Parallels: Jesus and the Talmud

Babylonian Talmud (13th - 14th c.) in the British MuseumThere is a perennial debate that questions whether the traditions in Rabbinic literature can be utilized to elucidate the New Testament. Though it is clear that gospels have undergone some editing and the evangelists may not have completely understood Jewish traditions, it is interesting to find parallels between the gospels (late 1st century C.E.), the NT, and the later strands of Jewish tradition preserved in the Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud at that (5th-6th century C.E.).

1.Yes and No

Matt 5:37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν; RSV trans.).

James 5:12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation (Πρὸ πάντων δέ, ἀδελφοί μου, μὴ ὀμνύετε μήτε τὸν οὐρανὸν μήτε τὴν γῆν μήτε ἄλλον τινὰ ὅρκον· ἤτω δὲ ὑμῶν τὸ ναὶ ναὶ καὶ τὸ οὒ οὔ, ἵνα μὴ ὑπὸ κρίσιν πέσητε; RSV trans.).

b. Bab. Met. 49a:”Let your ‘yes’ be righteous and your ‘no’ be righteous” (שהיא הן שלך צדק ולאו שלך צדק  a saying attributed to Yose ben Judah).

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7 thoughts on “Parallels: Jesus and the Talmud

  1. A while ago I read an interesting book–I wish I could remember the name–on parallels to Pirkei Avot in world religions. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that statements involving basic wisdom are often paralleled in several religions spanning centuries and across the globe. These parallels do not demonstrate any historical ties whatsoever.

    Likewise parallels such as the ones you cite in the NT and rabbinic writings. They MAY be connected in some way, but whether and how they are connected is purely conjectural.

    In the case of rabbinic backgrounds to the NT, by far the best methodology out there is found in David Instone-Brewer’s T-R-E-N-T series.

    • Thanks for your comment. My point with the post is not to draw any specific historical link except that the gospels and the NT were born out of an environment that was steeped in Judaism. There is a great deal of discontinuity, as well as continuity, between what we find in the Second Temple Period and what eventually becomes Rabbinic Judaism. In some cases, which I am not sure my example in this post was intended for, Rabbinic texts (especially in interpretive style) can help to elucidate a gospel texts. Because they were initially codified in the 3rd century C.E should give room for the wholesale neglect of these texts. With close examination and critical effort, a great deal can be ascertained.

      I know of Instone-Brewer’s series, of which only two volumes are currently published. He has yet to deal with oaths, which seems to be the undercurrent present in the texts I posted in this blog. My interest rite now is in Rabbinic interpretive method and whether or not these can be detected in the texts that date from an earlier period. In some ways Instone-Brewer’s published dissertation (Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 C.E.) has helped but more work is desired.

  2. “With close examination and critical effort, a great deal can be ascertained.” Exactly.

    I find that a modified comparative religion approach can be helpful. My research focus was Mishnah (just turned in my dissertation) but I’ve been spending a lot of time in midrash. It’s helpful to compare/contrast certain midrashim with portions in the NT, Clearly, they often share interpretive approaches to the Tanakh and making this comparison sheds light on both.

  3. [i]Likewise parallels such as the ones you cite in the NT and rabbinic writings. They MAY be connected in some way, but whether and how they are connected is purely conjectural.[/i]

    Just to play the other side of the coin, are you saying there could be a complete and total disconnect between the NT writings and any of the midrashim? Your first comment could be taken that way but your second comment says almost the opposite (however, it’s still early in the morning here and I’ve only had one cup of coffee). Both traditional Christianity and mainstream Judaism would agree with the first statement in order to maintain the isolation of their traditions from each other, but I would tend to agree with Jeffrey that they both have their origins in a common Jewish environment.

    I’ve never written a dissertation nor am I ever likely to write one, so maybe you could help a guy out here. Thanks.

  4. Hi James—Can you email me so we can connect?

    You ask if I’m “saying there could be a complete and total disconnect between the NT writings and any of the midrashim?.”

    No, not at all. The midrashim were all almost all written well after the NT and so they can’t be considered as sources for NT sayings. In specific instances, the two may have common origins or the midrash even depend on the NT in some way, but this is very, very difficult to know.

    The disconnect isn’t due to the relationship of the NT to midrash but due to our lack of solid information (rather than conjecture) about what the connection might be in any particular case.

    On the other hand, there is a large overlap in the worldview of the NT and midrash, in particular their approach to the Tanakh. One of the huge takeaways from comparing NT and midrash is the removal of some of the lenses through which the NT is misread.

    This cautious approach is, IMO, the best way to discuss these issues across academic disciplines. That said, as a Messianic Jew, I live by the unprovable but IMO theologically justified belief that the same Spirit that breathed the Scriptures, including the NT, is evident in the midrashim as well. This is how I understand and teach midrash.

    • I’d love to email you but I don’t think I have your email address. Mine is jamesmpyles AT (replace this with the @ sign) gmail DOT (replace this with .) com. (Sorry for the indirectness, but crawlers harvest email addresses from blogs and discussion groups all the time)

      Thanks.

  5. Pingback: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival – Early Edition | Exploring Our Matrix

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