“And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel” (Exodus 24:4).
A “Jewish” Book
Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law of God. He came down to give to the people part of the Covenant, which they accepted. He wrote down what the Lord had spoken and the first five books of the Bible while Israel was in the wilderness. They had records and traditions from the time before Abraham, but Moses wrote down everything for Israel as they went to the Promised Land. Moses was Jewish and a part of the nation of Israel, which consisted of 12 tribes.
The Bible, except for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (both written by Luke), was written by Jewish writers, and even Luke used Jewish references. Though men “wrote” the Bible, God “authored” the Bible, “inspiring” all of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).
While some Gentiles have their words recorded, as in King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel Chapter 4, a Jewish man (Daniel) recorded it. Why is this important? It is important because the Bible is a theological book, written within a historical context. It is a book about God written within the context of His work in history through the Jewish people. This means there are Hebrew phrases, figures of speech, cultural customs and traditions the Jews held to, and if we don’t understand this, we will misinterpret the Bible.
Missing the Crucial Point
Unfortunately, Christians are losing this Jewish-context understanding of the Bible. For example:
- Matthew 16:18: “… I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” These are Jesus’ words affirming Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. “The gates of hell” won’t overcome His Church. “The gates of hell” is a Jewish phrase meaning death. There is no hidden meaning in Jesus’s words. His simple point is that death will not destroy His people.
- Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” This has been taken out of context over the years. Some believe it means Jesus didn’t know when He was returning, or that His return could be at “any moment.” However, based on the Jewish context, the phrase “day and hour” is referring to the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah (or the Feast of Trumpets), where the moon could be seen on one of two days, because the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar. If we understand these Jewish feasts in their historical context, and that Jesus is referring to them, we learn this is a very Jewish phrase referring to this Feast.
- Mark 14:71: “But he began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak.” This, of course, is Peter’s denial of Jesus. Peter was taking a solemn oath that he didn’t know Jesus. This was a Jewish custom and a very severe thing to do. He wasn’t “swearing.”
- John 15:16: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you…” This is not a reference to salvation, but to a Rabbi or teacher choosing His disciples, whereas in the Jewish culture the disciples would choose their teacher. It’s not as complex as we make it out to be.
These are just a few examples of how important it is to read the New Testament in its Jewish context. The challenge is for us to “think Jewish” when reading, studying, and interpreting Scripture.
How do we do this? We study the Old Testament, because it is where God gave the Jewish people their culture. Next, we find good resources which help us understand the historical context of Scripture, such as The World of Jesus, by William Marty, and The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, by Ralph Gower, to name two good ones.
When we learn to study the Bible in its Jewish context, we gain much more understanding, which will help Scripture fit together more sensibly.
May God bless you as you seek to understand His Holy Word in the true manner in which He gave it!