The Jewish Setting of Jesus’ Life in a Nut Shell

In previous articles on discipleship I have provided my readers with more of the first century Jewish context and what it meant to be a disciple of Yeshua, which is Jesus’ name in Hebrew. It’s what his mother, brothers, sisters and disciples called him. It means God’s salvation. In Greek it is Iesous (yay – SOOS). This was the Greek speakers’ and translators’ attempt at pronouncing Yeshua. In Greek there is no sound for “sh” and when a word ends in “ah”, it is the feminine ending. So, if they pronounced it Yesouah, it would have been understood as the name of a female. The masculine ending is “ous”. So his name in Greek became Iesous. That became Jesu in Latin and, eventually, that evolved into Jesus in English centuries later.

Christ, or Christos, is the Greek form of the Hebrew Messiah or Mashiach. Jesus Christ is not his first and last name. Both Mashiach and Christos mean anointed one. It’s His title; Jesus the Christ, or Yeshua the Messiah.

In this article I will provide more context into the Jewish setting of Jesus’ life. In the Gospel of Matthew, and other gospel passages, we learn that Jesus was thoroughly an orthodox Jew and completely faithful to the written Torah. Beginning with His childhood, it was marked by the observance of Jewish tradition. He was circumcised on the eighth day. His family apparently came to Jerusalem yearly to observe the traditional festivals (Lk. 2:41), which was an indication of their devotion to Torah observance. On one such journey, when he is twelve, Jesus interacted with the rabbinic teachers, asking incisive questions as an unusually gifted, pre-bar mitzvah student (Lk. 2:42f.).

Like his childhood, his later life was also marked by his Jewish heritage. He respected the Temple and its worship, expecting his followers to offer the usual sacrifices (Mt. 5:23, 24) and going out of his way to pay the Temple tax (Mt. 17:24-27). Like the devout Jews of his day he attended synagogue regularly on the Sabbath (Lk. 4:16 et al.), first being taught there as a child, and later doing the teaching himself. He consistently observed the Jewish festivals and holidays and used these occasions to indicate how they highlighted his mission (Jn. 2:13; 5:1; 7:2, 10, 37-39; 8:12; 10:22-23; 13:1-2).

He used and taught the traditional prayers of his time (cf. Mt. 6:9-13). When comparing the “disciples’ prayer” with the “Eighteen Benedictions” of Judaism, one learns that there are many similarities, although the disciples’ prayer is much shorter. And, clearly, he used the familiar Jewish blessings over bread and wine at meals (cf. Lk. 22:19-20).

The Gospels also indicate that he was Jewish in his dress. When the woman with the issue of blood reached for him, she grabbed the hem of his clothes (Mk. 6:56; Mat. 9:20; Lk 8:44). The Greek term used here for hem, kraspedon, commonly translates the Hebrew word, tzitzit or fringes, which God had commanded the Jewish people to wear (Num. 15:37-41).

Perhaps, most significant was his relationship to the Law (Torah) and Jewish traditions, which some have described as “entirely orthodox”. He declared the permanence of the whole Torah (Mt. 5:17-19) and even accepted Pharisaic additions (Mt. 23:2-3). Some of these include: tithing of herbs (Mt. 23:23), saying blessings at meals (Mk. 6:41; 8:6), blessings over wine, and the singing of the Hallel Psalms at Passover and other feasts (Mk. 14:22-23, 26).

Another fact is that Jesus preached regularly in the synagogues, which would not have been possible if his lifestyle or teachings had contradicted the Torah or had been substantially different from current teaching. The incident in Matthew 9:18f provides further confirmation. The “ruler” in Luke. 8:41 and Mk. 5:22, very likely the “head of the synagogue,” came to Jesus. Both his request and his posture (kneeling) indicate this religious leader’s ready acceptance of and profound respect for Jesus as an observant Jew and important religious leader.

Even the Sermon on the Mount, often viewed as the essence and epitome of Jesus’ teaching, reflects concepts familiar to the Jews of his day and consistent with rabbinic teaching. To begin with, it is quite similar in style. Much of the sermon consists of illustrations of the proper understanding of the Law, or Torah, spelling out its wider implications and describing its broader principles. Much like Jesus many rabbis in first century Israel felt that believers must go beyond mere conformity to the Torah.

Scholars frequently cite the famous “turn the other cheek” passage (Mt. 5:38-48) as an example of the radicalness of Jesus’ teachings. But even here…

…it will not do to maintain that Jesus’ spirit of forbearance, of gentleness, of goodness, of charity, is wholly opposed to the teaching of the Rabbis. It is the same spirit which inspired the best teaching of the Rabbis…

The point Jesus emphasized here is the proper response to insult, “the slap in the face.” A person is not to seek revenge but should endure the insult humbly. With this the rabbis agreed, and counseled that a person struck on the cheek should forgive the offending party even if he does not ask forgiveness. The Talmud commends the person who accepts offense without retaliation and submits to suffering and insult cheerfully. In fact, one can find parallels in the rabbinic material to almost all of Jesus’ statements in this paragraph (5:38-42). For example, “if anyone seeks to do evil unto you, do you in well-doing pray for him.” While it is true that the rabbis did not always agree over how to treat an enemy, there are indications that many of them taught perspectives similar to Jesus.

The Family Debate

Jesus taught in a period when changes were going on within the different sects of Judaism. One might say it was a “family debate” where there was growing and often conflicting interpretations of the Torah. Jesus arrived on the scene in the middle of this debate. His own interpretations of Torah remained thoroughly Jewish and even within the mainstream of Judaism. For example, he accepted the laws concerning the Sabbath but differed in the interpretation of some of those laws when it came to temporarily overriding or suspending those laws, particularly when it came to the preservation of life versus keeping the Sabbath.

It must be remembered that he did not oppose or violate generally accepted customs and practice; he simply disagreed with certain specific pronouncements put forward by some teachers. One might say that Jesus inserted Himself into an ongoing family debate that covered many topics. The Sabbath question illustrates this.

…there is proof that Jesus never openly broke the Sabbath; when he appeared before the Sanhedrin, there is no trace of such an accusation which would certainly not have failed to be produced had it had the slightest foundation…in the case of the Sabbath, as in every case of this sort, Jesus took the clear position, not against the Law, not even against ritual practices, but against the excessive importance that particular Pharisee doctors attributed to them; not even against Pharisaism, but against particular tendencies in Pharisaism, especially the tendency to put the letter before the Spirit.

The difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is that He comes as One with divine authority, One who is sovereign, making claims no one else could make. He issued “demands” consistent with His claims. When He spoke with His authority, it was so radically different from that of the leaders (cf. Mk. 1:22) it was unavoidable that there would be conflict due to jealousy, fear or any number of other reasons which His opponents may have had. However, simply because He spoke with a new authority, this did not amount to a break with Judaism. As He said in Matthew 5, He did not come to abolish the Torah (or even challenge Judaism per se), but rather fulfill or affirm the Torah focusing attention on its proper intent. But even this was part of the ongoing discussion within Judaism. The difference with Jesus was that, because of His authority, any interpretation He made was final, effectively rendering the debate over. No wonder the religious authorities were threatened by Him and wanted to get rid of Him.

The key to the conflict, then, revolves around Jesus’ uniqueness and authority as the Divine Messiah and as the Second Moses. In his ministry “I say” replaced “thus says the Lord.” Jesus’ messiahship brought something new to the debates going on within Judaism…His divine authority. This authority formed the basis to whatever interpretations he made and to whatever challenges he leveled against certain interpretations which obscured the intended meaning of the Torah. As Divine Messiah, He was the authoritative interpreter of the Law. In fact, even the Jewish Talmud indicates that Messiah’s authority would be so great that:

“Even if he tells you to transgress any of the commandments of the Torah, obey him in every respect.”

Even ancient Jewish scholars knew that Messiah would come with a new authority to interpret the Torah. Even though Jesus never transgressed the Torah, His interpretation of it is the final authority.

The Call to Discipleship

Where does all of this lead us? Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The love of YHWH, the love of God’s Word, and true discipleship are not meant to be a burden but a joy. Jesus appeals to us, “Come, follow me.” As Christians, He invites us to the same vibrant, exciting, interactive relationship that His original disciples experienced with Him. His desire is for us to become His disciples, too… disciples that, according to the Jewish Talmud, look something like this:

…the whole world is indebted to the true disciple of the Torah. When the world looks at such a one, he who labors in the Torah for the sake of Torah alone, this is what they will see: He is called friend, beloved, lover of the Almighty One, and lover of mankind. He is clothed in meekness and reverence. He is just, pious, upright, and faithful. He is a man of peace. Through him, the world receives counsel, sound knowledge, understanding, and strength. The Torah gives him discerning judgment; to him the secrets of the Torah are revealed. He is made like a never-failing fountain, like a river that flows on with ever-sustained vigor. He is modest, long-suffering, and forgiving, yet he is magnified and exalted above all things.”

What a great and wonderful picture of Jesus! The Talmud describes the life of Jesus perfectly without even knowing it! We are called to be like Him (1 Cor 11:1; Eph 5:1; 1 Thess 1:6). Much to my shame, that certainly doesn’t describe me. How about you? But friends, that is the primary task of the disciple; to become like his Master and follow Him in every way. Paul writes that God is in the process of transforming Jesus’ disciples into His image and likeness (Romans 8:28, 29). But the process doesn’t end there. It continues with disciples making more disciples, who make more disciples, who make more disciples, etc.

This background to Jesus’ life is intended to help you gain a broader, and better, perspective not only on his life, but also on the culture in which he lived and carried out his ministry. I believe that Matthew’s Gospel in particular is more than a book about the life and teachings of Jesus. Rather, it seems more like a manual to first century believers who wanted to know both who Jesus was and how to be His disciple; how he was to imitate his rabbi’s every word and action, because to be a disciple was all about the art of imitation. As we learned in previous articles, a disciple was to do what the rabbi did, say what the rabbi said, teach what the rabbi taught, study the way the rabbi studied, pray the way the rabbi prayed, and interact with and treat people exactly like the rabbi treated them. In turn, they were to take what they had learned and repeat the process with others.

For more on this and other related articles make sure to read the “Heart of Jewish Discipleship” Parts 1, 2 and 3 at on the “Articles” page.


  • Babylonian Talmud
  • Hauer, Cheryl,  “Discipleship and the Hebraic Worldview.”

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