The Jewish Life of Jesus

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Do you have a heart for Israel and the Jewish people?

I hope so. Yet someone could ask the question, “How do I acquire this heart for the Jewish people? What do I have to do?” One thing you could do is take the time to read about the Jewish people. Read about their history. Read about their culture and customs. Read about modern Israel. But most of all, read about them in the Bible (The Friends of Israel has a number of resources that can help you).

Doing this will accomplish two things. First, it will help you understand Jewish people today, where they are coming from, what is important to them, and how they define themselves. Second, it will help you to love and appreciate who they are and how you are spiritually indebted to them (Rom. 15:26-27).

Is Context Truly King?

As you read your Bible, use a method that takes the Bible literally or normally within its various contexts. This approach to interpreting Scripture utilizes three elements.

1. The grammar of the text

2. The historical background of the text

3. The cultural conditions surrounding the text

Considering these three elements is part of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). For example, when we study the life of Jesus Christ we realize that Jesus was not born in a vacuum. There was a historical context into which He came (certain events surrounding His life). There was a cultural context (the environment in which He lived). And there was a theological context (the ethics or teachings of His day). These contexts were predominantly Jewish.

Jesus Himself was Jewish. He had a Jewish mother and adoptive-father. He was raised in a Jewish environment in the land of Israel. How He dressed, how He taught, how He lived were all in a Jewish historical, cultural, and theological context. When you learn the value of these contexts, they will richly enhance your understanding of the Scriptures. If you have ever taken a trip to Israel, seen the sites, and have come back and read your Bible, you know what I’m talking about. 

A Deeper Understanding
What Is the Tower of Flock?

We read in Genesis 35:19-21, “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”

The phrase “tower of Eder” literally means “tower of flock.” In those days when a flock of animals, particularly sheep, were being cared for and watched, the shepherd would oftentimes be in a tower overlooking his flock, keeping an eye out for bandits or wild animals. This particular tower of the flock was near Bethlehem of Judea, and it was here that Jacob pitched his tent after Rachel died.

The only other place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew phrase “tower of flock” is found is Micah 4:8: 

And you, O tower of the flock,
The stronghold of the daughter of Zion,
To you shall it come,
Even the former dominion shall come,
The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

Targum Jonathan (an ancient Aramaic translation) sees the word “tower” in this verse as referring to the Messiah, and the word “flock” as referring to Israel. It therefore translates the beginning of the verse as, “And you, O Messiah of Israel . . . .” 

Based on these verses, therefore, later Jewish tradition taught that when the Messiah would come, He would be revealed from Migdal Eder, the tower of the flock (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen. 35:21).

No Ordinary Shepherds

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Scriptures say, “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). What is interesting about these shepherds is that according to Jewish law, small animals from herds and flocks were not allowed to be raised in the land of Israel because they could damage people’s fields (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7.7; Demai 2.3; Talmud, Sukkah 29a; Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 2.3). They were, however, allowed to be raised “in Syria or in the wildernesses that are in the Land of Israel” (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7.7). 

But in Luke 2:8 it states “in the same country,” meaning the same region of Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their flock. If there was a prohibition against keeping flocks so near a community with cultivated fields, why were these shepherds in the same region as Bethlehem?  

When you learn the value of these [Jewish] contexts, they will richly enhance your understanding of the Scriptures.

One explanation could be that by the phrase “in the same country” Luke meant a wider territory than first thought, a territory that included a nearby wilderness area used for keeping sheep.

Another explanation could be this. The rabbis taught that if a male sheep, one year old or younger, had strayed and was found one month before Passover roaming around in the area between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or the area equidistant from Jerusalem to Migdal Eder in any direction, then the sheep could be used for sacrifice at Passover (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The inference is that sheep found anywhere from Migdal Eder near Bethlehem to Jerusalem were most likely used for Temple sacrifices.

Therefore, could it be that the shepherds watching over their flock by night when Jesus was born were not ordinary shepherds? Instead, could it be they were shepherds specifically hired to watch sheep that were destined for sacrifice? 

If so, then how appropriate it would be that God should first reveal the arrival of the Messiah to those particular shepherds near the tower of the flock not far from Bethlehem. And how appropriate that these shepherds wanted to go to Bethlehem and watch over the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, who was destined to be, as the Lamb of God, the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice that would take away the sin of the world.

Leaving Room for Error

Despite such examples of how historical, cultural, and theological background data can help in understanding Scripture, one still has to be careful as to how much weight is put into that data. There are inadequacies and deficiencies.

For example, ancient documents, from which we get much of our information on early cultures, are not divinely inspired texts. They often contain errors. In fact, a number of Jewish stories and writings are mere myths and legends. When it comes to formulating true doctrine, then, the Bible warns us against using such myths and legends (1 Tim. 1:3-4; Titus 1:10-14).

Another problem when considering ancient Jewish sources is that it is often difficult to determine when exactly certain customs and rituals were practiced. Just because Jewish men wore head coverings in AD 400 does not mean they did so in AD 30. On the other hand, since many of the ancient Jewish customs and teachings had been passed down orally from generation to generation until they were recorded in written form by AD 500, it is still possible that many of these customs had been practiced for centuries prior.

Still another issue when interpreting Scripture is determining at times who borrowed what from whom. In some instances, New Testament passages are obviously using similar language to that of certain ancient Jewish teachings that existed previous to the New Testament timeline. The Jewish teachings may have been used in those instances because they confirmed a truth already taught in Scripture, or because they could be used as a cultural springboard to teach something else. Whatever the reason, it is clear the Jewish teachings historically came first.

But then there are examples where even though there are similarities, it is unclear as to which came first–the Jewish teaching or the Christian. For instance, the Babylonian Talmud (dated c. AD 500) speaks of the time of the Judges. “Conditions in [Israel] were of such a nature that if a judge said to a man, ‘Remove the speck from your eye,’ his reply was, ‘You remove the log from your own’” (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 4, 30; Vol. 6, 187 [Talmud reference is Baba Batra 15b]).

Does that sound familiar? It should. Jesus said,

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Mt. 7:3-5).

Did the Lord say this because it contained a Jewish idiom already familiar to His listeners, or did He invent a new expression which the rabbis borrowed later for their own purposes?

Scripture Over Stories

All of this is to say that there are aspects of the historical and cultural data that we cannot be dogmatic about. And in those cases where there may be discrepancies between the Scriptures and the historical data, it is, of course, wiser and better to put the Scriptures before the data.

Having said that, it is still important to comprehend when studying the Scriptures that there was a definite Jewish historical, cultural, and theological context in which our Savior lived and breathed and had His ministry.

Remembering that will aid you greatly in developing a heart for Israel and the Jewish people.

About the Author
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Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott is the director of Program Ministries at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry and is the author of The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah.

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