What I’m Reading: New Light On The Difficult Words Of Jesus

A friend of mine recommended a book to me a couple of years ago.  As usual, I put it on my Amazon wish list (which is a great way to keep track of all the recommended reading that comes my way) and only recently was able to get my hands on it.  I was somewhat familiar with much of the contents of the book, but there were a couple of new insight that were revealed and I appreciated the thorough explanations of even the familiar concepts.

Cover: New Light On The Difficult Words Of JesusThe basic premise of the author, David Bivin, is that much of what Jesus said in the Gospels takes on a slightly (and sometimes entirely) different meaning when we understand the world of first century rabbis and their teachings.  When we do our homework, there are many Hebraisms to be found in the Gospels.  Hebraisms are sayings found in rabbinic writings that are not immediately recognized because the New Testament was written in Greek and not Hebrew.  When we take certain teachings from Jesus and translate them back into Hebrew, we discover that Jesus was often commenting on the commonly held rabbinic thought of the day.  Despite the complexity of the premise, the book is easy to read and understand.

Jesus, of course, was a rabbi.  A good rabbi was one who was able to bring both new treasures (new interpretations) out of Torah as well as old (the original intent of Torah), which is essentially what Matthew 13:52 refers to.  A rabbi who misinterpreted Torah with his new teachings at the expense of the old was said to have “abolished the law.”  With this in mind, it is incredible how often Jesus was able to bring innovative interpretations from Torah, while defending its original intent.  Thus Jesus was able to claim, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

Bivin exposes some of the ways that Christians today might be guilty of “abolishing the Law” through misinterpretation.  A couple examples have to do with Jesus’s teaching on divorce, some commonly held notions of prayer, and the title Jehovah, which is a misinterpretation of Yahweh and basically has no meaning in Hebrew.

Overall, however, I was struck that the task Jesus faced with his own teaching is the same task that we face today: teaching scripture in a way that is both innovative and orthodox; bringing out the new while preserving the old.  I have witnessed much teaching that tends to focus on the one at the expense of the other, but a good rabbi is able to bring out both aspects equally well.