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How did Jesus Read the Bible?

How did Jesus understand God's Word?

There are rules used by Jewish scholars in reading and understanding Scripture. These have been developed over a period of time by groups of scholars who, at the same time, were creating huge commentaries on the Bible, compiled into such volumes as the Talmud. As interesting as this is, it doesn't help us, as we are looking for tools that the modern Western mind can understand and use, not dreary old reference books to leaf through. We have enough of those in the Christian world!

Unfortunately we start off at a disadvantage. Jesus and his contemporaries, in common with Jews before him and after him, would have had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Jewish boys would study the Torah (The first five books of the Bible) at the age of five, the oral "Traditions" at the age of ten and be trained in halachot, rabbinic legal decisions, at the ripe old age of fifteen! Scripture would be memorised as they didn't have laptops in those days, or even ready access to writing materials. They knew God's word like some of us know the Simpsons, past storylines of our favourite soaps, or the traits and foibles of the latest movie star. Many of us struggle to come up with just the basic facts of standard Bible stories, particularly if we weren't carted off to Sunday school when children. We just don't, by and large, have an instinctive grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures and, consequently, we are handicapped when it comes to using traditional Jewish tools for understanding God's word.

But there is hope for us. They may have had the Biblical training from a young age, but we have computers and these electronic companions can simulate a whole lifetime of study and experience. It's both sad and handy, but we must look on the bright side and use whatever tools we have at our disposal!

Jesus did a lot of stuff. Virtually everything he did was to fulfil the words of prophets of an earlier age. He healed, he taught, he comforted, he corrected, he put people right with God. In doing so he was able to point to his actions as fulfilments to the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms and many other places. He was able to do so because there was a general agreement among the Jews of his day as to what these Scriptures were saying. They knew how to make sense of their Scriptures. The question of interpretation was not an issue as they all shared the same tools for reading these sacred words. Not so, today. Over the last two thousand years of Christianity we have developed so many ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, it seems that we can make Scriptures say whatever we want them to say, without any regard to what they are actually saying. As a result, unscrupulous men have got rich, dastardly acts have been committed and communities have been led astray. All because "the Bible says ..."

It seems to me that when confusion and uncertainty reigns, then going back to origins is no bad thing. As Christians, who do we take as the ultimate authority? Jesus, of course. Then surely, in terms of the Scriptures available to him in his day (the Old Testament), we must read them through the eyes of Jesus, a first century Jew. To do this we don't necessarily need a knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, the written languages of Scripture in those days. What we do need is to get inside their heads and follow the thought processes that drove their understanding.

It would help if, say among the Dead Sea Scrolls, someone found a set of parchments under the heading of "Reading Scripture the Jesus way" or "Bible interpretation for the non-Hebrew mind". We are not given this luxury but we can piece together a good picture from fragments of information from various sources, either from that time itself or from later writings. So where do we start?

Next week we are going to answer that question ...

Steve Maltz
July 2012

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