Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Sign of Jonah?

In Matthew 12:39, Yeshua is recorded as saying to the gathered Pharisees, "...An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but there shall be given no sign to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah."

Many have understood this verse to be an unequivocal claim to "messiahship" made by Yeshua. That Yeshua was saying that Jonah was a “sign” to his generation even as the he, Yeshua would be to his. However, understood in context, the verse is a simple reference to an old testament event with definite meaning. Its meaning is complicated by the following verse (40), "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

First of all, verse 40 begins in a way ( "ὥσπερ γὰρ", "just as") that implies that it is a clarifying (or parenthetical) comment of the gospel writer, and not Yeshua's; . Also, it refers to an event that was yet to happen at the time Yeshua was speaking. These two facts lend support to the notion that it is not original to Yeshua. It also indicates that the Gospel writer (or more likely translator) misunderstood the reference to Jonah as well.

Yeshua's reference to the "sign of Jonah" would have been well-understood by those listening. In order to comprehend it, we must look at the story of Jonah:

Jonah was a prophet who was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it "for their great wickedness is come up before me" Jonah instead flees from "the presence of the Lord" by going to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish. He is then tossed overboard and famously swallowed by a fish. This diversion has hindered the interpretation of Jonah's story for centuries.

Jonah fled from God, not because he feared the Ninevites, but because he disagreed with God's plan for them. Nineveh was a wicked city on a caravan road at the banks of the Tigres river. Jonah knew that the Ninivites had invited God's wrath and were deserving of nothing short of destruction. Jonah also knew that the only chance that the Ninevites had of survival was if God sent them a warning and that they subsequently heeded that warning. Jonah had predicted the outcome; namely that he would prophecy to the Ninevites, and that they would repent and be saved. This was the last thing that Jonah wanted, and, although it was God's will, Jonah tried to flee to avoid its implementation.

Eventually, Jonah went to Nineveh and gave Yahweh's message to the people there. Jonah then "went out and sat down at a place east of the city, and there he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city." Predictably, the city repented and it was spared. This angered Jonah and He said to God, " this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.... Now, O Yahweh, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." This is when the "sign of Jonah" or more appropriately, "Jonah's sign" appeared.

Jonah 5:6-7 tells us that: "Yahweh God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But, at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered." God explained to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," Jonah replied.

But Yehweh said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But, Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

So, "Jonah's sign," is the vine, which in Hebrew idiom represents Israel. God is chastising Jonah for being concerned only for the fate of the vine (Israel) and not the fate of the great city (representing all of the nations), which is much more extensive.

Looking back to Matthew, the writer, at verse 18, had quoted Isaiah saying, "In his name the gentiles will put their hope." This is an astounding statement. When Yeshua later healed a man (probably a Roman given the context), some of the Pharisees accused him of being Beelzebub (a gentile pagan god). Others were not sure, and Matthew tells us that some of them asked to see a miraculous sign. Recall that they had just witnessed him healing a man. So, what did they want to see? Presumably, they were asking Yeshua to show a sign, which was undeniably from Yahweh. In other words prove that he was a Jewish prophet of the Jewish God, Yahweh and not Beelzebub or some other God of the Gentiles (nations). Yeshua responded, "none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah."

In other words, Yeshua was saying, (paraphrase), "Why are you concerned about Jews only?" Like the vine of Jonah, the Pharisees did nothing to create Israel or to "make it grow." Like Niniveh, the numbers of Gentiles are great. Should Yeshua not be concerned about them?

Astoundingly, Yeshua was declaring himself as the hope of all mankind, not just the Jews. Just as Yahweh demonstrated to Jonah at Niniveh that he was the hope of all mankind.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Gospel Enigma?

Over at, they wonder about the "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." As they see it, it is this so-called "baptism of repentance" that ensures a remission from sin, rather than the death of the messiah Yeshua on the cross. I agree with their viewpoint, but it is no enigma. Let's look.

First of all, the Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. As I have pointed out (, the "baptism of repentance" is better understood as an "immersion in teshuvah."

The concept of immersion (greek baptizo) could be used to mean the traditional immersion in water, but it was also an idiom which meant a complete and utter dedication to a course of action, or duty. In Matthew 20:22 Yeshua used the term in this way.
"... Yeshua said, You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup which I am about to drink, and to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?..."
Likewise at Luke 12:50, Yeshua used the term in this way again.
"But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I besieged till it be accomplished!"
In other words, a complete and utter surrender to the performance of duty (in this case equity) in all interpersonal relations. For what reason? For the "remission (or release) of sin."

It is important, however, to understand that this act of baptism, contrary to modern Christian belief, was not intended to release the one baptized from sin, but the one for whom the act of equity was performed. In other words, Yeshua believed that a community focused on performing teshuvah (acts of equity) would experience a release from the ravages of sin and a return to a state of shalom.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Peter the "Rock?"

Matthew 16:18 says:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.

A number of Christian denominations and scholars hold that Simon Peter was the most prominent of the apostles, favored by Jesus of Nazareth with the first place of honor and authority. This doctrine is known as the Primacy of Simon Peter or the Petrine Primacy. This highly debated point is often reduced to a discussion of the meaning and translation of the above verse.

Roman Catholic views differ from those of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Reformed Churches, which differ from each other. Many hold that the term epi taute to petra "upon this rock" refers to Peter. The Greek shifts bluntly from the masculine petros (rock) to the femenine toute to petra (this rock) too freely. There is really no need for the Greek writer to shift gender here. Greek has a perfectly good masculine phrase for "this rock" - touto petros. The gender shift must reflect another meaning. But, it would be superficial to base doctrine on a gender shift in the Greek alone.

In Matthew, 7:24, Yeshua is recorded as saying: "So, everyone who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will compare him to a wise man who built his house on the rock" "Rock" here is rendered petran - feminine accusative (a direct object). Of course, in this verse, Yeshua is not referring to building a real house upon a real rock, but rather the building of a lineage (see "Wisdom is Justified?") upon the sound foundation of the Rabbi's instructions. This was a common idea in early rabbinic times. It was the responsibility of the Rabbi to interpret Torah and the traditions to establish a relevant set of guidelines for (then) contemporary use. The goal of the Rabbi was to build a following or assembly of loyal adherents who would "hear and do" his words, thus building a lineage which would live on beyond himself and reproduce itself. But, the key to building a lineage was for the disciples to repeat the rabbi's teachings.

Yeshua is referring to this concept when mentions the "rock" with respect to Peter at Matthew 16:8:
"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against her. "

In Rabbinic times, it was common for sages (chokmah) to train their followers to follow in their footsteps and Yeshua does so for his disciples too (first Simon, then all of his followers) when he says (at Matthew 16:19): "And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. And whatever you bind on earth shall occur, having been bound in Heaven. And whatever you may loose on the earth shall be, having been loosed in Heaven." In other words, the "rock" that Yeshua was building upon was the secret, and unconventional wisdom that he taught.

The Great Commission

Matthew 28:18 -20 says:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.(KJV)

The first interesting thing about this saying is the reference to "all power." The Greek word used here is exousia, which Thayer translates (primarily) as "liberty," or "power of choice." But, the word literally means "to be out." The word translates (according to the Peshitta) the Aramaic word Sholtana (authority). But, in the trilingual world of first-century Galillee, the word actually translates the Hebrew word koach, which means "to chastise," or "to prove."

Idiomatically however, the word was a shortcut to the thought "koach ha'toladah" "strength of the bearing." In other words--the vigor (of either mother or child) to endure childbirth. The primitive Hebrew and Greek cultures believed that the labor pains experienced by women while giving birth were the struggles of the child to exit the womb--literally fighting its way out. They further believed that only those children with the strength to get out, and those mothers with the strength to bear would survive. But, to the Hebrew sages, the word had much more significance. Koach represented the capacity (a grant of God) to procreate ad infinitum--to produce a "house" or lineage of adherents.

2Ki 19:3 says:
And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and blasphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength (koach) to give birth.
Also, Hebrews 11:11 says:
Also by faith Sarah herself received strength (koach) for conceiving seed even beyond the time of age, and gave birth; since she deemed the One having promised to be faithful.
It is evident from these verses that the word (koach) translated as "strength" actually means "vigor." The writer of the Gospel according to John intended the same thought at 1:12:

Joh 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave strength to become children of God, to the ones being faithful to His name.

It is in this context that Yeshua is referring. He believed that his father had given him infinite vigor or vitality to bear (or sire) "children of God." This being so, in Matthew 28, he was telling his disciples how to do so.

Now, the second sentence of this reading--the so-called "great commission"-- is strangely written, even for Greek. It's unusual use of participles ("going," baptizing, teaching) has made precise meaning difficult to grasp. The Greek participle poreuthentes is used by Matthew most commonly to describe action to be taken up after (or as) "going" somewhere. For example, in Matthew 2:8 Yeshua instructs his followers to search after they arrive at the place where he had sent them--namely Bethlehem:

And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, Having gone, exactly inquire about the child. And when you find him, bring me word again so that coming (elthon), I may also worship him

But, a better Greek match would be Matthew 9:13, in which Yeshua instructs a gathered crowd to poreuthentes de mathete, which is often translated as "go learn." In this context Yeshua is not commanding them to physically "go" anywhere; He is commanding them to learn the meaning of the quote from Hosea 6:6. Effectively, he is saying, "go your way and learn this," or "take yourself and learn this..." The best translation of this idiom might be to leave the term "go" off entirely.

In other words, while the word should not be translated as the emphatic imperitive "go," it does attach itself idiomatically to the following verb (mathete in 9:13; matheteusate in 28:19). Thus, a proper translation would be "go teach." This use of "go" is similar to, and probably should be taken as equal to the English idioms, "go on," or "go ahead." In other words, "proceed to teach."

But, it is important to remember that the original thought expressed here was brought to the Greek by way of the Aramaic oral tradition. This is perhaps the reason that it seems oddly-written. The word for "go" in Aramaic is zlw ("go you") and it was used figuratively to mean "do this." In the Peshitta, the Aramaic understanding of the term mathete, in Matthew 9:13 is YLPW, "learn you", while the word used in Matthew 28:19 for matheteusate is TLMDW. "indoctrinate them" (literally "you will goad them.").

But, who are the disciples to indoctrinate? The Greek term used here is panta ta ethne (literally, "all the peoples"), and this term (which appears 16 times in the New Testament, is almost exclusively used quite literally to mean "everyone," and means all people (i.e., regardless of their tribe). This phrase has single-handedly driven, for centuries, a call to the faithful to engage in foreign missions. But, it really was intended to mean all people without discrimination.

A better translation:

And Yeshua came and spoke to them, saying, "Infinite vigor, was given to me. Therefore go do this--indoctrinate everyone, (baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the spirit of holiness, teaching them to keep all I have commanded.) And, look, I'll be with you every day, even until the completion of the age."

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Christians translate metanoia (Greek) as "to repent." It is often said that the word literally means to "change the mind." But, this is not the literal translation of the word metanoia. In fact, literally, it means "afterthought," and it can be translated as "reconsideration." In the context of rhetoric, metanoia is a rhetorical device used to retract or correct a statement just made, by stating it in a better way. It is in this context that the Hebrews intended it. The Hebrew version of this word is found at Job 21:34 "So how can you console me with your futile words? Nothing is left of your answers ( uT'$uVoTaykeM- "responses of yours") but deception!"

The boundaries of Jewish law are determined through the halakhic process, a religious-ethical system of legal reasoning. Rabbis generally base their opinions on the primary sources of Halakha as well as on precedent set by previous rabbinic opinions. The major sources and genre of Halakha consulted include one called she'eloth w-teshuvoth (שאלות ותשובות) (literally "petitions and responses"), or "responsa" (Latin) or teshuvot (Hebrew). Teshuvot (or singular teshuvah) play a particularly important role in the Jewish system of equity. Petitions forwarded are usually concerned with new contingencies for which no provision has been obviously made in the codes of law and the teshuvot thus supplement the codes, and represent the so-called "equity law." Because of this, the teshuvot deal mostly with issues of social or restorative justice (issues of equity). Thus, teshuvot represents the processes which seek to ensure the maintenance of a fair, equitable, egalitarian and generally harmonious society.

Yeshua utilized a method of she'eloth w-teshuvoth in the form of oral petitions/responses. Some of his responsa are clearly set out in the New Testament (see Mat 5:22; 5:28; 5:32; 5:34; 5:39; 5:44; 6:29; 8:11; 11:22; 11:24; 12:6; 12:36 Luke 6:27; 12:4; 12:8 and others).

Now, it was customary, among Jews of the first century, to be immersed in the mikveh before Yom Kippur as a sign of purity and repentance and before the Sabbath in order to sensitize oneself to the holiness of the day. Also, among Pharisees, it was customary to ritually immerse oneself (and hands, and foods, and eating utinsils, etc) many times daily. Ritual immersion (Greek Baptizo) served as a purity ritual separating (making holy) the initiates from those outside of the ritual.

The Gospel of Luke sets out a story of Yeshua and his opinion regarding such ritual cleansing:

Luke 11:37 And as He was speaking, a certain Pharisee asked Him that He would dine with him. And going in, He reclined. 38 But watching, the Pharisee marveled that He did not first wash before the dinner. Luke 39 But the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but your inside is full of robbery and evil. Luke 40 Fools! Did not He who made the outside also make the inside? Luke 41 So, as it is possible, give compassion and behold, all things will be clean to you.

Mark 7:4 And coming from the market, if they do not immerse (baptize) themselves, they do not eat. And there are many other things which they received to hold: dippings (baptizm) of cups, and of utensils, and of copper vessels, and couches. Mark 7:5 Then the Pharisees and scribes questioned Him, Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed (anipto - without clean) hands? Mark 7:6 And answering, He said to them, Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you, hypocrites; as it has been written: "This people honors Me with the lips, but their heart is far away from Me; Mark 7:7 and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." Isa. 29:13 Mark 7:8 For forsaking the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men: baptism of utensils and cups, and many other such like things you do.

Yeshua further set out the needlessness of "washing" as a purity ritual, saying: (Mark 7:18) ...Are you also so undiscerning? Do you not perceive that all that enters from the outside into the man is not able to defile him.

The prophet Isaiah said:

Isa 58:1 Shout out loud! Don't hold back! Raise your voice like a shofar! Proclaim to my people what rebels they are, to the house of Ya'akov their sins. 2 "Oh yes, they seek me day after day and desire in knowing my ways. As if they were an upright nation that had not abandoned the rulings of their God, they ask me for just rulings (tzedekah mishpat) and [claim] to take pleasure in closeness to God, 3 [asking,] 'Why should we fast, if you don't see? Why mortify ourselves, if you don't notice?' "Here is my answer: when you fast, you go about doing whatever you like, while keeping your laborers hard at work. 4 Your fasts lead to quarreling and fighting, to lashing out with violent blows. On a day like today, fasting like yours will not make your voice heard on high. 5 "Is this the sort of fast I want, a day when a person mortifies himself? Is the object to hang your head like a reed and spread sackcloth and ashes under yourself? Is this what you call a fast, a day that pleases YAHWEH? 6 "Here is the sort of fast I want - releasing those unjustly bound, untying the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, 7 sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you see them, fulfilling your duty to your kinsmen!" 8 Then your light will burst forth like the morning, your new skin will quickly grow over your wound; your righteousness will precede you, and YAHWEH's glory will follow you. 9 Then you will call, and YAHWEH will answer; you will cry, and he will say, "Here I am..."

Thus, Yeshua (as John before him) taught baptism, not of water, but of teshuva (english "Baptism of repentence" see Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). That is to say, he taught that the way to purity (freedom from sin) lay in teshuva (doing equity) rather than in the rites and rituals of man.