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The First Century Jesus

How Jewish was Jesus? 

But what of Yeshua and his education? The Mishnah, a 3rd Century collection of the oral “Traditions of the Elders”  tell us that Jewish boys of the day 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! Sunday School was never harder! It was made harder still when one realises that reading material was scarce and a poor family like theirs would have, at best, just one or two Biblical scrolls, just a small part of the total breadth of Scripture. So much was committed to memory.

It was serious business being a 1st Century Jewish schoolkid! So what was Yeshua doing in those silent early years? He was hard at study, memorising Scripture and rabbinical commentary, in common with most other Jewish youths of his day. By the time he had left his adolescent years he would have memorised most of the written Torah. From then on his mother, Miriam, watched proudly as he 'grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.'

The boy became a man as Yeshua arrived by the banks of the River Jordan, where his relative, John the Baptist (Yochanan the Immerser) was ‘preparing the way’. Baptise me, declared Yeshua. You’ve got to be kidding! responded John. Do I look like I’m kidding? Let it be so! The act of baptism, was, in the words of Alfred Edersheim, “the last act of his private life”. This was some beginning to this unique and awesome ministry. Heaven opens and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”, a combination of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The common interpretation of the symbolism here is of an expression of the Trinity; God the father commending God the Son in the presence of God the Holy Spirit, who takes the form of a dove.

Yeshua began his ministry. His deeds may have been mighty, but in appearance he was just like any other Jewish itinerant teacher. Far from the blue-eyed, chisel-jawed Hollywood Swede, or the dreamy ginger-haired Renaissance Italian, he was an olive-skinned, dark-haired 1st Century Jew. The Samaritan woman certainly thought so.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.” (John 4:9)

He certainly dressed as a religious Jew. A clue is in this passage:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” (Matthew 9:20-21)

It’s not an obvious clue, because the translation does the original event no favour at all. The clue becomes clearer when we look at the same passage in the Jewish New Testament translation.

A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years approached him from behind and touched the tzitzit on his robe…

Spot the strange word? Tzitzit. Some translations refer to it as a “hem”, which is only marginally more accurate than “edge”. A better word is “fringe” or “tassel”, a word that appears in Numbers 15:37-39.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.”

And that is what Jesus was wearing. A robe, like the garments worn by today’s Bedouins, with tassels, or tzitzits, on each corner. It marked him out not just as a Jew, but one who followed the Torah and lived by it, as directed by that passage in Numbers.

He taught in synagogues and the Jewish Temple, without a Gentile in sight. Much of his teaching was in a thoroughly Jewish context. He visited Jerusalem for the Pilgrim Feasts of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succot (Tabernacles), as well as Chanukah (Dedication of the Temple) and made great use of their symbolism in his teachings, particularly when speaking of his mission on Earth. He went to great pains in affirming the great themes of the Old Testament, the only Holy Scriptures available to the Jews of his day.

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:16-17)

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

You can reach Steve with any comments or questions at the Saltshakers Web Community website.

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