Saturday, May 22, 2010

Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

I have a strong suspicion that Jesus was a disciple of a Rabbi named Hillel. A man approached Hillel and challenged him to sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. He balanced himself on one foot and said,"What is hateful to you, do not do to your brother, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study." Then he returned his foot to the floor. One day while researching Hillel in more depth, I came across a Jewish tradition that says "when a person repents, all his sins are forgiven and he becomes like a newborn child." Sound familiar? Hillel was born about 80 years before Jesus' commonly accepted birthday. This was my first clue that Jesus might have been in his academy at one time.

The interesting part is that Hillel was a Pharisee. Not only that, he was the leader of the Pharisees. Him and his opponent. You see the other really interesting part is that Hillel, as with Jewish leaders before him, always had a theological opponent with whom he sparred throughout his tenure. There were always TWO leaders. Hillel's opponent was Shammai. (Before Hillel and Shammai were Avtalyon and Shemaya and after them, Akiva and Ishmael.) Hillel was known as the one to judge mercifully and Shammai was said to be stricter, more harsh and less forgiving. I guess you could say that Hillel was the liberal and Shammai was the conservative. Hillel was said to have prevailed on most counts. Imagine that, respectful disagreement was not only allowed in Judaism, it was and is a cornerstone of the faith tradition. Wow! Can we get some of that over here on the Christian side? The Talmud is actually a record of these debates, disagreements, agreements, and interpretations over hundreds of years.

The point is that Jesus' debate with the Pharisees was a debate that they were already having with themselves. This makes me think that there's a chance Jesus could have even been one of the Pharisees, like the Apostle Paul! Now wouldn't that change the way we see things? If you read the Tanakh (I don't like to call it the Old Testament because it is disrespectful to my Jewish brothers) and the Talmud (The Jewish commentary on the Tanakh) you will find the context out of which Jesus' thinking and teaching came. I really think most Christians believe that by 6 years old Jesus already knew everything and developed this "new" teaching all on his own.

Amy Jill Levine, a practicing Jew who is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN has written an amazing book called, Jesus The Misunderstood Jew. Fortunately I have some basic knowledge of Judaism thanks to Abraham Joshua Heschel and William Barclay. However, her book is written for those who don't. Her thorough knowledge of Judaism helps her understand the New Testament in ways unknown to most of us. There are things in the Bible that seem to mean one thing to us (non-Jews) on the face of it, but actually mean something quite different. That, coupled with her sense of humor and irony make for a fascinating, funny, and very enlightening book. Abraham Joshua Heschel has a great book called, God In Search Of Man for a Jewish perspective of the Tanakh. If you're really nuts like I am then try his other book, Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through The Generations for a walk through the Talmud. Any of William Barclay's commentaries will give you a great background in 1st century Jewish, Greek and Roman history and customs.

I think there's more to the story than what we're commonly told.


  1. Great post! I would also recommend Brad Young's "Jesus the Jewish Theologian" and Geza Vermes' "The Religion of Jesus the Jew."

  2. I've also heard that when Shammai was asked the same question, he ran the questioner off with a stick.

    Perhaps, as i saw someone else comment on this, Hillel was actually a student of the 'yet to come' Messiah.