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.

“Verily” or “Amen”—What Did Jesus Say?

In translating the Greek texts of the Gospels into Hebrew, Dr. Lindsey found that many passages could be rendered literally with almost no change of word order. The result was a Hebrew version that often sheds fascinating light on the meaning of Jesus’ words, so much so that Lindsey came to believe the Greek sources Matthew, Mark and Luke used were rendered very literally from Hebrew originals. This Hebraic perspective sometimes explains Gospel passages that have long been considered difficult or ambiguous. In the following article,Lindsey presents one example of what has been considered a uniquely idiosyncratic expression of Jesus, but which a Hebraic perspective reveals to be a familiar phrase from the Scriptures.

Every reader of the Gospels knows the phrase, “Verily, I say unto you,” or “Verily, verily, I say unto you.”[1] According to the standard English translations of the Old and New Testaments, it seems that Jesus alone used such a preamble. Most Christians, long accustomed to such expressions in the Bible, take it for granted that “Jesus talked that way.”

What struck me first about “Verily I say unto you”[2] was that the Greek text simply transliterated the Hebrew amen for “verily.”[3] That in itself is not altogether surprising, for elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in the epistles of Paul, amēn often comes at the end of an expression of praise to God. Paul speaks of God as the Creator “who is blessed forever! Amen!” (Rom. 1:25), and exclaims “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever! Amen!” (1 Tim. 1:17). Honorific amēn responses also appear several times in the Book of Revelation. All of this is in perfect accord with occasional Old Testament usage[4] and with present-day practice in synagogues and churches.[5]

Puzzling to me, however, was that amēn came at the beginning of something that Jesus was quoted as saying. There are no other instances in the New or Old Testaments of a statement beginning, “Amen, I say to you.” In Hebrew literature ’āmēn is always a response. For example, the Psalmist writes, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! ’āmēn and ’āmēn” (Ps. 41:14). In Numbers 5:22 one reads that before the priest gave her the “bitter water,” a wife suspected of infidelity had to listen to his words and respond, “Amēn, amēn.”[6] Again and again we hear the phrase, “And the people all said, ‘Amen'” (Deut. 27:16-26). Amen is used exclusively in biblical literature as a response—except for Jesus’ mode: “Amēn, I say to you.”

Many commentators have noted the uniqueness of Jesus’ use of amēn. The first writer to allude to this is the author of Revelation who uses “Amēn” to identify the resurrected and ascended Jesus: “These things says the Amen” (Rev. 3:14). It would appear that the revelator felt a poetic license to use this appellative because Jesus is so often quoted in the Gospels as using amēn. Although not wholly comfortable with the oddity of the locution, modern writers have accepted that the words “Amen, I say to you” were as unique as Jesus himself. One scholar has popularized the idea that, since the phrase is too unusual to have been invented and put into the mouth of Jesus, most sayings beginning with “Amen…” are sure evidence that we are reading his [Jesus’] ipsissima verba.[7]

More recently, scholars have come increasingly to suppose that the Gospels are mainly a collection of late, re-edited sayings that were greatly changed from their original form before final redaction towards the end of the first century. Hence, they have aired the notion that the phrase is a convenient formula under which many invented sayings of Jesus were collected to preserve their authority.[8] I am unable to accept any of these suggestions. If it is possible in many cases to get back to a Hebrew original of Jesus’ words simply by finding the right Hebrew equivalents to a Greek passage and by putting them down in the order of the Greek text, one cannot speak of a long period in which our Gospel stories and sayings took form at the demand of a Greek-speaking church.

Theoretically, the “Amen, I tell you” formula may be as fully original as the Hebraic “behold” and “eat and drink” idioms so common in Jesus’ speech. Nor would it be strange if the earliest translators of the Hebrew Life of Jesus simply transliterated ’āmēn as they wrote down their Greek text. The word γέεννα (geena, “gehenna,” “hell”), used throughout the Gospels, from the Hebrew גֵּיא בֶן־הִנֹּם (gē’ ben hinom, “Valley of Ben-hinnom”), is clearly such a case.

Assuming, then, that Jesus did use amēn frequently, why should he have used it unidiomatically? We may concede that even the Gospel writers felt that the phrase was unusual and either, as in Luke, preferred to omit the offending amēn, or, as probably in Mark, inserted it in some sayings in the editorial process just because it was unusual. But to find Jesus deliberately reversing its position in speech, even when he seems to be speaking an otherwise normal Hebrew, strains the imagination.

Checking all the appearances of amēn in the Septuagint, it is interesting to note that whereas in the earlier portions of the Hebrew Scriptures the Jewish translators had attempted to give a Greek equivalent for ’āmēn,[9] in the later portions they chose to transliterate the Hebrew אָמֵן (’āmēn) as ἀμήν (amēn). This offers a precedent for the retention of amēn in the Greek texts of the Gospels. The translators of the original Hebrew texts of the Life of Jesus may well have followed suit.

The same variation is visible in the Gospel of Luke, where the author uses “Amen, I say to you” six times, but three times writes ἀληθῶς λέγω ὑμῖν (alēthōs legō hūmin, truly I say to you; Luke 9:27; 12:44; 21:3).[10] Matthew, in his general parallel to seven of the eleven passages in which Luke writes only “I say to you,” has in each, “Amen, I say to you” (Matt. 5:26; 8:10; 10:15; 11:11; 13:17; 16:28; 23:36). Since it seems certain that Matthew and Luke independently used at least one common literary source, and since Matthew produces the amēn formula more than thirty times, it is a good guess that the Greek texts standing behind the Gospels preserved the expression “Amen, I say to you” over forty times.

Turning, then, to an analysis of each use of amēn in the Gospels, a first impression is that the “Amen, I say to you” phrase has a kindred one: “I say to you” or “But I say to you.” Matthew and Luke join in reporting that Jesus said concerning John the Baptist, “But what did you go to see, a prophet? Ah yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matt. 2:9, Luke 7:26). Here, “I tell you” is the same in Greek as “I say to you,” and there is no suggestion of amēn in either Gospel. There are many such “I tell you” or “I say to you” sayings in the Gospels.

Parallels to the expression “And I say” and “But I say” have been found in rabbinic literature.[11] In these rabbinic contexts a statement attributed to another rabbi will often be contrasted with one introduced by “But I say” or “And I say.” However, there does not appear to be a rabbinic parallel to “Amen, I say to you.”

Perhaps more decisive as a clue is that both “I say to you” and “Amēn, I say to you” regularly occur in the Gospels not at the beginning of a saying, but in the middle of an extended series of sentences. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus says that the “sons of this age are wiser than the sons of light,” and adds, “and I say to you, make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9). In a short saying, Jesus states: “See that you look not down on one of these little ones. I tell you that their angels in heaven do always behold the face of my father” (Matt. 18:10). “Blessed are those servants,” says Jesus, “who stand watching when their Lord comes.” Then he adds, “Amen, I say to you that he shall gird himself up and then go about serving them” (Luke 12:37). In these and many other examples, “I say to you” and “Amen, I say to you” both serve the purpose of providing a speech formula by which an additional emphasis or piece of information can be joined to an earlier statement.

Is there, in fact, any difference in the function of these outwardly different expressions? After all, if one removes the amen from the one phrase, one has exactly the same words as are found in the other: “I say to you.” Patently, the amēn either acts like the adverb “truly” to strengthen “I say to you,” or somehow stands on its own and is unlinked syntactically to “I say to you.” It is clear that Luke, at least, has decided that the first possibility is the more likely and therefore has not hesitated at times to use alēthōs (truly) in place of amēn.

But the second possibility also exists, particularly if there is good reason to think that the appearance of amen in the Greek texts is an untranslated Hebraism that was retained because it had become popular and understandable in Greek-speaking synagogues and churches. In other words, it is possible that we should read amēn as the response that it normally is, and separate it from “I say to you” by placing a period after it.

My search for clues to explain the amēn formula led me to conjecture that amēn was indeed a response. I observed that its normal position was not at the beginning of a saying, but after a strong statement, and that the following “I say to you” introduced an additional sentence of emphasis and confirmation. The amēn seemed, therefore, to be a way of reinforcing the original affirmation, and “I tell you” added a further point of stress. After some study I saw that the amēn occurrences normally show the following pattern:

  • Strong statement
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

This pattern is particularly evident in Jesus’ μακάριοι (makarioi, “blessed”) sayings:

Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Amen! I tell you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and to hear what you hear and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:16-17)

Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Amen! I tell you, he will set him over all his possessions. (Matt. 24:46)

Blessed are those servants whom the Lord shall find them watching. Amen! I tell you that he will gird himself and have them recline and will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)

These are undoubted examples of the “Strong statement…Amen…confirming statement” pattern, and the use of the Hebraic makarios almost as an expletive underlines the claim that a strong affirmation introduces the formula.

In more than one example, another speaker makes a strong affirmation and Jesus responds with “Amen!” going on to add, “I tell you.” Matthew (21:28-32) recounts the story of two sons, one of whom tells his father that he will not do something the father had requested, but eventually does it, while the other says he will obey his father, but then does not. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” The listeners answer, “The first,” to which Jesus replies, “Amen! I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes enter into the kingdom of God before you.”[12] The explanation that “Amen” appears here as a response is very convincing. If there were no “Amen,” and “I tell you” were used alone, it would hardly be so. By saying “Amen!” Jesus responds like the conversationalist and teacher that he was.

On one occasion, “Amen” appears as the reaction to an impressive event. In the story of the Widow’s Mite, Luke 21:1-4 describes Jesus watching with his disciples near the treasury bin in the Temple as the affluent pass by to make their gifts. A widow drops in her “mite,” and Luke simply records Jesus’ response: “Truly I say to you, this widow has put in more than all the rest, for all of these have contributed out of plenty, but she out of poverty.” The original response must have been, “Amen! I tell you that she has given more than all the rest….”

In light of this illustration, we should widen our pattern of the amēns of Jesus. There is no conversation between the widow and Jesus, and Jesus prefaces his “Amen” not with strong words, but with an account of something seen. The pattern becomes:

  • Strong statement or significant action
  • Amēn
  • Confirming statement

Almost every utterance of amēn in Jesus’ sayings will be found to conform to this pattern. All the Lukan and most of the Matthean instances fit. Two or three instances in the Gospel of Mark are without an introductory statement, and Matthew usually follows Mark on these. This is probably because Mark is freer toward his texts and Matthew tends to copy Mark even when his parallel source disagrees textually.[13]

An ironic use of this formula is found twice in Matthew (Matt. 6:2, 5). The Matthean examples are connected to the phrase “they have their reward.” In the first, Jesus teaches how one should not give alms: “Do not be like the hypocrites, sounding a trumpet in front of you so men will praise you.” Then comes “Amen,” and Jesus adds, “I tell you, they have their reward.” In the second, Jesus warns his hearers not to pray like the hypocrites “on the corners of the streets, so they will be seen by men.” Once more, Jesus follows this statement with “Amen” and “I tell you, they have their reward.”

To think that Jesus would have used this strong “Amen” almost in mockery seems at first somewhat curious. It could be argued that Matthew added “Amen” to “I tell you” by analogy, but in Luke 4:16-30 we find a remarkable episode in which the ironic nuance can scarcely be absent. It is possible that this instance, generally called the Lukan story of the rejection in Nazareth, provides the final clue to the origin of Jesus’ use of the “Amen” pattern. It is also a superb example of Hebrew narrative. As so often in Luke, a literal translation of the Greek text into Hebrew yields a passage brimful of Hebrew idioms, proverbs and patterns of thought.

The episode appears as the first event in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and there is good reason to suppose that Luke placed it where he did as an introduction to the teaching of Jesus concerning his entire mission. Jesus comes to Nazareth and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is given the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…. (Isa. 61:1-2)

From rabbinic sources we know that this verse was considered a prophecy of the coming Son of David because of its use of the word מָשִׁיחַ (māshiaḥ, anointed). It was a bold claim when Jesus announced to his listeners that the prophecy had been “fulfilled today in your ears.” Little more of what he said about himself is narrated, but the crowd is said to marvel “at the words of grace that proceeded from his mouth.” At the same time, the crowd appears to be more intrigued than affected, and the people remark that Jesus is, “after all, just Joseph’s son.”

Jesus retorts, “You will doubtless quote me the parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself. What we heard you have been doing in Capernaum, do here too.'” Then he says, “Amen! I tell you, no man is a prophet in his own town.” He ends by suggesting that, just as Elijah and Elisha worked miracles of healing and feeding for outsiders only, so his own miracles would be limited to the people beyond the confines of his own village.

As in so many stories in the Gospels, Jesus’ preoccupation with the writings and works of the Old Testament prophets is striking, and it is perhaps not astonishing to find a parallel to his way of speaking in an incident in the twenty-eighth chapter of Jeremiah. In verses 1-11 we learn that the prophet Hananiah of Gibeon appeared before Jeremiah and “the priests and all the people” and dramatically declared that the recently exiled Judaeans, together with the captured vessels of the Temple, would soon be sent back to Jerusalem. Such a promise ran contrary to the message of Jeremiah who answered, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord make the words you have promised come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.” Jeremiah then corrects Hananiah’s false prophecy by using the phrase, “But hear the words I speak in your ears.”

The parallels are too close to be accidental. Jeremiah talks “in the ears” of the people; Jesus says the Scripture is fulfilled “in your ears.” Jeremiah says “Amen” to a prophecy that he wishes would come true, but knows will not; Jesus can say “Amen” to a hope of the working of miracles in Nazareth although he knows that he must deny it. Jeremiah counters the words of the false prophet with his own “I speak”; Jesus counters the false hopes of the inquisitive with his own “I tell you.” The ironic use of “Amen” by both suggests that Jesus deliberately adopted the pattern of “Amen” and “I tell you” from the remarkably similar speech pattern of Jeremiah.

I suggest, therefore, that the word amēn, which appears repeatedly in the Greek texts of the Gospels, is a transliterated Hebrew expression used by Jesus as a response, and that the “I tell you” which invariably follows was added by Jesus to introduce a new affirmation designed to strengthen the original purpose for which the amēn was uttered. The contention that Jesus used “Amen, I say to you” as a phrase characterized by an adverbial amēn is untenable. Rather, when he said “Amen!” and added “I tell you,” Jesus was adopting a prophetic speech model of the prophet Jeremiah, and we may infer that Jesus wished his adherents and listeners to understand that this device of speech matched his prophetic career and messianic claims.

*This article, originally published in the defunct Christian News from Israel 25.3 (1975): 144-8, has been here emended and updated by David N. Bivin, Joshua N. Tilton and Lauren S. Asperschlager. For a discussion of Lindsey’s article, see David N. Bivin, “Jesus’ Use of ‘Amen’: Introduction or Response?

  • [1] The latter phrase appears only in the Gospel of John, e.g., John 1:51; 3:3, 5.
  • [2] This is the KJV’s rendition of ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (amēn legō hūmin, lit., “Amēn, I say to you”). The RSV renders the phrase, “Truly, I say to you.” The NIV renders it, “I tell you the truth,” while the NKJV translates, “Assuredly, I say to you.” The expression appears twenty-six times in Matt., eleven times in Mark and six times in Luke (Luke 4:24; 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43 [ἀμὴν σοι λέγω, amēn soi legō]). In John we always find the amen doubled in this expression, that is, “Amen, amen, I say to you” (20 times).
  • [3] The Hebrew word אָמֵן (’āmēn, “surely”) was transliterated to Greek as ἀμήν (amēn), rather than being translated.
  • [4] For example, Deut. 27:15 and 1 Chron. 16:36.
  • [5] Perhaps amēn entered the early Greek-speaking congregations mainly on account of a predilection to keep liturgical words alive even when transferring material from one language to another.
  • [6] This is a good example of amen’s meaning. The NIV renders, “So be it.”
  • [7] Joachim Jeremias, Neutestamentliche Theologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1971), 43-44.
  • [8] Cf. Victor Hasler, Amen: Redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zur Einfürungsformel der Herrenworte “Wahrlich ich sage euch” (Zürich; Stuttgart: Gotthelf-Verlag, 1969), 177ff., in particular.
  • [9] Often γένοιτο (genoito, “let it be so”; Deut. 27:15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26; 1 Kgs. 1:36; Jer. 11:5; twice ἀληθινόν (alēthinon, true; Isa. 65:16); once ἀληθῶς (alethos, truly; Jer. 35:6).
  • [10] In addition, the author of Luke once writes, ναὶ λέγω ὑμῖν (ναι legō hūmin, “yes, I say to you”; Luke 11:51). Mark gives amen in each of his parallels to Luke’s alēthōs (Mark 9:1; 12:43).
  • [11] See Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1951), 27-30.
  • [12] For two additional examples of “Amen!” plus strong affirmation in a response by Jesus, see Luke 18:29 and 23:43.
  • [13] In John, the formula has been extended to “Amen, amen,” and amēn is clearly thought of as adverbial, the repetition being a means of dramatizing. The fact that in John no introductory statement or action is necessary exemplifies that author’s method of picking out a synoptic literary device and enlarging its use without preserving original contexts.

The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century

There is a great deal of literature describing the Jewish cultural nature of Galilee in the first century C.E. Several scholarly fields are involved.

The issue is discussed by scholars of Jewish history and of the history of the Oral Torah for subsequently, during the second to fourth centuries and even later, Galilee was the living center of the Jewish people and its leadership, and the place in which the Oral Torah was collected and in large degree created. It also is extensively dealt with by scholars of the beginnings of Christianity, since Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Lower Galilee, and his activity was centered mainly within the bounds of Galilee. Conversely, Jewish scholars of the history of the Halakhah or of talmudic literature in general, when discussing the cultural image of Galilee, refer in some degree to the history of Christianity or to the background of the beginnings of Christianity.

Furthermore, the issue has been discussed in the general literature of Jewish history and of the history of the Land of Israel. Similarly, many scholars, especially Christians, deal with it extensively both in general works on the life of Jesus and in studies devoted to Galilee and its Jewish cultural image.[1]

According to the opinion that was prevalent from the middle of the nineteenth century on, Galilee, which was annexed by the Hasmoneans to the Jewish state only during a later stage of their rule, was far removed from Jewish cultural life, as well as from the Torah and the observance of Jewish law. Although Jewish settlement, which was sparse in Galilee before the period of Hasmonean rule, subsequently expanded, scholars insist that the expansion did not contribute to a growth and deepening of Jewish life. According to this school of thought, the world of the Pharisees (meaning the world of the sages and their teachings) was limited to Judea. Galilee stayed far removed from the world of Torah and observance of the commandments, both before the destruction of the Temple and during the Yavneh period, until the Sanhedrin and its sages moved to Galilee after the Bar Kokhba war.

This opinion, which has been formulated in various ways with differing emphases, leads to the drawing of major basic conclusions in many areas of Jewish history: the political sphere, the spiritual-cultural sphere and the theoretical sphere of the history of the Halakhah. On this basis, some scholars view the Christianity of Galilee as a manifestation of ignorance of Judaism, and Jesus and his disciples as the representatives of the ignorant in their war with the sages of the Torah and the Pharisees, who were meticulous in their observance of the commandments. Only in a Galilee having that character, they suppose, could incipient Christianity have found its expression.

It is on such hypotheses that these scholars base their interpretations of major episodes in the history of the Halakhah, such as the struggles of the sages in the post-Bar Kokhba period to inculcate the laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness and their practical applications among the Jews of Galilee. They likewise seek to understand the zealot movements in Galilee, seeing them as manifestations of a nationalist rural ideology based on ignorance and directed against the urban sages of the Torah.

In the last generation, especially under the influence of studies by Gedalyahu Alon,[2] those hypotheses about Galilee have been extensively undermined and refuted. Nevertheless, several of his arguments have not been understood in their entirety. Alon dealt mainly with an investigation of life in Galilee during the period between the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt. Many of the scholars dealing with this issue did not read his studies or those studies which followed him, especially since most of them were written in Hebrew. We keep hearing that the achievements of the Pharisees in Galilee were meager, and that in general there were no Galileans among the Pharisees and the sages. Scholars even claim that only one sage—Rabbi Jose ha-Galili—came from Galilee; those living in Galilee were Jews, but not rabbinic; Galilee was a focal point of Hellenistic cities and centers of Hellenistic culture, and the Jewish content of Galilee was extremely sparse.

In this essay we shall briefly review the arguments of Alon and others, adding proofs and arguments, mainly from the period preceding the destruction of the Temple. We must also re-examine the alleged positive proofs of the dearth of Torah and observance of the commandments in Galilee during the Second Temple and Yavneh periods.

Some of the proofs from the tannaitic tradition refer to the Yavneh period. It may be assumed, however, that on the whole they reflect the general reality of the cultural life in Galilee during the period prior to the destruction as well. This is the picture we also receive from Josephus and the New Testament. There are many proofs, however, from both halakhic and aggadic literature about Jewish life in Galilee during the Second Temple period itself. They will show that, contrary to the views outlined above, Galilee was a place where Jewish cultural life and a firm attachment to Judaism flourished well before the destruction of the Second Temple. Apart from Jerusalem, it even excelled the other parts of the Land of Israel in these respects.

Sages in Galilee

We shall begin with the talmudic traditions about the presence of sages in Galilee during the Second Temple and Yavneh periods, referring chiefly to those sages who were active during the first century, and not listing those about whom we have information mainly from the end of the Yavneh period.

Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai

The earliest tradition, apparently dating to the first half of the first century, is about Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai who lived and taught Torah in Arav in Lower Galilee. He is mentioned twice in Mishnah Shabbat with the formula: “An occurrence came before Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai in Arav, and he said….”[3]

The talmudic traditions about Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai link him to one of four groups by location: Arav, Jerusalem, Yavneh and Beror Hayil. It seems, as is assumed by Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai’s biographers, that during his youth, he lived in Arav, where he taught Torah; afterwards he came to Jerusalem where he stayed until close to the destruction of the Temple; from there he went to Yavneh (which is mentioned in many sources); and toward the end of his life he came to Beror Hayil after he had left or had been forced to leave Yavneh.[4]

When he lived in Arav, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who was also a resident of that city, “sat before him” (i.e., learned from him).[5] Furthermore, the Babylonian Talmud relates: “It once happened that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa went to learn Torah from Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, and his son fell ill” (Berakhot 34b). This report, too, suggests that Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was a young man at the time, the father of a sick child.

There is no hint in the sources of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai having come to Arav from another place, such as Jerusalem, or that he was sent there as the New Testament relates regarding certain scribes[6] who arrived in Galilee from Jerusalem. He may have been a native of Arav, as was his disciple Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. In either case, we have a clear tradition of the permanent residence during the course of years[7] of a sage, one of the pillars of the Oral Torah, who lived and taught in one of the cities of Galilee during a period for which we have almost no reports of sages living and teaching outside the city of Jerusalem.

We must also add that the rulings which were determined before Rabban Johanan—whether it is permitted to invert a dish over a scorpion on the Sabbath, with this not being considered an instance of the prohibited work of “trapping,” and secondly whether it is permitted to put wax on the hole in a jug on the Sabbath—are not trivial self-explanatory questions that could be addressed to any novice. Opinions were divided,[8] and even Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai did not give an unequivocal answer; regarding each of them he said, “I fear for him from a hatat.” That is, he feared lest he would err and be liable to bring a hatat (sin-offering). Incidentally, we learn that the Second Temple was still in existence, and a person who sinned would bring a hatat sacrifice to atone for his sin.[9]

The Jerusalem Talmud cites the Amora Ulla on these two traditions:

Rabbi Ulla said that he resided in Arav for eighteen years, and they asked him only these two questions. He said: “Galilee, Galilee, you hated the Torah; you will eventually be forced by the officers.”[10]

This saying by Ulla is regarded by all the scholarly works as unequivocal proof of Galilee’s distance from, and hatred of, the Torah. It is not, however, a direct tradition of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. The Mishnah cites only the two cases which were brought before Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai in Arav, not saying anything about a comment by him. It is Ulla, who lived in the second half of the third century, who possessed a tradition that Rabban Johanan, in contrast with the many cases brought before his contemporary Rabban Gamaliel, was consulted in only two cases during the eighteen years he lived in Arav, and that he prophesied that Galilee, for not studying Torah, would eventually be oppressed by the government officials.

It should not be forgotten that Galilee resembled Judea, and the Land of Israel in general, in being oppressed by government officials.[11] Thus this vague rebuke cannot cancel or even lessen the generality of the proofs of the presence of the sages and their teaching of Torah, in great measure in Galilee as we shall see below.

But even if we accept Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai’s authorship of this statement, we can draw no definite conclusions from its blunt language which was employed under specific circumstances. It may be simply an unobjective denigration of the kind we find elsewhere directed against the residents of other geographical areas. An example is another tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Johanan. He said to him: “Teach me Aggadah.” He said to him: “I possess a tradition from my fathers not to teach Aggadah, neither to a Babylonian nor to a Southerner, because they are haughty and possess little Torah, and you are a Nehardean and live in the South.”[12]

The same charges are raised against Lod in another context. The Jerusalem Talmud asks why the determination of the new month is not made in Lod; Rabbi Zeira, Rabbi Johanan’s disciple, replies, “because they are haughty and possess little Torah.”[13]

These denigrations certainly cannot be taken at face value. During the period of Rabbi Johanan, the middle of the third century, neither the Babylonians—and certainly not the Nehardeans—nor the Southerners (i.e., those from Lod) were either “possessing little Torah” or “haughty.” Nehardea had been a place of Torah since early times and was the first, or possibly the second, center of Torah in Babylonia. The South was the second most important center of Torah during that period. It contained the academy of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, and many sages of the first order were from Lod where they taught Torah. “The rabbis of the South,” “our rabbis in the South,” and similar expressions appear frequently in talmudic literature.[14]

In several places the tradition adds the opinion of the people of the South to that of the people of the North, Sepphoris or Tiberias, or it compares the position of the Southerners with that of the sages from Sepphoris and Tiberias, just as it brings baraitot and traditions from the South.[15] Rabbi Hanina, the teacher of Rabbi Johanan, who lived in Sepphoris, said, “Southerners have soft hearts; they hear a word of Torah and they are persuaded”[16] This harsh comment directed against the Southerners apparently was formulated in Galilee, Sepphoris or Tiberias; it declares that the people of Galilee are superior in both their Torah and personal attributes to the Southerners. It is quite doubtful, however, whether this is objectively accurate. Likewise, the statement attributed by Ulla to Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai indicates the intent to denigrate the people of Galilee, and no real conclusions can be drawn from it.

Furthermore, the two laws about which Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was asked are from the realm of Sabbath law. Regarding one of them, whether it is permitted to harm a potentially dangerous animal, the sages and the Hasidim (pietists) disagreed. A baraita states: “The Hasidim are displeased with the person who kills snakes and scorpions on the Sabbath.” Rava bar Rav Huna adds: “And the sages are displeased with these Hasidim.”[17] It is possible that the thrust of this comment against the people of Galilee regarding this law is directed against the Hasidim who were in Galilee and who were criticized, beginning with Hillel and continuing through Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, for not being sufficiently occupied with Torah because they explicitly stressed the superiority of the “deed” over study.[18]

Rabbi Halafta

Rabbi Halafta (or Abba Halafta), who came from Sepphoris, was a younger contemporary of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. He was the father of the well-known Tanna Rabbi Jose ben Halafta, who was one of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. The Tosefta relates that Rabbi Halafta introduced the rules for communal fast-days in Sepphoris, together with his colleague Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon in Sikhnin. When the sages learned of this, they said that this was practiced only at the Eastern Gates (Ta’anit, end of ch. 1 and parallels).[19] It is logical to date this event after the destruction of the Temple but before the Bar Kokhba revolt, for Rabbi Halafta, who cites teachings from the time of the Temple, from the period of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (as will be shown below), certainly did not live until after the Bar Kokhba revolt. He was born many years before the destruction of the Temple, for his son, Rabbi Jose, relates about him:

It once happened that Rabbi Halafta went to Rabban Gamaliel, to Tiberias, and he found him sitting at the table of Johanan ben Nezif, with the Targum of the Book of Job in his hand. Rabbi Halafta said to him: “I remember that Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, your father’s father, would sit on a stair of the Temple Mount. They brought before him the Targum of the Book of Job, and he said to the builder, ‘Bury it under the rubble.’”[20]

Here Rabbi Halafta meets Rabban Gamaliel II who has come to Tiberias for a visit, where he finds a Targum of Job. Abba Halafta, who lives in Sepphoris, comes to visit him and tells him of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder’s attitude toward the Targum of Job. Rabban Gamaliel’s visit to Tiberias took place c. 100, for it cannot be assumed that Rabban Gamaliel could have headed the leadership in Yavneh before the decline of the Flavian emperors in the year 96. The incident involving Rabban Gamaliel the Elder occurred c. 50-60. The Galilean sage, therefore, tells of an incident involving the Targum of Job in Jerusalem during this same period; we may assume that he saw this when he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in his youth.

We do not know from whom he learned Torah or where he studied, nor do we find him in Yavneh. Rabbi Halafta does not cite teachings in the name of the sages of Yavneh. It is possible that he went to Jerusalem to study in his youth; it is also possible that he received his knowledge in Galilee. At any rate, he had an academy, or something approaching an academy, in Galilee. Johanan ben Nuri, who also was one of the sages of Galilee in the post-destruction generation, would go to Rabbi Halafta and ask him questions on points of law; several times he adds that this is his opinion, while Rabbi Akiva holds a different opinion.[21] We do not find Rabbi Halafta in Yavneh, possibly because of his advanced age, while Rabbi Johanan ben Nuri, who was younger and who was still alive after the Bar Kokhba war,[22] was the one who went to Yavneh and reported the opinions of the Yavneh sages to Rabbi Halafta.

Rabbi Halafta lived until the time of the revolt against Trajan in the years 115-116. His son Rabbi Jose relates:

It once happened that four elders were sitting silently [in the store][23] of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah in Sepphoris, [the other three were] Rabbi Huzpit [ha-Meturgeman],[24] Rabbi Yeshevav and Rabbi Halafta [Abba],[25] and they brought before them the top of a post which had been removed with a chisel.[26]

We should accept the opinion of the scholars[27] who state that the “silent” nature of their meeting indicates that this was a clandestine gathering in a time of persecution. It cannot have been the period of persecution during the Bar Kokhba war, for it is difficult to assume that Rabbi Halafta and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah were still alive at that time. It is more reasonable to date this event during the period of the revolt against Trajan, even though these two sages were already then extremely advanced in years.

In general it can be stated that Abba Halafta was a native of the city of Sepphoris and was born in the fourth or fifth decade of the first century. He was in Jerusalem during the time of Rabban Gamaliel; he had an academy in Sepphoris during the time of the Second Temple, or shortly after its destruction, and he was still alive during the revolt against Trajan.

Rabbi Hananiah (Hanina) ben Teradyon

Rabbi Hananiah (or Hanina) ben Teradyon must be mentioned together with Abba Halafta. He was a contemporary of Abba Halafta, but apparently younger, as will be shown below. The tradition that tells of the rules for communal fast-days introduced by Rabbi Halafta in Sepphoris states that they were also introduced by Rabbi Hanina in Sikhnin.[28] baraita listing all the courts in Israel from the time of the Chamber of Hewn Stone to the time of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi states: “‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ [Deut. 16:20]—follow a proper court…said Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon to Sikhni.”[29] We find that questions are directed to him regarding the ritual cleanness of the mikveh of Beit Anat in Lower Galilee.[30]

Particular to Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon are the traditions regarding the great scholarship of his daughter Beruriah.[31] She acquired her knowledge in Galilee before the Bar Kokhba war.[32]

Various traditions link Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and his family with events before the Bar Kokhba revolt and during the period of persecutions that followed the revolt. He was one of the Ten Martyrs, and their act of martyrdom took place after the revolt.[33]

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah

The baraita describing the sages’ silent meeting in Sepphoris mentions that they sat in the shop of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. Many scholars in the field of Jewish history and culture have erred in establishing the period of this sage. In the well-known tradition of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel from the post of Nasi, which is taught in both Talmuds,[34] it is stated that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who was appointed instead of Rabban Gamaliel, was sixteen or eighteen years old at the time.[35] These scholars accepted the tradition as a historical fact. Since the deposition occurred shortly after the year 100, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah would then have been born a number of years after the destruction of the Temple.

It is not at all reasonable, however, that the sages would decide to appoint a man so young in place of Rabban Gamaliel, relying upon eighteen rows of his hair miraculously to turn white. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s “youth” is not a tradition, but rather a quasi-“exposition” of his statement in the Mishnah: “Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: ‘Behold, I am as a seventy-year-old, and I have not merited’” (Berakhot 1:5). The Gemara interprets this: “‘I am as a seventy-year-old,’ and not an actual seventy-year-old,” because he was appointed when young, and his hair turned white in order to give him the distinguished appearance of age. But such a statement was also made by Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah without his being the beneficiary of a miracle turning his hair white.[36] Furthermore, the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud on the same mishnaic statement[37] understands that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah actually was seventy years old and comments on his statement, “Even though he attained a high position, he lived a long life.”

It can be learned from various sources that he was already an elderly man during the time of the Temple. In Tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Judah states in the name of Rav that each year Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah would set aside as ma’aser (tithe) 12,000 calves from his herd. According to the Halakhah, ma’aser from animals is not in effect after the destruction of the Temple; it may, therefore, be assumed that this is a tradition from the Temple period.[38] Rabbi Judah relates that Rabbi Eleazar (ben Azariah) purchased a synagogue from Tarsians in Jerusalem, “and he used it for his own purposes” (b. Megillah 26a).[39] He, therefore, was an adult who set aside ma’aser and purchased a synagogue in Jerusalem. It is related in midrashim of the Land of Israel and in j. Ketuvot[40] that Rabbi Jose ha-Galili suffered from his wife but could not divorce her because her get (writ of divorce) was for a large sum. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who was visiting in his house and saw this, gave him the money he needed. (This event undoubtedly took place in Galilee.)

To sum up: Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was a well-to-do, even wealthy, man. He served as an example of a wise and wealthy person,[41] a priest of distinguished lineage[42] and one of the greatest sages both of his generation and of all times.[43] He was present in Jerusalem, like other Galilean families, some of whom we shall mention below. After the destruction of the Temple, he was present in Yavneh; he served at one point as head of the Sanhedrin there and afterwards as Rabban Gamaliel’s deputy. He participated in the delegation of Rabban Gamaliel and other sages that went to Rome;[44] with them he visited the ruins of Jerusalem.[45] He originated, however, from Sepphoris in Galilee, where he had a “shop.” Like Rabbi Halafta, he also lived a long life, being still alive during the revolt against Trajan. There is no information about him dating from after that revolt.

If we determine that he was born in the fifth decade C.E., then it is possible to arrange all the traditions in chronological order. At the age of twenty-five he stayed in Jerusalem and purchased a synagogue in the city. About the year 100 Rabban Gamaliel was deposed as Nasi and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was appointed in his place; he was about 60 years old at the time. He visited Rome and Jerusalem, and lived until the time of the revolt against Trajan, or shortly after it, being then about 70 years old. It should be added that his father, Azariah, also was one of the sages. For when a delegation of sages, which included Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, came to the aged Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas, the latter asked, referring to Eleazar: “And does our colleague Azariah have a son?”[46]

Rabbi Zadok and Elisha ben Avuyah

Similar things can be said about Rabbi Zadok, who was one of the outstanding personalities among the Pharisaic sages in the generation before the destruction of the Temple, in which he served as a priest. While standing on the stairs of the ulam in the Temple, he raised his voice against those priests for whom “the ritual uncleanness of a knife for Israel was more severe than murder.”[47] He frequently fasted so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed, and he was saved upon the request of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai who greatly honored him.[48] He served as head of the court when Rabban Gamaliel was the Nasi,[49] or according to other traditions concerning Rabban Gamaliel.[50]

It may logically be assumed that he was born in Galilee. He sent his son to study under Rabbi Johanan ben ha-Horanit[51] and, it may be assumed, to his place of residence in Transjordan. Rabbi Zadok, who was well-to-do, sent his son olives during years of drought. From Tivon in Lower Galilee he sent questions on matters of ritual cleanness to Yavneh. The wording of the baraita implies that these questions had first been brought before Rabbi Zadok:

Rabbi Eleazar the son of Rabbi Zadok said: “Father brought two cases from Tivon to Yavneh…a case involving a certain woman…and they came and asked Rabbi Zadok, and Rabbi Zadok went and asked the sages…once again, a case involving a certain woman and they asked Rabbi Zadok, and Rabbi Zadok went and asked the sages.”[52]

Tivon was a center of Torah even before Rabbi Zadok, as well as for generations after him. The Mishnah relates: “Rabbi Joshua said, in the name of Abba Jose Holi-Kofri of Tivon.”[53] Rabbi Joshua belonged to the generation of the destruction of the Temple. He served in the Temple, and his teachings were heard during the time the Temple was still in existence.[54] Afterwards he was active in Yavneh.[55] It may be assumed that Abba Jose of Holi-Kofri, in whose name Rabbi Joshua cites a teaching, lived in the generation before Rabbi Joshua, i.e., during the Temple period.

Rabbi Zadok’s son, Rabbi Eliezer ben Zadok, who frequently speaks about his father, also was a sage. One tradition states that he and Abba Saul ben Batnit were shopkeepers in Jerusalem, selling oil.[56] He speaks of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple.[57] His coming from Galilee did not prevent him from living for a certain amount of time in Jerusalem, where he built a synagogue[58] like other important Galilean families, some of whose sons lived for a period of time in Jerusalem. At any rate, we find him after the destruction of the Temple in Acre.[59] It is almost certain that he lived where his father had lived, in Tivon.

Next to Rabbi Zadok we must mention Elisha ben Avuyah, the sage who left Judaism for the non-Jewish world and even participated, according to some versions, in persecutions of Israel and its religion, during the time of the Hadrianic persecutions.[60] A tradition relates that he was born in Jerusalem, the son of one of the leading residents of the city; major sages attended his circumcision, which took place during the Temple period. The traditions of his public teaching of the Torah, before he abandoned Judaism, and his teachings are connected with Galilee: “He would sit and review in Ginnosar.”[61]

One of the versions in the Midrash reads: “Since he was speaking and expounding in the Chamber of Hewn Stone or in the academy in Tiberias….”[62] baraita in the Babylonian Talmud, a portion of which is also found in Tractate Semahot, states:

It happened that the father of Rabbi Zadok died in Ginzak. They informed him three years later. He came and asked Elisha ben Avuyah and the elders with him, and they said: “Observe [the mourning periods of] seven [days] and thirty [days].”[63]

We also find “and four elders who were with him.”[64] That is, he was the colleague of five people, a number that is recurrently cited to denote a limited number of sages. Since Rabbi Zadok lived in Galilee and Elisha ben Avuyah was active as a sage in Galilee, it may be assumed that Rabbi Zadok’s inquiry to Elisha ben Avuyah took place in Galilee. We learn from this that during the time of the Temple, or shortly thereafter (for Rabbi Zadok’s father certainly did not die many years after the destruction of the Temple), he lived in a city in Galilee, apparently Tiberias, was a colleague of sages and taught Torah.

It is certainly possible to construct a chronology for Rabbi Zadok and Elisha ben Avuyah that permits us to include the various traditions about these two figures without having to invent two people by the name of “Rabbi Zadok” as is accepted practice among several scholars.[65] Rabbi Zadok was born during the years 20-30 C.E. As an adult, between thirty and forty years of age, he totally opposed distorted religious conduct in the Temple, and he also fasted in order to prevent the destruction of the Temple. In the sixties, his son was also present in Jerusalem, selling oil and purchasing a synagogue. They returned to Galilee after the destruction of the Temple. During these years (approximately 80-85), when he was fifty-five to sixty years old, his father died. Elisha ben Avuyah, who was already an outstanding sage by this time,[66] was sitting with a group of sages in Galilee when Rabbi Zadok came to ask him to rule on a point of practical law. During this period Rabbi Zadok went to Yavneh, and when Rabban Gamaliel became head of the Sanhedrin, he sat next to him; he was not older than seventy at the time.

During the later years of Rabban Gamaliel’s activity, about the year 100, we hear no more of Rabbi Zadok. The tradition reporting the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel[67] speaks of Rabbi Zadok; however, he is mentioned in connection with an event that had occurred in the past, and he himself was not present. Similarly, he is not mentioned in any of the many meetings of the sages that took place during the time of Rabban Gamaliel or after his death.

Rabbi Jose ben Kisma

Rabbi Jose ben Kisma is another sage who is connected with Tiberias. As we see from the traditions about him and his relations with his contemporaries, he was one of the well-known sages in his generation, although very few of his teachings are extant. All the traditions about him which are related to a specific place or which explicitly mention a place name are connected with Galilee, especially with Tiberias and its environs.

When the teaching of Torah was prohibited and he disagreed with Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon’s defiance of the edict, it seems he was the sage asked by Rabbi Hanina: “How do I stand with respect to the World to Come?” Rabbi Jose ben Kisma died during that period of persecutions, and all the leaders of Rome came to his grave.[68] It is safe to assume that this dispute between Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon (of the city of Sikhnin) and Rabbi Jose ben Kisma was conducted in Galilee, and “the leaders of Rome” refers to the rulers of Tiberias or Sepphoris. Other traditions which we shall cite explicitly mention places in Galilee.

The Mishnah speaks of a problem of Sabbath law concerning which the sages disagreed, relating that “It once happened in the synagogue in Tiberias that they treated it as permitted, until Rabban Gamaliel came and the Elders prohibited them,” or the opposite according to the opinion of one sage (m. Eruvin 10:10). The sources relate about this event[69] that the disagreement was so sharp it led to physical violence until they tore (in another version: was torn)[70] a Torah Scroll in their anger. Rabbi Jose ben Kisma, who was present, said: “I should wonder if this synagogue will not become a place of idolatry.” There was a synagogue in Tiberias which was visited by Rabban Gamalil and the Elders. It seems that after this visit the dispute erupted on this question, and Rabbi Jose ben Kisma was present at the time.

It is possible that he merely happened to be in Tiberias on that occasion. However, in the chapter “Acquisition of the Torah” which is appended to Tractate Avot, Rabbi Jose ben Kisma relates:

Once I was walking along the way, when a man met me and greeted me, and I returned his greeting. He said to me, “My master, where do you come from?” I said to him, “I come from a great city of sages and scholars.” He said to me, “My master, do you wish to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million golden dinars and precious stones and pearls.” I said to him, “My son, if you were to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere except in a place of Torah.” (m. Avot 6:9)

It may be assumed that his “great city” was Tiberias, where there was a synagogue. This is a proof that it was a city of Torah before the Bar Kokhba revolt. Even if we disregard the rhetoric of “a great city of sages and scholars,” we are still left with testimony that Tiberias was the residence of sages.

A tradition in Midrash Tanhuma reads:

It once happened that Rabbi Jose ben Kisma and Rabbi Ilai and their disciples were walking about in Tiberias. He said to Rabbi Jose: “When will the son of David come?”…“I say to you, at the time when Tiberias falls and is rebuilt”…“From where do we know this?” He said to them: “Behold, the cave of Pameas [Paneas] turns from side to side, in accordance with his words.”[71]

Rabbi Ilai, too, belonged to the generation before the Bar Kokhba revolt, but he came from Usha in Galilee, as we shall see below. In this account he has gone to Rabbi Jose ben Kisma in Tiberias where they walk with their disciples and talk about the coming of the son of David, bringing examples from geographic features of the area.

Infrequently Mentioned Sages

We just saw Rabbi Ilai walking about in Tiberias. The sources do not state where he resided, but from the fact that his son Rabbi Judah, one of the most frequently mentioned sages in tannaitic literature, was from the city Usha,[72] it may be assumed that the father came from the same city. Rabbi Ilai came at times to Yavneh and tells of his meetings with the sages of Yavneh.[73] He was the outstanding disciple of Rabbi Eliezer (ben Hyrcanus) ha-Shammuti,[74] and once when he came to his teacher on the festival of Sukkot, the latter was not pleased and chastized him for leaving his home on the holiday.[75] He accompanied Rabban Gamaliel on his visits to Galilee.[76]

We know more details about Rabbi Johanan ben Nuri, who is mentioned in many traditions about the Yavneh generation; he even played a role in the leadership of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh.[77] He, too, was a disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Shammuti and cites teachings in his name.[78] It appears from many traditions that he was from Galilee, going back and forth between Galilee and Yavneh.[79] We can also establish that he resided in Beit Shearim.[80]

Rabbi Eleazar ben Parta is mentioned a number of times in tannaitic literature together with the sages of Yavneh, but especially with those of Galilee.[81] He was seized by the authorities together with Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, but released.[82] His residence was apparently in Sepphoris, for it was stated[83] that when “evil decrees arrived from the authorities [on the Sabbath] for the great ones of Sepphoris,” they came to Rabbi Eleazar ben Parta for advice.[84]

Rabbi Eleazar ben Teradyon is mentioned once, in a question he asked of the sages.[85] Since the name “Teradyon” otherwise appears only in reference to Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, scholars assume that they were brothers.[86] In the parallel to this question in the Jerusalem Talmud and in the Tosefta, the name “Rabbi Eleazar ben Tadai”[87] occurs; this sage is mentioned several times in Halakhah and Aggadah, together with sages of the Yavneh generation.[88]

Detail of "Map of Palestine According to Talmudic Sources," in the Jewish Encyclopedia (ed. Isidore Singer; Funk & Wagnalls, 1905), 9:496.
Detail of “Map of Palestine According to Talmudic Sources,” in the Jewish Encyclopedia (ed. Isidore Singer; Funk & Wagnalls, 1905), 9:496.

Another sage, “Rabbi Jose ben Tadai of Tiberias,” is mentioned only once. In a question he asked of Rabban Gamaliel, he attempted to ridicule the qal wa-homerform of proof: “And Rabban Gamaliel excommunicated him.”[89]

We must add Rabbi Zakkai of Kavul to the list of Galilee sages who were active during or shortly before the Yavneh generation. He is mentioned only a few times. Genealogists of the Tannaim and Amoraim usually list him much later among the sages in the first generation of Amoraim, for Tractate Semahot relates that Judah and Hillel, sons of Rabban Gamaliel, went to Rabbi Zakkai in Kavul (Semahot 8:4). Talmudic literature mentions a number of stories connected with the visit to Galilee of those two brothers.[90] Since they are commonly assumed to have been sons of the Rabban Gamaliel who was the son of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and followed him as Nasi around the year 220-225, their visit to Rabbi Zakkai in Kavul would have occurred during the first generation of Amoraim. Elsewhere,[91] however, we have shown that they are sons of Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh, who came from Judea to Galilee to visit several places such as Beit Anat, Biri and Kavul.

They encounter the strict practice of the inhabitants of Galilee. Out of respect and politeness, however, they do not tell them that the things the Galileans forbid are permitted, but rather accept upon themselves the strict Galilean practice. During their visit they are received in Kavul by Rabbi Zakkai, who is known to us from one law that is transmitted in his name and from a sermon he delivered at the funeral of the son of one of “the great ones of Kavul” who died during a wedding feast.[92]

Rabbi Jose ha-Galili

The last on our list is Rabbi Jose ha-Galili, whom scholars commonly assume to have been the only sage to come from Galilee and who was, therefore, called “ha-Galili,” meaning “of Galilee.” As we have seen, however, he was far from being the only one. His appellation “ha-Galili” may instead be understood to mean that he came from the city of Galil. This was a settlement in Upper Galilee which is mentioned in the list of the markers of the boundaries of the Land of Israel in a baraita, where it appears in its Aramaic form as “the fort of Galila.”[93] Its name in Arabic is Jalil. It is located about eight miles to the northeast of the village of al-Kabri, which is mentioned before it in the list. This was an especially large settlement during the later Roman period.[94]

He is, however, the Galilean sage from the Yavneh period who is mentioned the most often in tannaitic literature and is frequently mentioned in the meetings of the “premier speakers” during the Yavneh period, whether in Yavneh or in Lod. He is also mentioned extensively regarding his teaching in Galilee and his meetings with people in Galilee, just as he cites teachings by sages from Galilee and vice versa.[95] From the extensive and fine literary material on Rabbi Jose ha-Galili’s first appearance in Yavneh, it is clear that by then he was already an outstanding sage who astounded the sages of Yavneh with his knowledge and sharpness.[96]

The Mishnah discusses whether poultry is prohibited with milk (Hullin 8:1, 4). Beit Shammai are among the lenient and allow that poultry may be brought to the table together with cheese. Rabbi Jose ha-Galili is still more lenient, holding that it may even be eaten together with cheese.[97] The Babylonian Talmud, commenting on this issue,[98] relates that in Rabbi Jose ha-Galili’s home they would “eat the meat of poultry in milk.” It adds that Levi, the disciple of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, stated that in Babylonia he came to the home of a well-known person where he was served poultry in milk. When asked by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi why he had not excommunicated them for this disregard of the law, Levi explained that this was the home of Rabbi Judah ben Batyra, whom he assumed to be following the opinion of Rabbi Jose ha-Galili.

Tomb of Judah Ha-Nasi in Beit She'arim. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Tomb of Judah Ha-Nasi in Beit She’arim. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

We may draw several conclusions from this story. Rabbi Jose ha-Galili had influence and standing, for in his home they ruled and practiced in accordance with his opinion. The well-known Babylonian sage Rabbi Judah ben Batyra apparently also instituted Rabbi Jose ha-Galili’s practices in his home. We also learn that “ha-Galili” indeed does not mean a Galilean, but rather is a reference to a specific location as suggested above. If it had been the general practice in Galilee to eat poultry with milk, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi would not have wondered at Levi’s not having excommunicated them for such a practice, especially since Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi was born and was active in Galilee. “Ha-Galili,” therefore, refers to a specific place in Galilee; it is possible that during the time of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (approximately 100 years after Rabbi Jose ha-Galili), this local practice had already vanished.

Had the eating of poultry with milk been a general Galilean practice, it would have been reflected more extensively in the literature, and it need not have vanished by the time of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. But the local practice of the city of Galil, lying at the end of the northern boundary of Upper Galilee, could have more quickly been forgotten or almost forgotten with the spread of the law in accordance with Beit Hillel at the end of the Yavneh period.[99] Beit Hillel held that poultry may not even be brought to the table together with cheese.[100]

Nor should sweeping conclusions be drawn from the expression “foolish Galilean” which Beruriah applied to Rabbi Jose ha-Galili when he spoke excessively in her presence.[101] Even if this expression is a denigration applied to Galilee as a whole,[102] we cannot draw conclusions regarding the Jewish cultural reality of Galilee. First, it must be stated that Beruriah herself was a Galilean. Second, even if we infer that this was an idiomatic expression, it is not of great significance, for in all cultures and among all peoples the inhabitants of certain regions show habitual scorn for the inhabitants of others. We cannot learn from such appellations about the real characteristics of their targets, and certainly not when all the historical facts prove the opposite.

Rabbi Jose ha-Galili’s contemporaries, including central figures of the Oral Torah such as Rabbi Akiva, speak extensively of and are impressed by his sharpness and wisdom. He is also to be found in the most important gatherings of the sages of Yavneh in which basic elements of tannaitic thought were formulated.[103] Thus he was certainly no “fool,” even if the question he put to Beruriah could, in her opinion, have been stated in a more concise manner.


The above list of sages is not complete. Others could be added, either with complete certainty or as a reasonable possibility. When we compiled[104] a list of the sages known to us from the first century until the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, noting alongside each one his place of origin or activity (when there is mention of it in the sources), it became clear that if Jerusalem is excluded, most of the sages about whom there is evidence of their origin and activity either were Galileans or were especially active in Galilee.

Torah Study in Galilee

We shall now turn to the evidence of Torah study in Galilee, whether in small groups of pupils or among the public at large. In the talmudic tradition there are very few references from the Second Temple period to public Torah study outside Jerusalem, apart from the context of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. Yet there undoubtedly was study by groups of pupils, and teachers and pupils, throughout the Land of Israel. Evidence of this is found in an early saying by one of the first Pairs of Sages: “Let your house be a meeting place for the sages, and sit amidst the dust of their feet” (m. Avot 1:4).

Permanent Academies

There are very few hints to the existence of a permanent academy outside Jerusalem during the Temple period. One hint comes in a portion of Sifrei Zuta from the Genizah, which mentions “Edomite pupils from Beit Shammai,” i.e., ones who resided in the South.[105] That group of pupils outside of Jerusalem may be assumed to date from the time of the disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, that is from before the destruction of the Temple. There is evidence of a gathering of sages in Jericho,[106] but not of the permanent residence of a sage outside Jerusalem.

In fact, the sole definite evidence of a permanent academy is the statement cited above about the residence of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai in Arav, in Lower Galilee. According to the statement by the Amora Ulla, he lived there for eighteen years and complained that not many people came to him to ask regarding the law. Even if we do not accept as fact the figure of eighteen years, we nevertheless have here a tradition of a prolonged residence in Arav. As we have seen, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, a sage who was already active during the time of the Temple, having brought a gift to the Temple with the miraculous aid of angels,[107] sat before him.

Teachers and Pupils

There are numerous testimonies regarding the teaching of Torah in all parts of Galilee in the generation after the destruction of the Temple. At least a portion of these testimonies is undoubtedly a continuation of the reality preceding the destruction, and only testimonies of that kind will be mentioned here.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was one of the sages with numerous ties to Galilee. Although he came from the South where his property was located,[108] we find him several times in Galilee where he had disciples. When he was suspected of being a Christian, arrested by the authorities and released, he acknowledged the rightness of the judgment, for he remembered that once he had been walking in the public road of Sepphoris and began to talk with Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin, who transmitted to him a teaching in the name of “Jeshua Panteri,” that is, Jesus of Nazareth.[109] This incident may date from the time of the Temple, for he speaks as of something done many years previously when tension with the Jewish Christians was not great and a sage could have stopped to hear a teaching in the name of Jesus. Almost certainly the main purpose of his walking in the public road of Sepphoris was to teach Torah, as is witnessed by the traditions we shall cite below.

The Tosefta states: “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer was reclining in the sukkah of [Rabbi][110] Johanan ben Ilai in Caesaria”[111] (t. Sukkah 2:9).[112] A tradition of similar content, ascribed to “the rabbis,” relates:

It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, who resided in Upper Galilee, was asked thirty laws of the laws of the sukkah. Regarding twelve of them he told them, “I heard,” and regarding eighteen he said, “I did not hear.” Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah says the opposite. Regarding eighteen things he said to them, “I heard,” regarding twelve things he said to them, “I did not hear.” (b. Sukkah 28a)

Here are a group of pupils in Upper Galilee who ask many questions, some of which Rabbi Eliezer was not capable of answering. Although it not stated, almost certainly the discussion took place on or close to the festival of Sukkot, and they asked him topical questions.

Elsewhere in the Tosefta (t. Kelim Bava Metzia 2:1 and in the parallel passage in b. Shabbat 52b) we read: “One of the pupils from the pupils of Upper Galilee said in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer….” Further (ibid., 2:2): “One of the pupils from the pupils of Upper Galilee also said…,” and Rabbi Eliezer corrects the teaching they had heard. While these may be traditions from a visit of Rabbi Eliezer’s pupils to their teacher in Lod, they could come from his previously mentioned visit, or another one, to Upper Galilee when his pupils discussed laws in his presence.

In either event, clear evidence of a concentration of a large number of knowledgeable pupils in Galilee occurs in a tradition found only in the Babylonian Talmud.[113] The administrator of King Agrippa inquired of Rabbi Eliezer the details of the laws of dwelling in the sukkah, including the question: “I have two wives, one in Tiberias and one in Sepphoris, and I have two sukkot, one in Tiberias and one in Sepphoris….” The reference is certainly to Agrippa II who ruled in Galilee and whose administrator lived in Tiberias and in Sepphoris, the two leading Jewish cities in Galilee. Almost certainly, too, those questions about the laws of the sukkahwere posed during Rabbi Eliezer’s visit in Galilee on or close to the Festival of Sukkot. The questions asked by the administrator are not those of an uneducated person. The reply of Rabbi Eliezer expresses his own strict opinion on the issues, whereas the majority of the sages did not obligate the eating of fourteen meals in thesukkah, nor did they obligate the eating of all the meals in one sukkah.[114]

Several legal traditions are connected with Rabbi Eliezer’s going to Ovelin in Lower Galilee. In the Tosefta, at the beginning of Eruvin: “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer went to Joseph ben Perida, to Ovelin”; and: “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer went to his pupil Rabbi Jose ben Perida, to Ovelin” (b. Eruvin 11b and j. Eruvin 1:19a). Here, too, he is stringent, in keeping with his opinion. In Tractate Tefillin (Higger ed., p. 48): “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer went to Oveli[n] to one householder. He was accustomed to immerse in a cave…. He said to him: ‘My master, the water in this cave is better than that of this one.’” In Ovelin, accordingly, there was not only a pupil of Rabbi Eliezer, but even an ordinary householder who practiced ritual purity and immersed in a cave.

We have already discussed whether Elisha ben Avuyah taught Torah in the academy in Tiberias, citing the tradition that he sat and taught in the valley of Ginosar.[115] It reflects the prevalent reality in the world of the sages during the Temple period and following its destruction, with them sitting and teaching Torah in every possible place—in the academy or outside, in the garden, on the road, “under the fig tree” or “under the olive tree,” and in the marketplace.[116] A sage came from this same Ginosar and asked a legal question of the sages in Yavneh: “Rabbi Jose said: ‘Jonathan ben Harsha of Ginosar asked in the presence of the Elders in Yavneh regarding the case of two tufts of hemp….’”[117] In the continuation of this same baraita, Jonathan of Ginosar asks about additional details, all on the subject of ritual purity and impurity. Another source mentions a law concerning ma’aserot, where once again Rabbi Jose of Sepphoris testifies: “Jonathan ben Harsha of Ginosar asked Rabban Gamaliel and the sages in Yavneh.” These two questions are asked by an outstanding sage from Galilee of the sages during the period of Rabban Gamaliel in Yavneh.[118]

It is noted in several places in the Babylonian Talmud that Amoraim are proud to be “like Ben Azzai in the marketplace of Tiberias,” that is like his teaching of Torah in that place.[119] Ben Azzai was one of the sages of Yavneh, but the marketplace of Tiberias provided a broad venue for his activity. It can be assumed that this was part of the ongoing reality of a place in which Torah was taught.

We also find, regarding Rabbi Jose ha-Galili, that “One time Rabbi Jose ha-Galili was sitting and expounding on the [red] heifer in Tiberias, and Rabbi Simeon ben Hanina was sitting with him.”[120] The continuation makes it clear that this was not an exposition of trite, well-known matters, but rather novel interpretations and a scriptural exposition of the laws of the red heifer.

Rabbinic Courts

Twice there is mention in the tannaitic tradition of courts of sages—which were also academies—in Galilee during or before the Yavneh generation. We mentioned above the court of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon in Sikhnin, and of Elisha ben Avuyah. To these reports we must add the testimony of Rabbi Simeon Shezori:[121] “Rabbi [Simeon Shezori][122] said, ‘Father’s household was one of the households in [Upper][123] Galilee. And why were they destroyed? Because they grazed in forests and judged monetary lawsuits before a single judge.’”

Although Rabbi Simeon Shezori here seeks to list the faults or sins of his father’s household that led to its destruction, those “sins” did not exceed the normative behavior of the sages. There were sages who judged monetary lawsuits with only a single judge,[124] and there were sages in the Yavneh generation who made light of the prohibition against raising “small cattle” (sheep and goats) in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, whom we have found in Galilee where he had pupils, evaded answering the question whether it is prohibited to raise small cattle.[125] Rabbi Simeon Shezori’s ascription of supposed sins to his father’s household does not diminish the fact of the existence of a court in Upper Galilee, which was a place of teaching and study.

Rabbi Simeon Shezori may be included among the generation of the sages of Usha in Galilee, for we have found him disagreeing with the sages of the Usha generation[126] although he was older than them. He says of an incident that happened to him, “and I asked Rabbi Tarfon,”[127] and Rabbi Jose ben Kippar transmits in his name.[128] The story about his father’s household may refer to the period of destruction in Galilee during the Bar Kokhba revolt.[129] But it may instead have an earlier reference, for he speaks of an event belonging to the past, and the “householders” had been destroyed mainly during the war that accompanied the destruction of the Temple.


Whether or not there were many permanent academies of Torah study in Galilee before the destruction of the Second Temple, we have seen that there was undoubtedly widespread and serious interest in clarifying issues of Halakhah. Rabbis visiting from elsewhere would find an audience in public places, as well as being engaged in discussions by the local sages and groups of pupils.

Galilean Attachment to Judaism

Now we shall consider the question of the attachment of Galileans to observance of the commandments of Judaism and to Jewish cultural life. In this category fall also the connections between Galilee and the Temple worship and the similarities in halakhic practice between Galilee and Jerusalem. We shall see that in all those respects the attachment to Judaism in Galilee, far from being uncultured and ignorant, was marked and exemplary.

Galilee, Jerusalem and the Temple

We may start with the halakhic similarities that linked Galilee with Jerusalem. Scholars[130] have already noted that regarding marriage practices and the degree of obligation of the husband, the Galileans adopted fine and praiseworthy customs, like those of the men of Jerusalem in contrast with those of the men of Judea. Special note should be taken of the practice of Jerusalemites and Galileans alike to promise in the ketubbah (marriage contract) that the widow was to be maintained and could live in her husband’s house for as long as she wished, in contrast to the practice of the men of Judea who gave the heirs the right to free themselves from their obligation by the payment of the money of the ketubbah. The Jerusalem Talmud adds regarding this practice: “The Galileans [and with them the men of Jerusalem] had consideration for their honor and did not have consideration for their money; the men of Judea had consideration for their money and did not have consideration for their honor.”[131]

A similar statement regarding funeral practices is quoted from Rabbi Judah:

In Jerusalem they would say, “Do [good] before your bier,” and in Judea they would say, “Do [good] after your bier.” But in Jerusalem they would recite only the actual deeds of the deceased before his bier, while in Judea they would state things that applied to him, and things that did not apply to him.[132]

In other words, in Jerusalem they would say that if a person wanted others to praise him at his funeral, he should perform good deeds before he died, for in Jerusalem they were particular to praise the dead person only regarding things he had actually done. In this as well, the Galileans acted as the people of Jerusalem: “Galileans say, ‘Do things before your bier,’ the men of Judea say, ‘Do things after your bier.’”[133]

It goes without saying that when the talmudic traditions speak of the practices of Jerusalem, they refer to the time prior to the destruction of the Temple. The adoption by the Galileans of those practices testifies not only to the level of Jewish cultural life in this region during the first century, but also to the strong ties between Galilee and Jerusalem, of which we learn from many sources. Those ties indeed expressed themselves in many spheres. Since the facts concerned have been stated in the scholarly literature,[134] we shall restrict ourselves to a short listing of the sources, adding comments as required.

Talmudic tradition mentions only two instances in which someone replaced the High Priest for the Yom Kippur service because the latter had become ritually unclean. Rabbi Jose relates: “It once happened that Joseph ben Ilim of Sepphoris served as High Priest for a short time.”[135] This is also mentioned by Josephus,[136] from whose statement we learn that the High Priest at the time was Mattathias ben Theophilus, who served during the years 5-4 B.C.E., at the end of the reign of Herod the Great. Josephus further relates that this Joseph ben Ilim (Ἰώσηπος ὁ τοῦ Ἐλλήμου) was a relative of the High Priest. Important for our discussion is the Galilean connection of the person who substituted in that important function.

The Mishnah further relates, regarding the leading of the goat for Azazel:[137]

All are fit to lead it, but the High Priests would make a fixed [practice], and they would not let an Israelite lead it. Rabbi Jose said: “It once happened that Arsela [of Sepphoris] led it, and he was an Israelite.”[138]

The High Priests, viewing this as an important part of the Yom Kippur service, made a fixed practice of reserving it for the priests. Previously, however, there was an occurrence in which an Israelite from Sepphoris was permitted to perform this work. There was also an occurrence in which a priest acted improperly in the distribution of the showbread: “It once happened that one priest from Sepphoris took his portion and the portion of his fellow.”[139]

Various traditions from the Land of Israel in the Jerusalem Talmud and in Lamentations Rabbah[140] teach of the special ties of three cities in Lower Galilee—Kavul, Sikhnin and Migdal Zevaya—which would contribute large quantities of gifts to the Temple. Similarly the people of Arav would “make vowed offerings and free-will offerings.” Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who saw them, also wanted to bring a gift to the Temple.[141] It should be emphasized that the talmudic tradition speaks of various men and women[142] who brought gifts, but there is otherwise no mention of whole localities that offered gifts with great ceremoniousness.

To their eagerness in offering gifts we must add the many reports of pilgrimages and the presence of Galileans in Jerusalem. The reports are found in the talmudic tradition, in Josephus and in the New Testament.[143] Moreover, there are instructive traditions about the miracles connected with the pilgrimages to Jerusalem of individuals and of a group of women from Sepphoris, not necessarily during the days of the festivals but as a fixed practice on every Sabbath eve, in which they spent the Sabbath in the Temple and then returned to their homes, beginning their work before others at the start of the new week.[144] However we judge the historicity of the miraculous element, such stories attest to the continuous ties of Galilee with Jerusalem, especially when added to the evidence of literary sources and archaeological inscriptions.[145]

The tannaitic tradition includes long passages about the sources of supply for the Temple.[146] Most of the places enumerated are, of course, in Judea, whether because of its geographical proximity or because of the fact that earlier the Jewish settlement was mainly in Judea. Nevertheless, the listing includes “Tekoa is the best for oil” and, in one tradition, “Gush Halav in Galilee was third to it.”[147] Also, when a Gaon was asked the reason for the establishment of the eight days of Hanukkah, he replied:

Because the oils come from the portion of Asher, as it is written, “May he dip his foot in oil” [Deut. 33:24], and he had a place which was called Tekoa, as they said, “Tekoa is the best for oil”…and from there to Jerusalem was a round-trip journey of eight days.[148]

Regarding the sources of the wine supply, the Mishnah states: “And from where would they bring the wine? Kerutim and Hatulim are the best for wine. Second to them is Beit Rimah and Beit Lavan on the mountain, and Kefar Signah in the valley” (Menahot 8:6). “Kefar Signah” is undoubtedly Sogane (Σωγάη), which Josephus fortified. It may be assumed that this is identical with Sikhnin, which is called by this name in the later tannaitic sources and which was the central settlement in the Sikhnin Valley in Lower Galilee. The phonetic difference between “Signah” and “Sikhnin” is not great, and Josephus’ description of the location of Sogane suits Sikhnin. Even the Mishnah places “Signah in the valley.”[149]

The supply of the Temple’s needs of oil and wine was critically dependent upon the reliability of the workers’ and suppliers’ ritual cleanness. There are traditions regarding Galileans selling ritually clean foodstuffs for the needs of pilgrims going to Jerusalem. In the group of traditions about ties between cities in Galilee and Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Talmud quotes from Rabbi Hiyya bar Ba the statement that “there were eighty shops of sellers of ritually clean items in Kefar Imra.” Lamentations Rabbah quotes from Rabbi Huna that “there were three hundred shops of sellers of ritually clean items in Migdal Zevaya, and there were three hundred shops of curtain weavers in Kefar Nimrah.”[150] It seems that the former version is to be preferred, for the weaving of the curtains was done within the precincts of the Temple and was entrusted to ritually clean maidens.[151] The version of Lamentations Rabbah, however, furnishes the correct name of the place, which is Kefar Nimrah or Nimrin near Tiberias.

The reference is not to sellers of foodstuffs and similar items to those eating non-sanctified food in a state of ritual cleanness, but rather to sellers of ritually clean items to those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as additions to the sacrifices such as wine and oil for the libations. These traditions were taught together with the traditions about the cedars on Har ha-Mishhah (i.e., the Mount of Olives), from which the fledglings were taken to nest and underneath which there were “four shops of pure things.” This entire topic concerns the bringing of sacrifices and gifts to the Temple.

Also in the Jerusalem Talmud, instead of “the weavers of curtains” we have “the weavers of palgas.” As palgas has no meaning, it should rather be read palnas, as scholars have suggested, which is φαιλόνης.[152] It may reasonably be as­sumed that these were the weavers of garments as gifts for the apparel of the priests.

The general picture in the sources[153] is as follows: the traditions attest not only to close ties between Galilee and Jerusalem, but also to the preparation by Galileans, in a state of ritual cleanness, of garments and items required for the Temple sacrifices.[154]

Strictness of Galilean Observance

The degree of the close ties with Jerusalem matches the picture that emerges from many tannaitic sources regarding the scrupulous observance of the commandments in Galilee. Most of the testimonies are from the Yavneh period, but several date from before the destruction of the Temple. “Observance” is not restricted to the commandments enumerated explicitly in the Torah; it also includes the observance of the commandments as they were transmitted, understood and formulated in the tradition of the Oral Torah, including the laws of ritual cleanness, which even the Oral Torah did not make incumbent upon all Israel but only upon those who assumed these laws and the practice of the setting aside of the ma’aserot (tithes). They were not observed in their entirety by many people who were termed amei ha-aretz, “the ignorant,” by the tradition.

Here as well we shall not list all the testimonies, especially not those which are almost certainly from the second generation of the Yavneh period, that is from the beginning of the second century until the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt. We shall mainly discuss the testimonies from the period of the Temple and from the first generation of the Yavneh period.

Chronologically the best testimonies are the questions, cited above, that Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was asked when he resided in Arav. We do not know how many years before the destruction of the Temple Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai came from Arav to Jerusalem, but it may be assumed that he spent a considerable number of years in Jerusalem. At any rate he was already in Jerusalem during the time of Hanan ben Hanan (63 C.E.), according to the Pharisees.[155] The time of his residence in Arav was approximately the fifties or perhaps even earlier. The two questions regarding Sabbath laws testify, in practice, to a scrupulous observance in Galilee of the Sabbath with all its stringencies, and even Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai could not say whether these two cases were actually prohibited.

The Midrash relates about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who was from the same city and generation as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, that “some ass-drivers came from Arav to Sepphoris and stated that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa had already begun the Sabbath in his town.”[156] This testifies not only to the Sabbath observance of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa who would begin his Sabbath prayers before the beginning of the Sabbath, but also to the atmosphere of Sabbath observance in the two cities of Arav and Sepphoris.

A clearer testimony of general significance is the narrative about the fire or fires in Kefar Signah. The Mishnah teaches a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages: Rabbi Eliezer holds that terumah may be given from the clean for the unclean, while the sages hold that this is prohibited (Terumot 2:1).[157] In the Tosefta (3:18), Rabbi Eliezer brings support for his opinion: “It once happened that a fire erupted in the threshing-floors of Kefar Signah,[158] and they gave terumah from the clean for the unclean.” The threshing-floors in Kefar Signah were in a state of cleanness, and when the fire erupted, both people who were particular regarding cleanness and others who were not particular came to extinguish the fire; it was no longer possible to set aside terumah in a state of cleanness from those threshing-floors, for they might have become unclean. In order to be sure of having ritually clean terumah, they separated from the clean produce that had been guarded even for these threshing-floors which had been saved from the fire. This presents us with the highest ideal of cleanness that the Pharisee sages could describe. The threshing-floors were kept in a state of cleanness, and only as a result of the fire which many people extinguished was there a fear of contact with amei ha-aretz who had not taken upon themselves the observance of the laws of cleanness. This is just like the situation presented by the Mishnah regarding the Temple vessels which were put on public display during the festivals in the Temple Courtyard.[159]

The Tosefta also explains why the sages disagree with Rabbi Eliezer; they hold that the occurrence in Kefar Signah does not constitute a proof, because they “set aside terumah from them for them,” in other words they set aside for themselves terumah from the threshing-floors which had possibly become unclean. This disagreement about the facts of the case indicates that the event had taken place a number of years previously. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was born during the time of the Temple and died at the beginning of the second century. Thus the event goes back to the early Yavneh period or possibly even earlier to when the Temple still stood.

A similar event is related in Tractate Kelim:

If an oven is heated from outside, or was heated not with his intent, or was heated in the house of the craftsman, it is unclean. It once happened that a fire took place in the ovens of Kefar Signah, and the event came to Yavneh, and Rabban Gamaliel declared them unclean. (m. Kelim 5:4, as t. Kelim 4:4)[160]

It seems that in Kefar Signah there was a workshop containing ovens that had not yet been heated and, therefore, had not acquired uncleanness, but then they were heated unintentionally. There was a fear that the amei ha-aretz had touched them, the ovens thereby becoming unclean, and once again the question arose: were they prepared and, therefore, capable of acquiring uncleanness? This question was brought before Rabban Gamaliel in Yavneh. As we have already learned, there were people in Signah who observed the laws of ritual cleanness. Accordingly, they were particular that the ovens would not be prepared and capable of acquiring uncleanness until they had been handed over to their owners. It was only when the fire erupted that they were touched also by other people who did not observe the rules of cleanness.

Possibly the two occurrences took place during one large conflagration which reached both the threshing-floors and the workshop containing ovens, as has been assumed by one scholar.[161] Threshing floors, however, were made in the fields, while a workshop for ovens would be located within or close to the city. Thus they may indeed be two separate traditions, each of them reflecting the same attitude to matters of ritual cleanness in Kefar Signah.

Practices regarding cleanness in Galilee can be learnt, too, from a question that came before Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon who was asked whether the mikveh(ritual bath) in the heights of Beit Anath was clean.[162]

Rabbi Jose ben Halafta testifies that the people of Sepphoris took care in the gathering of vegetables from the field and in the treatment of legumes not to wet them with water so that they would not be capable of acquiring uncleanness.[163] He speaks of those practices “at first,” possibly referring merely to the time immediately before him during the last days of Yavneh, yet possibly referring to an earlier tradition.

The beginning of Tosefta Kelim[164] cites two traditions about legal rulings; one, delivered by a student in the district of Ariah adjoining Tiberias, and the second, delivered by a pupil who taught in the marketplaces (or the thickets) of Sepphoris,[165] that is within the area of the irrigated fields of Sepphoris. These two questions deal with the laws of kilayim—the forbidden junction of plants or animals. As they seemed to be stringent rulings to the inhabitants of each place, they addressed queries to Yavneh. In the first case the sages in Yavneh agreed with the ruling of the pupil, but in the second they termed it a stringent ruling of Beit Shammai. At any rate, the growers of produce in those different localities in Galilee were particular regarding the details of the laws of kilayim.

In Tosefta Eruvin, Rabbi Judah relates:

It once happened in the house of Mammal and the house of Gurion in Ruma that they were distributing dried figs to the poor people who were there during a drought, and they were the poor of Shihin.[166] They would go out and make an eruv [i.e., a Sabbath station] with their feet, and they would enter and eat when night fell.[167]

The geographical location may be clarified. Ruma is ῾Ρούμα, which is mentioned by Josephus;[168] it was in the southwest of the Beit Netofah Valley. Two wealthy families lived there, Mammal and Gurion, and they distributed dried figs on the Sabbath during two drought years. The poor of Shihin,[169] which was located nearby, not more than twice the distance of the Sabbath bounds (4,000 amot, about 2 kilometers) from Ruma, would go forth from their houses on the Sabbath eve and establish their “home,” as it were, in the middle of the way, so that they would be permitted to walk on the Sabbath the distance of the Sabbath bounds (2,000 amot) in either direction from this point, both to Ruma and to Shihin. We learn from this tradition about the observance of the giving of charity by these two families, but also about the care taken by the poor of the village of Shihin to observe scrupulously the laws of the eruv, pursuant with the rulings of the sages.

It is possible that Rabbi Judah relates an event from the previous generation of the Yavneh period, but it is more likely to be a tradition from the time of the Temple, for we hear about the wealthy Gurion family from the end of the Temple period.[170] Another tradition regarding Rabbi Judah[171] is close to this one:

It once happened that the maidservant of an oppressor in Damin[172] threw her prematurely-born child into a pit, and a priest came and looked to see what she had thrown down, and the case came before the sages, and they declared him clean.

Here as well, the question arose due to scrupulous observance of the laws of cleanness. This, however, is apparently a tradition from the period after the destruction of the Temple when there were many “oppressors,” those who possessed the lands of Jews who had lost them in the war of the destruction.[173]

The Tosefta, Talmuds and Midrash[174] relate how the Sabbath was observed in Shihin beyond the strict requirements of the law. According to the Halakhah: “If a non-Jew comes to extinguish [a fire on the Sabbath], they do not tell him to extinguish and [they do not tell him] not to extinguish.” Jews are prohibited to tell the Gentile to extinguish, but not obliged to tell him not to extinguish and allowed to let him extinguish the fire. The baraita adds:

It once happened that a fire erupted in the courtyard of Joseph ben Simai of Shihin, and the [Gentile] people of the fort of Sepphoris came to extinguish it, but he did not allow them. A cloud descended and extinguished. The sages said: “It was not necessary.” Nevertheless, when the Sabbath went out, he sent a sela to each one of them, and to the commander among them he sent fifty dinarim.

The Babylonian Talmud adds “because he was the administrator of the king.” The latter can be assumed to have been Agrippa II, who died in the year 92, when all of his property passed over to the government. It is thus almost certain that the tradition predates 92 and that Joseph ben Simai was the same “administrator of the king,” mentioned above, who asked legal questions of Rabbi Eliezer.

From the combination of the traditions regarding the visits by Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh and by his two sons Judah and Hillel to various cities in Galilee, we receive a broad picture of commandments being observed more scrupulously and strictly there than in Judea and in the academy of the sages in Yavneh.[175] The first of the following five traditions is about Rabban Gamaliel, the other four are about his sons:

And it once happened that Rabban Gamaliel was sitting on a bench[176] of the non-Jews on the Sabbath in Acre. They said to him, that they were not accustomed to sit on a bench of the non-Jews on the Sabbath. And he did not want to say, “You are permitted,” rather he stood and went away.[177]

It once happened that Judah and Hillel, the sons of Rabban Gamaliel, went in to bathe in Kavul. They said to them that they were not accustomed to have two brothers go in together to bathe. They did not want to say to them, “You are permitted,” rather they went in and bathed one after the other.[178]

Once again, it happened that Judah and Hillel, the sons of Rabban Gamaliel, were going forth in gilt slippers on the Sabbath in Biri. They said to them that they were not accustomed to go forth in gilt slippers on the Sabbath. They did not want to tell them, “You are permitted,” rather they sent them by the hand of their servants.[179]

They lead wine and oil through pipes before grooms and brides, and this is not considered to be the ways of the Amorite. It once happened that Judah and Hillel, the sons of Rabban Gamaliel, went in [to Rabbi Zakkai] in Kavul, and the people of the town drew wine and oil in pipes before them.[180]

It once happened that Judah and his brother Hillel, the sons of Rabban Gamaliel, were walking along in the district of Oni.[181] They found one man whose tomb had opened within his field. Thy said to him, “Collect each bone, and everything is clean.”[182]

The first three of these five narratives appear in the Tosefta (and in the parallels) as one unit; their purpose is to relate to us that people in different cities in Galilee—Acre, Kavul and Beri—were stringent in matters in which the sages of Yavneh were lenient.[183] Rabban Gamaliel and his sons did not, however, wish to tell them that they were being more stringent than necessary. Thus the three narratives jointly testify to the scrupulous observance of the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and modesty in various places in Galilee. The latter two narratives about Rabban Gamaliel’s sons testify that Galileans observed the commandments concerned in accordance with the rulings of the sages, for the Mishnah and the Tosefta teach that the practices in question are permitted.

All five narratives date from the period around the end of the first century during which Rabban Gamaliel was active. It is reasonable to assume, however, that they describe strict practices of the Galileans that had established themselves earlier, before the destruction of the Temple.

From this or another journey by Rabban Gamaliel to Galilee come three more narratives connected with the route of his trip from Acre via Kheziv to the Ladder of Tyre promontory. Two are connected with his companion Rabbi Ilai, while one has been transmitted by Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Ilai’s son. The first two are to be found in Tosefta Pesahim and parallels,[184] the third in Tosefta Terumot.[185] One concerns gluskin, a fine type of bread; in the second a person wants to be released from his vow; the third tells of Segavyon, the head of the synagogue, who purchased a vineyard from a non-Jew and asked what action was to be taken regarding the produce.

We shall end our discussion of this topic by citing the well-known mishnaic statement (m. Pesahim 4:1) that “[in] a place in which they were accustomed to do work on the Eve of Passover until midday, they may do; [in] a place in which they were accustomed not to do, they may not do.” The Mishnah adds (ibid., 4:5): “And the sages say: ‘In Judea they would do work on the Eve of Passover until midday, and in Galilee they would not do so at all.’” In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 55a), however, Rabbi Johanan explains that those two statements express the opposed views of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah respectively. Rabbi Judah is undoubtedly referring to the time of the Second Temple, for the Mishnah immediately notes that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed over the details: In Galilee, is work already prohibited from the preceding night, like every festival that begins at night, or is it prohibited only from sunrise on? The disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel belong to the Temple period. Also the language (“they would do work”) indicates a tradition about practices in Galilee and Judea during the past.


We have examined testimonies anchored in the tannaitic tradition about the practices of individuals, of cities and of Galilee as a whole during the Second Temple period. They provide ample evidence both that Galilee had close ties with Jerusalem, including the ritual needs of the Temple, and that its religious and social life was rooted in a tradition of the Oral Torah which was indeed superior to the tradition of Judea.

Galilean Pietism and Jesus of Nazareth

Now we shall return to an issue which we have clarified elsewhere,[186] that of the pietist movement or trend known as Hasidim. We found that Jesus was extremely close to this trend or to the mood reflected in the intellectual foundations of the pietist movement.

We showed in those previous studies that regarding all the pietists and their teachers from the Second Temple period, whatever evidence we possess of their origin and activity concerns Galilee. Such are Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa from Arav; Abba Hilkiah, the grandson of Honi ha-Me’aggel, who is the pietist from Kefar Imi, also known as Kefar Yama (Yavniel in Lower Galilee); and the pietist priest from Ramat Beit Anat. To this list we may add Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings and miraculous acts exemplify several of the characteristic lines that we have found in the teachings and acts of the pietists. Their pietism is not to be viewed as springing from a world empty of Torah, despite the impression suggested at times by the arguments of their opponents, but rather from within a creative Jewish culture, innovative in both thought and conduct, as in the personalities of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, Abba Hilkiah and Jesus of Nazareth.

This same picture emerges from the books of the New Testament, both from the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. It is common knowledge that scholars are not always unanimous about the location of individual events in which Jesus was involved. The question, of course, is not simply whether the Gospels place an event within the context of Jesus’ stay in Jerusalem or of his wanderings in the cities of Galilee and around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but rather where the episode was placed in the earlier levels of the tradition.

Partially reconstructed ruins of Corazin synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Partially reconstructed ruins of Corazin synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

It can be established with certainty, however, regarding several traditions that the geographical context of the event is Galilee, whether because the rule of Herod Antipas is in the background of the narrative (for he did not rule in Judea) or because the event is connected with specific places in Galilee: the Sea of Galilee, Kanah, Kefar Nahum (Capernaum), Korazim (Chorazin), Bethsaida and similar places or places in which the Sea of Galilee is in the background. Those traditions with a clear Galilean background, however, accord with the tannaitic evidence already presented in testifying that Jewish life in Galilee was conducted in accordance with the formulation of Judaism during the Second Temple under the influence of and pursuant to the teachings of the Pharisaic sages. This picture is common to all the Gospels, but is especially clear in the narrative of Luke which contains more of the everyday reality than do the others.

Synagogues in Galilee

The most prominent fact from this daily life is the existence of synagogues in the cities of Galilee. Tannaitic literature mainly emphasizes the reading of the Torah and study in the synagogue.[187] The context in which synagogue matters are mentioned is the laws not of prayer but of the reading of the Torah. The same appears clearly in all four Gospels: Jesus comes several times to a synagogue, yet his visit is always connected with the reading of the Torah and Prophets and with public teaching.[188] Synagogues are to be found in Nazareth, Capernaum and in all the cities of Galilee.[189]

The synagogue was one of the great innovations of Second Temple Judaism. It was fashioned totally in accordance with the spirit and content of the tradition of the Oral Torah and the Pharisaic sages. Indeed, the oldest testimony regarding the existence of synagogues in every settlement is the narratives about Jesus’ actions in Galilee. The practice of reading in the Torah, followed by the reading in the Prophets, is mentioned for the first time in the narrative about Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth.[190]

A reading of the Gospels reveals that the synagogues function normally, and that they are filled with men and women coming to serve the Lord. Whereas the Gospels address severe charges against the practices and leadership of the Temple, no criticism of the synagogues or of the synagogue leadership is to be found in them. This is exactly the reality of tannaitic literature. The tradition contains harsh criticism directed against the High Priests and their underlings, the amarkalim, the gizbarim and the other officials, but no criticism of the synagogue leadership or procedures.

Galilean Observance of Halakhah

One of the major spheres of religious activity during the Second Temple period was that of ritual cleanness or uncleanness. Many laws on this subject were innovations of the Pharisees and were not practiced by the Sadducees or the Essenes. One of the outstanding laws in this sphere is netilat yadayim, the washing of hands; not only was it not practiced by the Sadducees and the Essenes, it was even unknown to the author of the Book of Judith.[191] In the Halakhah of the Oral Torah it is discussed extensively; however, we also find an instance of a person who “made light of” it.[192]

In the New Testament, the washing of hands serves as the occasion for one of Jesus’ famous sayings, that it is not what comes to the body of a man that makes unclean, but rather what comes forth from it.[193] For the purposes of our discussion we shall merely indicate that we learn from Jesus’ dispute regarding the washing of hands (which apparently took place in Galilee, for he argues with Pharisees and “Scribes who came from Jerusalem”)[194] that “the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat without the washing of hands, holding to the tradition of the Elders.” Mark’s statements about the practices of all Israel in matters of ritual cleanness appear to be exaggerated.[195] At any rate, the picture that emerges from all three synoptic Gospels is that the washing of hands was a widespread practice in Galilee just as in Judea.

Important testimony regarding the observance in Galilee of the practices of ritual cleanness is provided by the narrative in John 2 about the miracle of the jars of wine. Verse 6 states that there were six stone water jars in the place where a wedding was held in Cana, in accordance with the practices of ritual cleanness of the Jews. Indeed, according to the law taught in many places in tannaitic and amoraitic literature, stone vessels do not acquire ritual uncleanness. This law is not stated explicitly in the Torah, but is understood in the tannaitic tradition and serves as the basis for many laws.[196] At the wedding they could prepare stone jugs for the water, with no fear about their being touched by amei ha-aretz and by all the many people coming to the wedding.

The Jewish practice of naming a newborn boy at the circumcision ceremony, which is in force to this day, is mentioned only in later Jewish sources. We learn from Luke’s Gospel, however, that this practice was already observed in Judea when John the Baptist and Jesus were named.[197]

It should be noted that in most of the narratives of Jesus’ acts of healing when the act was done on the Sabbath, it is stated that the Pharisees or the head of the synagogue opposed him for breaking the Sabbath.[198] Yet none of the cases mentioned are instances of the desecration of the Sabbath according to the Halakhah of talmudic literature. It is possible that the Galileans inclined to strictness regarding the Sabbath, just as we have seen them to have been strict regarding other laws. At any rate, we receive a picture of scrupulous Sabbath observance in various places in Galilee.[199] The fact that Friday is called “the day of preparation” (ἡ παρασκευή) in the Gospels[200] also testifies to the standing of the Sabbath in terms of the preparations made on its eve.[201]

The nativity story in Luke adds that the circumcision took place on the eighth day, as was indeed the custom, and that the days of cleanness were completed, and mentions the redemption of the male child (1:21-22). Only Luke (2:41-48) preserves the tradition that Jesus disappeared at the end of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover; his parents found him among those studying Torah in the Temple, listening to their teaching and asking questions that amazed them. As we saw above, he could have studied Torah at his leisure in his city, Nazareth, or nearby.

Pharisees in Galilee

We learn from the narratives in the Gospels, especially from Luke, that Pharisees were also present in Galilee. It is stressed, however, that the Pharisees were native to the region, while the Scribes came from Jerusalem. Regarding the dispute about the washing of hands, Matthew 15:1 states that “the Scribes and the Pharisees who came from Jerusalem” came to him. In Mark 7:1, however, it is stated that the Pharisees and some Scribes who had come from Jerusalem came to him. In Luke 11:37-38 a Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him, and during the meal he is surprised because Jesus does not wash his hands. Similarly it is stated in Mark 3:22 that the Scribes who came from Jerusalem said that Jesus was driving out demons by the power of Baal-Zebub, but in Matthew 12:24 mention is made merely of “Pharisees.” It is stated in Luke 5:17 that when Jesus taught Torah, those sitting before him were Pharisees and teachers of the Torah who came from all the villages of Galilee, from Judea and from Jerusalem; these details are lacking in the parallels (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12). In the sequel, it is stated in all three of the parallel passages that the Scribes and the Pharisees complained when Jesus and his disciples sat down to a meal with tax collectors and sinners;[202] there is no suggestion that they came from Jerusalem, rather the impression is that they were native to Galilee.

Similarly in the narrative about the parched ears on the Sabbath, it is stated that the Pharisees, or some of them, asked why the disciples of Jesus were doing something that was not permitted. Here as well, there is no suggestion in the three parallel texts that these Pharisees were not native to the region.[203]

Luke 7:35-50 relates the episode of the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet and anointed his feet with oil. This occurrence has parallels in the other Gospels;[204] in Luke, however, it is stated that he was in the house of a Pharisee who had invited him to a meal.[205] Luke 14:1-14 again tells of Jesus going to a meal in the home of a leading Pharisee: he turns to “the masters of Torah and the Pharisees.” Finally, it is related in Luke 13:31 that the Pharisees came to Jesus and warned him that Herod wanted to kill him.

We have not exhausted all the testimonies regarding the Pharisees in Galilee, but it is clear that we can learn about their presence there from the traditions in the New Testament. Emissaries also come to Galilee from Jerusalem, just as in many testimonies regarding the sages, mainly in the Yavneh generation, but Pharisees and masters of the Torah also reside in Galilee.

In John 7 there are denigratory expressions regarding Galilee. The question of verse 41, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee?,” is not an actual denigration of Galilee, but just an inference from the tradition that “the Messiah will come from the seed of David and from Bethlehem, where David was” (verse 42). At the end of the chapter, however, the Pharisees say to Nicodemus: “Are you also from Galilee? Search [i.e., expound the Scriptures] and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”[206] This is indeed a denigratory remark about Galilee, but no more so than the statements we have found in talmudic literature making light of Galilee and other places, but which could not be taken seriously.

Josephus on Galilee

Josephus was appointed to head the army in Galilee, where he remained until it fell. His autobiographical book deals mainly with the course of historical events in Galilee, but also contains some information about the cultural and social life in various cities and in Galilee as a whole. There is no doubt that the picture given in all those writings is one in which Galileans follow a Jewish religious life and observe the commandments according to their interpretation and formulation in the Oral Torah.

It should come as no surprise to find in Tiberias a large synagogue in which people gathered on the Sabbath, also to discuss current issues.[207] Chapter 54 of Josephus’ Life, moreover, contains a specific detail testifying to the lifestyle found also in the Jerusalem Talmud. He tells of a stormy assembly that was stopped “with the arrival of the sixth hour, in which it is our custom to eat the morning meal on the Sabbath.” While the people did not eat in the morning before the time of prayer, it was prohibited to fast “until the sixth hour” on the Sabbath, as the Amora Rabbi Jose bar Haninah teaches.[208]

Sabbath observance exceeding the demands of the talmudic Halakhah is mentioned a number of times during the course of the war in Galilee. Josephus relates in chapter 32 of his Life that he did not want to leave his soldiers in Migdal on the Sabbath, so that they would not constitute a burden upon the residents of the city. Once he has dismissed them on Sabbath eve, he can no longer assemble them, because the weekday has already passed, and on the following Sabbath day they cannot bear arms, because “our laws” prohibit this even in a time of distress. In another place he relates that Johanan persuaded Titus to stop the fighting on the Sabbath, because the Jews not merely could not go forth to fight on the Sabbath, but were forbidden even to conduct peace negotiations on the Sabbath.[209]

In chapter 12 of the Life, Josephus relates that he was about to destroy the palace of the tetrarch Herod in Tiberias because of the presence of depictions of animals, but Joshua ben Sapphias, who headed the group of sailors, acted before him.[210] He adds that the delegates who were sent with him from Jerusalem collected great riches from the tithes that were given them. There were ma’aserot that the amei ha-aretz did not set aside; what Josephus states thus accords with what we have found in tannaitic literature, that the tithes (ma’aserot) were given to the priests and not to the Levites as is stated in the Torah.[211] In section 56 Josephus describes the proclamation of a fast day and the assembly in the synagogue, matching the description of such a proclamation in the later books of the Scriptures[212] and in Mishnah Ta’anit 2.

Josephus’ Life and Jewish War admittedly contain only meagre material about the daily religious life in Galilee. Nevertheless, it certainly corresponds to the Halakhah and practice that we have found in the Oral Torah and in the religious and cultural life of the Jews in the first century.


An anonymous teaching in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (27:43a) relates:

Because at first they would say, “Breadstuff in Judea, straw in Galilee, and chaff in Transjordan,” they later said, “There is no grain in Judea, but rather stubble; and there is no straw in Galilee, but rather chaff, and neither one nor the other in Transjordan.”

This baraita intends to teach us that Judea is better than Galilee and Galilee is better than Transjordan, and that even when a decline occurred (the time of this decline is not stated), Judea was still on a higher level than Galilee. As used in the literature of the time, the term “Judea” sometimes includes Jerusalem and sometimes means the land of Judea outside Jerusalem. Only in the former sense of “Judea” can the teaching of the baraita reflect historical and cultural reality. The many facts cited in this article show that, apart from Jerusalem, Galilee was in all respects equal to or excelled all other areas of the Land of Israel where Jews dwelled.

This article originally appeared in The New Testament and Christian-Jewish Dialogue: Studies in Honor of David Flusser, Immanuel 24/25 (1990): 147-186. Jerusalem Perspective wishes to thank Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt and The Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel, publishers of Immanuel journal (edited by Prof. Malcolm Lowe), for permission to publish the article in electronic format. Readers can purchase the print version of Immanuel 24/25 at

  • [1] This article was translated from Hebrew by Edward Levine. Recently published books that bear directly upon the subject of this article include: F. Malinowski, Galilean Judaism in the Writings of Flavius Josephus (Ann Arbor, 1973); G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London, 1977); E. M. Meyeres and J. F. Strange, Archaeology, the Rabbis and Early Christianity (Nashville, 1981); S. Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1987); R. Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer (Tübingen, 1987); M. Goodman, State and Society in Roman Galilee A.D. 132-212 (Totowa, New Jersey, 1983); W. Bosen, Galiläa als Lebensraum und Wirkungsfeld Jesu (Basel and Vienna, 1985).
  • [2] G. Alon, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Eretz Yisrael bi-Tekufat ha-Mishnah we-ha-Talmud (“The History of the Jews in the Land of Israel During the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud”; Tel Aviv, 1953), 1:318-323. Regarding the Torah sages in Galilee before the revolt, see also A. Büchler, Am ha-Aretz ha-Galili (“The Galilean am ha-aretz”; Jerusalem, 1964), 193-240 (the pagination is according to the Hebrew translation; I did not have access to the German original during the writing of this article). See also A. Oppenheimer, The Am ha-Aretz (Leiden, 1977), 2-7, 200-217; and “Ha-Yishuv ha-Yehudi ba-Galil bi-Tekufat Yavneh u-Mered Bar Kokhba” (“The Jewish Community in Galilee During the Period of Yavneh and the Bar Kokhba Revolt”), Katedra 4 (1977): 53-66; Z. Safrai, Pirqei Galil (“Chapters on Galilee”; Ma’alot, 1972), 19-26.
  • [3] m. Shabbat 16:7; 22:3.
  • [4] See Alon, loc. cit., 53-71 and his articles “Halikhato shel Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai le-Yavneh” (“Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai’s Going to Yavneh”); “Nesiuto shel Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai” (“Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai’s Term as Nasi”), in Mekhkarim be-Toledot Yisrael (“Studies in Jewish History”; Tel Aviv, 1957), 1:219-273.
  • [5] See especially Genesis Rabbah 6:84.
  • [6] Matt. 15:1; Mark 3:22; 7:1; Luke 5:17.
  • [7] The 18 years stated by the Amora Ulla (see below) is not necessarily an exact number.
  • [8] See the mishnaic references in note 3. It becomes clear in b. Shabbat 121b that the sages who permitted this, and the pietists who were not pleased by it, disagreed on this issue. See below.
  • [9] When, during the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, a person wished to say that he had sinned, he would write on his board: “Ishmael ben Elisha trimmed the lamp on the Sabbath, when the Temple shall be rebuilt he shall bring a hatat (sin-offering)” (t. Shabbat 1:13 and the parallels in the Talmuds).
  • [10] j. Shabbat 16:15d.
  • [11] See especially Sifre Deuteronomy 357:425-427.
  • [12] j. Pesahim 5:32a. A similar passage also appears in b. Pesahim 62b.
  • [13] j. Sanhedrin 1:18c.
  • [14] See, e.g., j. Eruvin 6:23c; b. Hullin 132b Pesiqta Rabbati 29 (138b) and many other passages.
  • [15] j. Ta’anit 4:69b; j. Moed Katan 3:82d; j. Shevi’it 5:35d and many other passages. See S. Lieberman, Sifrei Zuta (New York, 1968), especially pp. 92-94.
  • [16] j. Ta’anit 3:66c.
  • [17] b. Shabbat 121b; see S. Safrai, “Teaching of Pietistics in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965): 15-33.
  • [18] m. Avot 2:5. See S. Safrai, “Hasidim we-Anshei Ma’aseh” (“Pietists and Miracle-Workers”), Zion 50 (1985): 152-154. Regarding Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, see Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, A:12 (28b), B:27 (40b). See Safrai, ibid., 132-136.
  • [19] m. Ta’anit 2:5; see also t. Ta’anit 2:13; b. Ta’anit 16b; b. Rosh Ha-Shanah 27a.
  • [20] t. Shabbat 13:2; b. Shabbat 115a.; j. Shabbat 16:15c brings the event involving Rabban Gamaliel the Elder at the Temple Mount without the narrative regarding Rabbi Halafta’s visit to Tiberias.
  • [21] t. Ma’aser Sheni 1:13; t. Bava Batra 2:6 (= b. Bava Batra 56b); t. Ahilot 5:7; t. Kelim Bava Metzia 1:5.
  • [22] He lived until the time of Rabbi Judah the Nasi, all of the traditions regarding whom are after the time of the revolt. See t. Sukkah 2:2; j. Sanhedrin 7:24b.
  • [23] Thus the Commentary by Rabbi Simeon of Sens on the Mishnah 22:9 and in Yehusei Tannaim we-Amoraim, s.v. Haggai (Maimon ed., p. 234) and Hutzpit (ibid., p. 441).
  • [24] Thus in Rabbi Simeon of Sens, loc. cit.
  • [25] Thus in Rabbi Simeon of Sens, loc. cit.
  • [26] t. Kelim Bava Batra 2:2.
  • [27] See Alon, op. cit., 262.
  • [28] See note 19 above.
  • [29] b. Sanhedrin 32b.
  • [30] t. Miqwaot 6:3.
  • [31] t. Kelim Bava Metzia 1:6 and Bava Qamma 4:17; b. Pesahim 62b.
  • [32] According to the traditions in the Babylonian Talmud, Beruriah was the wife of Rabbi Meir; however, there is no allusion to this in the Jerusalem Talmud. Beruriah was years older than Rabbi Meir, who was active mainly after the revolt. See S. Safrai, Eretz Yisrael we-Hakhameha (“The Land of Israel and Its Sages”; Tel Aviv, 1984), 179.
  • [33] See Lamentations Rabbah 13:10; Semahot 12:13, 199-200; see also Alon, op. cit., (Tel Aviv, 1955), 2:1-2.
  • [34] j. Berakhot 4:7d; b. Berakhot 27b-28a.
  • [35] Sixteen, according to the Jerusalem Talmud; and eighteen, according to the Babylonian Talmud.
  • [36] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, tract. 1 of pasha, sect. 16:59.
  • [37] j. Berakhot 1:3d.
  • [38] See b. Bekhorot 53b; b. Shabbat 54b. Rabbenu Tam discussed this contradiction in b. Shabbat 54b, capt. Hayah Ma’aseh. The “contradiction” came into existence only because Rabbenu Tam interpreted literally the statement that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was eighteen years old at the time of his appointment in place of Rabban Gamaliel.
  • [39] b. Megillah 26a. The wording “Rav Eleazar ben Azariah” appears in all the MSS; in the commentary of Rabbenu Hananel in Ravayah, part 2, para. 590, 316; in Or Zaro’a, part 2, para. 385 (79c); in Meiri, ad. loc.; in Teshuvot Maharam mi-Rotenburg, Crimona, para. 165; in t. Megillah 2 (3):17. In j. Megillah 3:71d Rabbi Judah transmits that Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Zadok purchased a synagogue of Alexandrians in Jerusalem. It is possible that this is a different version of the same tradition or perhaps two different traditions. The same difficulty which was perceived by Rabbeinu Tam was also perceived by Lieberman, who proposed a forced answer (Tosefta Ki-Fshutah: Moed, p. 1162). He also was forced into this difficulty only because he accepted as historical fact the legend that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was appointed at the age of sixteen or eighteen.
  • [40] Genesis Rabbah 17:152-154; Leviticus Rabbah 34:802-806; j. Ketuvot 11:34b. The narrative in the Jerusalem Talmud is related concisely, while Genesis Rabbah contains two versions, one long and the other short. This narrative is alluded to by the author of Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 139, as Ish Shalom has already seen, loc. cit., n. 30.
  • [41] And t. Sotah 15:3; b. Berakhot 57b; b. Kiddushin 49b; b. Shabbat 54b.
  • [42] j. Yevamot 1:3b. The tradition regarding his appointment in place of the deposed Rabban Gamaliel stresses that he attained this because of his lineage (Jerusalem Talmud) and his wisdom and his wealth (Babylonian Talmud).
  • [43] t. Sotah 7:10 (and parallels); Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A:18 (33b), et al.
  • [44] m. Ma’aser Sheni 5:9; b. Sukkah 41b; t. Betzah 2:12; Sifrei Numbers 43:94, et al. See also S. Safrai, “Biqqureihem shel Hakhmei Yavneh be-Roma,” Studies in the History of the Jews of Italy in Memory of U.S. Nahon, (Jerusalem, 1978), 151-167.
  • [45] Sifrei, ibid., 75; b. Makkot 24a; Lamentations Rabbah 5:159.
  • [46] b. Yevamot 16a.
  • [47] t. Yoma 1:12, also 1:4; Sifrei Numbers 141:222; j. Yoma 2:39d; b. Yoma 23a.
  • [48] b. Gittin 56b; Lamentations Rabbah 1:68. According to the Babylonian Talmud, he fasted for forty years so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. It is stated in Lamentations Rabbah, according to the printed versions, that Vespasian asked Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai why he arose before “this shrivelled old man.” This is the source of the prevalent opinion that Rabbi Zadok was very advanced in years at the time of the destruction of the Temple. In order to match this fact with the other traditions regarding Rabbi Zadok, two “Rabbi Zadoks” were created, a grandfather and a grandson. But there is not necessarily a chronological difficulty. Even if we were to receive as historical fact the tradition which transmits that Rabbi Zadok fasted for forty years, there is no justification to our accepting as fact that he actually fasted for forty years, for “forty years” is a round number which appears in many places—that is, if he had fasted for only five years or less, the tradition would have related that he had fasted for forty years. Regarding the “shrivelled old man (sabba tzurata),” the word sabba (old man) does not appear in the Buber edition, nor in He-Arukh, s.v. Tzaitor (vol. 3, p. 15). Lamentations Rabbah does not state that he fasted for forty years, only that he was shrivelled from the fasts.
  • [49] t. Sanhedrin 8:1; j. Sanhedrin 1:19c.
  • [50] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Yitro, tractate of Amalek, 1:195; Sifrei Deuteronomy 38:24; b. Kiddushin 32b. See also b. Pesahim 37a and 49a.
  • [51] t. Sukkah 2:3; t. Eduyot 2:2; b. Yevamot 15b.
  • [52] t. Niddah 4:3-4. See m. Eduyot 8:4; t. Eduyot 3:3; t. Arakhin 11:2.
  • [53] m. Makhshirin 1:3 and the interpretation of halikopri: a metal merchant (χαλκωπώλης).
  • [54] See m. Eduyot 8:4; t. Eduyot 3:3; t. Arakhin 11:2.
  • [55] Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai also was in Galilee on his missions. See Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A:12 (28b) and B:13 (ibid.).
  • [56] t. Betzah 3:8; j. Betzah 3:62b.
  • [57] t. Megillah 3(4):15; Semahot 12:5; b. Sukkah 41a; b. Pesahim 116a; b. Bava Batra 14a; b. Menahot 40a. He is the sage who spoke the most extensively about Jerusalem and the Temple.
  • [58] t. Megillah 2(3):17; j. Megillah 3:1d.
  • [59] t. Ketuvot 5:10; j. Ketuvot 5:30c; b. Ketuvot 67a; Lamentations Rabbah 1 (43b); Pesiqta Rabbati 29 (140a). The city of Acre is not mentioned in all the parallels.
  • [60] t. Hagigah 2:3; j. Hagigah 2:77b-c; b. Hagigah 15a-b; Ruth Rabbah 6; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.
  • [61] Thus in the Jerusalem Talmud and in Ruth Rabbah, Kohelet Zuta 135 and Yalqut Makhiri on Psalms 90:84.
  • [62] In MS Oxford 164. See the edition by M. B. Lerner (dissertation, Hebrew University, 1971), 2:174 and the notes, 3:61.
  • [63] b. Moed Katan 20a; b. Nazir 44a; Semahot 12, 2:194.
  • [64] Thus in the baraita in b. Nazir.
  • [65] This interpretation was already offered by Rabbi Jacob Emden in his annotations on b. Moed Katan 20a and by many scholars after him. They raised this only because they followed the version in Babylonian Talmud, understanding it literally. According to this it follows that he already was very old during the time of the Temple. As we have clarified, however, there is no basis for this determination. See note 48 above.
  • [66] We can learn of Elisha ben Avuyah’s uniqueness from his aggadic dicta (m. Avot 4:20; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A:24 and B:34) and from the fact that one of the outstanding sages, Rabbi Meir, a central figure in the Mishnah, remained loyal to Elisha ben Avuyah even after he “went forth from his world.” See the sources listed in note 60.
  • [67] j. Berakhot 4:7c-d; b. Berakhot 27b-28a; see also b. Bekhorot 36a.
  • [68] b. Avodah Zarah 18a.
  • [69] b. Yevamot 96b; j. Sheqalim 2:47a. The Jerusalem Talmud does not mention Tiberias, but rather the synagogue of the Tarsians. This refers, however, to the mishnaic statement in Eruvin, in which Tiberias is mentioned. We may possibly conclude that this refers to a synagogue of Tarsians (after the name of the city Tarsus or after the profession—artistic weavers) in Tiberias. The passage in the Jerusalem Talmud does not mention the name of the city Tiberias because the incident in which the tradition is placed took place in Tiberias in a conversation among Rabbi Elhanan, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, all of whom were Tiberian sages in the second half of the third century. They, therefore, mentioned only that this occurred in the synagogue of the Tarsians. The Jerusalem Talmud version is also found in Yalqut Makhiri on Psalm 61:3 (156a).
  • [70] Thus according to the emendation of the text in the two Talmuds.
  • [71] Tanhuma, wa-yishalah 8 (Buber ed., 83b). This tradition is to be found also in b. Sanhedrin 98a, but the latter source does not explicitly mention the name of the city Tiberias. We copy from the more complete version in Yalqut Makhiri on Obadiah, published by M. Gaster in Revue des Etudes Juives 25 (1892): 63-64. We find in the MSS that the passage is taken from Tanhuma. It was reprinted in Yalqut Makhiri, published by A. W. Greenup (London, 1909), p. 4.
  • [72] Song of Songs Rabbah 2; Semahot 11, 4:188; t. Megillah 2:8, et al.
  • [73] t. Peah 3:2; b. Pesahim 38b, et al.
  • [74] t. Zevahim 2:16-17; b. Menahot 18a.
  • [75] t. Sukkah 2:1 and parallels in the Talmuds.
  • [76] t. Pesahim 2 (1):15; j. Avodah Zarah 1:40a; b. Eruvin 64b.
  • [77] Sifrei Deuteronomy 16:26 (see note by Finkelstein, ibid.); b. Eruvin 41a; Sifrei Deuteronomy 1:4, et al.
  • [78] t. Orlah 3:8; b. Kiddushin 39a; t. Kelim Bava Qamma 6:3, et al.
  • [79] See above and note 21.
  • [80] t. Terumah 7:14; t. Sukkah 2:2. Regarding the formulation, see S. Safrai, “Beit Shearim ba-Sifrut ha-Talmudit” (“Beit Shearim in the Talmudic Literature”), Eretz Yisrael 5 (1959): 208 and n. 17.
  • [81] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, ba-hodesh 2:210; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A:32 (47a), et al.
  • [82] b. Avodah Zarah 17b.
  • [83] Tanhuma, Masai 1 (Buber ed., 81a).
  • [84] Thus in the printed editions. This is also what may be assumed from the issue itself, for the question is when may a person who is persecuted by the non-Jews desecrate the Sabbath; the answer is that he may flee, and mention is made of the narrative regarding Rabbi Eleazar ben Parta, who hinted to them to flee.
  • [85] j. Gittin 7:48d.
  • [86] See Büchler, 200.
  • [87] j. Sotah 1:16c; t. Gittin 5 (7):4.
  • [88] j. Shabbat 1:5d; b. Shabbat 123a; b. Eruvin 71b; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, shirah 1:119.
  • [89] Tractate Derekh Eretz 1. In the Higger edition of the Tosefta, Derekh Eretz 3:267. Büchler, ibid., erroneously joined this to Rabbi Eliezer ben Tadai. Regarding the exchange Teradyon-Tadion-Taddai, see J. N. Epstein, “Perurim Talmudiyim” (“Talmudic Crumbs”), Tarbiz 3 (1932): 111.
  • [90] See below.
  • [91] See Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, “Beit Anat,” Sinai 40 (1976): 18-34, especially 21-22.
  • [92] Leviticus Rabbah 2:451.
  • [93] t. Shevi’it 4:11 (and parallels). The name “Katzra de-Galila” is found in all the parallels in the literature, including in the mosaic floor found in the Beit Shean valley near Tel Rehov. See Y. Sussman, “Ketovet Hilkhatit me-Emek Beit-Shean” (“A Halakhic Inscription from the Beit Shean Valley”), Tarbiz 43 (1973-4): 158.
  • [94] An archaeological report of relatively broad scope is to be found in V. Guerin, Description de la Palestine, Galilée (Paris, 1880), vol. 7, part 3, t. 2, p. 157. The main thrust of his comments are cited almost verbatim in the British Survey of Western Palestine, 1 (1981): 154. A short report on the site was also written by Tzvi Gitzov, in M. Yedayah ed., Ma’aravo shel Galil (“The West of Galilee”; 1961), 53. A more comprehensive description was written by Tzvi Ilan: Hurvat Galil—Zihuyehah u-Mimtza’ehah (“The Ruins of Galil—Its Identification and Finds”), in M. Yedayah ed., Kadmoniyot ha-Galil ha-Ma’aravi (“Antiquities of Western Galilee”; Haifa, 1986), 516-520. Even during later periods when Galilee was the center of Judaism and of Torah study, there were sages who were named after the city of Galil. See j. Shabbat 3:6a, b. Shabbat 46a, j. Berakhot 3:6a, et al.
  • [95] m. Avodah Zarah 3:5; t. Gittin 7 (9):1; t. Miqwaot 7:11; t. Orlah 1:8; b. Moed Qatan 28b, et al.
  • [96] Sifrei Numbers 118:141. In his commentary on Isa. 8:14, Jerome includes Rabbi Jose ha-Galili in his short list of the greatest Tannaim. See A. Geiger, “Über Judentum und Christentum,” Jüdische Zeitschrift 5 (1867): 273.
  • [97] Regarding this issue, see b. Hullin 116a. Rabbi Jose ha-Galili’s opinion is also held by a sage named Apikulos in t. Hullin 8:2 (he is not mentioned elsewhere in our literature).
  • [98] b. Hullin 116a; Yevamot 14a.
  • [99] See S. Safrai, “Ha-Hakhra’ah ke-Veit Hillel” (“The Decision in Accordance with Beit Hillel”), in Proceedings of the Seventh World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1981), 27-44.
  • [100] m. Hullin 5:1; m. Eduyot 5:2.
  • [101] b. Eruvin 53b.
  • [102] In the same passage in b. Eruvin 53b. It should be mentioned once again that the expression “foolish Galilean,” in its Aramaic form, was applied to a merchant who came to sell his wares in Judea and said “amar to someone.” It was not clear whether he meant hamar (for in the Galilean accent there was no distinction between the letter ח “het” and the letter א “alef“) for drinking (wine) or hamar (ass) for riding or amar (with the initial letter ע “ayin“, wool). It is possible that the later passage used Beruriah’s expression, but it is also possible that this was an expression in general use. We can learn nothing from this, because the lack of differentiation between the letters alef, ayin and het prevents us from learning about a poor cultural state (see below). See J. N. Epstein, Mavo le-Nusah ha-Mishnah (“Introduction to the Text of the Mishnah”; Jerusalem, 1948), part 1, 183-185.
  • [103] Sifrei Deuteronomy 41:85. See notes 90-91 above.
  • [104] With the assistance of my son Ze’ev.
  • [105] A portion from the Genizah published by J. N. Epstein in Tarbiz 1 (1930): 70. See ibid., n. 17 and the introduction, 52-53.
  • [106] t. Sotah 3:3; j. Sotah 9:24b; b. Sotah 48b.
  • [107] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1; Song of Songs Rabbah 1.
  • [108] b. Sanhedrin 32b; t. Sukkah 2:1; Midrash on Psalm 25:13 (107b), et al. Regarding his property in the region, see t. Ma’aser Sheni 5:16.
  • [109] t. Hullin 2:24; b. Avodah Zarah 16b.
  • [110] Thus in MS London and in the Rishonim. At any rate it seems that he was a sage, and the deed he performed of spreading a sheet over the sukkah against the sun corresponds to the statement in m. Sukkah 1:3; see also Tosafot 10aPires alav sadin.
  • [111] In b. Sukkah 27b: “In Upper Galilee, in the sukkah of Johanan ben Rabbi Ilai, in Kesari, or as some say, in Kesarion.”
  • [112] And in the parallel in b. Sukkah 27b.
  • [113] b. Sukkah 27a.
  • [114] See ibid., 27b. Regarding his identification, see below.
  • [115] See above and notes 61-62. Regarding his identification, see below.
  • [116] b. Moed Qatan 16a-b; see A. Büchler, “Learning and Teaching in Open Air in Palestine,” Jewish Quarterly Review 4 (1914): 485-491.
  • [117] t. Kelim Bava Batra 3:6.
  • [118] j. Ma’aserot 1:48d.
  • [119] b. Eruvin 29a; b. Sotah 48a; b. Kiddushin 20a; b. Arakhin 30b. Cf. j. Bikkurim 2:65a.
  • [120] Sifrei Zuta 302. Ibid., 305, there is an additional reference to the group of sages and “Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob sits and expounds regarding the [red] heifer in Tiberias.” This latter incident, however, occurred after the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
  • [121] t. Bava Qamma 8:17; b. Bava Qamma 80a; j. Sotah 9:24a.
  • [122] Thus as correct in MS Vienna, in first ed. of the Tosefta, and in MS Hamburg of the Babylonian Talmud and in Maharshal, citing other books; and similarly in the Jerusalem Talmud.
  • [123] Thus in the printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud, and MS Vatican and Maharshal, citing other books. Similarly, it seems that Shezor is on the boundary between Lower and Upper Galilee; Rabbi Simeon Shezori speaks of his family’s properties which were in Upper Galilee.
  • [124] See the passage in b. Sanhedrin 4b-5a and j. Sanhedrin 1:18b.
  • [125] t. Yevamot 3:1. See G. Alon, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Eretz Yisrael bi-Tekufat ha-Mishnah we-ha-Talmud (“History of the Jews in the Land of Israel During the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud”; Tel Aviv, 1967), 1:174.
  • [126] m. Kelim 18:1; m. Taharot 3:2, et al.
  • [127] j. Demai 5:24d.
  • [128] t. Shevi’it 2:5; b. Rosh Ha-Shanah 13b. Rabbi Jose ben Kippar was sent, shortly after the Bar Kokhba revolt, to persuade Hananiah, the nephew of Rabbi Joshua, to stop independently intercalating years and proclaiming new months in Babylonia, but instead to rely upon the sages in the Land of Israel (b. Berakhot 63a). By that time he already was a sage whose opinion was heeded.
  • [129] See Alon, Toledot ha-Yehudim, 19.
  • [130] Alon, ibid., 321, et al.
  • [131] m. Ketuvot 4:12; j. Ketuvot 29b. Regarding other wedding practices in which the Galileans followed the practices of the Jerusalemites, see t. Ketuvot 1:4, j. Ketuvot 1:29a, b. Ketuvot 12a. All the practices of Galilee are more refined and better than those in Judea.
  • [132] Semahot 3:6 111-112.
  • [133] b. Shabbat 153a; see the commentary by Rashi, loc. cit.
  • [134] See S. Klein, Eretz ha-Galil (“The Land of Galilee”; Jerusalem, 1967), 169-176; S. Safrai, Ha-Aliyah la-Regel bi-Yemei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni (“Pilgrimage in the Days of the Second Temple”; Tel Aviv, 1965), 50-53.
  • [135] t. Yoma 1:4; j. Yoma 1:38c; b. Yoma 12b and in the parallel 9b.
  • [136] Antiq. 17:165. See S. Lieberman in Tosefta Ki-Fshutah: Moed, 723-726.
  • [137] m. Yoma 6:3.
  • [138] Thus in the Mishnah of the Jerusalem Talmud, MS Cambridge A and B, Naples printing, et al.
  • [139] t. Sotah 13:8; j. Yoma 6:3c; b. Yoma 39a; b. Kiddushin 53a.
  • [140] j. Ta’anit 4:69a; Lamentations Rabbah 2.
  • [141] See above and note 107.
  • [142] See m. Yoma 3:4; t. Yoma 2:2-4.
  • [143] See Safrai, loc. cit. (note 128).
  • [144] j. Ma’aser Sheni 5:56a; Lamentations Rabbah 3:63a-b.
  • [145] Regarding the inscriptions, see Safrai, loc. cit., 53.
  • [146] b. Menahot ch. 8; t. Menahot ch. 9.
  • [147] m. Menahot ch. 8 and t. Menahot 8:5. This is undoubtedly the Tekoa in Galilee and not the one in Judea, for it also was listed among the places in which olives were grown in Galilee regarding the matter of shemittah (the Sabbatical year: t. Shevi’it 7:15, b. Pesahim 23a). The Judean Tekoa, which borders the Judean Desert, was not known for its oil. The Babylonian Talmud (b. Menahot 85b) understood from the statement of Rabbi Johanan that this was the Galilean Tekoa. The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand (Hagigah 3:79b), understood that this was the Judean Tekoa: see S. Lieberman, Tarbiz 2 (1931): 110.
  • [148] Teshuvat ha-Geonim (Leck), sec. 104. The responsum was printed in Otzar ha-Geonim on Shabbat, the section of responsa, p. 23; see addenda on p. 163. Several of the Rishonim cite this tradition in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud. This does not appear in our editions of the latter, and it seems that it appears chiefly in a midrash that is not extant. See G. Alon, Mehkarim, section 2, 24 n. 16.
  • [149] Life 188. See also S. Klein, Eretz ha-Galil (“The Land of Galilee”; Jerusalem, 1967), 39 ff. He was preceded by A. Schlatter, Die Hebräischen Namen bei Josephus (photocopy ed., Darmstadt, 1970), 82-83; see below.
  • [150] See note 139.
  • [151] These things are not explicitly stated in a halakhic ruling, but they can almost certainly be learned from talmudic literature, with assistance being provided by the Christian tradition and the Apocalypse of Baruch. See m. Sheqalim 8:5 and the exposition of S. Lieberman in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1950), 167; S. Safrai, Ha-Aliyah la-Regel, 28 n. 94.
  • [152] See Klein, loc. cit., 52.
  • [153] t. Yoma 1:23; 1 Mac. 3:49. See Safrai, loc. cit., p. 78, n. 96.
  • [154] It would seem that this contradicts the statement of the Mishnah (Hagigah 3:4), which states that the people of Judea, both haverim (who maintained the ritual cleanness of the terumah) and amei ha-aretz, were regarded as reliable concerning the cleanness of the wine and the oil used in the sacrifices in the Temple all the days of the year, while the Galileans were not regarded as reliable. The two Talmuds offer a reason for the unreliability of the Galileans: because “a strip of the Cutheans separates,” and sacrifices were not brought through the Land of the Cutheans (Samaria). In another place (Ha-Aliyah la-Regel, 44-46 and nn. on p. 25) I have shown that this is not in accordance with the Halakhah and the reality of the Temple period, in which sacrifices were brought from Galilee. Rather, those who prepared the wine and oil in Judea were more aware of the possibility that their wine and oil would go to the Temple, and, therefore, there were many people who were particular to maintain their cleanness, while the Galileans ordinarily were not aware of this, and, therefore, whoever was not a haver was not regarded as reliable for this matter. But there were people who prepared these items for the Temple as well and brought them to Jerusalem through the Land of the Cutheans.
  • [155] See H. Graetz, 2:749-752 n. 19.
  • [156] Genesis Rabbah 10:84.
  • [157] Rabbi Eliezer repeats his opinion in m. Hallah 2:8. Similarly, Rabbi Ilai cites in his name that they would give terumah from the clean for the unclean, even from wet produce (t. Terumah 3:18).
  • [158] Thus in MS Vienna; this was distorted in MS Erfurt. It refers to “threshing-floors” in the plural and similarly in Melekhet Shelomo on m. Terumah 2:1: In the threshing-floors of Kefar Signah.
  • [159] See m. Hagigah 3:8.
  • [160] MS Erfurt has in the Tosefta tanur (sing.), but MS Vienna has tanurim (pl.).
  • [161] F. Rosenthal, in Sefer Yovel le-David Tzvi Hoffmann (Berlin, 1914), 367.
  • [162] t. Miqwaot 6:2.
  • [163] t. Makhshirin 2:5.
  • [164] t. Kilayim 1:4; j. Kilayim 1:24d.
  • [165] See J. N. Epstein, “Mi-Dikdukei Yerushalmi,” Tarbiz 5 (1934): 269-270.
  • [166] The Babylonian Talmud also includes the poor of Kefar Hananiah; this was written only as a slip of the tongue from other places in which Kefar Hananiah is mentioned together with Kefar Shihin (b. Shabbat 120b; b. Bava Metzia 74a), for Kefar Hananiah is much farther than the distance of two “Sabbath bounds” from Rumah, and it was not possible to go from Kefar Hananiah to Rumah on the Sabbath: see S. Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-Fshutah: Moed, 361.
  • [167] t. Eruvin 3 (4):17; j. Eruvin 4:22a; b. Eruvin 50b.
  • [168] War 3:233.
  • [169] Regarding the identification of Shihin, see Lieberman, loc. cit., 360-361, following those who preceded him; see also the critical comments by Ze’ev Safrai, Pirqei Galil, 69-71.
  • [170] See S. Klein, Eretz ha-Galil, 32.
  • [171] t. Ahilot 16:13; j. Pesahim 1:26c; b. Pesahim 9a; b. Avodah Zarah 42a.
  • [172] Thus in the version of MS Vienna and in the Rishonim, and not Rimon, as in our text. It is in the bounds of Tiberias; see the narrative also in t. Miqwaot 6:2.
  • [173] See Sifrei Deuteronomy 327:425-426.
  • [174] t. Shabbat 13 (14):9; j. Shabbat 16:15d; b. Yoma 8:5b; j. Nedarim 4:38d; b. Shabbat 121a; Deuteronomy Rabbah, Lieberman ed., p. 20.
  • [175] Judah and Hillel were the sons of Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh. See above and note 91.
  • [176] A bench upon which merchandise is sold.
  • [177] t. Moed Katan 2:15; j. Pesahim 4:30d; b. Pesahim 51a.
  • [178] See note 177.
  • [179] See note 177.
  • [180] t. Shabbat 7 (8):17; Semahot 8:4, 150. The addition appears only in Semahot. See Maimon ed., Sefer Yihusei Tannaim wa-Amoraim (Jerusalem, 1963), 153 and n. 172a.
  • [181] This is Beit Anat. See the article mentioned in note 91 above.
  • [182] t. Ahilot 16:13.
  • [183] Regarding sitting on benches on the Sabbath, it was stated explicitly (t. Moed Katan 2:14) that they were accustomed to be stringent until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that it was permitted.
  • [184] t. Pesahim 2(1):15; j. Avodah Zarah 1:40a; b. Eruvin 64b.
  • [185] t. Terumot 2:13.
  • [186] See my articles cited in notes 17 and 18 above.
  • [187] See t. Megillah 2(3):18 and parallels. Matters connected with the synagogue are not mentioned in the first chapters of Tractate Berakhot, which deal with matters relating to prayer, but rather in the last two chapters of Tractate Megillah, which deal with the reading of the Torah. See S. Safrai, “Gathering in the Synagogues on Festivals, Sabbaths and Weekdays in Ancient Synagogues in Israel,” in Ancient Synagogues in Israel Third-Seventh Century C.E.; Proceedings of Symposium, University of Haifa, May 1987., (ed. Rachel Hachlili; British Archaeological Reports International Series 499; Oxford: 1989), 7-15.
  • [188] Matt. 4:23 and 9:35; Mark 1:21, 39 and 6:1; Luke 4:15, 16, 31; 6:6 and 13:10; John 6:59.
  • [189] Mark 1:21 and 6:1; Luke 4:21; John 6:59. See the references in the preceding note.
  • [190] Luke 4:16-17.
  • [191] The earliest testimony is found in the Letter of Aristeas, 304-306. Yehudit goes forth and immerses. See ibid., 14:11-15.
  • [192] m. Eduyot 5:6.
  • [193] Mark 7:15-20; Matt. 15:17-20.
  • [194] Mark 7:1; cf. Matt. 9:1; Luke 11:37.
  • [195] Mark 7:20.
  • [196] m. Betzah 2:3; m. Ahilot 5:5, et al.
  • [197] Luke 1:59 and 2:21.
  • [198] Matt. 12:1; Luke 14:2-6 and 13:11-16; John 7:23.
  • [199] A general survey is provided by J. N. Epstein, Mevo’ot le-Sifrut ha-Tanna’im (“Introductions to the Literature of the Tannaim”; Jerusalem, 1957), 280-281; S. Safrai, “Religion in Everyday Life” in The Jewish People in the First Century (CRINT I.2; Assen, 1976), 804-807.
  • [200] Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31. The name is connected to the narrative of the crucifixion, and it is possible that the appellation existed only in Jerusalem.
  • [201] The name is also to be found in Josephus, Antiq. 16:163.
  • [202] Luke 5:27-32; Mark 2:13-17; Matt. 9:9-13.
  • [203] Luke 6:1-5; Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28. However, in his book Jesus in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1968), 44, David Flusser argues that these Pharisees followed a stricter Halakhah on this point than the Galilean practice of the disciples of Jesus.
  • [204] Mark 14:3-9; Matt. 26:6-13; John 12:1-8.
  • [205] In the parallels, the entire narrative is inserted in a different context.
  • [206] In contrast with this statement, Rabbi Eliezer emphasizes in b. Sukkah 27b that there is no tribe in Israel that has not produced a judge; in Seder Olam Rabbah 21 (Katner ed., 46a), that you have no city in the Land of Israel in which there were no prophets.
  • [207] Life 54. b. Shabbat 150a states: “Rabbi Johanan said, ‘It is permitted to supervise matters of life and death and matters of communal urgency on the Sabbath, and it is permitted to go to synagogues to deal with communal affairs on the Sabbath.’”
  • [208] j. Ta’anit 3:67a; j. Nedarim 8:40d.
  • [209] War 4:87-102. M. D. Herr, in his article “Le-Va’ayat Hilkhot Milhamah ba-Shabbat bi-Yemei Bayit Sheni u-bi-Tekufat ha-Mishnah we-ha-Talmud” (“Regarding the Problem of the Laws of War on the Sabbath in the Days of the Second Temple and in the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud”), Tarbiz 30 (1961): 255-256, holds that this statement by Johanan was only a ploy in order to escape, and that it was not an actual halakhic ruling. It is true that in the period under discussion the ruling had already been issued that it is permitted to engage in a defensive war on the Sabbath, and that a war which has been begun three days prior to the Sabbath is to be continued on the Sabbath; and wars were indeed waged on the Sabbath. Johanan as well fought on the Sabbath, and Josephus himself also fought on the Sabbath. Thus there is no justification for saying that it was not an actual halakhic ruling; some were lenient in the matter, while others were stringent. Johanan, however, indeed said this to Titus as a ploy in order to escape, as he did in fact do, but there was a basis for his statement. See the statements by J. N. Epstein and A. D. Melamed, which are cited by Herr, 256 and n. 62.
  • [210] Josephus, of course, accuses them of a desire to rob.
  • [211] See also Josephus’ comments at the beginning of ch. 16, ibid. Regarding the law and practice of giving ma’aser to the priests, see m. Yevamot 6:1-2; b. Ketuvot 26a; b. Bava Batra 61b; b. Hullin 131b; t. Peah 4:5, et al.
  • [212] Joel 1:14; Isa. 58:3.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And whose is that?”

“It belongs to those who support orphans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud contains the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Flusser’s Response

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

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

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

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

Robert L. Lindsey’s Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 to Luke 23:31: A Survey of the Connecting Jewish Tradition

“For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31; KJV) Passages such as this demonstrate the indispensability of situating the teachings of Jesus within the context of Second Temple Period history, culture, literature, and language.


Material from Ezekiel 17:24, and more often 21:3 (20:47 in the English Bible) has often been cited as the source of Jesus’ saying in Luke 23:31, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?“ Other commentators have questioned this assumption. If the material was borrowed from Ezekiel, however, was it borrowed directly or was it sifted through hundreds of years of usage, only to find its way into the mouth of Jesus?

When addressing these questions, it becomes immediately apparent that despite the numerous interpretations offered, there has been no attempt to gather all the pertinent sources together. Nor has there been any attempt to offer anything resembling a comprehensive analysis of all the relevant material. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to amass all known possible parallels, and to discuss the impact of each on the understanding of the “green tree/dry tree” imagery from Ezekiel to Luke.

Hebrew Bible

The adjective לַח (lach) occurs less frequently in the Bible than it does in post-biblical Hebrew literature. Even-Shoshan and Brown/Driver/Briggs list only six entries for the term.[1] In Genesis 30:37, Jacob is said to have taken “fresh” (“newly picked”) shoots. Judges 16:7 and 8 records the lie of Samson, who says that “fresh bowstrings which have not been dried” לֹא חֹרָבוּ (lo choravu) would render him defenseless. A final occurrence of lach without its antonym יָבֵשׁ (yavesh) appears in Deuteronomy 34:7. Here, Moses’ strength (force, vitality) is described as undiminished despite his old age.

B/D/B add two additional references by way of emendation.[2] In concurrence with R. Kittel, they suggest that the עֵץ בְּלַחְמוֹ (etz b’lachmo) of Jeremiah 11:19 be read בְּלֵחְוֹ (b’lecho). This emendation would cause the verse to be rendered, “Let us destroy the tree while it is still alive,” as opposed to the present reading of the MT, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit.” The context is judgment, and verse 19 could easily be interpreted messianically. For these reasons, this verse could have suggested itself to Jesus as biblical background for the cryptic saying found in Luke 23:31.

A second emendation suggested by B/D/B occurs in Zephaniah 1:17, where they read וְלֵחָם (v’lecham) in place of וּלְחֻמָם (ul’chumam) which the Masoretes tell us is a hapaxlegomenon. This reading also concurs with that of Kittel, who cites the LXX, the Peshitto, and the Vulgate in support of the emendation. Thus, the passage would be rendered, “Their strength [will be poured out] like dung,” as opposed to the MT reading, “Their flesh [will be poured out] like dung.”

In addition to these references, three instances are cited where the adjective lach (green/fresh/alive) appears in contrast to its antonym yavesh (dry/barren/dead). Because of the occurrence of this same merism in post-biblical Hebrew and indeed, in Luke 23:31, these passages will receive the most extensive treatment. This is not to say that the verses cited above have no bearing on the study. In reality, it could be easily concluded that each of the aforementioned instances contain an implied merismatic statement.

For example, Jacob preferred fresh, strong shoots that were full of vitality to dry, brittle shoots that had no power to transform. Moses is pictured as remaining healthy and vigorous, able to continue functioning as Israel’s leader were it not for the sentence of God upon his life, as opposed to becoming senile, sickly, and weak, and thus unable to provide effective leadership. In the case of Samson, the strong cords would give the desired effect, whereas the dried cords could not. Therefore, at the least, these texts support the conclusion that the lach (green, strong, effective, vital) contains a quality much preferred over its counterpart. For closer verbal parallels, however, the remaining three instances, where both terms occur, must be considered.

The first instance where such terminology appears is in the passage which delineates the special restrictions governing the behavior of the Nazirite. Numbers 6:3 states that the Nazirite is to eat no grapes, fresh or dried. Numbers 6:4 continues, “All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.” If verse 4 is any indication, the fresh/dry terminology is employed meristically with the intended meaning, “…grapes in any form whatsoever….”

With Genesis 30:37, Judges 16:7 and 8, and Deuteronomy 34:7, the problem is terminology. The merismus is simply not explicit; there is no exact verbal parallel with Luke 23:31. In the restrictions on the Nazirite, however, the problem is context. The adjectives here are entirely descriptive; there is no judgment made on the worth or desirability of the “green” over and above the “dry.” In addition, the context is legal, whereas the logion of Luke 23:31 is prophetic (apocalyptic, possibly even judgment). Nevertheless, the descriptive categories created by this verse are seized upon by later rabbinic authorities in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and Sifra (see below).

The final two occurrences of the word lach in the Hebrew Bible are found in the book of Ezekiel. Only in Ezekiel does every element of the equation appear: it is used in tandem with its antonym yavesh, the usage makes clear that the “green” is decidedly preferred over the “dry,” and the context is overtly prophetic (including the specific elements of apocalypse and judgment).

The first passage occurs in Ezekiel 17. Here the prophet gives what is called in verse 2 a “riddle” (chidah) and a “parable” (mashal). What follows, according to commentators, is an allegorical account of the deposing and exile of Jehoiachin (the rightful king) and the coronation of Zedekiah (who, though of Davidic descent was not legally entitled to the throne). All this was done by the oppressing foreign power personified by King Nebuchadnezzar.[3]

It is not difficult to understand how someone like Jesus who had an affinity toward parabolic expression might have viewed the events chronicled in 2 Kings 24:10-25:18 as analogous to the recent events of his own life. He had been taken from his position of Davidic Shepherd by the oppressing power (Rome) in deference to an illegitimate Sadducean leadership which would eventually take the nation down the road of rebellion. The end result of both the ancient event and the scenario of Jesus’ day would be the same: destruction of the temple and destruction of the people. If Luke was writing after the destruction of 70 C.E. (which is by no means assured), he may have perceived this parallel even more clearly than Jesus did.

The resolution of the parable in Ezekiel 17 takes place in verses 22 through 24. There, God says that he himself will take charge of the situation and right the inequities. The symbolism of trees representing earthly rulers is maintained in this section as well. “And all the trees of the field [all the inhabitants of the earth] will know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish” (Ezek. 17:24).

It is apparent that the result of God’s judgment here is less than an exact parallel to Luke 23:31. Here, the green tree is brought down in judgment, which might be construed as roughly parallel to the fate of the green tree in Luke. The dry tree, however, is exalted in Ezekiel’s context, whereas in Luke it seems to be judged even more harshly. Yet the terminology remains parallel, and the exaltation-humiliation theme is co-opted elsewhere in Luke, who reports Jesus as saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled [brought low], and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11 and 18:14; this statement, in turn had already been formulated as early as Hillel, cf. b. Eruvin 13b; Leviticus Rabbah 1:5, etc.), probably on the basis of this and similar biblical texts.

It should be noted that the passage is judgmental-apocalyptic in context and that 17:22 could easily be interpreted messianically[4] (cf. Matthew 1:11, where Jesus is said to be a direct descendant of Jehoiachin himself). These elements, along with the fact that the material is parabolic, are all indicative of a passage to which a personality like Jesus would be strongly attracted.

A final passage to be discussed from the Hebrew Bible is Ezekiel 21:3 (English 20:47), “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it will devour every green tree in you and every dry tree.” In all the passages discussed above, there were minor disjunctive elements that rendered them imperfect parallels to Luke 23:31. In Ezekiel 21:3, however, all the requisite elements are in place. The passage is at the same time prophetic judgment, apocalyptic, and parable (cf. vs. 5, m’mashel m’shalim). Because of the presence of these elements, this text appears to be the biblical locus classicus for Jesus’ logion.

As further evidence in support of this conclusion, the lach/yavesh terminology is here an explicit merism. That this is the intended meaning is evident from statements within the “parable” itself. The judgment will scorch “all faces” (vs. 3) and the sword will go out “against all flesh” (vs. 9b). Indeed, in verses 8 and 9a, Ezekiel seems to use a parallel merism that would render the meaning of the parabolic etz lach/etz yavesh perfectly intelligible. In both places the prophet states, “…and I will cut off from you righteous and wicked.” These statements directly follow Ezekiel’s complaint about the enigmatic nature of verses 1-4, “Ah, Lord God! they are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories (m’mashel m’shalim)?’” In this position, the responses by God in verses 8 and 9a appear to function as the interpretation of the parable (cf. Isa. 5:7; Matt. 13:18; Genesis Rabbah 8:9; Leviticus Rabbah 4:6; and Pesikta d’Rav Kahana IV, beginning, as prominent examples of similar parable-interpretation structure). This is indeed the way much of Rabbinic Literature has understood this text (see below), and quite possibly the way Jesus understood it as well.

In Ezekiel 17:24 the disjunctive element was that the dry wood would not only escape the judgment to come, but would actually benefit from the process. This fact prevented its establishment as a bona fide parallel to Luke 23:31. Nevertheless, like numerous other passages, it could be considered to lend general background to Jesus’ logion.

Such a roadblock does not exist in Ezekiel 21:3. Here, the dry tree is included in the description of the coming catastrophic judgment. In addition, this text specifies the agent of judgment: fire. This does not mean that the fire must be interpreted literally, however, as it is only one of many symbols within the larger context of the parable. Indeed, fire often functions as an appropriate symbol for the wrath of God unleashed in the form of a military invasion. On the other hand, sufficient attention should be paid to the word-picture being painted in this text, and the dynamic relationships shared by its various symbols as they occur in the real world.

For example, brush fires, and even forest fires (cf. ya’ar in vs. 1, Jgs. 15:5, and Mal. 3:19) were probably as common in ancient Israel as they are today. People would have been all too familiar with the destructive force of a fire out of control. Sometimes a healthy, well-established tree could withstand the ravages of the flame, whereas the brown grass, dead trees, and prunings around it stood no chance of survival. This vivid picture, or some variation thereof, may have prompted the prophet specifically to include “all the green trees” in the coming destruction.

The effect of such a statement on the mind of the average listener may well have been something like the kal-VaCHomer reasoning of the later rabbis, “If this fire consumes even the greenest and healthiest of trees, naturally those of less admirable characteristics will be devoured all the more quickly.” To then translate this reasoning into the terms of God’s explanation/clarification given in verses 8 and 9a, we would read, “If I cut off the righteous, how much more harshly will I deal with the wicked!” This again is similar to the terminology expressed in several passages in Rabbinic Literature. In this context, E. Klostermann[5] draws attention to Proverbs 11:31, which is quite similar to the sense discussed above, “If the righteous is requited on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!” In this light, it is difficult to concur with the conclusions of exegetes like Lagrange and Leaney who protest the relevance of Ezekiel 21:3 to the interpretation of Luke 23:31![6]


Two texts from Hodayot, or the “Thanksgiving Scroll” have direct bearing on the development of the usage of Ezekiel’s imagery. For this reason an entire section is devoted to these passages since: 1) chronologically they stand somewhere between Ezekiel and Luke, 2) they are not a part of Rabbinic Literature proper, and 3) this evidence has not made it into the mainstream of scholarly discussion of Luke 23:31.

Following 11:27 and 28 which speak of the coming judgment משפט (mishpat), wrath אף (af), and anger חרון (charon), lines 29 and 30 echo the vocabulary found in Ezekiel:

The torrents of Belial [used variously as a name for Satan, religious opponents, and military oppressors such as the Seleucids, Hasmoneans, or Romans, depending on the date of the text] shall reach to all sides of the world. In all their channels a consuming fire shall destroy every tree, green and barren [dry].[7]

The remainder of the hymn enlarges upon this statement, describing the effect on the “foundations of the earth… the expanse of dry land… the bases of the mountains… the roots of the rocks” (line 31).

On the surface, it would appear that the Qumranic author, whether he was the “Teacher” or not,[8] was using the words of Ezekiel[9] in a literal manner to refer to vegetation rather than to people. Lines 33 and 34, however, describe the effects on mankind, “And all those upon it [the earth] will rave and will perish amid the great misfortune.” It should be remembered that the terminology of Ezekiel 21:3 is meristic[10] : although it uses the language of the plant world, it intends to be understood as referring to the entire world at large. The same is true with regard to the words of the Qumranic author, who employs the same parable-interpretation structure Ezekiel himself employed. Thus, both the biblical and the post-biblical author explain in their interpretations of their “parables” that the coming apocalypse[11] will leave no thing and no one untouched.[12]

Looking backward to Ezekiel and forward to Luke, this text shares the same terminology, prophetic context, and judgmental/apocalyptic outlook. If a less-than-literal interpretation of the phrase “torrents of Belial” is accepted, the Ezekielian, Qumranic, and Lukan texts share a third common element: historical context. In each of these texts, the oppression of the ruling power culminates in the all-inclusive destruction of the oppressed.

A second relevant passage occurs in column 16. Although fragmentary, the context again appears to be that of judgment. The words of the author are of divine origin and will be like rain for those who thirst for the truth, but will bring the destruction of fire upon those who do not receive them (lines 12-16; these same dynamics are, by the way, present in John the Baptist’s description of the acts of the Messiah in Matt. 3:11-12 and Luke 3:16-17).[13] Rather than the blessing of a steady rain, the waters are here transformed into a flood (line 18), which in turn takes on the destructive force of fire (line 20). In the midst of this description, the author states:

[(My instruction) shall be like the waters of the Flood to every tree], both the green and the barren [dry]; to every beast and bird [they shall be an abyss. The trees will sink like] lead in the mighty waters, fire [shall burn among them] and they shall be dried up (16:18-20).[14]

Although the text of this passage is defective and thus open to a variety of interpretations, it should be noted that the same basic elements occur here which were observed in 11:27-34.

Rabbinic Literature

In the past, rabbinic parallels have received more attention than the evidence from Qumran. Nevertheless, no source consulted contained all of the relevant material, even Strack and Billerbeck, whose critics often claim that they give too much material. For this reason, all known passages will be cited and discussed that might be relevant to the interpretation of the words of Luke 23:31. The reader can then determine which texts bring clarification to the issue and which do not.

In the earliest recorded strata of rabbinic materials that have been preserved, namely the Mishnah and the Tosefta, the couplet lach/yavesh enjoys a surprisingly large amount of usage[15] The problem in both corpora, however, is context. Given the primarily legal orientation of the Mishnah and the Tosefta, it is not surprising that the terminology is confined to legal categories. The words are employed for one of two reasons: 1) to categorize produce as being either dried or fresh for the purposes of sale (which would affect the weight) or separation of the tithe; and 2) to categorize things that can convey cleanness, uncleanness, and holiness. Unfortunately, none of the prophetic, metaphorical, and parabolic elements contained in the texts previously discussed are present.

In the next rabbinic stratum, Tanaitic Midrash, the usage is identical to that observed in the Mishnah and the Tosefta. All the citations in this category appear in Sifra, the halachic midrash on the book of Leviticus.[16]

The usage of the couplet as legal terminology is, in itself, an interesting development. The only other text that contains similar usage is Numbers 6:3. Even here, however, there are apparent differences. The biblical text is only concerned to outlaw grapes in any form. It exhibits no interest in the application of this differentiation to any other produce, nor is it interested in setting a precedent by which to determine whether various things convey cleanness, uncleanness, or holiness. All such expansions result from later rabbinic application of the terms lach and yavesh.

Despite these differences, however, the sheer amount of use these terms receive in halachic literature suggests that the lach/yavesh terminology had become quite common in Israel by the classical rabbinic period. In surveying the parallels which occur in Haggadic Midrash (which lies outside the influence of legal texts such as Num. 6:3), it will be seen that this is very much the case. With regard to the usage to which the evidence of Qumran bears witness, however, it remains likely that Ezekiel is to thank for the popularization of the terminology.

No exegesis on Ezekiel 21 has survived from the period of the Haggadic Midrashim. Ezekiel 17:24, however, is interpreted in a number of texts as referring to God’s miraculous healing of Sarah’s barrenness (Genesis Rabbah 53:1). Tanchuma VaYira adds that with the enlivening of Sarah (the dry/barren tree) comes the strickening of the wife of Abimelek (the green/fruitful tree). Buber’s text of the Tanchuma contains this interpretation along with others (VaYira 53a). The figure of judgment on the green tree and exaltation of the dry tree is also said to refer to Nebuchadnezzar and the three Hebrew children, to Belshazzar and Daniel, and to Pharoah and Abraham. Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 52 generalizes by interpreting the phrase, “trees of the field,” to refer to the nations of the world who do not have a proper relationship to God. These will be dried up, whereas the faithful Sarah’s breasts will be made to flourish.

More germane to the present study is a group of passages from the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash which contain conceptual, contextual, and/or historical parallels, rather than exegesis of the related texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first appears in b. Moed Katan 25b:

Said R. Ashi to Bar-Kippok, What would you say on such a day [about me on the day of my death]? He responded thus:
If a flame among the Cedars fall
What avails the lichen on the wall?
If Leviathan by hook be hauled to land,
What hope have fishes of a shallow strand?
If fish in rushing stream by hook be caught
What death may in marshy ponds be wrought!

Said Bar Abin to him:

[God] forfend that I should talk of “hook” or “flame” in connection with the righteous. Then what would you say? I would say:
Weep ye for the mourners
Not for what is lost:
He found him rest;
‘Tis we [who] are left distressed.[17]

A second example of this kind of thought from the Babylonian Talmud may be seen in a passage from Sanhedrin 93a:

Because they have committed villainy in Israel and have committed adultery with neighbors’ wives, etc. What did they do? They went to Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter: Ahab said to her, “Thus saith God, ‘Give thyself unto Zedekiah,’” whilst Zedekiah said to her, “Thus saith God, ‘Surrender to Ahab.’” So she went and told her father, who said to her, “The God of these hates unchastity: when they [again] approach thee, send them to me.” So when they came to her, she referred them to him. “Who told this to you?” asked he of them. “The Holy One, blessed be He,” replied they. “But I have enquired of Hanniah, Mishael and Azariah, who informed me that it is forbidden.” They answered, “We too are prophets, just as he [sic]: to him [sic] He did not say it, but to us.” “Then I desire that ye be tested, just as Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were,” he retorted. “But they are three and we are only two,” they protested. “Then choose whom ye wish to accompany you,” said he. “Joshua the High Priest,” they answered, thinking, “Let Joshua be brought, for his merit is great, that he may protect us.” So he was brought, and they were all thrown [into the furnace]. They were burned, but as to Joshua the High Priest, only his garments were singed, for it is said, And he shewed me Joshua the High Priest standing before the angel of the Lord; and it is written, And the Lord said unto Satan, the Lord rebuke thee, O Satan, etc.. [Thus] said he to him, “I know that thou art righteous, but why should the fire have affected thee even slightly; Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were not affected at all.” “They were three,” said he, “but I am only one.” “But,” he remonstrated, “Abraham [too] was only one.” “No wicked were with him, so the fire was not empowered [to do any harm]; but here, I had wicked men with me, so the fire was enabled [to do its work],” he rejoined. Thus people say, “If there are two dry billets and one wet one, the former burn the latter.”

An incident recorded in Genesis Rabbah 65:22 is of at least equal importance to this study due to the presence of striking historical and conceptual parallels:

Jakum of Zeroroth[18] was the nephew of R. Jose b. Jo’ezer of Zeredah. Riding on a horse he went before the beam[19] on which he [R. Jose] was to be hanged,[20] and taunted him: “See the horse which my master has let me ride, and the horse upon which your master has made you ride.” “If it is so with those who anger Him how much more with those who do His will,” he replied. “Has then any man done His will more than thou?” he jeered. “If it is thus with those who do His will, how much more with those who anger Him,” he retorted.[21]

Another account of this incident is found in Midrash Tehillim (the midrash to the Psalms) 11:7. It is largely parallel to the passage above, but it is here quoted in full for the purpose of exposing the dissimilarities between the two accounts. There seems to be sufficient divergence between the two accounts to militate against interdependence. Instead, it is likely that both passages have their origin in a common oral tradition, which would at the same time account for the popularity of the pericope and for the minor differences between the two accounts.

The upright shall behold his face [Ps. 11:7]. The Sages say that during a time of religious persecution a decree was issued for the hanging of Jose ben Joezer. Jakum of Serorot, the nephew of Jose ben Joezer of Seredah, rode by on a horse, as Jose ben Joezer, bearing the beam for the gallows, was going forth to be hanged. Jakum said: “Look at the horse that my master gives me to ride, and look at the horse thy Master gives thee to ride.” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is given to such as thee who provoke Him, how much more shall be given to those who obey His will!” Jakum asked: “Has any man been more obedient to the will of God than thou?” Jose ben Joezer replied: “If so much is done to those who are obedient to His will, how much more shall be done to those who provoke Him!”[22]

The victim of the story, Jose ben Joezer, had become something of a folk hero. He was among the founders and leaders of the Pharisaic movement, although he was a priest as well. He was a member of the Hasidim who was known for his personal piety (m. Hagigah 2:7; cf. 1 Macc. 7:12-16, which corroborates this persecution of the Hasidim by Jakum/Alcimus). Nevertheless, he was also venerated for his liberality, as witnessed by his nickname “Sharayah,” or “he who permits” (m. Eduyot 8:4; b. Pesachim 15a).[23]

Like most folk-heroes turned martyrs, his story has been preserved with pride and his words have been immortalized. Even if the account had become partly legendary, indeed, even if the proverbial words did not originate with the historical figure, eventually the legend would have taken on a reality all its own. The legend then acquired power to effect the actions and words of its hearers. In other words, the attitudes and words of the righteous martyr became paradigmatic for all of the faithful who follow after him. Further, when his words are repeated by another in a similar situation, the words would be understood by the hearers in light of the context of the original martyr.

Such would be the case with Jesus, the Pharisee, the pietist, the lenient, the one being unjustly led to crucifixion by another oppressor,[24] the one taunted by the High Priest. His purpose would be threefold: 1) to vindicate himself (i.e., although he had been condemned to death, his situation was exactly parallel to his model, the blameless Jose ben Joezer); 2) to show his death to be a part of a continuous historical tradition of “sanctification of the Name,” and thus a model for his disciples to follow; and 3) to reiterate Jose ben Joezer’s hortatory message of repentance (note that in the two accounts cited above, the result was the same: in the ultimate act of repentance and contrition for the betrayal of a fellow Jew, the betrayer went out and executed himself; cf. my forthcoming article on the death of Judas Iscariot).

Strikingly similar to this is the account of the martyrdom of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon. On his way to be executed, he upbraided his daughter (cf. “Daughters of Jerusalem,” Luke 23:28) who stood nearby weeping and beating her breast. He said:

When thou bewailest and lamentest and beatest thyself, were it not better that [earthly] fire should consume me [a fire which has to be kindled] than the fire [of hell] which needs no kindling?[25]

This folk hero was martyred around the time of Hadrian’s persecutions. Therefore, Jesus’ words and martyrdom may be understood as part of a continuum in which possibly the Moreh Tsedeq of Qumran and, surely, Jose ben Joezer set the precedent, and those like Jesus, Chanina ben Teradyon, and possibly others, followed. In each case, the historical situation is the same, and the “last words” follow a surprisingly similar theme.

A final passage occurring in midrashic literature is found in Tanna d’Be Eliyahu 14. This passage, in conjunction with the others cited in this section, demonstrates the degree to which Ezekiel’s imagery, together with the popular rabbinic logic of the kal-VaCHomer argument (and possibly the influence of Prov. 11:31) pervaded the thought of the day:

In regard to severe punishment for minor sins, the Sages said, [citing a popular proverb]: If fire seizes what is moist, what may one expect it to do to what is dry?[26]

This saying seems to be a more specific application of the proverbial expression that appears at the end of the discussion in b. Sanhedrin 93a cited above. As the bracketed words supplied by the translator suggest, various forms of this saying appear to have become proverbial. The fact that it occurs in numerous places within the rabbinic corpus further reinforces the conclusion that it had become axiomatic. In fact, it so resonated with the popular mindset that a form of it made its way into a sixth- or seventh-century piyyut by Eleazar ben Rabbi Kalir of Kiryat Sefer, which in turn found its way into the liturgy and is chanted on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, “If fire seizes the wet, then the dry cuttings will [surely] tremble [or: be swept away].”[27] Therefore, whether it originated within rabbinic circles (as suggested by “the Sages said” in Tanna d’Be Eliyahu 14) or among the common people (as suggested by the “Thus people say” of b. Sanhedrin 93a), the people who heard Jesus’ words on the way to Golgotha already had sufficient biblical and cultural context with which to understand his words with perfect clarity.


Amidst the jeers and tears accompanying his journey to Golgotha, Luke 23:31 tells us that Jesus uttered these words: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Typical of a number of commentators, one admits that “the [intent] of the passage is clearly difficult to interpret”[28] and that “the exact meaning of the saying… is probably impossible to state with exactness.”[29] Thus it comes as no surprise that no consensus of opinion is discernable among scholars, as is evident in the long list of possibilities which have been catalogued.[30] In light of this lack of consensus, it is difficult to understand why some would adopt a methodology which limits investigation to the Gospel of Luke[31] or dismiss potentially important texts as “irrelevant.”[32]
In the verses that appear prior to 23:31, commentators have recognized that all of the sayings make use of specific texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, thus creating an urgent message of apocalyptic judgment couched in traditional Hebrew terminology. Jeremiah 9:17-22 is suggested as the background for Luke 23:28, whereas Zechariah 12:10-14 is cited in relation to verse 29, and Hosea 10:8 and/or Isaiah 54:1 and 10 for verse 30.[33]

However, verse 31 is an integral part—indeed, it is the conclusion of this section, as indicated by its connection to the aforementioned verses by the conjunction ὅτι (hoti).[34] It therefore appears inconsistent and illogical to accept parallels from the Hebrew Scriptures for all the component parts while denying the background and connecting tradition of these Scriptures for the conclusion. It appears that Jesus is here intending to place himself in line with other prophets who predicted apocalyptic judgment. This he chose to accomplish by allusions to the very words of those prophets whose message he wished to emulate.

Scholars have, however, been willing to admit that the logic, or structure of verse 31 is that of kal-VaCHomer.[35] This kind of rabbinic logic is also often employed in much of the literature discussed in this study. In addition to the reasoning contained within the statement, it appears that the very sentence structure is Semitic. Neyrey mistakes the third person plural subject “they” for “imprecis[ion].”[36] In actuality, however, this seems to point to the fact that the source Luke was following at this point was Hebrew or Aramaic, since both languages use this kind of expression to form the passive.[37] Some translators have actually suggested with regard to the Greek of Luke that the third person plural verb functions in this passage as a passive.[38]

Finally, as we examine the vocabulary of Luke, who was undoubtedly a Greek-speaking Gentile, an interesting detail emerges. Despite the fact that the gospel writer usually employs the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the language of 23:31 is not borrowed from this source. In the Septuagint, the terms that correspond to the Hebrew lach and yavesh of Ezekiel 17:24 and 21:3 are χλωρὸν (chloron) and ξηρὸν (zaeron). Luke’s terminology, however, is ὑγρῷ (hugrow) and ξηρῷ (zaerow). In other words, his word for “green” is entirely different from that of the Septuagint. In addition, minor changes such as change of case (dative rather than accusative) and a different grammatical construction (prepositional phrase in Luke, and adjective-subject word-order as opposed to subject-adjective word-order in the Septuagint) are also evident.

These elements appear to provide enough reason to suggest that Luke does not have the Septuagint, or any other Greek source before him, but rather a source that has been transmitted in Hebrew or Aramaic.[39] One might even legitimately question whether Luke himself was even aware that Jesus was making a reference to Ezekiel. It would appear that, had he understood this, he would have used the language of the Septuagint in his own free translation of the logion in order to aid his readers in making the intended connection with the prophecy of Ezekiel. Whether this is true or not, we can be assured that this material derives from the earliest stratum of gospel material. Further, it is likely that this material was available to Luke alone since no parallel exists in the other gospels.


Having cited and analyzed all known material relevant to the study, it appears that there does indeed seem to be at the very least a loose connection linking all these sources. As B. Z. Wacholder has suggested, Ezekiel may have been much more influential in the Intertestamental Period than previously thought. In the present instance, his terminology is borrowed wholesale at Qumran, probably referred to implicitly in roughly the same time-period by a leading Pharisee, and likely picked up elsewhere in Rabbinic Literature. Finally, it is heard again on the lips of Jesus.

What would be the effect if this proposed connection truly exists? Before this is answered, a brief survey of the conclusions of scholarship is in order. The vast majority of commentators view Jesus’ logion as an oracle of doom pronounced either upon the Jews as a whole for their rejection of him as the Messiah,[40] or specifically upon the city of Jerusalem.[41] A minority views the coming destruction as pertaining to the Zealots alone.[42]

If the reconstruction proposed here is correct, however, a more general meaning should be sought. The words here are stylized; the phraseology is generated more by literary convention and historical precedent than by vindictiveness. Jesus is pictured here as in other places in Luke as a learned, observant Jew. As he is led to a martyr’s death, his words are couched in the terminology of righteous Jews who “sanctified the Name” by martyrdom before him.

Seen from this perspective, even the more general interpretation of Leaney[43] and Fitzmyer,[44] that Jesus is here referring to times, remains too specific. Rather, due to the generalized “all flesh” and the “righteous and the wicked” of Ezekiel 21:3, which is picked up by the Qumranites, Jose ben Joezer, “the Sages,” and the common “people,” an equally generalized interpretation such as that given by F. W. Danker in 1972 is to be preferred. He suggested that the phrase be read, “If God permits this to happen to one who is innocent, what will be the fate of the guilty?”[45] For those who insist on a more concrete frame of reference, the broader historical context might allow the guilty to be identified as the illegitimate leadership of the Sadducee-dominated court which condemned Jesus to his fate, yet remained in power long enough to provide leadership in the revolt that resulted in the sweeping away of righteous and wicked Jews alike. In any event, passages such as Luke 23:31 demonstrate the indispensability of situating the teachings of Jesus within the context of Second Temple Period history, culture, literature, and language.

  • [1] Avraham Even-Shoshan, Konkordantsiah Hadashah LaTanach (Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer, 1982), 595; Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Lafayette, Indiana: Associated, 1980), 535, hereafter referred to as B/D/B.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] This is the consensus interpretation. E.g.: W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 359-68; Timothy Polk, “Paradigms, Parables, and Mesalim: on Reading the Masal in Scripture,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 45 (1983): 580.
  • [4] So Zimmerli, 368 and Horacio Simian-Yofre, “Ezekiel 17,1-10 como enigma y parabolo,” Biblica 65 (1984): 39. Cf. also his extensive bibliography for this interpretation on the same page.
  • [5] E. Klostermann, Das Lucasevangelium (Tubingen: Mohr, 1929), 228.
  • [6] F. M.-J. Lagrange, Evangile Selon Saint Luc (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1948), 586; A. R. C. Leaney, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Luke (London: Black, 1966), 283-4.
  • [7] The translation followed here is that of Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin, 2004), 267; cf. also Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997-1998), 1:166 for the Hebrew text and 167 for an alternate English translation.
  • [8] Dale C. Allison, Jr. “The Authorship of 1QS III, 13 to IV 14,” Revue de Qumran 38 (May, 1980): 267 builds on the work of J. Jeremias, based on the use of the word ’esh.
  • [9] Sven Holm-Nielsen, Hodayot: Psalms from Qumran (Denmark: Universitetsforlaget, 1960), 72 and M. Delcor, Les Hymnes de Qumran (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1962), 132; J. Carmignac, “Les citations de l’Ancien Testament, et specialement des Poemes du Serviteur, dans les Hymnes de Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 7 (1960): 370 lists 11:29-30 as an exact parallel and 16:18-19 as a partial parallel along with 15 other instances where the Hymns are parallel with Ezekiel. On pages 362-9 and 372-80, Carmignac unintentionally demonstrates that only Isaiah (99), Jeremiah (27), Psalms (116), and Proverbs (18) exceed Ezekiel in number of allusions in Hodayot. Cf. also Joze Krasovec, “Merism-Polar Expression in Biblical Hebrew,” Biblica 64 (1983): 236.
  • [10] Zimmerli, 368; Joze Krasovec, 236; Holm-Nielsen, 72; and Yaakov Licht, Megillat HaHodayot (Jerusalem: Bialik, 1957), 87.
  • [11] Delcor, 206.
  • [12] Cf. the review by M. Delcor of G. Morawe’s Aufbau und Abgrenzung der Loblieder von Qumran: Studien zur gattungsgeschichtlichen Einordnung der Hodajoth (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1961) in Revue de Qumran 15 (Oct, 1963): 444-5; J. Carmignac, “La Notion d’Eschatologie Dans La Bible et a Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 25 (1969): 23; “Le Document de Qumran sur Melkisedeq,” 27 (Dec. 1970): 370; the review of Luigi Moraldi’s I Manoscritti di Qumran (Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese) in Revue de Qumran 30 (March, 1973): 284-5; “Qu’est-ce que L’Apocalyptic? Son emploi a Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 37 (Sept. 1979): 25, quoting J. Schreiner in support, but giving no specific citation; Jonathan A. Draper, “A Targum of Isaiah in 1QS III, 2-3,” Revue de Qumran 11.2 (March, 1983): 269, note 28, which cites CD 1:1 and 2:2 as parallels; Emile Puech, “La racine SYT-S’T en arameen et en hebreu. A propos de Sfire 1 A 24, 1QHa III, 30 et 36 (=XI, 31 et 37) et Ezechiel,” Revue de Qumran 11 (December, 1983): 374.
  • [13] Cf. Holm-Nielsen, 148, note 3; 153, note 30; and 154­-5, note 42 for this and other interpretations.
  • [14] The translation followed here is that of Vermes, 285. Cf. Martinez and Tigchelaar 1:180 for the Hebrew text and 181 for an alternate translation.
  • [15] For those interested in completeness or in Torah le-shmah (“the study of Torah for its own sake”), the pertinent references are m. Demai 2:3, 5; 6:9; Nedarim 7:1; Eduyot 5:4; Niddah 4:3; 7:1, 2; Bekhorot 6:3; Kelim 17:11; Menachot 9:5; Bava Batra 5:11; Peah 3:3; Sheviit 9:6; Shabbat 4:1; 7:4; Pesachim 2:6; Avodah Zarah 2:4; and Uktsin 1:2 (C. J. Kasovsky, Otsar Lashon HaMishnah[Jerusalem: Massada, 1958], 3:1066); t. Eduyot 2:8; Niddah 5:6; Bekorot 4:4; Kelim (Bava Metsia) 5:2; Machshirin 3:10, 11; Demai 6:8; Zevachim 9:11; Nedarim 4:3; Bava Batra 5:3; Menachot 10:7;Niddah 3:11; Pesachim 2:21 (incorrectly cited as 1:33 or 1:13 by Kasovsky); Sheviit 4:14; Mikvaot 6:9; and Uktsin 1:1 (C. J. Kasowski [sic], Otsar Lashon HaTosefta [Jerusalem: J.T.S., 1951], 4:315-6).
  • [16] Shmini 6:2, 7; Tsav 1:12; and Kedoshim 8:9 (C. J. Kasovsky, Otsar Lashon HaTanaim (Jerusalem: J.T.S., 1968), 3:1144-5).
  • [17] Quotations from the Talmud are taken from the translation of I. Epstein in The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1935, 1938). In connection with this passage, cf. his comment in 8:160, note 3; cf. also the beautiful merisms in 1 Kgs. 5:13 [English 4:33] and Mal. 3:19 [English 4:1], both of which employ language from the plant world, but neither of which is cited in Epstein’s note. All these texts underscore the popularity of such language in the agriculturally oriented societies of Israel in the periods of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament.
  • [18] It is almost certain that this Jakum of Zeroroth is the High Priest “Jakim/Jakeimos/Alkimos/Alcimus” of 1 Macc. 7:5-25; 9:54-57; 2 Macc. 14:3-26; Josephus Ant. 12:385, 387; and 20:235. He is so identified in Alexander Buchler, “Alcimus” in Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isadore Singer (New York: Ktav, 1901), 1:333; “Alcimus,” Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isaac Landman (New York: Ktav, 1969), 1:166; Abraham Schalit, “Alcimus” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, first edition (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), 1:549; second edition, eds. Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum (Jerusalem: Keter, 2007), 1:603.
  • [19] I.e., the cross-bar of the cross.
  • [20] I.e., crucified. Cf. the same synonymy at work in Gal. 3:13.
  • [21] Here the translation is taken from Midrash Rabba: Genesis Rabba, translated by H. Freedman (New York: Soncino, 1983), 2:599-600.
  • [22] The Midrash on Psalms, translated by W. G. Braude (New Haven: Yale, 1959), 1:166-7.
  • [23] Isaac Broyde, “Jose ben Joezer of Zeredah” in Jewish Encyclopedia, 7:242.
  • [24] For the purposes of this study, it does not matter whether the oppressor was Alexander Jannaeus, as suggested by Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies In the Gospels, translated by Paul P. Levertoff (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 190, who cites Ant. 13.14.2 and War 1.4.6 in support, or whether it was Bacchides, as suggested by Freedman (599) who cites 1 Macc. 7:16 as evidence.
  • [25] B. Semachot 8. Cf. Dalman, 193 for the translation.
  • [26] The translation is here taken from Tanna deBe Eliyyahu, translated by W. G. Braude and I. J. Kapstein (Philadelphia: J.P.S., 1981), 187.
  • [27] Original translation from the text of M. Ish-Shalom, Seder Eliyahu Rabba VeSeder Eliyahu Zuta (Jerusalem: Vahrman, 1969), 65, note 50.
  • [28] Jerome H. Neyrey, “Jesus’ Address to the Women of Jerusalem—A Prophetic Judgment Oracle,” New Testament Studies 29 (January, 1983): 74.
  • [29] Ibid., 78.
  • [30] Ibid., 78-9; J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985), 1496, 1498; A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke(I.C.C.; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1922), 529-30; F. W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age (St. Louis: Clayton, 1972), 237; E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel According to Luke (Cambridge: University, 1965), 201; and Leaney, 283-4.
  • [31] Neyrey, 74.
  • [32] Leaney, 283-4; Lagrange, 586.
  • [33] Cf. Neyrey, 74, 77, and 84, notes 7 and 8 for a brief survey.
  • [34] J. Reiling and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Luke (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 729.
  • [35] Neyrey, 79; Fitzmyer, 1498.
  • [36] Neyrey, 78.
  • [37] R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 37, 115-6; M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 126-7; and S. G. F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (London: S.P.C.K., 1957), 207, note 4.
  • [38] Reiling and Swellengrebel, 729.
  • [39] Mark G. Schneider, Das Evangelium nach Lukas (Gutersloh/Wurzburg: Mohn/Echter, 1977), 2:436.
  • [40] E.g., Plummer, 529.
  • [41] E.g., Fitzmyer, 1498; Neyrey, 74.
  • [42] E.g., Brandon, 102-3, 198-9, 207; Tinsley, 201.
  • [43] Leaney, 283-4.
  • [44] Fitzmyer, 1498.
  • [45] Danker, 237; cf. also Plummer, 529-30.

Sunshine For Everybody

Song of Songs Zuta is a rabbinic commentary on the Song of Songs. It may be characterized as exegetical and haggadic. In contrast to the better known Song of Songs Rabbah, Song of Songs Zuta is shorter in length. The words rabbah (great) and zuta (small) imply this contrast.

The learned Jew who compiled Song Zuta wrote his commentary entirely in Hebrew. He did not inform his readers when and where he worked. Solomon Schechter, the first modern, critically-trained scholar to publish an edited transcription of this text, suggested that it had been written in the 10th century C.E.[1] When Schechter made his transcription in the late 19th century, he was apparently unaware of a large fragment of Song Zuta that a Russian Orthodox archimandrite named Antonin had acquired from the genizah (manuscript storage chamber) of the famous Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Later this fragment passed into the possession of the Leningrad, Saltykov–Schedrin library.[2] Certain features of this fragmentary manuscript from the Cairo genizah weigh in against describing Song Zuta as a medieval work.[3]

More recently, several Israeli scholars such as G. Scholem, Z. Rabinowitz, M. Lerner, and M. Hirshman have suggested that Song Zuta was written considerably earlier than Schechter’s date, probably in the 3rd century C.E.[4] In my opinion, Song Zuta was most likely written in Israel between 300 and 600 C.E.[5] The contents of the commentary include numerous tannaic traditions, exclusively tannaic names of rabbis, and seem to fit well within the context of Late Roman Antiquity and the Byzantine period.

The diverse and rich contents of Song Zuta give this little commentary a notable character. Among them are a few passages that may interest students of the synoptic Gospels. For example, consider the commentary’s opening remarks on the Song of Songs:

Rabban Gamliel said, “The Holy One composed it,” just like [Scripture] says, “The Song of Songs.” [In other words,] this song is superior to all other songs. Moreover, the Patriarchs, the righteous, the prophets, and the ministering angels sang it. To whom did they sing it? To The-One-To-Whom-Peace-Belongs. [Consider how] God constantly deals with all of his creatures. The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous. He also makes peace among his angels, thus Scripture says, “He makes peace in his high places” [Job 25:2]. Lightning shoots forth amidst the rain, and the rain does not extinguish its fire, nor does [it] scorch the rain. The expanse of the heavens [stores] water, whereas the sun, moon and stars [contain] fire. These move [through the watery expanse], and [they neither burn its water, nor does its water extinguish their fire].[6]

For the reader who is versed in the synoptic Gospels, one sentence from this passage immediately attracts attention: “The sun shines on the wicked just as [it shines] on the righteous.” This sentence resembles part of a longer sentence that the gospel writer Matthew included in his version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. According to the RSV, Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45).

Van Gogh, "Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine" oil on canvas (1890).
Van Gogh, “Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine” oil on canvas (1890).

As a sage, Jesus flourished within the broad and diverse arena of Pharisaic Judaism. He both benefited from and contributed to the achievements of Late Second Temple-period Judaism. Regarding his simple, but profound saying about God making his sun rise and rain fall, I suspect that Jesus borrowed the parallelism from an ever-expanding fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Included in that fund were pithy sayings, proverbs, exegetical traditions, as well as biblical, parabolic, fabulous and anecdotal characters and motifs. Moreover, Jesus’ words were based upon meteorological observation (as much as inspired by a humane reading of Scripture). I would not be surprised, therefore, if somebody were to call to my attention a similar maxim in ancient Greco-Roman literature. In other words, the parallelism may not have necessarily had an exclusively Jewish provenance. In Jesus’ day intense intercourse took place between the dominant Greco-Roman culture and the sub-cultures of the Jewish people. (Note, for example, the Apostle Paul who felt at ease in the dominant culture and the sub-cultures of Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Pharisaic Judaism.)

A similar explanation may be applied to Song Zuta’s version of the saying. Centuries later, its rabbinic author made a “withdrawal” from the fund of Jewish haggadic tradition. Between the end of the first century C.E. and the time when Song Zuta was composed, the fund had grown. The rabbis deposited much new material into it. They also drove some of its older material out of circulation.[7] Nevertheless, material having its origins in the Late Second Temple period remained an integral part of the fund. This assumption dovetails with the conclusions of such scholars as Geza Vermes, James Kugel and Avigdor Shinan who have done significant textual-critical research in tracing the history and development of haggadic traditions.[8]

Assuming that the haggadic fund scenario offers the most satisfying explanation, I will speculate further on two points:

  1. This rabbinic version of the saying appears in a truncated form. The Hebrew mind delights in communicating ideas in pairs. Jesus’ words contain a parallelism about the sun rising and the rain falling. In Song Zuta only the first half of the parallelism has been transmitted. Without the benefit of Matt. 5:45, one could argue only with difficulty that the saying in Song Zuta constitutes half of what was probably originally a parallelism.[9]
  2. Jesus and the writer of Song Zuta each contributed to the respective Judaisms (Pharisaic and rabbinic) of their day. Each recycled a maxim already in circulation, and by doing so, each made a distinctive contribution. The distinctiveness of each one’s contribution may be seen in the integration of the recycled saying into a new context. Jesus employed it as part of an exhortation to emulate God. By causing the sun to shine and rain to fall, God expresses good will even toward those who rail against him. The rabbinic writer used the saying in a different way. He called attention to God’s role in spreading peace among the antithetical elements of his universe. Go and marvel at God’s awe-inspiring creation, and emulate his kindness toward your adversary!
  • [1] Solomon Schechter, Agadath Shir HaShirim (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1896), 100-104.
  • [2] See Abraham J. Katsh, “The Antonin Genizah in the Saltykov–Schedrin Public Library in Leningrad” in The Leo Jung Jubilee Volume: Essays in His Honor on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday (ed. M. Kasher; New York: Jewish Center, 1962), 115-131, and Benjamin Richler, Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities, 1994), 8, 61-64.
  • [3] Zvi Rabinowitz, who edited this large Antonin fragment of Song Zuta, expressed reservations about Schechter’s late date and briefly explained his reasons for viewing Song Zuta as having been written centuries earlier (Ginze-Midrash [Israel: University of Tel Aviv, 1977], 252-253).
  • [4] Hirshman wrote, “Rabinowitz suggests in his introduction [to ch. 23 of Ginze-Midrash] that this midrash should perhaps be considered a tannaitic work, and this is also the opinion of a foremost aggadist, M. B. Lerner. This view was espoused by [Gershom] Scholem in Jewish Gnosticism [Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition], 56. I tend to agree with this view, excepting passages that seem to be later additions…” (A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity [trans. Batya Stein; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996], 148).
  • [5] This is essentially the opinion of Shmuel Safrai on the dating of Song Zuta (Private conversation, Jerusalem, April 2001). Song Zuta resembles Midrash Ruth (Ruth Rabbah) in its exegetical-haggadic character, whereas its long eschatological narrative is reminiscent of Sefer Zerubbabel. Cf. H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 344, 363.
  • [6] This translation is based on a manuscript belonging to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America: JTSA R-1681, p. 1a, lines 4-13.
  • [7] Cf. Alan Kensky, “Moses and Jesus: The Birth of the Savior,” Judaism (1992-1993), and Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: The Akedah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993).
  • [8] Cf. Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961); Avigdor Shinan, The Biblical Story as Reflected in Its Aramaic Translations (Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1993); and James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1990).
  • [9] Cf. Brad Young’s “ADDITIONAL NOTE” that he contributed to David Flusser’s study entitled “Johanan Ben Zakkai and Matthew” in his Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (ed. Brad Young; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 493. The rabbinic anecdote about Alexander of Macedon (that Young cites) includes the following exchange between a local king and Alexander: “[The king] asked Alexander, ‘Does rain fall on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’ ‘And does the sun shine on [your homeland]?’ He replied, ‘Yes!?’” (Lev. Rab. 27:1). The pairing of the “sun shining” with the “rain falling” in the king’s series of rhetorical questions strengthens the claim that this meteorological saying once circulated in the form of a parallelism. (Young cites the places in rabbinic literature where the anecdote is repeated.)

Over and Under-Familiarity with Matthew 6:11

Revised 29-Oct.-2015

Hearing words repeatedly can make them less meaningful. This warning applies to the boy who cried “Wolf!” as well as to the message of a sacred text. Overfamiliarity with a biblical passage can reduce a profound saying to a platitude. It also fosters misinterpretation.

One of the most oft-quoted passages in the New Testament is The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Christians who attend church weekly can recite it from memory. It is a prayer that many of us not only have heard, but also have said.

Matthew 6:11 is a remarkable verse from the prayer. Pause for a moment and consider, phrase by phrase, this simple entreaty: “Give us this day our daily bread!”

It opens with the imperative: “Give us!” This manner of addressing God seems rather unvarnished. I have heard parents chide a spoiled child for using similar language to demand something sweet.[1]

The verse’s middle phrase is “this day.” I assume that Jesus intended this prayer to be an early morning prayer. After repeating it, his disciples would look to God to provide for them throughout the day.[2]

The third and final phrase is “our daily bread,” which suggests the necessary amount of food that a disciple needed. Jesus taught his disciples to expect—perhaps to demand—that God would nourish and sustain them one day at a time.

For many North Americans, Western Europeans, and citizens of other prosperous regions, “Give us this day our daily bread” has little relevance. As audacious as this claim may sound, it can be verified: Go to your refrigerator and take inventory of its contents. This line of the prayer is certainly irrelevant for me, too. My pantry contains ample food for at least a week.

Unfamiliarity with Jesus’ historical and social context can further muffle the original meaning of his words. “Give us this day our daily bread” makes good sense within the rich conceptual world of Judaism’s late Second Temple period. More specifically, this imperative aimed at God belongs to the culture of what later would be called talmud-Torah (joining oneself to a sage to learn Torah from him).

Still life paining by Carl Fleischmann (1853–1936). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus gathered disciples like the early rabbis continued to do in the second century C.E. Jesus’ agenda, however, was distinctive in that it centered on the Kingdom of Heaven. His message was anchored deep in Israel’s Torah. He neither dishonored nor violated it—but in focusing on God’s kingdom, he helped expand the scope of Israel’s Torah in unexpected directions.[3]

Jesus’ demands for entering the Kingdom of Heaven were high. Among them was a readiness to leave family, property, and careers (cf. Luke 5:11, 28; 14:25-33; 18:22). After a person joined Jesus’ band of disciples, the requirements to remain at the center of God’s kingdom remained high. “Give us this day our daily bread” resonates with the priorities and values of this cultural context. Jesus expected his followers to align with God’s redemptive plans. Once committed to them, they had no reason to worry about the basics—food, clothing, and shelter. God would take care of these things.

Jesus reiterated these ideas on various occasions. Just before sending out his disciples two by two, he said:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…Go your way…Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…Whenever you enter a town and they receive you…heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:2-9)

At the conclusion of a short homily on anxiety, he exhorted his listeners:

“Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So, do not worry about tomorrow…The day’s troubles will take care of themselves.” (Matt. 6:33-34)

The things to which Jesus referred were food, water, and clothing.

Jesus did not intend these sayings to be treated as hyperbole or metaphor. He meant what he said. Our hectic lifestyles and the prosperity and materialism of modern, Western society make them, however, difficult to accept. When a sprawling food market is minutes away by foot, and fewer still by car, “Give us this day our daily bread” resists a literal interpretation. Nevertheless, despite the challenge of reordering priorities and rebuilding the structure of a lifestyle—which are typically necessary for entering the Kingdom of Heaven—tremendous liberty and privilege accrue to those who make that decision. They may confidently pursue a life of identification and association with those in acute need: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, educating the illiterate, visiting those in hospice and prison, caring for the forgotten, and healing the sick. Getting started can be done without funding from a nonprofit organization or a philanthropist’s gifts. It simply requires enough vision, tenacity, and fortitude to pray: Give me this day my daily bread!

  • [1] Note the Parable of the Spoiled Son in my article entitled “The Power of Parables,” Jerusalem Perspective 48 (Jul.-Sept. 1995): 11, and Brad Young’s Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Tulsa, OK: Gospel Research Foundation, 1989), 86-88.
  • [2] Compare Matt. 6:11 to its Lukan parallel: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Apparently, even Luke struggled with the radical implications of Jesus’ instructions to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” See David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders (eds. James Charlesworth and Loren Johns; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 72. Interestingly, when Benjamin Franklin paraphrased the Lord’s Prayer, he rendered a blend of Matt. 6:11 and Luke 11:3 as “Provide for us this day as thou has hitherto daily done.” See H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 414.
  • [3] This remark is based on the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Synoptic tradition. A different interpretation of Jesus’ attitude toward Torah emerges from John’s Gospel (cf. John 5:10; 8:17; 9:14). Regarding progressive trends within Jewish theology during the centuries of the Second Temple period, see Professor David Flusser’s important article “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489.

With All Due Respect…

The relationship between a sage and his disciple may be characterized both as that of a father to his son, and of a master to his servant. In effect, a disciple indentured himself to his teacher. Traveling with and attending to him, a disciple remained with his teacher twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. The etiquette governing the teacher-disciple relationship is a fascinating subject. In this article, Shmuel Safrai explores one aspect of that relationship: To what extent could an advanced disciple differ from the opinions of his teacher?

The teacher-disciple relationship stood at the forefront of rabbinic culture. Like two adjoining links in a strong chain, a teacher passed on to his students what he had learned from his teacher. To ensure, however, that this body of learning, otherwise known as Oral Torah, never stagnated, a teacher also passed on his own innovations.

Sage And Students by Helen Twena
Sheltered from the relentless Mideastern sun by the branches of a tree, a sage sits with his students. In the quiet shade of vineyard watchtowers or under the roofed colonnades of bustling markets, sages taught their students in open-air “classrooms.” The teacher and his students are wearing tefillin, both on their heads and upper left arms, although the arm tefillin, covered by the folds of their talliths (outer robes), are not visible. (Note that the Scripture capsules of the head tefillin are extremely small, no wider than a small postage stamp.) Ritual tassels hang freely from the talliths’ corners. Typical of first-century Jewish preferences, their hair is short, and their beards are trimmed. Illustration: Helen Twena.

Sometimes a teacher’s innovations departed from or even contradicted that which his teacher had taught. Rabbinic culture permitted such moments, but they were governed by a strong sense of etiquette. An innovator always showed the utmost respect for his teacher. He could not correct his teacher in public on a mistaken point due to a lapse in his teacher’s memory (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 64b). Nor could he teach near the same place where, at the same time, his teacher was teaching (Leviticus Rabbah 20:6-7). He could, however, cite his teacher’s opinion on some point of halachic or aggadic exegesis, and mention his own opinion after it.

Mishnah, Eduyot 1:12-14 records, one after the other, four cases where the disciples of Hillel abandoned the opinion of their teacher and embraced the opinion of Shammai. One of the cases reads as follows:

A man who is half slave and half free [e.g., set free by one of his two owners] works one day for his master and one day for himself. This is the ruling of the School of Hillel. The School of Shammai said to them: You have done well by the master, but not by the half-slave—he cannot marry a slave woman nor can he marry a free woman. Is he supposed to remain unmarried all his life? Was not the world created precisely for fruition and increase? For it is written: “He did not create it [the world] to be a waste; he formed it to be inhabited [Isa. 45:18].” Therefore, for the general good, the master of such a slave is to be forced to set him free, and the slave will give him a promissory note for half his value. The School of Hillel changed their opinion and began to teach according to the School of Shammai’s ruling.

In this halachic discussion concerning the legal status of a slave who has gained partial freedom, Hillel’s opinion is cited first. Although preserving the opinion of their respected teacher, Hillel’s School, or in other words, his students, opted for Shammai’s opinion.

Rested after a night’s sleep, Galilean villagers start their day with a Bible lesson, whereas the fishermen, who have worked their nets through the night, welcome the relaxing moment. The people have gathered at the water’s edge to greet the men and see their catches. The fishermen are tired, but others in the audience are alert and attentive as the teacher speaks. Not standing, but sitting, he teaches from a boat. Although the teacher wears tefillin on his head and arm, the fishermen do not, since the tefillin were removed for work. Illustration: Helen Twena.
Rested after a night’s sleep, Galilean villagers start their day with a Bible lesson, whereas the fishermen, who have worked their nets through the night, welcome the relaxing moment. The people have gathered at the water’s edge to greet the men and see their catches. The fishermen are tired, but others in the audience are alert and attentive as the teacher speaks. Not standing, but sitting, he teaches from a boat. Although the teacher wears tefillin on his head and arm, the fishermen do not, since the tefillin were removed for work. Illustration: Helen Twena.

The most famous example of a student departing from the views of his teacher is that of Shim’on ben Yochai.[1] In Sifre Deuteronomy 31, four cases are mentioned, also one after the other, where Shim’on ben Yochai offered exegetical opinions differing from those of his great teacher, Akiva. The four cases involve Genesis 21:9, Numbers 11:22, Ezekiel 33:24 and Zechariah 8:19. Here is what Shim’on ben Yochai said about Akiva’s opinion on Numbers 11:22, as it appears in Sifre Numbers 95:

And Moses said: “Six hundred thousand people on foot….” Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai says, “Rabbi Akiva taught one interpretation of this verse, but I teach another, and [I believe] my interpretation is more suitable than that of my teacher. He interpreted [the verse in this way]…but I interpret [it in this way]….”

In accordance with rabbinic etiquette, Shim’on ben Yochai respectfully disagreed with his teacher. First introducing Akiva, Shim’on ben Yochai explained briefly and politely that he had found a more suitable explanation for the verse. He then cited Akiva’s interpretation, and after it, he added his own.

Interestingly, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:27, 32, 34, 39 and 44 carry a similar ring to them. In a gentle and respectful way, he departed from prevailing interpretations of Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Numbers 30:3, Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 19:18 and offered his own interpretations as alternatives. Jesus’ words, preserved in Greek as ego de lego (“But I say…”), resemble Shim’on ben Yochai’s words, preserved in Hebrew as veani omer (“But I say…”).

A Jewish sage in antiquity, such as Jesus of Nazareth or Shim’on ben Yochai, belonged to a well-established and evergrowing tradition. On the one hand, a sage was obligated to show the utmost respect to his teacher, who had invested in him a trove of orally transmitted Jewish teachings; but on the other hand, he was expected to enrich further this increasing body of learning. Enriching the Oral Torah required transmitting and ensuring the preservation of what a sage had learned, while sometimes disagreeing with and adding to it. By doing so, he strengthened and kept vibrant the Jewish faith. Affirming the old, he infused it with the new.

  • [1] In rabbinic literature one story even illustrates the reverse trend: a teacher (Yehoshua, a younger contemporary of Jesus) encouraging his students to accept an innovation from another teacher (Eleazar ben Azariah). Note how the revered Yehoshua expected innovations and new insights to be brought forth every Sabbath in the house of study.

    A story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Eleazar Hasama, who were going from Yavneh to Lod and on the way paid a visit to [their teacher] Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. Rabbi Yehoshua said: “What innovation was put forward in the house of study today?”

    They said to him: “We are your pupils and we drink from your water [that is, All our learning we have acquired from you. The drinking of water refers to Torah study].”

    He said to them: “It is not possible that no innovation was put forward in the house of study. Whose Sabbath was it [i.e., Who gave the lesson]?”

    They said to him: “Eleazar ben Azariah’s.”

    He said to them: “On what Scripture did he teach?”…. (Tosefta, Sotah 7:9)

Medieval Jargon on First-century Lips

Revised: 12-Apr-2013

The following article is an attempt by the author to explain and correct an unfortunate choice of terminology early in his career. That poor choice may have influenced others as they were formulating their own ideas on ancient Jewish hermeneutics. While doing so, they tapped a rather startling source in support of their conclusions.

In 1981 I traveled to several cities in the United States and gave a talk entitled “Remez: Hinting at Scripture.”[1] As part of that talk, I said something similar to the following:

One of the basic, Jewish techniques of teaching in the time of Jesus involved the use of רֶמֶז (remez), which is the Hebrew word for “hint” or “allusion.” Jewish teachers, instead of fully quoting verses of Scripture, commonly alluded to the passages upon which their lessons were based. By using the remez technique, a teacher conveyed a great deal of information with remarkable brevity, in much the same way a poet can express complex ideas through metaphors.

The rabbis could teach in this manner because most Jews of the period—and certainly all disciples of sages—were well-versed in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The substance of an allusion sometimes was found in a passage immediately before or after the verse at which the teacher had hinted. To quote the entire passage was unnecessary since most in the audience had learned large segments of Scripture by rote. The moment a teacher made an allusion, the whole passage flashed across the mind’s eye of the biblically literate listener.

One finds numerous examples of remez in the Gospels. Many Christians, however, lack the scriptural background such a technique assumes. As a result, they run the risk of missing the subtler aspects of Jesus’ teachings.

John the Baptist used remez when he asked Jesus, “Are you the coming [one]?” (Luke 7:20; Matt 11:3). John hinted at “The Coming One” of Malachi 3:1 and Zechariah 9:9. Jesus responded in like manner: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Jesus’ answer contained hints at Isaiah 29:18, 35:5-6, 42:7 and 61:1. The allusions John and Jesus made were not solely for economy of words. The hinting constituted a sophisticated way of commenting upon Scripture….[2]

The thirteen attributes of God's mercy represented as the beard of one of the divine faces, according to The Zohar and the interpretation of Isaac Luria.
The thirteen attributes of God’s mercy represented as the beard of one of the divine faces, according to The Zohar and the interpretation of Isaac Luria.

Jesus and other Jewish Scripture exegetes of the first centuries of the Common Era made frequent allusions to Scripture. While my description of this habit was accurate, labeling it remez was shortsighted. Not anticipating the results, I bandied about the word remez for its rhetorical effect for the same reason that a preacher might speak of the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (Hesed) instead of the English “grace” or “loving-kindness.” I intended remez to convey simply the idea of an “allusion” to Scripture. If I had adhered to English vocabulary, some of the present confusion might never have arisen.[3]

I suspect that my unfortunate choice of wording may have played a role in encouraging others to zero in on this term and advance novel ideas concerning its relevance for studying the Gospels. For example, describing remez as belonging to the “four basic modes of Scripture interpretation used by the rabbis,” and then referring to these four by the acronym Pardes, one popular Bible commentator unwittingly has linked remez to a medieval system of scriptural interpretation.[4]  Irrespective of his definition for the word, labeling remez as the “r” in Pardes associated it with kabbalistic trends.[5] The earliest sages, who were known as the tannaim, did not speak of four modes of scriptural interpretation. Rather, they initially enumerated seven hermeneutical principles.

Israel’s ancient sages never included remez among their methods, modes or principles of Scripture interpretation. While they did speak about words or phrases from Scripture being a remez to various things, such as the resurrection of the dead, they employed it to mean basically “an allusion to” or “a hint of.” To label remez as a formal hermeneutical principle in the period to which the earliest sages belonged, invests the word with meaning it would carry only at a later time.

A representation of the ten Sefirot (the stages of emanation that form the realm of God's manifestation), with their corresponding angelic camps and astronomical spheres extending to earth. From a miscellany that probably originated in Italy about 1400 C.E. Cod. Hebr. Ms. 119, fol. 5v.
A representation of the ten Sefirot (the stages of emanation that form the realm of God’s manifestation), with their corresponding angelic camps and astronomical spheres extending to earth. From a miscellany that probably originated in Italy about 1400 C.E. Cod. Hebr. Ms. 119, fol. 5v.

Hillel, a contemporary of Herod the Great, compiled a list of seven hermeneutical principles.[6] A century later, Rabbi Yishmael expanded this list to thirteen,[7] and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean further expanded the list to thirty-two.[8] None of these lists includes remez, or for that matter, the other three modes of kabbalistic scriptural interpretation included in the acronym Pardespeshat, derash and sod.

The earlier sages had not employed a method of scriptural interpretation that carried the formal designation remez. A thousand years later, however, the situation changed once highly influential mystical trends began reshaping rabbinic Judaism. The late-thirteenth-century Kabbalists designated one of their distinctive mystical modes of interpretation as remez.

When collectively referring to these interpretive modes, students of the Kabbalah speak of Pardes (literally, “garden,” i.e., “the Garden of the Torah”), which is an acronym derived from the initial letter of each of the four terms (p-r-d-s).[9] The literal meanings of these four Hebrew words—peshat (simple, plain; i.e., the literal), remez (hint, allusion; i.e., the allegorical), derash (homily, sermon; i.e., the homiletic) and sod (secret; i.e., the mystical)—offer little assistance for understanding how these four modes of interpretation functioned within the kabbalistic system. According to the late Professor Gershom Scholem, pioneer researcher in the field of Kabbalah, Moses ben Shem Tov of Leon was the first-known writer to mention the acronym Pardes. He did so about 1290 in a composition entitled Sefer Pardes.[10] Moses ben Shem Tov also wrote The Zohar, which became the most influential work of the Spanish Kabbalists.[11]

The Kabbalists were mystics par excellence, and they pursued vigorously Scripture’s concealed meanings. They aspired to an elevated spiritual awareness by gaining access to concealed knowledge through scrutinizing each letter of the biblical text and through ecstatic ascents into heaven. For instance, on the basis of their distinctive beliefs, they probed the creation of the world; the ascent to and passage through the seven palaces in the uppermost of the firmaments; the contents of each of the seven palaces; the measurements and secret names of the body parts of the Creator; and the names of angels and of God. Their longing for esoteric knowledge may be traced back in part to earlier Gnostic speculations. Such speculations left their imprints on the Kabbalah.[12]

The Tetragrammaton written magically, with each letter containing several radiating circles of light ("eyes"). From Moses Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim (Cracow, 1592).
The Tetragrammaton written magically, with each letter containing several radiating circles of light (“eyes”). From Moses Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim (Cracow, 1592).

Jesus and other personalities of the New Testament made manifold allusions to Scripture. In Hebrew, the word for “allusion” or “hint” is remez. From my reading of early rabbinic texts, to describe remez as a mode of Scripture interpretation or a hermeneutical principle runs the risk of inaccurately representing the language of the sages. To assign remez a place among first-century hermeneutical principles while including it as one of the four components of Pardes constitutes a glaring anachronism. The acronym Pardes belongs exclusively to the domain of the Kabbalah.

David Stern Responds

David Bivin believes that I have erred by using the “PaRDeS method” of Bible interpretation, which was developed in the Middle Ages, to deal with biblical texts written long before, and that by so doing I have unwittingly encouraged people to pursue kabbala.

I see things differently, but first let me indicate points on which we agree. First, as Bivin acknowledges in footnote 4, we agree that kabbala is a form of mysticism based on Gnostic and other occult and nonbiblical importations into Judaism and thus to be given no credibility. Second, I have no reason to doubt Gershom Scholem’s conclusion that the acronym PaRDeS, used as a mnemonic for remembering the words p’shat, remez, drash and sod, dates from the Middle Ages, and that it was the kabbalists who developed PaRDeS into an exegetical method.

But even though these four ways of dealing with a text were systematized by the kabbalists, they existed long before. A computer search of early rabbinic literature—Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifre and the like, a good deal of which dates from the first century and earlier—yielded dozens of examples of the rabbis pointing out a remez in just the senses in which Bivin and I have used the term. Therefore I think he is wrong in writing that “Israel’s ancient sages never included remez among their methods, modes or principles of Scripture interpretation.” In fact, his next sentence proves the opposite. And the following sentence implies I said something I didn’t say: I did not declare remez a “formal hermeneutical principle”; what I do say is that the New Testament writers, like their contemporaries among the rabbis, made use of p’shat, drash(or midrash), remez and sod. Likewise, I have never said that when the New Testament was written PaRDeS constituted a hermeneutical system like the principles of Hillel, Ishmael and Eleazar ben Yose the Galilean.

More relevant for my approach is what has happened to PaRDeS in more recent times: it has become part of the standard equipment of Jewish biblical interpretation without having kabbalistic overtones. Any student at a yeshiva will encounter the four terms of PaRDeS in the normal pursuit of his studies, even in institutions which eschew kabbala. In these settings “PaRDeS” is only a mnemonic; and its meaning, “garden,” is used only to help remember the acronym.

Clearly the New Testament writers employed ways of dealing with Tanakh texts in addition to the historical-grammatical-linguistic method recognized by modern scholars (which is approximately what is meant by the p’shat). My note to Mattityahu (Matthew) 2:15 on pages 11-14 of the Jewish New Testament Commentary points out that when the author writes that Yeshua’s leaving Egypt to return to the Land of Israel “fulfilled” the citation from Scripture, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1), Mattityahu was making use of a remez. The p’shat of Hosea 11:1 is that “my son” refers to the people of Israel and alludes to Exodus 4:22; the prophet is not speaking about Yeshua at all. It is Mattityahu, not Hosea, who operates on the prophet’s text and sees in it a hint of Yeshua. There needs to be a word for talking about such things. The word is remez.

I don’t think David Bivin needs to apologize for using this word. And he certainly shouldn’t feel guilty of having promoted kabbala (I don’t). Moreover, I do not grant the kabbalists exclusive possession of the “garden” (PaRDeS) any more than I grant the New Agers possession of the rainbow, which God set in the sky as a sign for Noah—what right do the New Agers have to take it away from Bible-believers and claim it for themselves? Likewise, many biblical feasts have pagan historical origins. There is no shame in using an acronym developed by kabbalists to remember four ways of interpreting texts which have been used widely since before the time of Yeshua. I think this whole matter is a non-problem. My only caveat here would be that we ought not to stop with PaRDeS or make it an exclusive system—this inhibits thought instead of promoting it. Rather, we should consider all relevant ways to understand God’s word to humanity, including and going beyond PaRDeS.

Let me close by thanking David Bivin, whom I have known since 1974, when I met him on my first visit to Israel, for offering me the opportunity to respond to his article where it appears.

Born in Los Angeles in 1935, David H. Stern earned a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, was a professor at UCLA, mountain-climber, co-author of a book on surfing, and owner of health-food stores. In 1975 he received a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. In 1979 he and his family “made aliyah” (immigrated to Israel). Stern’s New Testament translation, Jewish New Testament, is widely circulated, and his 930-page commentary on this translation, Jewish New Testament Commentary, is one of several books he has written.

Rev. John Fieldsend Responds

I take the point of David Bivin’s article, and fundamentally I would agree with much of his thesis. However I believe that in his criticism of my article ‘Pardes’ in our Journal of the same name he has not fully noted the context of the point he is seeking to refute. The basic thesis of my article was laid out in the following section:

The “inter-testamental period”…were rich and fertile in the development of Jewish thinking, writing and understanding…Their importance does not just lie in what they tell us regarding the history of the period, important as that is; their importance lies rather in helping us understand the nature of the development of thinking and writing in that period. For the thought forms of the New Testament writers would have been developed in the literary milieu of that period. (“Hermeneutics and the Significance of the Acronym ‘Pardes,'” Pardes 3.1 [Feb. 1999]: 11-12)

I then went on to acknowledge that the actual detail and terminology of “Pardes” were not developed until the Middle Ages, but I argued that the detail of such methodologies are rarely developed in a vacuum, but are usually the categorisation of ideas already in common usage.

Jewish hermeneutical methods developed along certain lines, which, in the Middle Ages were categorised, using the acronym “pardes.” The fact that this acronym was not developed until the middle ages does not mean that the usage of its component methodologies is not much earlier…. We do not have to assume that the New Testament writings fall neatly into these categories. However, we shall find it helpful, in looking at some New Testament examples, to have these categories in our minds. [emphasis mine] (“Hermeneutics,” 12)

If my thesis had been as Bivin presented it, I would be the first to agree with its refutation. However I have to say that he has taken one sentence out of the conclusion of my whole article—”We have, in understanding…”—and used it to criticise my whole thesis by taking one section out of its fuller context.

  • [1]Remez: Hinting at Scripture” was one of the lectures delivered as part of a seminar that I conducted in several U.S. cities in 1981. Two years later I co-authored Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. This book contains no reference to remez. I included the “remez” lecture on one of the audio cassettes in the “Reading the Gospels Hebraically” teaching series.
  • [2] I repeated this lecture during the speaking tour, both before and after it was recorded. As I developed the presentation, I adapted the wording. Nevertheless, its essence remained identical to this quotation.
  • [3] Within two years of recording “Remez: Hinting at Scripture,” I realized the potential for confusion. In my published writings, therefore, I have never used the word remez. See, for example, my “The ‘How Much More’ Rabbinic Principle of Interpretation in the Teaching of Jesus.”
  • [4] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 11-12. I use the word “unwittingly” because elsewhere in his commentary, Stern distances himself from the Kabbalah. For example, in his comment on 1 Tim. 4:1, Stern writes: “What kinds of ‘deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ are they ‘paying attention to’?…For the moment, confining ourselves only to religions, we may note: (1) Eastern religions…(9) The occult, including astrology, parapsychology, kabbalah (the occult tradition within Judaism). Why do people turn to these substitutes for the truth…?” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, 643). Stern is not alone in attributing the four-fold kabbalistic system of interpretation—פְּשָׁט (peshat), רֶמֶז (remez), דְּרָשׁ (derash) and סוֹד (sod)—to Jesus and other sages of his time. Despite the anachronism and kabbalistic link, other Christian educators do the same. For example, John Fieldsend, director of The Centre for Biblical and Hebraic Studies, which was established by Prophetic Word Ministries Trust of Moggerhanger, England, and editor of its journal, Pardes, has described in detail the component methodologies of “Pardes”—peshat, remez, derash and sod. As part of his conclusion, he wrote: “We have, in understanding the use of PARDES, a tool that can help us read the Scriptures with something of the mind of those whom God used to write them” (“Hermeneutics and the Significance of the Acronym ‘Pardes,'” Pardes 3.1 [Feb. 1999]: 16). Only if post-talmudic Jewish mystics wrote the New Testament can I imagine this statement to be pertinent.
  • [5] Stern elsewhere has referred to remez as “a hint of a very deep truth” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 12). He also has written: “…behind Hosea’s p’shat was God’s remez to be revealed in its time and lends credibility to the ‘PaRDeS’ mode of interpretation” (p. 13). Stern has suggested that remez is behind Matt 2:15 (pp. 11-14); 2:18 (p. 14); 21:2-7 (pp. 61–62); Mark 12:29 (pp. 96-97); Luke 10:15 (p. 121); Jn. 6:70 (p. 174); Rom. 15:3-4 (p. 436); and Gal. 3:8 (p. 544). Whether discussing the words of Jesus, the words of a Gospel writer, or the words of a writer of an epistle, he refers the reader back to his note at Matt 2:15 where he originally defined remez. In the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls, one can find cases where interpreters viewed biblical passages as having been unclear at the time of their composition, but now entirely intelligible to them (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:10-12; 1 QpHab 7.4). To call this remez, however, imports a Medieval mystical hermeneutical technical term and its distinctive associations into the first century. Are inkwell and quill a word processor?
  • [6] Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 6.1, 33a; Tosefta, Sanhedrin 7:11. The seven hermeneutical principles attributed to Hillel are: 1. קל וחומר(kal vaHomer; simple and complex): inference from minor to major case (the “how much more so” principle); 2. גזירה שווה (gezerah shavah; equal commandment): two biblical commandments having a common word or phrase are subject to the same regulations and applications; 3. בנין אב מכתוב אחד (binyan av mikatuv eHad; a sweeping principle [derived] from one scriptural passage): one scripture serves as a model for the interpretation of others, so that a legal decision based on the one is valid for the others; 4. בנין אב משני כתובים  (binyan av mishne ketuvim; a sweeping principle [derived] from two scriptural passages): two scriptures having a common characteristic serve as a model for the interpretation of others, so that a legal decision based on the two is valid for the others; 5. כלל ופרט ופרט וכלל (kelal uferat uferat ukelal; general and particular, or particular and general): one scripture, general in nature, can be interpreted more precisely by means of a second scripture that is specific, or particular, in nature, and vice versa; 6. כיוצא בו במקום אחר (kayotse bo bemakom aHer; like that in another place): the interpretation of a scriptural passage by means of another passage having similar content; 7. דבר הלמד מענינו (davar halamed me’inyano; a thing that is learned from the subject): an interpretation of a scripture that is deduced from its context.
  • [7] At the beginning of Sifra. For an excellent description of Yishmael’s thirteen hermeneutical principles, see Louis Jacobs, “Hermeneutics,” Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), 8:366-372. See also, Menachem Elon, “Interpretation,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 8:1419-1422.
  • [8] Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer. For a description of Eliezer ben Yose’s hermeneutical principles, see H. L. Strack and Günter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 22-30. See also Barnet David Klien, “Baraita of 32 Rules,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 4:194-195.
  • [9] Note the similarity of Stern’s wording: “These four methods of working a text [peshat, remez, derash, sod] are remembered by the Hebrew word ‘PaRDeS,’ an acronym formed from the initials: it means ‘orchard’ or ‘garden'” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, 12).
  • [10] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3rd ed.; New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 400; idem, “Kabbalah,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 10:623.
  • [11] Idem, “Kabbalah,” 532. Moses ben Shem Tov wrote The Zohar between 1280 and 1286.
  • [12] Joseph Dan, “Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah,” in Midrash and Literature (eds. G. Hartman and S. Budick; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 135, 137. See also Louis Ginzberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 188, 190, 192-193. Note Scholem’s statement: “Their [the Kabbalists’] vocabulary and favorite similes show traces of Aggadic influence in proportions equal to those of philosophy and Gnosticism; Scripture being, of course, the strongest element of all” (Major Trends, 32).