A few months ago there was a very interesting development in Israeli scholarship. For the first time - to the best of my knowledge - an Israeli press published an academic book about the Gospel of John in Hebrew. This may not sound like a very big deal - and there are believers who are quick to dismiss the work of academics in the field of Biblical studies - but this is in fact a remarkable step forward. Over the past few decades, through the pioneering work of Dr. David Flusser, to whom the book is dedicated, and many others, Israeli scholarship has begun to wade into New Testament studies and has made great contributions in helping us understand Yeshua and his activities within their original Jewish context.
The Gospel of John, in contrast with the synoptic gospels (Matt., Mark & Luke), has been noticeably neglected during the early decades of Israeli New Testament scholarship for a host of fairly obvious reasons. These include the general consensus about the relative lateness of John’s writing, a host of passages that seem openly hostile to Jews, and a general tone that seems to suggest a conflicted perspective on the relationship of Yeshua to Judaism. In contrast, the synoptic gospels and the book of The Acts of the Apostles were intriguing to Jewish scholars because of the extensive historical information they contain. Likewise, Paul was fascinating to Jewish scholars because of his developed ideology and the apparent earliness of his writing. John’s Gospel on the other hand, with its more developed Christology, has been virtually untouched. Against this background, Dr. Serge Ruzer and Dr. Yair Zakovitch, both of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, joined forces to write a ‘conversational’ book that addresses many of these issues and explores them in depth. Dr. Ruzer is a lecturer on Early Christianity while Dr. Zakovitch specializes in the Hebrew Bible and has done extensive work with intra-biblical commentary - frequently referred to as intertextuality.
Bereshit Haya HaDavar (In the Beginning was the Word) - Eight Conversations about the Fourth Gospel focuses on the energetic tension between the Gospel author’s adherence to a Biblical-style framework for his narrative and the author’s desire to show what was so innovative about Yeshua. They look at this fruitful tension topically, selecting touchstone aspects of John’s Gospel as starting points for their chapters/conversations. For example, the first chapter looks at John’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses. In this vein they look at John’s use of signs, which systemically resemble and frequently in some way exceed the miracles that God performed through Moses. In the second chapter they study how Yeshua’s crucifixion was portrayed in John’s gospel in a way that emphasized it’s prefiguration in the binding of Isaac. These two interpretive themes, those of Moses and Isaac, are seen as thematic in the Gospel.
John’s technique is evident in a variety of ways; for example, in the story of the binding of Isaac, Isaac is referred to as Abraham’s “only” son “whom he loves”. In the Septuagint (the c. 200 B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament) this passage is translated as “beloved” (rather than “only”), probably as a result of the closeness in spelling between the Hebrew words יחיד, “chosen, only”, and ידיד, “beloved”. The synoptic gospels followed this Septuagintal translation in the scene when Yeshua is baptized in the Jordan and the heavenly voice refers to him as ‘God’s son whom he loves’. In contrast, John’s Gospel sticks more closely to the Hebrew text of the Abraham story in the scenes with John the Baptist, and Yeshua is instead referred to as God’s ‘chosen’ and ‘only’ son.
John draws extensively from the Torah and regularly refers to Psalms as “Torah”, showing that the term Torah had already expanded in the time of Yeshua to include more than merely the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy) - something which Zakovitch points out was probably in response to the Samaritans of Yeshua’s day who asserted that only the Pentateuch was authoritative. The authors also point out, interestingly, that John alludes to Deuteronomy specifically far more often than the Synoptic gospels do.
For those who follow Seed of Abraham’s Torah Class lessons, Tom Bradford recently taught a lesson entitled Introduction to Nehemiah in which he discusses the way Protestants ceased including the Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphica as appendices to their Bibles. He also pointed out how around this same time scholars began referring to the period from 400 B.C. to the New Testament as the “silent period” in Biblical literature, when in fact this period was far from silent, even if most (if not all) of the works that were written during this period did not achieve canonical status. Ruzer and Zakovitch agree wholeheartedly and make extensive use of this so-called intertestamental literature to highlight passages in John’s gospel.
In chapter 5 of In the Beginning was the Word there is a discussion of the famous prologue of John’s gospel, including several prominent themes or ideas. “The Word” and “the Light” figure prominently among these. The earliest Christian commentators already referred to this prologue as a type of hymn, suggesting that it may have been an early hymn that John simply incorporated into his gospel. Ruzer and Zakovitch agree and make some very interesting comparisons between John’s prologue and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), in which the “sons of light” figure prominently and “the way” is used in a manner similar to the manner in which it is used in the New Testament. Likewise, in Psalms, Proverbs, Ben Sira, Enoch, in other DSS, all of which are pre-Christian, the notion of “wisdom” is related intimately with creation and is personified - just as it is in the Bible in places like Proverbs. In many texts such as Targum Neophiti this “wisdom” is translated as “the Memra”, or “the Word”. In Ben Sira this Wisdom seeks a place to dwell on earth. In some cases such as in the Ethiopic book of Enoch this wisdom can find no place to dwell on earth and is ‘rejected’ and returns to heaven, not altogether unlike what happens to the Word in John’s prologue. This concept of the rejection of God’s ambassadors to humankind is strong throughout Jewish tradition in general, and virtually all of Moses and the prophets were ‘rejected’ in part or in full. Ruzer and Zakovitch show just how widespread and commonly understood the central concepts in John’s prologue were in Jewish society in the centuries leading up to the composition of John’s Gospel.
All of these observations about John’s Gospel bring to mind a dear Jewish friend who has told me on several occasions that when he reads the Gospel of John he feels like he is reading Bereshit Rabbah, an ancient rabbinic commentary on Genesis. In this same vein, in chapter seven of Bereshit Haya HaDavar the authors make the interesting and astute observation that John’s Gospel operates much the way that the Talmud does in Jewish tradition in the sense that John presents the narrative life of Yeshua, which was already well-known, but gives it an interpretive spin and draws attention to unique aspects of the familiar scenes. As such it helps the reader to see the well-known Gospel narrative in a new light, and the reader will probably tend to read the synoptic gospels in light of John’s narrative, much the way modern Jews frequently read the Bible in light of Genesis Rabbah and other rabbinic commentaries.
Unfortunately at the moment Bereshit Haya HaDavar is only available in Hebrew, although Magnes Press is hoping to translate it into English if funding becomes available. Let’s hope that happens in the not too distant future. For now, we can at least be grateful that Israeli scholars are wading ever deeper into New Testament scholarship and casting a brighter light than ever before upon the dark corners of our portrait of the life of Yeshua.
By E.A. Knapp