Jesus Was Not Original. (Sermon on the Mount, Part 2.)

In my previous post, I mentioned that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount should serve as the foundation through which followers of Jesus read the rest of Scripture and order their lives. Many of us might consider that Jesus' teachings were ground-breaking original ideas that blew his audience away. We'd be wrong.

Most of Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (and other teachings as well) were pulled from rabbis that lived centuries before him. Here's a quick-ish breakdown on rabbis, their teachings, and the Old Testament.  

The foundation of the Old Testament is the first five books, often known as the Torah (which literally means 'hitting the mark') or the Pentateuch (which literally means 'the five scrolls.)  The Torah was written to give Israel a context of their story as a people, shape their worldview, and show them how to live in their contexts of being a traveling tribe and eventually a nation. The nation didn't last for long, as they were soon invaded by enemy empires and they scattered everywhere. Local places of worship known as synagogues popped up, and rabbis rose in power and authority. Obedience to Torah replaced sacrifice at the Temple as the primary way to honor God. The only question is, how should they live in their new context of being exiles? What does the Torah mean in this situation? The rabbis gave their interpretation of the Torah in their new context.  In other words, this is what it looks like to be holy in our new situation.

So when Jesus came on the scene and claimed to be a rabbi, many wondered what he meant by that. Whose school of teaching do you follow? Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are not original, but rather a curation of the teachings of the rabbis from the previous centuries.

Jesus' thoughts on being "the light of the world" (Matt. 5:16) come from Rabbi Simeon son of Eleazar. His teachings on "fulfilling the Torah" (Matt. 5:17) are pulled from a Sanhedrin council. His teachings on murder and adultery (Matt. 5:27-28) ceom from Rabbi Eleazar. His teachings on "turn the other cheek" (Matt. 5:38-39) come from Rabbi Chama ben Chanina.  I could walk through each passage of the Sermon on the Mount and give the rabbi who first said it, but you get the point.

When Jesus unpacked the core of what his movement was about in Matthew 5-7, he was essentially telling his audience, "This is where your teachers were closest to the heart of God. These guys got it right." Jesus also called out areas where they got it wrong, but he used the teachings of the rabbis as the platform to flesh out the rest of his gospel message.

Paul did something similar in Acts 17. When reading the poetry and philosophy of the people in Athens, he pulled out the areas where they got it right and used that as his platform to teach the gospel. There is something powerful and effective about connecting over common ground, about acknowledging the imago dei you see in someone else and their way of life.

(for more information on Jesus and the rabbis, check out Brad Young's book Meet the Rabbis)