Jesus’ Hermeneutic: Rabbinic Interpretation and the New Testament

Jesus’ methodology of the employing texts from the Hebrew Bible in his teaching is often overlooked by some though it sometimes allows the thrust of Jesus’ message to come to the fore. Understanding his methodology also allows us to note the distinct connection between Jesus and what would eventually become Pharisaic/Rabbinic exegesis.

Even though the first stratum of these rules of Rabbinic exegesis are attributed to Hillel, a rabbi that flourished just prior to Jesus’, the tradition regarding Hillel’s middot appear for the first time in the literature to the Tannaim (see Avot de Rabbi Natan vers. A, 37). That being said, there is evidence that these concepts of exegesis existed long before there were codified in Rabbinic literature.

Scholars have already noted where Jesus is depicted as utilizing the exegetical technique known as Qal va’homer (from light to heavy, that is, less significant to more significant [a minori ad maius]). Strack and Stemberger note that, “According to Ishmael this rule is already applied ten times in the Pentateuch, e.g. in Gen 44.8 (GenR 92.7, Theodor/Albeck 1145)” (Intro the Talmud and Midrash; trans. M. Bockmuehl, 18). This style of exegesis is used throughout Rabbinic literature and is preserved in the Gospels. For instance, Matt 6:28-30: “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?” In other words, if God clothes the grass of the field,  (from less significant to more significant) how much more you who are far more valuable.

Yet another example which has been discussed at length by Steven Notley in his article “Jesus’ Jewish Hermeneutical Method on the Nazareth Synagogue” (Early Christian Literature and Intertextuality; eds. C. Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias; New York: Continuum, 2009, 46-59) is Jesus’ use of gezerah shavah during his teaching at the Nazareth synagogue. David Instone Brewer has defined at least one version of this style of interpretation in the following way: “is the interpretation of one text in the light of another text to which it is related by a shared word or phrase. The two texts are often concerned with the same subject, but the existence of the same word or phrase in two texts can suggest a relationship between them even if they are concerned with completely unrelated subjects” (Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 C.E. [TSAJ 30; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992], 17)

On this occassion in Nazareth, Jesus brings together two seemingly disparate texts from Isaiah based on the unique verbiage shared by each. Both Isaiah 58:5 and 61:2 share the unique formulation ratzon le-adonai (‘favor’ or ‘will’ of the Lord). These are the only two occasions in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible where this phrase appears. Jesus utilizes this exegesis in the synagogue at Nazareth to bring home his message regarding the all-encompassing message of God’s grace. The same interpretive technique can be seen in “Jesus’ Witness Concerning John the Baptist (Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10),” where Ex 23:20 and Mal 3:1 seem to be brought together  due the unique language and reflect contemporary expectations regarding the pre-Messianic eschatological prophet.

*While this is far from an exhaustive treatment of Jesus’ exegetical methodology, it indicates the importance of incorporating Rabbinic literature into our understanding of the historical Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels. It also offers a window into the manner which Rabbinic literature can inform, or help to define, the exegetical traditions that existed prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Such needs to be part of the regular discourse when one tries to grasp of the intricacies of understanding the historical Jesus, as well as a mandatory criterion for understanding the Synoptic gospels.

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