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Category: The Life of Messiah

Encountering Yeshua in the Gospels

Tags:  commentary, Franz Delitzsch, Gospels, life of Yeshua, parables, sayings, translation, Yechiel Lichtenstein

Robert H. Morris

It's not like he's looking straight into my face. But I feel I'm standing up close, hearing him speak and watching him touch people in all kinds of ways.

Since May 2008, I have been privileged to work on a translation of the Gospels and Acts from the Hebrew edition of Franz Delitzsch, and on a commentary on the same books by Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein. The following are some fresh impressions of Yeshua--the Yeshua I have believed in all my life--that I received during this time, along with scattered reflections.

Written on the Heart

In the Gospels we find hundreds of snippets, and at times more lengthy accounts, of Yeshua in action--his words and deeds. We get the vivid memories of his apostles and of others who followed him. Think of this: There have been certain events in your life so vivid that you can still see expressions on faces and can hear exact words that were spoken. Surely Yeshua's teachings and actions were so powerful that his followers could remember not just a few words here and there, as skeptical scholars hold, but whole paragraphs and entire sermons that he spoke, and many details of healings and verbal exchanges; how could these ever be forgotten? Besides, Yeshua himself had promised that the Holy Spirit would help them recall his words (John 14:26).

Recently someone asked, "Why is it that Jesus Christ himself never wrote down a single word?" Jewish tradition gives the answer: It was the custom for sages not to write down their words on paper but on the minds and hearts of their disciples. I could have added that on the part of the disciples, it was paramount to store the teachings of their master and to transmit them verbatim. Clear evidence for this is the fact that rabbinic sayings before and after Yeshua were not put in writing until Rabbi Judah the Prince recorded these in the Mishnah about 200 CE, and that for the most part, the Mishnah and Gemara are composed of transmitted sayings of many individual rabbis.

Skeptics note the many small discrepancies between the Gospels. Several things can be said in answer to this: 1) Many can be resolved, and Lichtenstein's commentary is very helpful in this regard. 2) The integrity of the church fathers was shown precisely in their resisting attempts to collapse our four Gospels into one blended version; they let the ancient records stand as they were. 3) This, too, agrees with Jewish tradition: In the Mishnah and Talmud, disagreements are openly voiced. 4) This is also what we find in the Tanach: Discrepancies exist between narratives of Torah, Kings, and Chronicles and also between Ezekiel and Torah; of course, strenuous efforts have been made for centuries to resolve these. 5) In the broad scheme of things, the Gospels complement, rather than contradict, one another.

Tough, Yet Tender

The Yeshua of the Gospels is full of life and truth, but not full of himself. He has a very high self-awareness, combined with the deepest humility toward his Father. He is "one" with the Father ("I and my Father are one"), and equal to the Father in the sense that the essence of Deity is in him, yet he is subordinate to the Father in his position ("the Father is greater than I"). His wisdom and power are divine, yet he is completely human: He grows weary; he is surprised; he experiences anger and grief, even loneliness. He is a servant to all, but knows when to walk away from a situation and when to order others to leave him; he is here to serve but not to flatter the egos of others or to become their doormat. He is tough, and yet tender; kind, yet demanding.

What impresses me most, I suppose, is his constant and intensive interaction with people at all levels of society. He heals the sick, comforts the bereaved, and proclaims good news to the poor. And the "poor," for him are not just those barely scraping out an existence financially, but those who, like Miriam ha-Magdalit (Mary Magdalene), are crying out for deliverance and healing and yearning to be right with God. He does not shun people of wealth and position, but he does compassionately reach out to the down-and-outs. Everything Yeshua says packs a punch, and often deserves an exclamation point at the end. His exchanges are spirited, dynamic, not dull and sententious "thees" and "thous." There is a flowing of the Holy Spirit through him that accomplishes the miracles, yet the Spirit is not always evident in the same degree; like us, he has to constantly pray, listen, obey, even to rest.

Parables and Hard Sayings

Yeshua frequently engages the Torah scholars and Pharisees in serious exchanges about the nature of HaShem and the deeper truths of Torah. He does make halachic rulings (for example, about healing and the priority of meeting essential human needs on the Sabbath), but for the most part he is engaged in aggadah, telling parables about the king, the estate owner, the farmer, the gracious father, that lead us to meditate on new facets of HaShem's nature. And a favorite subject of Yeshua is the kingdom of heaven--HaShem's reign here and now on earth through Yeshua himself, to be consummated at the end of the age. He portrays the kingdom as a pearl, a lost coin, a fishing net, as yeast working in dough. He warns of judgment to come at the end of the age, with eternal punishment of the wicked and eternal blessings for the righteous. He portrays himself, the Son of man, as the heir, the king, the judge. The kingdom of God is his movement. And those who believe and hold to his teachings have eternal life even now!

There are also the "hard" sayings of Yeshua which cannot be taken literally but must be understood in context, such as: "unless you hate your father and mother." At face value, this is a direct contradiction of Torah. There are his puzzling statements, such as: "He that marries her also commits adultery"; these require discernment. There are his outrageous demands, such as plucking out the offending eye. Yeshua uses shocking language to get our attention and metaphors to stir our imagination, and his insistence that we put him first that only make sense if he is, indeed, the Messiah.

In the course of his three years or so of active ministry, Yeshua encounters tens of thousands--perhaps hundreds of thousands--of people. Many are deeply impressed; crowds follow him. Others walk away puzzled, or troubled, or furiously angry. It's hard to be neutral about him. Yeshua encounters the rulers of Jewish society and even the Roman authorities head-on. As they hold his life in their very hands, they are amazed at his silence in the face of questions and even more so at his startling claims when he finally answers.

Yeshua pours himself out in parables and wise sayings to all those who follow him or gather in the Temple and in synagogues to hear him. All the while he is laboring behind the scenes to give understanding to his actual disciples, and especially to the Twelve who are constantly with him. Within the Twelve is an inner circle of Shimon, Yaakov, and Yochanan (Peter, James, and John) with whom he shares very special experiences: raising the girl back to life, his transfiguration, his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He teaches his disciples by word and example throughout these dramatic years, then prepares them for the reality of his death, promising that after three days he will rise again. Even after that they will not see him for a long time, but he will again return in glory.

The Righteous Jew

I suppose what is most surprising for me, reading the Gospels closely and afresh, is how very Jewish Yeshua is. Growing up in Christian churches, I received the impression that our Jesus was the universal man who either accidentally, or necessarily to fulfill Scriptures, appeared in a Jewish body and in the Jewish culture of his time. But when we look closely, his Jewishness is unmistakable: He lived and breathed the Hebrew Scriptures; his God was the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The Shema, he said, was the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29), and surely he recited it daily as other Jews did then and do today. He said he did not come to nullify the Torah, but instead to reveal its full force. For example, while the Torah forbids adultery, he forbids even lust; while the Torah forbids murder, he forbids even hatred--calling us to a righteousness higher than, but not opposed to, legal righteousness. HaShem forgives; we must forgive. HaShem is generous; we must be generous. HaShem is perfect; we are to strive for perfection of spirit and life.

Christians sometimes point out that Yeshua broke the Sabbath, and it is true that he healed on the Sabbath; he told a man to carry his bedding on the Sabbath; his disciples broke off heads of grain on the Sabbath. But he defended himself as being the Son of man and therefore lord of the Sabbath, and defended his disciples for acting out of necessity--based on the Torah and the Prophets. He also told his disciples to pray that they would not have to flee Jerusalem on the Sabbath. When he was crucified, his followers rested on the Sabbath, not even tending to his body. In disputes, he refuted the Sadducees in their denial of the resurrection, and he accused the Pharisees of neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah, while commending them for keeping the "lighter" commandments such as tithing herbs (a rabbinic, not a biblical, injunction).

Yeshua's identification with the Jewish people is clear when he tells his disciples he was only sent "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," when he calls Jews "the children" and non-Jews "dogs'" and when he tells the woman at the well that "salvation is from the Jews."

The Earliest Witnesses

There are many incidents in the Mishnah and the Talmud that date back to the time of Yeshua and even before. However, the Gospels and other Apostolic Writings were put in writing well over a century before the Mishnah was written down, and it would be two more centuries after that before the Gemara took form, making our New Testament books some of the most ancient authoritative Jewish texts. It is entirely possible that some of the sayings, perhaps even the more formal rulings, of Yeshua percolated through Jewish society as a whole and have influenced later rabbinic thinking. (This is a matter for study and reflection.) As I understand it, Yeshua was the first Jewish sage clearly to be called "rabbi" in literature, although it is clear the term was used for others as well during his lifetime. While the cumulative references of some of the individual Tanaim exceed the volume of the words and deeds of Yeshua in the Gospels, I would suggest we have a more coherent body of material conveying Yeshua's teachings and deeds than of any other ancient Jewish sage. We also have more of his actual words and deeds than many of the great teachers and philosophers of China, India, Greece, and Rome. What we have in our Gospels is truly an amazing record of the most extraordinary life ever lived and of the most extraordinary events in history.

The Gospels both declare and provide sufficient evidence that Yeshua was (and is) the Messiah, corresponding to the Talmudic figure of a son of Joseph who was to be a suffering Messiah. We have his teachings, his miracles, his compassionate acts, his revelation of HaShem and of the true meaning of the Torah, and we have his death and resurrection. (On the resurrection, much has been written, but one impressive point to me is that the first witnesses to the risen Yeshua were women. Jewish law devalues the testimony of women vis-á-vis men, and this would not be the way first-century Jewish men would have wanted it to have happened.)

It is sad to me that the very meaning of Yeshua's name, "salvation," has been stripped from him. On one hand, our English "Jesus" is derived from the Greek "Yesous," a transliteration of the Hebrew "Yeshua." A transliteration, by its very nature, attempts to convey something of the sound but nothing of the actual meaning of a name. On the other hand, the usual name given to Yeshua in the Talmud, "Yeshu," may be, as David Flusser suggested, a Galilean form of the name, or else it may be a deliberate and polemical reduction. Either way, it has lost its meaning of "salvation." It is also very sad to me that whereas in the early church, the big issue was whether one could be a follower of Yeshua without legally becoming Jewish, and the answer, given in Acts 15, was "yes," a century later, when the issue was whether one could one be a Christian while remaining a Jew, the answer given by the Roman church (after the Jerusalem church and its Jewish leaders were decimated) was "no." Thankfully, Paul in Romans 11 can see even in this the overall working out of God's salvation for humankind.

Restoring Context

The significance of Franz Delitzsch's translation of the New Testament--beyond his original purpose of putting it into the hands of those who read Hebrew--is that in large part it is a restoration process. We have evidence from the church fathers that Matthew originally wrote the life of Yeshua "in the Hebrew language"; Jerome, for one, claims to have examined a copy in the library in Caesarea. The Ebionites, apparently, preserved this for several centuries in a form somewhat different from our Matthew. Mark and Luke appear to have built on this core narrative. John is different, but he had intimate personal memories of the Master and showed familiarity with Jewish culture as well.

It is not that Delitzsch's translation of the Gospels is radically different from our standard translations. What he does, however, is to put Yeshua back into his original linguistic and cultural context. There's a "flavor" to the Gospels that is restored; this is mostly in the details, yet there is an impressive cumulative effect. At times, there is a surprising opening up of a saying or an event.

Yechiel Lichtenstein's commentary on the Gospels is of great importance here, not just because he was a Messianic scholar, but because he was a scholar among scholars, with hundreds of original insights into the biblical texts. Commentaries on the Gospels drawing on Jewish sources are no longer rare, but I dare say Lichtenstein's mastery of the rabbinic material--Mishnah, Talmud, midrashim, tosefot, baraitas, other ancient documents, the medieval commentators--as well as of New Testament Greek and the Christian scholarship of his day (late nineteenth century), is extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented. His ability to remember and to reference all this material, without indexes, awes me. And with this goes a good heart--a heart passionate for truth and wholly committed to Messiah Yeshua. I am grateful that through his work we can begin to see Yeshua in a clearer light.

About the Author: Robert H. Morris works for First Fruits of Zion in the capacity of a translator. Currently he is the primary translator of Rabbi Yechiel Lichtenstein's Hebrew commentary on the New Testament and the Franz Delitzsch Hebrew New Testament project, tentatively to begin publication through Vine of David in 2010.

Mr. Morris has a B.A. in French, an M.A. in Biblical Literature from Oral Roberts University (1993), and has completed three years of Ph.D. studies in Midrash at Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He lives in Medina, Tennessee, with his wife, Jeanne.

Adapted from Messiah Journal #101. © 2015 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.