Jesus the Galilean, a Stranger in Judea?

Over a year ago Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition (not the Justin Taylor, SM of Hebrew University) posted a blog summarizing seven differences between Judea and the Galilee during the Time of Jesus. The summary was from R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew.[1] While I agree with France’s so-called lament that NT scholars know little about the world of “first-century Palestine,” we should be careful not to carry on long-standing myths about the world of 1st century Judaism that do not bear out in archaeological or historical sources.

While there were differences between Galilee and Judea these differences seem limited to geographical realities and particular interpretations regarding the commandments. We should not presume, however, that the ancient Jewish communities’ lack of monolithic (or unilateral) unity is equal to a stark separation in thought, language, and even race.[2] Unfortunately, if Taylor’s summary of France is correct, his list of differences between Galileans and Judeans does not take into account the full weight of archaeological and historical evidence. Much of this regarding the Galileans is the mistaken notion that in the days of Simon to Judah Aristobulus, the Maccabean kings repopulated the Lower Galilee on the western side of the lake with Itureans who were forcefully converted to Judaism. In that sense, the Jews of Galilee were distinctly different than their Judean counterparts. The Galileans Jews were thus uneducated, agrarian groups of commoners who were looked down upon by the educated and wealthy southerners. Thus, Jesus’ Galilee, and Jesus himself, was part of society that descended from forced converts who spoke differently and were lax concerning the observance of the law. At a minimum it separates Jesus (philosophically, religiously, and culturally) from the religious and cultural center of Jewish life in the 1st century. That minimum is too heavy a price to pay!

So I will deal briefly with Taylor’s seven points and what is France’s final result. Taylor’s comments appear italicized with a corresponding JT. My comments will appear below the quote.

1. Racially

JT: …the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel had, ever since the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C., a more mixed population, within which more conservative Jewish areas (like Nazareth and Capernaum) stood in close proximity to largely pagan cities, of which in the first century the new Hellenistic centers of Tiberias and Sepphoris were the chief examples.

First, “racially” is intentionally provocative and furthers the assumed chasm between Galilee and Judea. Let me just add that all of these seven points are closely intertwined and really should be spoken of as a unit which defines the cultural/religio-historical reality of the Galilee in the first century CE. But we will proceed with the points as they have been presented.

To this point, archaeology has shown that after the Assyrian conquest of the Galilee, the population of the Galilee declined. At sites that have been excavated throughout the Galilee there is a lack of continuation of settlement between the 8th and 5th century BCE.[3] In fact, Aviam has shown that while in the larger cities—like Sepphoris and Tiberias—there was a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, while smaller villages, which in the Lower and Upper Galilee were predominantly Jewish, maintained closed communities.[4] Aviam concludes, “There were apparently no pagan temples or communities in the rural areas of Eastern Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee.”[5]

Excavations of Sepphoris have shown that during the time of Jesus the city had a vibrant Jewish population—a city that Joseph, a craftsman, and Jesus would have went to work and even perhaps visited the market. One of the indicators of Sepphoris’ Jewishness is the discovery of numerous ritual immersion pools—though scholars have debated their identification (Hanan Eshel[6] , Ronny Reich[7] ). Wherever one stands on this debate, Meyers and Chancey have noted the following: “Unfortunately, some scholars have misperceived Sepphoris as a center of Greco-Roman culture in the time of Jesus on the basis of finds from the centuries after Jesus. Sepphoris was indeed a thriving and growing city in the early first century C.E., but the evidence for Hellenistic culture is limited. As for the city’s population, the overwhelming majority were Jews. Gentiles, if they were present at all, were a small and uninfluential minority.”[8] More recently Chancey adds that the evidence for Gentiles in Sepphoris of the first century CE is actually quite small.[9] So, a Hellenistic center, Sepphoris was not! In addition, archaeological studies in Tiberias, founded by Herod Antipas in 20 CE,  shows the presence of pagans and their temples. Tiberias’ absence from the New Testament is perhaps the result of the city’s foundation being laid on a cemetery. The archaeological record, however, still indicates a  Jewish presence.

2. Geographically

JT: Galilee was separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria, and from Perea in the southeast by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis.

1) The Samaritans are not necessarily Jewish. While there still remains some question as to their origin, they may have originated in part from the northern tribes that were destroyed during the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BCE. They accept, however, a Pentateuch that is very similar to the Jewish Pentateuch albeit with certain alterations that place the Samaritan holy place in Mount Gerizim (Samaria). For all intents and purpose, their traditions closely parallel many of the Jewish holidays and celebrations.[10] It is true however that Jews and Samaritans, since the days Hasmoneans, had a tense relationship.

2) Decapolis: It does not appear that the Decapolis, a federation of 10 Greco-Roman cities, existed during the days of Jesus and historical sources indicate that this federation is known in different formations only after the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). Notley comments, “We simply do not know what the genesis was for the origins of the Decapolis. It may have stemmed from the desire of these cities to define themselves in contradistinction to the neighboring regions heavily populated with Jews, who had recently rebelled against Rome.Use of the term in the Gospels may reflect the period in which the individual writings were composed (i.e. post-70 CE), because there is no corroborating evidence to suggest that the Decapolis was known in the days of Jesus.”[11]

3) In reality, Taylor’s summary of France is simply a geographical description of the Holy Land in the days of Jesus (except of course from the Decapolis). We know, however, that rites of pilgrimage significantly narrowed the geographical differences between the Galilee and Judea. Three times a year—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and Feast of Booths (Sukkot)—Jewish communities would set up caravans to make a pilgrimages to Jerusalem.[12] Jesus, though a Galilean is presented in the Gospels as coming to Jerusalem during these Holy Days (e.g., John 10:22). When he was a child he visited the holy city with his parents every year (Luke 2)—a tradition he likely kept during his adult years. Furthermore, Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem was not simply the time of his crucifixion and resurrection; it was also Passover—one of the holidays that Jesus appeared to observe on a yearly basis. So, in this case, the Galileans, at least according to the Gospels, would feel comfortable in Judea and in Jerusalem. Some of this comfort is related to the fact that many of the Jewish Galileans descended from Judeans who migrated from the south to repopulate the Galilee during the Hasmonean period. Additionally, historical sources indicate that many of the priests who serve in Jerusalem’s Temple lived in the Galilee. We even have evidence in the plain of Genosar (in the Galilee) of wealthy priests who may have played a role in controlling the Temple. So, it is clear that  Judeans are welcomed in the Galilee and vice versa.

3. Politically

JT: Galilee had been under separate administration from Judea during almost all its history since the tenth century B.C. (apart from a period of “reunification” under the Maccabees), and in the time of Jesus it was under a (supposedly) native Herodian prince, while Judea and Samaria had since A.D. 6 been under the direct rule of a Roman prefect.

This administrative difference does not necessarily affect the Jewish  identity of the Galileans. At the end of the day, although Antipas was in control of Galilee (since the death of his father Herod) and generally a procurator (e.g., Pilate) was in control of Judea, Rome was in control. From the documents available to us, it does not seem that the administrative reality had much of an effect on the religious identity of Jewish communities in either the Galilee or Judea.

4. Economically

JT: Galilee offered better agricultural and fishing resources than the more mountainous territory of Judea, making the wealth of some Galileans the envy of their southern neighbors.

Unfortunately, this is stated with no reference to either France or any ancient sources. While there were surely wealthy Jewish Galileans, Jerusalem was no stranger to wealth. Discoveries from the Second Temple period in what is now Jerusalem’s Old City (known as the Herodian quarter) have revealed massive palatial homes, which were apparently occupied by the Jerusalem priests and other wealthy inhabitants. Surely, the ability fish—to which 16, or so, first century harbors have been identified—and the fertile soil of the Galilee (e.g. the Beth Netofa Valley) would have brought wealth to some,  I am not sure that we have any evidence for a general wealth that was “envied” by the Judeans. Moreover, had their been any “envious” feelings between Judeans and Galilean, we should not presume that it was widespread or common, especially when we are lacking evidence for such a thing.

5. Culturally

JT: Judeans despised their northern neighbors as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication being compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence.

Not so. Greco-Roman life and architecture existed in a number of places through the Land of Israel, especially in major cities. In fact, as the archaeological record has shown, within major cities there was a co-existence between Jews and Gentiles. Josephus remarks that within the Holy City of Jerusalem there was an amphitheater and a theater—clear signs of Hellenistic influence upon a city. Josephus remarks further that these Hellenistic elements were not in line with Judaism (Ant 15:268). But in Galilean villages, those communities that were Jewish appear to be closed communities—in other words they maintained their Jewish cultural distinctions, some of which they shared with their Jewish communities in the south. Furthermore, those Jewish communities appear to makeup a significant geographical chunk of the Lower and eastern Upper Galilee—that is on the western side of the lake. Archaeologically speaking, the Gentile communities on the western shore of the sea of Galilee seem to form a ring of sorts around the Jewish villages that occupy a large portion of the western shore. The southern most border of this ring is the Jezreel valley (or Mt. Tabor), on the eastern end is the Gentile city of Beth-Shean, the western boundary is the village Chabulon located near the coastal city of Akko-Ptolemais (which was a large Gentile city), with the northern border being made up by Baqa (Peqi’in) and Thella (northeastern).[13]

The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, especially in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).
The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, particularly in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).

6. Linguistically

JT: Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic whose slovenly consonants (they dropped their aitches!) were the butt of Judean humor.

Dialectal differences between the Galileans and Judeans in the Second Temple period are not necessarily an easy thing to assess. Furthermore, much of this information is taken from Rabbinic literature. The problem with this methodology is that New Testament scholars fail to note that there was a considerable linguistic shift after the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), nearly 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.[14] Therefore, we cannot simply use post-Bar Kokhba evidence to determine the linguistic nature of the Galilee in the first century. In fact, Turnage has noted from the evidence available that the linguistic nature of the Galilee was tri-lingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) where Hebrew—though both Aramaic and Greek were known and used—would have been the primarily language in use.

7. Religiously

JT: …the Judean opinion was that Galileans were lax in their observance of proper ritual, and the problem was exacerbated by the distance of Galilee from the temple and the theological leadership, which was focused in Jerusalem.

Schiffman answers this succintly: [W]e find no evidence of widespread laxity in the Galilee in tannaitic times or later. On the contrary, our study finds time and again that tannaitic sources attributed to the Galileans a higher degree of stringency in halakhic observance than to the Judeans… [I]n most cases, the Galileans were more stringent in regard to the law than their Judean coreligionists. Other instances indicate that differences of practice were minor or resulted from distance from the Temple. In no case did the sources portray the Galileans as lenient or less observant.[15] Safrai has also noted this Galilean stringency to halakhic matters.[16] The stringency that is reported of the Sages from Galilee in the Rabbinic period probably developed and was influenced by the Galilean sages of the Early Roman period.[17]

France’s conclusion as quoted by Taylor

JT:…even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea (cf. John 7:40-42).

This is not the case. While we must assess for the development of cultural distinctions between Galilee and Judea, we must also take into account how the two Jewish revolts affected these areas. They would have precipitated significant communal shifts, therefore we need to be careful reading Rabbinic opinions back into the Second Temple period without a close examination. That being said, if handled correctly one gets an opportunity to see in Rabbinic literature how Tannaitic literature to some extent develops from the early Roman period. This includes, Galilean stringency to the observance of the Law and the fact that many of our most respected rabbis were originally from the Galilee. Furthermore, the pilgrimage festivals, Jesus’ desire to be in Jerusalem (as well as his family’s yearly journeys to Jerusalem), and the Pharisaic presence in the Galilee suggest that there is a close connection between these two geographical locations.

Taylor’s final point:

JT: This may at first blush sound like interesting background material that is not especially helpful for reading and interpreting the gospels. But Mark and Matthew have structured their narratives around a geographical framework dividing the north and the south, culminating in the confrontation of this prophet from Galilee and the religious establishment of Jerusalem.

Coming this far, we must re-imagine Taylor’s final statement. Noting the geographical differences present in Matt and Mark (not so much in Luke) may be heavy-handed, since it does not seem to effect many of the stories, if any stories, in the Gospels. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, especially in Luke, it is his overwhelming popularity that prevents the priestly elite from getting a hold of him (Luke 19:48). The popularity is not only from Galileans who have traveled to Jerusalem, but from Judeans as well. In fact those that cried over Jesus during the crucifixion are referred to as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28). Those who are said to weep were Jerusalemites crying over the death of a Galilean. So we have clear evidence in the Gospels that a Galilean finds acceptance, and was in fact “at home,” in Jerusalem, and Judea.[18] Thus, it is clear that Jesus the Galilean, and by extension the Galileans, generally speaking, did not find Jerusalem to be an alien city—neither an Irish man in London, or an Englishman in New York—religiously, culturally, or linguistically. Apart from Jesus, such can be seen in the book of Acts. In the early chapters of Acts, the members of The Way frequent the Temple in Jerusalem and as we move through out the book it appears the early church has centralized themselves in Jerusalem. This suggests that Jesus, the Galilean, was not the only one that felt comfortable in Judea, his disciples felt the same.

We should attribute any differences between Galileans and Judeans, especially what we have recorded in historical documents, primarily to issues of opposing halakhic opinions. Various halakhic opinions should not be understood, however, as a point of stark division in Judaism but rather a point of intra-Jewish discourse. The disagreements that Jesus often finds himself in are generally matters of Torah observance. To suggest that the aforementioned seven points stand is to misread the evidence that we know with the unnecessary consequence of tearing Jesus from his proper place in Jewish culture.

  • [1] (NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
  • [2] As you will see below “race” is a term used by France. It is an unfortunate term that I do not think best describes the differences between Galilee and the Judea
  • [3] Mordechai Aviam, “The Hasmonean Dynasty’s Activities in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee—35 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys: Hellenistic to Byzantine Period (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 41.
  • [4] See Aviam’s discussion of the Jewish and Gentile border in “Border between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 9-21
  • [5] “Borders between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 17.
  • [6] “They are not Ritual Baths” BAR 26/4 (Jul/Aug, 2000).
  • [7] “They are Ritual Baths” BAR 28/2 (Mar/Apr, 2002).
  • [8] Mark Chancey and Eric Meyers, “How Jewish Was Sepphoris in the Time if Jesus” BAR 26/04 (July/Aug, 2000).
  • [9] “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee” The Bible and Interpretation (Feb, 2003). See also, idem, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSM 118; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • [10] “Samaritans” Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. 17; New York: Thomas Gale, 2007 ), 718-737.
  • [11] Anson Rainey and Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2005), 362.
  • [12] See Shmuel Safrai, “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus”; also, idem, Pilgrimage in the Time of the Second Temple (Jerusalem, 1985 [Heb.]); Mordechai Aviam, “Reverence for Jerusalem and the Temple in Galilean Society,” in Jesus and the Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 123-144.
  • [13] Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. These boundaries are based on Josephus’ description of when he comes to the Galilee to fortify certain cities and prepare for war with Rome.
  • [14] Marc Turnage, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee,” The Language Envoronment in First Century Judea: Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 2 (JCP 26; Leiden: Brill, 2014); cf. also Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, 115-116.
  • [15] Lawrence Schiffman, “Was There a Galilean Halakhah?” in The Galilee in Antiquity (New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 144–45.
  • [16] Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century” in The New Testament and Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Immanuel 24/25, 174–80; See the JP version.
  • [17] Turnage, “Linguistic Ethos,” 173.
  • [18] For the record it should be noted that the word Ἰουδαία (Judea) and its various forms appear sparingly in the Synoptic Gospels and not as some sort of foreign territory separated from the Galilee.

“Treasure in Heaven”: Examining an Ancient Idiom for Charity

For my brother, Jeff, whose charity towards me was always done with a “good heart;” truly he has stored his “treasure in heaven.”


The growing value placed on charity in the first century C.E. cannot be overstated.[1] As a new sensitivity developed within Judaism that challenged the compensatory “blessings and curses” paradigm of the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut. 28) as a basis to serve God, so there was a shifting emphasis towards altruistic love[2] embodied in the Levitical commandment, “…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יי; Lev. 19:18).” This unique relationship between serving God without care of reward—that “the fear of heaven [God] be upon you” (m. Avot 1:3)—and loving your neighbor as yourself, that is, one who is like you[3] is reflected in contemporary linguistic-based exegesis that pairs Deut. 6:5 with Lev. 19:18.[4]

And you shall love the Lord with all you heart, soul, and might. וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ (Deut. 6:5)…. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יי…. (Lev. 19:18)[5]

What comes to be known as the dual-commandment—which is preserved elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish literature (e.g., T. Iss 5:2)—is attested in the New Testament as part of Jesus’ reply to the question, “what is the greatest commandment” (e.g., Mark 12:18-35; Luke 10:25-28).[6] Along with these novel developments in the religious perspective of Judaism came parallel linguistic developments. In Hebrew, and Greek (when the Greek is a translation of a Hebrew base-text), the term “righteousness” (Hb. צְדָקָה [Jastrow 1903, 1063]; Gk. δικαιοσύνη [cf. Matt. 6:1]) begins to be utilized idiomatically as “charity” (e.g., Tob. 4:7, 14:2).[7] Among the changing semantic parameters of specific Hebrew and Greek terms, there was a developing conception, which eventually developed into another idiomatic expression for charity. Jewish authors in the generations preceding the life and ministry of Jesus began to utilize the idea of laying up treasure before God, or in heaven, to indicate the giving of alms. Eventually, this concept developed into the phrase “treasure in heaven,” which is attested five times in the New Testament, and is the focal point of this article.

Storing Treasure and the Language Charity in Jewish Literature

Before continuing, however, a contextualization of storing “treasure” in heaven (that is with God) is warranted. Anderson has suggested that the initial impetus for this expressions derives from a Second Temple understanding of Prov. 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness (וּצְדָקָה) delivers from death.”[8] As noted above, to the readers of Prov. in the Greco-Roman period, “righteousness” would have been understood to mean charity. This exegesis of Prov. is also attested in Tobit, a Jewish work written between the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E.:

If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure (θησαυρίζεις) for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity (ἐλεημοσύνη) delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness (Tob. 4:9-10, emphasis added).[9]

One of the commandments, which Tobit stresses to his son Tobias, is the importance of providing for the poor.

Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold (καλὸν ποιῆσαι ἐλεημοσύνην ἢ θησαυρίσαι χρυσίον; Tobit 12:8)

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a work that details Jacob’s final testimony to his twelve sons, juxtaposes charity with storing treasure: “Do charity (δικαιοσύνην; lit. righteousness), therefore, my children, upon the earth, that you find it in heaven (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς; T. Levi 13:5).” 2 Enoch, a work that likely originates in the Second Temple period but attains the form as it is known now at a much later period, depicts the individual that is willing to spend gold or silver on behalf of his brother as storing treasure, “Whoever of you spends gold or silver for his brother’s sake, he will receive ample treasure in the world to come” (2 Enoch 50:5).[10] Ben Sira, a work originally written in Hebrew, is likely the inspiration for the expression “treasure in heaven”:[11]

Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury (or storehouse), and it will rescue you from all affliction…(σύγκλεισον ἐλεημοσύνην[12] ἐν τοῖς ταμιείοις σου, καὶ αὕτη ἐξελεῖταί σε ἐκ πάσης κακώσεως). (Sir. 29:11-12)

Anderson notes regarding Tobit and Ben Sira,

the power of almsgiving to save the generous soul from any imaginable danger that might confront him in this world. The figure of Tobit followed a similar strategy. But rather than providing us with several different metaphors for rendering the ides of being ‘delivered from death,’ he gave us just one: almsgiving delivers from death and ‘keeps you from going into Darkness.[13]

The best exposition on this concept appears in the Tosefta, a Rabbinic supplement to Mishnah. During the first century C.E. there was a famine in Jerusalem; Monobazus,[14] the king of Adiabene, a convert to Judaism decided to open the royal coffers in order to feed the hungry. His family members immediately protested that he had given away their inheritance. To their protests, Monobazus responded:

My ancestors stored treasures for this lower [part], but I have stored up treasures above…my ancestors stored up treasures where [human] hand can reach, but I have stored up treasures where [human], hand cannot reach, as it says [in Scripture], Righteousness and justice[15] (צדקה ומשפט) are the foundation of your throne [Psalm 89:14]…. My ancestors stored up treasures in this world, but I have stored treasures in the world to come (אבותי גנזו אוצרות בעולם הזה ואני גנזתי לעולם הבא), as it says [in Scripture], And your righteousness (צדקך) shall go before you [Isa. 58:8]…. (t. Peah 4:18)[16]

The interpretation ascribed to Monobazus of Ps. 89:14 and Isa. 58:8 reflect the understanding of “righteousness” with charity. Although the connection between “righteousness” and caring for hungry and the afflicted can already be seen in Isa. 58, “…righteousness (צִדְקֶךָ) shall go before you…if you give yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted (וְתָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ), then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday…” The Tosefta is likely pointing the reader to the larger Isaianic context, which is perhaps even the inspiration for Tobit’s, “for charity…keeps you from entering the darkness (Tob. 4:10).”

The Gospels, Charity, and the Kingdom

There are five texts in the NT that preserve the idiom “treasure in heaven.”

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth (Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς), where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ),[17] where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:19-20)

Matthew’s lack of explanation for what the expression “treasure in heaven” means assumes that his readers will naturally understand its idiomatic usage. The second text, which accounts for three attestations of “treasure in heaven(s),” is The pericope of the Rich Young Ruler:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in [the] heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανοῖς[18] ); and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matt. 19:16-22)

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανῷ); and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in [the] heaven (θησαυρὸν ἐν [τοῖς] οὐρανοῖς); and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. (Luke 18:18-23)

The final text is part of a extended Lukan teaching on charity.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail (θησαυρὸν ἀνέκλειπτον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς), where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34)

The teaching begins in Luke 12:13, where Jesus is asked to weigh in on the question of a brother’s inheritance. Jesus responds in familiar style with a parable, specifically the “Parable of the Rich Fool” (Luke 12:16-21). Before the parable, Jesus issues a stern warning, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v 15). The moral of the parable is closely connected with focus of this study, “So is he [i.e. the fool] who lays up treasure for himself (οὕτως ὁ θησαυρίζων ἑαυτῷ), and is not rich toward God” (v 21, emphasis added). Luke 12:22-31 (=Matt. 6:25-34), the “Anxieties about Earthly Things” pericope, is the second part of this Lukan teaching on charity. The context of the passage in Luke is not simply about anxiety, but instead not concerning oneself with what one will drink, eat, or how one will clothe him/herself. The assumption of the Lukan (and Matthean) text is that the individual who lacks these vital items has given them to those who are in need. The support for this reading is punctuated by the final statement of the pericope, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (=his charitableness towards you), and all these things shall be yours as well” (cf. 12:33). Further, the final portion of Luke 12 seems to support this reading as well,

for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens (Πωλήσατε τὰ ὑπάρχοντα ὑμῶν καὶ δότε ἐλεημοσύνην ποιήσατε ἑαυτοῖς βαλλάντια μὴ παλαιούμενα, θησαυρὸν ἀνέκλειπτον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, ὅπου κλέπτης οὐκ ἐγγίζει οὐδὲ σὴς διαφθείρει ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρὸς ὑμῶν, ἐκεῖ καὶ ἡ καρδία ὑμῶν ἔσται). (Luke 12:32-34)

Here again, as in the Matthean parallel,[19] the kingdom and the storing of “treasure in heaven” (in Matt., “righteousness” [both of which mean charity]) are linked. The connection between the two will help us to shed light on the manner which Jesus employed the term “treasure in heaven” in his teaching and its meaning within his ministry. The “Kingdom of Heaven”[20] is a disputed topic among NT scholars. Suggestions as to the function of the kingdom have spanned the spectrum from political, ethical, to eschatological. Sanders who allows for the present reality of the kingdom, sides with the prevailing “primarily eschatological” function that now embodies modern NT research[21] Flusser contends,

…the kingdom of heaven is not only the eschatological rule of God that has dawned already, but a divinely willed movement that spreads among people throughout the earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is not simply a matter of God’s kingship, but also the domain of his rule, an expanding realm embracing ever more and more people, a realm where into which one may enter and find one’s inheritance, a realm where there are both great and small.[22]

Young, discussing the present reality of the kingdom, states that the Kingdom of God comes from God alone, it is a driving force in that it brings healing to suffering humanity.[23] To this it appears that “according to Jesus and the Rabbis, the kingdom of heaven emerges, indeed, out of the power of God, but it is realized upon earth by men.[24] While the kingdom—a thoroughly Rabbinic concept—might have an eschatological function in Jesus’ ministry, the vast majority of “kingdom” sayings have to do with the here and now (e.g., Luke 17:21), while others appear to deal with the contemporary hopes of redemption (cf. Luke 21:31). In fact, we have several texts that pair the kingdom of God with healing (e.g., Luke 9:2, 10:9) and the “preaching of good news” (e.g., Luke 8:1, 16:16; Acts 8:12), whose Greek verb, εὐαγγελίζω should draw our attention back to its Hebrew equivalent, מְבַשֵּׂר (“bringer of good tidings,” Isa. 41:27). These so-called good tidings appear to involve the establishment of justice (Isa. 42:1) and the healing of those afflicted (Isa. 7-8), among whom the poor and the needy are numbered (Isa. 41:17). That said, it appears the primary driving force of the Kingdom of God, which is realized by humanity, is to bring justice and healing to those afflicted. It is not surprising, then, that “righteousness” (=charity) is associated with the kingdom of heaven in the Gospels.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ (δικαιοσύνης) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν; Matt. 5:10).[25] For I tell you, unless your righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν; Matt. 5:20). But seek first his kingdom (τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ [Tisch]) and his righteousness (δικαιοσύνην), and all these things shall be yours as well (Matt. 6:33).

This appears to perhaps have its genesis in the redemptive/messianic speculation of Isaiah,

 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore (לְמַרְבֵּה הַמִּשְׂרָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם אֵין־קֵץ עַל־כִּסֵּא דָוִד וְעַל־מַמְלַכְתּוֹ לְהָכִין אֹתָהּ וּלְסַעֲדָהּ בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם קִנְאַת יי צְבָאוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה־זֹּאת׃ דָּבָר שָׁלַח אֲדֹנָי בְּיַעֲקֹב וְנָפַל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל). (Isa. 9:6-7).[26]

It is in Luke 12 that we find a connection between the God’s willingness to give the kingdom and the selling of one’s possessions in order to distribute it amongst the poor, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves…” (Luke 12:32-33). By selling one’s possession and by giving alms, one can store up “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (v. 34). Thus, it appears that storing treasure in heaven, that is, giving alms, is crucial part of being given, and receiving, the kingdom. As an aside, it should also be noted that the statement, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34=Matt. 6:21), likely reflects contemporary ideas regarding the “good heart.” The “good heart” (לב טוב) is often understood to be that person, who gives mercifully to those in need,

Now I will declare to you what I did. I saw a person who was in distress in nakedness during winter, and had compassion upon him, and stole away clothing from my house, and gave it secretly to him who was in distress. Therefore you also, my children, from that which God provides you, with unwavering compassion show mercy to all, and provide for every person with a good heart (ἀδιακρίτως πάντας σπλαγχνιζόμενοι ἐλεᾶτε, καὶ παρέχετε παντὶ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐν ἀγαθῇ καρδίᾳ).” (T. Zeb 7:1-2)

To this we might add, “Therefore guard yourselves, my children, from all jealousy and envy, and walk in generosity of soul and in goodness of heart…” (TSim 4:5). Thus, the ending of the Lukan teaching on charity sheds partial light on Jesus’ use of the “treasure in heaven” and unique value into the growth of the kingdom of God on earth—a kingdom that is realized by what humanity does to their fellow.

Charity, the Hasid, and the Hasidim

Illustration by N. C. Wyeth from 1911 edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Illustration by N. C. Wyeth from 1911 edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We should add that the larger context of Luke 12 appears to imply that selling one’s possession involves selling “all” and distributing it amongst the poor and needy, which accords with Jesus’ response to the rich young man in Luke 18, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor.” Otherwise, had the almsgiver been expected to retain any possession in Luke 12 or Matt. 6, why would the reader be instructed to depend on God to cloth or feed him (v. 28)? In other words, the individual described in Luke 12:22-31 (and Matt. 6) depicts someone who has given all and must utterly depend on God. The same holds true for vv. 32-34. The individual who has given all in charity is he who has a “good heart” and has truly stored his treasure in heaven rather than on earth as the fool does “who lays up treasure for himself…” (cf. 16-21). Therefore, Jesus’ statement to “sell all (πάντα) that you have…” (Luke 18:22=Mark 10:21=Matt. 19:21) fits neatly within Jesus’ message regarding the kingdom of heaven. Still, the peculiarity of the demand to “sell all” is unique, since it goes beyond what becomes the normative Rabbinic prohibition against giving more than one-fifth of one’s possessions to charity—a requirement that appears to have its roots in the first century B.C.E. (cf. Tob. 4:8). Anderson, however, has related Jesus’ so-called radical command to “sell all” to both the Mishnaic statement regarding those things that have no measure (i.e. no limit; שֶׁאֵין לָהֶן שֵׁיעוּר) and the “heroic almsgiving” of later Christianity.[27] The Mishnaic statement in tractate Peah (4:19), which describes those things that have no measure: peah,[28] first fruits offering, pilgrim’s offering, acts of loving-kindness, and Torah study. The only item on the list that involves, in some sense, charity in the form of alms are “acts of loving-kindness” (גְמִילוּת חֶסֶד). These acts of loving-kindness (also גמילות חסדים ) appear to be an umbrella term for several things, among which charity (צְדָקָה) is included. Even still the Tosefta draws a line of distinction between charity and acts of loving-kindness,

Charity and acts of loving-kindness outweigh all other commandments that are in the Torah except that charity is for the living and acts of loving-kindness are for the living and the dead; charity is for the poor, [while] acts of loving-kindness are the for the poor and the rich; charity [helps] with one’s finances, [while] acts of loving-kindness [helps] one’s financial and physical needs (‏צדקה וגמילות חסדים שקולין כנגד כל מצות שבתורה אלא שהצדק’ בחיים גמילות חסדי’ בחיים ובמתים צדקה בעניים גמילות חסדים בעניים ובעשירים צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בממונו ובגופו׃). (t. Peah 4:19; author’s translation).

It is worth noting, that within the list of those things in the Mishnah that have no limit, charity is not specifically mentioned. In fact the toseftan passage indicates that charity served specific function and can be seen in distinction to acts of loving-kindness.[29] Furthermore, having “no measure” is not the same as “giving all.” Anderson is right to note that the demand to “give all” is part of demands of kingdom of heaven, as we have discussed,[30] but the Mishnaic statement provides little to no help to understand the radical nature of Jesus’ statement. So our search to understand Jesus peculiar demand moves us away from the Mishnaic statement, as argued by Anderson, but not from ancient Judaism. Rabbinic literature preserves narratives of individuals who go beyond the legal requirements regarding charity. In fact, Anderson himself, utilizes one such story to show that some went beyond the determined limits, but misses a key aspect to unlocking Jesus’ statement. The story involves R. Eliezer ben Bartota,

Whenever the collectors of charity caught sight of R. Eleazar b. Bartota they would hide themselves from him, because he was in the habit of giving away to them all that he had. One day he was going to the market to buy wedding garments for his daughter. When the collectors of charity caught sight of him they hid themselves from him. He ran after them and said to them: “I adjure you, [tell me] on what mission are you engaged?” And they replied: “[The marriage of] an orphaned pair.” He said to then: “I swear, they must take precedence over my daughter.” And he took all that he had and gave to them. He was left with one zuz and with this he bought wheat which he deposited in the granary. When his wife returned to the house she asked her daughter, “what did your father bring home?” She replied, “He has put in the granary all that he had bought.” She thereupon went to open the door of the granary and she found that it was so full of wheat that the wheat protruded through the hinges of the door-socket and the door would not open on account of this. The daughter then went to the Beth-Hamidrash and said to him [her father], “Come and see what your Friend has done for you.” Whereupon he said to her, “I swear, they shall be to you as devoted property, and you shall have no more right to share in them than any poor person in Israel” (b. Ta’an 24a).

Eliezer is so used to giving all he has that the charity collectors hide from him. When he confronts them and finds out why they are collecting, Eliezer is of the opinion that the two orphans who are in need of money to get married take precedence over his daughter who has a family. This is despite the fact that his purpose with going out that day was to buy his own daughter wedding garments. With the remaining one zuz—a very small amount of money—he buys what wheat he can afford only for it to be multiplied in abundance after he heads to study. When informed by his daughter about this blessing, he proclaims that even what he has been blessed with will go to the poor. Thus, Eliezer gives all that he has to charity. Elsewhere, a dictum attributed to him is generally interpreted to reflect a unique view of charity, “R. Eleazar of Bartota says, ‘Give him [God] what is his, for you and yours are his:’ ‘For so does it say about David, For all things come of you, and of your own have we given you’ (1 Chron. 29:14)” (m. Avot 3:7a). In other words, you should give all you have to charity (which is equal to giving to God, cf. Matt. 25:31-46) since all you have is God’s because all comes from him. In the same tractate, the individual who says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours,” this is a truly pious man (m. Avot 5:10). In other words, the truly pious individual reserved nothing for himself but gives all. The Hebrew term used for “the pious one” here is חָסִיד. During the first century there was a group of Jewish pietists known as the Hasidim or anshei maaseh (men of action). They were known in particular as miracle workers, whose style of prayer found popularity amongst public (m. Ber. 5:1, 5:5). This group appeared to exist on the fringe of the houses of study (beth hamidrashim or beth midrashim) and some tension with the larger Rabbinic class existed—although some rabbis were themselves Hasidim.[31] One of the unique qualities of this group is their emphasis on living lives of poverty,

In Hasidic thought, penury (poverty) 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…[32]

and contrastingly, “the pietists emphasize derekh eretz [i.e. proper behavior], that is, concern for societal needs and care of the needy.”[33] Utilizing the talmudic narrative of Eliezer b. Bartota, who was likely a Hasid—as defined by m. Avot 5:10—in order to shape a general picture of these Jewish pietists, whatever the Hasid receives, even if through divine blessing, is given back to poor as charity. Very little if anything is retained, and all is given, with the knowledge that God will provide for the needs of that Hasid, and perhaps even his disciples, a la Luke 12 and Matt. 6. If Jesus belonged to this group of pietists—as we and others suggest—then his demand that his followers give all of their possessions to charity is no longer peculiar but rather a reflection of a distinct stream of Jewish piety that flourished in the first century C.E.[34]


Returning to the focal point of our study, once again, Jesus’ teaching reflects the novel developments, which occurred within the landscape of Second Temple Jewish thought in the years prior to his birth; in particular, “that altruistic, social love achieved the highest value index by being considered the very essence of Judaism.”[35] Luke’s extended teaching on charity (c. 12) and the pericope of Rich Young Man (c. 18), when examined in light of Second Temple Judaism, provide a historical and cultural context for Jesus’ use of the term “treasure in heaven.” As noted above, in extra-biblical Jewish texts the concept of storing up treasure with God is clearly associated with almsgiving. In some cases this laying up of treasure appears to protect from death and perhaps even the Day of Judgment (Tob. 4). Almsgiving, however, takes on a special significance in Jesus’ ministry and such is partially described with idiomatic expression “treasure in heaven.” But this phraseology is not simply a monetary donation but, quite distinctly, involves the selling of all of one’s possessions and distributing it to the poor. Moreover, a comparison with other Hasidim reveals why Jesus told the Rich Young Man to sell “all” that he had. While this ran contrary to the limits set by the Rabbis, the “heroic almsgiving” was not unique to Jesus or what would later become Christianity, as contended by Anderson, but instead was part of the Hasidic stream of Jewish piety that chose a life of austerity and asceticism. This austere life of the Hasid appeared to emphasize caring for the poor, so much so that what one receives, even if miraculously given, is returned in full to those in need. Yet, for Jesus, storing “treasure in heaven” played one more important role in that it allows the kingdom of heaven on earth—God’s present rule that is intended to bring healing to the afflicted—to be realized by humanity through the practice of giving charity.

  • [1] This paper was also presented during the ETS Northeast Regional Meeting (April 6th, 2013, Nyack, NY).
  • [2] David Flusser, “A New Senstivity in Judaism and the Christian Message” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489; repr. from HThR 61/2 (1968):107-127. Flusser draws a connection with this so-called new sensitivity and the statement of Antigonus of Sokho: “Do not be like servants who serve the master [God] on condition of receiving a reward, but [be] like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a reward, and let the awe [love] of Heaven be upon you (470).”
  • [3] It appears that the term כָּמוֹךָ could be understood as “one who is like yourself.” Notley has noted, “The definition is not, in fact, an external one, but a challenge for us to recognize that in each person we can find both good and bad—just like ourselves. We are to love even those we do not deem worthy, because we ourselves stand unworthily in need of God’s mercy (R. Steven Notley, Jesus Jewish Command to Love).”
  • [4] See R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García, “Hebrew-Only Exegesis: A Philological Approach to Jesus’ Use of the Hebrew Bible” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Studies (JCP 26; Leiden: Brill, 2014), 349-374.
  • [5] The first evidence of such a unique pairing occurs is in the book of Jubilees (36:7-8); See Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 474.
  • [6] A Talmudic tradition depicts Hillel the Elder responding to the desirous proselyte that Lev. 19:18 was the essence of the entire Torah (b. Shab. 31a)
  • [7] See, Jeffrey P. García, “Matt 19:20: ‘What Do I Still Lack?’ Jesus, Charity, and the Early Rabbis” (Presented at the Nyack College Graduate Program’s Inaugural Conference “The Gospels in First Century Judaea,” August 29th, 2013); Raphael Posner, “Charity” in Encyclopedia Judaica (ed. F. Skolnik and M. Birnbaum; 22 vols; 2nd ed.; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA; Jerusalem: Keter Publishing Ltd.; 2007), 4:569-571; also, E.P. Sanders, “Charity and Love” in Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E-66 C.E. (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity International Press, 2005), 230-235. So important was charity that in Rabbinic Judaism it comes to be known as “the commandment (ha mitzvah);” see, Saul Lieberman, “Two Lexicographical Notes,” JBL 65/1 (Mar., 1946): 69-72; Gary Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2013).
  • [8] Gary Anderson, “A Treasury in Heaven: The Exegesis of Proverbs 10:2 in the Second Temple Period” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 1/3 (2012): 351-367.
  • [9] The “day of necessity” (ἡμέραν ἀνάγκης) appears to have an apocalyptic character in 1 Enoch (cf. 1:1, 100:7).
  • [10] Several dates have been posited for this work, and while the entire texts is only extant in Slavonic, the overwhelming consensus is that it is both ancient and Jewish. The text quoted here fits well within the world of Second Temple Jewish thought and shares parallels with what appears in Tobit. See Michael Stone, “Apocalyptic Literature” in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Literature (ed. M. Stone; Assen: Van Gorcum; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 406; F. I. Andersen, “Enoch, Second Book of” in ABD (6 vols.; Doubleday: New York, 1992), 2:517.
  • [11] There is some thought that the phrase entered Judaism through Persian influence. See Almut Hintze, “Treasure in Heaven: A Theme in Comparative Religion” in Irano-Judaica VI: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages (ed. S. Shaked and A. Netzer; Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 2008), 9-36. Hintze surveys Persian and Jewish literature that deal with heavenly account-keeping, which developed first from Zoroastrianism and then was borrowed by Judaism in the Persian period (11).
  • [12] In several texts where Tobit refers to almsgiving, ἐλεημοσύνη and δικαιοσύνη are juxtaposed. For example, Tob. 12:8, 9, for which a partial Qumran fragment exists (4Q200 f2:6-8), Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. “A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to store up gold” (ἀγαθὸν προσευχὴ μετὰ νηστείας καὶ ἐλεημοσύνης καὶ δικαιοσύνης·ἀγαθὸν τὸ ὀλίγον μετὰ δικαιοσύνης ἢ πολὺ μετὰ ἀδικίας· καλὸν ποιῆσαι ἐλεημοσύνην ἢ θησαυρίσαι χρυσίον.) and “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fullness of life…” (ἐλεημοσύνη γὰρ ἐκ θανάτου ῥύεται, καὶ αὐτὴ ἀποκαθαριεῖ πᾶσαν ἁμαρτίαν· οἱ ποιοῦντες ἐλεημοσύνας καὶ δικαιοσύνας πλησθήσονται ζωῆς·). The synonymous parallelism evident in Tobit is an indication that both Greek terms can function as “almsgiving” (cf. Sir. 44:10; perhaps also Sybl. 6:360); such is the case for δικαιοσύνη in Matt. 6:1. It should be noted, however, that in Greek thought δικαιοσύνη does not share precisely the same lexical range as צדקה; δικαιοσύνη in Classical Greek literature does not mean “charity” (δικαιοσύνη; LSJ, 429). Therefore, it perhaps might stand that the appearance of δικαιοσύνη with the meaning of “charity” reflects the translation of a Hebrew/Aramaic original, the direct influence of either language, or a text composed by an author whose native language was either.
  • [13] Anderson, “A Treasury in Heaven,” 366.
  • [14] In Josephus, the charitable deeds are credited to Queen Helena and not Monobazus; see, L.H. Schiffman, “The Conversion of the Royal House of Adiabene in Josephus and Rabbinic Sources” in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (ed. L. Feldman and G. Hata; Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1987), 293-312.
  • [15] Moshe Weinfeld, “‘Justice and Righteousness’—משפט וצדקה—the Expression and Its Meaning” in Justice and Righteousness: Biblical Themes and their Influence (ed. H.G. Reventlow and Y. Hoffman; JSOTSup 137; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 245. See also, Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Foundations of Tzedek and Tzedakah: Righteousness and Charity in Jewish Tradition” (unpublished article).
  • [16] See also, Roger Brooks, “Peah” in The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew with a New Introduction (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Press, 2002), 1:74-75.
  • [17] The language of the Matthean passage, “do not treasure…treasure” is decidedly redundant and betrays a Semitic feel.
  • [18] David Bivin has noted here that the minor agreement in Matt. and Luke, utilizing the plural “heavens” is a Hebraism which reflects the Hebrew שמים. See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “LOY 47: Rich Man Declines the Kingdom of Heaven,” Comment to L48-49. Cf. T. Levi 13:5, noted above
  • [19] It should be noted that the Matthean parallel does not explicitly teach on charity.
  • [20] The “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” are synonymous; Heaven is a well-known circumlocution for God in this time period.
  • [21] E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 154-156.
  • [22] David Flusser and R. Steven Notley, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 111; and, idem, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
  • [23] Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Michigan: Baker Academic Press, 1993), 108.
  • [24] Flusser and Notley, Jesus, 108, emphasis added.
  • [25] Lindsey suggests that one can read this passage “blest are the righteousness-driven,” in other words those who seek “righteousness” (=our definition, almsgiving) are blessed (Jesus, Rabbi, and Lord (Jerusalem Perspective), 123). See also, Randall Buth, “Pursuing Righteousness,” (Jerusalem Perspective) who suggests “although Lindsey’s proposal may reflect the intent of what Jesus originally said, it is a reconstruction that can only be adopted by a theologian or a historian. A translator of Matthew must translate what Matthew wrote, and it is most probable that he intended a passive idiom.”
  • [26] Steven Notley brought the collocation of “righteousness” and “kingdom” to my attention in a private correspondence.
  • [27] Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012), 180
  • [28] Peah is strictly the agricultural-based charity where the landowner would leave certain corners of his field so that the poor could glean from these corners. The biblical source of the laws of Peah appear in Lev. 19:19, 23:22. These laws as such appear to encompass more than the corners of the field; they include “gleanings” (לֶּקֶט), “forgotten sheaves” (הַשִּׁכְחָה), “immature clusters of grapes” (הָעוֹלֵלוֹת), “grapes that fall from their clusters” (פֶרֶט), and the tithe which is given to the poor מַעֲשֵׂר שֵׁינִי (cf. Lev. 19:10, 19, 23:22; Deut. 24:19, 24:21, 14:28-29, 26:12-13).
  • [29] NT readers will find that acts of loving-kindness are attested in the judgment scene of Matt. 25.
  • [30] Anderson, Sin, 180.
  • [31] Chana Safrai and Ze’ev Safrai, “Rabbinic Holy Men” in Saints and Role Models in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (ed. Marcius Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz; JCP 7; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 60.
  • [32] Shmuel Safrai, “Jesus and Hasidim,” (Jerusalem Perspective)
  • [33] Safrai and Safrai, “Rabbinic Holy Men,” 62.
  • [34] Cf. also S. Safrai, “Jesus as a Hasid” in Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1–7 [Hebrew]; idem, “Mishnat Hasidim in Tannaitic Literature” in Ve-Hinei Ein Yosef, A Collection in Memory of Yosef Amorai (Tel Aviv, 1973), 136-52 [Hebrew]; idem “The Pious and the Men of Deeds,” Zion 50 (1985): 133-54 [Hebrew]; idem, “The Term Derekh Erez,” Tarbiz 60 (1991): 147-62 [Hebrew].
  • [35] Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 474.

On “Blood” in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:19-20)

Revised: 28-Oct-2013

In the excellent article written by Professors Flusser and Safrai and translated by Halvor Ronning entitled, “The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments,”[1] the subject of the Apostolic Decree is discussed within the context of ancient Jewish traditions and writings. Flusser and Safrai conclude that the prohibition of blood is not a prohibition against consuming blood, but rather the rabbinic prohibition of murder. In their own words:

As we have attempted to demonstrate, it is precisely the ritual food laws of the secondary form of the Apostolic Decree that go back to two extra-canonical Jewish restrictions. The original form of the Apostolic Decree was purely ethical [text in bold is author’s emphasis throughout this article] and was identical with the three Mosaic obligations for non-Jews, i.e., with the original (three) Noahide commandments.

Flusser and Safrai’s premise is that “blood” in this passage does not refer to the consumption of blood but rather to murder. They conclude that the apostolic decision prohibiting eating meat sacrificed to idols, fornication, and blood is equal to the rabbinic decree that under penalty of death a Jew may violate any of the commandments of the Torah with the exception of idolatry, adultery and murder.[2]

There is a strong similarity between the rabbinic decree and the apostolic decree, and in the historical context of the times these similarities cannot be ignored. However, there is an element to both of these decrees that I believe has been overlooked. The original rabbinic decree would have been given in the Semitic tongue of Hebrew (or possibly, Aramaic), and in its historical setting, most probably the Apostolic decree as well. Hebrew is a very inclusive language and often a word has a depth of meaning that cannot be easily expressed by a single word in another language.[3] Therefore, a single word may express multiple meanings at one and the same time. It is in this light that I believe something significant has been overlooked.

In the study of the literature of the sages of Israel it is readily apparent that there is a multiplicity of opinions on every topic. It is in this spirit of diversity and in the search for greater understanding that I present my perspective on this subject, all the while realizing that I am challenging the scholarship of my teachers who are far more learned than I.

It is my position that the references to blood, in both the rabbinic and apostolic decrees, refer to not only murder but the consumption of blood as well. It has been said that the prohibition against consuming blood was only for  Jews and did not include Gentiles.[4]

This position is not found in the literature of the Sages, but the contrary position is stated.[5] However the definitive answer, I believe, is found in the Torah itself. In Genesis chapter 9, after the flood, mankind is told that they may now eat meat and not just seed yielding herbs and fruits as in the beginning.[6] In Genesis 9:3-4 it is said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat the flesh with the life, that is its blood.” This first reference to the consumption of blood is for all mankind before the establishment of the Jewish people. The second reference is to the offerings eaten by the Jewish people in Leviticus 7:26-27, “Moreover you shall not eat any blood in any of your dwellings whither of bird or beast. Whoever eats any blood, that person shall be cut off from his people.” This reference was for Jews only. However, the next reference is the most significant. In Leviticus 17:11-14, the Torah states:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.” Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who hunts and catches any animal or bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust, for it is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, “You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.”

The people of Israel were not only forbidden to eat blood, the strangers (i.e., non-Jews) who lived among them were also forbidden to eat blood on penalty of being cut off from the community and God.

In the 15th chapter of Acts, as well as Acts chapter 21, the dispute is over the inclusion of Gentiles with Jews in full fellowship. If Jews and Gentiles are to fellowship together there has to be a minimal standard of behavior that can be accepted and, as the Torah clearly states that Gentiles in the company of Jews are not permitted to eat blood, to do less than this minimum would violate the Torah and cause an irreconcilable difficulty for Jews as would eating meat sacrificed to idols or the sexual practices that the Torah forbids to Jews and Gentiles who lived among them. As in Leviticus 18, after listing many sexual practices that are forbidden, it says:

Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled, therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. You shall therefore keep my statues and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who dwells among you (for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled) lest the land vomit you out also when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations, the person who commits them shall be cut off from among their people. (Lev. 18:24-29)

Blodplättar, blood pancakes from Sweden.
Blodplättar, blood pancakes from Sweden.

In these texts we see that not only Jews but also Gentiles who lived among them were forbidden to eat blood, practice abominable sexual practices and, of course, to worship idols. The emphasis is on practices and behaviors that were unacceptable to God whether the individual was of the children of Israel or of the Gentiles. The emphasis of Acts chapters 15 and 21 deals with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles who have come to faith in Messiah and how they both can come together in fellowship. The dispute was largely led by members of the sect of the Pharisees; however, the community of believers was composed of individuals from many sects of Judaism that existed at this time. While most halachic rulings were in accord with the Pharisees, at times both Jesus and later his disciples were at odds with rabbinic decisions. Both for Jesus and his disciples the Torah and its proper interpretation was the final authority.

The inclusion of Gentiles among the community of faith did not happen immediately after the resurrection of Jesus, but perhaps as much as ten years later. In Acts chapter 10 the story is told of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. He was a God-Fearer, or in other words, a Gentile who believed in and worshiped the God of Israel. Peter received a vision in a time of prayer that he was to kill and eat what was unclean, but he protested saying, “Not so Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”[7] He was then instructed by God, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Peter was instructed to go to the house of Cornelius where he commented that it was not lawful for a Jew to enter the house of a Gentile.[8] This is not a prohibition of the Torah, but a rabbinic prohibition, as the homes of Gentiles were assumed to be unclean.[9] Notice in all of this that Peter is acting and responding as a Torah observant Jew and not as someone who sees the Torah as something that no longer has significance. Notice also that he is acting not solely on Torah but on the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, as well. Peter later recalls this experience in Acts chapter 15 at the council in Jerusalem where the issue of fellowship with Gentiles occurs. Both he and James hold the position that Gentiles are not required to keep all of the provisions of the Torah that are incumbent on Jews, but they do maintain that certain minimums must be observed. These minimums are the exact ones we have been discussing. These are, on the one hand, moral and ethical provisions, but on the other hand, minimal observances that pertain not only to ethics but to physical acts as well, and especially in the matter of what one was absolutely prohibited to eat. After all, the very first sin was an act of disobedience that was carried out by what man ate.

The prohibition to not eat blood was first given to all mankind before the establishment of Israel. Many today say that we as Christian believers have no dietary laws. However, if I am correct we do indeed have minimal dietary restrictions and many of us may be involved in actions that are not acceptable to God. Many of the people of our world eat blood sausage and other foods made with blood. In my understanding of Scripture, this is forbidden.

Lastly, as the question may arise that since all meat has blood in it what does it mean that we must not eat the flesh with the blood in it? This is one of the places where the Torah is not totally specific in what this means so we must rely on ancient understandings of the text. In the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 65a, it states:

As it is taught in a baraita: One who consumes blood squeezed from an animal after the initial spurt concluded violates a warning, i.e., a Torah prohibition for which flogging is the punishment for its violation. This is not as severe as consuming regular life blood, the blood that spurts out of an animal as it is being slaughtered, for which one is liable to receive karet [excision; being cut off from the Jewish people].[10]

In the notes to this edition of the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, it is stated:

The prohibition of blood: The primary prohibition against consuming blood is referring to the blood that spurts and flows immediately upon slaughtering an animal. One is liable to receive karet for consuming this blood. Other types of blood, including the blood that drains from the animal’s throat after the slaughtering and blood that is absorbed in the flesh and does not flow out of the animal at all, are governed by different rules. Consumption of some of these types of blood is prohibited by a less severe Torah prohibition, such as a negative commandment that does not carry the punishment of karet. Consumption of others is prohibited by rabbinic law, and consumption of still others is not prohibited at all.[11]

Therefore it is the blood that flows from an animal at slaughtering that is prohibited. There were other restrictions for consuming the blood that was squeezed from an animal after its slaughter, but not for the blood that was absorbed into the flesh, which is what we encounter in the meat we normally eat.

In conclusion, just as there were minimal restrictions on what man could eat in the beginning, it is the instruction of Scripture that we still have minimal restrictions on what we may eat and what we may do. At a minimum we must not engage in acts of idolatry, sexual licentiousness and perversions, nor engage in immoral acts such as murder, nor consume blood. To this, later, there was added the provision to not eat the meat of a strangled animal.  This was to clarify that one was forbidden to eat blood, as a strangled animal would not have its blood drained.  Flusser and Safrai noted this in their article when they mentioned Origen’s and Chrysostom’s comments on the subject:

As to the meaning of “things strangled” in the canonical formulation of the Apostolic Decree, one needs to consult the old church fathers because they still observed this regulation. Origen names as strangled any meat from which the blood had not been extracted. John Chrysostom defines it as “meat with the blood of the soul.” He points to Gen 9:4: “the flesh in its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.

And in this vein Flusser and Safrai also commented:

But does that mean that non-Jews should live with no ritual obligations whatsoever? This is why a moral-ritualistic obligation appears amid the Noahide commandments, that is, the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. There were other practical suggestions in this direction, and two of these prohibitions were adopted in the canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

The argument against the prohibition of the consumption of blood for the non-Jew is based upon the rabbinic usage cited throughout Flusser and Safrai’s article where blood is equated with murder. It may be significant however that in rabbinic usage the Hebrew word “dam” (blood) is usually used in the plural (damim) when talking about murder but, in the Apostolic decree the Greek word for blood (haimatos) is written in the singular. Just as the Hebrew word for blood is written in the plural in Gen. 4:10 where the context is the murder of Abel but in Lev. 17:11-14 the word blood is written in the singular when forbidding the consumption of blood. It has also been said that there is not a single occurrence in Rabbinic literature from the time of Jesus forbidding Gentiles from consuming blood. However, the reverse is even more true as the consensus of rabbinic literature prohibits the consumption of blood by Gentiles as well as  Jews. There are several rabbinic comments throughout history that do specify that Gentiles are also prohibited from consuming blood. Flusser and Safrai noted a tannaitic example in their article:

If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel said: “The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal.” (t. Abodah Zarah 8:4-8 [p. 473f.])”

Also, as is noted in the Koren Talmud Bavli, The Noe Edition, Pesahim Part I, p.113:

Just as a limb from a living animal is prohibited, so too, blood of a living being is prohibited. And to which blood is this referring? This is referring to blood spilled in the process of blood-letting, through which the soul departs. That is considered to be blood from a living being, and even the descendants of Noah are prohibited from eating it. (Rabbeinu Hananel).

And, as written in the article on blood in the Encyclopedia Judaica:

In the Bible there is an absolute prohibition on the consumption of blood. The blood of an animal must be drained before the flesh may be eaten (Lev. 3:17; 7;26; 17:10-14; Deut.12:15-16, 20-26) This prohibition is not found anywhere else in the ancient Near East. Moreover, within Israelite legislation it is the only prohibition (coupled with murder) enjoined not on Israel alone but on all men (Gen. 9:4). It is thus a more universal law than the Decalogue.

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that throughout history the consensus of Jewish understanding states that blood is forbidden to Gentiles as well as Jews. Those who hold that the consumption of blood is not forbidden to all mankind but only to Jews risk being in conflict, not only, with the majority of Jewish learning but with the Scriptures as well. I am greatly indebted to Professors Flusser and Safrai whose scholarship is without parallel. In this instance their conclusion seems to be based on their great knowledge of rabbinic literature and usage, but it seems they overlooked the Biblical commands and their interpretation throughout the centuries.

  • [1] David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, “The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments” (April 20, 2012).
  • [2] Resch’s studies of the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree helped three Jewish researchers independently to get on the right track. All three noted the relationship between the western form of the Apostolic Decree and the decision of the rabbinic synod of Lydda. This synod met in the year 120 C.E. and handed down the following decision: “Of all the trespasses forbidden in the Torah it holds true that if you are told, ‘trespass or be killed,’ you may trespass them all, except for idolatry, fornication and bloodshed [murder].”
  • [3] As my friend and mentor, Dwight Pryor, taught me, you need two hands to think Hebraically: For on the one hand statement A is true, but on the other hand, statement B is also true.
  • [4] Private communication with R. Steven Notley.
  • [5] “If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel said: ‘The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal’” (Tosephta, Avodah Zarah 8:4-8).
  • [6] Genesis 1:29.
  • [7] Acts 10:8-15.
  • [8] Acts 10:28.
  • [9] See Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 9a. The residences of Gentiles are ritually impure. See also the halachic note on page 44 of the Noe Edition of the Koren Talmud: “Any house where a gentile has lived for forty days has the presumptive status of ritual impurity. A Jew who enters that house is impure by rabbinic law, due to the concern that the gentile may have buried a stillborn child there.”
  • [10] Koren Talmud Bavli, The Noe Edition, Pesahim, Part One, p. 339.
  • [11] Ibid.

Hebraisms in the New Testament

“Hebraisms in the New Testament” was published in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols.; ed. Geoffrey Khan; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 2:198-201, and is used here with Brill’s permission.[1]

Revised: 31-October-2017

A ‘Hebraism’ is a typical feature of the Hebrew language found in another language. In this article, the term is used to refer to a Hebrew feature found in the Greek of the New Testament (NT).

The majority of today’s NT authorities assume that Aramaic lies behind the Semitisms of the NT, and that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language. This is so much so, in fact, that the student who consults standard reference works is informed that the Greek words for ‘Hebrew’ and for ‘in the Hebrew language’ (not only in the NT, but in Josephus and other texts) refer to the Aramaic language (BDAG 270). Moreover, although Acts 22.2 specifically uses the expression τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’) to refer to the language Paul is speaking at this point in the narrative, many English translations (e.g., NIV, NET) render these words as ‘in Aramaic’—even though the terms ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Aramaic’ are kept quite distinct in Greek texts from the period, such as the Septuagint (LXX) and the works of Josephus.

Since the discovery of the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, about eighty percent of which are written in Hebrew (Abegg 2000:461), the Hebrew Bar-Kokhba letters, and other epigraphic materials, a reassessment of the language situation in the Land of Israel in the 1st century C.E. has taken place. It now appears that Hebrew was alive and well as both a written and a spoken language (Bar-Asher 2006:568-569). Scholars have begun moving in the direction of a trilingual approach, with three primary languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, available for use (see, e.g., the ossuary inscriptions collected in Rahmani 1994). Hebrew served as the traditional language of the Jewish community; Aramaic served as the lingua franca of the Near East; and Greek served as the international lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean (Bar-Asher 2006:585). To be more specific, Aramaic was probably dominant in the Galilee,[2] Hebrew prevailed in Judea, and a multilingual situation characterized Jerusalem, Caesarea, and other large cities. The result of this multilingual situation, especially for the topic at hand, is a host of Semitisms (both Hebraisms and Aramaisms) in the NT (for listings, see Howard 1920:411-485; Fitzmyer 1981:113-125; Davies-Allison 1988:1 80-85).

There are ten references to the Hebrew language in the NT: τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (tē hebraidi dialektō, ‘in the Hebrew language’; Acts 21.40; 22.2; 26.14); Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti, ‘in Hebrew’; John 5.2; 19.13, 17, 20; 20.16; Rev. 9.11; 16.16). Paul speaks to a crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 21.40; 22.2), and Jesus speaks to Paul “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 26.14). The author of John gives the Greek transliterations of three place names—Bethzatha, Gabbatha, Golgotha—and despite their Aramaic etymology, he accepts these proper nouns as part of the Hebrew language. This author also records that the notice Pilate placed on the cross of Jesus “was written in Hebrew [Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti)], Greek and Latin”; and that Mary addressed the resurrected Jesus in Hebrew as ῥαββουνί (rabbouni, ‘my master’). The author of Revelation records two Hebrew names: Ἀβαδδών (Abaddōn, ‘the angel of the bottomless pit’ [Hebrew: אבדון ’aḇadōn, ‘destruction’]), and Ἁρμαγεδών (Harmagedōn, ‘mountain of Megiddo’ [Hebrew: הר מגידון har məḡiddōn]), a place name.

The Aramaic language is not mentioned in the NT, although it is referred to six times in the LXX (2 Kgs. 18.26; Ezra 4.7; 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b; Isa. 36.11; Dan. 2.4). The term Συριστί (Sūristi, ‘in the Aramaic language’) is the LXX’s translation of אֲרָמִית (arāmit); adjectival Συριακή (Sūriakē) in 2 Macc. 15.36; Job 42.17b.

It is often difficult to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic in Greek transliteration. Most transliterated proper nouns, e.g., Γεθσημανεί (Gethsēmanei; Matt. 26.36; Mark 14.32) and Ταβειθά (Tabeitha; Acts 9.36, 40), may be Hebrew or Aramaic, and, regardless of their origin, could be used in either language (or any language, for that matter). Common nouns, such as μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas, ‘mammon,’ ‘wealth’; Matt. 6.24; Luke 16.9, 11, 13) and κορβᾶν (korban, ‘corban,’ a gift dedicated to the Temple’; Mark 7.11), are used in both languages. However, the form ραββουνι (rabbouni) deserves comment. The word appears twice in the NT: Mark 10.51 and John 20.16, in the latter of which it is correctly called “Hebrew”. Most scholars assume this word is Aramaic, but, as Kutscher demonstrated (1977:268-271) on the basis of the most reliable manuscript evidence of Rabbinic Hebrew, it is acceptable first-century C.E. western Hebrew; cf. the form רַבּוּנוֹ (rabūnō, ‘his master’; Mishna Ta’anit 3.8 [Codex Kaufmann]).

In addition to Hebrew items, a number of transliterated Aramaic words are found in the NT: ταλιθὰ κούμ (talitha koum, ‘little girl, get up’; Mark 5.41); ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι (elōi elōi lema sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why did you forsake me’; Mark 15.34); Ἁκελδαμάχ (Hakeldamach, ‘field of blood’; Acts 1.19); and μαρὰν ἀθά (maran atha, ‘our lord, come’; 1 Cor. 16.22). Regarding ἐφφαθά (ephphatha, ‘be opened’; Mark 7.34), Abegg (2000:462) observed that the Greek transcription “is ambiguous and by form more likely Hebrew than Aramaic.”

Like the language of the Bar Kokhba letters (where תשמים abbreviates את השמים), as well as all living languages (e.g., modern American English has, “Betcha could,” or “Don’t wanna go”), Modern Hebrew, too, abbreviates speech, as this Israeli weekly magazine cover illustrates. The upper line of the banner held by the children reads מנקים תעולם (“We are cleaning up the environment”), with an abbreviation sign (′) over the ת to show that it stands for -את ה. The abbreviated מְנַקִּים תַּעוֹלָם, i.e, מְנַקִּים אֶת הָעוֹלָם, could only occur in a living, spoken language.

Two registers of Hebrew existed side-by-side in the first century C.E.: a high language and a low language. The former was a continuation of Biblical Hebrew, especially Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), and may be seen in many of the sectarian scrolls found at Qumran. The latter, a more colloquial variety, is illustrated by certain non-literary documents from the Judean Desert (cf., e.g., מעיד אני עלי תשמים [meʿid ʾani ʿalai taš-šamayim, ‘I call heaven as witness’; Murabbaʿat 43.3], with a reduced form of the nota accusativi [normally, את (ʾet)] affixed to the following noun), but primarily by Tannaitic literature. Hebraisms emanating from both registers are to be found in the NT, as illustrated below.

The aforementioned transcriptions of Hebrew lexemes are only the most obvious Hebraisms in the NT, but other influences may be seen as well. Most prominently, the Greek prose of the NT sometimes reflects an underlying Hebrew grammatical structure. Examples of such ‘literary Hebraisms’ are the structures [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + finite verb] (Mark 2x; Matt. 5x; Luke 22x) and [subjectless ἐγένετο (egeneto) + time phrase + καί (kai) + finite verb] (Matt. 1x; Luke 11x). Both constructions are Septuagintal equivalents of the biblical ‏וַיְהִי (wa-yhī, ‘and it was’) structures. Both are non-Lukan in style since, although they occur frequently in Luke’s gospel (apparently copied by Luke from one or more sources), they do not occur in Acts (the exemplar of Luke’s own hand, especially Acts 16-28). A deceptively similar syntactical structure, [ἐγένετο (egeneto) + infinitive as the main verb], does appear in both Luke and Acts. However, this structure is idiomatic Greek, and not a syntactical feature of Hebrew, nor is it found in the LXX (Buth and Kvasnica 2006:73, 268-273).

Selected examples of low-register Hebraisms, which appear in quoted speech within the Synoptic Gospels, include the following:

(1) In Luke 15.18, 21 the prodigal son says to his father: ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν (hēmarton eis ton ouranon, ‘I have sinned against heaven’). The post-biblical idiom ‘Heaven’ as a euphemism for ‘God’ to avoid the tetragrammaton does not occur in the Bible, nor is it found in the LXX. “The use of the term ‘Heaven’ in Luke 15.18, 21 as a substitute for the Divine Name can hardly be a septuagintism” (Wilcox 1992:5:1082). However, the idiom also exists in Aramaic (see Sokoloff 2002:557).

(2) In Matt. 12.42 (= Luke 11.31) Jesus uses the expression βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou, ‘queen of south’). This expression is apparently a literal Greek translation of מלכת תימן (malkat teman, ‘queen of Teman’), a post-biblical equivalent for biblical מַלְכַּת שְׁבָא (malkat shevā’,  ‘queen of Sheba’; 1 Kgs. 10.1, etc.; always [8x] βασίλισσα Σαβα [basilissa Saba] in the LXX). “Neither in Greek nor in Aramaic could the term for ‘south’ be used as an equivalent of Sheba” (Grintz 1960:39). Notice also that βασίλισσα νότου (basilissa notou) has no article, likely as a result of its being the translation of Hebrew construct state.

(3) Jesus said to Peter, σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι (sarx kai aima ouk apekalūpsen soi, ‘flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you’; Matt. 16.17), something that would have been unclear to a Greek-speaker outside a Jewish environment. The expression בשר ודם (basar vadam, ‘flesh and blood,’ i.e., a mortal human being) is a post-biblical idiom (cf. Mishna Nazir 9.5; Mishna Sota 8.1). The expression is not found in the LXX, nor is it an Aramaism (Grintz 1960:36).

(4) The theological concept העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ, ‘the world to come,’  lit. ‘the coming world’) is coupled by Jesus in Luke 18.30 with חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām, ‘eternal life,’ lit. ‘life of eternity’), a LBH expression, in a wordplay based on the dual meaning of Hebrew עולם as ‘eternity’ and ‘world’ in Second Temple Hebrew, καὶ ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (kai en tō aiōni tō erchomenō zōēn aiōnion [conjectured Heb.: ובעולם הבא חיי עולם (u-ḇa-ʿolam hab-baʾ ḥayye ʿolam, lit., ‘and in the coming world life of eternity’]). For this same wordplay, see Mishna Avot 2.7 (Codex Kaufmann). The expression העולם הבא (ha-ʿolam hab-baʾ) does not appear in the Bible or the LXX, but it is found often in rabbinic literature, e.g., 15x in the Mishnah; while חיי עולם (ḥayye ʿōlām) appears once in the Bible (Dan. 12.2). The wordplay is also possible in Aramaic.

(5) The wordplay ‘forgive a sinner’s sins’ / ‘forgive (i.e., cancel) a debtor’s debts’, found in Luke 7.36-50 and Matt. 18.23-35, is possible because of two senses of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) verb מחל (maḥal, ‘to forgive’) In post-biblical Hebrew, מחל (maḥal) replaced the BH סָלַח (sālaḥ, ‘to forgive someone,’ ‘forgive sins’ [but in BH never ‘to forgive a debt’!]). Apparently, the two senses of מחל (maḥal) are also behind the request, ‘Forgive us our debts’ in the sense of ‘Forgive us our sins’, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6.12). The equation ‘sinners’ = ‘debtors is found in a case of synonymous parallelism in Luke 13.2, 4. In early rabbinic sources there are numerous examples of the expressions ‘forgive wrongs or sins’ and ‘forgive debts’ with the verb מחל (maḥal), e.g., ‘he is not forgiven until he seeks [forgiveness] from [the plaintiff]’ (Mishna Bava Qamma 8.7); ‘[if the victim] forgave him the value of the principal” (Mishna Bava Qamma 9.6); ‘forgive me this morsel’ (Tosefta Bava Batra 5.8); and ‘[sins] against God you are forgiven’ (מוחלים לך [mōḥalim lecha]; Sifra, Aḥare Mot 8 [to Lev. 16.30]). The exact expression ‘forgive sin or debt’ with the verb מחל (maḥal) has not turned up in the more meager Second Temple Hebrew and Aramaic literary remains (מחל [maḥal] is found only 5x, in the non-biblical DSS). However, the nouns חוב (ḥōv) and חובה (ḥōvah), connoting both ‘sin, guilt’ and ‘debt’, along with the verbal root חו″ב (ḥ-v-b) ‘sin, be guilty of’ and ‘be indebted,’ are attested. In Hebrew texts, we find, e.g., כלנו חייבים (kullanū ḥayyavim, ‘[Remember that] we all are guilty’; Sir. 8.5; cf. Sir. 11.18; CD 3.10). In Aramaic texts, one finds, e.g., ‘your sins…your wrongs’ (4Q537 f6.1), where the plural of חוב (ḥōv, ‘sin,’ ‘debt’) is parallel to the plural of its synonym חטא (ḥeṭʾ, ‘sin’).

In sum, the text of the NT contains many Semitic elements, some of which are Hebraisms and some of which are Aramaisms. The Hebrew language is mentioned ten times in the NT: Jesus, Paul, and Mary speak “in the Hebrew language”; three toponyms bear ‘Hebrew’ names; even an angel has a ‘Hebrew’ name. The notice Pilate had placed on Jesus’ cross was written ‘in Hebrew,’ as well as in Greek and Latin. The Synoptic Gospels show evidence for the existence of two registers of Hebrew: a high, literary register and a low, spoken one. Translations of Hebrew syntactic structures and literary phrases are found in the narrative framework of these gospels; while direct speech exhibits wordplays and idioms that are typical of post-biblical, spoken Hebrew.

Enlargement of an ossuary fragment discovered in Jerusalem bearing a Hebrew “Corban” inscription. Translation: “Any man who [intends to use] it [should regard] it as Corban [i.e., dedicated to the Temple].” Photo: Boaz Zissu. Courtesy of Boaz Zissu.


  • Abegg, Martin G., Jr. 2000. “Hebrew language”. Dictionary of New Testament background, ed. by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, 459-463. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity.
  • Bar-Asher, Moshe. 2006. “Mishnaic Hebrew: An introductory survey”. The literature of the sages: Second part, ed. by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, and Peter J. Tomson, 567-595. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum and Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • BDAG = Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, and Felix W. Gingrich. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Buth, Randall. 1990. “Edayin/Tote—Anatomy of a Semitism in Jewish Greek”. Maarav 5-6:33-48.
  • Buth, Randall and Kvasnica, Brian. 2006. “Temple authorities and tithe evasion: The linguistic background and impact of the parable of ‘the vineyard, the tenants and the son'”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 53-80, 259-317. Leiden: Brill.
  • Davies, William David and Dale C. Allison, Jr. 1988. A critical and exegetical commentary on the gospel according to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Eshel, Hanan. 2006. “On the use of the Hebrew language in economic documents from the Judean Desert”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 245-258. Leiden: Brill.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1981. The gospel according to Luke (Anchor Bible Commentary). Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
  • Grintz, Jehoshua M. 1960. “Hebrew as the spoken and written language in the last days of the Second Temple”. Journal of Biblical Literature 79:32-47.
  • Howard, Wilbert Francis. 1920. “Semitisms in the New Testament”. A grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. by James Hope Moulton, Wilbert Francis Howard, and Nigel Turner, vol. 2, 411-485. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Joosten, Jan. 2004. “Aramaic or Hebrew behind the gospels?” Analecta Bruxellensia 9:88-101.
  • ____. 2005. “The ingredients of New Testament Greek”. Analecta Bruxellensia 10:56-69.
  • Joosten, Jan and Menahem Kister. 2010. “The New Testament and Rabbinic Hebrew”. The New Testament and rabbinic literature (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 136), ed. by Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson, 335-350. Leiden: Brill.
  • Kutscher, Eduard Yechezkel. 1977. Hebrew and Aramaic studies (Hebrew, and English). Jerusalem: Magnes.
  • ____. 1982. A history of the Hebrew language. Jerusalem: Magnes and Leiden: Brill.
  • Rahmani, Levi Yitshak. 1994. A catalogue of Jewish ossuaries in the collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
  • Safrai, Shmuel. 2006. “Spoken and literary languages in the time of Jesus”. Jesus’ last week: Jerusalem studies in the synoptic gospels, ed. by R. Steven Notley, Marc Turnage, and Brian Becker, 225-244. Leiden: Brill.
  • Sokoloff, Michael. 2002. A dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period. Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.
  • Wilcox, Max. 1992. “Semiticisms in the New Testament”. Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5, 1081-1086.
  • Zissu, Boaz and Amir Ganor. 2007. “A new ‘qorban’ inscription on an ossuary from Jerusalem” (in Hebrew). Cathedra 123:5-12, 193.

The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments

Translated by Halvor Ronning[1]

Dedicated to the memory of Gregory Steen[2]

In August 1769 Lavater urged Moses Mendelssohn to undergo conversion to Christianity, thereby causing much distress to Mendelssohn.[3] For our subject it is especially productive to consider the letter that Mendelssohn wrote to the Crown Prince of Braunschweig-Wolfenbuettel.[4] Among other things, he wrote: “The founder of the Christian religion never explicitly said he wanted to remove the Mosaic Law, nor to dispense with the Jews. Such a notion, I do not find in any of the Evangelists. For a long time the apostles and disciples still had their doubts as to whether Gentile believers must accept the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. Eventually, it was decided ‘not to lay too heavy a burden upon them’ (Acts 15:28). This agrees completely with the teaching of the rabbis, as I noted in my letter to Lavater. But as regards the Jews, when they accept Christianity, I find no basis in the New Testament for exempting them from the Mosaic commandments. On the contrary, the apostle himself had Timothy circumcised. Therefore, it should be clear that there is no way that I could free myself from the Mosaic Law.”

When Mendelssohn spoke of “the teaching of the rabbis,” he was referring to what he had written to Lavater, “All our rabbis are united in teaching that the written and oral commandments, of which our religion consists, are binding only on our nation…all other peoples of the earth, we believe, are commanded by God to obey the law of nature and the religion of the patriarchs.”[5]

In order to clarify this latter statement, Mendelssohn gave a list of those ordinances that the peoples of the earth must obey. “The seven main commandments of the Noahides, which encompass the essential ordinances of natural law, are avoidance of: 1) idolatry; 2) blasphemy; 3) shedding of blood; 4) incest[6] ; 5) theft; 6) perverting of justice—these six ordinances were understood to have been revealed to Adam—and finally, 7) the prohibition, revealed to Noah, against eating from the limb of a living animal (b. Avod. Zar. 64; Maimonides on Kings 8,10).”[7]

Mendelssohn’s fundamental insights were:

a) According to the New Testament, a Jew is not obligated to abandon the Mosaic Law when he or she accepts Christianity. It follows, then, that Christians who are of Jewish origin, the so-called Jewish Christians, are obligated to observe Torah according to the teaching of the Apostolic Church.

b) According to Acts it was decided not to lay too heavy a burden on the Gentile believers. Rather, they were to be freed from the Mosaic Law and were obligated to follow only the prohibitions that make up the so-called Apostolic Decree.

c) This teaching of the Early Church is completely compatible with the unanimous rabbinic view that the Mosaic Law is obligatory for the Jewish people only, and that God has directed the rest of the peoples of the earth to follow only the seven main Noahide commandments.

Mendelssohn’s conclusions are historically correct as was demonstrated in an earlier article.[8] In this article we will discuss the two forms of the Apostolic Decree, the canonical and the non-canonical.

Mendelssohn equated the rabbinic Noahide commandments with the prohibitions of the Apostolic Council. Since the Apostolic Decree differs significantly from the rabbinic Noahide commandments, was he precise in making this equation? The rabbis listed seven Noahide commandments. According to Acts 15:19-20, the apostles accepted the suggestion of James, the Lord’s brother, that “one should not make difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles, but rather should require of them only that they abstain from defilement of idols, from fornication, from strangled [meat] and from blood.” The Mishnah, likewise, refers to defilement as a result of idolatry (m. Shab. 9:1). From Acts 15:28-29 and 21:25, the parallels to Acts 15:19-20, we learn that the early church understood “the defilement of idols” to mean, “meat offered to idols.”

The “western” text of Acts, whose most important representative is Codex Bezae, presents us with an alternative form of the Apostolic Decree. In 1905 Gotthold Resch drew attention to the importance of this alternative form.[9] According to the western text, Gentiles who turn to God are to avoid meat sacrificed to idols, blood and fornication. Resch correctly understood that “blood” refers to murder, and not to the eating of blood. In the western form of the text, at Acts 15:20 and 15:29, there is an addition: “Whatever you do not want others to do to you, you should not do to others.” This is the usual negative form of the so-called Golden Rule.[10]

In our view, Resch succeeded in presenting the philological proof that the western text of the Apostolic Decree is the more original, but his theological understanding was limited to his contemporary situation. Furthermore, the historical support that he adduces for his arguments is often of little value. For this reason his suggestion was quickly forgotten, despite being happily accepted at the time by Harnack. Today it is generally accepted that the usual, or canonical, form of the Apostolic Decree is the more original.

One exception to this consensus is Harald Sahlin.[11] He argued correctly that, “The Decree must be understood against its Jewish background…the formulation ‘idolatry, blood and fornication’ is almost identical to the well-known rabbinic formulation of the three central sins, ‘idolatry, bloodshed and fornication.’” We would argue that the rabbinic and the western text of the Apostolic Decree, are not identical by chance, and that this identity is decisive proof for the authenticity of the western text. Resch did discern the matter correctly, but failed to prove decisively the correctness of his observation. His reason for preferring the western form of the Apostolic Decree was his mistaken notion that its ethical content expressed the break with Jewish ceremonial requirements that was supposedly intended by Jesus and finally spelled out by the Apostles.

Resch’s studies of the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree helped three Jewish researchers independently to get on the right track.[12] All three noted the relationship between the western form of the Apostolic Decree and the decision of the rabbinic synod of Lydda. This synod met in the year 120 C.E. and handed down the following decision: “Of all the trespasses forbidden in the Torah it holds true that if you are told, ‘trespass or be killed,’ you may trespass them all, except for idolatry, fornication and bloodshed [murder].”[13]

It is enlightening to take a closer look at the words of the third researcher, Gedalyahu Alon, to learn from them and also to apply them to other areas of Jewish and Christian traditions of faith. Alon demonstrated that there was a tendency in ancient Judaism (and later in Christianity) to summarize the essence of one’s religion in formulations. Such a formulation could be called a credo, a confession of faith, or a statement of principles [Regula]. The purpose of such declarations was to achieve a formulation of the quintessence of Judaism. Alon rightly commented that the aim of these ancient Jewish definitions was not usually to make a dogmatic statement about the contents of the faith, but rather to set out the essence of the Jewish ethic—the fruit of which is the performance of individual commandments.[14] Moreover, these moral rules, whether positive commands or prohibitions, are not the “light” but the “heavy” commandments. At issue is the keeping of the “least of these commandments,” to use the language of Matthew 5:19. Reference to commandments as “light” usually occurs when the point being made is that small trespasses soon lead to large trespasses.[15]

It would be worthwhile to examine in ancient Judaism the various axiomatic statements of the essence of Judaism. Sometimes this can be accomplished by looking at ancient Jewish catalogues of virtues and vices, or by considering the so-called “household codes” found in the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Especially widespread was the view that the Ten Commandments are to be considered the expression of the religion of Israel,[16] with preference given to the second half of the Decalogue. In order to define the essence of Judaism, people used formulations such as the Golden Rule, or selected Bible verses. Not only in Matthew 22:34-40, but also in Jewish sources, two main rules were adduced: one must love God (Deut. 6:5); one must love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18).[17] In the rabbinic view, the command to love one’s neighbor (or its equivalent, the Golden Rule) was seen as the essence of the Mosaic Law. This tendency makes it clear why it was that the summation of the Torah was understood to be the second half of the Decalogue, which deals with prohibitions relating to one’s neighbor.

Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page
Johann Kaspar Lavater cover page

The last five commandments of the Decalogue served as a starting point for new formulations. Sometimes, not all of the last five were quoted, and sometimes other ethical admonitions were inserted into this list. In terms of genre, these formulations were attached either to the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) or, to its equivalent, the Golden Rule. To this genre belong the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).[18] The fact that following Jesus’ words we find the command to honor one’s parents, which according to the original Jewish reckoning belongs to the first half of the Decalogue, seems to indicate that the command to honor one’s parents was only later added to Jesus’ words. Matthew concluded Jesus’ words to the youth with the command to love one’s neighbor. Admittedly, this conclusion is not original, but it is stylistically genuine: love for one’s neighbor, according to the understanding at that time, does belong to the second half of the Decalogue.

Another especially important example of a summation of the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-18) on the basis of the second half of the Decalogue is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48).[19] Here, too, we find that not all of the five commandments of the second half of the Decalogue are dealt with, but that other ethical requirements are introduced. Again, the unit is concluded with the command to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 5:43-48)—entirely in accord with the rules of this genre.

For our purposes the most important representative of this genre is the early Christian Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache),[20] or, more precisely, its Jewish source, the so-called “Two Ways.” In the first part of this document (chapters 1-4), the way of life is described; in the second part (chapters 5-6), the way of death: “This now is the way of life. First, you shall love God who created you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Moreover, anything that you do not want to happen to you, you shall not do to another” (Didache 1:2). We see that the way of life is characterized by both the double rule of loving God and neighbor, and also by the Golden Rule.

To this same genre belongs the western form of the Apostolic Decree, in our opinion the Decree’s more original formulation. Two of the three sins it lists are found in the second half of the Decalogue—bloodshed (i.e, murder) and fornication—the sixth and seventh commandments,[21] and the other central sin, idolatry, is mentioned in the first half of the Ten.[22] Accordingly, it is stylistically authentic that in the first two references to the Apostolic Decree according to the western text (Acts 15:19-20 and 15:28-29), the decree concludes with the negative form of the Golden Rule. However, in the third reference to the Decree (Acts 21:25), the Golden Rule would have disturbed the context. It is difficult to decide whether the Golden Rule really belongs to the Apostolic Decree. Those who doubt that it belongs can note the fact that it is lacking in the canonical text, and that in Matthew 19:16-19 the command to love one’s neighbor is a Matthean addition. However, as we have pointed out, the Golden Rule fits the Apostolic Decree in terms of genre authenticity.[23]

The western form of the Apostolic Decree is composed of three sins.[24] These are the sins that a Jew cannot commit under any circumstances. Additionally, these three sins are the first three Noahide commandments. We align ourselves with Alon’s view that these three sins express the focus of ethical behavior. They are also a succinct formulation of that which Judaism most strongly abhors and seeks to avoid. In a special way, the list defines the essence of Judaism. This is true for this list and for other such summary statements in Judaism (and in Christianity). There is often a peculiar dialectic that is involved; ancient Judaism did not attempt to establish dogmatic confessions of faith, but rather to lay down rules of ethics. Attempts to encapsulate the essence of Judaism kept their distance from the ceremonial, ritualistic, legalistic side of Judaism. One reason for this paradox is that religions like Judaism, in which the legal side is strongly developed, do not need to concern themselves with the legalities when they come to summarize the essential, because the legal aspect is taken for granted. In Judaism, existence, as formulated through these summary statements, is essentially theological-ethical.[25] Accordingly, Rabbi Akiva, who knew how to spin myriad halachoth from every tittle of Torah,[26] nevertheless declared that the command to love one’s neighbor is the greatest principle of Jewish learning (Lev. 19:18).[27]

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn

Understanding how existence is summarized in Judaism is important for the correct understanding of the western form of the Apostolic Decree, which is composed of the three Jewish prime sins. As long as it has to do with the inner Jewish ethic, it is the ethical-theological aspect, and not the ritual, that is the definitive factor in the choice of these three sins. However, when one steps out of inner Jewish boundaries in an attempt to determine correct behavior for non-Jews, there is a tendency to erect ritual limits. For Jews ritual limits are superfluous, since they are already “under the law.” This truth will become clearer in the course of our study as we now turn to the developmental stages of the Noahide commandments, comparing the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree with the canonical form.

This list, like other formulations of its kind, was originally designed to shed light on the essence of Judaism as a religious system and lay bare its roots. Granted that such formulations are aimed at expressing the essential, nevertheless, whether they do or do not intend it, they cast a certain shadow over everything else and gain an intrinsic worth and independence. This is especially so in the case of the normative, formulated Christian confessions of faith, which led to the labeling of others with differing opinions as heretics. Ancient Judaism did not have such creedal statements, yet, after a fashion, the Jewish regulae fidei do present a certain self-understanding. The “three-sin doctrine” was well suited not just to express the inner Jewish way-of-life in the face of external pressures, but also to provide minimal moral limitations for non-Jewish God-fearers. The western text of the Apostolic Decree admonished believing Gentiles to avoid the three crucial sins, and we assume that these were at the time the original content of the Noahide commandments. Thus, the early apostolic church simply accepted Jewish legal practice relating to believing non-Jews.

Unfortunately, our sources do not allow us to determine what were the external circumstances that led the early church to begin using the Lydda ruling as a measure applicable to its own needs for discipline. We know only that the ruling came into use by the church sometime after 120 C.E., almost certainly before the year 200.[28] At that time, exclusion from the church was the punishment for lapsing into idolatry, sexual transgression and murder. If the morally fallen were truly repentant, they could not attain forgiveness during their lifetime, however, they were still granted a hope of forgiveness in the world to come. At that time the three major sins in Christian circles were called the peccata capitalia (capital sins) or the peccata mortalia (mortal sins).[29] The oldest witness to this trio of sins is Irenaeus who wrote (between 180 and 185 C.E.) that the unjust, idolaters and whores had lost eternal life and would be thrown into everlasting fire.[30] Furthermore, two church fathers, Tertullian and Hippolytus, mention the three mortal sins.[31] Apparently, Hippolytus, as well as Tertullian, emphasized the importance of the mortal sins in connection with the laxity of Pope Kallistus. We may conclude that the original text of the Apostolic Decree prohibited the three primary sins and that these prohibitions were the same prohibitions that early Judaism laid down for non-Jewish God-fearers. These were also the sins that, according to the Lydda decision, no Jew could commit even if it meant the loss of one’s own life. This Jewish ruling was accepted by the church in the course of the second century. It was applied to Christians who had sinned greatly and whose repentance was not adequate. The result was that the church was influenced twice by the Jewish prohibition of the three prime sins: the first time by the original form of the Noahide commandments in the older (Western) form of the Apostolic Decree; the second time by the disciplinary decision reached at Lydda, which was followed by similar disciplinary measures in the early church. From the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree, Tertullian concluded that after Christian baptism one’s violation of the three mortal sins could not be atoned for by repentance. In referring to the mortal sins, the first sin he mentioned was offerings to idols (sacrificia), yet in his commentary, he spoke of worshiping idols (idolatria).[32] In addition, the later ecclesiastical writers sometimes changed the wording of the Apostolic Decree by substituting “meat offered to idols” for “idolatry,” because they, too, identified the Apostolic Decree, in which meat offered to idols was prohibited, with the later ecclesiastical rules of discipline, according to which idolatry was unforgiveable.

From this proceeds an important fact that one can check on the basis of the texts. The western form of the Apostolic Decree also spoke of meat offered to idols. This means that from the prohibition of idolatry in the three Noahide commandments, the apostles derived the prohibition of meat offered to idols. That idolatry was forbidden to all believing Christians was, of course, totally obvious; however, the eating of the meat sacrificed to idols was not so obvious. Paul and the Revelation of John provide testimony that the Apostolic Decree expressly forbid Christians the eating of meat offered to idols.[33] John of Patmos, who in Rev. 2:24-25 is certainly referring to the Apostolic Decree when he says, “I will not impose any other burden on you,”[34] prohibits in Rev. 2:14 and 2:20 the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Anyone who takes a look at 1 Cor. 8 and 1 Cor. 10:14-11:1 will see that Paul also dealt with the problem of the prohibition of meat offered to idols and found a penetrating solution.[35] In other words, the apostles took the Jewish rejection of idolatry and sharpened it by forbidding the Christians of Gentile origin to eat offerings to idols.

We assume that under no circumstances was a Jew to trespass the three capital sins, but also that non-Jews were equally obligated if they wanted to participate in the salvation of Israel. We assume, therefore, that by a decision of the apostolic church in Jerusalem, these mortal sins also were forbidden to believers of Gentile origin. We now turn to the Jewish background of the Apostolic Decree and ask ourselves whether or not, of the seven Noahide commandments, it was indeed these three that were especially suited to be carried over to the behavior of non-Jews. In rabbinic literature it is assumed that Ishmael, the son of Abraham, and Esau[36] and the inhabitants of Sodom had all committed the three central sins.[37] Debauchery[38] and the giving of false testimony[39] were considered as serious as idolatry, fornication and murder. It is evident also here that the decisive seriousness of the three major sins relates not only to the non-Jews (Ishmael, Esau, Sodom), but to all mankind and, therefore, includes Jews. On the Day of Atonement the scapegoat brings reconciliation for the uncleanness of the children of Israel as regards idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder).[40] These three sins apply not only to inner-Jewish but also to extra-Jewish matters as well, since these sins are part of the Jewish religious system as well as being universally applicable—they are foundational principles.[41]

Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).
Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Seated are Lavater (left) and Mendelssohn (right).

We have determined that in their original form the Noahide commandments were limited to three prohibitions.

The number three is as suitable for such a list as is seven. Three is the number of the Noahide main commandments in the Book of Jubilees, but they are not identical with the usual triad.

In the twenty-eighth Jubilee Noah began to offer to his grandchildren the ordinances and commandments that he knew. He prescribed and testified to his children that they should act justly and that they should cover the shame of their nakedness and that they should bless their Creator and honor their father and mother and that each should love his neighbor and that each should protect himself from fornication and uncleanness and all injustice. The reason being that it was because of these three that the flood covered the earth. (Jub. 7:20-21)

Here we have, along with other moral ordinances, three prohibitions attributed to Noah: fornication, uncleanness, and injustice. Similar descriptions are given about the antediluvian giants and about Sodom:

And he (Abraham) told them (his children) about the judgment upon the giants and the judgment of Sodom, how they were judged because of their badness, because of fornication and uncleanness and perversity with each other and fornication worthy of death. “So you must keep yourselves from all fornication and uncleanness and from every taint of sin.” (Jub. 20:5-6)

About the judgments at the end of time it is said: “All this will come over this evil generation because the earth allowed such sins in the impurity of fornication and in blemishing and in the hideousness of their deeds” since “all their work is impurity and hideousness and all their works are blemishing and impurity and perversity” (Jub. 23:14, 17).

And in Jub. 30:15 there is threat of discipline and curse:

…both when someone does these deeds, and also when one makes his eyes blind to these deeds, when they act impurely and when they profane the holiness of the Lord and stain His Holy Name—they will all be judged….

All these places in the Book of Jubilees deal with the same theme, in which the three sins are named that brought the Flood upon the earth, namely, fornication, uncleanness and injustice (Jub. 7:20f).[42]

A closely related list of three main sins is found in the Damascus Document (CD 4:13-19).[43] The Book of Jubilees was composed in the second century B.C.E. and belongs to the same Jewish movement as that out of which the Essene sect of Qumran arose. The Damascus Document comes from a sister congregation of this sect; fragments of this document were found in the caves of Qumran. In the Damascus Document there is reference to Isa. 24:17:

“Terror and pit and snare confront you, O inhabitant of the earth.” The meaning of this refers to the three nets of Belial about which Levi, the son of Jacob, has said that he [Belial] uses them to ensnare Israel and he gives them the appearance of three types of righteousness; the first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is defiling the sanctuary. Whoever escapes one of these nets falls into the next, and whoever escapes that net falls into the next.[44]

The Damascus Document here mentions—doubtless on the backdrop of the older Testament of Levi[45] —three main sins, namely, fornication, riches, and profanation of the Holy, whereas the Book of Jubilees (7:20f.) names fornication, impurity and injustice as the three main sins. That the two triads are related cannot be doubted; it is only that the list in the Damascus document has become more “Essenic.” Fornication remains, but instead of speaking in general about impurity and injustice, the Damascus Document speaks of impurity of Satan (Belial) and of riches.

It is known that the “poor in spirit,” the Essenes, saw in riches a gate that leads to sin, and considered the contemporary devil in Jerusalem as unclean. If we compare the three Noahide prohibitions of the Book of Jubilees with the rabbinic and early Christian triads, we notice the following: the two triads agree not only in respect to fornication, but also in that they both relate to Noahides, that is, non-Jews. However, in contrast to the triad of the book of Jubilees (and the related triad in the Damascus Document), the rabbinic and early Christian triads list idolatry, murder and fornication as the three major sins. And it is precisely this latter triad that also is included in the normative form of the seven Noahides commandments, in the decision of Lydda, and in the early church’s list of mortal sins. These same three serious trespasses are the ones forbidden in the extra-canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

From what we have seen in the Book of Jubilees (and in the Damascus Document), it is obvious that there existed three Noahide prohibitions from the beginning. This supports our assumption that the original Noahide commandments named only the three mortal sins and that the apostolic church simply applied these to the Noahide God-fearers who had come to faith in Christ. In support of our argument is a generally known fact that is also decisive, that is, the seven Noahide commandments that are now binding in Judaism, are first mentioned only after the Hadrianic persecution, that is, from the second half of the second century.

It is therefore not an accident that the contents of the Apostolic Decree were at that time identical with the Noahide commandments. It is very noteworthy that in both cases a similar tendency was at work, a tendency that was responsible for the present usual forms both of the Noahide commandments and of the Apostolic Decree. In both cases there was a tendency to enhance the basic universally human ethical principles by means of additional ritual requirements for Gentile God-fearers who were not ritually bound. Such requirements for those who already lived under the law were superfluous.

For the Apostolic Decree, taken formally, the change was simple: one need only add the word “strangled.”[46] Blood is thereby not understood as shedding of blood, i.e., murder, but as the prohibition of eating blood. This shows that the simple change in the text is not to be explained primarily as a matter of literary-critical considerations, but that this other version, the canonical text, is preserving an actual practice that set in within certain circles of the ancient church. There is no lack of evidence that there were Christians who observed the eating regulations of the canonical Apostolic Decree. We can even assume that the Christians who were the teachers of Mohammed were followers of this “halachic” tradition, a tradition that we know from the canonical text of the Apostolic Council. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain the similarity of the verses in the Koran about eating meat with the usual form of the Apostolic Decree.[47]

We will now seek to show that the halachic approach of the canonical Apostolic Decree is based on the Jewish regulations for Noahides. However, we must not forget that in the time of the Church Fathers the extra-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree did not exist off in some hidden corner. The most important of the Church Fathers knew it and used it.

From rabbinic sources it is easy to see that there was a tendency not to be restricted just to the seven Noahide commandments. Various rabbis wanted to impose additional rules on the God-fearers from among the nations. Some even went so far as to propose thirty Noahide commandments.[48] Naturally, one can ask whether the additional suggested regulations were actually so intended, i.e., as a further burden—though well-meant—to be laid on the Gentiles, or whether at least part of this list of extra-canonical Noahide commandments simply came out of the period before the seven Noahide commandments were fixed in their normative form. The usual form of the Apostolic Decree demonstrates that the second option is the correct one, and points to the fact that these earlier, non-normative Noahide rules were in fact observed by some of the God-fearers. This is the only way one can explain how the prohibitions of blood and the strangled parallels show up precisely in the Jewish “extra-canonical” forms of the commandments.[49] As to the meaning of “things strangled” in the canonical formulation of the Apostolic Decree, one needs to consult the old church fathers because they still observed this regulation.[50] Origen names as strangled any meat from which the blood had not been extracted. John Chrysostom defines it as “meat with the blood of the soul.” [51] He points to Gen. 9:4: “the flesh in its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.”

What is important is that Judaism used exactly the same verse to draw conclusions about the prohibition of eating morsels of the living. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), referring to the matter of strangulation, asserts that Gentile Christians of his day no longer felt bound to abstain from eating the meat of a bird from which its blood had not been drained, or a hare killed by a blow to the neck (without a bleeding wound), evidence that such abstention had been practiced previously by Gentile Christians. [52] What was meant in this matter was that “the meat of such animals that were neither slaughtered nor shot, but killed in some external way without the spilling of blood, so that their blood—without any wound through which it could bleed—was trapped in them.”[53] In the most important text[54] of the tannaic discussion of the Noahide commandments we read:

If one [a non-Jew] strangles and eats a bird that is smaller than an olive, he is allowed to do it. R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel[55] said: “The non-Jew also is prohibited from eating the blood of a living animal.” (t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-8 [p. 473f.])

There existed, therefore, the opinion that not only was it forbidden for a God-fearer from among the Gentiles to eat a piece of a living animal, but that this God-fearer was also not allowed to eat the blood of a living animal. As one can deduce from the canonical Apostolic Decree, this was not just a matter of learned reflection by a rabbinic authority, rather in ancient times there really were God-fearers who actually did abstain from the blood of animals.

The rabbinic sources that speak about the prohibitions of strangulation and blood for Noahides seem to show that both variants of the Apostolic Decree, i.e., both the extra-canonical and the canonical, are nothing other than variants of the Jewish regulations for non-Jews, before these regulations stabilized into the customary seven Noahide commandments. How could it have been otherwise? Once Gentiles, too, began coming to faith in the Messiah Jesus, it was natural to apply the Noahide commandments to them. At first, according to the “extra-canonical” text, they were required to follow the oldest form of the Noahide commandments, that is, abstaining from the three central sins: idolatry, fornication and bloodshed. Later the text was adapted to a second form of the Noahide commandments, one probably practiced by Christians native to another locale, the commandments that Jews of that local expected of God-fearing Gentiles. It was this second form that eventually became the dominant textual variant.

Let us take a closer look at the earlier stages of the present seven Noahide commandments. As has been demonstrated, there were only three such stages. The first stage consisted of the prohibition of the three main sins. The second stage involved the five basic principles without which the maintenance of human social order is unthinkable. The third stage was the six Adamic commandments. [56] At the end of this development stand the customary seven Noahide commandments.

We do not want to argue that this is a matter of a strict historical development; we would rather speak in terms of the development of a principle. Also when considered chronologically, these four systems of expressing the basic principles existed contemporaneously. To what extent each of the four formulations were not more than ideologically learned constructions, or to what extent they also had practical applications, is difficult for us to discern today. But one should not forget that both practice-oriented regulations and also “philosophical” principles of justice were meaningful, and not only in Judaism. In any case, it is certain that at least the first and the last stages did function as halachically concrete regulations. As to the primarily halachic meaning of the seven Noahide commandments, we need not elaborate.

As to the first stage, we have concluded that these original three prohibitions required by the Jewish religion system, were also the ones required of non-Jews. The immutable prohibitions against idolatry, fornication and bloodshed (i.e., murder) were adopted by the church in the course of the second century. (Whether or not the five basic principles and the six Adamic commandments actually influenced the behavior of people we cannot know.)

Perhaps the developmental history of the five basic principles, without which the maintenance of human social order would be unthinkable, is the most interesting.[57] Added to the three prime sins are the sins of theft[58] and blasphemy.

“My judgments” [Lev. 18:4], these are the words of the Torah, which, if they had not been written, would have had to be written and added. They are the following[59] : theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and bloodshed. Had these not been written, they would have had to be written and added.

Afterwards, more such regulations of ritual nature were added against which objections were raised both by human reasoning and also by the Gentiles. Five of the customary Noahide commandments are mentioned here as being natural laws that can be derived from human and humanitarian necessity. Perhaps it is no accident that these five ordinances are negative rather than positive commandments. These five natural laws are also an extension of the three major sins. One could perhaps surmise that the five basic laws are a pure invention of the rabbis that came about by simply excluding two of the seven Noahide commandments. This is not the case, because these same five serious sins can be found in an entirely different kind of Jewish source, the so-called Didache.[60] It has earlier been noted that Didache 3:1-6 is an independent unit which the Jewish writer of this tractate has adapted to the context. The unit belongs to a genre already mentioned. Other instances of this genre are the seven Noahide commandments and their earlier stages, as well as the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48). As we will see, Didache 3:1-6 is related to both the Noahide commandments and also to the Sermon on the Mount. But before we demonstrate this, we will attempt a reconstruction of the unit as it may have been worded before it was adapted by the composer of the Jewish source of the Didache[61] :

3:1 My child, flee from every evil thing and what resembles it.

3:2 Don’t be prone to anger, because anger leads to murder.

3:3 Don’t be lustful, because lust leads to fornication.

3:4 Don’t be a bird watcher, because bird watching leads to idolatry.

3:5 Don’t be a liar, because lying leads to theft.

3:6 Don’t be a complainer, because complaining leads to blasphemy.[62]

The relatedness between the background of Didache 3:1-6 and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be doubted. The warning against evil and all that is similar to it (Did. 3:1) corresponds to the admonition of Jesus to attend to the least of the commandments as well as the most important (Matt. 5:17-20). That anger leads to murder is not something we learn only in Didache 3:2, but also in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22). We learn in Didache 3:3 that lustful cravings lead to fornication; the same is said in Matt. 5:27-28. Additionally, both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Didache we find the same approach as in the general introductory warning to the sixth and seventh commandments in the Decalogue, in fact, the same method of movement from “light” to “heavy.” The relationship between the Didache and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount can be said to be firmly established.

It is important to note that in Didache 3:1-6, fornication, idolatry, theft and blasphemy are listed as the heavy sins. About this last heavy sin, Wengst rightly commented: “When murmuring leads to blasphemy, murmuring is hereby presented as quarreling with destiny, though it has been sent by God. Whoever, then, complains against his destiny stands in constant danger of blaspheming God.” [63] But the most noteworthy thing about the heavy sins mentioned in Didache 3:1-6 is that they are identical with the list of the five central sins in older rabbinic sources (see Sifra on Lev. 18:4, and b. Yoma 67b), namely, theft, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy and murder (lit., shedding of blood). One must not forget that these are five of the seven Noahide commandments.[64]

Before indicating the importance of this section of Didache for the chronology of the history of the Noahide commandments, let us take a closer look at one of the heavy sins, the sin of blasphemy against God; it is found in the Didache, in rabbinic teaching, and in the Noahide commandments.[65] This fits very well with the parenthetical section of the Didache, since it, as well as the entire Jewish source, is meant primarily for Jews—and so the mention of blasphemy is understandable. Surely this source was also meant for pious God-fearing non-Jews, and, therefore, could have been edited and expanded by a very early Christian of Gentile background; it arose from the teaching of the twelve apostles. The distant possibility did exist that a pious non-Jewish, God-fearer might blaspheme God in a weak moment. But the general Jewish view at the time was that a non-Jew was not obligated to believe specifically in the God of Israel—he was only to avoid idolatrous worship. The prohibition of blasphemy against God is easy then to understand as a warning to Jews against a really terrible sin, but what is the prohibition against the blasphemy of God doing among the ordinances that are binding on all mankind? It is not difficult to suppose that a universalistic definition of Judaism involved a binding formulation of the prohibition of blasphemy as applying to all of mankind. However this may be, the prohibition against blasphemy does show up among the universalistic Noahide commandments as representative of the sin of atheism, which throughout all antiquity was considered criminal. Plutarch (De Iside et osiride, ch. 23) says that faith is implanted in nearly all people at birth. According to Gen. 20:11, Abraham excuses himself before Abimelech for passing off his wife as his sister: “I thought that there is no fear of God in this place, and therefore you might kill me because of my wife.”

In the Septuagint the word for “fear of God” in this passage is translated as theosebeia, which means reverence for God, piety or religion.[66] The idea is that if one is at a place where there is no religion, in that place life is not secure. In a Midrash on this verse, we read:

Fear of God is a great thing, because as regards anyone who fears Heaven (i.e., God), it can be assumed that he does not sin, but in contrast, as regards anyone who has no fear of God, it can be assumed that there is no sin from which he will desist. [67]

It seems, then, that the general rejection of irreligiosity makes it plausible that the prohibition of blasphemy against God was meant also to be applied to non-Jews.

Now we return to the five basic sins enumerated in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Didache. The appearance of the same catalog of sins both in Jewish sources and in the Didache demonstrates that this list of the five basic sins did not come to life as some kind of learned reduction of the seven Noahide commandments. The reason is that these five, “heavy” sins are found in a completely different context in the Didache, and they serve a completely different function there than they do in the rabbinic dictum quoted above and in the Noahide commandments. The dating of the lists therefore depends on the dating of the early Christian Didache. The final form of this document came into existence before the end of the first century, but the Jewish source is older than the Didache. We tend toward the assumption that Didache 3:1-6 was an independent unit and was taken over by the author of the Jewish source. It would seem advisable to set the time of origin of this passage as not later than 50 C.E. This leads to the conclusion that the five commandments’ composition took place at the same time the apostolic church was applying the three prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to Christians of Gentile origin. The second stage of the Noahide commandments’ existence, then, most likely was at the time when the Noahide commandments’ early form was still authoritative for the relationship of non-Jews to Judaism.

We have attempted to demonstrate that the list of the five basic commandments is not a matter of some historico-cultural theory of development from Adam to Noah. To what extent the six Adamic commandments arose independently of the seven Noahide commandments is very difficult to determine.

How many obligations were laid [by God] on Adam, the first human? The sages have taught: “Adam was required to observe six prohibitions: idolatry, blasphemy, justice, bloodshed, fornication and theft.” (Deut. Rab. 2:17, on Deut. 4:41)

In contrast to the seven Noahide commandments, the eating of a limb of a living animal is lacking, and in comparison with the list of the five basic ordinances, justice has been added. May we assume that justice, in contrast to all the prohibitions, is to be considered a positive commandment? That is not at all sure. The universal necessity of having some structured system of justice is basically there to hinder criminal capriciousness in dealing with people’s rights. Thus, the command to respect justice in the Adamic and Noahide versions of the commandments is also to be understood primarily as a negative commandment.

To the six Adamic commandments the descendants of Noah received a seventh, namely, the prohibition against eating a limb of a living animal. Biblically considered, this prohibition was senseless before the Flood, since according to God’s will Adam lived as a vegetarian. Noahides were allowed meat, but with limitations. There were limitations also for the non-Jews, but they were not adopted in the “canonical” form of the seven Noahide commandments. As we have attempted to demonstrate, it is precisely the ritual food laws of the secondary form of the Apostolic Decree that go back to two extra-canonical Jewish restrictions. The original form of the Apostolic Decree was purely ethical and was identical with the three Mosaic obligations for non-Jews, i.e., with the original (three) Noahide commandments.

 This progressive ritualization needs a short explanation. Neither the original, purely ethical form nor the two final “ritualized” forms are difficult to explain. The Noahide commandments and the closely related Apostolic Decree go back to formulations of the basic ideas of Judaism. The content of such summaries is ethical and universal. These summaries are by their nature intended as generally applicable and aimed at all mankind, also the non-Jews. That is how they could be considered as binding for non-Jews.

But is the purely ethical enough for the natural law of mankind? The five basic ordinances already added to the primary sins both the prohibitions of theft and blasphemy, and the six Adamic commandments added the obligation of justice. Judaism—whose self-definition involves being bound by rituals—can manage with purely ethical definitions of basic principles. But does that mean that non-Jews should live with no ritual obligations whatsoever? This is why a moral-ritualistic obligation appears amid the Noahide commandments, that is, the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. There were other practical suggestions in this direction, and two of these prohibitions were adopted in the canonical text of the Apostolic Decree.

We started out to show that the non-canonical form of the Apostolic Decree was the original, and that the original content of the Noahide commandments was the prohibition of the three sins of idolatry, murder and fornication.[68] The Apostolic Decree sharpened the prohibition of idolatry and expressly forbid the eating of meat offered to idols. A proof for the importance in Judaism of the three major prohibitions is the decision of Lydda, according to which no circumstance would justify a Jew’s committing these three sins. This decision also was taken over by the young church into its discipline in the course of the second century. We also have tried to show that the original prohibition of these three central sins developed into the seven Noahide commandments. The canonical Apostolic Decree also developed out of Jewish premises. It appears to us that the results of our investigation not only have meaningful implications for the history of early Christendom, but they also cast light on the relationship between early Judaism and Christianity.



Title page of Toland's book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.
Title page of Toland’s book, Nazarenus: Or, Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity.

At the beginning of this essay, we referred to the words of Moses Mendelssohn. He was of the opinion that, according to New Testament teaching, a Jew, even if a believer in the Messiah, was still obligated to keep the Jewish ordinances. In contrast, a Christian of Gentile background, in accordance with Jewish halachah, is bound by the Noahide commandments. A similar view had been reached earlier by the English deist, John Toland (1670-1722) in his book, “Nazarenus.”[69] Unfortunately, this important book did not receive sufficient recognition. We could find no evidence that Toland’s work was known to scholars of the German Enlightenment. We must suppose that Mendelssohn, too, had no knowledge of Toland’s thinking.

Toland viewed the twin streams of the early church—the Torah-keeping Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians, as the “original plan of Christianity” from which it would be damaging to deviate. That is why he says, similarly to the later Mendelssohn, that: “It follows indeed that the Jews, whether becoming Christians or not, are forever bound to the Law of Moses, as not limited; and he that thinks they were absolved from the observation of it by Jesus, or that it is a fault in them still to adhere to it, does err not knowing the Scriptures” (Introduction, VI).

Toland held the view that Jewish Christians were forever obligated to observe the Law of Moses, while the Christians of Gentile background, who lived among them, needed only to observe the Noahide commandments, abstaining from eating blood and making offerings to idols.[70] He, of course, knew only the “canonical” text of the Apostolic Decree; however, he tended to accept the hypothesis of a researcher from the century before who had surmised that the mention of the strangled offerings was a secondary interpolation, since it was not mentioned by many of the old church fathers.[71] Resch reached the same conclusion. This subject is worthy of further investigation.

  • [1] The translator would like to thank Horst Krüger, Christina Krüger, and especially Dr. Guido Baltes, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this translation.
  • [2] This article’s translation to English was made possible through the generous financial assistance of Paul, Clarice and Jeffery Steen, the loving father, mother and brother of Gregory. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Dr. Volker Hampel and Neukirchener Verlag ( for permission to publish this article in English.
  • [3] David Flusser, “Lavater and Nathan, the Wise,” in Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984): 82-93.
  • [4] M. Mendelssohn, Schriften zum Judentum (1930), 1:303.
  • [5] Ibid., 10-11.
  • [6] “Fornication” would be a more accurate translation.
  • [7] Regarding the Noahide commandments, see E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (1909; reprint 1970), 2:178f.; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (1926), 3:36-38; A. Lichenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (1981). The most important reference is t. Avod. Zar. 8:4-6 (473, 12-25). See also Gen. Rab. 17.17 (on Gen. 2:17; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 149-151), and notes; Gen. Rab. 34.8 (on Gen. 8:19 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 316-17).
  • [8] D. Flusser, “Die Christenheit nach dem Apostelkonzil,” in Antijudaismus im Neuen Testament: Exegetische und systematische Beiträge (eds. W. P. Eckert, N. P. Levinson and M. Stöhr; 1967), 60-81.
  • [9] G. Resch, “Das Aposteldekret nach seiner ausserkanonischen Textgestalt untersucht,” in Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, NTF (1905), 3:1-179.
  • [10] A. Diehle, Die Goldene Regel (1962), 107.
  • [11] H. Sahlin, “Die drei Kardinalsünden und das Neue Testament,” Studia Theologica 20.1 (1970): 93-112, esp. 109. Regarding the three central sins, see also L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (1947), 5:292, n. 147; cf. 6:388, n. 16.
  • [12] The three Jewish researchers are: L. Venetianer, Die Beschlüsse zu Lydda und das Aposteldekret zu Jerusalem, Festschrift für A. Schwarz (1917), 417-19; M. Guttmann, Das Judentum und sein Umwelt (1917), 118; and G. Alon, “The Halachah in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in Studies in Jewish History (1978), 1:274-94 (Hebrew), published previously in Tarbiz 11 (1939-1940).
  • [13] See Billerbeck, 1:221-24.
  • [14] G. Alon, op. cit., 279, n. 27.
  • [15] Cf. D. Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Heinz Kremers (ed.), Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (Duisburger Hochschulbeitraege 2) (1977), 102-113. In rabbinic parlance, one can speak of “great” and “small” commandments (Billerbeck, 1:903f.).
  • [16] Cf. D. Flusser, “The Ten Commandments and the New Testament,” in The Ten Commandments (ed. Ben-Zion Segal; 1985), 118-187 (Hebrew); see also G. Alon, op. cit., 278, and Y. Amir, “Die Zehn Gebote bei Philon von Alexandrien,” in ibid., Die hellenistische Gestalt des Judentums bei Philon von Alexandrien (1983), 131-63. On p. 135 Amir refers to a midrash: “Just like in the ocean there are little waves between two huge waves, so likewise between every pair of the ten commandments there are the individual prescriptions and regulations of the Torah” (j. Shek. 1, 9, 60d). A similar notion is found in the case of Hananiah, the nephew of Yehoshua: see W. Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten (1903), 1:388. Similar is Gen. Rab. 8, line 16 (ed. Ch. Albeck; 1940), and see the note to that line. Targum Jonathan to Exod. 24:12 reads: “I will give you stone tablets on which the words of the Torah are explained, and the 613 commandments.”
  • [17] Cf. D. Flusser, “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” in ibid., Bemerkungen eines Juden zur christlichen Theologie (1984), 35-53 (see also n. 40).
  • [18] Ibid., 166-69.
  • [19] D. Flusser, op. cit. (see n. 16), 175-77.
  • [20] The most recent annotated editions of the Didache are: K. Wengst, Schriften des Urchristentums (1984), 3-100, and La doctrine des Douze Apotres (Didache), SC 248 (eds. W. Rordorf and A. Tuillier; 1978); there (203-226) one finds a critical edition of the Jewish sources of the text. Regarding these Jewish sources, see also D. Flusser, “The Two Ways,” in Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (1982), 235-252 (Hebrew). Regarding Philo, see p. 239 in that article. For our purposes, an important list of sins can be found in Philo in his discussion of the individual laws (Spec. Laws 2, 13): “theft, temple robbery, addiction, adultery, bodily injury, murder or like scandalous deeds.” The list is given in the context of the second half of the Decalogue, but more important is the similarity with the description of a disobedient Jew in Rom. 2:21-22: “You who instruct others, do you learn nothing yourself? You who preach that one ought not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idolatry, do you rob your temple?”
  • [21] The seven Noahide commandments include yet a third commandment from the second half of the Decalogue, namely, the prohibition of robbery (there, as a fifth commandment). The Hebrew word for “robbery” (as well as the verb “to rob”) gained the meaning of “theft.” The old biblical word for robbery was not used any more in the spoken language. In the Noahide commandments, then, we see that the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue are preserved. But in the “canonical” form of the Apostolic Decree, by contrast, all the prohibitions of the second half of the Decalogue have disappeared. From bloodshed, we have moved to the eating of blood, and the prohibition of meat offered to idols is shifted to the first half of the Decalogue. On the text of the Apostolic Decree see also B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971), 429-35. For more recent literature see n. 12, and M. Simon, The Apostolic Decree and Its Setting in the Ancient Church, BJRL 52 (1969-1970), 437-60, and F. Siegert, Gottesfuerchtige und Sympatisanten, JSJ (1973), 109-164.
  • [22] The Apostolic Decree is mentioned in Acts three times: Acts 15:19-20; 28-29; 21:25. In the first formulation, Gentiles are admonished to avoid the “pollutions of idols.” This corresponds to the “contamination by idolatry” referred to in m. Shab. 9:1. In the second and third formulations, meat offered to idols is mentioned specifically.
  • [23] From G. Resch, op. cit., 15-17, one can learn that sometimes the Golden Rule was in fact attached to the canonical form of the Apostolic Decree. One cannot, however, therefore automatically conclude that the Golden Rule belongs to the Apostolic Decree; in these cases, we may be dealing with a mixed textual form.
  • [24] Who was the first to formulate the western form cannot be determined. W. Bacher (op. cit., vol. 2, 336) has mentioned a saying from the School of Ishmael (b. Ber. 19a, Tractate Tehilim on Ps 125, at the end): “Uttering slander is as great a sin as the three capital sins” (idolatry, murder and fornication). See also j. Peah 15d; Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 49:9 (see notes in M. Margulies edition, 664). S. Schechter also discusses the three capital sins in Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961), 205-207 and 222-27 (see esp., 222). See n. 31 below.
  • [25] In m. Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) these commandments are scarcely mentioned.
  • [26] W. Bacher, op. cit., vol. 1, 263f.
  • [27] Ibid., vol. 4, 278.
  • [28] Regarding the three mortal sins in the ancient church, see among others W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1965), 56, 75, 374, 378. Although no friend of the Jews, Frend did recognize the Jewish parallels to the early Christian “mortal” sins. Cf. also A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmensgeschichte (1913), 1:439-44, and K. Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XI: “Fruehe Bussgeschichte” (1973), esp. 91, 183 189. Especially important is the decision of the rigoristic Synod of Elvira (Spain, 306), which begins as follows: “Qui post idoli idolaturus accesserit et fecerit quo est crimen capitale, quia est summi sceleris, placuit nec infine eum communionem accipere. Flamines, qui post fidem lavacri et regenerationis sacrificaverunt, eo quod geminaverint scelera accedente nomicidio vel triplicaverint facinus cohaerente moechia, placuit eos nec in finem accipere communionem” (Acta et symbola conciliorum, ed. E. J. Jonkers, Textus minores, vol. XIX, [1954], 5). One sees here how similar is the position taken regarding the three mortal sins to the decision of Lydda.
  • [29] Cf. A. Blaise, Dictionnaire latino francais des autors chretiens (1954), 130.
  • [30] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:27. Perhaps the reference to the three mortal sins can be placed even earlier. At the end of the Revelation of John (Rev. 22:15) it is said: “Outside are the dogs, the poisoners, the fornicators, the murderers, and the idolaters and all those who love and do lies”; similarly also in Rev. 21:8. This implies the application of a measure of discipline for preventing the acceptance of such sinners into the congregation and the expulsion of such when discovered. H. Kraft, Die Offenbarung Johannes (1974), 279f., is on the right track.
  • [31] Regarding Tertullian, see B. Altaner and A. Stuiber, Patrologie (1966), 189; regarding Hippolytus, see loc. cit., 166. Hippolytus writes against Pope Callistus (217-222) in Refutation of All Heresies 9:11-13. Tertullian writes about the mortal sins in De pudicitia, probably his last work. When he wrote about the “pontifex maximus, quod est episcopus episcoporum” who was lax in church discipline, it is argued by some that he did not mean, as Hippolytus did, Pope Callistus. See the bibliography in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (ed. F. L. Cross; 1974), 221, s.v. “Callistus.” The three mortal sins are mentioned by Hippolytus in a surviving fragment of his commentary on Proverbs (GCS 1:163f.).
  • [32] Tertullian, De pudicitia, ch. 12; similarly also Augustine (see G. Resch, op. cit., 12, n. 21).
  • [33] See also G. Resch, op. cit., 21f.41 and 37, n. 1.
  • [34] Cf. W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis (1906; repr. 1966), 221.
  • [35] Cf. also H. Conzelmann, Der erste Brief an die Korinther (1969), 162-64. Also in Did. 6:2-3 the non-Jews are warned against meat offered to idols.
  • [36] t. Sot. 6:6 on Esau; Gen. Rab. 63.12 (on Gen. 25:29; ed. Theodor-Albeck, 694-95).
  • [37] t. Sanh. 13:8. See the Aramaic Targums on Gen. 13:13.
  • [38] S. Eli. Rab. 13 (ed. M. Friedmann, p. 61).
  • [39] See n. 25.
  • [40] Sifra to Lev. 16:16 and b. Shevi. 7b.
  • [41] This is not the place to discuss whether the concept of natural law existed in ancient Judaism, however, this issue has been discussed. See I. Heinemann, Die Lehre vom ungeschriebenen Gesetz im juedischen Schrifttum, HUCA 4 (1921), 149-171 and H. A. Wolfson, Philo (1948), 2:180-191. It is perhaps preferable to speak of the Jewish categories of injustice and foundational principles, which include, as we will see, the Noahide commandments, both in their early stages as well as in their final form.
  • [42] On pp. 39-40 of “Neue Sensibilität im Judentum und die christliche Botschaft,” quoted above (n. 18), D. Flusser has shown that the Book of Jubilees is the earliest witness for the double command of love.
  • [43] Cf. H. Kosmala, “The Three Nets of Belial,” ASTI 4 (1965): 91-113.
  • [44] This explanation is meant to paraphrase Isa. 24:18.
  • [45] Cf. J. Becker, Die Testamente der zwoelf Patriachen [T. 12 Patr.], JSHRZ 3 (1974), 227. See the translation on pp. 139-152.
  • [46] Porneia (fornication) is missing in some manuscripts of Acts 15:20, 29, but not of Acts 21:25! See also M. Simon, op. cit., 430f.
  • [47] The Koran 2:168: “He (Allah) has forbidden for you only carrion and blood and pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah,” i.e., meat offered to idols. The same statement is found in 6:145 and 16:115f. In 5:4 the Islamic eating regulations are extended: “Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, pork and whatever has been offered to another than Allah (by slaughtering); the strangled, the slain, what has died by falling or by being gored, a carcass of an animal killed by wild beasts (except for what you purify), and what has been slaughtered on (idol) stones” [Ronning’s English trans. of M. Henig’s German translation of 1966]. Cf. also G. Resch, op. cit., 28f.
  • [48] Cf. A. Sperbaum, “The Thirty Noahide Commandments of Rav Samuel ben Hofni,” Sinai 72 (1973): 205-221 (Hebrew); A. Sperbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (1978), 52-58 (Hebrew).
  • [49] It seems to us that variations in respect to what belongs in the Noahide commandments does not have much to do with the differences between the Pauline and the Petrine views of Christian legal requirements. It can be assumed that at the time the entire church accepted the Apostolic Decree with its three central sins as authoritatively binding. The difference is that Peter considered the Apostolic Decree as the minimum required, and Paul as the maximum. Peter and his followers represented the general Jewish opinion of the time, which was that the Noahide commandments were binding on God-fearers, but that it was up to them to willingly assume more of the standard Jewish practices. See also D. Flusser, op. cit. (n. 9).
  • [50] Cf. Resch, op. cit., 23-26.
  • [51] Hom. Gen. 27.
  • [52] Augustine, Faust. 32.13.
  • [53] G. Resch, op. cit., 24.
  • [54] The sentence about strangulation in b. Hull. 102b is misunderstood.
  • [55] Billerbeck (II, 738) notes the opinion of R. Hananiah ben Gamaliel preserved in b. Sanh. 59a. R. Hananiah interprets Gen. 9:4 as follows: “Its blood, while it is still living, you shall not eat.”
  • [56] In addition to the three central sins, the additional three stages are discussed in Billerbeck III, 36-38.
  • [57] The text is found in Sifra to Lev. 18:4 (ed. Weiss, 86a), and in b. Yoma 67b.
  • [58] This also includes theft (see n. 22 above).
  • [59] This is the correct reading.
  • [60] For bibliography see n. 21. We were alerted to the importance of this passage by Malcolm Lowe.
  • [61] In the unit Did. 3:2-6, each of the verses is composed of two halves. We consider the first half of each verse to be the original. For example, in the first half of Did. 3:4 reference is made to “bird watcher” (augur; soothsayer; diviner of omens); in the second half, to “enchanter,” “astrologer” and “magician.” We have retained “bird watcher,” although we cannot be sure of exactly what pagan superstition we are being warned. In the first half of Did. 3:3, “fornication” is mentioned; in the second half, “adultery.” We have retained “fornication” in our reconstruction; nevertheless, “adultery” appears to be the original reading since it appears in the Decalogue and also in Matt. 5:27-28.
  • [62] On the basis of this unit in the Didache (3:1-6) one recognizes once again how complex are the relationships between the various homilies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. We will compare the reconstruction of the unit, which we have just made, with the list in 1 Cor. 10:5-11 of the sins of Israel in the wilderness, for the sake of which they had to remain in the wilderness. “These things are examples for us. They happened so that we will not lust after evil the way that they lusted. Don’t be idolaters like some of them…Let us not commit fornication like some of them did fornicate…Don’t complain like some of them complained…”

    The similarities:

    1 Cor. 10:6 lustful Didache 3:3 lust
    1 Cor. 10:7 idolaters Didache 3:4 idolatry
    1 Cor. 10:8 fornicators Didache 3:3 fornication
    1 Cor. 10:10 complainers Didache 3:6 complaining

    In the four parallel expressions we find two “light” sins (lust and complaining) and two “heavy” sins (idolatry and fornication).

  • [63] Cf. K. Wengst, op. cit., 71, n. 19.
  • [64] A very interesting historico-spiritual investigation of the Noahide commandments can be found at the beginning of the Introduction to Tractate Berachot in the Babylonian Talmud, which was composed by Nissim Gaon from Kairuan, North Africa (ca. 990-1062). Regarding the five basic principles, see also E. E. Urbach, The Sages (1979), 320f.
  • [65] Regarding the prohibition of blasphemy for non-Jews, see b. Sanh. 56a. The Talmud deduces this Noahide prohibition from Lev. 24:16; the story tells of a blasphemer, whose father was Egyptian—only later did having a Jewish mother become decisive for whether one was Jewish—and this passage closes with these words: “Whether the person involved is a stranger or a native, if he blasphemes the Name [of the Lord], he shall be put to death.”
  • [66] Cf. W. Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Woeterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1958), 708.
  • [67] Midrash ha-Gadol to Gen. 20:11 (M. Margulies edition, 330)
  • [68] That the original Noahide commandments were only three comes directly out of b. Sanh. 57a: “A Noahide is to be executed on the basis of three transgressions: fornication, bloodshed and blasphemy,” that is, he will not be executed for transgression of the other commandments.
  • [69] J. Toland, Nazarenus or Jewish, Gentile or Mahometan Christianity (1718). For the text of Toland’s work, see:
  • [70] Op. cit., 65 and 68.
  • [71] Ibid., 181. This scholar was Curcelleus. Toland, in n. 38, cites Curcelleus: “Sed merito nobis suspecta est, cum a multis Patribus non agnoscatur, immo tamquam supposita diserte reiiciatur” (Diatriba de esu snguinis, chapter 11, p. 131). The scholar was not aware that there were manuscripts of the New Testament in which the word “strangled” is missing.

Sensational New Articles at! has become synonymous with the clearest, most accurate and most up-to-date information about the life and words of Yeshua (Jesus). Jerusalem Perspective does not rest on its laurels, but works continuously to add content to an already important learning resource.

Jerusalem has published several exciting new articles. Never before available on the Internet, and exclusively available to Premium Content subscribers, these articles are among the most important we have published.

The two most significant new articles, 21,633 words and 7,230 words in length, respectively, were penned by Shmuel Safrai, the legendary Hebrew University scholar. These articles are monumental in scope, and from a scholarly standpoint, revolutionary.

Professor Safrai’s conclusions will come as a shock to many New Testament scholars. For example, the prevailing opinion among today’s scholars is that first-century Galilee was culturally and spiritually deprived, and that, therefore, Jesus came from an underdeveloped and backward Jewish region of the land of Israel. In “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” Safrai shows that Galilee was the Jewish cultural center in the time of Jesus; that almost all famous rabbis of the first century hailed from the Galilee, not Judea; and that the level of Torah study in Galilee surpassed all other regions of the land.

In “The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source,” Safrai challenges the notion that because rabbinic sources were only put in writing after 200 A.D., they are not reliable historical witnesses to events that took place in the first century A.D., and before.

Another intriguing new article (3,329 words in length), “From Melchizedek to Jesus: The Higher Eternal Priest in Jewish Second Temple Literature,” was written by Dr. Moshe Navon. Navon discusses one of the most fascinating Dead Sea Scrolls. Known as “Pesher Melchizedek,” the scroll focuses on a biblical figure mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen. 14:18; Ps. 110:4). In this amazing scroll, Melchizedek combines the roles of kingly messiah, priestly messiah, messiah of the spirit, end-time judge, and even God. Pesher Melchizedek is extremely exciting for New Testament readers because the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes an equation between Melchizedek and Jesus (Heb. 5-7).

David Bivin contributed two new articles, of 8,916 words and 14,241 words in length, respectively. The first, for example, “Jesus and the Enigmatic ‘Green Tree,’” is a study of Jesus’ saying, “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31). If it is true that during a moment of intense mental anguish and physical pain, Jesus employed the “green tree” motif to stress his messiahship, then it cannot be true that by this time in his life he had already realized his messianic pretensions had come to nothing. We can assume that Jesus viewed his death as an integral part of his messianic mission. Jesus had not been disillusioned by his arrest, scourging, and the prospect of a cruel death, but marched to Golgotha confident of his divinely ordained task.

Keys of the Kingdom: Allusion to Divinity?

The more we know and understand the historical, cultural and linguistic background of the Bible, the more we are able to discern elements in the biblical text that heretofore have gone unnoticed. These can be elements that can greatly increase our understanding of the biblical text, reinforce our traditional conceptions, or at times radically transform our understanding by revealing totally unexpected information that affects how the texts would have been originally understood.

In his book, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, Robert L. Lindsey,[1] of beloved memory, explains how Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-20 is more than a simple confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and definitely not the first time that Peter or the other disciples realized that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.[2] Lindsey’s discovery demonstrates that by putting the text back into Hebrew and understanding the cultural usage of the language, an element of the story is revealed that has been overlooked by some scholars.

Contrary to the view of many scholars that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and that his disciples only added this notion at a later time, Lindsey’s discoveries demonstrate that subtle Hebraic elements in the text reveal that Jesus did in fact claim to be the long-awaited Messiah. However, these elements also imply that Jesus was to be much more than the expected Messiah. Traditional Jewish views of the Messiah did not promote the view that the Messiah would in some sense be divine or God incarnate. As Lindsey points out, in this gospel passage the revelation is not of messiahship but divine messiahship.

In retrospect, there are a number of passages in the Tanach that can be understood to imply that the Messiah would be divine.[3] This is only seen in hindsight, and there are no ancient rabbinic texts that support the idea of a divine messiah. So, in this respect, Peter’s statement was a revelation. There also appears to be internal evidence in Matthew 16:13-20 to support the understanding that this revelation of divinity is correct and that Jesus himself shares this understanding.

Jesus begins by asking his disciples who the people think he is, referring to himself as “the son of man.” (As Lindsey points out, “the son of man” is a messianic title and can be interpreted as a divine allusion.) Then Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. When Peter answers, Jesus responds to Peter’s declaration, calling it a revelation from Heaven, and says:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say unto you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 16:17-19)

In this short passage there are several messianic allusions: “son of man,” “my Father,” and another allusion that I believe has gone unnoticed. Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom” (emphasis mine). Note that Jesus states that he, not the Father, not God, but he would give the keys of the kingdom. As Chana Safrai pointed out,

In Jewish literary tradition, the keys of heaven include the keys of rain, wealth, resurrection from the grave, and opening a barren womb (Vide Shinan, 110; Gen. Rab. 73-4). A saying attributed to Rabbi Yohanan states that these keys “were not given by the hand of a messenger” (b. Ta’an. 2a; cf. b. Ta’an. 29a and 2 Baruch 10.18—direct key exchange).[4]

This tradition is also cited in Deuteronomy Rabbah 7:6:

R. Jonathan said: “God holds three keys in His hands over which no creature, not even angel or Seraph, has any control. They are as follows: the key of resurrection, the key of the barren womb, and the key of rain.”[5]

The same tradition is cited in Genesis Rabbah 73:4 in the name of R. Menahem citing R. Bebai.[6] R. Hisda[7] also cites this tradition in b. Sanhedrin 113a:

Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, Two are in the hands of the disciple and (only) one in the hand of the Master? Bring (Me) the other and take this one, as it is written, “Go show thyself unto Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.”[8]

Lastly, it is cited in the Zohar in the name of R. Isaac:[9]

And he said: I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round, etc. R. Isaac said: “Instead of ‘I will return’, we should have expected here ‘he will return’, since the visitation of barren women is in the hand of the Almighty Himself and not in the hand of any messenger, according to the dictum: ‘Three keys there are which have not been entrusted to any messenger, namely, of child birth, of the resurrection, and of rain.’ But the truth is that the words ‘I will return’ were spoken by the Holy One, blessed be He, who was present there.”[10]

All these sources cite this teaching as a well-known tradition. Although these citations come from documents that are centuries removed from the time of Jesus, they are relaying traditions attributed to the second and third centuries of the common era but which most probably were known in the first century as well, since a vast amount of rabbinic tradition comes from the Second Temple period.[11]

These traditions expressly state that the “keys of the kingdom” are never given through a mediator, but rather directly from God. In our passage, Jesus states the he will give the keys of the kingdom to Peter. He does not say that God will, or the Father will, but that he will. If the above rabbinic tradition was commonly known in the first century, then Jesus is making a statement that would have been considered blasphemous in his society. Similarly, many were ready to stone Jesus for blasphemy at his statement, “before Abraham was born, I am,”[12] and again when he claimed, “I and the Father are one,” and the people took up stones exclaiming, “We are not stoning you for any of these…but for blasphemy, because you a mere man, claim to be God.”[13] By saying that he was giving the keys to Peter, Jesus is speaking as though he were God, something no Jew in his day would have dared to do. It appears that this is another instance of Jesus’ high self-awareness where he speaks as though he is God.[14] This rabbinic tradition apparently has escaped the attention of commentators down through the ages. It is subtle enough that it is doubtful that Greek and Roman Christians would have known it. Perhaps here we have another proof that the concept of divine messiahship was not a late Christian assertion, but evident in the mind of Jesus himself.

  • [1] See the chapter, “What Did Peter Say.”
  • [2] John 1:19-51.
  • [3] Isa. 7:14; 8:8; 9:6; 44:6; Ezek. 34; Dan. 7:13-14; Ps. 89:26-37.
  • [4] Chana Safrai, “The Kingdom of Heaven and the Study of Torah,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage and B. Becker; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005), 182.
  • [5] Deut. Rabbah 7:6 (Soncino, p. 137).
  • [6] R. Menahem was a fifth generation Amora from Israel citing R. Bebai who was a third generation Amora in Israel.
  • [7] A Babylonian Amora of the third century.
  • [8] Talmud Babli: Hebrew/English Edition (Soncino, 1994).
  • [9] A Tanna of the second century and disciple of Ishmael. He engaged in the study of ma’aseh merkavah (Jewish mysticism) (b. Hag. 13a).
  • [10] The Zohar: An English Translation 1:102b (Soncino, 1984), 329.
  • [11] See Shmuel Safrai’s “The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source.”
  • [12] John 8:58-59.
  • [13] John 10:25-33.
  • [14] Similarly, Lindsey discovered an incident in the early years of the ministry of Jesus recorded in Luke 5:17-26 and Mark 2:1-12 where Mark writes “scribes” and Luke writes “Pharisees and the teachers of the law,” who thought Jesus had blasphemed by saying to a paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven you.” When he put the text back into Hebrew, Lindsey realized that Jesus was using words that the people understood were only used by God himself, thus speaking as though he were God (Jesus, Rabbi and Lord, 50-52).

The Value of Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source

Rabbinic literature contains extensive facets of Jewish life from the Second Temple period until the Byzantine period and shortly thereafter. It includes halachic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal, ethical and narrative) passages, homilies and homiletic fragments, biblical exegesis, debates among sages, and between sages and laypersons, sectarians or Gentiles. It also includes a number of historical traditions. This rabbinic tradition has come down to us in nearly every literary form: direct sayings, stories, homilies, parables, poetic fragments, pure fiction, folk sayings, and many more. Obviously one cannot construct a continuous historical framework for the Second Temple period, or the period after the destruction of the Temple, on the basis of rabbinic sources. Rabbinic literature did not intend to relate the history of the Jewish people in an orderly fashion. Many of the decisive events in Jewish history appear in the literature in the form of homiletic narrative, merging events that took place at different times such as during the destruction of the First Temple and the Second, and even during the Trajanic Revolt (112-115 C.E.) and the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 C.E.). Furthermore, halachic pronouncements have often come down to us in the form of combinations of different levels and different periods and sometimes from different and even conflicting schools. Obviously, rabbinic tradition often relates aggadic passages and prayers in a fused form, combining different levels of traditions from many generations.

The Oral Torah is just that—an oral tradition—a tradition that was alive and taught in the various houses of study and transmitted with additions and changes by the sages of later generations. The collections of rabbinic literature have not reached us in the form they were given by the sage or school who produced them. These collections, starting with the editing of the Mishnah in the third century C.E. and the other collections that were edited afterwards, remained primarily oral literature throughout the rabbinic period, and the transmitters did not refrain on occasion from adding or removing elements in the course of teaching and passing on the tradition—or even changing and replacing the ancient sages in whose names the traditions were given.

Rabbinic literature does not include political history or geographical, sociocultural history of the kind found in Greco-Roman histories or in that written by the early Church Fathers, or even of the kind that was written in the historical literature of ancient Israel (in biblical books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), or in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Such apocryphal books (for example, the Vision of Ezra and the Syriac Baruch, which were preserved only in the tradition of the Church) may have been written by writers who were close to the world of the sages. If not for Church tradition, we would not even know that these books existed. However, we have no historical books in the vast tradition of rabbinic literature. The closest thing we have are the works Seder Olam Rabbah and Seder Olam Zuta, which, as important as they are, constitute no more than chronicles providing names and certain details in a chronological order.

Though there are no historical books in the rabbinic tradition, there is a wealth of varied information from all facets of public and private social life and spiritual life, in the Temple, the synagogue and the house of study. Likewise, we can glean facts from rabbinic literature regarding trade and economics, agriculture, craftsmanship, the life of the sages and of the common man, urban-rural relations and relations between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. The halachot, aggadot, dialogues and debates reflect both the home and the marketplace, the wealthy and the poor, weekdays, sabbaths and festivals—in fact, every aspect of human life in all its variety and forms of expression.

Similarly, aggadic literature refers to all the aspects of life. The great wealth of rabbinic literature sometimes enables us to reconstruct the reality of the period in all its complexity, whether on a sociopolitical, a sociospiritual, or personal plane. There are certain issues that are arranged in an orderly fashion in a rabbinic work, for example, the description of the Temple in Mishnah Middot and Tamid, and the detailed description of the service on the Day of Atonement in Mishnah Yoma. Information on other subjects, such as charity, education and the teaching of Torah to children, is scattered throughout the literature and interspersed in various contexts in halachic and aggadic (stories, homilies, introductory homilies, sayings and parables) collections.

Rabbinic Literature as an Historical Source

Can rabbinic literature be used as a source to describe the historical reality of the Second Temple period, which preceded the first redaction of this literature by one hundred and fifty years? Starting from the Middle Ages, authors of Jewish historical sources accepted every rabbinic tradition, no matter how exegetical or homiletical, as a genuine historical fact, either incorporating them verbatim or rewriting them. To this day many authors who received a traditional Jewish education continue in the same fashion. There are also Jewish scholars who have received philological and historical-critical training, but when they encounter traditional Jewish sources they tend to accept them en bloc, or nearly so, treating them as reliable evidence for a concrete sociointellectual world, even preferring them to Josephus or other ancient historical sources. The latter are relatively few, but there are many scholars today who tend to minimize or negate the importance of rabbinic sources for the period after the Temple (70 C.E.ff.), and even more so, for the Second Temple period. Attempts have been made to argue that sources redacted no earlier than the beginning of the third century, and in most cases later on, cannot be reliable testimony for the historical reality of the Second Temple period.[1]

Similar to this approach is the practice of treating every stratum of rabbinic literature separately, that is, a subject or personality is selected and everything reported about him in the Mishnah is examined first, and then whatever is found about him in later collections is analyzed. Even in Mishnaic sources an attempt is made to distinguish between reports by ancient sages and those of later sages, between earlier traditions and later traditions. Obviously, any philological and historical analysis contributes to the advancement of research and to the understanding of the Second Temple period, or the periods after the destruction of the Temple, but if such analysis is done for the purpose of reducing the historical value of earlier or later sources, then, the effort tends to legitimize those who do not have the skills, the capacity or the initiative to examine and evaluate rabbinic sources for themselves. Those who argue that there is no way to estimate the historical value of halachah and aggadah and their chronological and geographical application, release others, particularly, younger scholars, from the obligation to know the world of halachah and aggadah, and its complexities.

The failure to exploit the wealth of rabbinic sources has resulted in casting Jewish and early Christian reality in an increasingly Hellenistic mold. Non-Jewish scholars, and to a degree, even Jewish scholars educated in Europe and America, have found it convenient to work with the rich Greek sources that have been published in reliable scholarly editions and excellent translations. These scholars were raised on a culture that is derived from the Greek and has an affinity for it. Books in Greek and Latin generally stem from one author, or one redactor, whose time and milieu are usually known—in contrast to rabbinic works, where it is not always clear to what period a book belongs, or what stands behind a saying, act or debate. Translations of rabbinic literature in the last generation, regrettably, are in part erroneous, and it is sad to read how entire theories have been developed on the basis of erroneous translations. Anyone who is at home in these Jewish sources encounters this phenomenon with unfortunately great frequency. Noted scholars have pointed out some of the glowing errors in translations of rabbinic literature, and in the notes and commentaries that accompany these translations, but most of these errors have not been corrected.

Rabbinic research is in great need of scholarly critical editions. Only a part of the works of rabbinic literature has appeared in quality editions. Auxiliary studies are lacking both for literary research and historical research. Many problematic grammatical forms have not been satisfactorily explained, and many questions about literary content have not been clarified, or have been only partially clarified. Nevertheless, a great deal is available to anyone wishing to examine literary or historical issues. Since the nineteenth century rabbinic research adopted the techniques of modern historical philological research and many outstanding specialists in rabbinic literature not only applied these techniques to rabbinic literature, but also adapted them to the unique requirements of the rabbinic tradition. This phenomenon may be observed in the works of the pioneers of literary rabbinic research, such as Zechariah Fraenkel, Isaac Hirsch Weiss and Meir Ish Shalom, and even more so in the writings of other scholars such as Wilhelm Bacher, Abraham Buchler, and others. In recent generations such scholars as Epstein, Ginzburg, Alon and Lieberman, among others, have laid solid foundations for scientific research and philological interpretation. Some of the most notable scholars went to great lengths to utilize the literature and reality of the classical and early Christian world in order to arrive at responsible philological and historical explanations of the rabbinic tradition, unravelling many inexplicable passages and expanding and enriching our understanding.

After generations of scientific research, we cannot see in the traditional Jewish approach to historical sources definitive and satisfactory answers to many questions about Jewish history, literature and faith. Great Jewish scholars from the Middle Ages until today have regarded the answers provided by the traditional approach as sufficient. However, scholars who have been trained even moderately in modern scientific methods of research cannot accept these traditional answers uncritically. For us, it is necessary to analyze and explain the traditional answers supplied by Jewish sources. Our solutions may be better or worse, but we cannot rely on the answer that tradition gives to these questions. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point.

One of the outstanding phenomena in the entire corpus of rabbinic literature is the phenomenon of “controversy,” a predominant form in tannaic and amoraic literature alike. It is to be found in all strata of halachic and aggadic literature. In a baraita at the beginning of chapter 7 of Tosefta Sanhedrin (and parallel passages in the Tosefta and the two Talmuds), we find an explanation for this literary and historical phenomenon. Originally, according to this baraita, there were no controversies in Israel and any question that arose would be referred to the local court to be resolved. If the local court could not resolve the issue, the question would be referred to a nearby court, and if it could not give an answer, to the courts on the Temple Mount until the point of dispute reached the High Court where a vote would be taken, and “halachah would go forth from there and be accepted in all of Israel.” The baraita continues: “When the students of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel who did not attend their rabbi enough became numerous, controversies multiplied in Israel.”

Tosefta Sanhedrin informs us that at one time there were no controversies. (According to the parallel passages, there were only a few controversies.) However, when students of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel who had not learned the Torah sufficiently became numerous, controversies resulted. Even though this tradition appears in tannaic tradition in several places, and in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, as well, and its text is substantially reliable, it is difficult to regard it as historical testimony about the history of the Oral Torah. In fact, all the halachot found in tannaic sources until the period of Hillel and Shammai are reported in the form of controversies. Moreover, all the halachot reported in the names of Hillel and Shammai themselves are in the form of controversies. There are also cases of sages who disagreed with both Hillel and Shammai (m. Eduyyot 1:1-2). There are even cases in which Shammai disagrees with the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel (m. Eduyyot 1:7-8). The sages see the controversies of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel as “the living words of God” (j. Berachot 3b, Chap. 1, and parallels), and that the words of both houses were “given from one shepherd” (t. Sotah 7:12, and parallels). A different tannaic tradition describes the controversies between these two schools as “a controversy for the sake of heaven” that is “destined to be sustained” (m. Avot 5:17). Whatever the meaning of the passage in Tosefta Sanhedrin, it is not historical and does not square with other tannaic traditions.

A second example is the mishnah that reports a famous controversy that went on for generations: “May one lay hands on sacrifices on festival days?” The Mishnah (along with other tannaic sources) relates that “the Zugot” (the five pairs of teachers, concluding with Shammai and Hillel) disagreed on this question generation after generation, and adds: “The first [named in each of the five pairs] were נשיאים [nesi’im, ‘patriarchs’] and the second [named in each of the pairs] were אבות בית דין [avot beit din, ‘fathers of the court’]” (m. Hagigah 2:2). Most scholars agree, and I concur, that in the time of the Zugot and the Second Temple period the title נשיא (nasi, “patriarch”) was not in use, in fact, neither was אב בית דין (av beit din, “father of the court”). The title Nasi appended to the name of the head of the Sanhedrin or the head of the בית ועד (beit va’ad) does not appear in rabbinic sources before the time of Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel II in the generation after the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-135 C.E.). The mishnah found in tractate Hagigah describes “the pairs” (end of the Hellenistic period) in light of the reality of the second half of the second century C.E.

Careful Scrutiny Needed

By cautious analysis it is possible to clarify to a certain degree when one tradition or another may be accepted, and very often one can determine with great likelihood what part of a tradition may be accepted entirely, what part is historical and what may be taken historically only as interpretation reflecting the understanding of later generations. Not everything that is attributed to the Second Temple period is in fact really from that period. However, in many cases, one can say with certainty or near certainty what part of a passage from early generations is reliable and what part should be regarded with skepticism. In some cases it is clear that the tradition as it appears is undoubtedly late and entirely aggadic. At any rate, in many cases it is possible to draw certain historical conclusions. Sometimes these conclusions are partial and sometimes they are extensive. The traditions in rabbinic literature appear in a variety of places, in various contexts and in a great variety of forms. Traditions regarding a certain subject, literary or historical, may reappear and be discussed in many places in early and late sources in various compositions. These parallel passages may be either complementary or contradictory.

The problem in evaluating the historicity of a rabbinic tradition is not, as some scholars contend, that a particular scholar accepts the rabbinic tradition and another rejects it, but the degree of understanding, analysis and integration brought into the discussion of rabbinic sources. What is the degree of creativity that a particular scholar brings to the discussion? Creativity should be part of every analysis of an historical source. The scholar’s task demands not only the collecting of texts and the proper integration of them, but also creativity.

There is one additional problem that is common to every type of source and every historical period (general and Jewish alike), a feature that is particularly characteristic of rabbinic literature. Rabbinic literature reflects a culture and a heritage that evolved orally from generation to generation, and when traditions were finally written down, they were not recorded systematically in either the halachic or aggadic spheres. It was deemed unnecessary to summarize and systematize either orally or in writing what was clear to contemporaries who studied this literature. Systematization of this literature was done only in the Middle Ages. Maimonides attempted to systematize halachah and Jewish thought, but rabbinic literature assumes many things are understood and only adds what teachers felt obliged to emphasize and add. Often, particularly in aggadic contexts, the words preserved in the sources are only the top of an iceberg that contains a vast world of thought and practice. A study of these fragmented sources from the philosophical and historical points of view should reveal the intellectual and real world that exists in the background and is reflected in a particular saying or aggadic description.

Ways of Expressing Historical Reality

Let us come back to our assertion that a scholar’s main problem in determining whether a rabbinic tradition is historical is the sophistication of that scholar’s analysis, that is, his or her ability to combine different sources creatively and his or her awareness of the limits of creative interpretation. Two relatively simple examples will illustrate this premise.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, members of the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period fasted for three days and three nights and observed a kind of fire going out of the Holy of Holies, and the prophet explained to them that this was the inclination for idolatry departing from Israel (b. Yoma 69b). This is a late legend phrased in a literary fashion, but it expresses the reality that from the earliest days of the Second Temple period Jews did not engage in idolatry. This situation is attested in various sayings and metaphors in amoraic literature. The Mishnah describes the festivities of the Beit Hasho’evah (House of Water Drawing) celebration, which took place during the Feast of Tabernacles in the Temple in Jerusalem, reporting that participants in the celebration would go out to draw water from the Shiloah Spring and returning, when they reached the eastern gate, “would turn their faces towards the west and say: ‘Our fathers who were in this place [in the First Temple period], their backs were toward the sanctuary and their faces toward the east, and they would bow to the sun, but we, our eyes are toward the Lord” (m. Sukkah 5:4).

Many generations before the Mishnah (in the Second Temple period) the Book of Judith reports: “There has not appeared in our generations, nor is there at this time, a tribe, clan, district or town among us who worship man-made gods” (Judith 8:18). Beginning with the first wave of exiles returning from Babylonia in the time of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.), there is no mention of admonishment for idolatry in any of the Jewish books written. Even the Book of Jubilees and the literature of the Qumran sect, which criticize Hellenists and Pharisees very harshly, do not accuse them of the sin of idolatry.

A second example: In the Babylonian Talmud the amora Rav relates that Joshua ben Gamla, the high priest in 63-65 C.E., introduced the regulation that “they would set up teachers for small children in every city and every town and bring them in at the age of six or seven” (b. Bava Batra 21a). In the Jerusalem Talmud, however, one of the regulations of Shim’on ben Shetah, a contemporary of Alexander Yannai and Shlomtzion in the first half of the first century B.C.E., was “that the small children should go to school” (j. Ketubbot, end of Chap. 8). One scholar detected here a contradiction between the two traditions and consequently concluded that neither is historical testimony. However, it is doubtful whether there is a contradiction since one could argue that the regulation of Shim’on ben Shetah established the duty to go to school and the second regulation reinforced the establishment of schools in every community. However, even if there is a contradiction, one should accept as historical the tradition that from Second Temple times and onwards there was an organized school system for children since the very framework of socioreligious life, for example, the recitation of grace after meals, and the synagogue, which revolved around the reading of the Torah, presumes that all those assembled know how to repeat blessings by heart and to read the Torah.

Josephus also emphasizes that study of the Torah was widespread and that all children received an education: “If someone asks one of them about our laws, there is not one of them who does not find it easier to repeat all the laws [by heart] than to tell his own name since we all learn them from our first admission until they are engraved on our hearts” (Against Apion 2:178; cf. 1:12). Specific evidence regarding the establishment of schools in every community exists only from the middle of the third century C.E., but in light of the ability of the general public to read the Scriptures during the Second Temple period, clearly demonstrable from a variety of sources, there is no reason to doubt the traditions regarding the requirement that small children go to school, or the concern later on that there be schools everywhere.

Historical Information Even in Aggadic Traditions

Let us examine a few more aggadic traditions, some exaggerated and consequently of no historical value, but which, by a careful analysis of them in the context of all the sources allows us to arrive at historical conclusions. The first two examples are from the Second Temple period and the third from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.

1. Three sayings are transmitted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly in the first mishnah in Avot. These are in effect the earliest traditions in rabbinic literature, the Oral Torah. The three sayings are:

(a) הוו מתונים בדין (Be deliberate in judgement).
(b) העמידו תלמידים הרבה (Raise up many disciples).
(c) עשו סייג לתורה (Make a fence around the Torah).

These three sayings are the essence of the Oral Torah in its approach to Biblical exegesis and its perception of society. That these attitudes constitute a realistic description of the Pharisees and later sages’ point of view may be demonstrated not only from the vast literature of the Oral Torah, but also from Second Temple reality as revealed in Philo, Josephus, the New Testament, and even the literature of the opponents of the Pharisees, the Essenes. I will limit myself to a discussion of the first of these three sayings.

It is customary to interpret the term מתונים (metunim) as “cautious,” that is, Do not be hasty in judgement. This interpretation may be found in quite early sources, but the verb מתן appears in the Mishnah with the meaning “soft, moderate, easy.” We read: “He who puts olives in a press so that they will get soft [ימתונו] and be easy to press” (m. Tohorot 9:5). This verb is used in the Mishnah only in the sense of “soft.” In other words, the members of the Great Assembly taught that one should be soft, that is, humane, in giving judgement. Indeed, if we survey the halachic interpretations in Pharisaic and rabbinic tradition, particularly with regard to capital crimes throughout the generations, we will find that their judges tried to be gentle when sentencing persons guilty of a crime punishable by death. This contrasts with the halachot we find in the Book of Jubilees, which is close, if not identical, to the halachot of the Essene sect.

The Torah says frequently, ונכרת האיש ההוא מקרב עמו (and that man will be cut off from among his people; Lev. 17:4, 9) or ונכרת מעמיו (he shall be cut off from his people; Exod. 30:33, 38), and other similar expressions. These expressions were understood in the Halachah as punishment from heaven (m. Yevamot 4:13). Josephus says regarding the Pharisees that they “by nature are lenient regarding [capital] crimes” (Antiq. 13:293) in contrast to the Sadducees who he says, in connection with the execution of James the brother of Jesus by the Sadducean high priest Hanan, “he is one of the sect of the Sadducees who are the most brutal of all the Jews in judging offenders” (Antiq. 20:199). I am not claiming that the members of the Great Assembly stated the three sayings exactly as worded in Avot, or that the sayings of later sages in Avot 1 are preserved exactly as they were given, but these sayings are a realistic expression of the fundamentals of interpretation of the Torah, on the one hand, and the life of deeds, on the other, that developed in the early days of the Second Temple period, and that the Pharisees and the sages after them continued to follow (examples abound in rabbinic literature).

2. The Second Temple, its structure, regulations and place in public life, feature prominently in both tannaic and amoraic literature. Two tractates, Middot and Tamid are devoted in their entirety to a description of the physical structure of the Temple and how it functioned. Many chapters in the Mishnah, and in some cases entire tractates, deal with topics pertaining to the Temple during festivals and holy days. Nearly all of tractate Shekalim concerns the half-shekel donation to the Temple. Nearly all of tractate Yoma is a description of the Temple service on the Day of Atonement. Similarly, chapters in Sukkah, Pesahim and many other tractates detail Temple ritual and observance.

In the Mishnah (including tractate Tamid, one of the oldest collections of mishnaic redaction) there are legendary traditions that contain exaggeration. It goes without saying that the much later material found in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Midrash include interpretation and tend to glorify the past with legends that have a lyric character and a longing for redemption and the restoration of the Temple. These traditions cannot be regarded as historical in the confined sense. However, comparison and analysis of the sources enable us to establish historical reality in a relatively broad area and with a reasonable degree of likelihood. In fact, we can determine the physical dimensions of the Temple (its courts, halls, gates and many other architectural details) by careful analysis of rabbinic sources.

As is well known, Josephus also provides detailed descriptions of the Temple, particularly in The Jewish War, and the picture that emerges from the rabbinic sources is the same picture that emerges from Josephus’ descriptions. It is true that there are certain contradictions between the Mishnah’s description and Josephus’, but these are not greater than the internal contradictions within the writings of Josephus himself, or than the internal contradictions within the Mishnah. Some of the differences in detail between Josephus and rabbinic literature depend perhaps on the manner of description. It may be that Josephus counts the central gate but not the smaller appended gates on its sides, and perhaps the contradictions reflect different periods. There may be some genuine contradictions, but in general, the descriptions do conform. The east-west orientation of the Temple is the same in both sources. The internal division of the sanctuary and its courts is the same, and the proportions are the same. The Temple vessels and altars are located in the same places and their use is identical. Furthermore, archaeological excavation carried out on the Temple Mount and its surroundings has reinforced some of the rabbinic literary data, and so far, has not contradicted any rabbinic traditions.

The bilingual inscription discovered in the Tomb of Nicanor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The same applies, with even greater conformity, to the Temple service and its place in the life of the people. The Temple sacrifices on weekdays and festivals are prescribed in the Torah, and the rabbinic sources are identical to Josephus regarding them. However, even in regards regulations that are not written in the Torah there is a great degree of conformity between the rabbinic sources and that which may be gleaned from other Second Temple sources, such as Josephus, Philo, the New Testament—from both canonical and apocryphal gospels—Roman legal and administrative documents and archaeological findings.

One prominent feature pertaining to the organization of the Second Temple is the collection of the half-shekel donation for the maintenance of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. As is well known, making this donation an annual obligation was a Pharisaic innovation. The Bible (Exod. 30:12-16) enjoins a one-time donation for the erection of the Tabernacle, and not an annual donation. From rabbinic sources it is clear that the Sadducees strongly objected to this innovation and insisted that the public sacrifices be financed by private donations (see the beginning of Megillat Ta’anit). The Essenes taught that the half-shekel donation “should only be given once during a man’s lifetime,” and not annually (4Q159 f1ii:7).

Ossuary from Nicanor's Tomb on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Photographed by JHistory. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Sarcophagus from Nicanor’s Tomb on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Photographed by JHistory. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From rabbinic sources we learn that the half-shekel was collected from all the Jews in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora (m. and t. Shekalim 1), and this conclusion is confirmed by extra-rabbinic literature, for example, Matthew 17:24-27. Josephus reports that the towns of Nahardea and Nisibis served as centers for the collection of the half-shekel donation (Antiq. 18:312). Philo tells about the collection of the half-shekel in Egypt and in Rome (On the Embassy to Gaius 156-157, 291, and 311-316). After the destruction of the Temple, Vespasian levied a tax of two dinars on all the Jews in the land of Israel and the Diaspora for the benefit of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, instead of the two dinars, the equivalent of half a shekel, that the Jews had customarily sent to the Temple in Jerusalem. This fact, confirmed in many Jewish, Christian and Roman sources and documented in receipts from Egypt, testifies to the widespread observance of the half-shekel donation.

From numerous passages in rabbinic literature it is evident that the administration of the Temple, that is the high priesthood, was in the hands of the Sadducees, but that pressure on the part of the sages and the people, who supported the sages, forced the high priests to give in often and to carry out the Temple service according to the halachot of the Pharisees (m. Yoma 1:5-6; t. Sukkah 5:1; t. Parah 3:8; and frequently elsewhere). This picture also emerges from various descriptions by Josephus, who says: “And all the religious matters concerning prayers and the offering of sacrifices are carried out according to the interpretations of these [the Pharisees]” (Antiq. 18:15; cf. 18:17).

Let us take a brief look at examples from details scattered throughout tannaic literature:

In the first chapter of Tosefta Yoma we find a detailed description of Temple activity on the night of the Day of Atonement. In halachah 4 Rabbi Yose (second century C.E.) adds that on one occasion a high priest experienced nocturnal pollution on that night (according to the primary texts of the Tosefta and its parallel) and Joseph son of Elim from Sepphoris replaced him. Josephus mentions the same event, reporting that Matthias son of Theophilus, who served as high priest between 5 and 4 B.C.E., experienced nocturnal pollution on the night before the fast and that Joseph son of Ellemus his relative took his place (Antiq. 17:165-166).

Tomb of Nicanor on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Tomb of Nicanor on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

The Mishnah mentions individuals who contributed to the Temple or brought donations and tithes, but whose gifts created halachic problems. The list is brief and all the examples belong to the last generations before the destruction of the Temple. It is remarkable that the tombs of two of the donors have been discovered in the vicinity of Jerusalem. One of these tombs, that of Nicanor who made one of the gates of the Temple, has been known for decades. The Mishnah says: “Miracles happened to Nicanor’s doors and he was remembered with praise” (m. Yoma 3:10). The Tosefta and both Talmuds report the miracles that happened to his doors when he brought them from Alexandria as a donation to the Temple (t. Yoma 2:4; m. Middot 2:3). A burial cave was discovered on Mount Scopus with a Greek and Hebrew inscription testifying that here were located the remains of Nicanor of Alexandria, who made the gates (Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum 1256).

In the Mishnah tractate Hallah three individuals are described as having brought offerings to the Temple—offerings that raised halachic questions: (1) whether firstfruits could be brought from Babylonia; (2) whether firstfruits could be brought in the form of wine and oil; (3) whether firstfruits could be brought from Syria. The Mishnah says: “Ariston brought firstfruits from Apamea” (m. Hallah 4:11). This Ariston appears in a recently published inscription in Hebrew and Greek: “Ariston Afme” (Scripta Classica Israelitica XI [1991/2]: 150).

3. The third example is from the period of the Great Rebellion (66-70 C.E.). In rabbinic sources there are numerous versions of the story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s departure from Jerusalem to Yavne and the privileges the Romans granted him. According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Gittin 56a-b) the dispensations he received were quite extensive. According to sources originating in the land of Israel, such as Avot de-Rabbi Natan (Version A, chap. 4; Version B, chap. 6), the privileges were far more limited. Lamentations Rabbah’s version (Lam. Rab. 1:31) is similar to the latter. The various parallels also differ in the historical background they portray. However, these traditions should not be discussed only from a literary point of view. Taken together, the various references to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his sayings, from both before and after the destruction of the Temple, suggest a clear picture of his actions. He was not a Zealot, and may have opposed the rebellion. He left Jerusalem in order to rebuild Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, turned himself over to the Romans and, like everyone who departed the besieged city and turned themselves over to the Romans, was arrested. He reached Yavne because it served as a place where people who left Jerusalem were concentrated. He received only limited recognition and began to operate under difficult conditions. Only in the course of years did Yavne become a center of Jewish leadership and a center for the study of Torah and gain its important place in the rebuilding of a Judaism without Jerusalem and its Temple.

Qumran and the Antiquity of Halachic Terms

There are many halachic terms that appear in rabbinic traditions ascribed to the Temple period and that pertain to the reality of the Temple. Many of these traditions relate to controversies with Sadducees. The traditions mention Hebrew terms that are idiomatic in the language of the sages. They pertain to Biblical injunctions, but they occur in the language of the sages not in the language of the Bible. One might argue that the terms do not date from the Second Temple period but were coined during the mishnaic period and quoted in the names of earlier sages or personalities who lived in the period of the Second Temple. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea documents in 1947 scholars have pointed out dozens of such terms proving that they were current in the Second Temple period. Let us discuss a few that have been clarified by scholarship, beginning with an halachic homily that is not attributed to an early period:

1. In Exodus 22:15-16 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the Bible says that he who seduces or rapes a virgin is obliged to marry her and “she will be his wife.” This obligation is discussed in an halachic homily (Mechilta, Mishpatim 17 [on Ex 22:15; ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 308]) and in the Mishnah (m. Ketubbot 3:5). In these two texts it is stated that the seducer is required to marry her only if she is suitable for marriage to him, אשה הראויה לו (a woman suitable for him), that is, is not a forbidden relation. The language of the addition to the Biblical verse in the Temple Scroll (11q19 66:9) is identical: והיא רויה לו מן החוק (and she is suitable for him according to the law). The Mishnah and the Temple Scroll do not agree regarding every detail of this law, but the expression “and she will be his wife—a wife that is suitable for him” is the same even though the time gap between the Temple Scroll and the Mishnah is several hundred years.

2. The day on which the ’omer (measure of barley from the new crop) is waved, as prescribed in Leviticus 23:12, “On the day of your waving the ’omer,” is called יום הנף (the day of waving) in rabbinic literature (m. Sukkah 3:12; m. Rosh HaShanah 4:3). This expression is a condensed form of יום הנף העומר (the day of waving the ’omer), or in one place, הנפת העמר (Pesikta Rabbati 41). The same form occurs several times in the Temple Scroll, for example, in 11q19 11:10 and 11q19 18:10: וביום הנף העומר and ביום הניפת העומר.

3. According to the Torah one who undergoes ritual purification does not become pure on the same day, but only after sunset: “And the sun will set and he will be pure” (Lev. 22:7); “And when the sun sets he will enter the camp” (Deut. 23:12). In rabbinic language, this waiting period is called מעורב שמש (setting of the sun) (m. Parah 3:7, and elsewhere), and the completion of the period is called העריב שמשו (his sun has set). This language appears often in tannaic literature, in some cases regarding traditions and events from the time when the Second Temple was still standing, such as the altercation between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Sadducean high priest (t. Parah 3:6-10). The same language also appears several times in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, in 4QMMT (4Q394 f3_7i:18) we read: להעריב השמש להיות טהורים ([Concerning the purity of the heifer of the sin offering, the one who slaughters it, the one who burns it, the one who gathers its ashes, and the one who sprinkles the (water of) purification—for all of these,] the sun must set for them to be pure) (trans. Abegg). And in a fragment of the Damascus Covenant we read: וטהר אשר יעריב שמשו (and pure whose sun has set).

4. The sages use a halachic concept הנצוק (ha-nitsok), a term used to describe liquid being poured from a pure vessel into an empty vessel or into one containing impure food or drink. The term appears in several halachot regarding the impurity of vessels or the impurity of idolatry. It recurs not an insignificant number of times in both tannaic and amoraic sources. According to the halachah, such a fluid is pure and does not constitute a carrier of impurity. In other words, as soon as one stops pouring, the liquid that has entered the impure vessel is impure, but the liquid in the pure vessel retains its state of purity. A term that appears in tannaic literature cannot be presumed to have come into being before the time of the tannaim (before the generation of Yavne [70-132 C.E.] and afterwards), but this term appears also in a controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees, since the Pharisees declared this liquid pure and the Sadducees declared it impure and a carrier of impurity. In the Mishnah we read: “The Sadducees say: ‘We complain about you Pharisees who purify the נצוק’” (m. Yadayim 4:7). We could argue that the language of the Sadducees was changed by later editors for whom the term נצוק was common, but a similar controversy appears in 4QMMT of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and its similarity is not only in content, but also in form and terminology. This work is a kind of anti-Pharisaic polemic or propaganda tract in which the writer presents the preferred views of the sect as opposed to the inferior views of his Pharisaic opponents. We read: “[Co]ncerning streams of liquid (מוצקות), we have determined that they are not intrinsically [p]ure. Indeed, streams of liquid (מוצקות) do not form a barrier between the impure [and the] pure. For the liquid of the stream and that in its receptacle become as one liquid” (4Q394 f8iv:5-8; trans. Abegg).

We should not rush to conclude that the halachah of Qumran is the halachah of the Sadducees or even resembles it. We know very little about Sadducean halachah, and the few Sadducean halachot that we find similar to those of Qumran do not testify to more than a factor common to both the Dead Sea sect and the Sadducees—a tendency toward conservative interpretation of the Torah that opposed the interpretations and the traditions of the Pharisees. Evidence from the Qumran texts supports the conclusion of scholars who attribute some rabbinic halachot to the period of the Second Temple on the basis of analysis of rabbinic sources. We would reach the same conclusion if we compared the many parallels in the Septuagint, Josephus and the Apocrypha with early Christian literature, that is, the New Testament and the writings of the apostolic church fathers. I have selected the above examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls because of their linguistic similarity to rabbinic traditions, because the Scrolls predate rabbinic literature by several generations, and because it cannot be claimed that the Scrolls have undergone later rewriting.


Obviously there can be no general consensus on the extent of the historical value of rabbinic sayings. To one scholar a testimony, saying or tradition (anonymous or ascribed to a certain sage) may seem to be unimpeachable historical evidence, and to another nothing more than a literary tradition. Even the same scholar may not always take the same position. Sometimes a scholar changes his position about a piece of “evidence.” Nevertheless, often one may reach sound conclusions as to the degree of reliability of a rabbinic tradition; but only, however, if these are drawn on the basis of serious analysis of text and context, taking into account how the tradition fits into the mosaic of rabbinic tradition from both literary and historical points of view.


  • [1] In this article I summarize what I perceive as the correct way to deal with rabbinic sources and do not engage in a controversy or polemic with any particular scholar. Consequently, I have not given bibliographical references to specific translations and editions, but only references to original sources.

Remembering Robert L. Lindsey

Revised: 6-Dec-2012

I would like to thank Brian Kvasnica (who organized the lectures), Ken and Lenore Mullican (who funded the lectures) and the Narkis Street Congregation (that hosted the lectures) for making the “2008 Lindsey Lectures” (the third in a series) a reality.

Let me briefly report on what has been done since 1985 to keep alive Lindsey’s memory, and to contribute to his legacy:

The late Robert L. Lindsey, the late Professor David Flusser, and their colleague, the late Professor Shmuel Safrai collaborated to birth a new school of synoptic research. In 1985 the “Jerusalem School” became a legal entity (an Amutah) in Israel, and has now joined the Oxford School, the Tübingen School, and others, as a center of synoptic research.

In 1987 Jerusalem Perspective magazine was launched, becoming a repository of articles written by Lindsey, Flusser, Safrai, and their students. In 1993 and 1994, a reconstruction and commentary on the “Rich Young Ruler” pericope was published across five issues of Jerusalem Perspective magazine (Issues 38, 39, 42, 43 and 44). This commentary was the product of seventeen seminars led by Lindsey, Flusser and Safrai in 1986 and 1987.

After Lindsey’s death in 1995, the October-December 1995 issue of Jerusalem Perspective memorialized Lindsey and contained personal tributes to Lindsey written by David Flusser, Halvor Ronning, Steven Notley, Brad Young, Joseph Frankovic, Ken Mullican, Dwight Pryor and David Bivin. In this issue are also many rare photos of Lindsey and Flusser working together and, even, for instance, a photo of Lindsey with Zalman Shazar, Israel’s third president.

In 1990 Lindsey’s Jesus Rabbi & Lord appeared. Unfortunately, the book has now been out of print for eight years. Happily, in the next few weeks this book will be published in electronic format by, and will again be available. [The emended and updated second edition, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, is now available in electronic format. – DB]

Since Lindsey’s death Jerusalem School scholars have presented more than one hundred scholarly papers at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. Additional papers have already been accepted for this fall’s meeting in Boston.

Between 1997 and 2001 three editions of Flusser’s Jesus were published by Magnes Press. Now, thanks to Flusser’s disciple Steven Notley, the fourth edition has been published in paperback under the title The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. In the next few weeks, at the initiative of Serge Ruzer, Flusser’s student, Magnes Press will bring out a Hebrew translation of Flusser’s biography of Jesus. [Now published as Yeshu. – DB]

In 2005, Lindsey’s biography appeared. Written by Loren Turnage and Ken Mullican (Lindsey’s son-in-lawand published by HaKesher (Tulsa, OK), One Foot in Heaven: The Story of Bob Lindsey in Jerusalem is a book you won’t be able to put down. [The book, now out of print, has been republished as an eBook. – DB]

In June 2006 a conference celebrating the memory of Lindsey, Flusser and Safrai took place in Jerusalem. Organized by Jerusalem Perspective, fifteen lectures were presented by students of these three scholarly giants.

Later in 2006 Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus’ Last Week (edited by Steven Notley, Marc Turnage and Brian Becker) was published by Brill in Leiden, The Netherlands. (Brill is one of the world’s most prestigious academic publishers.) This is the first volume of a four-volume series of studies by Jerusalem School scholars under contract with Brill.

Hebrew University scholar and Jerusalem School member Serge Ruzer edited a collection of Flusser’s Hebrew articles. This collection was published in two volumes by Magnes Press in 2002. Later, readers of donated the money to have these essays translated to English. In November, the first English volume, Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Qumran and Apocalypticism, was co-published by Eerdmans, Jerusalem Perspective and Magnes Press.  [The two volumes of Judaism of the Second Temple Period, Qumran and Apocalypticism and Sages and Literature, are now available as eBooks. – DB]

With the help of Linda Pattillo, other unpublished Lindsey articles and books are being prepared for online publication by Jerusalem Perspective.

This is only some of what has been done and is being done to perpetuate the memory of Robert Lindsey, and, of course, the memory of his close co-workers in synoptic research, David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai.

The Program for the 2008 Lindsey Lectures (written by Brian Kvasnica)

We will pay tribute to the life of Rev. Robert L. Lindsey, Ph.D. (Aug. 16, 1917- May 31, 1995) with the following lectures and discussions that demonstrate academic rigor connected to Second Temple Judaism or the study of Jesus, coupled with lives of faith that apply their learning in life.

This year, the third year of the “Lindsey Lectures,” we will congregate around the above two themes, “The Spiritual Life of the Ancient Israelite” and “Postmissionary Messianic Judaism,” the latter a theme close to many of Lindsey’s own publications, such as his Ph.D. dissertation entitled Israel in Christendom: The Problem of Jewish Identity and his 1972 article, “Salvation and the Jews,” International Review of Mission (1972): 20-37.

We hope that these two lectures and extended discussions will honor the memory of Bob Lindsey and will stimulate Christian and Jew alike to further study and deeds of loving-kindness.

Monday, 30 June 7:30-9:30 p.m.

Welcome and Greetings: Rev. Charles Kopp (Senior Pastor, Narkis Street Congregation)

Remembering Lindsey: David Bivin, (

Prof. Jacob Milgrom, “The Spiritual Life of the Ancient Israelite: Dealing with Sin and Guilt”

Response and Discussion: Niek Arentsen (Christ Church), Dr. Stephen and Claire Pfann (University of the Holy Land) and the Narkis Parashah Fellowship

Tuesday 1 July 7:30-9:30 p.m.

Welcome and Greetings: Rev. David Pileggi (Rector, Christ Church)

Remembering Lindsey: Dr. Halvor Ronning (Home for Bible Translators)

Dr. Mark Kinzer, “Postmissionary Messianic Judaism Three Years Later: Reflections on a Conversation Just Begun”

Responses: Dr. Randall Buth (Biblical Language Center), “Reflections on a Long-Awaited Book”

Dr. Gershon Nerel (Jerusalem Bible Academy), “Between Two Concepts: ‘Postmission’ and ‘Messianic Judaism’: Semantics and Reality”

Discussion Panel including: Seth Ben-Haim (Nashuvah), Dr. Akiva Cohen and David Stern

Did women go through a mikveh (ritual immersion pool) after childbirth?

Question received from Mary R. Carse that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 46 & 47 (Sept.-Dec. 1994): 6.

According to Leviticus 12, the presenting of the two turtledoves constituted the purification for childbirth. And in fact, the same thing seems to be implied concerning a woman’s menstrual period (Lev. 15:19ff.). Anyone who touches her or anything she has touched has to purify himself by washing, but nothing seems to be said about the woman washing herself at any time, either after childbirth or after her monthly period. So where did the idea of the mikveh come from? Was that a later introduction? Still, I know that mikva’ot [plural of mikveh] have been excavated at the base of the steps on the south side of the Temple Mount which led up to the Temple. What were they for? And if a woman had to present an offering for her purification both after childbirth and after her monthly period, did she have to travel all the way to Jerusalem every month?

Shmuel Safrai responds:

It was not necessary for Mary to go immediately from Nazareth in Galilee to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice for her purification. To quote from my daughter Chana Safrai’s article, “Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and Their Child Prodigy”:

According to Scripture, a mother is impure for forty days after the birth of a son. At the end of this period, she is to bring to the Temple an offering for her purification (Lev. 12:1-8). Rabbinic sources indicate that a woman was allowed to postpone her sacrifice until she had an opportunity to go to Jerusalem. Sometimes a mother waited until she had given birth a number of times before offering the prescribed sacrifice for her purification (Tosefta, Keritot 2:21; Mishnah, Keritot 1:7, 2:4). Often, she waited to fulfill this obligation until the family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, some women performed this rite at the end of the forty-day period in keeping with the biblical injunction. Mary observed the commandment in this way.

As Chana points out, a mother could postpone the prescribed sacrifice after the birth of a son; however, she could not postpone the ritual immersion. Therefore, this was usually done at the local mikveh in the woman’s hometown. It was not necessary for a woman to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem for the immersion. As Mary Carse has supposed, women were also required to immerse themselves after the menstrual period, and this, too, was done at a local mikveh. It is true that nothing seems to be said in the Torah about a woman’s requirement for immersion after the birth of a son and following menstruation, but the sages viewed immersion in these cases as scriptural commandments. They based this view on their understanding of Leviticus 12:1-8; 15:18; and 18:19. (For further details of the sages’ view, see the discussions in Mishnah tractate Niddah.)

Just when in history the mikveh came into being we do not know; however, it is certain that its use was already well-established in Jewish society by Jesus’ time. Immersion as part of a woman’s purification was also practiced by Essenes and Samaritans.

Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of
Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of

The mikva’ot adjacent to the monumental stairs leading to the south entrance of the Temple Mount were used by persons who intended to enter the inner courts of the Temple. One could ascend the Temple Mount and visit the outer court (the so-called Court of the Gentiles) without having to purify oneself in a mikveh, if one did not proceed beyond the Court of the Gentiles. In fact, if in a state of ritual cleanness, a Jew could even enter the Women’s Court, the outer court of the sanctuary, without undergoing ritual immersion. However, to proceed further (to the Israelites’ Court and beyond), he or she had to bathe in a mikveh, even if ritually clean. There was a mikveh located in the Lepers’ Chamber, in the northwest corner of the Women’s Court (Mishnah, Middot 2:5; Negaim 14:8), and there were many other mikva’ot scattered over the Temple Mount. These were not just for the priests, who served in the inner courts of the Temple, but also for non-priests—when offering their sacrifices, non-priests could enter the Priests’ Court (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma III, 40b).

Gentiles could also ascend the Temple Mount; however, they were not permitted to enter the sanctuary itself. On all four sides of the sanctuary was an ascent of fourteen steps and a five-meter-wide walkway or rampart (in Hebrew, Hel) immediately adjoining the outside walls of the sanctuary. Encircling these stairs and walkway was a stone balustrade (1.5 meters in height), called in Hebrew, the Soreg. Gentiles could not go beyond this barrier and, according to Josephus (War 5:195–197; Antiq. 15:417; cf. Mishnah, Kelim 1:8), there were warning signs in Greek and Latin affixed to the Soreg at regular intervals forbidding Gentiles, under penalty of death, to proceed further. Two of these signs written in Greek (one complete, and one partially preserved), have been discovered in Jerusalem.

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

To make sure that no one willfully or inadvertently violated the purity regulations, Levites were appointed as supervisors. (Remember that the Levites were the Temple gatekeepers.) We learn this from, among others, the first-century Jewish historian Philo (On the Special Laws 1:156). The Levites conducted spot-checks, asking people entering the Temple whether they were ritual clean, or, in the case of persons entering the Israelites’ Court, whether they had bathed in a mikveh. In addition, it was required of worshippers that they ascend the Temple Mount with freshly washed white garments and barefooted (War 2:1).

In a third-century C.E. fragment of a non-canonical gospel written in Greek (Oxyrhynchus Papyri V, 840), there is a very interesting tradition about Jesus. According to this source, Jesus and his disciples were accosted in the Temple by a Levite supervisor and accused of having violated the purification regulations:

“Who has given you permission to walk in this holy place and to look upon these holy vessels without first bathing yourself and even without your disciples having washed their feet, but in an unclean state you have walked in this holy and purified place, although no one who has not first bathed himself and changed his clothes may walk in it and venture to view these holy vessels.”Jesus replied, “I am clean, for I have bathed myself in the pool of David. I have gone down [into it] by the one stair and come up [out of it] by the other, and I have put on white garments that are ritually clean, and in that state I have come here and looked upon these holy vessels.”

While this story about Jesus may not be historical, much authentic detail about the customs of those who came to the Temple is preserved in this fragment, such as the changing of one’s clothes, the wearing of white clothes and the ritual bathing before entering the Temple. This source contains authentic Jewish traditions from the first century C.E. These traditions cannot be literary inventions. A third-century Gentile author would not likely have known, for instance, that on every Jewish pilgrimage festival, the holy Temple utensils were brought out and put on display in the Israelites’ Court for the benefit of visiting pilgrims.

Matthew 24:20: Why did Jesus advise people to pray that their flight not be on the Sabbath?


In Matthew 24, Jesus says that when the residents of Judea see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place, they should flee to the mountains and pray that their flight not be in the winter or on a Sabbath (verse 20). I can understand “winter,” but why did Jesus say that they should pray that their flight not be on a “Sabbath”?


Shmuel Safrai responds:

The biblical prohibition against working on the Sabbath, as interpreted by the rabbis, included carrying burdens (Mishnah, Shabbat 7:2). If one had to flee on the Sabbath one would be forced to leave behind nearly all of one’s possessions. One would not be permitted to take any money, would be allowed to carry only enough food for three meals and a maximum of eighteen different pieces of clothing (Mishnah, Shabbat 16:2, 4).

To illustrate the severity of this prohibition, if a man’s house caught fire on the Sabbath, he was not allowed to carry water to put out the fire and he could save only enough food from the house for three meals. Compare the story recorded in Tosefta, Shabbat 13:9 about the fire that broke out on the Sabbath in the courtyard of Joseph ben Sammai, who lived in the Lower Galilee. Not only would he not extinguish the fire, but he was so strict in his observance of the commandments that he would not allow the soldiers of a nearby Roman army camp to put out the blaze even though they had come at their own initiative and thus were not in violation of Jewish law. (See my “The Centurion and the Synagogue.”)

Jerusalem Perspective’s Perspective on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code









In the marketplace of ideas, legitimate biblical scholarship competes with the likes of Erich von Deniken (Chariots of the Gods) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code), and other sensationalists. The sensationalists, of course, always win, hands down. As Jerusalem Perspective author Magen Broshi commented,

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 (“From Allegro to Zeitlin”).

A movie based on The Da Vinci Code is scheduled for release at the end of this week. To help its readers better evaluate Dan Brown’s book, Jerusalem Perspective has published “Historical Howlers, Funny and Otherwise: Dan Brown’s Backward Understanding of Gnosticism” by Jerusalem Perspective author Jack Poirier. Poirier points out some of the major historical and factual errors made by Brown. Read Poirier’s article and you quickly realize the scope of the inaccuracies in Brown’s book.

Poirier’s article begins,

Many readers from my generation probably remember the hilarious riposte by Bluto, a character in the movie Animal House: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!” One could not ask for a funnier example of a historical howler than that, and John Belushi’s performance made it even more hilarious. But historical howlers are not always funny. Consider, for example, the factual errors strewn throughout Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. The howlers and other factual errors in the middle chapters of that book are almost too numerous to count (on p. 234, there are sixteen errors in the space of just three small paragraphs!), and they are so absurd that debunking the book’s virtual history has been compared to shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, probably only a fraction of that novel’s readers are any the wiser, and that is why these howlers are ultimately not funny. They will be even less funny when the movie comes out.

David Bivin’s New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights From His Jewish Context counters at least one suggestion embedded in Brown’s best-selling novel. In the En-Gedi Resource Center newsletter, Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema write:

The book [The Da Vinci Code] suggests that Jesus was actually married even though the Gospels never mention it. To quote a character in the book, “Jesus as a married man makes infinitely more sense than our standard biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor, because Jesus was a Jew, and the social decorum during that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried….” (p. 245).

Was Jesus married? Would he and Paul have been condemned for being single? According to scholar David Bivin, the answer is no. In New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, he writes [quoting Professor Shmuel Safrai], “A bachelor rabbi functioning within Jewish society of the first century was not as abnormal as it might first appear. Rabbis often spent many years far from home, first as students and then as itinerant teachers. It was not uncommon for such men to marry in their late thirties or forties. Just as some students today wait to marry until they finish their education, so there were disciples and even rabbis who postponed marriage until later in life” (p. 67).

Bivin then gives two examples [suggested by Professor Shmuel Safrai] of rabbis from Jesus’ time who married after having disciples, or were putting off marriage until later because of their dedication to teaching the Scriptures. This fits well with Jesus’ statement that “others have renounced marriage because of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:12) and Paul’s affirmation of singleness as well. Rather than being an impossibility, singleness was a sign of a rabbi’s great commitment to God.

Download the chapter, “Why Didn’t Jesus Get Married?” from David Bivin’s new book.

Purchase New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus.