By Bill Venard
Author Ken Bailey is a prominent biblical scholar, known for his insights into the gospels based on his long familiarity with Middle Eastern culture and languages. He was once asked the question, “why is it important to study the Jewish roots of Christianity?” He answered: “suppose I spent my life going to a beach. I’ve seen waves splashing against rocks, ships on the water, fishermen casting lines. One day at this beach someone says, ‘Ken, I have two snorkels. Let’s go.’ Suddenly I see coral, seaweed, and fish. These undersea views in no way invalidate the beauty of what’s above. In my work, I’m looking for the coral and the fish.”
As Christians are we willing to dive deep to discover the beauty, the depth and the wonder of what lies below the surface of the Word of God? We must never forget that the Bible is essentially a Jewish document. Therefore, studying the Jewish context of the Bible opens up previously overlooked windows of meaning. Also, I am convinced, will also deepen our faith and strengthen our walk with Jesus.
It’s All About Context
When teaching believers how to study the Bible I always start by listing three simple rules:
Studying scripture begins by attempting to understand the context of a verse, chapter or book of the Bible. As part of studying the Bible in its Jewish context, it is important to know that there are some major differences in how we think today compared to how Jewish people thought in the 1st century. Because we think differently, we have different presuppositions.
For example, one night, a captain of a US Navy warship saw the light of an oncoming vessel heading straight at him. He signaled ahead: “Change course 20°.” Back came the reply: “Advisable you change course 20°.” The captain did not accept this response and sent the message, “I’m a captain. Change course 20°.” Back came the reply: “I’m a seaman second class, change course 20°.” By this time the captain was furious. “I’m a battleship!” he signaled, “change course 20°!” To which came the response: “I’m a lighthouse!” It’s all about context.
Author Tim Hegg writes, “All of us have a set of presuppositions or what we might call our worldview. More often than not, we have this worldview from our earliest days instilled within us from our society and culture. Very often we go through life often unaware that we are seeing everything through the colored lenses of our presuppositions. It’s like wearing a pair of sunglasses all day and forgetting to take them off until at sunset. Everything looks really dark then it occurs to you that you still have them on.” I believe that trying to see Jesus in His Jewish neighborhood will only help us to shift from our 21st century worldview to a more 1st century, Jewish worldview.
Let me be very clear. We will never be able to totally recapture the way 1st century Jews thought. However, I do believe that as we learn to see the differences between their way of thinking and how we think today that it will open the eyes of our understanding and we will begin to see Yeshua and his teachings through renewed eyes.
Much of the difference lies between Greek, or Western, thinking, versus Hebrew thinking, which is how the writers of the Scriptures thought. All the writers of the Bible were Jews, except for Luke who may have been a Jewish proselyte. Regardless, Western 21st century thinking has been heavily influenced by Greek thought and philosophy for centuries and often differs significantly from the way the ancient Hebrews thought.
When Did This Shift Begin?
The person often credited for “marrying” Greek philosophy to Christianity was Augustine (345-430 A.D.). According to the encyclopedia Encarta 95, “The process of reconciling the Greek emphasis on reason with the emphasis on religious emotion in the teachings of Christ and the apostles found eloquent expression in the writings of St. Augustine. He developed a system of thought that, through subsequent amendments and elaborations, eventually became the authoritative doctrine of Christianity. Largely as the result of his influence, Christian thought was Platonic in spirit until the 13th century, when Aristotelian philosophy became dominant.” (More on this in a future post.) Much of the Church continues to hold to her Greek philosophical marriage to this day.
Yeshua was Jewish and was born to devout Jewish parents, circumcised on the eighth day according to the Jewish Scriptures and was dedicated by His parents in the temple and was given a Hebrew name…Yeshua (which means God’s salvation). He likely began memorizing the Torah (first five books of the Bible) around the age of four or five, beginning with the Shema and then Leviticus, and studying Jewish commentary on the Torah at around age ten. Why? Do you understand the Torah? Do you know what the Shema is and why faithful Jews recite it three times daily to this day? And why begin teaching anyone, let alone children, the book of Leviticus? Have you read Leviticus? Holy Moses!
Yeshua made the annual pilgrimage with his family to celebrate the Spring and Fall Jewish festivals. Do you know what the Feasts of the LORD are and why they were celebrated? Do you know that each one teaches us something about the person and ministry of Messiah?
As a faithful, young Jew, Yeshua would have attended synagogue on the Sabbath and read from the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, during his ministry, he regularly used the Hebrew Scriptures to make connections with his teachings. Many Jewish people referred to him as “Rabbi,” which basically means “my teacher.” He lived in the Jewish homeland of Israel, spoke Hebrew, was part of a robust and lively community that was identified by its active relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So, given the above information, how do you think Yeshua viewed the world and the people that surrounded him? What formed his thoughts and understanding? What difference might that make in how we study and apply the Scriptures to our lives? When it comes to studying and understanding Scripture, I believe it is vitally important that we understand that there is a significant difference between the way 21st century Americans think compared with the way that first century Hebrews thought.
The apostle Sha’ul (Paul’s Hebrew name) wrote that “we have the mind of Christ.” As new creatures in Messiah Yeshua it is important for us to learn the 1st century Hebrew mind as best as possible some two thousand years removed. We need to personally and collectively search the Bible in our attempt to understand the difference between the way we in the West think today versus the way Yeshua and the Hebrew people thought in the 1st century.
Author Marvin Wilson writes…
The Christian faith is divinely revealed and is securely anchored in the Hebrew Bible – the Law, Prophets, and Writings. God breathed his word into the minds of the biblical authors within a Jewish cultural environment. Consequently, for us, in the most succinct terms, “to ignore Hebraic ways of thinking is to subvert Christian understanding.” We must, therefore, focus on the language and thought patterns found in the Scriptures so that we are able to penetrate the mind of the Hebrew people. When we enter their civilization and view it through their eyes, we find that the contour of their thought is vibrant, rich, and colorful. It has its own nuances and features. Indeed, the Hebraic background to Christian thought is at the heart of the rich spiritual legacy that Jews have shared with Christians.
What Difference Does It Make?
When it comes to studying and understanding scripture, what kind of difference do you think it might make if you had a better understanding of the culture, the land, the language, the politics and issues of the day, and the history and geography of first century Israel?
How might that understanding affect your walk with the Lord? Although we can’t go back in time, we can begin to read the scriptures from a Jewish perspective and learn to understand Jesus, and more, in the context his Jewish neighborhood.
In Part 2, I will examine some of the origins and comparisons of both Greek and Hebrew thought in more detail.