 23a.
  • [52] See Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” 28-31.
  • [53] JT Berachot V, 9a; BT Berachot 32b-33a.
  • [54] Both Talmuds give these same explanations, although they are cited in the names of different Amoraim: in the Jerusalem Talmud, in the names of Rabbi Aha and Rabbi Yose; in the Babylonian Talmud, in the names of Rabbi Yosef and Rav Sheshet.
  • [55] Tanhuma, Va-Era 4 (ed. Wilna, 187); Exodus Rabbah 9 (ed. Shinan, 209); Midrash Yelamdenu, published in J. Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (New York, 1971), 1:98.
  • [56] See the sources cited in note 53.
  • [57] Translated from the version found in Midrash Yelamdenu (ed. Mann), but there are a number of parallels to this saying in midrashic literature.
  • [58] BT Berachot 32b-33a. See David Flusser, “It Is Not a Serpent That Kills,” Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem, 1988), 543-551.
  • [59] JT Berachot V, 9d; BT Berachot 34b. See notes 35 and 42.
  • [60] See note 43.
  • [61] JT Terumot VIII, 46b; Genesis Rabbah 94 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 1184-1185). The reading of Ms. Leiden of the Jerusalem Talmud is “Koshev.” However, in Ms. Vatican 133, in the first printed edition and in the Yemenite ms., the reading is “Kosher.” This is also the form of the name in Genesis Rabbah, and in the citation of the Jerusalem Talmud in the commentary of Rabbi Moses Halua (ed. Jerusalem [1964], 63) on BT Pesahim 25b. “Kosher” is a wordplay based on the root קשר (q-sh-r), meaning “to plot,” here, to plot against the Roman authorities. This form of the name would fit the continuation of the story. See B. Rattner’s Ahavat Zion Virushalayim on Pesahim (p. 69), and see Theodor’s comments on Genesis Rabbah 94.
  • [62] Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi numbered among the sages and headed the academy at Lod. However, he also was a Hasid and God performed miracles for him. According to a number of sources, he entered the Garden of Eden without having tasted death (BT Sanhedrin 98a; Makkot 11a; Ketubot 77b; Derech Eretz Zuta 1 [end], et al.).
  • [63] This statement (found in JT Terumot VIII, 46b and T Terumot 7:20) is not really a mishnah, but rather a baraita that explains a mishnah.
  • [64] Mark 1:39. Cf. Matt. 4:23.
  • [65] Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-5; John 5:1-18.
  • [66] Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30.
  • [67] Luke 17:11-19.
  • [68] Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25; Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10, et al.
  • [69] Matt. 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43.
  • [70] Matt. 10:1-15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6.
  • [71] Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50.
  • [72] This passage, Mark 16:9-20, is not found in many of the best manuscripts, but some early sources allude to it. See the comments of Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 2nd ed. (London, 1966), 610.
  • [73] Mark 16:17-18.
  • [74] See note 43.
  • [75] Luke 13:16.
  • [76] BT Berachot 34b.
  • [77] The text reads, ὄρεις ἀροῦσιν (opheis arousin, “they will pick up snakes”). A number of manuscripts precede “they will pick up snakes” with καὶ ἐν ταῖς χερσίν (kai en tais chersin, “and in the [i.e., their] hands”).
  • [78] T Berachot 3:20; JT Berachot V, 9a; BT Berachot 33a; Tanhuma, Va-Era 4 (ed. Wilna, 187); Midrash Yelamdenu (ed. Mann, 1:98); Exodus Rabbah 3 (p. 135, in an abbreviated form).
  • [79] Luke 10:19. Cf. Acts 28:3-6.
  • [80] M Terumot 8:4-6; T Terumot 7:12-17; JT Terumot VIII, 45c-46a; Avodah Zarah II, 41a-b; BT Bava Kamma 115b-116a; Hullin 49b, et al. 
  • [81] See Josephus, Against Apion 1:165, and S. Lieberman, Ha-Yerushalmi Kifshuto (Jerusalem, 1935), 49. Shmuel Klein (The Land of Galilee, 2nd ed. [Jerusalem, 1967], 140 [Hebrew]) states that the prohibition against the drinking of uncovered beverages was unknown in Galilee and was introduced there only after the destruction of the Temple; however, this is a mistake. See the comments of H. Albeck in his notes on M Terumot in Shishah Sidrei Mishnah: Zera’im [The Six Orders of the Mishnah: Zera’im] (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1957), 390.
  • [82] See the references to JT Terumot and Avodah Zarah cited in note 80.
  • [83] The Hebrew is מגלגל (megalgel), which in this context means “to ridicule,” and is the equivalent of מלגלג (melagleg). The reading מגלגל appears in Ms. Leiden and in Ms. Vatican 133, and גלגו, a related form, appears in Leviticus Rabbah 26:2 (ed. Margulies, 593). See Aruch Completum 2:288, s.v. גלגל.
  • [84] Cf. Luke 10:19.
  • [85] Against Apion 1:60.
  • [86] Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chpt. 6 (ed. Schechter, 30-31); Version B, Chpt. 13 (ed. Schechter, 30-32); Genesis Rabbah 42 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 397-398); Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 10 (ed. Buber, 67-68); Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 1-2.
  • [87] BT Yoma 35b. In works originating in the land of Israel, there is no hint that Hillel was once poor. These sources witness that Hillel was the son of an aristocratic family, that he immigrated from Babylonia, and that he gave large contributions to the poor.
  • [88] BT Temurah 16a; Exodus Rabbah 31.
  • [89] BT Yoma 35b, Tanhuma, Mishpatim 9.
  • [90] BT Yoma 35b; Kiddushin 49b; JT Ta‘anit IV, 69a.
  • [91] BT Berachot 18a; Shabbat 54a; Kiddushin 49b.
  • [92] JT Shevi’it IV, 35b, et al.
  • [93] JT Berachot IV, 7d; BT Berachot 28a; Horayot 10a.
  • [94] See JT Peah VIII, 20d, et al.
  • [95] T Sotah 7:12, and the parallels in both Talmuds.
  • [96] BT Eruvin 86a.
  • [97] JT Peah I, 15b; BT Ketubot 50a; 67b; Arachin 28a.
  • [98] See the sources cited in the preceding note. In the Jerusalem Talmud it was Rabban Gamaliel who sent for the sage, while in the Babylonian Talmud it was Rabbi Akiva. The problem with viewing Rabbi Yesheveav as a Hasid is that there are no Hasidic halachot in rabbinic sources, none given by anonymous Hasidim, and none by Hasidim who are named. There are, however, halachic traditions preserved in the name of Rabbi Yesheveav. See M Hullin 2:4; BT Yevamot 49a, and parallels.
  • [99] Rabbi Yesheveav appears in all versions of the list of the ten martyrs. See Lamentations Rabbah 2 (ed. Buber, 100), et al.
  • [100] Apparently, the name of this sage has been lost.
  • [101] Song of Songs Rabbah (ed. Greenhut, 7a).
  • [102] This tension can be seen in the saying of Hillel: “The ignorant man cannot be a fearer of sin, and the am ha-aretz [see note 16] cannot be a Hasid” (Avot 2:5). Hillel is reacting to the teaching of the Hasidim that deeds are more important than study. One should not think, Hillel says, that one can be a true Hasid without having a thorough knowledge of Torah. See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 152-154.
  • [103] This (“and found none better for Israel than poverty”) is the reading of Ms. Munich and other major textual traditions. Ms. Vatican 134 should be added to the list of sources mentioned in Dikduke Soferim, ad loc.
  • [104] See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 150-151.
  • [105] BT Ketubot 106a. See the responsa of the Gaon in S. Assaf, The Responsa of the Geonim in the Genizah (Jerusalem, 1929), 176 (Hebrew), and Assaf’s comments in the Introduction, 153. There is absolutely no justification for the claim that rabbinic sources occasionally cite from an original or earlier Seder Eliyahu. The few differences between the work itself as it now stands and rabbinic citations of the work do not necessitate the creation of a new work.
  • [106] See the comments of H. Albeck in his Hebrew translation (titled, The Sermons of Israel [Jerusalem, 1947], 55-57 [Hebrew]) of Leopold Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vortraege der Juden historisch entwickelt.
  • [107] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 18 (p. 97); Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15 (p. 199).
  • [108] Genesis Rabbah 71 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 834-835).
  • [109] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 17 (pp. 86-88): “In the days of Joshua son of Nun…. In the days of the prophet Samuel…. In the days of the prophet Elijah…. In the days of Hezekiah king of Judah….” See also Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15 (p. 197).
  • [110] Seder Eliyahu Zuta 5 (p. 181).
  • [111] See the Introduction in M. Friedmann’s edition of Seder Eliyahu, pp. 44-59.
  • [112] Seder Eliyahu Zuta 3 (p. 176).
  • [113] Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 149-150.
  • [114] In light of the discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud pertaining to the identification of the site (Megillah I, 70a), Umi is Yama or Javneel (Josh. 19:33) in the tribal allotment of Naphtali. See Klein, The Land of Galilee, 114, 146; Michael Avi-Yonah, Historical Geography of Palestine (Jerusalem, 1962), 139 (Hebrew); Sefer Ha-Yishuv, ed. Shmuel Klein (Jerusalem, 1939), 91-93 (Hebrew).
  • [115] JT Ta‘anit III, 64a-c; BT Ta‘anit 23a-b.
  • [116] The Hasid did not need the tallith to cover his head while praying as is the custom today. Rather, the tallith, one’s outer garment, was needed to go out in public. In the first century, it was considered immodest to appear in public without being dressed in a tallith.
  • [117] BT Ta‘anit 25a.
  • [118] Also according to the explanation in Matnot Kehunah, ad loc.
  • [119] A unit of liquid and dry measure equal to the space occupied by the contents of 24 eggs.
  • [120] BT Berachot 17b; Ta‘anit 24b; Hullin 86a.
  • [121] The Hasidim were especially strict regarding the Sabbath laws. See BT Shabbat 19a; Shabbat 121b; JT Shabbat I, 4a; IX, 15a; Leviticus Rabbah 34 (ed. Margulies, 815), et al.
  • [122] Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chap. 6 (ed. Schechter, 29); Version B, Chap. 12 (ed. Schechter, 30).
  • [123] BT Yoma 35b. Works composed in the land of Israel contain no references to Hillel’s supposed beginnings as a poor laborer.
  • [124] Leviticus Rabbah 13 (ed. Margulies, 281); 35 (ed. Margulies, 824); Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 14 (ed. Mandelbaum, 241-242). According to one source from outside the land, this saying was uttered by Rabbi Aha. In BT Hagigah 9b, it is a folk saying (“as people say”).
  • [125] David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, “The Slave of Two Masters,” Immanuel 6 (1976): 30-33, and reprinted in Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 169-172.
  • [126] See notes 97 and 98.
  • [127] Especially if we include in our discussion the sixth chapter of Avot, known as Kinyan Torah (The Acquisition of Torah). This chapter is certainly not part of the original tractate; however, it can serve to illustrate the importance that the study of Torah had for the sages.
  • [128] On the desire of the sages to establish a balance between “study” and “deed,” see Sifre Deuteronomy 41 (ed. Finkelstein, 85-86), and the parallels in the Talmuds and midrashim. Cf. the statement of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, Chap. 22 (ed. Schechter, 74-75), et al. See also Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 144-147.
  • [129] In a baraita of the Hasid Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair, which lists the qualities of character that one should seek, Rabbi Pinhas concludes that the supreme quality is חֲסִידוּת (asidūt, “saintliness”). See JT Shekalim III, 47c (and parallels); BT Avodah Zarah 20a. The study of Torah is not mentioned and was added only in printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud. See Safrai, “Hasidim and Men of Deeds,” 148.
  • [130] M Peah 1:1 lists those commandments “whose interest one enjoys in this world, and whose principal remains for him in the world to come.” The saying’s conclusion is: “But the study of Torah is equal to them all.” Seder Eliyahu Zuta, which reflects the spirit and teaching of the Hasidim, preserves this saying in similar language and form, but omits its conclusion on the importance of study. (See Chap. 2, p. 172.)
  • [131] See Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, Chap. 27 (ed. Schechter, 55).
  • [132] JT Terumot VIII, 46b.
  • [133] M Ta‘anit 3:8, and similarly, T Ta‘anit 3:1.
  • [134] JT Berachot V, 9d; BT Berachot 34b.
  • [135] M Avot 3:9-10.
  • [136] The sayings can be found in B. Z. Bacher, Aggadot of the Tannaim (Tel Aviv, 1928), II.2:158-161 (Hebrew).

That Small-fry Herod Antipas, or When a Fox Is Not a Fox

מְתֻרְגְּמָן Meturgeman is Hebrew for translator. The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process.

Jesus called Herod Antipas a fox (Luke 13:32), and English speakers and Europeans assume the point is obvious. Foxes are proverbially associated with cleverness and craftiness. Therefore, Jesus must be calling Herod a crafty person. However, it turns out that Jesus was saying something very different to his Hebrew-speaking audience.

The metaphor “fox” has proven deceptive to speakers of European languages. Many New Testament specialists have followed the clear, widely-known sense of the Greek word and idiom without first asking an important question: “How was ‘fox’ used by Hebrew speakers?” The answer reveals a difference in Hebrew and Greek usage, and it should serve as a reminder that one must always interpret metaphors within the proper cultural setting.[1]

The Context

The context of Jesus’ characterization of Herod as a fox is a story that appears in Luke 13:31-33:

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (New International Version)

Reading the passage in Greek will not help if one is limited to standard Greek reference works. The Greek word for “fox” is ἀλώπηξ (alōpēx). The word is as old as the Greek language, and Liddell and Scott state that alōpēx means “fox, Canis vulpes” and that it is used proverbially “of sly persons.”[2] The standard Greek dictionary for the New Testament leads to a similar conclusion: Walter Bauer states that “fox” is used figuratively of crafty people.[3]

First Hebraic Meaning

In Hebrew “fox” (שׁוּעָל, shū‘āl) has a wider range of meaning than in Greek or English. First, Hebrew culture shared with the rest of ancient Mediterranean cultures the implication of “fox” as a crafty animal. The Midrash gives an example:

When the other kingdoms are described figuratively in Scripture, they are compared to wild beasts: “Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea” [Dan. 7:3], and it is also written, “The first was like a lion” [Dan. 7:4]. But when Scripture speaks of the Egyptians, they are compared to foxes, as it says, “Catch for us the foxes” [Song 2:15]; keep them for the river [i.e., to be thrown into the river, as the Egyptians threw the Israelite babies into the river].

R. Eleazar ben R. Shim’on [end of second century A.D.] said, “The Egyptians were crafty and that is why Scripture compares them to foxes.” (Song of Songs Rabbah 2:15, § 1.)

There is a similar reference to “fox” in a parable attributed to Rabbi Akiva (early second century A.D.):

A fox was once walking alongside a river and he saw fish swarming from place to place. He said to them, “What are you fleeing from?”

“From the nets that humans cast for us,” they answered.

The fox said to them, “Wouldn’t you like to come up on the dry land? We could live together, you and I, just like our forefathers.”

They answered, “You’re the one they call the cleverest of animals? You aren’t clever. You’re a fool. If we are afraid in our own element, how much more out of our element [literally, in our place of death]!” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)

Second Hebraic Meaning

The Fox (Illustration by Liz McLeod)
The Fox (Illustration by Liz McLeod)

More important for our understanding of Jesus’ words in Luke chapter 13 is a second, very common use of “fox” in Hebrew. Lions and foxes can be contrasted with each other to represent the difference between great men and inferior men. The great men are called “lions,” and the lesser men are called “foxes.”

The epithet “fox” is sometimes applied to Torah scholars: “There are lions before you, and you ask foxes?”[4] In other words, “Why do you ask the opinion of foxes, that is, my opinion, when there are distinguished scholars present?”

A certain scholar, thought at first to be brilliant, was by all outward signs inept, and it was remarked about him, “The lion you mentioned turns out to be a [mere] fox.” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a)

Sometimes the use of “fox” relates to pedigree: “He is a lion the son of a lion, but you are a lion the son of a fox.”[5] In other words, “He is a distinguished scholar and the son of a distinguished scholar; but, although you are a distinguished scholar, your father is a less-distinguished scholar than his.”

The word “fox” can also have moral connotations, as a saying from the Mishnah demonstrates: “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.”[6] This saying could be paraphrased, “It is better to be someone of low rank among those who are morally and spiritually your superiors than someone of high rank among scoundrels.”

The phrase, “And infants will rule over them,” from the list of curses in Isaiah 3:1-7 to be visited upon Jerusalem and Judah, is interpreted by the Babylonian Talmud as follows: “[Infants means] foxes, sons of foxes.”[7] In this interpretation, “fox” not only assumes the nuance of moral depravity, but also, through the verb “rule,” is linked to kingly reign; thus, “foxes, sons of foxes” means “worthless, degenerate rulers who are the descendants of worthless, degenerate rulers.”

A rabbinic interpretation of the phrase “[Your fury] consumes them like straw” (Exod. 15:7) makes the comparison between the Egyptians and foxes using the same prooftext as Song of Songs Rabbah quoted above. Here, however, the focus of the fox metaphor is explicitly on low status.

When any kind of wood burns, there is some substance to it. But when straw burns, there is no substance to it. Since it is said, “And he took six hundred choice chariots,” etc. [Exod. 14:7], I might have understood that there was some substance to them [the Egyptians]; but Scripture says, “It consumes them like straw.” Just as there is no substance to straw when it burns, so also with the Egyptians. When they burned, it became evident that there was no substance to them in the face of the calamities that you brought upon them…. There was no kingdom more lowly than Egypt, but it held power a short time for the sake of Israel’s glory. When Scripture describes other kingdoms figuratively, it compares them to cedars…but when it describes the Egyptians, it compares them to straw, as it is said, “It consumes them like straw”…. Again, when Scripture describes other kingdoms figuratively, it compares them to wild beasts, as it is said, “And four great beasts” [Dan. 7:3], but when it describes the Egyptians, it compares them to foxes, as it is said, “Catch for us the foxes” [Song 2:15]…. “It [Egypt] will be the most contemptible of the kingdoms” [Ezek. 29:15]. (Mechilta, Beshallah 6; to Exodus 15:7 [ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 137, lines 3-19])

The Sting in “Fox”

Jesus called Herod a fox after some Pharisees reported that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus’ response challenged any such plans: “Tell Herod I’ve got work to do first.” Jesus was not implying that Herod was sly, rather he was commenting on Herod’s ineptitude, or inability, to carry out his threat. Jesus questioned the tetrarch’s pedigree, moral stature and leadership, and put the tetrarch “in his place.” This exactly fits the second rabbinic usage of “fox.”

When Jesus labeled Herod a fox, Jesus implied that Herod was not a lion. Herod considered himself a lion, but Jesus pointed out that Herod was the opposite of a lion. Jesus cut Herod down to size, and Jesus’ audience may have had an inward smile of appreciation at a telling riposte.

Translating “Fox”

English versions of Luke 13:32 fail on two counts when they use the word “fox.” On the one hand, they miss the true dynamics of the rebuke, and on the other hand, they implicitly give a false, positive meaning. What is needed is a colorful English term that can be used across wide audiences. That last requirement is difficult because words of scorn are often excessively vulgar or restricted to rather small subsets of English speakers.

Foxes photographed in Holon, Israel, by Arthur.nesterovsky. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Foxes photographed in Holon, Israel, by Arthur.nesterovsky. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Consider the following list of possibilities for “fox” in its negative sense: weakling, small-fry, usurper, poser, clown, insignificant person, cream puff, nobody, weasel, jackass, tin soldier, peon, hick, pompous pretender, jerk, upstart.

Most of the terms in this list are too colloquial or jocular. “Small-fry,” “insignificant person,” “peon” and “pompous pretender” may be the best for a wide audience. In context, and referring to a local ruler, “fox” was a humiliating “slap in the face.” The English term should convey this intent as nearly as possible.

We need to start translating “fox” with its proper Hebraic cultural meaning. Jesus was direct. Antipas was a שׁוּעָל בֶּן שׁוּעָל (shū‘āl ben shū‘āl, “a fox, the son of a fox”), a small-fry.[8]

  • [1] This is true for any language around the world. One should always assume that metaphors carry different connotations until proven otherwise, even in languages with tremendous cultural overlap like English and French: “cow” and “vache” carry completely different implications.
  • [2] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., revised and augmented by Henry Stuart Jones with Roderick McKenzie; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), 75. Under the meaning “sly persons,” Liddell and Scott list examples from Solon [6th cent. B.C.] II 5; Pindar [5th cent. B.C.], Isthmian Odes 4 (3).65; Plato [4th cent. B.C.], Republic 365c; Eunapius [4th-5th cent. A.D.], Historicus, p. 249D; and Diogenianus 2.15, 2.73, 5.15, 7.91.
  • [3] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 41. This lexicon includes many references to Greek works outside the New Testament such as the works of the first-century philosopher Epictetus.
  • [4] Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 39a, chpt. 9, halachah 5.
  • [5] Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 12c, chpt. 10, halachah 5. Compare Bava Metsi’a 84b.
  • [6] Mishnah, Avot 4:15.
  • [7] Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14a.
  • [8] Paul Billerbeck has already outlined most of the arguments in this article. See (Hermann Strack and) Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1922-1960), 2:200-201. In English, see T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1974 [1949]), 276: “The answer of Jesus is defiant…‘fox’…describes an insignificant third-rate person as opposed to a person of real power and greatness. To call Herod ‘that fox’ is as much as to say he is neither a great man nor a straight man; he has neither majesty nor honour.”

The Sweetness of Learning

Although the Gospels give little information concerning Jesus’ childhood, we can suppose that in his formative years Jesus received a good Jewish education. Dr. Wilson gives us a glimpse into the Jewish way of training a child.

One of the most frequently quoted biblical texts dealing with education is Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”[1]

The Hebrew verb translated “train” is חָנַךְ (khanach). In the Bible this verb and its derivatives occur mainly in contexts suggesting the sense of “to begin, initiate, inaugurate.”[2] For example, the root is used for the formal opening of a building (Solomon’s Temple, 1 Kgs. 8:63), for an initiation gift for an altar (Num. 7:10), and for the time one begins to live in a new house (Deut. 20:5). Since cult sacrifices, consecration rites or prayers were often connected with the inauguration of a structure, the meaning “to dedicate” eventually became extended to khanach.


This rendering, though not inherent in the root itself, accounts for Hanukkah being translated in John 10:22 as “Feast of Dedication.”[3] The New English Bible, following this apparent root-meaning of “begin,” renders Proverbs 22:6: “Start a boy on the right road” (cf. NIV margin, “Start”).

In practice over the centuries, however, it is evident that the Jewish community understood khanach as derived from a different root. The verb has customarily been linked with a root meaning “rub the palate or gums”; hence the cognate חֵךְ (khech, “palate,” “roof of the mouth,” “gums”).[4] The Semitic scholar T. H. Gaster states that the original meaning is suggested by the Arab custom of smearing date juice on the gums and palates of newborn children. He also points out that Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer, indicates that the Jews of his time used to apply honey in a similar way.[5]

Ezekiel’s Scroll

Whatever the etymology of khanach, the custom of using honey deserves special mention in any study of Jewish education. Rabbinic tradition informs us that it was the Jewish practice to use honey in a special ceremony on the first day of school. The young child was shown a slate which had written on it the letters of the alphabet, two verses of Scripture (Lev. 1:1, Deut. 33:4), and one other sentence: “The Torah will be my calling.” The teacher next read these words to the child, and the child repeated them back. Then his slate was coated with honey, which he promptly licked off, being reminded of Ezekiel, who said after eating the scroll, “I ate it; and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezek. 3:3). After this ceremony, the child was given sweet cakes to eat with Bible verses from the Torah written on them.[6]

What is the reason the rabbis tie study and honey together? The answer appears to be due, at least in part, to the linguistic connection they made between the use of khech (palate, gums) and khanach (to educate) in certain biblical texts. The rabbis found khech in passages comparing the sweetness of honey to the sweetness of the wisdom and words of God which one spiritually ingests.

Two passages are of special note: “Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste [khech]. Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul” (Prov. 24:13-14a); “How sweet are your words to my taste [khech], sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). In addition, the Midrash states that the study of Torah “is compared to milk and honey: just as these are sweet throughout, so are the words of the Torah, as it says, ‘Sweeter also than honey’ [Ps. 19:10]” (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2, 3). Thus, in the rabbis’ view, education came to involve the task of causing people to enjoy the sweetness of studying divine truth.

One other major point is in order before leaving Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go.” Today, this text is frequently taken to be a command directed to parents, an exhortation for them to instruct their child in Scripture and in the way of godly living. Although the Bible gives a mandate for parental instruction of children,[7] the above proverb does not appear to be one of those texts.

A Child’s Uniqueness

The Hebrew of Proverbs 22:6 is חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ (khanoch lana’ar al pi darko), literally, “Train [start] a child according to his [the child’s] way.” There is a great difference between the training of a child according to the child’s way (i.e., encouraging him to start on the road that is right for him), and training him according to a way chosen, prescribed and imposed by the parents. The former is in keeping with the child’s unique God-given bent, disposition, talents and gifts. It is considerate of the uniqueness of the child; it does not treat all developing personalities the same.

The above translation and interpretation put the onus on the child to choose the right path. It is one thing for a parent to encourage, nurture, guide and inform a child so that the child himself is prepared to choose the path that is right for him; it is something else for a parent to choose that path for the child. This point is the crux to understanding this verse. Again, we must emphasize that this rendering does not negate the parents’ role as teachers of biblical tradition. But it does provide some additional insight into the Hebrew educational process which, parenthetically, corresponds well with certain modern schools of progressive education.

The “training” process begins by seeking to conform the subject matter and teaching methods to the particular personality, needs, grade level and stage in life of the child. (The word na’ar, “child,” in Proverbs 22:6 does not necessarily mean infant or small boy; its more than two hundred occurrences in the Bible reveal a wide range of meanings from childhood to maturity.) Thus, the ability of a “child” to exercise more and more his individual freedom by personal choice—albeit one informed by his parents—is certainly not ruled out.

A Tall Order

By way of application, the above understanding of Proverbs 22:6 places a special responsibility upon every parent. The parent must carefully observe each child and seek to provide opportunities for each child’s creative self-fulfillment. In addition, the parent must be sensitive to the direction in life to which the child would naturally conform, for it is only by walking in that path that the child will come to realize his God-given potential and find his highest fulfillment.

Elizabeth O’Connor effectively grasps how this proverb may apply:

Every child’s life gives forth hints and signs of the way that he is to go. The parent that knows how to mediate, stores these hints and signs away and ponders over them. We are to treasure the intimations of the future that the life of every child gives to us so that, instead of unconsciously putting blocks in his way, we help him to fulfill his destiny. This is not an easy way to follow. Instead of telling our children what they should do and become, we must be humble before their wisdom, believing that in them and not in us is the secret that they need to discover.[8]

This is a tall order. But when parents see that their responsibility is primarily to facilitate, to teach the child to choose the right path, only then will the child be enabled to “fulfill his destiny.” And herein lies an important educational key to making learning a sweet and palatable adventure.

  • [1] This article is adapted from Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989), 291-294, and used by permission.
  • [2] See S. C. Reif, “Dedicated to Hnkh,” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 495-501. See also Victor P. Hamilton, “hanak,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (ed. R. Laird Harris, et al.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:301-302.
  • [3] The Hebrew noun חֲנֻכָּה (khanukkah is properly a rite of inauguration, an event often associated with joyful celebration and sacrifice. Thus the word is most often used in reference to the ceremony of “dedication” or “consecration” of some structure. The origin of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah goes back to the 25th of the month Kislev, 165 B.C., when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated it.
  • [4] Brown, Driver and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 335.
  • [5] Theodor H. Gaster, Customs and Folkways of Jewish Life (New York: William Sloane Associates Publishers, 1955), 14.
  • [6] For further details of this procedure see William Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974), 12-13.
  • [7] See Deut. 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; Ps. 78:5-6; Prov. 1:8; Eph. 6:4.
  • [8] Elizabeth O’Connor, Eighth Day of Creation (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971), 18.