This week my Tuesday night Bible study, The Jewish Context of the Bible, started a new series: Famous Rabbis. We start with the three biggest names in first century Rabbinical Judaism: Hillel, Shammai, and Akiva. Then we progress to Sha’ul (Paul) and finally culminating in, Yeshua (Jesus). I think after examining these great rabbis it will mean so much more when we look at Jesus. You can find the audio on the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ, or on my Audio Lessons page.
In my study of the Mishnah to prep for this week, I looked at every single verse where the name “Hillel” was mentioned. There were hundreds of them and most were not exactly relevant to what I wanted to present. However, there were a few gems, most of which I presented in class. There was one more that I found that I’d like to share with you that was too technical to share in class.
One key to Jewish belief is the Shema (pronounced “sheh-MAH” or also “sh-MAH”), which comes from Deut 6:4 and following. “Hear of Israel: the LORD is God, the LORD is one.” The following verses are about how you should talk about God’s commands all the time: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut 6:7) Well, apparently, the rabbis got into a debate about when you should physically do this. It wasn’t enough for them to understand that God probably meant “talk about My commands alot, all the time” or rather “make them a priority in your life”. No, these wise men wanted to know exactly when, where, and how to recite Shema – they wanted to get it right. The following quote is from the Mishnah, Berachot 1:3 (emphasis mine):
The House of Shammai say, “In the evening everyone should recline in order to recite [the Shema] and in the morning they should stand, “as it says [in the passage of the Shema], When you lie down and when you rise (Dt. 6:7).”
But the House of Hillel say, “Everyone may recite according to his own manner [either reclining or standing], “as it says, And as you walk by the way (Dt. 6:7).”
If it is so [that one may recite however he wishes] why does [the verse] say, When you lie down and when you rise? [It means you must recite the Shema] at the hour that people lie down [night] and at the hour that people rise [in the morning].
Said R. Tarfon, “I was coming along the road in the evening and reclined to recite the Shema as required by the House of Shammai. And in doing so I placed myself in danger of being attacked by bandits.”
They said to him, “You are yourself responsible for what might have befallen you, for you violated the words of the House of Hillel.”
This is very interesting to me because it sounds alot like the beginning of a story Jesus told that we call “The Good Samaritan”:
“In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30, NIV, emphasis mine)
Was Jesus in his parable saying that the reason the man “fell into the hands of robbers” was because he reclined to recite the Shema as Shammai suggested instead of just saying it at the appropriate time like Hillel suggested? I think there is a likely connection here for three reasons:
1) We know that this “scholar” or “expert in the law” (Torah teacher) was of the House of Hillel. Why? Because when Jesus asks him what is written in the law (aka: what are the greatest commandments?), this man lists Deut 6:5-6 (the Shema, the #1 for every rabbinic school, regardless) and Lev 19:18 (Love your neighbor as yourself) which only The House of Hillel put as #2 (and of course, Jesus did too). Hillel derived from Lev 19:18 his famous saying which is very much like Jesus’: “What you do not want someone to do to you, do not do that to him. The rest of the Torah is commentary upon this principle. Now go and learn it!” (Shab. 31a) Jesus said something similar in Matthew 7:12. So putting Lev 19:18 at the #2 slot immediately identifies this man with the House of Hillel.
2) Jesus’ public ministry started 20 years after Hillel had died and certainly by the time of Jesus, the famous sayings of Hillel and Shammai were known by many. In fact, for a Torah teacher to teach an interpretation of Torah, he would be required to quote a famous rabbi who had the authority to come up with that teaching. So a Torah teacher of the House of Hillel would have Hillel’s rulings memorized as well, for it was what gave him authority to give the interpretations that he gave in everyday teachings. Such a close link between the two stories of Hillel’s and Jesus’ seems too striking to me to be a coincidence given that the Torah teacher was of the House of Hillel.
3) To a non-Jew, this seems too coincidental and not likely and you might even find yourself thinking “Yeah, the sayings appear to be similar, but Jesus couldn’t have been quoting Hillel. They’re just similar, and nothing more.” I disagree because the best rabbis of the time (and Jesus was THE best) had the entire Tanakh memorized, as well as the oral traditions of the Jews memorized. We know Jesus had both memorized from the way he flawlessly uses scripture in nearly every verse, but also from the way he played ball with the Pharisees. Read through Matthew 15 (and it’s mirrored story in Mark 7 because it is a little different) and Matthew 12:1-13. These are but a few examples of Jesus not only playing ball with the Pharisees, but doing so in their own court. He knew their tradition, and he knew it by memory. So it is very likely that Jesus could quote Hillel, and would have done it when he felt the need to.
But why quote Hillel here in this story? I think the answer is that Jesus is playing to this Torah teacher. When the man answers Jesus’ question, Jesus replied back with “You have answered correctly” (Luke 10:28). And then he starts his story with a humorous reason why a man fell into the hands of robbers: because he was of the House of Shammai, and not the House of Hillel, and if the man in the story had been of the House of Hillel, that wouldn’t have happened to him. Clearly it seems to me that Jesus is playing to the man’s pride right up until the punch line when the hero turns out to be a Samaritan, the people whom even the House of Hillel acknowledged as sub-human and certainly not my “neighbor”. It seems to me that, in his brilliance as a teacher, he built the guy up so that the true teaching would hit him like a ton of bricks and make the crucial impact that every rabbi desired to make.
As I pointed out last night, once again I am awe-struck by Jesus’ brilliance as a teacher.
Peace to you,