For the past several Wednesday evenings our adult education sessions have been dedicated to discussing the book Yeshua: A Model Moderns by Leonard Swidler. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think that for the most part, people have enjoyed it; although, it’s not without its challenges. The purpose of the book is to uncover and present anew the Jewish roots and context of Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s something that I think we Christians know intellectually, but which we don’t understand as deeply as we could. So, this book, in its way, tries to help us grow to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was, who the people around him were, and how his life and teaching fit in his time and his society. Since everyone can’t be with us on Wednesdays, I thought that this morning I would share a bit of what we have learned.
The first thing you notice is that the author always refers to Jesus as “Yeshua,” the Aramaic version of his name. Yeshua is what people who actually knew Jesus would have called to him. I said quite a while ago, when I first mentioned this book in a sermon, that calling Jesus “Yeshua” all the time is a little annoying. I even wrote that in an essay in college, and now others at our adult ed sessions have started to agree. But I think the author’s purpose is positive—it helps to strip away all that we think we know about Jesus, so that we can discover more about the real life Jewish man who lived in Nazareth in Galilee some 2,000 years ago. By starting with calling him Yeshua, we have a clean slate for fresh, new discovery.
And what have we discovered? Well, first, what the name Yeshua means. It’s sort of a contraction: the “Ye” is an abbreviation for God’s proper name given to Moses: “YHWH.” The “shua” is the Hebrew word for salvation, which is not so much about going to heaven, but more about holiness and wholeness. For the ancient Israelites to attain salvation is to lead a full and whole life. So, if we put it back together again, Jesus’ name, Yeshua, means “YHWH [or God] is salvation; YHWH is wholeness.” And what’s especially interesting, really, if we are thinking about the Jewishness of Jesus, is the fact that through him, so many millions of people who are not Jewish have come to believe in YHWH, the God of Israel, the God who spoke to Moses on the mountain and who through Joshua (whose name is the older Hebrew version of the name as Yeshua) led the chosen people to salvation into the promised land, as we heard in our first reading this morning. Both Joshua and Yeshua/Jesus lead God’s people to salvation.
Second, we’ve been reminded in our study that like many other reformation figures, Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion. Jesus was Jewish. His family was Jewish. His friends and his disciples were Jewish. And really, almost everyone he encountered in his day-to-day life was Jewish. So, the focus of his ministry was not to abolish or supercede Judaism. Rather, he saw his ministry as being about helping people live Jewishly, as best they could. Jesus studied the Torah, the religious law, as well as the teachings of the prophets, and he interpreted what he studied so that people could understand and live in a more faithful way. In some respects, Jesus was more liberal than many (for example, healing on the Sabbath) and in other respects he applied a more strict interpretation, teaching that divorce in any circumstance is unacceptable. What’s more, if we read the gospels carefully it’s clear that Jesus’ mission was focused on the Jewish community, and not really on non-Jewish Gentiles like most of us. But from time to time Jesus did encounter Gentiles and for the most part engaged with them, and even healed some. But he didn’t focus on them. So, it was up to the disciples and early church leaders to debate on how to accept Gentiles into the new Christian community, since Jesus left no direct teaching on the matter.
Finally, we’ve learned that Jesus was born at an exciting time in the development of Jewish religion. Various lay teachers, who became known as rabbis, were emerging, helping people to better understand and live their faith. One such figure was Hillel, who taught in Jerusalem from 30 BC until his death in 10 AD. He was known for his relatively liberal interpretation of the faith. He recognized brotherly love as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law and said to a Gentile who asked him to give the essence of Torah: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This teaching is reflected by Jesus, who taught that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.
In fact, the author of our book even suggests that it is possible that Jesus himself learned at the feet of Hillel. Most scholars think that Jesus was born in about 5 BC. He would have been considered mature in the faith at 13 or so--by the year 8 AD, so we know for certain that Jesus and Hillel overlapped in time. And given the gospel story of Jesus going to the Temple in Jerusalem as a youth with his family, then at the very least it’s within the realm of possibility that the young Jesus encountered an aged Hillel there. But even if he didn’t directly learn from Hillel, Jesus almost most certainly would have learned from others influenced by Hillel. There are too many similarities in their respective teachings for it to be merely coincidental.
We’ve also learned that there was another Jewish leader and teacher at that time, whose name was Shammai. He lived from 50 BC to 30 AD and was stricter than Hillel in his interpretation of the Torah. He believed that only those deemed worthy could study the Torah and that Gentiles could not be converted into Judaism. In fact, he tried various ways to separate Jews and Gentiles and taught that those who went into a Gentile household would be deemed unclean. Hillel was more inclusive and thought anyone should be allowed to study religious teachings and Gentiles could convert if they chose.
Well, both Hillel and Shammai had followers, who formed schools grounded in their respective teachings and interpretations of the Torah. And, what’s especially interesting is that the teachers trained in these two schools of thought were known as “Pharisees.” As you’d expect, the followers of Hillel were more liberal. The followers of Shammai were conservative. But whether liberal or conservative, the Pharisees were laymen, who studied the Torah. While the gospels portray the Pharisees as hypocrites, that’s probably an exaggeration, at least sometimes. Because in some ways the Pharisees were quite avant-garde, in contrast to the more traditional Temple priests and Sadducees, accepting several “modern” ideas, like demons, angels, and the resurrection. The Pharisees urged people to live faithful, holy lives, especially after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when there was no longer a need for priests. And just as Christians speak of the “Priesthood of all believers,” the Pharisees believed in the “priesthood of all Israelites.”
Recently, some Jewish and Christian scholars have suggested, in studying the teachings in these schools of thought, that Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee, or at least very close to them--but firmly in the tradition of Hillel, not Shammai. That sounds weird and perhaps unsettling to Christians, I know, since the gospels almost always portray the Pharisees as the bad guys, hiding behind the shrubbery, ready to jump out to test and challenge Jesus at any moment. But, before we buy into a caricature, let’s keep an open mind and remember a few things.
First, as human beings we tend to get into the most heated arguments with those who are a lot like us—with members of our families or with people whose religious beliefs are fairly close to ours. Episcopalians and Hindus rarely have theological arguments; there’s just too much distance between us. But, liberal and conservative Episcopalians might really slug it out, because we share so much and feel that our opponent’s faulty views is some how hurting the faith we hold dear. The same was true of Jesus and the Pharisees.
Second, in Jesus’ time, the conservative Shammai Pharisees were more prominent, and the Hillel school was in the minority. Hillel’s thought later became dominant and is the grandfather of the rabbinic tradition in much of Judaism today, placing justice at the heart of their religion, but not until after the gospels were written. So, when the gospels write negatively of the Pharisees, they almost certainly refer to the Shammai group, while the occasional “good” Pharisees, like Nicodemus, are probably followers of Hillel. Of course, ultimately, whether Jesus is rightly identified with the Pharisees is speculation, but there’s no question that he shared much in common and better relations with the liberal Hillel group—including similar teaching, and antipathy towards the conservative Shammai school. We find a good example of Jesus’ arguments against the conservative Pharisees in today’s gospel, when he tells his disciples to do what the Pharisees tell them, because they teach the same things as Moses, not what they do, since they set very strict standards for everyone else, but then don’t do anything to help people live out these requirements.
You may have noticed in this morning’s gospel that Jesus mentioned phylacteries and fringes. Just to be clear, these aren’t special priestly garb, but actually were (and for some Jews still are) normal spiritual attire. The phylacteries are the small black boxes that Jewish men tie on their foreheads and arms with leather straps for morning prayers. They contain tiny scrolls inscribed with verses of the Torah. And the fringes Jesus mentions are just the tassels on prayer shawls. Sometimes you’ll see Orthodox Jewish men with fringes hanging out from the backs of their shirts. So, he was criticizing the Pharisees for being outwardly hyper-observant in following the religious law, really publicly obvious even, but failing to help the poor. And what’s more, since the Pharisees taught a kind of priesthood of all, it seemed wrong that they would then seek seats and titles of honor, especially in synagogues where all adult men were supposed to be equal.
One of the questions all this information raises is what was unique about Jesus? Why is Jesus so well remembered when other teachers are not? And if Jesus were really one of many wise Jewish teachers, how is it that people come to believe that he was the Son of God? The answer is simply that we don’t know for certain. But it’s clear that there was something so remarkably special about Jesus and the way he spoke and taught that people were drawn to him. People left their jobs and their families to be his disciples. They were drawn to his interpretation of the law and his unique, and I would say nearly fearless, approach to life. They sought him out for healing. They wanted to be touched and held by him. Even those who disagreed with him—the Shammai Pharisees—were somehow attracted to him and wanted to hear what he had to say, hiding behind the shrubbery to get a good glimpse of what he was up to.
And within a generation, significant numbers of Gentiles were so inspired by Jesus’ teaching and his story of life, death, and resurrection, that they risked their own lives to be baptized and claim faith in him. Because, of course, they realized that in teaching people how to lead faithful Jewish lives, Jesus was also teaching people how to live faithful human lives—to love God and love our neighbors, to heal the sick, to help those who are poor and in need.
Well, that’s some of what we’ve learned and discussed on Wednesday nights. It’s interesting stuff. It challenges our assumptions. It makes us think about our faith differently. And it encourages us to take Jesus and his teachings all the more seriously as we look to him, and ultimately to God, for salvation and wholeness of life.
To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell