Dating the Jewishness of Jesus

How much can we know about the Jewish culture of Jesus?  That’s a pretty fundimental question, since the goal of this blog is to understand the Jewish background of Christianity. I’ve found some pretty important news in my recent reading, and wanted to share it here.

A common approach to studying Jesus is to use Jewish writings that we have that are from slightly after his time. Two major sources are the Mishnah, a record of the debates and decisions of the rabbinic teachers written around 200 AD, which supposedly preserves sayings back to 200 BC. The Talmud (in two editions) is a collection of the Mishnah with yet more commentary, that was published between 200-300 years later. Many who write about Jesus’ Jewishness have quoted the Mishnah and the Talmud extensively. Their assumption is that oral traditions were very long lived, and that even though they were written down later, they are still useful.

But others have protested for quite good reason, because the documents came along much after Jesus’ time. Can they be used? For many decades since the 1960s, the answer of many scholars was a resounding “no.” This was especially the feeling in the mid 1970’s, when a well known scholar, Jacob Neusner, put forth the theory that Judaism completely reinvented itself after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. He suggested that everything written in the Mishnah was very late-all the quotes from rabbis who were supposed to have lived before the time of Jesus, like Hillel and Shammai, were fabricated later. Any scholar who tried to publish something that compared Jesus to the rabbis was laughed out the door.

But in the past decades more and more research has been done to ask the question, how trustworthy is the Mishnah? Can it tell us about Jesus’ time period?  And more and more are saying that with care, it actually is. In fact, Neusner himself is one of the researchers who says so. Some parts seem to be very early and very reliable, and some things were added or edited later. For instance, sayings attributed to rabbis are thought to be fairly reliable. Since we know when rabbis lived, we can check the date of the saying.

This can be really interesting. For instance, one saying that you may have heard is “Let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily.” (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4) It’s attributed to a sage named Yose ben Yoezer, who lived about 200 years before Jesus’ time. If you’ve ever heard David Bivin or Ray Vander Laan or Rob Bell talk about “walking in your rabbi’s dust,” this is where that comes from. It describes the tradition of teachers wandering the land, staying in people’s houses, and having disciples follow after them and sit at their feet when they taught.

Think about it – in the 1970’s, scholars would say, “You can’t trust that saying at all – its from 200 AD. That describes the rabbis of then, not Jesus’ time.” (Even though it sounds a lot like what we read in the Gospels!) Now, they are concluding that this saying is really from the time when it was said – 200 years before Jesus’ ministry. The conclusion is now quite different -Jesus was taking part in a tradition of known by generations before him. This makes all the difference in the world in terms of painting the Jewish reality around him.

Another thing that scholars have decided are fairly reliable in the Mishnah are the debates between the disciples of Shammai and the disciples of Hillel, which date to sometime between 10 and 70 AD. This is very interesting, because their debates come up in Jesus’ ministry. The question Jesus was asked about divorce was about which side he took. Other things, like Sabbath observance and making vows were issues between them too, and Jesus took a side too. Often it helps a lot with Jesus’ context.

This might be too scholarly of a subject for some readers, but it really is fundimental to the study of Jesus’ Jewishness. And it is true that you have to be very careful about your dating, and not assuming something said hundreds of years later describes Jesus’ reality. It’s really not a good idea to assume Jesus and Rashi, who lived a thousand years later, had much in common. Or even quote the Babylonian Talmud (500 AD) and assume it is what Jesus knew. Unfortunately, plenty of people do that, even me.

My reference for this is Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, by David Instone-Brewer, published by Eerdmans in 2004. It’s the first in a series of six that will seek to date saying from the Mishnah and some other early Jewish writings that are relevant to the New Testament era. Dr. Instone-Brewer also wrote a book called Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. It examines Jesus’ words on it in light of the debates between Hillel and Shammai. He makes some interesting conclusions on how to interpret Jesus’ words based on his Jewish context.

More about this another time… I’ll write again soon.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:10 pm  Comments (3)  


  1. This is a wonderful assertion and a good plug for several astute authors! Thank you for including the references, also: I love to know what my favorite authors are reading! In “New Light” by Bivin some attention is given to divorce, which changed my understanding of what Jesus may have actually been commenting. For a simplified example, (and not to foment a debate) why is Fornication a justification for divorce, but a husband who has a bad day at work, and comes home to beat his wife, is not? Is this not spelled out? Thanks, again!

  2. Thanks for this piece. For much of the 20th Century, dating questions were handled very differently than today. For example, the gospels were all given late dates to support the notion that what we have is more about the early church than Jesus (see Tom Wright on this), but in the last 20 years, we’ve seen the dates pushed back again, giving support to the idea that the gospels give us considerable insight into the mind of Jesus. Part of this is recovering respect for the sources and those who wrote them. It sounds as if much the same is happening with regard to the Mishnah.

  3. I found you! I left a message saying I couldn’t find your blog from the link @ En-Gedi…

    Glad to have caught up with you…I’ll be stopping by often. I, too, have a yearning to lead others back to our Hebraic roots.

    Shalom Rav!

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