When reading the Bible people often ask “What does that mean?” Some things are very clear, such as God’s plan of salvation. Some points of connection in God’s overarching theme throughout the Bible are clear such as God’s command to put the blood of a slain lamb on the entrance to the home, saving the Israelites from death in the tenth plague of Egypt was a foreshadowing and a physical confession in the salvation of God . . .Yeshua.
Why All the Differences of Opinion in the Christian Church?
However, we often enter murky waters beyond that when it comes to making a connection between the Old Testament and the New. Some of the most spirited, and often vicious, debates in the church over the past two millennia have related to the doctrine of the church. How are we saved? It is for all (John 3:16, John 3:9) or only for a select few? Can we choose to come to God or are we compelled irresistibly by God? Is salvation complete at the moment of confession or is it a progressive process? Each of these questions have caused massive rifts within the body of Christ.
What we individually believe about each of these issues is very often dictated by our denominational background. We believe a certain way because that is what we have been taught. Each of these positions have been vigorously defended over time and each side has a fair number adherents. However, just because a number of people believe a certain thing does not make it true.
So, how do we determine what a particular passage of Scripture really means? How are we to understand it? How do we interpret it?
Rediscovering the Original Context of Scripture
All of the words Jesus spoke were to Jews within the land of Israel who followed the Levitical laws and the sacrificial system established at the time of the Exodus. Every letter of the New Testament was written by a Jew (except for perhaps Hebrews) that was raised in that environment since birth. Every word spoken and written was either by or to people who saw the observance of the Day of Atonement as a mandatory act, one that was required to be observed each year in order to have their name written in the Book of Life.
We can’t have any sort of meaningful conversation about the big questions in Christianity until we look at how each of the concepts underlying our doctrines were originally understood by observant Jews. By observant Jews, I mean those of the Second Temple period. Jesus and his apostles would not recognize very much in the practices of modern Judaism. A Christian researching this era must also understand that even the Talmud and the Mishnah, Jewish commentary on Scriptures and practices, postdate Christianity by at least two centuries and only reflect the beliefs of one particular sect of Second Temple Judaism . . . The Pharisees.
The Influence of Culture
If someone said to you, “May the force be with you,” you understand the reference. Anyone who was raised in Western culture understands that you are referring to the fictional force in Star Wars and they are wishing you success in your efforts. However, let’s imagine for a minute that there is a major cataclysm, 95 percent of humanity is wiped out, and 1,000 years from now archaeologists are trying to figure out what this phrase that they found written in graffiti on a fragment of a wall means. (It would have to be graffiti as most of our communication is now digital and our books aren’t made to last as they were in the days of Jesus.)
Without knowing about the Star Wars series and its huge popularity, they would have no idea what it means. What would they come up with? Would they think the person was talking about a military force? Would they think it was a reference to a natural force like gravity? Without knowing the culture, they could come up with some pretty wild ideas.
They would need to know other facts in order to place the reference properly: perhaps a collectors tin with a summary still legible, maybe a news article about the gross box office or the lines at the preview, and an understanding of how the proliferation of televisions and later the Internet allowed these stories to spread in a culture that was communally disconnected. All of this paints a picture of the influence stories had on an entire culture to the point that the use of phrases became common in everyday speech.
Setting the Stage of Scripture
In order to understand the message of the New Testament, understanding the culture of the time, the influences of the day, and the literature that directed their thought is helpful. The beginning of the first century A.D. was a time of turmoil and political wrangling in Judea. We don’t get much of a sense of this other than in the account of Jesus’ trial and execution as the Gospels are focused on the Kingdom of God rather than earthly kingdoms; but the Jews were constantly in a state of near revolt. The religious observances were a part of their daily lives and with the Temple as always the focal point, but that religion was controlled by corrupt hypocrites who, if not completely sold out, kow-towed to the political rulers.
Reading What Jesus and the Disciples Read
We obviously do not know everything that influenced the average Jew in Judea at the time of Jesus, but we do know quite a bit. We know they mostly spoke Aramaic 1Massimo Pazzini, “Jesus Spoke Aramaic,” The Holy Land, Autumn 1998, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/mag/TSmgenB2.html. and read the Scriptures in Greek. 2 Jason Evert, “In Which Passages Does Jesus Quote the Septuagint, and Where Does the New Testament Allude to the Septuagint?,” Catholic Answers, August 4, 2011, accessed November 20, 2017, https://www.catholic.com/qa/in-which-passages-does-jesus-quote-the-septuagint-and-where-does-the-new-testament-allude-to-the. From other quotes and references in the New Testament, we know that they read apocryphal books such as the Book of Enoch, the Wisdom of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, 1 and 11 Maccabees, and Sirach. 3 “Deuterocanonical Books in the New Testament,” Scripture Catholic, n.d., accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.scripturecatholic.com/deuterocanonical-books-new-testament/.
The Value in Reading the Apocrypha
My Protestant readers may not be familiar with these books as they are not included in Protestant translations of the Bible. These are books written during the intertestamental period, the 400 “years of silence” between the writing of Malachi and the coming of Christ. Some are commentaries on Scripture. Some give an expanded explanation of areas where Scripture is silent, for example, the Book of Enoch which gives both an account of the fate of Enoch as well as goes into more depth on who the “sons of God” are in Genesis 6:1-5. Why these books are not canon 4 authoritative Scripture is a topic for another article. I am not saying they should be considered Scripture. The Old Testament is not our book and the Jews never considered those books to be authoritative Scripture. However, they were considered to have value as literature and for historical information.
For Christians, they are helpful to read, not as God’s Word, but in order to understand the references the inspired writers of the New Testament made. For example, reading the Book of Enoch gives John’s book of Revelation a context as apocryphal literature. Revelation is not an“odd” book, it was a genre of writing with which the Jews were very familiar.
Reading the Book of Enoch along with Jubilees and knowing that there was a disagreement between the Essenes and the rest of the practitioners of Judaism, reveals in both of those books an argument for following a 364 day solar calendar. The writer of Jubilees essentially calls those in other sects apostate and claims they are blind because they calculate the feasts incorrectly. 5 Michael Segal, “The Jewish Calendar in Jubilees,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, n.d., accessed November 21, 2017, http://thetorah.com/jewish-calendar-in-jubilees-a-solar-year/. When we understand that there was as much debate between the Jewish sects on paschal calculation as there was later in Christianity, we understand that, yes, Jesus’ Last Supper could have been a Passover meal as John stated, even though the rest of the Jews were not celebrating it until a day later.
Each Gospel account and epistle is a letter written to people with a specific understanding. We can’t interpret the words from the foundation of our own culture. We have to try to understand the culture of the original hearers. The New Testament writers were speaking to a specific situation. Often, they were part of a bigger, ongoing conversation. When we have a grasp on the other parts of that conversation, we can have a better understanding of what the original writer meant.
The Septuagint, the Hebrew Old Testament translated to Greek, and the Apocrypha was part of the cultural vocabulary of Jesus’ day.
|↑1||Massimo Pazzini, “Jesus Spoke Aramaic,” The Holy Land, Autumn 1998, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/mag/TSmgenB2.html.|
|↑2||Jason Evert, “In Which Passages Does Jesus Quote the Septuagint, and Where Does the New Testament Allude to the Septuagint?,” Catholic Answers, August 4, 2011, accessed November 20, 2017, https://www.catholic.com/qa/in-which-passages-does-jesus-quote-the-septuagint-and-where-does-the-new-testament-allude-to-the.|
|↑3||“Deuterocanonical Books in the New Testament,” Scripture Catholic, n.d., accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.scripturecatholic.com/deuterocanonical-books-new-testament/.|
|↑5||Michael Segal, “The Jewish Calendar in Jubilees,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, n.d., accessed November 21, 2017, http://thetorah.com/jewish-calendar-in-jubilees-a-solar-year/.|