Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures

Over two years ago we concluded Messy Revelation by stating:

The old models of exegesis--coded messages that are uncovered and interpreted by exegetes using grammar, allegory, typology, etc.,--are attempts to house train God, to make his self revelation in Jesus conform to a pattern that is comfortable for men. But is it reasonable that we should expect this of God? Enns' answer, if I may extend his logic somewhat, is or should be, No. We should expect, rather, that revelation should be "somewhat messy." For the reason that reality, and above all human life, is "somewhat messy." Enns, of course, is following his Protestant (Judaizing--h/t Spengler) model of revelation, by which God "speaks to man through Scripture," but he realizes that that is not the whole story. Not by half. For, "in much the same way: he enters into our world and uses our own cultural patterns to reveal himself." Here, unfortunately, Enns is still trapped within the notion of God's self revelation in Jesus having been accomplished through a collection of books that we call the New Testament, rather than in the very personal reality of Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian, Jesus IS revelation, and all else, including Scripture, can only be "revelation" in a secondary sense. This must be the beginning of exegesis. And as a start we must seek to determine Jesus' own understanding of how to deal with "scripture."

We are now in a position to follow up on the project we defined as central to development of a theory of revelation: What was Jesus' own understanding of “scripture?” To answer that question we will look at how Jesus made use of the Israelite scriptures. That is, we will examine how the Gospels portray Jesus' use of those scriptures when speaking in his own voice, as opposed to how the evangelists use the Israelite scriptures when reflecting on the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

It has become something of a truism to state that the early Christian writings we now know as the New Testament reflect the “theologies” of their authors. Some would, in fact, argue that that is all we have--that it is impossible to separate out a “theology of Jesus” as distinct from that of the early Christian authors or to distinguish the original words that Jesus spoke from the theologizing of the evangelists. While we do not minimize the difficulties involved and do not claim that a completely definitive account can be given, our reading of the Gospels convinces us that the distinction between the “theologies” of Jesus and of the evangelists is both valid and significant. Moreover, we are convinced that differing approaches to the use of the Israelite scriptures lies at the heart of that distinction. Thus, this undertaking will shed light on the "original voice" of Jesus.

Characteristic of the evangelists' approach in all four gospels is the view that Jesus' life, death and resurrection was, in a sense, scripted “according to the scriptures.” The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are perfect examples of this approach--each significant act that occurs in the narrative is seen to be somehow a "fulfillment" of some passage in one of the Israelite scriptures. Our thesis is that that approach does not reflect Jesus' own view of the significance of the Israelite scriptures. To be sure, there are many instances in which Jesus' approach differs little if at all from that of the evangelists: instances where Jesus bests his opponents (Satan, Pharisees, Sadducees) using scriptural quotations (cf., among other instances, the Temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke), or where Jesus uses scripture to reveal the hypocrisy of his opponents, or where the scriptural reference is essentially a literary allusion--employed much in the way that we might quote Shakespeare. At other times Jesus may have acted out prophetic or liturgical themes. What we are looking for, however, are those passages in which Jesus is presented speaking in his own voice and offering some insight into his own view of the relationship between himself and the Israelite scriptures.


It will be convenient to deal with most of the relevant passages from the Synoptic Gospels together, following the order of Matthew, since many of these passages have parallels in Mark and/or Luke. There are a handful of passages from Luke that we will address separately.

The Sermon on the Mount

We begin with The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. Jesus begins with what appears to be a programmatic statement: he has come to fulfill the Torah, not to destroy it; not one letter or even a portion of a letter will be altered; whoever breaks even the least of the Torah's many commands and who teaches others to do so “shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” while whoever obeys and teaches the commands of the Torah will be accounted “great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jesus Will Fulfill Torah

17 "Don't think that I came to destroy
the Torah or the Prophets;
I came not to destroy, but to fulfill.
18 For, amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not one iota or one stroke will pass away from the Torah,
until everything has come to pass. 19 So whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments,
and teaches this to others,
shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven;
but whoever obeys and teaches the commandments,
he shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
20 For I tell you,
unless your righteousness greatly exceeds
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you'll never get into the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5)

The passage appears to be fairly absolute, although there is the proviso “until everything has come to pass.” However, it will be well to read it in conjunction with two parallel passages regarding John the Baptist (the first from Luke and the second which occurs later in Matthew) which shed light on the “proviso.”

The Torah, the Prophets and the Kingdom (Mt 11:9-14)

16 The Torah and the Prophets lasted until John;
from then on The Kingdom of God is proclaimed in the good news,And everyone forces his way into it.
17 But it's easier for heaven and earth to pass awayThan for one letter or stroke of the Torah to fall. (Luke 16)

and the Matthean account:

9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and one greater than a prophet.
10 He it is of whom it is written, behold, I'm sending my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.
11 Amen, I say to you, among those born of women
there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist,
yet even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven
is greater than he is.
12 From the days of John the Baptist until the present
The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence,
and the violent take it by force.
13 For all the Prophets and the Torah up to John prophesied, 14 and if you can accept it, he's Elijah--he who is destined to come.

In both the Matthean and Lucan narratives we see that “until everything has come to pass” appears, for Jesus, to have an identifiable termination date—one that has already come to pass, which is the advent of Jesus himself to inaugurate the Kingdom. In both narratives the roles of the Prophets and the Torah are over: they “lasted until John” or they prophesied “up to John.” Moreover, as we will see, there are strong indications that in Jesus' view those roles had always been relative—conditioned by human desires and not absolute revelations of God.

(For the application of the refrain “Heaven and earth will pass away,” to Jesus' own words cf. Mt 24:35; Mk 13:31; Lk 21:33 in the context of the end times.)

Therefore, in light of Jesus' views as expressed in the Baptist narratives, we are not surprised that when Jesus begins to examine specific Torah commands his teaching does not conform with what we might have expected from the introductory or “programmatic” statement. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses several specific commands of the Torah, structuring each section with the distinction: "You've heard that it was said [to the ancients,] … But I say to you...” In the first part Jesus states the Torah command. Note that when Jesus says “ You've heard that it was said,” what many of his listeners would hear would be something like this: You know that the Israelite scriptures record that God gave his people the following command, which Moses wrote down (variations on this theme at the time might include an intermediary, such as an angel, as the law giver). The passive construction, “it was said,” was widely used as a way to avoid using the Divine name, and its use would be understood to mean, simply: "God said." But Jesus then follows up the simple exposition of the Torah command with the astounding assertion: but I am revising this command from God, making it significantly stricter, and keeping in place the same punishment for disobedience. Contrary to the initial programmatic statement, Jesus appears to be altering the commands of the Torah, although often in a stricter direction.

Of course, it was common enough in Israel for scholars of the Torah to offer various interpretations of how to apply the Torah in specific circumstances, but none of these scholars asserted—as Jesus did—a prerogative to do so on their own personal authority. We think, immediately, of the initial reaction of Jesus' listeners, as recorded by the evangelists: He speaks as one having authority! That is, he speaks as if he has authority that is all his own, not derived from any human authority nor even requiring support from scripture. Indeed, Jesus' personal authority equals or exceeds—if that were possible—the authority of God, and was so understood by his listeners: he makes himself equal to God!

Approaching these commandments in the order they appear, we first consider Jesus' words regarding murder and adultery, which conform to the pattern we have just outlined:

Against Murder...and Anger

21 "You've heard that it was said to the ancients, You shall not murder, and that whoever does commit murder shall be liable to judgment.
22 But I say to you, Anyone who's angry with his brother
shall be liable to judgment,
And whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa!'
shall be liable to the Sanhedrin,
And whoever says, 'You fool!'
shall be liable to the fire of Gehenna.

Against Adultery...and Lust

27 "You've heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery! 28 but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Against Divorce

Jesus' teaching on divorce as it appears in the Sermon on the Mount—we will address this issue again further on—is different from his teaching on murder and adultery. Here, Jesus is not merely tightening the requirements for divorce—he is abolishing a provision of the Torah, precisely what he appears to have said he wouldn't do. Not only that, but in abolishing this provision he makes the claim that anyone who follows the Torah procedure rather than Jesus' own dictates will be guilty of the serious sin of adultery! Matthew doesn't provide Jesus' rationale at this point, but we will later see that that rationale is highly significant for our purposes—fitting in, as it does, with the perspective we saw in the Baptist narratives, above.

31 "And it was said, Whoever puts his wife away, let him give her a written notice of divorce. 32 But I say to you, Anyone who puts his wife away--except by reason of an unlawful union--makes her an adulteress,
And whoever marries after putting her away commits adultery."

Against Oaths

With regard to oaths, we see a situation similar to that regarding divorce: Jesus is forbidding a practice that is not forbidden by the Torah, and even appears to be sanctioned by the Torah:

33 "Again, you've heard that it was said to your forefathers, You shall not break your oaths! and, You shall fulfill your oaths to the Lord! 34 But I tell you not to swear at all, neither by heaven, because it's the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth,' because it's the footstool for His feet, nor by Jerusalem, because it's the city of the Great King, 36 nor shall you swear by your head, because you're not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your speech be 'yes, yes,' or 'no, no;' anything more than that is from the Evil One."

The Commands of Love

When we come to Jesus' strictures against revenge and his command to love one's enemy, we see his words striking at the heart of the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. Yahweh, as we have seen, was a warrior god, and his purpose was to fight on behalf of his people. He was, therefore, quite naturally a god of vengeance: "Vengeance is mine, says Yahweh—I shall repay!" This is not, as many pious folk imagine, an injunction against seeking revenge. Rather, it is Yahweh's promise that he will not fail to wreak vengeance on Israel's enemies, with Israel joining in. We note with Wright that the reference to “forcing” one to go a mile appears to refer to the Roman practice of dragooning forced labor, so that Jesus appears to be counseling submission to Roman rule—and loving the Romans to boot! While the modern understanding of this is that Jesus is simply calling upon his followers to be perfect in the mold of the Father, he is in fact offering a very different vision of God—one which contradicts the “Old Testament” vision of a vengeful God on the basis of Jesus' claim to a privileged knowledge (as Son of God) of God's nature. Jesus' teaching is as much as saying that the Israelite scriptures present a distorted picture of God which he has come to rectify.

Against Revenge...and Resisting the Evildoer (Lk 6:29-30)

38 "You've heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you not to resist the evildoer; on the contrary,

Whoever strikes you on the right cheek,
turn the other to him as well;
40 To the one who wants to go to law with you and take your tunic,
give him your cloak as well,
41 And whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
42 Give to the one who asks of you, and don't turn away the one who wishes to borrow from you."

On Loving Your Enemy (Lk 6:27-28, 32-36)

Cf. also The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)

43 "You've heard that it was said, Love your neighbor! And hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you,

Love your enemies,
And pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you'll become sons of your Father in heaven, because

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good,
and rains on the just and the unjust.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have?
Don't the tax collectors also do the same?
47 And if you greet only your brothers,what great thing are you doing?
Don't the Gentiles also do the same?
48 So you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7, the crowds not surprisingly express their astonishment at Jesus' words: Jesus was not basing his teaching on anything in the Israelite scriptures, as the scribes did in their teaching, but instead based his teaching on his own personal authority which derived from his privileged relationship with the Father:

28 And it happened that when Jesus had finished these words the crowds were amazed at his teaching 29 because he was teaching them on his own authority, and not like their scribes.

Keeping the Sabbath Holy

We come next to several passages that deal with Jesus' activity on the Sabbath—activities that his opponents argued violated Torah prescription of a Sabbath rest. In the first passage the disciples' plucking of grain is interpreted by Jesus' opponents as reaping grain on the Sabbath and is used to challenge Jesus as sanctioning violations of the Torah. In Matthew's version Jesus is presented as a master debater, who is able to use the scriptures that his opponents rely upon to turn the tables against them. However, near the end Jesus raises a more fundamental principle in asserting the disciples' innocence of wrong doing: the priority of mercy over the letter of the Torah. Note that this criterion is essentially naturalistic--Torah is subject to human demands for reasonableness. This, of course, forces us to question whether Jesus regards the Torah as divinely ordained in the same sense as his opponents do. For while some of Jesus' teaching can be regarded as not essentially different than Judaic interpretations of Torah commands as applied to particular situations, at other times Jesus is simply abrogating Torah commands based on novel principles while also asserting a personal authority that is equal to God's.

Reaping on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5)

12. At that time Jesus was going through the grain fields on the Sabbath; now, his disciples became hungry and began to pluck the heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what it's unlawful to do on the Sabbath!" 3 But he said to them, "Haven't you read what David did when he was hungry, as well as those with him? 4 How he went into the House of God and ate the loaves of offering, which it wasn't lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but was for the priests alone? 5 Or haven't you read in the Torah that on the Sabbath the priests [serving] in the Temple violate the Sabbath yet are not [considered] guilty? 6 But I say to you, something greater than the Temple is here. 7 If you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn't have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (Mt 12)

Mark's version presents the same debating points, based on the episode of David and the loaves of offering, but lacks the reference to mercy. Instead, a distinctly rational note is sounded, with the appeal to the purpose of the Sabbath. There does, however, appear to be a connection in the reasoning of the two passages, from this standpoint: if the purpose of the Sabbath must be viewed from the perspective of Man--"The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath"—and not simply as a matter of obedience to a Divine command, then a merciful approach in interpreting the Torah based on the human needs of men is clearly called for. Note that Jesus doesn't offer a true scriptural justification for his position—he asserts it on the basis of his personal authority. The example of David (well known to have been a sinner) is another example of Jesus' debating skills and a jab at his opponents' hypocrisy.

23 It happened that as he was going through the grain fields on the Sabbath his disciples began plucking the heads of the grain as they made their way through. 24 And the Pharisees said to him, "Look! Why are they doing what's unlawful on the Sabbath?" 25 He said to them, "Haven't you ever read what David did when he was in need and was hungry, as well as those with him? 26 How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was High Priest and ate the loaves of offering"which it isn't lawful to eat, except for the priests"and he gave them to those with him as well?" 27 And he said to them,

"The Sabbath was made for Man,
not Man for the Sabbath;

28 thus the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." (Mark 2)

Healing on the Sabbath

The rationalist note in Jesus' thought is clearly to the fore in the passages dealing with his healing activities on the Sabbath. For while raising the hypocrisy of his accusers, Jesus ultimately brings the issue down to a very basic level: does the Torah forbid a good deed on the Sabbath? He offers no scriptural justification for his view, but simply asserts that, of course, it is permissible to perform a good deed on the Sabbath. Again, this flows naturally from his claim that the Sabbath was established for man's good, but it also flows from a view of the Torah that approaches the humanistic view of the natural law tradition: law is a vehicle for the the maximization of human nature. This is in stark contrast to the Israelite view that the Torah was intended by God to separate "his" people from the peoples of "other gods" whom the Israelites are to steer clear of, with the help of the Torah.

9 He left there and went to their synagogue, 10 and, behold, a man with a withered hand was there. And they demanded to know of him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" in an effort to find an accusation they could bring against him. 11 But he said to them, "Is there a man among you who, if he had one sheep and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, wouldn't take hold of it and pull it out? 12 So how much more is a man worth than a sheep! And, so, it's lawful to do good on the Sabbath." (Matthew 12)

4 Then he said to them,

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil,
to save a life or to put to death?" (Mark 3)

9 Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you,

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or do evil,
to save a life or to kill?" (Luke 6)

The Sign of Jonah (Mk 8:11-12; Lk 11:29-32)

The differing accounts of the Sign of Jonah in Matthew/Mark and Luke appear not to be a case of prophecy fulfillment but of an analogy based on a literary allusion. After all, it's difficult to argue in any logically coherent fashion that Jesus' resurrection from death is somehow validated by the story of Jonah and the whale. Nor is there, in fact, any claim of prophetic fulfillment. The Matthean account centers on the whale and, by analogy, the resurrection:

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees spoke up and said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you." 39 But in answer he said to them,

"A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign,
Yet no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.
40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale
for three days and three nights,
So will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth
for three days and three nights.
41 The men of Nineveh will stand in judgment against this generation and will condemn it,
Because they repented as a result of Jonah's preaching,
And, behold, one greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12)

The Lucan account of the Sign of Jonah, on the other hand, makes no mention of the whale or the resurrection, stressing instead the repentance of the Gentile Ninevites in contrast to Jesus' audience of unbelieving Jews--”this generation”:

29 Now as the crowds pressed around he said,

"This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks a sign,
Yet no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah.
30 For just as Jonah became a sign for the Ninevites,
So also will the Son of Man be for this generation.
31 The Queen of the South will rise up at the judgment against the men of this generation
and will condemn them,
Because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
And, behold, one greater than Solomon is here.
32 The Ninevite men will stand up at the judgment against this generation
and will condemn it,
Because they repented at the preaching of Jonah,
And, behold, one greater than Jonah is here!" (Luke 11)

All Things Are Clean (Mk 7:1-23; Lk 11:37-41)

In Matthew 15 Jesus is challenged about the practice of his disciples eating with unwashed hands, in contravention of established traditions. In public Jesus goes on the offensive, accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy for the way in which they find ways around the Torah while setting up their traditions of purification as if they were absolutes. However, in private when he is queried about this by the disciples, Jesus offers a typically naturalistic explanation that directly confronts the Mosaic food laws. He makes no attempt to justify his position from scripture but simply declares that what foods a man eats has nothing to do with morality. This is not reinterpretation; it is simple abrogation. Once again it seems clear that for Jesus the commands of the Torah are to be judged in the light of reason in a manner consistent with what we know as natural law. Implicit in this position is the idea that the Torah represents human traditions rather than divine commands.

10 Then he called the crowd to himself and said to them, "Hear and understand!

11 What goes into the mouth
is not what makes a man unclean;
On the contrary, what comes out of his mouth,
that makes a man unclean."

12 The disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that, when they heard, the Pharisees took offense at what you said?" 13 But in answer he said, "Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be pulled out by the roots. 14 Let them be. They're blind guides. Now,

If a blind man leads a blind man,
Both will fall into a ditch."

15 In response Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us." 16 Jesus said, "Can you still be that dense? 17 Don't you see that everything that enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine? 18 But the things that leave the mouth come from the heart, and those are the things that make a man unclean. 19 For from the heart come wicked thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy. 20 These things are what make a man unclean, but eating with unwashed hands doesn't make a man unclean." (Matthew 15)

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Mark inserts an editorial comment that makes absolutely explicit the application of Jesus' comments to the food laws:

17 When he came into the house from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, "Are you that dense, too? Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from outside can make him unclean 19 because it enters his stomach, not his heart, and goes out into the latrine?" thus declaring all foods to be clean. 20 Then he said, "What goes forth from a man is what makes a man unclean, 21 for from within, from the hearts of men, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil intentions, deceit, indecency, jealousy, blasphemy, arrogance, and foolishness. 23 All such evil comes forth from within and makes a man unclean." (Mark 7)

Marriage and Divorce (Mk 10:1-12)

At Matthew 19 we return to a more detailed account of Jesus' teaching on divorce (there is no Lucan parallel). At the time, there was disagreement among the Jewish teachers as to what constituted grounds for divorce. The question was presented to Jesus from that standpoint, and Jesus, almost certainly to the great surprise of his questioners, simply banned all divorce. When his questioners pointed out that divorce was provided for in the Torah, Jesus responded with a remarkable statement (also recorded in Mark) that essentially relativizes the Torah: Moses, Jesus said, allowed divorce because of the Israelites' hardness of hearts, but that was not what God had intended when he created human beings. In other words, the Mosaic Law, the Torah, is a matter of human tradition which, in at least some important instances, contravenes the true law of God, the law of human nature as created by God.

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by saying, "Is it lawful for a man to put his wife away for any reason?" 4 But in answer he said, "Haven't you read that He Who created them from the beginning made them male and female? 5 And He said, For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. 6 So, then, they're no longer two but one flesh. Therefore,

What God has joined together
let man not separate."

7 They said to him, "Then why did Moses command us to give a notice of divorce and put her away?" 8 He said to them, "Moses allowed you to put your wives away because of the hardness of your hearts, but it wasn't that way from the beginning. 9 So I say to you, whoever puts his wife away--not in [the case of] an unlawful union--and marries another commits adultery." (Matthew 19)

I will strike the shepherd (Mk 14:27-31; Jn 13:36-38)

Matthew 26 contains a scriptural quotation (Zechariah 13:7) that is also cited by Mark and John. This is another case of a literary allusion being used by Jesus for the purposes of analogy, rather than an instance of prophecy fulfillment:

31 Then Jesus said to them, "This night you'll all lose your faith in me, for it is written, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered,
32 but after I rise I'll go ahead of you into Galilee."


Jesus in Nazareth (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13)

The Lucan account of Jesus' return to Nazareth is by far the most interesting of the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' return to his home town. On the one hand, in the Lucan account Jesus unquestionably states that “this scripture” (Isaiah 61:5-6) is fulfilled in his ministry. But the initial impression that Jesus is engaging in typical prophecy fulfillment rhetoric is quickly vitiated. In quoting Isaiah, Jesus provocatively breaks off the quotation of the passage in mid sentence, omitting the reference to the “day of vindication by our God”—the theme of the entire Chapter 61 of Isaiah. By implication, Jesus appears to be renouncing Isaiah's promise of Divine vindication of Israel that would lead to Israel lording it over the despised Gentiles, as described in the rest of the passage:

Strangers shall stand and pasture your flocks,
Aliens shall be your plowmen and vine-trimmers

You shall enjoy the wealth of the Goyim
And revel in their riches. (Isaiah 61:5-6)

Once again Jesus appears to be challenging the conception of Yahweh as a warrior god, the champion of his people Israel who will see that Israel is restored to dominance over the nations.

While most translations of this passage in Luke prefer the reading:

All the people bore witness to him and were amazed at the graceful words (τοις λογοις της χαριτος) that came from his mouth

I have preferred a translation that renders the dative in an adversative sense: the people bore witness against Jesus, and they did so because, by excising the main theme of the passage they suspected that Jesus was a “dove” with regard to the hated Gentiles. By excising not only the remainder of the sentence but the rest of the extended passage, Jesus was suspected of offering mercy (χαρις) to the Gentiles and offering no expectation of overlordship to the Jews. I maintain that only this reading makes sense of the rest of the narrative. If his townsmen were bearing witness in favor of Jesus, there would be no reason why Jesus would adopt an overtly adversarial attitude toward his townsmen, throwing in their faces examples of the mercy that Yahweh had shown to Gentiles in the past: Namaan the Syrian (a leper) and Zarephath of Sidon (a poor widow). He even rubs his point in by pointing out that Yahweh had not seen fit to cure any Israelite lepers in those days, nor come to the aid of any Israelite widows. Jesus' response is only understandable if we acknowledge that his townsmen had expressed not simple surprise at his polished ("graceful") words--which amounted to no more than reading from Scripture--but, to the contrary, outrage at his offer of mercy to the Gentiles. By this reading, then, Jesus is using his blatantly edited version of Isaiah to challenge the worldview of his listeners. His listeners recognize what he's doing and react. Jesus, far from backing down, asserts his position to the point that his townsmen try to kill him. Of course, Jesus' challenge to his listeners' worldview is also a challenge to the basis for their worldview: their acceptance of the Israelite scriptures as God's prediction of the future, in which the Jews will be the lords of the earth:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he'd been brought up, and as was his custom he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 So they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and when he unrolled the scroll he found the place where it was written,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring the good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim release to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty the oppressed,
19 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord ...

20 When he had rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant he sat down, and the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All the people bore witness against him and were amazed at the words of mercy which came from his mouth, and they said, "Isn't this fellow Joseph's son?" 23 So he said to them, "No doubt you'll quote me this parable, 'Physician, heal thyself!' 'Do here, too, in your hometown, what we heard was done in Capharnaum.'" (Luke 4)

Opening the Scriptures

The Lucan Road to Emmaus narrative and the followup appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem are often presented as affirmation for the view that the Israelite prophets “foretold” the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. A comparison of this passage to Jesus' well known threefold predictions of his death suggest, however, that a more likely interpretation of this passage is that it represents Luke's theology:

25 He said to them, "How dense you are, and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets said! 26 Didn't the Messiah have to suffer all these things and go into his glory?" 27 And starting from Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them what was in all the scriptures about himself.

44 Then he said to them, "These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms had to be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 And he said to them, "So it is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins for all nations would be proclaimed in his name--starting from Jerusalem. (Luke 24)

The first thing we notice is that Luke and the disciples have somehow failed to preserve the details of what should have been a fascinating Scripture Study session--conducted by Jesus himself! One would have expected the details to have been foundational for Christian theology, but they appear to have been lost beyond recovery--two millennia of searching the scriptures have failed to find any prediction of the passion, death and resurrection of the Messiah in the Israelite scriptures. The Catholic New American Bible notes (re the prediction in Luke 18, below):

Luke understands the events of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but, as is usually the the case in Luke-Acts, the author does not specify which Old Testament prophets he has in mind.

Even more pointedly, in its notes for Luke 24 the NAB drily notes:

The idea of a suffering Messiah is not found in the Old Testament or in other Jewish literature prior to the New Testament period.

What in fact we are seeing in Luke is the influence of the basic ideas of archaic ontology in early Christian thought: Jesus is not to be allowed to perform unique actions in history; instead, he is following a scripted reenactment of archetypal acts dictated by the Israelite scriptures, in turn dictated to Moses by God. This is a far cry from Paul's scandal of the cross and, if we are to accept the witness of the other Gospels, from the witness of Jesus himself, who clearly saw his actions as unique.

By way of comparison, we find that in each of the Synoptic gospels Jesus three times predicts his passion and death. Given the insistence of all three Synoptic gospels there appears to be little doubt that Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection and went to it with his eyes wide open. However, what is immediately striking is that, of the nine total narratives, in only one is Jesus presented as claiming any basis for his passion and death in the Israelite scriptures—in Luke 18. As the NAB notes, the reference to the prophets in Luke 18 is clearly “a Lucan addition to the words of Jesus”:

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man had to suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death and rise after three days...
Mark 8
21 From then on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he had to go on to Jerusalem and suffer terrible things at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be put to death and rise on the third day.
Matthew 16
21 But he ... 22 ... said, "The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be put to death and rise on the third day."
Luke 9
"The Son of Man will be given over into the hands of men and they'll put him to death, and when he's been killed, after three days he'll rise."
Mark 9:31
"The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the hands of men 23 and they'll put him to death, but on the third day he'll rise."
Matthew 17
44 "Listen closely to what I'm going to tell you: the Son of Man is going to be handed over into the hands of men."
Luke 9
33 "Behold, we're going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They'll condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 and they'll mock him and spit on him and scourge him and kill him, and after three days he'll rise."
Mark 10
18 "Behold, we're going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes; they'll condemn him to death 19 and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and on the third day he'll rise."
Matthew 20
31 Then he took the Twelve and said to them, "Behold, we're going up to Jerusalem, and all the things written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be brought to completion, 32 for he'll be handed over to the Gentiles and he'll be mocked and insulted and spit upon. 33 Then they'll scourge him and put him to death, and on the third day he'll rise."
Luke 18

The arrest narratives may be somewhat distinct, in that Matthew and Mark (but, curiously, not Luke) record Jesus speaking in terms of fulfillment.  Nevertheless, once again we note the generality of the language used, the lack of specificity.

Matthew 26
Mark 14
47 While he was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the Twelve, came, and with him a large crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests and elders of the people. 48 Now the one handing him over had given them a sign and said," Whoever I kiss is him; seize him!" 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, "Hail, Rabbi!" and kissed him. 50 But Jesus said to him, "What are you here for, my friend?" Then they came forward and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And, behold, one of those with Jesus reached out his hand, drew his sword, and struck the high priest's slave and cut off his ear. 52 But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back in its place all those who take up the sword will die by the sword! 53 Or do you think that I couldn't call on my Father and have him at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But then how could the scriptures be fulfilled, that this is the way it must be?" 55 Then Jesus said to the crowds, "You came out with swords and clubs to seize me, as if you were after a robber? Every day I sat in the temple teaching, yet you didn't seize me! 56 But all this has happened so that the writings of the prophets would be fulfilled." Then all the disciples forsook him and fled.

43 And right then, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 44 Now, the one handing him over had given them a sign, saying, "Whoever I kiss is the one; seize him and lead him away under guard." 45 Judas came right up to him and said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. 46 So they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 Then one of those present drew his sword, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his ear. 48 In answer Jesus said to them, "You came out with swords and clubs to seize me, as if you were after a robber? 49 I was among you daily, teaching in the Temple, yet you didn't seize me; but let the scriptures be fulfilled." 50 Then they all forsook him and fled.


Zeal for my Father's House

John's account of the cleansing of the Temple includes a quote from Psalm 69 that has been altered to apply to Jesus: the tense has been changed from present to future. The Psalm otherwise appears to have no other relevance to the Johannine narrative and seems to be used in the nature of a literary allusion, describing Jesus' “zeal,” rather than as prophecy fulfillment. On the other hand, in John 4, when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, Jesus ends up stating that in the future worship will not be dependent upon physical location (Mt. Gerezim or Jerusalem) but will be conducted “in spirit and truth.”

13 When the Jewish Passover was near Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the Temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers were also sitting there. 15 Then he made a whip out of rope and drove them all out of the Temple, along with the sheep and the oxen. He poured out the moneylenders' coins and overturned their tables, 16 and he told those who were selling the doves, "Get them out of here! Don't make my Father's house a market house!" 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Zeal for Your house will consume me. 18 So in response the Jews said to him, "What sign can you show us to justify your doing these things?" 19 Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I'll raise it up." 20 So the Jews said, "This sanctuary has been forty six years in the building, and you claim you can raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking about the sanctuary of his body. 22 So, when he rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he'd said this, and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

Two Sayings Regarding Scripture

John 5 contains two sayings of Jesus regarding scripture. As in Luke, we note that John doesn't specify any particular scriptures in any of these three sayings, making it difficult to draw any conclusion except that the references to fulfillment ("bear witness," "wrote about me") are extremely general, probably not to be taken as having any specific referent.

Searching the Scriptures

39 You search the scriptures
because you think you have eternal life in them,
Yet they bear witness to me,
40 and you don't want to come to me to have life."

Moses is Your Accuser

45 Don't think that I'll accuse you before the Father;
your accuser is Moses, in whom you hoped!
46 For if you'd believed Moses, you would have believed me,
because he wrote about me!
47 So if you don't believe his writings,
how can you believe what I say?"

Reading the Prophets, Listening to the Father

John 6 contains a quote from Isaiah 54:13. It is not offered as a prophecy fulfillment so much as a self reference emphasizing Jesus' privileged relationship to his Father: those taught by Jesus are taught by God!

44 No one can come to me unless the Father Who sent me draws him, and I'll raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns, comes to me.

Jesus at Tabernacles

John 7 contains the account of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles. This passage continues the theme of Jesus as offering teaching from God. It also references the theme that we first saw in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' teaching regarding marriage—twice Jesus refers to the Torah as coming from Moses. We might not place much emphasis on this wording except that Jesus—in his teaching on marriage—states that the erroneous teaching on divorce, the teaching that contravened God's intentions, was given by Moses because of “the hardness of [the Israelites'] hearts.” It is difficult to avoid the impression--once again--that Jesus sees the Torah that Moses gave to Israel as of human origin in some sense.

14 When the festival was already half over Jesus went up to the Temple and began to teach. 15 The Jews were amazed and said, "How could the fellow get this learning, since he hasn't studied?" 16 So Jesus answered them and said, "My teaching isn't mine but is from the One who sent me. 17 If anyone wishes to do His will, he'll know whether the teaching is from God or if I'm speaking on my own. 18 Whoever speaks on his own is seeking his own glory, while whoever seeks the glory of the one who sent him, he's truthful and there's no falsehood in him. 19 Didn't Moses give you the Torah? Yet none of you keeps the Torah. Why are you trying to kill me?" 20 The crowd answered, "You have a demon! Who's trying to kill you?" 21 Jesus answered and said to them, "I did one work and all of you were amazed 22 by it. Moses gave you circumcision--not that it's from Moses; it's actually from the fathers--yet you'll circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If a man can receive circumcision on the Sabbath so as not to break the Torah of Moses, why be angry with me because I made a whole man healthy on the Sabbath? 24 Don't judge by outward appearances; render just judgment, instead." (John 7)

The Woman Caught in Adultery

John 8 is the well known narrative of the woman caught in adultery, and it offers a subtle look at Jesus' views on “the Torah of Moses.” The Pharisees point out that Moses directly commanded that an adulteress (as well as an adulterer) should be put to death by stoning. Jesus never directly responds to their question: What do you say? Jesus doesn't directly challenge the Torah, but instead places a personal onus on the Pharisees by requiring that some one of them put himself forward in public as sinless before the stoning should begin. The implication, however is clear: mercy and forgiveness take precedence over the commands of the Torah. As always, this position is advanced on Jesus' personal authority.

2 Now early in the morning he again came to the temple and all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and after standing her out in the middle 4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Torah Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" 6 They said this to test him, so they could accuse him of something. But Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let whoever is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 And once again he bent down and began to write on the ground. 9 Then those who had been listening began to go away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and he was left alone, with the woman still in the middle. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 "No one, Lord," she said. Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on sin no more." (John 8)

Your Torah, My Father, My Works

John's account of Jesus's activities at the Feast of the Dedication features Jesus stumping his opponents by taking a quote from Psalm 82:6 violently out of context and altering the tense of the verb. As we have had occasion to note in the past, Psalm 82:6 portrays El as Father God presiding over the assembly of gods, his family of gods, but Jesus claims that the verse applies to those “to whom the word of God came,” and notes: “and Scripture cannot be set aside.” What Jesus is doing is hoisting his opponents on their own petard—their reliance on the authority of Scripture. He then quickly changes tack and bases his own personal authority on the works he does. In other words, he is saying that he is not to be evaluated based on proof texts from ancient Israelite writings but on the actual works he performs. Anyone can perform this sort of evaluation—there is no need to study the Scriptures to decide who Jesus is and come to belief in him. Those who take this step will be placed in a direct relationship with the God whom Jesus calls “Father.”

31 Once again the Jews picked up stones in order to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, "I've shown you many good works from the Father. For which of those works are you going to stone me?" 33 The Jews answered him, "We're not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy, and because you, a man, are making yourself God!" 34 Jesus answered them, "Isn't it written in your Torah, 'I said, you shall be gods?' 35 If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came, and Scripture cannot be set aside, 36 are you saying to the one the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You're blaspheming!' because I said, 'I'm the Son of God?' 37 If I'm not doing my Father's works, don't believe me! 38 But if I am, and you don't believe me, believe the works, so you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." 39 Once again they tried to arrest him, yet he came out from their hands.

This theme of judging Jesus by his works is developed during Jesus' Last Supper discourse and is, indeed, one of only a few major themes of John's Gospel. Jesus performed works, doing his Father's will "so that you may believe." He didn't come to conduct Bible study groups.

My Commandments, My Word

We have seen Jesus throughout his ministry challenging in various ways the commandments of the Torah. Now, finally, Jesus gives his disciples commands they must follow: his own commands!

15 If you love me, you'll keep my commandments, ...

23 If anyone loves me he'll keep my word, (John 14)

Then, in John 15, Jesus contrasts his performance of the works that the Father sent him to perform—works no one else has done—with his opponents reliance on the Torah, but the Torah is now used to condemn his opponents out of their own mouths, so to speak.

My Father, Their Torah

23 Whoever hates me also hates my Father.

24 If I hadn't done among them works that no one else has done, they'd have no sin,
But now they've both seen and hated both me and my Father.
25 But let the word written in their Torah be fulfilled,
They hated me without cause."

This central theme of Jesus' works is returned to in John 17:

4 I glorified You on earth by completing the work You gave me to do,

The Son of Perdition

John 17 contains the only instance in John's Gospel in which Jesus himself uses the phrase “so that Scripture may be fulfilled.” Jesus' main point in this passage is that he has faithfully fulfilled his Father's commission (and is not at fault for the betrayal of Judas--the son of perdition). However, there is no identifiable scriptural referent for this fulfillment language:

12 When I was with them I kept those You gave me in Your name and guarded them,
And none of them is lost except the son of perdition,
so that Scripture may be fulfilled.

In John 18 the reference to Jesus' fulfillment of his commission is repeated, although the reference this time is to Jesus' own prior statement in 17:12:

8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he, so if you're looking for me, let these others go," 9 in order to fulfill the word he had spoken, "I lost none of those whom you gave to me."

The reference to the "son of perdition" may be a merely literary allusion to Psalm 41, and is a general complaint of betrayal (Matthew 26:23 also appears to allude to this psalm):

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me. (Psalm 41:10, RSV)

Jesus' Passion Predictions in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is replete with references by Jesus to his coming death. Not a single such reference, however, describes his death as being a fulfillment of scripture.


1. Jesus cannot be definitively said to have ever claimed that his life fulfilled the Israelite scriptures. This sets Jesus' self understanding off from at least some aspects of the theology of the Evangelists--Matthew and Luke in particular. In contrast to the tendency of the Evangelists, Jesus claimed a unique relationship with God and a unique significance for his life, death and resurrection. When Jesus is recorded speaking in terms of "fulfillment" it is only in the most general of senses, lacking any specific referents.

2. Jesus probably regarded the Israelite scriptures as--in major part--"culturally conditioned" writings. Those cultural conditions are subject to critique by reason. While there is no doubt that Jesus regarded these writings as preparatory to his coming, his view of their significance in relationship to him did not require him to "fulfill" episodes or prophecies of the Israelite scriptures. Jesus certainly set himself in total and conscious opposition to Jewish Messianic expectations. In that regard it is probably noteworthy that, while the infancy narratives connect Jesus to the Davidic line, there is no suggestion of anything of the sort in Jesus' public life--he is to be judged by his words and works alone.

3. At an early stage of Christian history attempts were made to conform the significance of Jesus to ways of thought that were familiar from patterns derived from archaic ontology. This persistence of archaic ontology is most apparent in the Gospels in their application to Jesus of the notion of "prophetic fulfillment" of the Israelite scriptures. This amounts to an adoption of the archaic ontology of archetypal repetition--inapplicable to the revolutionary novelty of the self revelation of God in the historical Jesus.

4. For all these reasons, it is ill advised to seek Christian doctrine in the Israelite scriptures. Their significance is to be found in their preparation for the revelation of God in Jesus and must be evaluated in that light. It is clear that the major focus of early Christianity--including the Gospels--is on the works that Jesus did, and preeminently his resurrection. This was the true source of Christian faith; comparison of Jesus' works to anything in the Israelite scriptures was an after the fact affair.


  1. Thank you for what you pointed out about Jesus' home-synagogue incident in Luke. I'd never noticed where he breaks off the reading; and what follows in Isaiah. Everything hangs together once you add that in!

    I believe, by the way, that yesterday morning (quite unexpectedly!) I found the passage that led Jesus to conclude that God intended him to die for his people (as NT Wright argued, without quite convincing me!) It wasn't a matter, by the way, of 'fulfilling a prophecy'. Since this question has been an extremely frustrating 'koan' for me for some time, I won't spoil it for you unless you ask... (& will if you do; it fits together as neatly as your Isaiah omission in Luke.)

    Where Jesus' idea of "fulfillment' differs from that of many of his interpretors [I may have gotten this from Wright?]: He applies it in the sense that something is "fulfilled" when it has accomplished its purpose. The Torah's purpose, for example, is to bring Israel into communion with God. (Meanwhile it serves to eliminate some of the obstacles to such communion, and provides the background material for an ongoing divine/human conversation... as in the pronouncement, by later Rabbis, that studying Torah accomplished the same function as sacrificing in the Temple.) Once in a state of communion, details of interpretation basically take care of themselves....

    Ah! That interpretation of "fulfillment"! It was in this guy's Bible study talks:

  2. Feel free to discuss the passage you refer to.