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The Moral Teachings of Christ in the Context of Early Judaism


Preaching in Jewish cities and villages and addressing crowds, the Lord speaks in the language intelligible for these crowds, that is, in the language of people around him. At the same time, we see in the Gospel, especially in the Gospel of St. John, the following affirmations: These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me (Jn. 14:24); I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me (Jn. 8:28); My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me (Jn. 7:16), or The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (Jn. 6:63). The Lord proclaims absolutely new and strange things which exceed by far not only human customs and habits but also human reason. His words often provoke anger as they are hard to grasp. He addresses Jews, saying, you have no room for my word, and they are divided again (Jn. 10:19) and many of them would say: He was raving mad. Not only the Pharisees but also many of his disciples, on hearing it (the sermon at Capernaum) said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (Jn. 6:60). And as John reports, from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (Jn. 6:66). His words amazed the crowd as he taught not as their teachers of the law (Mt. 7:29). No one ever spoke the way this man does (Jn. 7:46). And even the closest twelve disciples are bewildered. Let us remember the parable about a camel for whom it is easier to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" (Mt. 19:25).

So, the Lord preaches in the language of people around him but often remains unintelligible. Explaining the reason for it, he says to the Jews: You are from below; I am from above (Jn. 8:23).

The gospel’s word inspired from above is a call to utter perfection which exceeds any measure and rule, going beyond the law. If forgiveness is to be given, it should be given not three times as the Pharisees taught (Yoma 86 Bar) nor seven times as St. Peter believes (whose measure apparently exceeds that of the Pharisees) but seventy-seven times, that is, endless times (Mt. 18:21-22). One should donate not one fifth of the value of a ram (cf. Lev. 5:15-16) nor half of one’s possessions, as Zacchaeus, who found Christ, offers (Lk. 19:8) but sell everything and distribute the money to the poor. One should love not only one’s close relatives and friends but extend one’s love to all people including one’s enemies. (But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt. 5:44-45)). Love in the Saviour’s preaching becomes an authoritarian directive: your neighbour is any one whom you approach with love and care (see the Parable of the Good Samaritan). In the Gospel we hear a call to utter perfection: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48) but this perfection is unattainable for the man in his fallen state since it demands a spiritual renewal through communion with God and strengthening through the power of the Holy Spirit, for with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Mt. 19:26). This is the answer that the Lord gives to his bewildered disciples.

There is another very important aspect of the gospel’s word: the gospel’s teaching is not an abstract sum of knowledge but the way of finding a new life in the Kingdom of Heaven. This Kingdom is already revealed in power through the knowledge of God in communion with the Son. (If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well (Jn. 14:7); anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (Jn. 14:9)). Any parable or instruction of the Saviour has an element of not only theological revelation but also guidance for action. In other words, they are inseparable from moral, ascetic and volitional decisions and pose a person before the problem of choice. Very often the Lord concludes his instructions with words: He who has ears let him hear. His call points out that he does not set forth his teaching in a ready and completed form but rather urges his listeners to think, to seek and to come to self-determination. But the way to the comprehension of the divine word which comes from the above, from the Father, lies through the understanding of the commonly accepted human words, images and idioms in which it is embodied, that is, through the understanding of the language of the gospel’s preaching.

What is this language then? The gospel’s preaching is not set forth in a language of fixed terms. It does not have a strict system and precise definitions which are found in later theology. The language of the gospel’s theology is different in that it is figurative and its instructions are given in the form of vivid comparisons, metaphors and parables often striking in their paradoxality, for instance, Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it (Lk. 17:33). Many images are borrowed directly from the everyday life of Palestinian peasants, fishermen and craftsmen, which makes the Saviour’s preaching more open and intelligible for listeners. The language of the gospel’s theology is based on the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. The good knowledge of these texts characteristic of the people whom the Saviour addresses enables him not only to cite them but also to borrow from them certain images and expressions and to build more complex allusions and connotations, developing these images even further. (see for instance the parable about ‘evil workers in a vineyard’ in Mt. 21:22-24 and Is. 5). Therefore, an adequate understanding of the gospel’s theology is impossible without a good knowledge of the Old Testament.

Besides, a study of inter-testament literature, which was very popular in its time, as the existence of a great number of its translations into other languages show, as well as the Middle East folklore, non-biblical idiomatics, sayings by various authoritative teachers, aphorisms, etc. has shown that the Lord, in creating the image-bearing harmony of this instructions and parables, often addressed this living manifold linguistic material as well.

I would like to speak in detail about it. There are examples pointing to a striking coincidence between the Gospel’s words and expressions we find in rabbinical sources.

Mt. 6:34
Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Bracho 9б
There is enough trouble of its own for every hour

Мt. 7:5
You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

Baba Bathra 15б
He says to him: take out a chip stuck in our teath. And he answers to this: first take out the log that sticks out of your eye.

Mk. 2:27
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Yoma 856
The Sabbath is given to you, not you to the Sabbath

Mt. 9:17
Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins

Abot 4, 20
It happens that a new vessel can be full of an old wine, but it also happens that even young cannot be found in an old.

For the proponents of the historical development of Christianity, such examples serve as a pretext for denying uniqueness to the gospel’s teaching. Identifying the figurative and ideological aspects of an expression, they overlook that the Lord, using popular comparisons, idioms, clichés, etc., often puts into them a new meaning consonant with the spirit of his preaching.

In the Bikkurim tractate, there is a story about a dispute between Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and Athenian sages. It is of a pronounced folkloric nature. The Athenian sages, for instance, break a jug before Joshua and ask him to sew it together. To this Joshua responds by spilling a handful of sand and asking them to spin it into yarn. The Athenian sages then ask him to build a castle in the air, and he tells them to bring bricks. Among other things, the Athenian sages asked Joshua: What is to be used to salt the salt that has lost its saltiness? The answer offered by Joshua is this: the afterbirth (placenta) of a she-mule. The meaning is that a she-mule as a cross between a mare and an ass is barren. The sages ask: Can’t a she-mule have afterbirth? The rabbi answers: Can’t salt lose its saltness? This story makes us recall the words of the Saviour:

Mt. 5:13
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

Bikkurim 8
How can the salt that has lost its saltiness be made salty again? We say to them: by the afterbirth of a she-mule. Hasn’t a she-mule an afterbirth? And is not salt salty?

Clearly, one and the same phrase: If salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty? serves completely different purposes and, coming from the Saviour, turns from a witty folk puzzle into an assertion of the lofty mission and responsibility with which the Lord entrusts his disciples.

Another example in which the Saviour in his edification refers to an already known sayings is found in the Gospel of Matthews 7:12. This passage makes us recall a story about one of the most prominent religious teachers of the turn of the era, Rabbi Hillel. There are several surviving stories about a heathen who wished to convert to Judaism. He came first to Rabbi Shammai but, dissatisfied with his visit, decided to approach Rabbi Hillel as a more flexible and less rigoristic man. One of these stories is as follows:

Shabbat 30а
Another man came to Shammai and said, I will become a Jew if you can teach me the entire Torah in the time that you can stand on one foot. Again, Shammai, drove him off in anger. Going to Hillel, he made the same offer. What is hateful to you, do not do to others, said Hillel. That is the whole Torah.

It is not difficult to see that the Gospel’s words: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets, on one hand, presuppose a knowledge of Hillel’s saying and appear to be a direct reference to it but they develop it and give them a different, gospel’s, measure, on the other. While Hillel’s instruction is called only to keep one from evil and to prevent one from showing disrespect for others, the Saviour’s words express something much greater – a call to love and care of one’s neighbours.

The most interesting examples however are those in which the Lord, alluding to expressions well known to his listeners, does not merely reconstruct them or give them a new meaning but inverts them in a very unexpected and paradoxical way, thus revealing new relations going beyond habitual human wisdom.

I will try to illustrate this idea using the following three examples.

Among the Qumran discoveries are fragments of the original Hebrew (Testament of Naphtali) and Aramaic (Testament of Levi) text of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs dating back to the 2nd century B.C. The full text of this apocryphal writing has survived in Greek but it is also known in its Syrian, Latin, Ethiopian and Slavonic version. This excellent literary work was certainly known to the Saviour’s contemporaries, which accounts for a whole number of its lexical coincidences with the New Testament literature.

Here is a vivid example:

Testament of Joseph 11, 1, 5-6
I was tormented by hunger but the Lord himself fed me up. I was lonely, and God comforted me, I was sick, and the Lord visited me, I was in prison, and God had mercy on me.

Mt. 25:35-37
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me

This example has been repeatedly cited as a testimony to the literary dependence and ‘close relations which existed between Jewish pre-Christian apocryphal and the New Testament literature’ (И.Д. Амусин Кумранская община. М., 1983). But we will go beyond a mere statement of apparent verbal coincidences. Joseph’s words in the apocrypha, so moving and full of gratitude to his Lord, belong to a quite understandable and ‘natural’ plane: a righteous man is suffering and the Lord does not abandon him but supports and helps him. On the other hand, people’s reaction to the Gospel’s words is amazement. For all the outward similarity of the expressions, there is a glaring contrast as in the Gospel’s parable it is not God but a man who visits his Lord and gives him food, water and clothes. But can a man really take care of God: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? – This is a puzzle not only for gospel’s sinners but also righteous men: whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

This is how a simple ‘old’ theme gives rise to an unexpected and paradoxical ‘new’ gospel’s instruction – an instruction so important that the response to it determines ultimately one’s way either to eternal punishment or to eternal life (Mt. 25:46), as will see below.

Let us take another example from the tractate Pirkei Avot’s (The Saying of the Fathers). This tractate is of special interest for us since it contains brief sayings which characterize the worldview of the oldest Rabbinic authorities beginning from Simeon the Righteous (3d century B.C) to the beginning of compiling Mishnah (c. 200 A.D.). The first four chapters contain the authors’ instructions given by 60 teachers. Before they were committed to paper, they were discussed and handed down by word of mouth, and in this sense they represent a very rich material picturing the ideological atmosphere at the turn of the era. Most of the sayings in the next, fifth, chapter are anonymous. Some of them can be viewed as a sort of school folklore or a set of popular aphorisms born in the walls of a beth misrash. But these are also worldly truths and axioms expressing the original insights of rabbinic ethical and didactical wisdom.

Among them is this lecture (5:10): all people are divided into four types. The first type would say: mine is mine, yours is yours – these, according to the Pirkei Avot tractate are מידה בינונית, neutral people. The second type says: mine is yours and yours is yours. They are צדיק, pious people. The third ones say: mine is mine and yours is mine. These are רשע  , wicked people. And finally, the fourth ones will say: mine is years and yours is mine. These are עם הארץ, people of the land.

The expression ‘people of the land’, am ha-aretz, was originally used by the Pharisees to denote those who did not belong to their party but later acquired a negative connotation meaning ‘unlearned and stupid people ignorant of Torah’.

In this connection we can recall the Gospel of John 17:10 in which the Lord, addressing his Father, says literally this: All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. It reflects utter mutual openness and endless commitment to each other – relations of perfect love between Father and Son, which do not fit the Pharisaic ethical and legal wisdom, as for the Pharisees ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is a commoner’s stupidity while for the Son of God it is an expression of the utmost wisdom and love.  

Another example. We find the following affirmation in the Sotah tractate (8b):

Sotah 8b
In the measure with which a man measures it is meted out to him.

This affirmation needs the following explanatory comment: Samson followed his eyes’ inclination and had his eyes put out… Absalom took pride in this hair and was hanged by his hair; etc. In other words, the punishment and retribution are unavoidable according to the principle ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. But coming from the Saviour, the same expression acquires a directly opposite meaning, expressing a call to mercy and refusal to judge:



Mt. 7:2
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Here is the final example in which only one word is changed. In the rabbinical literature, a crowd is always denoted by the world רבים translated as ‘many’. But it also means ‘great’. Probably, in combining these two meanings, ‘many’ as denoting a certain group of people and ‘great’ as denoting one’s special righteousness and learning, the Qumranites used the word רבים as one of the ways to name themselves. In this connection, it is very characteristic that in the Gospel the Lord, addressing the crown around him, used not the Greek πολλοι for the Hebrew רבים – ‘many’ and ‘big ones’ but its opposite μικροι meaning ‘little ones’, which is הקטנים האלה in Hebrew. As far as I know, this usage is not found in the Mishnah literature and may express an exclusive peculiarity of the Saviour’s language.

Mt. 18:6
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea

Tos. Sanhedrin 13, 5
Whoever committed a sin and tempted many into sin shall have the gates of Gehenna closed after him and shall be committed to it for ages of ages.

Pirkei Avot 5:18
Whoever tempted many into sin shall not be permitted to repent..

For all the common topic expressed in the affirmation that whoever causes others to sin deserves death, it is impossible to overlook that in one case it is an abstract affirmation about many and addressed to many but in the other it is personal concern for each of ‘the little ones who believe in me’, that is, who put their trust in the Lord.

If we have to deal with ‘the little ones’, it means that each of them needs special care, like a child. One of many is not worthy of abandoning the ninety-nine. But it is only one of the little ones, namely, the one whose angel in heaven always sees the face of my Father in heaven (Mt. 18:10), can be likened to a lost sheep for whose sake the shepherd leaves the whole flock, And if he finds it, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off (Mt. 18:13).

Among the Mishnah parables we will also find one in which a shepherd will take more care of a stray goatling which joins the flock than his lost sheep.

A goatling grew in the desert and he went astray and joined a flock. The shepherd began giving him food and drink and came to love him most of all his flock. He is asked: Do you really love this goatling more than your flock? He says to them: I worked so much to take my flock out in the morning and to take them in in the evening until they grew up, but this one who grew in deserts himself came to join my flock. How can I not love him?

I have simplified this parable, of course. Clearly, the point here is not a proselyte newcomer. Still it is impossible to overlook the contrast: the parable about a lost sheep is an image of selfless, searching and saving love, while in the parable about a goatling who just joined the flock without any efforts on the shepherd’s part, love does not go beyond ordinary relations motivated by profit.

By Archpriest Leonid Grilikhes


Source: http://www.bogoslov.ru/en/text/1246430.html



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