How did the movement Yeshua led begin, how did it grow? How did it mature? Even more importantly, what were the seeds for what the movement would become? We have to step aside from 2,000 years of Christian theologizing and thinking, and see him as he was. We also need to look with the eyes of hindsight, and seeing him in his context we can see the deliberate steps he was taking to proclaim, establish, and ensure the perpetuation of the kingdom of God.
Welcome to the On Messianic Judaism Podcast. Hi, this is Daniel Nessim and today we’ll continue our series on the History of the Messianic movement by surveying the years in which Yeshua taught and how they provided a foundation for the movement that was to come. This is episode 6 in our series, called The Growth of a Movement: How Yeshua’s Following Grew and Matured.
This is an historical study. We are putting Messianic Judaism within the history of Judaism, where it belongs. How did the movement Yeshua led begin, how did it grow? How did it mature? Even more importantly, what were the seeds for what the movement would become? We have to step aside from 2,000 years of Christian theologizing and thinking, and see him as he was. This is far from an easy task, for as Albert Schweitzer said, thinking that the great achievement of German theology was the “critical investigation of the life of Jesus” He wrote “Jesus as a concrete personality remains a stranger to our time.” That is maybe too pessimistic, and maybe he wouldn’t have written that if he had been able to read the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Jewish writings that have since come to light.
As we have seen in previous episodes, the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah. In part, they were expecting someone like Moses, as had been prophesied in Deut 18:15. Who was Moses? Above all, he was used by Hashem to be the deliverer of Israel from their oppressors and the giver of the Torah. What about Yeshua and the beginnings of Messianic Judaism?
Yochanan Hamatbil as I like to call him in Hebrew, or John the Immerser, as his name is properly translated, was an enigmatic figure. Like Yeshua, his birth was shrouded in divine providence. Beyond that, his life itself is shrouded in mystery. He appears in the narrative as appearing with clothing from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were being immersed by him in the Jordan River. What was behind his enigmatic appearance, and his attraction to the masses of people, and his influence over them as they flocked to him to make teshuvah and be immersed?
One clue is that he was in Judea, and another set of clues are his clothing and his diet. Both of these have made a possible connection to the Essenes, a colony of whom lived an austere life in the Judean wilderness with an extremely kosher diet, very attractive. James Charlesworth argued that Yochanan was “only the most prominent member of a wide and diverse Baptist movement including Bannus, the Nasoreans, Ebionites, Elkasites, and the groups behind the Apocalypse of Adam and Sibylline Oracle Book 4.” His intriguing suggestion is that Yochanan was expelled from the community because he declined to join in their hatred of the “sons of darkness” as they called non-members, but already being bound by their rigid oaths was careful to maintain a strict diet. Hence “locusts and honey.”
Yochanan came immersing the repentant. This is in line with what immersion was understood to be in his day. Not only did immersion represent a change of heart, and function both in support of induction and conversion of new members, but at least among the Essenes, it also marked the acceptance of a set teaching. In anticipation of a day when it was expected that all Israel would join the Yahad, 1QSa (The Rule of the Congregation) 1.5 taught that the new members would read all “. . . the statutes of the Covenant. They shall be indoctrinated in all of their laws, for fear that otherwise they may sin accidentally.” Serek 6.13 (see also 1QSa, 1Q28a) reads: “If anyone of Israel volunteers for enrolment in the party of the Yahad . . . He shall be made to understand all the basic precepts of the Yahad.”
Yohanan’s immersion was a Jewish one, not according to Christian customs invented far in the future. Jewish immersion is a self-immersion, with a witness as to whether it has been done properly. Thus we are told that at his immersion, Yeshua came up out of the water, but nothing is said of Yochanan. There is no hint in the text that what Yohanan was doing was strange or questionable for either the populace or the officials (Pharisees and Sadducees) who came from Jerusalem to find out what was going on. In fact, one ancient copy of Luke says that Yeshua was immersed “before him [Yochanan]” rather than “by him.” This tallies well with b. Yebam. 47b as it discusses immersion for converts to Judaism, saying “When he comes up [טבל ועלה] after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.” Typically in the Second Temple period Jews had Mikvaot in which to perform the ritual, but nothing was more pure and appropriate than the “living water” of a flowing river.
It is following his immersion that Yeshua began to recruit his innermost circle of disciples. In time these would grow from being students and assistants, to leaders and leaders of the Messianic movement. At this point, however, they were simply answering his call to “follow me.”
In a direct connection to the preaching and message of Yochanan, Matthew describes Yeshua’s appearance on the public stage with exactly the same message: “Turn away from your sins, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” Early in the account, and word for word the same, there’s no doubt that Matthew intended us to take note. Yochanan and Yeshua had the same message. This message is unfolded in the next chapters, which people call the Sermon on the Mount. A discourse delivered on a mountainside in the Galil, it begins with blessings upon those with admirable and exemplary heart attitudes. It is a discourse delivered to Jews from the Galil who are hungry and thirsty for teaching. There is no hint of messianism at this point. In harmony with the prophets, Yeshua affirmed to his Jewish listeners that they were the Or Haolam, the Light of the World.
Then, in the clearest of terms, Yeshua’s discourse continued with an affirmation of the authority and validity of the Torah, with a blessing upon those who do and teach it. Then came the clincher: the hearer’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes.
The hallmark of Yeshua’s teaching is now laid bare in the ensuing chapters. Righteousness had to go beyond the accepted norms of the religious establishment, the Pharisees and Scribes. While their observance of Torah was not questioned, something more was required. “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” was Yeshua’s repeated refrain as he addressed a series of halakic norms. Each time, just as with the blessings at the beginning of the discourse, heart attitudes, the appropriate posture of the heart, was emphasized.
Here for the first time we see crowds following Yeshua. They came for his teaching, and he described them as “sheep without a shepherd.” Josephus would later write about Yeshua and say “about this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.” Perhaps this is how people thought of him, hanging on his words. The Damascus Document, popular among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Habakkuk commentary have much to say about an expected Teacher of Righteousness. The Serek ha-Yaḥad, otherwise known as the Manual of Discipline, 1QS, or Community Rule says what some people were expecting:
When such men as these [blameless] come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth, as it is written, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3). This means the expounding of the Law decreed by God through Moses for obedience, that being defined by what has been revealed for each age, and by what the prophets have revealed by His holy spirit.
This one paragraph brings to mind what Yochanan Hamatbil was described as, coming from the wilderness, and not only his teaching, but particularly Yeshua’s. For Yeshua was one who expounded the “Law decreed by God through Moses for obedience.” No wonder there were crowds following him. Whether or not they had studied the Serek for themselves, its teachings may well have reflected or have been reflected in popular anticipation for what was to come. As Yeshua spoke, his rural Galilean upbringing was clear in his teaching. As has been often noted, “The metaphors placed in his mouth are mostly agricultural ones, as would be expected from a man who spent the major part of his life among farmers and peasants . . . . The city and its life occupy scarcely any place at all in his teaching.”
So it is that crowds are seen following Yeshua on various occasions throughout the Gospels. Yeshua’s teaching and person were magnetic, and were a phenomenon not only in the Galil but also on his visits to Judea. A people movement was beginning to form. Was he the “Teacher of Righteousness” that some were expecting? Yet in the midst of the public following that Yeshua was gaining, he remained focused on doing good deeds and teaching Torah according to its full intention (and for this I would suggest listening to the Two Messianic Jews podcast on this topic!), focusing without deviation on Israel, the Jewish people. The very fact that he commanded his disciples not to go to the gentiles or Samaritans is interesting, however, because it shows two things. First that these groups were within the orbit of the Jewish world and his disciples might have considered reaching out to them, and secondly that even so, Yeshua would allow no deviation to his mission to Israel.
As Yeshua’s reputation grew, there are signs that he actually worked to that end. At least two times he commissioned his disciples to broadcast the kingdom of God, which was the kingdom he was preparing Israel for. On the first occasion the core group of twelve was sent without any supplies for their travel or money. They were to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. Later on as he traveled, seventy appointed emissaries went ahead of him to each location. As he encouraged them saying that the harvest that could be reaped was a great one, it is clear that he intended to make a big impact.
Yeshua’s teaching was focused on the kingdom of God. Matt 13 lists a number of parables that he told in order to describe its nature, its values, and its value. The message of the kingdom is likened to seed, which when it falls on good soil grows and bears fruit. It is like a mustard seed which though tiny grows into a tree big enough for birds to perch on. It is like a treasure hidden under the soil in a field or like a priceless pearl. Throughout there is the picture of a growing kingdom of tremendous worth. Without fail, Yeshua’s kingdom of Heaven was beginning to grow, and at a rapid pace.
At this point Yeshua’s following was firmly planted within the bounds of Jewish tradition and eschatological expectation, Jewish belief about God’s expected future intervention in the affairs of Israel and the nations. The nations are not the focus. Nevertheless, the seeds were being placed for a more extensive movement. Simon Peter was told that he was “Peter, and upon this rock I will build My community; and the gates of Sheol will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will have been forbidden in heaven and what you permit on earth will have been permitted in heaven.” Here is a picture of a revolutionary community with leaders autonomous in some sense from the religious establishments of the day.
As Yeshua’s reputation and following grew, the message of the kingdom of Heaven was a “buffer” against the activist element in Jewish society. Zealots, of whom was one of his disciples, were perfectly ready to reignite the wars of the Maccabees and cast out the evil rule of Rome. Theirs was a vision of a restored, but purer and better kingdom in Judea, after the manner of the Hasmonean dynasty. If it had happened once before, why could they not rely on God’s help to make it happen again? Against this tendency, and the tendency to exalt him in a political way, Yeshua made it clear that his kingdom was not of this world. As he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting.”
At this point Yeshua’s activity seems to have been expanding. He taught in the area of Mount Hermon, in the modern day Golan Heights. He taught more and more in Jerusalem, and developed a following there as well, teaching in the Temple itself.
By the time Yeshua was at the end of his ministry, crowds gave homage to him, waving palm branches before him in the manner of Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot. While Alfred Edersheim may be right that this was the traditional “welcome of visitors or kings” in the Levant, there seems to be more too it. Their cries were from Psalm 118 “Hoshia-na to Ben-David! Baruch ha-ba b’shem Adonai! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hoshia-na in the highest!” It may not have been intentional, but these words too closely evoke the prayers for water on Sukkot and Yeshua’s declaration on a previous Sukkot that “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture says, ‘out of his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” It seems reasonable to believe that at least some of the crowd had a sense for this figurative meaning for their actions. The Gospel writers, too, seem to have understood this, as they knew the messianic importance of Psalm 118, it being the source for Yeshua’s description of himself as the “stone which the builders rejected.”
As we continue our journey through the history of Messianic Judaism, we are going to see how this “stone” that the builders rejected did in fact become the cornerstone of a new movement. This new movement would spread beyond the Jewish people and eventually be co-opted by those who were sometimes even enemies of the Jews.
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Next week, join us as come to the climactic nadir of the first phase of Messianic Jewish history, with the Death of Yeshua. Why did Yeshua die?
My email address is [email protected] and I’m looking forward to your feedback. I am Dr Daniel Nessim, and this is On Messianic Judaism.
 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest [Von Reimarus zu Wrede], trans. W. Montgomery (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 1. Schweitzer, The Quest, 401. Matt 3:4–5. I.e. “to repent.” Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 16–17. James H. Charlesworth, "John the Baptizer and Qumran Barriers in Light of the Rule of the Community," in The Provo International Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Technological Innovations, New Texts, and Reformulated Issues, Studies on the texts of the desert of Judah, ed. Donald W. Parry and Eugene Ulrich (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 354. Charlesworth, "John the Baptizer," 363. "The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation," (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 145. See also 1QSa, 1Q28a. "The Dead Sea Scrolls," 125.  Taylor, The Immerser, 125. “Interestingly, in the account of the baptism of Jesus ‘by John’ (ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου) the active participle of the verb ἀναβαίνων, ‘coming up’ is used for Jesus’ coming up out of the water, despite the fact that he was in some way immersed (ἐβαπίσθη) by John. It is not written that John ‘brought him up’ (Mark 1:9-10; cf. Matt. 3:16). If Jesus came up by himself, we may conjecture that he went down by himself also, or else that John let him go at some point.” Jeremias NT Theology p. 51. Verify the source!!! On order!!! Matt 3:2; 4:17. Matt 5–7. Matt 5:14; Isa 49:6. Josephus Ant. 18.3.3. While there is think that statement isn’t authentic, David Flusser makes a good argument for its authenticity. The Sage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 12-13. Serek 8.12–16, "The Dead Sea Scrolls," 129. See also Serek 9.19–20. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1973), 48. I haven’t been able to find a copy yet, but this was put forth by A. Dupont-Sommer in Nouveaux aperçus sur les manuscrits de la Mer Morte in 1953, I believe. Luke 9:1–3; Mark 6:7-13. Luke 10:1–2; Matt 9:35 Matt 16:19. See also Matt 18:18–20. Alternatively, Anthony Saldarini argues that “Since political and religious authority and power are inseparable in ancient society, Matthew’s claim of authority to bind and loose is a claim to leadership, not just in his own group, but in the Jewish community at large.” Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 121. I view this as somewhat problematic as in the Hebrew ideal religious and civil power were to be separated. Thus kings were excluded from making sacrifices (1 Sam 13:9–14). This was also the case with Jewish governance under the Romans, with the dual functions of kings (Herods) and priests being exercised. John 18:36. David Flusser makes this point in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 2.259. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: New Updated Version (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 731. Matt 21:9. See also Psalm 118:25–26. John 7:38. Matt 21:42.