In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Matthias Henze about ancient texts that didn’t make it into the Bible and how those texts help us better understand biblical context as they explore the following questions:
- Why is Jesus’ practice of Judaism different from the practices we find in the Old Testament?
- What sparked Matthias’ interest in Judaism?
- What is Second Temple Judaism?
- Are there messiahs in the Old Testament?
- Why is the study of Second Temple Judaism important to the study of the New Testament?
- How has anti-semitism affected the study of Second Temple Judaism?
- How have the Dead Sea Scrolls impacted the study of Second Temple Judaism?
- What is the apocrypha?
- Did Jesus read texts that didn’t make it into our Bibles?
- Why is it important to study more Second Temple period texts?
- What was the significance of “messiah” in Second Temple Judaism?
- How does Daniel 7 help us understand what it means to be a messiah?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Matthias Henze you can share.
- “The Bible only gives us a slim excerpt of the books that were in circulation in the time of Jesus.” -Matthias Henze
- “To get a better understanding… of this Jewish world of Jesus, we need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted.” -Matthias Henze
- “Once we read the New Testament in the context of the Jewish literature of its time, it becomes even more impressive and more marvelous.” -Matthias Henze
- “The writers of our gospels, the evangelists, they deliberately use [Son of Man], as well as other titles, because they know that their audiences will exactly know that they’re really talking about the Messiah.” -Matthias Henze
- “There was not just one set of messianic expectations, there was not one clearly formed idea of who the Messiah would be and what would happen, but there were a great variety of different ways of thinking of the Messiah [in the Second Temple Period].” -Matthias Henze
Mentioned in This EpisodeRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. You have a real treat coming your way today. We have Matthias Henze who is professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at Rice University, and we’re here to talk about Messiah.
Pete: Yeah. And, you know, even the thing is titled Hebrew Bible and early Judaism. That’s, we’ll get to that, why that’s sort of an important way of thinking about all this time period that’s relevant for Jesus in the New Testament, but yeah. I’m particularly excited to have Matthias on because I’ve known him for, I guess, maybe twenty-five years now. We were classmates together in graduate school and he came a couple years after I did. He’s just such a breath of fresh air. You’ll see this, he’s such a nice guy and pretty darn smart too. He’s said an awful lot about Jesus in the context of the Judaism that he lived in, which is rather obvious thing to say now that it’s coming out of my mouth, like, why wouldn’t you do that, right? But again, we’re not always trained to do that, and bringing out the Jewishness of Jesus and we talked about a specific issue, we’ll get to that. It’s just very enlightening and it’s fun to hear and you see, my goodness gracious, this stuff is really deep.
Jared: Yeah, yeah.
Pete: Really deep.
Jared: Well, let’s get into this conversation then.
Matthias: So, my point is for us to get a better understanding of Jesus’ world, of this Jewish world of Jesus. We need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted.
Jared: Well, welcome Matthias, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. It’s great to have you.
Matthias: Thank you for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Jared: Absolutely. Well, before we get started in some of the heavy hitting, we hope to cover on this episode, maybe you can give us a little bit of your background and maybe a little spiritual bio. How did you come to study what you study and why was it, why were you drawn to it?
Matthias: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, I spent the first half of my life in Germany. I was born there, grew up there, and my father, of blessed memory, was born in 1923 and was a soldier in World War II. He tried to avoid it, but everybody was drafted. Fortunately, he survived, and so I was born twenty years after the war and, but the war was always in our house growing up. It was always present and certainly when we traveled, we were always the Germans. So, even from a very young age on, I developed an interest in World War II, especially Germany’s role, and the history of the Jews in Germany. And so, contacted the synagogue, got in touch with them, and so I always had an interest in Judaism. Initially, Judaism in Germany, but then also beyond. And then I studied theology in Germany, wanted to become a Lutheran pastor. I liked the critical studies so much and liked the university so much that I decided to become an academic, and then came to the United States to do my Ph.D. here in the states. It was really at that time that I was introduced to what we call Second Temple Judaism, that is to say, Judaism puts the latter half of the historical period we associate with the Old Testament. And that helped me in a very meaningful way to combine my interests in Judaism and theology and Christian origins and how to bring all of that together.
Pete: So, were you raised Lutheran?
Matthias: Yes, I was. My parents were not religious, but I grew up in northern Germany where you are either Catholic or Lutheran. So, I was raised Lutheran and I still am a Lutheran. My wife is a Lutheran pastor.
Jared: Wow. So, can you, you mentioned a phrase that might be newer to some of our listeners, Second Temple Judaism. You mentioned a little bit, but can you say more about what it is and why is it significant in Christian faith, in Judaism, in the history of Israel? Can you say a little bit more?
Matthias: Sure. So, just in historical terms, what Christians call the Old Testament is a collection of books that was written over a very long period of time, roughly speaking, a thousand years or so. And we develop, we distinguish, we divide this period into two larger periods called the First Temple period, that is the temple that was built by King Solomon and then destroyed in the sixth century by the Babylonians that led to the Babylonian exile. And then after the Israelites returned from exile, the temple was rebuilt, and the Second Temple was erected in Jerusalem. So, the Second Temple period, historically speaking then, begins in the sixth century before the Common Era, and runs all the way into first century of the Common Era, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Now, for the longest time, Christian theologians have really neglected the Second Temple period, and have argued that the First Temple was much more important. That’s when the great prophets lived, they thought that much of the Torah, the five books of Moses, were written at that time. Whereas the Second Temple period was sort of the later period of the biblical period that didn’t really have much value in and of itself, and that perception sort of pejorative or negative view of the later centuries that we associate with the Old Testament changed dramatically in the twentieth century. There are several reasons for it, but perhaps the most important was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are ancient Jewish fragments that were discovered in the Judean desert and that really open up a fabulous window into this period in the history of ancient Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls attracted a lot of interest both among scholars and lay people. They brought a lot of new material to the table and all of a sudden, there was this energy around the Second Temple period, and people started to pay much more attention to these texts.
Pete: And you mentioned, Matthias, the looking down on the Second Temple period and being neglected. I even recall it being referred to as the post-biblical period, like, after the return from exile, nothing much is happening. People are just twiddling their thumbs waiting for Jesus to show up, and like, Judaism is sort of dying and on the way out, but the Dead Sea scrolls, among other things, right, have helped us gain a very, very different perspective on that period.
Matthias: It’s all true what you’re saying, it’s quite fascinating. If you look at the large textbooks, the history of ancient Israel textbooks that were written in the middle of the twentieth century, you will see that these authors, the modern authors, Christian authors, only spend a few pages on the Second Temple period. They think that this is a late form of ancient Israel, it’s increasingly deteriorating, and you can almost smell the anti-Judaism that plagued Christian theology for such a long time, right? This is forebearers of rabbinic Judaism, it’s a obsession with keeping the Torah, the free spirit of the prophets, sort of left Israel, and so we’re waiting until Jesus comes and then reignites religion, infuses it with a fresh spirit. This, of course, a caricature, this is not informed by any texts, but reflects the prejudices of the people who studied this period. And so the Dead Sea Scrolls, and really other texts from this period, not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, have helped us to study this period on its own grounds, to read these texts without a bias, without a Christian anti-Jewish prejudice, and to be much more realistic and better informed about the Judaism, really, of Jesus.
Pete: And calling it the Second Temple period is an example of making this more neutral and not biased against Judaism, as opposed to what I grew up saying, was the Intertestamental Period.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: The period between the testaments, but this gives this period its own integrity and of course, the New Testament was maybe not entirely, but largely written during the Second Temple period, so –
Pete: The New Testament is a Second Temple text, right?
Matthias: Terminology is revealing here, isn’t it? I agree with you that calling it Second Temple is helpful in that it is descriptive, but it’s also not helpful because not many people know what that means, so you have to explain it. So, some of my colleagues also like the term early Judaism. That’s a term that is, again, coined in response to a tendency among, again, Christian theologians, to speak of German theologians to speak of spätes Judentum or late Judaism, which was also a way to refer to this period, which is strongly pejorative. Late Judaism, meaning, Judaism is almost run its course, right?
Pete: It’s dying.
Matthias: It’s dying. Exactly.
Pete: It’s coming to an end.
Pete: Christianity is here, and it’s done, right? So…
Matthias: So, speaking of early Judaism as a response to that.
Pete: Right. And it’s really, which is interesting, because it’s the birth of Judaism. I mean, that’s really what we’re talking about.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: We can’t speak of Judaism before the exile, that’s Israelite religion –
Matthias: Exactly right.
Pete: I mean, in various forms, but it’s afterwards that we have what comes to be called Judaism, so, yeah.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: It’s all connected historically, and that brings us to the New Testament then.
Matthias: Very much so.
Jared: I want to go back to what you said that the New Testament is a Second Temple period, so is, like, what’s the significance of this time period and I would it gives us a robust context now, whereby we might have interjected or put onto the New Testament for years and probably centuries, our own interpretations of these texts based on our own assumptions, but then this rediscovery of these texts situate the New Testament in a whole new light where there’s some, as you were studying, where there’s some insights that you were gaining about how your study of this text really brings to light the New Testament.
Matthias: Yes, there are many, and I like to talk about these examples when I give talks both in churches and synagogues. And often what I do is I start out like this, I say, in the New Testament we all know that Jesus goes into the synagogue regularly as Luke tells us, right? And then I say, in the Old Testament there are no synagogues where Jesus is called a rabbi by his followers. In the Old Testament, there are no rabbis. Jesus spends much of his time discussing legal issues with the pharisees. There are no pharisees in the Old Testament. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus expels demons. There are really no demons, at least not of the kind we meet in the New Testament in the Old Testament.
Pete: No exorcisms.
Matthias: Right, exactly. Exorcisms, exactly.
Matthias: So, that raises all kinds of questions. If in the New Testament, the authors assume an entire Jewish world which we cannot find in the Old Testament, where is it coming from? And so typically, what I find in churches is that people read through the New Testament, and they see these Jewish elements, they don’t quite know what it means. What was a synagogue? What did people do? What was a rabbi? What was the responsibility of a rabbi? And then they look around, and they want to find other Jewish texts that help them understand the New Testament, and of course, many Christians will turn to the Old Testament. The assumption being that the Old Testament is the Jewish part of the Bible, western Bible, and the New Testament is the Christian part of the Bible, only to find that there really are no texts that help them understand the Jewish world of Jesus. And so, my point is for us to get a better understanding of Jesus’ world, of this Jewish world of Jesus, we need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament, perhaps slightly before, but not very much, in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted, right? They don’t stop. They never tell us. Oh, by the way, a rabbi is this and that responsibilities.
Matthias: They don’t. They just assume that we know these things.
Jared: What would be some examples of those books from the Second Temple that were written, that people could turn to?
Matthias: So, there are the so-called Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are extra books included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew text. So, when you go to Barnes & Noble and you buy a Bible and you pay a little extra dollars, the cover of your Bible will read the Holy Scripture, Old Testament, New Testament, with the Apocrypha. So, there’s some extra books included. All of the Apocrypha were written in the late Second Temple period. So, these are books like Tobit or Judith or I and II Maccabees or Ben Sira. And then beyond the Apocrypha, there are other books that at the time of Jesus, were rather influential, but we have sort of forgotten about. For example, there’s a book called the Book of Jubilees of the second century, before the Common Era, which is a beautiful retelling or interpretation of the book of Genesis and the first half of the book of Exodus. Or another book that recently has gotten enormous attention from scholars is a book we know as 1 Enoch. It’s an apocalypse, not unlike the book of Revelation in the New Testament, only that this book is attributed to this character, called Enoch, who is briefly mentioned in the book of Genesis in chapter five, and it’s basically a story about the fallen angels, the watchers who came to earth and introduced all kind of knowledge that humans were not supposed to have.
Pete: And those characters came up in the Noah movie that came out several years ago –
Pete: Because that, no seriously, that –
Matthias: I know. Of course, yes.
Pete: They incorporated 1 Enoch into the telling of that story.
Matthias: Yes, yes, yes. Yes. So, sometimes I tell my students if we could time travel and have coffee with Jesus, or speak at the synagogue, say with Hillel, right, a rabbi a generation or so before Jesus, and you would ask Jesus, what did you read last night before you fell asleep? What is the book that you find most gripping? Or the scroll, or whatever. Chances are Jesus would give you a name of a book that we’ve never heard of before.
Matthias: Which is another way of saying the Bible only gives us a slim excerpt of the books that were in circulation at the time of Jesus. There were many, many other books that were read, and in some communities, at least, were quite influential, that didn’t make it into the Bible. And what that means, they didn’t make it into the Bible is that they were no longer copied and forgotten until they were rediscovered at a much later time.
Mattias: So what I’m trying to do and what my colleagues who work in this field are trying to do is to reintroduce these forgotten texts of the Second Temple library, of the early Jewish library, into our discourse in order to complement the biblical writings with these extra biblical books.
Pete: Mm hmm. And in doing so, help us understand Jesus and the New Testament, maybe more deeply in a more well-rounded fashion than maybe entertaining some false assumptions that we sometimes have when we engage these texts.
Matthias: Absolutely. Yes, I have no interest in taking away the cannon or relativizing the significance of the cannon or saying that the New Testament is really only derivative of other Jewish texts. Much to the contrary, I think. Once we read the New Testament in the context of the Jewish literature of its time, it becomes even more impressive and more marvelous.
Pete: Okay, well let’s focus on one issue concerning Jesus, and that is the notion of Jesus as Messiah.
Matthias: Mm hmm.
Pete: And I want to pick on that one, because again, I teach college students at a Christian college, and we talk about this a lot. Like, what that term even means, where it comes from, and a lot may have happened to the significance of that term between, let’s say, the First Temple and Second Temple period.
Matthias: Yeah, yeah.
Pete: So, let’s, can we like, take this idea apart a little bit, maybe even starting with some soundings within the Hebrew Bible itself, and then moving forward?
Matthias: Mm hmm. Let’s start with the word itself.
Matthias: The English word Messiah derives from the Hebrew word mashiach, or in Aramaic, meshicha’, it’s the same word. And it simply means the anointed one, of the Hebrew root, mashach, meaning to anoint. And so, when we turn to the Old Testament, I guess the first question to ask is are there any anointed ones or messiahs in the Old Testament? And the answer is yes, there are plenty, but not the kind of messiah that we associate with Jesus, that is to say, there are people in the Old Testament who are anointed, but there are not end time agents of God who usher in a new world, but they’re rather of a different kind. Specifically, there are kings, there are priests, and there are prophets. Most important group here are the kings, so when King David, for example, becomes king in Samuel, in I Samuel 16, who anoints him into office, he becomes a king through the act of anointing. That’s our root mashach, he becomes the mashi’ahh, if you will, and spirit possessed when Samuel anoints him.
Pete: And Matthias, this is anointed by oil. Is that right?
Matthias: This is anointed by a special kind of oil, exactly, right, yeah.
Pete: Okay, okay.
Matthias: There are other people who are called messiahs as well, but again, it’s important to emphasize that these are not end time figures. These are not people who come to put an end to history as we know it. That idea only gradually evolved out of lots of different strands in the Old Testament, but I’ll come back to David and say other kings of the line of David who were anointed into office were described in increasingly fabulous, almost utopian fashion. So, I’m thinking of texts like Isaiah 11. Isaiah 11, at the very beginning, is this famous prophesy of a new king who is ascending the throne. He is said to be possessed by the spirit of the Lord, he will judge the world with righteousness, and then there are these very famous lines, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” So, there is an almost utopian description of what this king will accomplish that is not, it’s not very difficult for me to understand how early readers of this text, which originally may simply have been a celebration of a new king on the throne, was soon read to be more than that. That early interpreters of this text couldn’t help but think that the person who was being described here is none other than a messianic figure.
Pete: Messianic in a different sense of the word.
Matthias: Exactly. Messianic in the sense of an end time figure.
Pete: Like, apocalyptic kind of figure. So, yeah.
Matthias: Yes, exactly.
Pete: So, originally, like, a past, like you just read Isaiah 11, made perfect sense within the context of the time, right?
Matthias: Yes, exactly.
Pete: But it was open to, maybe, creative interpretations as time went on.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: Because it’s such exaggerated language, which, you know, the writer there may simply be claiming for a king and exalted status and you use, I mean, is it fair to say there’s like, hyperbolic language, exaggerated language, right? Okay, all right.
Matthias: It just was meant to express the significance of the Davidic line, right, the significance of the inauguration of a king.
[Producers group endorsement]
Pete: Yes. Can we work in, maybe another passage here that I know that comes up a lot is Psalm 2?
Matthias: Yes. That’s a great one.
Pete: And how that adds to this sort of idea of maybe the exaggerated language of messiahship.
Matthias: Yes, yes. I think that’s a great text. So, Psalm 2 is really a good text to look at in order to understand these exaggerated hopes that were associated with the king in Jerusalem. So right at the beginning, the first three verses of Psalm 2, we learn that there were nations who conspire and attack against Jerusalem. They are forming together this coalition to attack Jerusalem. The king in Israel who speaks a little later in the Psalm is confident that they cannot do anything. And in his response, he remembers the time when he was consecrated. He remembers the time when he ascended the throne, and he speaks there of what he calls the decree of the Lord, and what it is that he was promised when he became king is that God adopted him, that God said to him, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” So, there we have father and son language. The king in Israel is not exactly divine. Right, an Israelite author would not do what we find in ancient Egypt for example, Mesopotamia, namely declare the king divine. That’s not what’s going on here, but nonetheless, the king enjoys a certain proximity to God that normal people simply don’t have. What that means is that God adopted him, says you are my son, and has strengthened him. This king will be able to defeat all nations of the world who would ever attack Jerusalem. And so, the Psalm is significant because it tells us that the king was the son of God, in a certain way, and that he has this ability to defeat the nations. This is exactly a motif that will be picked up in later apocalyptic texts where the Messiah is said to come to Jerusalem, the holy mountain, or the holy hill as is it called in Psalm 2, to defend Israel and to defeat Israel’s enemies.
Pete: Okay. So, we have in the Hebrew scriptures themselves, and in other places too, I’m thinking like II Samuel 7 –
Matthias: Right, right.
Pete: Where the reign of David, his descendants will never cease being on the throne. It seems like a perpetual covenant that doesn’t come to an end. And of course, it does, but that’s another story with the exile, and that prompts some of the thinking that Jews and Christians have later on.
Pete: But the point is that there is a, in the exaggerated language of kingship in the Hebrew scriptures, we have the impetus for, let’s say, later development. Let’s get to that.
Pete: Let’s talk about how these things and maybe why they were taken the way they were during, at some point, during the Second Temple, maybe the late Second Temple period. Like, what’s happening? Walk us through that.
Matthias: Yeah, so I think what’s happening is that early first, early Jewish, and then later on early Christian interpreters read these texts and found it difficult to just read them as descriptions of ordinary human beings. But they said this promise is so magnificent, this new reality that’s being described for example, in Isaiah 11, or for example in Psalm 2, is so marvelous that it is inconceivable for us to think that this would be just another period in the history of ancient Israel. There must be a promise of something larger. There must be a promise here of something we’ve never seen before: Israel finally living in peace, being victorious over all of her enemies, and ushering in this new era of total peace.
Pete: Yeah. So, does Daniel fit into this at all? Because this is a late Second Temple text.
Matthias: Right! Yes. Daniel, right. So, Daniel 7 is another really important text to understand the origins of the belief in a Messiah. It is a text that was written in the second century before the Common Era, at a time when the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by a Greek ruler by the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. And what Daniel 7 is all about, it’s an oracle, it’s a prophetic text that predicts the defeat of Antiochus who is here portrayed in the form of a little horn that speaks arrogantly. So, he is brought before a court in heaven, he is condemned and killed on the spot. And then, in Daniel 7:13-14, we read that the kingdom of Antiochus is now being replaced by someone who is called someone like a human being or a son of man.
Pete: Yeah, that’s the more common way that Christians understand it, “someone like a son of man.”
Matthias: Exactly. One like a son of man who comes on the clouds of heaven, he appears before God and is given dominion and rulership that was taken away from Antiochus and is now given to the son of man.
Pete: Just before you, I want to make sure we’re clear on something, that the translation you’re reading said “one like a human being,” and many Christians, I know, are used to “son of man.” The issue is that they mean the same thing.
Matthias: They mean exactly the same thing.
Pete: Son of man is not a divine title; son of man means human.
Matthias: Well –
Pete: Right? Or does it mean more than that in Daniel?
Matthias: Yes, we don’t know, right?
Matthias: We need to be honest here. We don’t know.
Matthias: What we have is the text and the text says, the text was originally written in Aramaic, right, and it says so, in no uncertain terms that there is a person identified as the son of man coming on the clouds and this person is then given dominion and an everlasting kingdom. So, now the big question is who is this figure?
Matthias: And the answer varies depending on who it is who asks, right? So, if you ask a scholar who works, a biblical scholar who works in the book of Daniel, the biblical scholar will probably tell you that this is an angelic figure, it’s an angel like Michael or Gabriel, both of whom are mentioned in the book of Daniel. So, this is simply a transferal of power from an earthly ruler to an angelic ruler. If you read the chapter all the way to the end, this is a vision that Daniel has, right? In the latter half of the chapter, there is in fact an angel who interprets this for Daniel. And the angel says this is not an individual at all, but it is in fact the people of Israel. It is to say the son of man is identified by this interpreting angel as the people of Israel, meaning, the story is really all about a turning of the table at the end of times. Right now, it is the Greeks that rule over the Israelites, but at the end of time, Israel will be victorious. If you ask an early Jewish or early Christian reader of the text, they will agree with neither of these interpretations. They will say, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not an angel. No, no, no, no, no. It’s not the people of Israel, but it is really the Messiah. That son of man is in fact a messianic title, it’s a title for the Messiah and the everlasting kingdom that is introduced here in verse fourteen is none other than the messianic kingdom, the kingdom of the Messiah.
Pete: Okay, yeah. So, unfortunately, it’s not clear.
Matthias: It’s not clear?
Matthias: I don’t know whether, that’s unfortunate.
Pete: No, I agree with you. I’m being sarcastic.
Pete: You know, sometimes the clarity is imposed when it’s not really there.
Jared: Well, the only thing I wanted to clarify is because maybe we can now tie a lot of this Messiah talk into the New Testament, and maybe how it was influenced by things like Daniel 7, because Jesus self-designates as the son of man, and is that, again, a generic term, or is that a specific reference to this Daniel 7 son of man?
Matthias: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I think the answer is that by the time we get to the New Testament, right, the late first century, right, this title or the designation son of man has become a messianic title. So, by this time, there is no doubt that when you talk about the son of man, you really are not talking about an ordinary human being. You really are talking about the Messiah. And so, the writers of our gospels, the evangelists, they deliberately use this title, as well as other titles, because they know that their audiences will exactly know that they’re really talking about the Messiah.
Pete: But clarify, just clarify, if we can clarify, it’s becoming messianic title, but what does messianic mean? Does it mean, for example, I mean, speaking as someone who has been around Christians and is one, I know what people think. They said, well, Messiah really means a god/man hybrid of some sort, right? The incarnation.
Matthias: Right, yes.
Pete: So, Messiah means, what it didn’t mean in Psalm 2, which is a divine human figure of some sort. Is that a common notion, is that what was meant, or is this more an end time ruler king, let’s say, who is especially endowed with the spirit of God and the presence of God to rule the people? Or is it something else? I mean, that’s part of the, I think, the stumbling that people have over the term, because it’s just so hard to define.
Matthias: Yes, yeah. And I think what makes it so hard to define is the fact that at this time, you have a great variety of different expectations of who the Messiah would be and what exactly would happen when the Messiah shows up. So, some groups emphasize the royal aspect, right, he would come victorious and rule over Israel. Others emphasize more the priestly aspect, he would be a high priest, so he sees us for example, in the epistle to the Hebrews. Others emphasize more the prophetic aspect. So, there was not just one set of messianic expectations, there was not one clearly formed idea of who the Messiah would be and what would happen, but there were a great variety of different ways of thinking of the Messiah. And I think these different titles that we talk about reflect that. Let me briefly throw out another marvelous text in the gospel of Luke, in the first chapter, the famous enunciation, right, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and greets her and announces to her that she will give birth to the Messiah. And in this very short passage there in Luke 1, the angel does in fact use several messianic titles. So, he says to her, he will be great and he will be called son of the most high. There you have another messianic title and he calls him son of God. And so, there already there is an understanding that Mary and the readers of the gospel of Luke will understand that these are titles that are meant to say, look, this Messiah for whom you are waiting and who you are giving many different names, that is really Jesus.
Pete: Yeah. And, I’m reading here too in Luke 1, I don’t have Luke 1 memorized, but “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom, there will be no end.”
Pete: So, is it safe, at least at this point, to think, well, their notions of Messiah, there was a royal dimension to it, at least here.
Matthias: Yes, absolutely.
Pete: You mentioned Hebrews, which is a great example of a priestly kind of notion of the Messiah.
Matthias: Very much so, yeah. So, in Luke, there is a strong emphasis on the royal part. So, what’s happening in the New Testament is that different New Testament authors were trying to make sense of the Jesus event, right? What just happened, why is this significant, how does it apply to us, to our community? And what they’re doing is they’re describing, they’re remembering Jesus in light of their own needs, but also trying to answer the different messianic expectations that were around at the time. So, they’re using, and Luke is the prime example, Matthew would be another example, they’re using familiar ways to describe Jesus, ways that were really shaped by different messianic expectations in Judaism at the time. Because if there were just to make up their own language, if they were to make up their own motifs, their own ways of talking about Jesus, they could never bring across the message that this really is the Messiah for whom Israel has waited.
Pete: So, they’re using familiar language, but are they infusing it with, let’s say, additional meaning, or a different meaning, or… because I mean, maybe I’m not in my own mind clear about this, but one thing that sort of has struck me is how the biblical writers, as you say, they’re working through.
Matthias: Yes, exactly.
Pete: They’re working out how to talk about this Jesus.
Pete: And I’m thinking in light of the Messiah who was, who lost to the Romans, who was crucified, and whom they believe was raised from the dead. And it seems like they were trying to, the language at their disposal was the language of the tradition.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: But –
Jared: But it wasn’t a great fit.
Pete: Yeah, maybe it wasn’t’ a great fit. Yeah, I’m trying to –
Jared: It was what they had, but it didn’t all fit.
Pete: I guess what I’m trying to get at, and tell me if you think I’m wrong, but, and I’m perfectly happy to hear that. That the language comes from the tradition and the tradition itself is diverse –
Matthias: Mm hmm, yes. Very diverse.
Pete: Developed over time, right?
Matthias: That’s exactly right, yes.
Pete: And the New Testament writers are picking up on certain threads of those traditions.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: And maybe adopting them, and then applying it in their own way to their faith in a crucified and risen Messiah.
Matthias: Yeah. I think it actually was a pretty good fit. I think it worked really, really well, that the tradition was so diverse and so rich that it really provided them with language, with texts in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, to describe very well who Jesus was. Can I throw out another text for us to think about?
Pete: Absolutely, yes.
Matthias: So, this is in, it’s still in the gospel of Luke, in the fourth chapter, there’s this great story where Jesus is in Nazareth, and he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and Luke throws in that little phrase “as was his custom.” Right there in the synagogue, he is handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and so, he reads a few lines of that scroll and then hands the scroll back to the attendant, and then Luke throw in this marvelous phase there, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Matthias: They were all, like, mesmerized by this passage. And then he began to say to them, “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I always joke that that’s the most popular sermon, because it’s the shortest sermon that any Christian or Jew has ever preached, right?
Matthias: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “All spoke well of him” is the next phrase. Of course! So, what’s really going on? If we read this text out of context, if we think that this is something that the story only as attested in the gospel of Luke, if we read these as a Lukan creation, then it seems rather arbitrary. Luke could have picked any passage in the Old Testament and Jesus would just have said, “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and everybody says yes, okay. But now we are in the very fortunate position that there is a Dead Sea Scroll known as the Messianic Apocalypse, which predates Luke by at least 100 years that is a description of what, according to this author who we don’t know, this is text we only know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, of what would happen when the Messiah comes. It’s a short description. Okay, the Messiah will come, everybody will obey him, and this is what happens. And that author is going back to the same text in the prophet Isaiah, namely from Isaiah 61. Now, all of a sudden, we know for a fact from the Dead Sea Scrolls that Isaiah 61 prior to the time of Jesus, and certainly at the time of Jesus, was read as a prediction of the Messiah. And so now all of a sudden, the story in Luke takes on a very different meaning. So, when Luke has Jesus read Isaiah 61, he is very deliberately reading the text that comes with Messianic expectations. Right, the people at the time just knew what this text was all about. And when Luke tells us the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him, what he’s really saying is they knew what this text was all about and they want to know Jesus, what do you have to say? And this is why, for Jesus, it is enough to say “today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” by which Luke has Jesus say, I am this person. I am the Messiah.
Matthias: My point here is, that if we were to read Luke only, it would be just any passage of the Old Testament. But once we read this story in the context of Second Temple literature, more specifically in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we understand that there is a deeper meaning here, that Luke knows exactly what he’s doing, right? He’s picking a passage from the Old Testament that has a well-established history of interpretation. The audience of the time would’ve certainly appreciated and known why Jesus is reading this particular text.
Pete: And to me, that example crystallizes very nicely the entire issue. It’s not, it is inaccurate to say Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, or Jesus, whoever is doing this, is citing the Old Testament. Look how wonderful it is that he’s citing the Old Testament. He’s citing the Hebrew scriptures already within a known and shared understanding of what that passage meant for them.
Pete: In other words, you can’t, here’s the thing, you can’t understand Luke 4 apart from understanding something of that development.
Matthias: Yes, yes.
Pete: So that you understand the gravitas of what is happening there in that moment in the synagogue. And that, to me, that illustrates the beautiful importance of, as you say in your book, minding the gap, right? The gap in between the testaments and all that literature and traditions that developed.
Matthias: And I think it makes Luke and his gospel so much richer, even, because we now understand that it’s not just a nice story, but it is a story that constantly alludes to certain expectations and he is bending over backwards to say in this Jesus, these expectations are fulfilled.
Jared: Well, unfortunately we’re coming to the end of our time, but I think that’s a great place to wrap up the conversation. I do think that really put a pin on what we’ve been talking about in terms of these expectations and the importance of the Second Temple in understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus was about and what the New Testament is about. So, as we wrap up, is there anything, Matthias, that you would want to promote other than the book that Pete just mentioned, Mind the Gap, other projects that you’ve worked on that might help other listeners and readers catch up on some of the Second Temple stuff?
Matthias: Yes. I think I would just keep it with Mind the Gap at this point, where I’m trying to really underscore the significance of Jesus’ Judaism. I would like to add, perhaps, one comment. When I talk to my readers who’ve read Mind the Gap, often they tell me that they find it liberating to learn about the Judaism of Jesus and to move beyond this just being a phrase which, and it’s just a phrase, it’s sort of meaningless, but once we fill it with content, then all of a sudden, there emerges this entire world. I think they find it liberating because it helps them live a true life as Christians without any anti-Judaism, without this incessant appetite to pitch Jesus against the pharisees and the Jews at the time, but rather to be okay with reading the New Testament in its Jewish context, to read beyond the Bible, to appreciate that other early Jewish texts at the time can also be a vehicle of truth and theology and enriching. I think that’s a very important message for Christians in the 21st century.
Jared: Wonderful, well thank you so much for coming on with us Matthias, we really appreciated the conversation. I learned a lot.
Matthias: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Pete: Absolutely. Wonderful time Matthias, thanks so much.
Matthias: Thank you, Pete.
Jared: Bye bye.
Pete: Hey, thanks for listening everyone, to this episode. We had so much fun talking with Matthias, and if you want to find out more about him, you can go to his website, http://www.matthiashenze.org/, and by all means, check out his book. This came out in 2017. I use it in my classes, it’s so readable and so full of information and just walks you through things in a beautiful way just like he did here in the episode, but the name of the book is Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus, and this is put out by the good people at Fortress Press.
Jared: And as always, we want to make sure and thank our team. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do. So, thanks to Shay, our creative director; Reed, our community champion: Dave, our audio engineer; and Megan, producer of this podcast.
Pete: Actually Jared, we could do it, it would just take us ten years to put out one episode.
Jared: Thank you, thank you.
Pete: Just to be clear.
Jared: Very factual, I appreciate that.
Jared: All right, thanks everyone, we’ll see you next time.
Pete: See ya.
Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People!
Pete: Yeah? I’m sorry, you just woke me up. I was…
Jared: I gotta start over.
Pete: I’m sorry, I’m like, what’s happening?
Jared: I’ve got to start over. I got stuck, all right. All right.
Pete: That’s obvious. Can you handle this today, you all right? You want to talk about it?
Jared: I do like, fog out the last few days –
Jared: In the middle of sentences.
Jared: Oh, [beep], I was supposed to do all that. All right, let me try it one more time.
Pete: Oh geez, Jared.
Jared: It’s all right, let me do it one more time.
Pete: Okay fine, you want all the glory for yourself.
Jared: I also get really tired of saying really. I say really a lot.
Pete: That’s okay. That’s your thing.
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