A critical error many people make when trying to interpret scripture happens when they do not have a proper understanding of the context and culture of the time in which it was written, so in order to understand how a particular passage may speak to a Christian in the twenty-first century, one must first establish: who wrote it, why it was written, and who it was written for before they can extrapolate any potential significance to the modern day believer. As Dr. R. Wayne Stacy emphasizes, “Understanding the Jewishness of the New Testament is essential to the interpretive process… [And to be sure how] the New Testament is the Word of God for us today, we must first answer: what did it mean to those it was written for? [Only after answering that can we begin to understand:] what does it mean for us today?”
In this case study, the teacher should be commended on his or her attempt to provide as much background and explanatory information as possible in order to help the class understand the proper historical context and cultural setting. However, because of the wide range of diversity in the maturity and knowledge of believers, it is imperative that culture and context do not overshadow the meaning of the passage and how it can be applied today. The sad reality is the complexity of historical facts and vastly different customs and traditions have a way of causing people to lose perspective or interest and as Dr. Stacy suggests, “because of modern misconceptions the end result is often misinterpretation.”
At the conclusion of the lesson, one of the attendees challenged the teacher with several argumentative statements and questions, which ranged from saying Jesus was not a Jew, but a Christian to while Jesus may have been born a Jew, He rejected all that “law stuff” along with the rest of Judaism as a false religion. Ultimately, the individual was arguing as to why the teacher was trying to make Jesus out to be a Jew and why it was so important to know all this Jewish stuff to interpret the New Testament since they were in church and not a synagogue. Proper responses to both of those pivotal questions are as follows:
WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE JESUS OUT TO BE A JEW?
After proper examination of Luke 2:41-52 and according to Stacy’s assertion: “to know the Jesus of the Gospels, you must study a particular people, living in a particular place, at a particular time, speaking a particular language, sharing a particular culture, and worshipping a specific God.” In doing so, it is hard not to address the scandal of particularity, as God did not just reveal Himself to His people; instead He became one of them, lived among them, and ultimately gave His life for them.
As the teacher and after presenting the lesson based on this passage of scripture, I would highlight the piety of Joseph and Mary and clarify how Jesus was raised in a home focused on the purpose of God as demonstrated by their observance of Passover. Jesus was a Jew, His father was a Jew, and His mother was a Jew who could trace her bloodline back to King David. As Joel Green demonstrates, “Jesus is being raised in a pious environment, but his commitment to God’s purpose transcends that piety and that environment.” Jesus was twelve in this passage, and Thomas Lea demonstrates how Luke is the only disciple that sheds any light on the childhood of Jesus, pointing out, “At the age of thirteen Jewish boys became full participants in Judaism, [so] Jesus’ parents may have taken Him there when he was twelve… to acquaint Him with the Temple and its festivals.” Ultimately, He would in fact grow up to be a Jewish rabbi and all of His disciples would be Jewish as well. In this passage of scripture, Lea demonstrates in verse forty-nine how, “Jesus’ reply to His parents indicates a developing messianic consciousness at an early age. As an obedient son, Jesus dutifully returned to Nazareth with his parents, [but] Luke chronicled the development of Jesus intellectually (“in wisdom”), physically (“in stature”), spiritually (“favor with God”), and socially (“favor with man”).”
Regarding the Law, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” As R. T. France illustrates, “It raises acutely the issue of Jesus’ Messianic authority in relation to the existing authority of the Torah and of its authorized interpreters at the time, and illustrates the tensions which were to lead to the ultimate decision of the Jewish leadership that Jesus was a dangerous influence who must be eliminated.” This is the polar opposite of the reception Jesus received from the teachers when they were astonished by Him, His answers, and His understanding. Green goes on to say, “It is a good thing to keep the Passover, but the sort of pious environment to which Jesus has become accustomed at home serves and must serve the more fundamental purpose of God. Not even familial claims take precedent over aligning oneself uncompromisingly on the side of God’s purpose.”
It is interesting to note that Paul, even after his transformation on the road to Damascus, remained a Jew and adhered to all the instructions found in the Torah. Paul’s conversion experience did not mean he became a Christian, only that he now believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Stacy points out; “Luke went to great lengths establishing whatever Christianity may become, it had its roots in pious Judaism and that Christianity was formed through and by a move of the Holy Spirit within Judaism.” Antioch would be the epicenter and birthplace of Christianity and base of operations for Paul. As F. F. Bruce illustrates:
No difficulty seems to have been felt at this stage about the uniting in one believing community of Jewish converts and Gentile converts. The new way was wide enough to accommodate believers of the most diverse backgrounds. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city, where Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian rubbed shoulders, where Mediterranean civilization met the Syrian Desert; racial and religious differences, which loomed so large in Judaea seemed much less important here. The church of Antioch from the outset had an ethos quite distinct from that of the Jerusalem church. The pagans of Antioch, too, knew all about these people, for they did not keep quiet about their faith, but proclaimed it wherever they went.
The term Christian did not come about till well after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension and it simply meant followers of Christ in word and deed. Bruce demonstrates how, “Just as, in Palestine, the adherents of the Herod dynasty were called Herodians, so, says Luke, in Antioch the adherents of Jesus the Christ first came to be popularly known as Christians.” Stacy elaborates further by illustrating how in that time the issues between Christianity and Judaism were internal – that is a struggle within one religion and not two competing religions as we view them today.
WHY DO WE NEED TO KNOW ALL THIS JEWISH STUFF TO INTERPET THE NT?
Knowing and understanding Jewish culture and history is important because Christianity finds its roots within Judaism and J. Julius Scott Jr. highlights how just as the “Intertestamental Jewish writers assume the reader is familiar with the Old Testament, [he also explains,] how the primary and initial audience of the New Testament would understand the same significance of geographic locations, festivals, and ceremonies.” If readers of the Word are to have any relevant perspective, according to Stacy, “They must be able to negotiate vast distances between their world and our own by understanding the times, the languages, the culture, the geography, and the politics.” Bridging the gap starts with understanding the New Testament was written to the first century believers and early church, but also by accepting what it meant for them and why; only then can we apply it to the twenty-first century for application today.
God reveals Himself to us through His creation and through His Word, so having a proper understanding of Jewish history is crucial if we want to have closer relationship with Him and if we are to be successful in fulfilling the Great Commission. Through a deeper understanding of culture and times allows one to unlock passages and provide a more concise translation. The Word of God is timeless, so the truths found within its pages must never be discounted or forgotten simply because they are not easily comprehended and the Jewishness of Jesus and the forefathers of Christianity are fundamental in our understanding of scripture.
Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Green, Joel B. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.
Scott Jr., J. Julius. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1995.
Stacy, Dr. R. Wayne. “The Jewish Setting of Early Christianity, Negotiating the Distances Slide: Week One.” https://learn.liberty.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-10753578-dt-content-rid-84883558_1/courses/NBST515_B06_201620/Presentations/NBST515%20iSpring%20Presentations/NBST515%20Module%201%20Jewish%20Setting%20of%20Early%20Christianity%20%28LMS%29/res/index.html (accessed 1-19-16).