The Jewish Background of the New Testament (Davenant Hall Course Preview)


This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The Jewish Background of the New Testament”, running in the Summer 2021 Term (July – August), and convened by Dr. Matthew Colvin.

If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.


Why study the Jewish background of the New Testament?

For most Christians, Jewish sources are far less familiar than Roman and Greek material that also forms the NT’s context. But while the Greco-Roman context is helpful, the Jewish context is more immediate, more comprehensive, and more detailed. Fewer Westerners learn Hebrew or Aramaic than learn Latin and Greek. Fewer read Philo and Josephus than read the Apostolic Fathers. But precisely because the Jewish context is less well known to us, we can find within it more satisfactory solutions to interperative problems That is why one prominent scholar of “New Testament Judaism,” David Daube, took as an epigraph a line from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “Would’st thou read Riddles, and their Explanations?” The Jewish background often unlocks puzzles that resist all other solutions.

In the Summer 2021 Term, my Davenant Hall course “The Jewish Background of the New Testament” will provide an introduction to scholarship on the Jewish context of the NT. The best way to become convinced of the value of this literature is to experience it. We will explore representative scholarship from David Daube, Gustav Dalman, Joachim Jeremias, Maurice Casey, David Instone-Brewer, Craig A. Evans, N.T. Wright, and others. We will focus on three areas: language, law, and argument forms. In what follows, I will give examples of the insights that each of these areas can offer exegetes of the NT.

Language

Both the New Testament and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jews in the first century, abbreviated as the LXX) contain “Semitisms,” artifacts of Aramaic and Hebrew Vorlagen behind the Greek. Sometimes this takes the form of violations of Greek idiom (e.g. Gen. 1:4 LXX’s “διεχώρισεν ὁ θεὸς ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ φωτὸς καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ σκότους,” where Greek normally would not repeat ἀνὰ μέσον (“between”) twice, but the LXX does so in over-literal conformity to the Hebrew bên…ubên (“between X and between Y,” meaning “between X and Y”). Such Semitisms can only be detected by readers who are familiar with the idioms and grammar of both languages.

In Mark’s account of Jesus healing a leper (Mk. 1:40-45), two Greek words are often massaged in English translations, and are changed in the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. First, in the Codex Bezae manuscript, Mark says that Jesus was angered (orgistheis) at the leper falling down before him and begging to be healed. (Other manuscripts have splagchnistheis, “being moved with compassion,” a term clearly inserted later to remove the difficulty of orgistheis).  Second, Mark says that Jesus “snorted” (embrimesamenos) at the man. Neither of these words makes sense in the context, but they are easily understood as traces of an Aramaic source behind Mark’s Greek: the verb regaz usually means ‘to be angry’, so that Mark translated it with orgistheis. But regaz has a broader range of meaning than the Greek orgizo. It encompasses meanings like ‘to tremble’ and ‘to be deeply moved’.” Second, the word “snorted” (embrimaomai) is similarly comprehensible from an Aramaic verb that means both “snort” and “rebuke” or “warn”: neḥar. The evidence for this verb is mostly later than the NT, in the Babylonian Talmud (e.g. b.Kidd. 81b, “they rebuked him [for his misbehaviour]” and b.Sabb. 152b, “R. Aḥai bar Yoshiya rebuked (neḥar) them”, b.Gittin 68a, “Rav Hisda…neḥar to him from behind in order to signal to him.”). Thus, Aramaic linguistic background, even from sources later than the NT, gives a solution to two puzzles in Mark 1. We conclude that Mark or his oral source was a native speaker of Aramaic, but not of Greek.

Among the topics this course will examine using linguistic comparison are the “preparation day of the Passover,” the word “amen,” the names of “Judas Iscariot” and “Mary Magdalene,” and the idiomatic locutions “the Son of Man,” and “thou hast said it.”

Law

A second category of Jewish background that sheds light on the NT is law. Jewish law, or halakha, dominates the Mishnah and the two Talmuds after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. But even before AD 70, it was a topic of debate between Jesus and his Jewish interlocutors.

Examples are manifold. In relating the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, John’s gospel says that “Jews do not sygchrontai with Samaritans.” (John 4:9) John is using a verb that etymologically means “to use in common with”. The reason for this is found in the Jewish law of uncleanness: Samaritan women were considered menstruants from their cradle (m.Niddah 4.1) and their uncleanness was conveyed “to people and vessels by contact and to earthenware by presence within their airspace” (m.Kelim 1.1). This is why the Samaritan woman says, “Sir, you have nothing to draw [water] with, and the well is deep.”

Thus, the sex of the woman, the significance of her pitcher, and the peculiar and very specific verb “to use in common with” all point unmistakably to the operation of Jewish laws about uncleanness and its transmission. Because legal principles are so specific, requiring multiple conditions to be met, these similarities are unlikely to be the result of chance: legal parallels are not produced by monkeys on typewriters. For this reason, historians of law like David Daube and Duncan Derrett are able to argue that legal principles, even if not specific statutes or rabbinic dicta, are at work in the NT that are only otherwise evidenced in the pages of Rabbinic literature from 200-500 years later.

In this course, we will see what exegetical insights can be gained from Jewish laws regarding the sabbath, gatherings (ḥaburot) for celebrating festivals, methods of capital punishment, Passover observances, appointment of representative agents (“apostles”), rabbinic ordination, proselyte baptism, and more.

Argument Forms

Similarly distinctive are the forms of argument used in scholarly debates among rabbis. In Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, Jon Levenson relates the response of Rabbi Simai to the Sadducees’ denial of resurrection:

Rabbi Simai says: How do we know that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? From the verse, ‘‘I also established My covenant with them [that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], to give them the land of Canaan’’ (Exod 6:4). ‘‘To you’’ is not written but ‘‘to them.’’ Hence, resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (b. Sanh. 90b)

The form of the argument is identical to that used by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32, where he appeals to Exodus 3:6’s statement, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” to argue (elliptically) that the patriarchs must live (or must someday be resurrected), since God is the god of the living, not of the dead. Note that Rabbi Simai appeals to the pronoun: “not ‘to you’, but ‘to them’. A similar grammatical precision is employed by Paul in Galatians 3:16’s parsing of the promise to Abraham: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds (spermasin) as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed (spermati), which is Christ.”

The NT is full of hotly debated questions: Which is the great commandment in the law? Why is it written that Elijah comes first? When the dead rise, with what sort of body do they come? How can I inherit eternal life? What makes a man unclean? Do Gentiles need to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses? It will be observed that rabbinic arguments and interpretations in answer to these questions are far closer to the NT than arguments from other cultures and times, e.g. 5th century Athens. To understand these things, we need to investigate the methods of midrash and the logic of rabbinic debate.

An Invitation

These three sorts of evidence—linguistic, legal, and rhetorical—speak to some of the most central and controversial topics in Christianity. Yet the greatest benefit of studying the Jewish context of the NT is not so much the ability to address these controversial topics from a better-informed standpoint, but rather to enjoy the added vividness of reading the NT itself with more precise and clear understanding. 

This enterprise is set to become even more accessible in the near future. Later this year Strack and Billerbeck’s Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch will be released in English for the first time. A standard text for NT studies since the mid-twentieth century in its original German, its publication in English will give pastors and seminarians a wealth of texts that illuminate the text of the NT by comparisons with Rabbinic Judaism. A new and ongoing Brill series, The New Testament Gospels in Their Judaic Contexts, seeks to perform a similar function, but with the advantage of including the Qumran scrolls and other discoveries that postdate Strack-Billerbeck.

We may, therefore, be on the threshold of a new, widespread appreciation of the Jewish context of the New Testament. This Davenant Hall Summer 2021 course comes at the perfect time, and will give students a wide sampling of the Jewish context that will equip them for future study, make them more competent judges of interpretations, and give them a source of lifelong discovery and delight.


This Biblical Theology course will be taught by Dr. Matthew Colvin. This course will run from July 5th through August 27th. The syllabus will be available soon. Register here.

Dr. Matthew Colvin is a presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church. From 2012-2017, he served as a missionary teaching ministerial students in the Philippines and Indonesia. He holds a PhD in ancient Greek literature from Cornell University (2004). His published works include articles on Heraclitus (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 2005 and The Classical Quarterly 2006), a translation from Latin of the 1550 Magdeburg Confession (2011), and The Lost Supper, a study of the Passover and Eucharistic origins (Fortress Academic, 2019). He is currently working on a book on women’s ordination and the origins of ordained office in the early church. He lives on Vancouver Island.

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