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 Jesus and Ancient Jewish Background

Jesus' audience consisted of first century Jews, and we need to listen
with their ears in order to hear his message clearly. Jesus criticises
teachings which we find in Jewish sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Unless we recognise what he was teaching against, his emphasis and
sometimes his message is difficult to understand.
Examples include Jesus' teaching on anger, personal revenge,
the unforgivable sin, divorce, polygamy and his own divinity.


Jesus’ teaching is sometimes rather obscure, even though he was a good teacher
- this is because we’re ignorant of things his Jewish hearer’s all knew at the time
- he told stories which are memorable, but they are set in ancient Palestine
- he used apposite images, but they’re mainly from agriculture and ancient society
- he interacted with the problems and laws of everyday life – but not our daily life
- he alluded to the OT, but also to traditions in rabbinic texts and Dead Sea scrolls
- then his teaching was memorised in a fixed form very soon afterwards, when they still understood the context in which he spoke, so they rarely added explanations

So, we have to read with the mind of a 1st C Palestinian Jew, or we’ll miss things
- we won’t often misunderstand Jesus – the problem isn’t that great
- but very often we get the wrong emphasis in what Jesus is saying
- and sometimes we’ll miss or ignore some things Jesus said
- and very occasionally we’ll completely misunderstand Jesus’ teaching

For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, what is the main message?
- we are used to the legal custom of writing a will which is carried out at our death
- but that was a Roman custom which didn’t get into Jewish law till the 2nd or 3rd C
- when the Prodigal asked for his inheritance, this was normal Jewish practice
- but he was supposed to use it to run the family business, letting his father retire
- so a son who comes and asks for an early inheritance is doing a good thing
- he is offering to take on responsibilities and let his father take things easy

When we hear the parable we think he is an utter scoundrel from the start
- we miss the shock that the audience had, because they thought he was a perfect son
- he came to his father, voluntarily, and asked to take on his burden in the business
- and THEN the hearers are doubly shocked to hear he went off and squandered it
- so we don’t misunderstand the message, but we miss the emphasis and the shock

Sometimes, missing the emphasis can mean we miss the whole message
- for example, in the matter of Church Discipline
- Matt.18.15-17: "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  (16) "But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. (Deut.19.15) (17) "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
- to understand what Jesus is saying here, we have know the similarities with Dead Sea Scrolls teaching about throwing people out of their community for sin.
Damascus Document 9.16-24 says: “If a man sins against the law, and one person alone sees him, he should denounce and reproach him before the Inspector. The Inspector writes it down in case he commits that sin again in the presence of only one person who denounces him to the Inspector. If he does repeat it and is spotted by one person alone, his judgement is complete, and he is excluded from sharing the pure food. However, when there are two separate people who witness different incidents, the man is only excluded if they trustworthy, and they denounced him before the Inspector on the same day they saw him.
- in other words, two witnesses were needed, but this could be a single witness at two different incidents.
Manual of Discipline 6.1 says: “He should reproach him that same day so that he does not incur a sin for his fault.  Also, no one should raise a matter before the Congregation unless they have [already] reproved him before witnesses.


The system for the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran was this:
If you see someone sin, you should reprove him in front of others who witnessed it.
- if you were the only witness, you take him to an Inspector and denounce him.
- if someone else sees him sin again and tells the Inspector, this makes two witnesses
- then the rest of the community is told about his sin, and he is excluded from them, and especially from their communal meals.

This is almost the same as the system Jesus described to his disciples
1) You need two witnesses to condemn someone
2) They must be confronted before witnesses before telling the whole congregation
3) They are punished by excluding them from table fellowship

But there are differences, and it is these differences which are most important.
- other Jewish groups would use similar methods, but Jesus’ weren’t exactly the same
- the differences make up Jesus’ distinctive teaching; similarities are the status quo
- Jesus’s teaching doesn’t lie in what his disciples already knew, but in differences
- so, to understand Jesus’ teaching, we have to know what his disciples already knew

What are the differences?
1) Jesus doesn’t accept condemnation by two separate single witnesses.
- to emphasis this he quotes the second half of Deut.19.15.
- his listeners all knew the first half of the verse which he didn’t quote: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed”
- Qumran got round this by making a note of one sin witnessed by one person and then waiting for a second sin witnessed by a second person, but Jesus rejected this
2) The purpose of Jesus’ procedure is to maximise the opportunities for repentance
- the Dead Sea Scroll community procedure was all concerned with punishment
- they went through these stages to prove he was a sinner so they could exclude him
- Jesus’ repeated emphasis is “if he listens to you, you have won your brother”
- if he doesn’t listen to you, take him before witnesses and see “if he listens to them”
- and finally take him before the church to see “if he listens to them” and repents
- in other words, it is three stages of trying to rescue the brother, not condemn him

By failing to understand Jesus’ emphasis, we have concentrated on church discipline
- it isn’t wrong to use this as a procedure for understanding church discipline
- but we have lost the emphasis that Jesus was trying to re-assert: compassion
- the purpose of the church is not to keep itself pure, but to save sinners.

There is a related teaching where Dead Sea Scrolls get it right and we get it wrong
- it is a teaching which Jesus and Paul emphasised, but we often neglect or ignore
- at Qumran it was a very serious matter, and Jesus takes it even more seriously
- and yet we don’t notice it because we don’t know what his teaching on this means
- we avoid it in sermons, skip over it when we read it, and try not to think about it
- Here is Jesus’ neglected teaching in words which we all know so well:

- Here is Jesus’ neglected teaching in words which we all know so well:
Matthew 5:22  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, 'is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
- have you heard or preached any good sermons on this recently?

We can get an idea of what Jesus is talking about from the context
- for the next four verses Jesus is talking about conflict resolution
- he says if you remember you have something against someone, you must deal with it immediately, even if you are in the middle of performing a religious duty
- absolutely nothing is more important than repairing broken or cracked relationships
- and, to make it more urgent, he adds: if you don’t make friends quickly with those you’ve wronged they might take you to law and you’ll end up in prison

At the Dead Sea community of Qumran, conflict resolution was very important
- they were a small community which could be torn apart easily by arguments

- they based their teaching on the verse just before Jesus’ favourite verse
  (“you shall love your neighbour as yourself” Lev 19.18).
Lev. 19.17: Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour so you will not share in his guilt.
- this says that anyone who doesn’t rebuke a sinner is themselves guilty
- the reason is that you aren’t showing love if you don’t point it out to them
- the following verse (“love your neighbour as yourself”) shows the type of love
- this is not one-up-manship which pretends to be tough-love. This is real love
- this is doing what you would have wanted someone else to do for you


The Scrolls said: if someone did some wrong, you had to tell them that same day
- this was especially important if it was something wrong against you yourself
- otherwise resentment may smoulder and eventually explode at a small provocation
- if you ignore and simply bear wrongs silently, then one day the last straw will snap your back and your endurance, and you’ll explode with an angry outburst
- you’ll bring up all the small wrongs from the past, which the others has forgotten
- things you should have dealt with long ago when they were minor annoyances
- when the angry explosion happens, the hurt it creates will be very difficult to heal
- so, instead, the Qumran community said you must deal with wrongs that same day
- and if you don’t mention it, you must forget it and never bring it up again

Manual of Discipline 5.24—6.1 says: “Everyone should reproach his fellow in truth, meekness and compassionate love for the man. No-one should speak to his brother in anger or muttering, or with a stiff neck or spiteful intent and he should not detest him in their [hardened] heart. Instead, he should reproach him that same day so that he does not incur a sin for his fault.  Also, no one should raise a matter before the Congregation unless they have [already] reproved him before witnesses.


Paul agreed with this principle and summarise it in similar words in Eph.4:
- Paul tell us to grow up and honestly deal with conflict on the day it happens
Eph. 4:15, 25-26 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ…(17)  you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.  (18)  ….due to the hardening of their hearts.   …. (25) Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.  26 "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,
(the italics indicate correspondences with the Dead Sea Scrolls passage)


Of course we are British, so we don’t do this kind of thing
- we are a private people, and we don’t like to point out faults in others
- and if someone happens to do us some minor fault, we don’t beep our horns like the Italians or start a vendetta like Cicilians. We have a stiff upper lip
- we don’t offer the other cheek. We simply ignore it, and them. We snub them.
- of course they probably don’t know what they’ve done to be snubbed by us
- and we won’t ever tell them. As we get older we simply have fewer friends.
- the church shouldn’t work like that! So Paul tells Christians to grow up (Eph.4.14)

Jesus’ teaching is based on this same teaching, though he takes it much further
- at Qumran they said it was very important to rebuke someone before the day ends
- they even said you’d share their guilt if you don’t rebuke them and they sin again
- because your lack of rebuke made them feel it wasn’t serious, and so they repeated it
- Jesus agrees we are guilty for not rebuking sin, but he regards it as VERY serious
- he emphasises this by saying this neglect is a sin which should be punished in hell
- because wrongs become bitterness and seething anger, and they eventually explode

Pent up anger about a series of small wrongs can be a weapon of mass destruction
- imagine someone dropped an unopened can of  beans on a campsite bombfire
- would you remain sitting in front of that fire?  I’d find a rock to hide behind!
- that’s what anger is like when it isn’t dealt with. It will eventually explode
- and it will be very difficult to heal the personal injuries which result
- that’s why Jesus regarded this as such an extremely dangerous and serious matter

Jesus didn’t condemn anger itself, when it was directed in the right way
- Jesus himself was angry in the Temple, and outside Lazarus tomb
- he wan’t saying there was something specially demonic or evil about the Aramaic word “raca” (‘idiot’) or  Greek word moros (‘moron’)
- otherwise a lot of medical doctors are going to hell, because ‘moron’ used to be a technical term for someone with an IQ of less than 50

What Jesus was condemning was presumably the same that Qumran condemned
- but Jesus was even more serious about healing relationships than they were
- he was condemning those who do not deal with conflicts immediately, so that anger explodes later, when it is inappropriate
- this results in much more harm than dealing with it immediately
- Jesus illustrated this with his two pictures: the man making his offering, and the man taken to court by an opponent – both teach one should resolve conflict quickly

So this strange saying is not teaching that “fool” is the most serious 4-letter word
- it is teaching the utmost importance of resolving conflict promptly
- and avoiding the build-up of resentment which explodes in inappropriate anger.
- is there someone you need to talk to immediately after this meeting?


Sometimes we miss something completely, like Jesus’ teaching on monogamy
- Jesus had a very strong message against polygamy, but we hardly notice it
- do you know where it is?  Why do you need to? The issue doesn’t come up much
- but Jesus spends more time teaching you should have only one wife than teaching that there is only one God or teaching the grounds for divorce.
- because in Jesus’ society, polygamy was still legal and relatively common

When Jesus was asked about divorce, he wanted to talk about marriage instead
- he says marriage should be lifelong, and you should only marry one person
- we don’t notice the teaching against polygamy, but Jews at the time would see it 
- for them, polygamy was normal, so if Jesus said nothing they’d assume he agreed
- Abraham, Judah, Gideon, Samson, David and Solomon had multiple wives
- archaeologists found a complete set of documents for a 1st C family at Masada
- in this typical middle class family, Babatha becomes someone’s second wife
- so if Jesus was against it, he needed to speak out, or they’ll assume he agreed
- just as Jesus says nothing against rape or incest or sex before marriage
- we assume he was silent because he agreed with the normal teaching against them
- silence is difficult to interpret but sometimes it’s surprising enough to be deafening

Some Jews did teach against polygamy – incl. the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls
- in the Damascus Document, one of the foundation documents of the Qumran sect
- this lists the “Sins of the Devil” (Belial) which they said other Jews were following
- ie the ways they disagree with other Jewish groups. The first they list is polygamy


The argument against polygamy in the Dead Sea Scrolls is based on Gen.1.27:
Gen.1.27: “male and female he created them” which they link with another verse:
Gen.7.9: They went into the ark, two by two, male and female”
- by a Jewish method, they merged these two verses, using one learn about the other
- because the phrase “male and female” turns up in both, and it clearly means a group of “two” going into the ark, they inferred it also meant “two” elsewhere.
- so they concluded that males and females who get married are in two’s, not threes


Other Jews expressed the same conclusion by adding a word to Gen.2.24.
- when they translated it from the Hebrew, it has an extra word. Can you spot it? :
Gen.2.24: For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and those two shall become one flesh.
- The Hebrew doesn’t have the word “two” but all ancient Jewish translations add it
- foreign Jews, who didn’t read the OT in Hebrew, agreed with this conclusion
- this reflects the fact that no Jews outside Palestine practiced polygamy
 (Roman law had a concession for Jews in Palestine, but it wasn’t needed for others)

When we look at Jesus’ teaching on marriage, we find he cites both of these verses
- he quotes Gen.1.27 used by Qumran, and Gen.2.24 used by non-Hebrew Jews
- and when he quotes Gen.2.24 he adds the word “two”, just like they did
- so he has collected the arguments used by others Jewish opponents of polygamy
- in fact Jesus even quotes the introduction to the passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls
- in the Damascus document it starts: “From the foundation of creation….”
- and Jesus says “From the beginning of creation…” when he repeats their argument
- this doesn’t mean that Jesus is quoting the Damascus Document, but he knows common Qumran teaching, and also common Jewish teaching outside Palestine
- he is siding with both of them against normal Jewish teaching inside Palestine

This doesn’t make much difference to us now, except in lonely rural areas of Utah
- but it is instructive to see Jesus siding with long-lost Jewish groups

Very occasionally we completely misunderstand Jesus and this causes big problems
- the unforgivable sin is something which has caused a lot of anguish in the past
- the idea that cursing or blaspheming God is unforgivable is not a teaching of Jesus

- it is a teaching in the Ten Commandments which Jesus agreed with, and extended
Ex. 20:7   "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

Jews at the time of Jesus interpreted this to mean that blasphemy was unforgivable
- not unforgivable forever, but during your lifetime. And you’d be punished for it
- as with other death penalties, 1st C Jews relied on God to carry out the punishment
- someone liable for a death penalty would die early, probably at about 50 years old
- and unlike all other sins, blasphemy was not forgiven on the Day of Atonement
- but if you asked for forgiveness, you would be forgiven on the day of your death
 (this was made clear by R. Ishmael a few decades after Jesus’, but was implicit)

Of course, the tragedy of cursing and rejecting God is that you reject your only hope
- if you reject the only one who can forgive sin, this is, by its nature, unforgivable
- as Hebrews says: “it is  impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify the Son of God themselves”
- they’ve thrown away the only source of forgiveness, so forgiveness is impossible
- however, all Jewish readers realised that if someone can reject their salvation by their free will, they can also repent again by their free will, and ask for forgiveness
- though forgiveness only comes with punishment at death, ie at the end of their life
- this was the current Jewish theology which Jesus referred to without changing it
- but Jesus did make a very significant extension to it which was completely new

Jesus said that cursing or blaspheming the Holy Spirit was unforgivable
- that is, he extended the Godhead to the Holy Spirit – ie the Holy Spirit is God
- the Jews knew and wrote about the Holy Spirit, but not as a person of God himself
- so Jesus was the first person to extend the Godhead to the Holy Spirit
- he didn’t yet extend the Godhead to himself (the Son of Man, walking in Palestine)
- this would come later, when he was glorified by the cross and the resurrection
- and so Hebrews extends the unforgivable sin to the positive rejection of Jesus

Therefore the unforgivable sin is the rejection of God, the only source of forgiveness
- whether this is a rejection of the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit
- the point of Jesus’ teaching was that the Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead
- but Jesus didn’t add what all Jews already believed, that it was possible to repent
- though God wouldn’t forgive till the point of death, because this was so serious


What about Jesus’ divinity? Didn’t Jesus believe that he was also part of the Trinity?
- many theologians have concluded that the Trinity is a church invention, not Jesus’
- Jesus may have said he was “one with the Father” but he also said that about us
John 17:21   that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us
- but there’s a saying about Jesus’ divinity which the church certainly didn’t invent
- because its full meaning depends on knowing a related rabbinic saying which Gentile believers wouldn’t have known

Matthew 18:19-20 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  (20) For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." 

Anyone can see that this saying makes Jesus greater than just a normal human
- he is present after his death, and potentially present in more than one place
- but one could, if one wished, still argue that Jesus is no more than a super angel


- however, 1st C Jews knew this meant more, because they knew the related saying:
 “Where-ever two sit with the words of Torah, there is my Shekhinah in their midst”
(Mishnah Avot 3.3)
- the Shekhinah was a luminous representation of the very presence of God
- it was a term Jews used when speaking about God being present somewhere
- Jesus clearly alluded to this saying, and yet substituted himself for God
- the church didn’t invent this, because they’d have to add an explanation
- for any 1st C Jew, the meaning was obvious, though succeeding generations of Christians found it increasingly difficult to understand the full implications

How long was it before the Church lost contact with its Jewish heritage like this?
- it was surprisingly fast, as we see with the most difficult problem of all: Divorce.

Divorce is the misunderstanding which has caused more heartache than any other
- generations of believers have been taught that they can only divorce for adultery

- the Pharisees asked: Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause? (Matt.19.3)
- Jesus answered: “If you divorce, except for adultery, and remarry, it is adultery”
- it sounds very clear indeed, so the church from the 2nd C onwards taught this

Of course there was a lot of agonising about this, because it seems so cruel
- no divorce for abuse? or for desertion? Must a victim just continue to suffer?


- even the Church Father Origen writing about AD 200, was puzzled by this
- he said that if a wife was trying to poison her husband, or if she deliberately killed their baby then “to endure sins of such heinousness which seem to be worse than adultery or fornication, will appear to be irrational” (Comm. on Matt. II.14.24).
- others expressed similar doubts, but nevertheless, they continued to teach it
- they couldn’t see that Jesus meant anything else, so they determined to follow him

The Jewish background to this was lost very early, partly because the Jews lost it
- the law changed and legal jargon went out of use, so everyone forgot what it meant
- in Jesus’ day there was a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce
- using this divorce, you didn’t need biblical grounds of adultery, neglect or abuse
- you could cite anything at all – even one burnt meal or one wrinkle,  ie “any cause”


They derived it from Dt.24.1: “if a man divorces his wife for a cause of indecency”
- one group of Pharisees (the Hillelites) said: “indecency” means “adultery”, but this verse also allow divorce for an unspecified “cause” – ie “any cause”
- their rivals Pharisees (the Shammaites) said: the phase “a cause of indecency” refers to only one ground for divorce – it refers to nothing except indecency
- which side did Jesus support? – Dt.24.1 allows divorce for both adultery and “any cause”, OR it refers to nothing except adultery? The latter of course!
- in fact Jesus slips the Shammaite slogan into his answer: “nothing except adultery”

Now when we re-read the question asked of Jesus, it means something different
- they are asking Jesus what he thought of the new “any cause” type of divorce
- they asked him: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for “any cause”

Isn’t it strange: as soon as you know the legal jargon, it means something else!
- but this jargon went out of use soon after Jesus, because the argument was won
- by AD 70 every divorce was for “any cause”, so they were simply called “divorce”
- Matthew includes the phrase “any cause”, though Mark doesn’t bother
- Mark was writing nearer the time when everyone was talking about it
- so Mark’s Pharisees simply ask Jesus what he thinks on the question of divorce.

It is rather like the  question: Can you legally allow a 16 year-old to drink?
- the correct answer is: Of course, otherwise they’ll die in a few days.
- when we hear that question, we mentally add the words “alcoholic beverages”
- in the same way, Mark’s readers mentally added the words “for any cause”
- because “any cause” was what the question of divorce was all about in his day
- Matthew helpfully added these words because by his time they were almost history

How did the church forget this (and other Jewish background) so quickly?
- some things just go out of the public mind when you stop talking about it
- a Jewish discussion in the 3rd C shows that even the rabbi had already forgotten

Let’s see how quickly we forget legal jargon which everyone used to know
- as a teenager I lived in Brighton which was regularly cited in newspapers stories
- often there were divorces caused by a husband’s ‘co-respondent’ in Brighton
- what does this mean? Was a pen-pal a ground for divorce a few decades ago?
- “co-respondent” was a common legal term often used in popular newspapers
- everyone used to know that it meant the person someone committed adultery with
- but now that divorce law no longer requires proof of adultery you hardly hear it
- so, within a few decades, the word went out of use and is forgotten by most people
- even more quickly than the church forgot what an “any cause” divorce was.

Jewish background to the New Testament opens up lots of windows and doors
- often it lets light onto a subject so we can understand it better
- sometimes it opens a door to a new area of teaching we had lost
- and, occasionally, it releases people for whom a door has been closed
- specifically, mentioned here, those who were shut out by the two apparently unforgivable sins:  blasphemy against the holy spirit
  and divorce on grounds other than adultery, such as abuse and abandonment.

We can read the Bible by itself and the Holy Spirit will guide us to Salvation
- and almost all other subjects are plain to understand. But not all


Even the Westminster Confession of Faith, which teaches “Sola Scriptura” (ie “Only Scripture”) says that we need those who are learned in other things:
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture… All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all, yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them…”
- ie everything we need to know for salvation is plain in Scripture,
- but some other things are not “plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all”
- we need read other books which people of the time knew, so we know them too
- just as we need to learn the language that the people of the time knew
- only then will we be able to read over their shoulders and see what God told them
- and thereby understand a little better what God is telling our generation and society


(C) Dr David Instone-Brewer 2010

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David Instone-Brewer