Messiah Yeshua Teaches Tenakh and Jewish Halachah, 25: How the Rabbis and Yeshua Interpret the Tenakh (Part III)

Introduction
In Part I of this series, I surveyed many kinds of Tenakh interpretation used by Jewish teachers in Second Temple times, and that are still in use today. I set out to demonstrate how the New Testament writers cited the Tenakh in much the same way as the Rabbis did. And perhaps most important, one must understand that most quotes of the Torah, Prophets and Writings in Jewish literature, as well as in the NT, were not meant to be understood literally. Rather, they were artful interpretations that found additional legal information in the text to flesh out the Torah commands, or they were applications of the Biblical text to later times and situations.

Part II brought many examples from the Gospels, mostly from Matthew, of how the Tenakh was cited in order to teach many things. I described how the use of the Tenakh by Yeshua, by Matthew and the others, was similar to the Rabbinic approach.

Now in this third part, we will turn to Paul and other Apostles and see how they also used passages of the Tenakh in their teaching. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the literal meaning of the text is only one of several kinds of meaning that are all legitimate uses of the text. Remember the PaRDeSpeshat (literal meaning), remez (allusion, or allegorical meaning), derash (exegetical meaning), and sod (mystical meaning). When a writer quotes the Tenakh, always ask which of these styles of interpretation he is using.

Paul
We know that Paul was a student of Rabban Gamliel, grandson of Hillel, and President of the Sanhedrin in the mid-first century. So we should expect Paul’s scripture interpretations to be heavily influenced by his rabbinical education in Jerusalem. And we are not disappointed.

Romans 10 contains a lovely example of a rabbinical style of midrash. Paul is comparing Torah and Gospel—not as opposites, but as companions. He cites a passage from Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses is telling the people that the Torah is not an unattainable standard for them to live by. It is not in heaven … it is not across the sea … but it is near.

We cannot examine the entire passage here; I am bringing this quote as an example of Paul’s use of a rabbinical style. Paul quotes this Torah passage line by line, injecting his brief comments on each line.

Romans 10:6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says (Deut. 30:11-14), “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Messiah down) 7 or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Messiah up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Yeshua is Lord and believe in your heart that G‑d raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

What Paul does with this Torah text is nearly the same as what the Rabbis did with Deuteronomy 26:5-10 (“A wandering Aramean was my father …”) in the Passover Haggadah. They took a passage from the Torah that summarized the history from the Patriarchs to the inheritance of the land of promise, and phrase by phrase, they injected their comments, sometimes cross-referencing other scripture texts, to flesh out and reinterpret the story for later generations. Here is just a brief taste of that passage from the Haggadah:

“And [Jacob] went down to Egypt” forced by Divine decree. “And he sojourned there” – this teaches that our father Jacob did not go down to Egypt to settle, but only to live there temporarily. Thus it is said (Gen. 47:4), “They said to Pharaoh, We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the hunger is severe in the land of Canaan; and now, please, let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.”

“Few in number” as it is said (Deut. 10:22): “Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now, the L-rd, your G‑d, has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (from the online Haggadah in English by Chabad, www.chabad.org/holidays/passover)

Both of these passages are worthy of more study than I can give here. My point is to show the similarities of NT use of Tenakh with that of contemporary Jewish usage.

My next example from Paul is more of a remez, or allusion. Paul refers here to Torah events rather than specific verses, and he explains at the end of the quote that these events happened as examples for later generations, that we should learn from them.

1 Corinthians 10:1 … our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. 5 Nevertheless, G‑d was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.

Paul makes an allegorical interpretation of the events so his readers could relate to them personally. The cloud and the sea represent immersion, which was the rite of entry into the covenant community. The spiritual food was the manna, corresponding to the bread taken at the fellowship meal. The spiritual drink, the water G-d provided from the rock (which Paul says represented Messiah). This corresponded to the wine of the communal meal. In other words, the Torah warns Israel first, and then the messianic community, that participation in the communal rites does not guarantee salvation if we turn aside to do evil.

Now we come to a more technical example in which Paul uses a gezerah shavah (analogy of expression) argument, bringing two Torah verses together based on a common word, to build his case.

Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written (Deut. 27:26), “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the Torah.” … 13 Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us—for it is written (Deut. 21:23), “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”.

In verse 10, Paul argues that one cannot rely on doing mitzvoth to claim he is righteous, because the Torah says that whoever does not obey the commandments is cursed (with very specific and frightening curses!). Paul adds the word ‘all’ because his argument is that one who claims to keep the Torah to prove he is righteous has to keep ‘all’ of the commands, or he is not keeping the Torah. Paul is not saying that the Torah is a curse, or that one is cursed for keeping the mitzvoth. Not at all! Anyone who breaks the mitzvoth comes under the curses described in the Torah. Since we all do that, we bring ourselves under those curses.

Then in verse 13, Paul appeals to another Torah verse that uses this same word ‘curse’. The peshat of the verse is speaking about a person executed by hanging. We must not leave the body on the tree overnight, in order not to bring a curse on the land. The peshat is not relevant to Paul’s argument. He is making a midrash. Yeshua was hung on a wooden cross. ‘Wood’ and ‘tree’ are the same word in Hebrew. So Paul takes the words of the verse to midrashically say that Yeshua became cursed when he was hung on the cross (tree). In this way, Yeshua took the curse described in the Torah onto himself, and off of us. A classic and clever midrashic argument.

Here is one last example from Paul’s epistles
Once again Paul is addressing the problem of people—whether Jews or non-Jews—who believed that keeping the Torah and doing commandments made them righteous. This was a growing issue as non-Jewish people came to follow Yeshua and join the community. There were Jews who argued that Jewish and Gentile believers must keep Torah to be righteous. And there were non-Jews who became convinced that they must keep Torah to demonstrate their commitment to G‑­d’s covenant with Israel. To further complicate the issue, there were those on both sides who believed that, since one cannot keep all of the Torah commands, there is no point in keeping any of them, and therefore Yeshua ‘freed us’ from the Torah. So Paul turns to Abraham as an example of our proper basis for righteousness.

Rom. 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before G‑d. 3 For what does the scripture say? (Gen. 15:6) “Abraham believed G‑d, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

According to the wording of the Genesis verse, Abraham’s righteousness was accounted to him by G‑d because Abraham believed his promise to give him descendants. Note that it is the wording of the verse, and not the overall story, that is the basis of Paul’s midrash. He then makes another gezerah shavah (analogy of expression) argument by citing David (in v. 6-8), and quoting Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the one against whom the L‑rd will not reckon sin.” Based on the word ‘reckon’ in both verses, Paul deduces that G‑d can ‘reckon’ righteousness to someone, and he can also ‘reckon’ sin. It is as though G‑d has a giant ledger book where he can make deposits or withdrawals to each person’s ‘account’. Paul understands this ‘reckoning’ to be based on our trust in G‑d, and not on our particular deeds. In 4:22 he concludes, “Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’.” And here is the application:

4:23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Yeshua our Lord from the dead …”

Paul’s midrash allows us to learn from Abraham and David that G‑d does not account righteousness to his people according to our performance of mitzvot. Rather, our obedience to Torah should be the result of our believing in G‑d and trusting and loving him. Paul goes on to argue that Abraham received this ‘reckoning’ from G‑d before the Torah was given to Israel, and even before Abraham was circumcised. Therefore this principle must apply equally to Jews and Gentiles. I will now bring a few examples from other apostles.

James
I find it amusing that James uses the same verse about Abraham from Genesis 15:6 to argue what sounds like the opposite of Paul’s conclusion. Centuries of Christian Bible interpreters have wrestled with these verses, because they fail to understand a simple truth about midrash. The midrashic use of Tenakh verses does not necessarily teach us eternal truth. As often as not, midrash is simply intended to use the words of scripture to address the situation in front of you. Therefore, different teachers can appear to reach conflicting conclusions from the same verse, if you do not consider their context. Such confusing logic even led Martin Luther to reject the Epistle of James, because it did not agree with Luther’s understanding of Paul.

In reality, Paul was dealing with people who were trying to force Gentile believers to keep Torah, and even to convert to Judaism. On the other hand, James was addressing people who believed that Yeshua had somehow cancelled the Torah, and that it no longer mattered if we kept it, as long as we ‘have faith’. I wonder if James might have known about Paul’s teaching on this verse, and used the same verse to refute the misunderstanding of the latter group.

James 2:21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (Gen. 22). 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says (Gen. 15:6), “Abraham believed G‑d, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of G‑d. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James argues that, yes, G‑d ‘reckons’ righteousness to a person on the ground of his faith. But how do we know if someone has faith? We see his faith by the way he lives, by what he does. Just as faith matters, so our deeds also matter. They go together. James even concludes his argument by saying (2:26), “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

This argument is an example of one of Hillel’s rules: Kayoẓe bo mimaḳom aḥer—turning to another similar passage that gives more information to flesh out a rule or law. James uses Genesis 22, the story of the binding of Isaac, to teach the meaning of Genesis 15:6—that faith does not work alone; obedience makes faith complete.

Peter
Even Peter, our Galilean fisherman who no doubt had far less formal Bible training than Paul or James, manages to put together a gezerah shavah to teach about Yeshua. Peter is writing to communities who are enduring persecution and hardship because of their faith in Yeshua. He is reassuring them that they are making the correct choice to follow Yeshua despite the temporary consequences.

Building on the word ‘stone’, Peter constructs an image of the struggling community being built into a spiritual Temple. We are the living stones, the ‘priesthood’, and also sometimes, the ‘sacrifices’. And Yeshua is the secure cornerstone.

1 Pet. 2:4 Come to [Yeshua], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in G‑d’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G‑d through Messiah Yeshua. 6 For it stands in scripture (Isaiah 28:16): “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe (Psalm 118:22), “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8 and (Isa. 8:14), “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

Peter turns to Isaiah, where he finds the prophecy that G‑d will place such a stone in Zion, chosen and precious to those who believe. In Isaiah, the peshat is warning the corrupt leaders of Judah that their corruption will not save them from the impending Assyrian invasion. The cornerstone is either referring to the Temple, or metaphorically to the Torah. As we have seen, when using a verse from Tenakh to make a midrash, the peshat is not necessarily relevant to the midrashic meaning. Peter sees the verse as referring to Yeshua, and the words of Isaiah fit what he has to say to the readers of his epistle.

However, that is not the whole story. The words “whoever believes” suggest that some will not believe, and will be put to shame. Peter needs to explain why some who do not believe are persecuting those who do believe. Elsewhere in Isaiah, and also in Psalms, G‑d tells us more about this ‘stone’ that will help to answer the question. Though rejected by the builders, it will become the cornerstone. The builders, in this case, were probably both the Roman and the Jewish authorities. Because Peter was writing to the Jewish believers in the Diaspora (1:1), the main problem probably came from the Romans. Whatever problems came from the Jews, would have come in the form of rejection by the synagogues and other community institutions, and probably not from the Temple, priesthood, or Sanhedrin. But the stone that they rejected turns out to be a stone upon which they will trip and fall. So we learn that, in the end, the living stones of the spiritual ‘Temple’ will remain standing.

One final example for now will show that the New Testament authors do also use the peshat when quoting the scriptures. Here is a passage in which Peter is giving instruction to his people about how to cope with the persecution that comes upon them. He quotes from Psalm 34, a wisdom psalm written by David about that time of his life when he was being persecuted by King Saul. Though David was a faithful servant of Saul, the king’s mental illness made him suspicious of David. To protect his own interests, Saul hunted David, trying to kill him. In the psalm, David tells how he strove to remain faithful to G‑d and to do what is right, despite the injustices committed against him.

1 Pet. 3:9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called– that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For (Psalm 34: 12-16) “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11 let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the L‑rd are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the L‑rd is against those who do evil.”

While the original situation of this quote was from David’s life, the lesson is timeless and applicable to anyone who wants to live faithfully in adverse circumstances. Peter is taking the meaning of the original words (the peshat), and applying them to the current life situation of his audience—the Jewish followers of Yeshua in the Diaspora, and most likely also to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters.

Conclusion
The subject of these last three articles could easily fill a library. In my brief survey, I have described various styles and methods of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures, and then asked if the New Testament writers have cited the Tenakh in similar ways. I believe I have demonstrated the similarities. I therefore propose that modern day readers, in order to properly understand the New Testament, must put the Gospels and Epistles back into their original historical Jewish context, and start from there to interpret the writings. The NT is mostly Jewish writers, writing to Jewish readers (along with Gentiles who have joined that community), about a Jewish man who they believe is fulfilling a Jewish hope. It makes perfect sense to look to Jewish models of communication and Bible interpretation as the framework for understand the NT writings.

Leib Reuben
Jerusalem

We know that Paul was a student of Rabban Gamliel, grandson of Hillel, and President of the Sanhedrin in the mid-first century. So we should expect Paul’s scripture interpretations to be heavily influenced by his rabbinical education in Jerusalem. And we are not disappointed.

Romans 10 contains a lovely example of a rabbinical style of midrash. Paul is comparing Torah and Gospel—not as opposites, but as companions. He cites a passage from Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses is telling the people that the Torah is not an unattainable standard for them to live by. It is not in heaven … it is not across the sea … but it is near.

We cannot examine the entire passage here; I am bringing this quote as an example of Paul’s use of a rabbinical style. Paul quotes this Torah passage line by line, injecting his brief comments on each line.

Romans 10:6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says (Deut. 30:11-14), “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Messiah down) 7 or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Messiah up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Yeshua is Lord and believe in your heart that G‑d raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

What Paul does with this Torah text is nearly the same as what the Rabbis did with Deuteronomy 26:5-10 (“A wandering Aramean was my father …”) in the Passover Haggadah. They took a passage from the Torah that summarized the history from the Patriarchs to the inheritance of the land of promise, and phrase by phrase, they injected their comments, sometimes cross-referencing other scripture texts, to flesh out and reinterpret the story for later generations. Here is just a brief taste of that passage from the Haggadah:

“And [Jacob] went down to Egypt” forced by Divine decree. “And he sojourned there” – this teaches that our father Jacob did not go down to Egypt to settle, but only to live there temporarily. Thus it is said (Gen. 47:4), “They said to Pharaoh, We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the hunger is severe in the land of Canaan; and now, please, let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.”

“Few in number” as it is said (Deut. 10:22): “Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now, the L-rd, your G‑d, has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (from the online Haggadah in English by Chabad, www.chabad.org/holidays/passover)

Both of these passages are worthy of more study than I can give here. My point is to show the similarities of NT use of Tenakh with that of contemporary Jewish usage.

My next example from Paul is more of a remez, or allusion. Paul refers here to Torah events rather than specific verses, and he explains at the end of the quote that these events happened as examples for later generations, that we should learn from them.

1 Corinthians 10:1 … our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. 5 Nevertheless, G‑d was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.

Paul makes an allegorical interpretation of the events so his readers could relate to them personally. The cloud and the sea represent immersion, which was the rite of entry into the covenant community. The spiritual food was the manna, corresponding to the bread taken at the fellowship meal. The spiritual drink, the water G-d provided from the rock (which Paul says represented Messiah). This corresponded to the wine of the communal meal. In other words, the Torah warns Israel first, and then the messianic community, that participation in the communal rites does not guarantee salvation if we turn aside to do evil.

Now we come to a more technical example in which Paul uses a gezerah shavah (analogy of expression) argument, bringing two Torah verses together based on a common word, to build his case.

Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written (Deut. 27:26), “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the Torah.” … 13 Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us—for it is written (Deut. 21:23), “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”.

In verse 10, Paul argues that one cannot rely on doing mitzvoth to claim he is righteous, because the Torah says that whoever does not obey the commandments is cursed (with very specific and frightening curses!). Paul adds the word ‘all’ because his argument is that one who claims to keep the Torah to prove he is righteous has to keep ‘all’ of the commands, or he is not keeping the Torah. Paul is not saying that the Torah is a curse, or that one is cursed for keeping the mitzvoth. Not at all! Anyone who breaks the mitzvoth comes under the curses described in the Torah. Since we all do that, we bring ourselves under those curses.

Then in verse 13, Paul appeals to another Torah verse that uses this same word ‘curse’. The peshat of the verse is speaking about a person executed by hanging. We must not leave the body on the tree overnight, in order not to bring a curse on the land. The peshat is not relevant to Paul’s argument. He is making a midrash. Yeshua was hung on a wooden cross. ‘Wood’ and ‘tree’ are the same word in Hebrew. So Paul takes the words of the verse to midrashically say that Yeshua became cursed when he was hung on the cross (tree). In this way, Yeshua took the curse described in the Torah onto himself, and off of us. A classic and clever midrashic argument.

Here is one last example from Paul’s epistles.

Once again Paul is addressing the problem of people—whether Jews or non-Jews—who believed that keeping the Torah and doing commandments made them righteous. This was a growing issue as non-Jewish people came to follow Yeshua and join the community. There were Jews who argued that Jewish and Gentile believers must keep Torah to be righteous. And there were non-Jews who became convinced that they must keep Torah to demonstrate their commitment to G‑­d’s covenant with Israel. To further complicate the issue, there were those on both sides who believed that, since one cannot keep all of the Torah commands, there is no point in keeping any of them, and therefore Yeshua ‘freed us’ from the Torah. So Paul turns to Abraham as an example of our proper basis for righteousness.

Rom. 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before G‑d. 3 For what does the scripture say? (Gen. 15:6) “Abraham believed G‑d, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

According to the wording of the Genesis verse, Abraham’s righteousness was accounted to him by G‑d because Abraham believed his promise to give him descendants. Note that it is the wording of the verse, and not the overall story, that is the basis of Paul’s midrash. He then makes another gezerah shavah (analogy of expression) argument by citing David (in v. 6-8), and quoting Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the one against whom the L‑rd will not reckon sin.” Based on the word ‘reckon’ in both verses, Paul deduces that G‑d can ‘reckon’ righteousness to someone, and he can also ‘reckon’ sin. It is as though G‑d has a giant ledger book where he can make deposits or withdrawals to each person’s ‘account’. Paul understands this ‘reckoning’ to be based on our trust in G‑d, and not on our particular deeds. In 4:22 he concludes, “Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’.” And here is the application:

4:23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Yeshua our Lord from the dead …”

Paul’s midrash allows us to learn from Abraham and David that G‑d does not account righteousness to his people according to our performance of mitzvot. Rather, our obedience to Torah should be the result of our believing in G‑d and trusting and loving him. Paul goes on to argue that Abraham received this ‘reckoning’ from G‑d before the Torah was given to Israel, and even before Abraham was circumcised. Therefore this principle must apply equally to Jews and Gentiles.

I will now bring a few examples from other apostles.

James

I find it amusing that James uses the same verse about Abraham from Genesis 15:6 to argue what sounds like the opposite of Paul’s conclusion. Centuries of Christian Bible interpreters have wrestled with these verses, because they fail to understand a simple truth about midrash. The midrashic use of Tenakh verses does not necessarily teach us eternal truth. As often as not, midrash is simply intended to use the words of scripture to address the situation in front of you. Therefore, different teachers can appear to reach conflicting conclusions from the same verse, if you do not consider their context. Such confusing logic even led Martin Luther to reject the Epistle of James, because it did not agree with Luther’s understanding of Paul.

In reality, Paul was dealing with people who were trying to force Gentile believers to keep Torah, and even to convert to Judaism. On the other hand, James was addressing people who believed that Yeshua had somehow cancelled the Torah, and that it no longer mattered if we kept it, as long as we ‘have faith’. I wonder if James might have known about Paul’s teaching on this verse, and used the same verse to refute the misunderstanding of the latter group.

James 2:21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (Gen. 22). 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says (Gen. 15:6), “Abraham believed G‑d, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of G‑d. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James argues that, yes, G‑d ‘reckons’ righteousness to a person on the ground of his faith. But how do we know if someone has faith? We see his faith by the way he lives, by what he does. Just as faith matters, so our deeds also matter. They go together. James even concludes his argument by saying (2:26), “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

This argument is an example of one of Hillel’s rules: Kayoẓe bo mimaḳom aḥer—turning to another similar passage that gives more information to flesh out a rule or law. James uses Genesis 22, the story of the binding of Isaac, to teach the meaning of Genesis 15:6—that faith does not work alone; obedience makes faith complete.

Peter

Even Peter, our Galilean fisherman who no doubt had far less formal Bible training than Paul or James, manages to put together a gezerah shavah to teach about Yeshua. Peter is writing to communities who are enduring persecution and hardship because of their faith in Yeshua. He is reassuring them that they are making the correct choice to follow Yeshua despite the temporary consequences.

Building on the word ‘stone’, Peter constructs an image of the struggling community being built into a spiritual Temple. We are the living stones, the ‘priesthood’, and also sometimes, the ‘sacrifices’. And Yeshua is the secure cornerstone.

1 Pet. 2:4 Come to [Yeshua], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in G‑d’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G‑d through Messiah Yeshua. 6 For it stands in scripture (Isaiah 28:16): “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe (Psalm 118:22), “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8 and (Isa. 8:14), “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

Peter turns to Isaiah, where he finds the prophecy that G‑d will place such a stone in Zion, chosen and precious to those who believe. In Isaiah, the peshat is warning the corrupt leaders of Judah that their corruption will not save them from the impending Assyrian invasion. The cornerstone is either referring to the Temple, or metaphorically to the Torah. As we have seen, when using a verse from Tenakh to make a midrash, the peshat is not necessarily relevant to the midrashic meaning. Peter sees the verse as referring to Yeshua, and the words of Isaiah fit what he has to say to the readers of his epistle.

However, that is not the whole story. The words “whoever believes” suggest that some will not believe, and will be put to shame. Peter needs to explain why some who do not believe are persecuting those who do believe. Elsewhere in Isaiah, and also in Psalms, G‑d tells us more about this ‘stone’ that will help to answer the question. Though rejected by the builders, it will become the cornerstone. The builders, in this case, were probably both the Roman and the Jewish authorities. Because Peter was writing to the Jewish believers in the Diaspora (1:1), the main problem probably came from the Romans. Whatever problems came from the Jews, would have come in the form of rejection by the synagogues and other community institutions, and probably not from the Temple, priesthood, or Sanhedrin. But the stone that they rejected turns out to be a stone upon which they will trip and fall. So we learn that, in the end, the living stones of the spiritual ‘Temple’ will remain standing.

One final example for now will show that the New Testament authors do also use the peshat when quoting the scriptures. Here is a passage in which Peter is giving instruction to his people about how to cope with the persecution that comes upon them. He quotes from Psalm 34, a wisdom psalm written by David about that time of his life when he was being persecuted by King Saul. Though David was a faithful servant of Saul, the king’s mental illness made him suspicious of David. To protect his own interests, Saul hunted David, trying to kill him. In the psalm, David tells how he strove to remain faithful to G‑d and to do what is right, despite the injustices committed against him.

1 Pet. 3:9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called– that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For (Psalm 34: 12-16) “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11 let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the L‑rd are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the L‑rd is against those who do evil.”

While the original situation of this quote was from David’s life, the lesson is timeless and applicable to anyone who wants to live faithfully in adverse circumstances. Peter is taking the meaning of the original words (the peshat), and applying them to the current life situation of his audience—the Jewish followers of Yeshua in the Diaspora, and most likely also to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters.

Conclusion

The subject of these last three articles could easily fill a library. In my brief survey, I have described various styles and methods of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures, and then asked if the New Testament writers have cited the Tenakh in similar ways. I believe I have demonstrated the similarities. I therefore propose that modern day readers, in order to properly understand the New Testament, must put the Gospels and Epistles back into their original historical Jewish context, and start from there to interpret the writings. The NT is mostly Jewish writers, writing to Jewish readers (along with Gentiles who have joined that community), about a Jewish man who they believe is fulfilling a Jewish hope. It makes perfect sense to look to Jewish models of communication and Bible interpretation as the framework for understand the NT writings.

Leib Reuben
Jerusalem