The study of the place of Yahshua in the history of human culture must begin with the New Testament, on which all subsequent representations have been based. But the presentation of Yahshua in the New Testament is itself, an interpreted representation by those that have an agenda to promote resembles a set of paintings more than a photograph.
In the decades between the time of the ministry of Yahshua and the composition of the various Gospels, the memory of what Yahshua had said and done circulated in the form of an oral tradition. The apostle Sha’ul, writing to the congregation at Corinth in about A.D. 55 (twenty years or so after the life of Yahshua), reminded them that during his visit a few years before Yahshua had orally “delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” concerning the death and resurrection of Yahshua (1 Cor. 15:1-7). Chronologically and even logically, there was a tradition of the church before there was a New Testament, or any book of the New Testament. By the time the materials of the oral tradition found their way into written form, they had passed through the life and experience of the church, which laid claim to the presence of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit of G-dl.) It was to the action of that Spirit that Christians would attribute the composition of the books of the “New Testament,” as they began to call it, and before that of the “Old Testament,” as they began to describe the Hebrew Bible. After multiple redactions and translations of the original scripts Yahshua and the NT writings have loss their Jewish meanings and intent.
It is obvious–and yet, to judge by the tragedies of later history, not at all obvious– that Yahshua was a Jew, so that the first attempts to understand his message took place within the context of Judaism. In today’s society this evident truth is either deliberately obscured or missed altogether. The New Testament was written in Greek, but the language Yahshua and his disciples usually spoke seems to have been Aramaic, a Semitic tongue related to Hebrew but not identical with it. Aramaic words and phrases are scattered throughout the Gospels and other early Christian books, reflecting the language in which various sayings and liturgical formulas had been repeated before the transition to Greek became complete. These include such familiar words as Hosanna, as well as the cry of dereliction of Yahshua on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Mark 15:34)–“My G-dl, my G-dl, why hast thou forsaken me?” (which in the Hebrew of Psalm 22 was Eli, Eli, lama azavtani?). Alongside Immanuel, “G-dl with us”–the Hebrew title given to the child in the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14) and applied by Matthew (1:23) to Yahshua, but not used to address him except in such apostrophes as the medieval antiphon Veni, Veni, Immanuel that forms the epigraph to this chapter–four Aramaic words appear as titles for Yahshua: Rabbi, or teacher; Amen, or prophet; Messias, or Christ; and Mar, or Lord.
The most neutral and least controversial of these words is probably Rabbi, along with the related Rabbouni. Except for two passages, the Gospels apply the Aramaic word only to Yahshua; and if we conclude that the title “teacher” or “master” (didaskalos in Greek) was intended as a translation of that Aramaic name, it seems safe to say that it was as Rabbi that Yahshua was best known and addressed. Yet, the Gospels seem to accentuate the differences, rather than the similarities, between Yahshua and the other rabbis. As the scholarly study of the Judaism of his time has progressed, however, both the similarities and the differences have become clearer but have yet failed to filter down to the rank and file or the Christian ministers proclaiming from the pulpits.
Luke tells us (4:16-30) that after his Mikvah (baptism) and temptation by haSatan, he “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read.” Following the customary rabbinical pattern, he took up a scroll of the Hebrew Bible, read it, presumably provided an Aramaic translation-paraphrase of the text, and then commented on it. The words he read were from Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” But instead of doing what a rabbi would normally do, apply the text to the hearers by comparing and contrasting earlier interpretations, he declared: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Although the initial reaction to this audacious declaration was said to be wonderment “at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth,” his further explanation produced the opposite reaction, and everyone was “filled with wrath.”
Behind the confrontations between Yahshua as Rabbi and the representatives of the rabbinical tradition, the affinities are nevertheless clearly discernible in the forms in which his teachings appear in the Gospels. One of the most familiar is the question and answer, with the question often phrased as a teaser. A woman had seven husbands (in series, not in parallel): whose wife will she be in the life to come (Matt. 22:23-33)? Is it lawful for a devout Jew to pay taxes to the Roman authorities (Matt. 22:15-22)? What must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-6)? The one who puts the question acts as a straight man, setting up the opportunity for Rabbi Yahshua to drive home the point, often by standing the question on its head.
To the writers of the New Testament, however, the most typical form of the teachings of Yahshua was the parable: “He said nothing to them without a parable” (Matt. 13:34). But the Greek word parabole was taken from the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Thus, here, too, the evangelists’ accounts of Yahshua as a teller of parables make sense only in the setting of his Jewish background. Interpreting his parables on the basis of that setting alters conventional explanations of his comparisons between the kingdom of G-dl and incidents from human life. Thus the point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), better called the parable of the elder brother, is in the closing words of the father to the elder brother, who stands for the people of Israel: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The historic covenant between G-dl and Israel was permanent, and it was into this covenant that other peoples, too, were now being introduced.
The oscillation between describing the role of Yahshua as Rabbi and attributing to him a new and unique authority made additional titles necessary. One such was Prophet, as in the acclamation on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:11), ”This is the prophet Yahshua from Nazareth of Galilee.” Probably the most intriguing version of it is once again in Aramaic (Rev. 3:14): “The words of the Amein, the faithful and true witness.” The word Amein was the formula of affirmation to end a prayer, as in the farewell charge of Moses to the people of Israel, where each verse concludes (Deut. 27:l4-26): “And all the people shall say, ‘Amein.'” In the New Testament, an extension of the meaning of Amen becomes evident in the Sermon on the Mount: Amein lego hymin, “Truly, I say to you.” Some seventy-five times throughout the four Gospels Amen introduces an authoritative pronouncement by Yahshua. As the one who had the authority to make such pronouncements, Yahshua was the Prophet. The word prophet here means chiefly not one who foretells, although the sayings of Yahshua do contain many predictions, but one who is authorized to speak on behalf of Another and to tell forth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Yahshua is quoted as asserting (Matt. 5:17-18): “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly [amein], I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” That affirmation of the permanent validity of the law of Moses is followed by a series of specific quotations from the law, each introduced with the formula “You have heard that it was said to the men of old”; each such quotation is then followed by a commentary opening with the magisterial formula “But I say to you” (Matt. 5:21-48). The commentary is an intensification of the commandment, to include not only its outward observance, but the inward spirit and motivation of the heart. All these commentaries are an elaboration of the warning that the righteousness of the followers of Yahshua must exceed that of those who followed other doctors of the law (Matt. 5:20).
The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount confirms the special status of Yahshua as not only Rabbi but Prophet (Matt. 7:28-8:1): “And when Yahshua finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.” Then there come several miracle stories. The New Testament does not attribute the power of performing miracles only to Yahshua and his followers (Matt. 12:27), but it does cite the miracles as substantiation of his standing as Rabbi-Prophet. That identification of Yahshua was a means both of affirming his continuity with the prophets of Israel and of asserting his superiority to them as the Prophet whose coming they had predicted and to whose authority they had been prepared to yield. In Deut. 18:15-22, G-dl tells Moses, and through him the people, that he “will raise up for them a prophet like me from among you,” to whom the people are to pay heed. In its biblical context, this is the authorization of Joshua as the legitimate successor of Moses, but in the New Testament and in later Christian writers, the prophet to come is taken to be Yahshua-Joshua. He is portrayed as the one Prophet in whom the teaching of Moses was fulfilled and yet superseded, the one Rabbi who both satisfied the law of Moses and transcended it; for “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Yahshua HaMashiach” (John 1:17). To describe such a revelation of grace and truth, the categories of Rabbi and Prophet were necessary but not sufficient. Therefore, later anti-Muslim Christian apologists would find Islam’s identification of Yahshua as a great prophet and forerunner to Muhammad to be inadequate and hence inaccurate, so that the potential of the figure of Yahshua the Prophet as a meeting ground between Christians and Muslims has never been fully realized.
For Rabbi and Prophet yielded to two other categories, each of them likewise expressed in an Aramaic word and then in its Greek translation: Messias, the Aramaic form of “Messiah,” translated into Greek as ho Christos, “Christ,” the Anointed One (John 1:41, 4:25); and Marana, “our Lord,” in the liturgical formula Maranatha, “Our Lord, come!” translated into Greek as ho Kyrios (1 Cor. 16:22). The future belonged to these titles and to the identification of him as the Son of G-d and the Christian second person of the Trinity. But in the process of establishing themselves, Christ and Lord, as well as even Rabbi and Prophet, often lost much of their Semitic content. To the Believers – disciples of the first century the conception of Yahshua as Rabbi was self-evident, to the Christian- disciples of the second century it was embarrassing, to the Christian disciples of the third century and beyond it was obscure.
The beginnings of this de-Judaization of Christianity are visible already within the New Testament. With Sha’ul’s decision to “turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) after having begun his preaching in the synagogues, and then with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the Christian movement increasingly became Gentile rather than Jewish in its constituency and outlook and was finally complete under Constantine in 325 CE who changed G-d’s times and festivals to pagan Hellenistic observances in an attempt to remake the gospel into a Gentile one. In that setting the Jewish elements of the life of Yahshua had to be explained to Gentile readers (for example, John 2:6). The Acts of the Apostles can be read as a tale of two cities: its first chapter, with Yahshua and his disciples after the resurrection, is set in Jerusalem; but its last chapter reaches its climax with the final voyage of the apostle Sha’ul, in the simple but pulse-quickening sentence “And so we came to Rome.”
Recently, scholars have not only put the picture of Yahshua back into the setting of first century Judaism; they have also rediscovered the Jewishness of the New Testament, and particularly of Sha’ul. His epistle to the Romans (9-11) is the description of his struggle over the relation between the Gentile church and synagogue, concluding with the prediction and the promise: “And so all Israel will be saved”–not, it should be noted, converted to Christianity, but saved, because, in Sha’ul’s words, “as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of G-d are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:26-29). This reading of the mind of Sha’ul in Romans gives special significance to his many references to the name of Yahshua there: from “descended from David according to the flesh… Yahshua Messiah our Lord” in the first chapter, to “the preaching of Yahshua Messiah,” which “is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations” in the final sentence. Here Yahshua Messiah is, as Sha’ul says of himself elsewhere, “of the people of Israel…, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5). The very issue of universality, supposedly the distinction between Sha’ul and Judaism, was, for Sha’ul, what made it necessary that Yahshua be a Jew. For only through the Jewishness of Yahshua could the covenant of G-dl with Israel, the gracious gifts of G-d, and his irrevocable calling become available to all people in the whole world, also to the Gentiles, who “were grafted in to share the richness of the olive tree”–namely, the people of Israel (Rom. 11:17).
No one can consider the topic of Yahshua as Rabbi and ignore the subsequent history of the relation between the people to whom Yahshua belonged and the people who belong to Yahshua. That relation runs like a red line through much of the history of culture, and after the events of the twentieth century we have a unique responsibility to be aware of it as we study the history of the images of Yahshua through the centuries. The question is easier to ask than it is to answer, and it is easier to avoid than it is to ask at all. But ask it we must: Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been an Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion upon its images of Mary not as the Mother of G-d and Queen of Heaven, but as the Jewish maiden and the New Miriam who gave birth to Yahshua, a Jewish child, the Jewish Messiah of G-d, and if these same Christians and institutions had not focused upon icons of Christ as only the Cosmic Christ, but also had recognized Him as Rabbi Yahshua of Nazareth, the Son of David, who come to ransom a captive Israel and a captive humanity? Would there have been such Anti-Semitism, I think not.