NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
Over my half century of studying God’s Word, I became more and more appreciative of understanding the time, era, culture, tradition and conditions Jesus had to deal with when He came as the Messiah. My interest sparked when I acquired a used copy of the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, followed by the Jewish Mishnah, where I began to understand what they taught in their synagogues as the truth, and what Jesus encountered when He came with His message. Since the Gospel writers did not quote these resources, it made it hard to spot them in the arguments of the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees.
This helped me understand that Jesus came to His own people, the children of Abraham. But they were prisoners in their own land, the one once called the “Promised Land.” The Romans occupied Jewish territory and made the Jews subservient to foreign laws and authorities. The Jews had a king, but he proved to be nothing more than a figurehead, put in place by the Romans. Even their High Priest received his appointment through political means. So our Lord did not come to a nation and people who were worshiping their heavenly Father the way the Creator desired. That’s why He came to tell them what His Father wanted from them.
They were expecting a Messiah, but not a lowly prophet from the hinterlands of Galilee with no formal religious training. The written Word had given way to verbal teachings, built on the commentaries and teachings of hundreds of Rabbis over the centuries. Not only that, but, unknowingly, from the day He came into this world in a manger, they were only some 75 years away from losing their Temple for good. They wanted a deliverer, a religious warrior, to over-throw the Romans and set them free again. Even though Jesus did not fit their ideal Messiah, the timing of His first coming proved perfect. Had he appeared earlier during the period of revolt against the Romans, He would have easily been identified as a rebel rouser, and suffered the execution carried out by the Romans on the Maccabees, rather than being sacrificed on the altar as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. And had He arrived after 70 AD, there would have been no Temple for Him to teach in or clean out in His Father’s name. Also, Peter and John would have not had the opportunity to heal the crippled man to draw attention to the power of Christ. Paul would never have been arrested there to stand trial. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and others would have been scattered to the far corners of the earth. There would have been no Pontius Pilate, no Golgotha, and no tomb of Joseph to be buried in.
So when the three Magi showed up in Herod’s court in Jerusalem looking for the new king, they were not celebrated as having brought good news. And when Jesus came down from Galilee to the eastern side of the Jordan River to be baptized by John, none of them were there to meet Him and pledge their allegiance to Him.
He chose a number of illiterate fishermen from Galilee to be His disciples, and added to them a tax collector, a zealot, a doubter, and a betrayer. There were no skilled Jewish teachers, Rabbis, Scribes, Pharisees or Sadducees among these twelve. He began to point out their misunderstanding of the Messiah because they were depending on their verbal teachings rather than the Written Law to guide them. Jesus kept pointing back to what His Father had said to Moses and the Prophets, not what their venerated Rabbis taught them.
The more I read and studied about the environment, with its biases and expectations, in which Jesus lived and taught, the more I began to appreciate staying with the written doctrines of the Bible rather than acquiescing to the oral doctrines that were becoming popular in my day. I kept reminding myself of who the people were that Jesus addressed. What did His words mean to them based on their background and understanding of written Scripture and spoken law? He could not come preaching and teaching some doctrine, especially a gospel they had no inkling of, what it meant and how it applied to them. They would have considered Him an outsider, not a part of their heritage.
This may seem like a contradiction to what the writer of Hebrews said: “In days gone by, God spoke in many and varied ways to the Fathers through the prophets. But now, in these perilous times, He has spoken to us through His Son, to whom He has given ownership of everything and through whom He created the universe.”1 But when we hear what Jesus said: “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but bring them to fruition,”2 and put them together, we see the context in which both were said, we can see it more clearly. In other words, from the beginning God spoke to His people by way of Moses, the interpreters and the prophets about the coming Messiah and the new covenant in the Kingdom of God. But over the centuries the teachers of the Law have complicated what God said with their own interpretations so that the people were walking around in darkness. So God sent His Son as a light to explain more clearly what He meant in the words He gave Moses, the interpreters and the Prophets, and to show them by His own example the fulfillment of those words and promises.
Therefore, to better see the disagreements, debates and discussions that took place between the Word in the flesh when He came to explain the written Word, and those who adopted the verbal teachings instead, it is best to examine first: what did God say through Moses and the Prophets; then what did the teachers of the Law interpreted God as saying through Moses and the Prophets; followed by what Jesus said God really meant. That way we get deeper insight into the disagreements that took place, and why John came out and said: “He was the true light, who gives light to everyone entering the world. He was in the world — the world came to be through Him — yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own homeland, yet His own people did not receive Him.”3
For me, it proved critical to take what Jesus taught and then give it a practical or spiritual application for listeners to understand and accept as guidelines and doctrines. Therefore, I have endeavored to share in this commentary those things that helped me comprehend what Jesus taught, so that others may do the same. I did not want to become a preacher and teacher of the gospel who kept the flock uninformed and misinformed simply because I also followed the example of the teachers of the Law in Jesus’ day by substituting oral doctrines and popular dogmas for the true meaning of the Written Word as Jesus taught it.
The following are three main Jewish documents used in tracking the verbal teachings of the Rabbis that the Jews lived by, and what Jesus encountered during His ministry. By giving you a better understanding of where these verbal teachings came from, you will be able to see what the people believed by the time Jesus arrived. Here is a short synopsis of each one:
FIRST: THE MISHNAH (“Verbal Repetition”)
According to the Tractate found in the Mishnah titled “Aboth,” Chapter 1:1-18, in addition to the Written Law of the Ten Commandments, Moses received these Verbal Teachings as well, which were then passed down orally by teachers to teachers of each successive generation. First, they went from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, then to the Prophets, to the ‘Men of the Great Synagogue’ (the body of teachers who administered and taught the Law after the time of Ezra), to Simeon the Just, one of the last members of the Great Synagogue, to Antigonus of Soko, the leading disciple of Simeon the Just; then to five “Pairs of leaders” – Jose ben Joezer and Jose ben Johanan, Joshua ben Perahyah and Nittai the Arbelite, Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetach, Shemaiah and Abtalion, Hillel and Shammai. These last two were the ones whose teachings were in vogue when Jesus arrived on the scene. Thus the chain of tradition reached the threshold of the Christian era. Here is a list of those Rabbis that lived and taught before, during and after Christ arrived here on earth. So when you see them quoted in the Mishnah or Talmuds, you can tell which ones taught prior to our Lord’s birth; those who were His contemporaries; and those who lived and taught after His ascension until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. When specific dates were found they posted them, otherwise the time period during which they were quoted:
Simeon the Just: 300-273 BC
Ben Bukri: 10-80 AD
Antigonus of Soko: 200-140 BC
Dosetai of Kefar Yatma: 10-80 AD
Admon ben Gaddai: 200 BC – 10 AD
Eleazar ben Dalai, Abba: 10-80 AD
Ben Bag-Bag (Johanan): 200 BC – 10 AD
Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Gorion: 10-80 AD
Hanan ben Abishalom: 200 BC – 10 AD
Hanina, Prefect of the Priests: 10-80 AD
Johanan the High Priest: 200 BC – 10 AD
Johanan ben Gudgada: 10-80 AD
Jose ben Joezer: 170-100 BC
Johanan ben ha-Horani: 10-80 AD
Jose ben Johanan: 170-100 BC
Johanan ben Zakkai: 10-80 AD
Judah ben Tabbai: 164-63 BC
Joezer of the Birah: 10-80 AD
Nittai of Arbela: 134-104 BC
Jose Holi Kufri, Abba: 10-80 AD
Hillel the Elder: 110 BC to 10 AD
Judah ben Bathyra: 10-80 AD
Me’asha: 110 BC – 10 AD
Menahem ben Signai: 10-80 AD
Baba ben Buta: 100-40 BC
Nahum the Mede: 10-80 AD
Simeon ben Shetah: 100 – 60 BC
Nahum the Scrivener: 10-80 AD
Abtalion: 100-30 BC
Nehunya ben Gudgada: 10-80 AD
Onias ha-Me’aggel: 80 BC – 10 AD
School of Hillel: 10-80 AD
Menahem: 70 BC – 10 AD
Simeon ben Gamaliel I: 10-70 AD
Shemaiah: 65-31 BC
Simeon of Mizpah: 10-80 AD
Shammai the Elder: 50 BC – 30 AD
Zechariah ben ha-Kazzab: 10-80 AD
Akabya ben Mehalaleel: 40 BC – 10 AD
Zechariah ben Kabutal: 10-80 AD
Gamaliel the Elder: 10-70 AD
As you can see, whenever any of these names are mentioned in the Mishnah it reflects their teachings being taught by some during the time Jesus of Nazareth lived here on earth. We do not know how many of them were part of those who argued with Him, quizzed Him, rejected Him or came to believe on Him. By the time Jesus the Messiah arrived, these Verbal Teachings had replaced the Torah – the Written Word – as well as the Prophets as the guide for all practicing Jews. They finally put the Mishnah into writing around 200 AD, compiled mostly by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi.
SECOND: THE JERUSALEM TALMUD (“Instruction”)
Even before this process began in Babylon, in the land of Israel, another set of discussions took place and the end result became known as Talmud Yerushalmi or Jerusalem Talmud. (Incidentally, they did not write the Jerusalem Talmud in Jerusalem; they penned it in Tiberias, the last place where the Sanhedrin sat, but they called it the Jerusalem Talmud in deference to that being the Sanhedrin’s rightful home.) Due to persecution of the Jewish community in Israel, the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled in mid-fourth century AD, never reached full completion or editing. The Jerusalem Talmud wound up being much shorter (it contains only four of the six sections of the Mishnah), more cryptic, and harder to understand than the later Babylonian Talmud. The Jews in Babylon lived in a much more stable conditions than the Rabbis in Palestine. Also, in Babylon they gave much more time to editing and explaining the subject matter. They identify one of the main Rabbis as Nehemiah, a mathematician who lived circa 150 AD. Another, Rabbi Aha (or Achah), a Jewish Amora (Interpreter), lived in Israel after the destruction of the Temple. They begin to make copies around 200 AD, as commentary on the Mishnah.
THIRD: THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD (“Instruction”)
During the centuries following the completion of the Mishnah and Jerusalem Talmud, the chain of transmission of verbal teachings were weakened as a result of a number of factors: Economic hardship and increased persecution of the Jewish community in Israel caused many Jews, including many Rabbis, to flee the country. Many of these Rabbis emigrated to Babylon in the Persian Empire. The role of the Rabbis of Israel as the sole central authority of the Jewish people drew to an end. This decentralization of Torah authority and lack of consensus among the Rabbis led to further weakening of the transmission process. It became clear to the sages of this period that the Mishnah alone no longer proved clear enough to fully explain the Verbal Teachings, which were written in shorthand fashion and in sections seemed very cryptic. This came about because of its concise nature, written under the assumption that those persons reading it already knew the subject matter. So these Rabbis began to have discussions about it and write down the substance of these discussions. These Rabbis in Babylon possessed copies of the Jerusalem Talmud while working on their text. Later on, when disputes erupted between the wording of the two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud reigned supreme. Both because Babylonian Talmud seems more authoritative, and because the Jerusalem Talmud appeared more difficult to study. Jewish students pouring over the Talmud in Jewish institutions chiefly used the Babylonian Talmud. During this period a significant portion of the Jewish population lived in Babylon which laid outside the bounds of the Roman Empire. Since the Rabbis put together their discussions in that location, the end product became known as Talmud Bavli, or, Babylonian Talmud. The first copies appeared around 500 AD. Jesus and the disciples are mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, but often under cryptic names and titles. In my commentary they will be pointed out to you, so take note of the names of the rabbis or teachers involved and that will give you a better idea of what they really thought of Jesus of Nazareth. – (To be continued tomorrow)
1Hebrews 1:1 – Complete Jewish Bible
2Matthew 5:17, Complete Jewish Bible, redacted for better understanding