Unlocking The New Testament: Things New And Old (4)

 

 

                   …like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old

                                                                   Mat.13:52

We continue reading the Scriptures through the Scriptures. I really hope that these articles help you see the continuity between the Testaments – and maybe also help you understand some details of the Gospels in much fuller and more complete way. I am convinced that understanding the Scriptural  and cultural background of the NT helps us not only better comprehend those words and deeds of Jesus that belong to this background, but also to grasp the full meaning of those words and deeds that went far beyond the traditional ideas and customs.

 

JESUS AND VOWS

One of the sayings of Jesus that his followers are sometimes perplexed about, concerns oaths: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”[1]. What text did Jesus have in mind  when he spoke of “those of ancient times”?

In the book of Numbers we read:  “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth[2]. Probably,  this is the text that Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the mount. It’s important to note that , Jesus is not unique while addressing this issue: different   Jewish texts of this period speak of oath. For instance, even though we don’t have a  prohibition to swear from the Dead Sea texts themselves,  Josephus ( J.W . 2.135) writes  that the Essenes avoid oaths and that what they say is stronger  than an oath. However, we don’t find such a categorical command in other texts of  this period:  at first glance,  we don’t see any   parallelism  in the words of Jesus with  Num. 30:2 or with the Second  temple literature. Numbers 30:2 requires that those who make a vow or oath do not  break their promises, they have to  keep their word. It means that oaths   were permitted in the  Torah, while Jesus seems to  prohibit  them completely.    The question is, did Jesus really prohibit all the vows?

There are several NT texts that call into question this absolutist approach to Jesus’ words. First of all, in Matt. 26:63–64, Jesus himself replies to the High Priest’s question “under oath.” Even more examples are connected to Paul.  Not only Paul twice invokes God’s name to assure the truth of his claims (Gal. 1:20; 2 Cor. 1:23), but he actually takes vows, probably Nazirite vows as described   in Num. 6.

The Nazirite had to abstain from alcohol and from cutting his hair for the whole period of vow. At the end of this time he shaved the hair and offered  a sacrifice. From the book of Acts we know, that not only  Paul both recognized and respected Nazirite vow (the famous episode in acts 21:23-24), but he also  took vows himself: “At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow”[3]. Therefore, Jesus’ words from Mat.5:33-37 could not and should not be understood as a complete prohibition of vows. Jesus speaks about the goal for his followers:  to be so trustworthy in keeping their words  that oaths prove unnecessary.

 

 

REGARD THEM NOT …

 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother… cannot be my disciple[4]

While speaking about the cost of discipleship in Luke 14, Jesus says seemingly strange words about hating one’s father and mother, wife and children. For centuries, these words of Jesus have been the subject of different interpretations; some have even gone so far as to see in them the annulment of the fourth commandment (“Honor your father and mother” – Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Indeed, how can we understand these words?

We won’t understand this saying of Jesus unless we see it as echoing Moses’ blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:8-9, where Levi’s devotion to God’s word is emphasized:

who said of his father and mother,
“I regard them not”;
he ignored his kin,
and did not acknowledge his children.
For they observed your word,
and kept your covenant.[5]

Similar to the requirement of Jesus, Levi is saying of his father and mother, “I regard them not.” He ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children – because he observed your word, and kept your covenant. If we compare Luke 14:26 with the blessing of Levi, we would see clearly that Jesus doesn’t cancel the fourth commandment and doesn’t contradict the Torah. As many rabbis of his time and after, Jesus knew the Torah sometimes presented conflicting claims that might be resolved only by subordination of one commandment to another. According to Moses’ blessing, Levi signifies the people with the love for God’s word surpassing even their love for their family; this is the kind of disciples that Jesus is looking for in Luke 14:26. If we put this and other “difficult” sayings of Jesus into a proper Scriptural or cultural context, we would have no difficulties understanding them.

 

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or JBNT (Jewish Background of the NT) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsor learning more about the Jewish Background of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com)

 

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books – you can get them from my page:  https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  I also want to let you know that beezrat Hashem, my book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah and into New Testament will be published and available soon. 

 

[1] Mt.5:33-36

[2] Num.30:2

[3] Acts 18:18

[4] Lk. 14:46

[5] Deut.33:9 (NRSV)

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (7 comments)

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  1. Rebecca Raymond

    Shalom…….could the Deuteronomy 33:9 passage be referring back to the event in Exodus 32:26-29?

    1. Julia Blum

      Shalom Rebecca, of course there is such an interpretation based on Midrash and the commentaries of Rashi. However, Rashi also notes: ” It is, however, impossible to explain [that it means literally his father and his brother from his father, and likewise, literally his sons, because all these were Levites, and not one of the tribe of Levi sinned, as it is said, “and all the sons of Levi [gathered to him]” (Exod. 32:26)”.

  2. John M Akin

    Looking forward to your new book.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, John. It’s published already and is available on Amazon, hopefully, will be on my page here next week.

  3. Ian

    Excellent article Julia. I enjoyed it very much. Picking up on whether our Lord meant to prohibit the making of oaths, I am inclined to think that He did. His injunction to us to keep our answers “Ay ay, and Nay nay. Anything more cometh of evil” tends to indicate that His disciples were to lead simple, sincere and straight-forward lives. Nothing more was needed. Or rather, nothing else would suffice. Shalom.

    1. Donald Ashton

      Ian, et. al.,
      Although not affirming a vow with an oath is one way of reading this passage, I take a different view from this.
      Looking at the wider passage we see that Jesus’ approach to Torah is spelled out in verses 17 and 18, therefore it is impossible for him to be contradicting the Torah teaching.
      What he is questioning are the ‘fences’ put around these teaching by the teachers of the Torah. These fences were well known at the time and hence only required the slightest reference to them for people to understand what he was challenging. These hints are given in verses 34-36 (although there could have been many more). These all refer to fences defining when an oath was valid or not. (rather similar to when we were children and you could tell a lie if you had your hands behind your back with your fingers crossed because it didn’t count (This may be a cultural example. Replace with your own if necessary.))
      I do not think this passage has anything to do with such things as taking a legal oath, but only to do with affirming a statement by an oath as if you were not sufficiently truthful for your word to be believed.

      When Jesus contradicted pharisaic teachings it was always about their fences and never ever about the actual teachings in Torah.
      However, not all fences are erroneous and Jesus did make some of his own for us to use. These were usually of the format: “You have heard it said …, but I say to you …”)

      I hope that my comment helps us to understand how important it is to study the scriptures behind the scriptures to get a fuller understanding of all the teachings presented to us by our Messiah and the total consistency of the whole of the scriptures.

      Donald Ashton

      1. Julia Blum

        Hi Ian and Donald, thank you so much for your comments. I agree with Donald: when Jesus contradicted the Pharisees, it was always about the fences, about the oral tradition: it is unthinkable that Jesus would contradict the Torah teaching. Therefore, I don’t think Jesus spoke about the formal prohibition of the vows (otherwise, how would we understand Paul’s examples?); rather, he spoke about the goal for his followers: to be so trustworthy in keeping their words that as you put it Ian,” Nothing more was needed”.