In order to understand how the disciples learned to rely fully upon Yeshua we need to adjust our perception of life in the first century. In both the traditional and modern churches of the western world, there is a tendency to think that it’s all about us and, therefore, we need not concern ourselves with how life was for the people of Isra’el. It is an arrogance that blinds us to the important background context of Yeshua’s first coming. It is easy for us to take a verse or two from a gospel and make it suit what traditions we currently observe. But, frequently, it means we will miss the entire point.
Centuries of western perspective translations of the New Testament, as well as endless commentaries, have served only to cement the traditional view that the church should be governed and led by a professional clergy, despite this being contra to what the entire New Testament actually teaches. We try to apply what we read in the pages between Matthew and Revelation to our lives today, instead of first seeking to understand the times and context of when they were written. Without the background much is lost to us.
You know this to be true. I am quite sure all of you will be able to recall a time when a preacher inspired you when they added the original context to a text and you suddenly saw it through fresh eyes – through the eyes of those early disciples.
Over the past year or so I have been challenged by the Holy Spirit to investigate this rich treasure trove of background context to the writings of the New Testament. At first it was a little difficult to do, but as the words on the page became more and more real, I learned to love the research. I’m not about to tell you all I’ve learned about what life was like as a Hebrew in first century Isra’el, but I do want to share one perspective that enabled me to see the person of Yeshua as the disciples would have seen Him.
Our modern understanding of the word Rabbi is flawed. Since the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the concept and role of the Rabbi has changed. What we understand of the role is often marred by what we see in the media. For me, when the word Rabbi was mentioned it wasn’t hard for me to picture a man all dressed in black with a large, ridiculous looking hat, and ringlets beside his ears. However, the true picture of what a Rabbi was predates the destruction of the Temple considerably.
In the period between the return of the Hebrews from Babylonian exile until the time of Christ, the Rabbi was an essential part of daily life in Isra’el, especially in the northern region of Galilee. As is common today, there generally exists an intellectual elite around major cities which think more highly of themselves than they ought, as well as the more simple folk of the outer regions. Life in the first century in Isra’el was no exception. The people of Jerusalem thought themselves superior in every way to the rest of Isra’el. The ruling council, which you will know as the Sanhedrin, was made up of 70 members whom were allowed to govern and rule on the matters of religion and tradition, despite the entire country being under Roman rule. The Roman Empire was renowned for allowing such cultural councils to be kept in place – providing the taxes kept coming in, Rome had no reason to interfere with matters of culture or religion.
This Sanhedrin of the early part of the first century was made up of 65 Sadducees and only 5 Pharisees. This figure may suprise you. We have a tendency to bunch the two groups together but they were actually very different. The Sadducees were very much temporal in outlook, that is to say that they didn’t believe in anything that they couldn’t see, such as angels, demons, and the resurrection of the dead for judgement. The Pharisees, however, not only believed in the unseen world, but they also took the Tanakh (the Old Testament) very seriously. They were religious to the point of obsession. Passionate you might say. They constantly added to the Torah (the Law) additional rules and traditions, believing that correct of observance of these rules earned righteousness before God. The Pharisees weren’t so popular in the more secular southern part of Isra’el.
In the north, around the Sea of Galilee, there was a concentration of Pharisees. In fact their influence dominated in every town. Records show that the Pharisees of the early to mid first century were descended directly from those who had been returning from Babylon for the previous three or four hundred years. The repatriation of the Hebrews from Babylon didn’t happen overnight. They settled in the north away from the more secular south because they were zealous for God’s word and the rules and rituals found in Torah. Throughout their captivity in Babylon their ancestors had tried to maintain all they understood about what God wanted them to do. Their lives were simple and based entirely upon the patriarchal system from the days of Abraham.
In the towns which have been excavated by archaeologists around the Sea of Galilee we discover that there was generally one central courtyard around which the dwellings were built. The people of the town worked at diverse occupations but for the good of all. The synagogues acted as schools, and community centres, as well as a place to come together for Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the reading of the scrolls, and the discussions which took place afterwards. These communities were self-governing having the elders of several families acting as their own council. They lived together, worked together, ate together, and looked out for one another. Today’s concept of community is little more than a vague shadow of how these people lived.
The children of the town or village were schooled by a Rabbi, who was usually one of their own family members but was occasionally hired in. At school until the age of around 8, both boys and girls were taught exclusively from Torah. This was known as Beth Sefer – House of the Book. They would learn it by repetition. At around the age of 8, the girls would join their mothers or grandmothers to learn the role of the woman in a male dominated world. The women were responsible for everything the house required from cooking to fetching water. The boys remained with the Rabbis until the age of 12 or 13. Today we have the concept of Bar-Mitzvah – the boy coming of age. Back then when a boy reached Bar-Mitzvah its simply meant that he was able to recite the Torah without prompting – the term Bar-Mitzvah literally means Son of Instruction.
When the boys passed through this rite of passage their Rabbi would determine whether they showed enough promise to continue their instruction, either under him or, under a more superior Rabbi. If they moved onto the next stage it was called Beth Midrash – House of Learning. If they weren’t considered good enough to continue in their studies they were sent off to join their father’s or their family business. They would then learn that trade until they were 30 years old when the business would often become theirs.
The town of Nazareth, where the young Yeshua grew up, was a typical Pharisee town. Yeshua would have undergone the same training as the rest of the children there. As a gifted child in matters of Torah He may well have continued with the Rabbi after His Bar-Mitzvah. That period of time between 13 and 20 would have seen Him studying full time with His Rabbi. This was called being in the dust of the Rabbi’s feet. The Rabbi would perhaps have anywhere between 2 and 12 disciples, or Talmidim, who would literally live and breathe with him. The aim of the disciples was always to be like the Rabbi in every aspect. Ultimately, the aim was to become Rabbis in their own right with their own disciples. They would follow him everywhere he went and he would teach from parables and stories from the Tanakh. Each Rabbi would have a perspective on the Law, and in particular, what were the most important commandments. This perspective is what separated the Rabbis from one another. One would teach that a certain commandment was more important than another, whilst a different Rabbi might teach the reverse. If you take the time to read Matthew 22:34-40 you will see a Pharisee trying to challenge Yeshua on this point. The Rabbis would frequently re-order the Ten Commandments to put them in the order they believed to be the most important. They would challenge their disciples with the commandments and ask what their take on each would be in order to test their skills at interpretation.
If the Rabbi determined that a disciple had sufficient grasp of the nature of Torah, when He reached 20, he would have been permitted to give His own interpretation of the Scriptures in the synagogue. This could only happen if His Rabbi gave Him the authority to do so. If his interpretation was accepted then he would be allowed to sit in the Seat of Moses – a physical feature in every synagogue to this day where a teacher of the Law would sit, speaking as Moses would – figuratively speaking. There is a reference to this at Matthew 23:1-3.
Frequently you see the phrase crop up in the gospels where the people wonder at the authority with which Yeshua taught. The people were effectively asking which Rabbi had allowed this. Take a look at Matthew 7:28-29. Yeshua had just spent time taking people through His take on the Law. He said things like “You have heard it said…” and then told them something contrary to what they had been taught. At the end of His teaching the people were amazed:
“And so it was, when Yeshua had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” [Matthew 7:28-29]
Of course, it is entirely possible that Yeshua wasn’t chosen to study full time under His Rabbi. He may have been seen as a threat or even too radical for the traditional Pharisees of the day. In a way, it doesn’t really matter what He did between the age of 13 and 20. All that matters is that by the time He started His ministry at the age of 30, He was clearly identifiable as a Rabbi in His own right. People frequently called Him ‘teacher’, which is what Rabbi means, often His own disciples called Him Rabbi. And only a Rabbi has disciples. The term talmidim was exclusively used in this context.
The Rabbis and the Pharisees of the day were well versed in many practices which you might find surprising. Their extensive records show that they knew how to drive out certain demons – only if the demon spoke its own name. This is why you find suprise recorded amongst witnesses when Yeshua drove out demons in deaf mutes – in Matthew 9:33, for example, the crowd are quoted as saying “It was never seen like this in Isra’el.” – They knew how to drive out demons by taking authority over their names, but in a man who couldn’t speak out the name of the demon, it simply wasn’t known. To see Yeshua doing what their elders and Rabbis could not do would have set Him apart from the rest.
They were also able to heal certain sicknesses and diseases, but not all. Leprosy, for example, wouldn’t be considered for healing because to lay hands upon a leper broke several commandments. This is why in Matthew 8:2 the leper first asks Yeshua ‘If you are willing…’ – most who could heal wouldn’t come anywhere near a leper for fear of making themselves unclean.
There are also a great many accounts of Rabbis and Pharisees raising people from the dead. However, no one ever raised someone who had been dead for more than three days – their unwritten traditions (the Mishnah) said that after three days the soul left the body and couldn’t return. This is why Yeshua waited until Lazarus had been dead for four days before He raised Him. He wanted to show that anything is possible with God and that tradition stands for nothing in the eyes of God. Read the account of Yeshua bringing Lazarus back to life in John chapter 11 from this perspective. It explains why He waited even after hearing the news that Lazarus was sick. There is a context to all the miracles which Yeshua performed that relates to what some Rabbis and Pharisees were able to practice – He was intent on showing them what you could achieve by believing in Yehovah and not in tradition. Of course, this provoked anger amongst the Pharisees because it threatened their traditions. We will touch on more of this shortly, but first, let us set the scene of His appearance in Judea some three years before He was eventually crucified.
I have often wondered why Yeshua needed John to prepare the way for Him. He is, after all, the Son of the Most High God. Why would He need a man like John to go before Him? Getting the right context on John does help to explain why it was like it was. John didn’t come from Galilee. He wasn’t part of a patriarchal community. It is more likely (because of the kind of baptism he practiced) that John was one of the Essenes – a community who lived separate from the secular people of Jerusalem. They lived separately because they were extremely religious and sought a deep walk with Yehovah. Unlike the Pharisees, they didn’t add to Torah. They stuck to exactly what it said in the books of Moses and nothing else.
They were the community who ensured the preservation of what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls when Rome ordered the dispersal of the Hebrews after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The baptism which John practiced and was to become the example to the church which followed, was part of the Essenes’ ceremonial washing ritual. John came as a herald, as a prophet for Yeshua. As I mentioned in a previous part of this series, the Hebrews were expecting the Messiah, and they also knew that one would come before Him from prophecies in both Isaiah and Micah. All four gospels make this clear in their accounts of John coming to the Jordan. He caused quite a stir. It says in Matthew 3:5 that Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him. That’s a lot of people. Have you ever stopped and asked yourselves why? He wasn’t performing miracles. He was just telling people that it was time that they returned to following God. There are many accounts recorded by historians of the day of men like John who came, stirred up the crowd, and then disappeared from the pages of history. What was different about John?
Perhaps the answer lies in the account of John’s birth being announced by an angel, and the subsequent prophecy spoken out by his father Zacharias on the occasion of the infant’s circumcision? Here’s part of the prophecy:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins…” [Luke 1:76-77]
I suggest you read the whole account to get the full context. You can find it in Luke chapter one.
Now, Zacharias was a member of the priesthood and his prophecy would have been written down. In those days the Word of Yehovah was scarce – there had been no prophet for 400 years. Suddenly, a priest who had been struck dumb months before starts speaking – this was a miracle of its own – and not only speaking, but the spoken Word of God about this child who was to be called a prophet and act as a herald for the salvation of God. Believe me, this was a big deal, and all in Judea and Jerusalem would have watched over John waiting for the fulfilment of this prophecy. No wonder they all came out to see him at the Jordan!
So, Yeshua came to John so that John could announce that He was the one whom they had waited so long for – the lamb of God who had been sent to take away the sins of the world. John’s call to return to God was part of preparing the people for God’s salvation. Repent and be baptised, which became the central message of the gospel, was what John said the people should do in exchange for the forgiveness of their sins. Yeshua later referred to John’s baptism as a time when many rushed into the kingdom, although most translations of Matthew 11:12 are often confusing by suggesting that the kingdom suffers violence, I believe Yeshua was actually referring to the streams of people who poured ‘into’ the kingdom because of hearing John’s message.
John set the precedent which was to follow, including the choosing of disciples. From what evidence there is, we can understand that after Beth Sefer, the more gifted boys would want to go onto Beth Midrash. Not all were chosen however. The practice was to find a Rabbi whose style appealed and ask to study beneath him. The Rabbi would spend some time getting to know you and deciding if you were suited to following him. If you were, he would say ‘come, follow me.’ To follow a Rabbi wasn’t merely in order to learn what he knew but to be exactly like him in his walk with God. Young men would be taken to the best Rabbis all over the country in order to study under the Rabbis with the best reputations. Look at Paul, for example. He grew up in Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) but was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel. Yeshua, however, chose to do things differently. Instead of waiting for potential disciples to come to Him and ask to be chosen (this did happen later as His ministry grew), He chose to go and find them. Five alone came from the small village of Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He found them working with their fathers. This probably means that they weren’t considered good enough to study further under a Rabbi. Of all twelve to whom Yeshua said to follow Him, it is likely that all but one were under the age of twenty. Why do I say that? Well, in Matthew 17 we find Yeshua and His disciples at Capernaum and they are challenged regarding the payment of the Temple Tax. Yeshua tells Peter to go to the sea and cast in a hook and take the first fish that comes up so that He and Peter can pay the tax. It follows that Yeshua and Peter were the only men over twenty because the tax was only due from men over twenty years of age.
Yeshua deliberately went to these small towns and villages to choose His disciples because they already understood about living together in small communities under the patriarchal system of Abraham. A place like Bethsaida would have had a population of less than a thousand, made up of maybe only ten families who all lived together, and worked together. This was always God’s model for life. Yeshua, therefore, instilled it into His disciples. You can see the model clearly in the early chapters of Acts.
Yeshua drew these men to Himself so that they could spend every minute of every day in His company. This enabled Him to teach them constantly – not just on a Sabbath from the scrolls but from the day to day things of life. They all lived in the dust of His feet and learned to hang on His every word. And whilst this is the context of the first century, it is exactly the model we should be following today in lives led by the Spirit of God. The Rabbis of the first century would train their own disciples up with one single intention – that of going off to make disciples of their own when they were ready. That is the model which Yeshua brought to the early church when He said to go into the world and make disciples of all men. He was telling them that they were ready, and had learned enough at His feet, it was now time to go off and teach others to do the same. It differs a great deal from today’s model of evangelism where a famous preacher comes to town and then leaves any converts to the church of that town. Even Paul didn’t do that. Where he preached, he stayed until all were made into disciples, ready to make their own disciples.
In the next part of this series, we shall look at how the early church prospered after Yeshua ascended to be with the Father, leaving the Holy Spirit behind to guide their every step.