Digging Deeper: Jesus and his Teaching Milieu

Digging Deeper: Jesus and his Teaching Milieu

“We can read the gospels in a new light when we see Jesus as a teacher in this milieu. Like many other Jewish teachers, Jesus gathered to himself disciples who were eager to learn from him. He was consulted on questions of doctrine, and he drew on parables and sayings to inspire righteousness in his disciples.”


The gospels record many encounters between Jesus and other Jewish teachers; such terms as lawyer, scribe, rabbi, and Pharisee describe teachers of Jewish law. But the role of teacher and the place of the law—or Torah—in daily Jewish life was a relatively late development in Judaism.

When the Jews of the southern kingdom were driven into exile, they were cut off from the most tangible expression of their faith – worship at the temple. The exiled community found new strength in clinging to the law that set them apart from their pagan captors. When the exiles began to return home in 445 B.C.E., the study of Torah continued to exert a unifying force on daily life. Before the exile, scribes counted the exposition of the law as only one of many duties that included bookkeeping, letter-writing, and the recording of legal documents. After the exile, these duties took second place to the study and teaching of Torah. Synagogues were built in most villages and cities—Jerusalem probably had many synagogues–where people could gather together to hear the law and its explanation.

Torah Training at the Time of Jesus
In Luke 4:16-21, we see Jesus taking part in such a service centered on the law. A prayer leader–probably a layman—would have begun the service with prayers and blessings. Any adult male, either a member of the synagogue or a guest, could have been invited to read a portion of the Torah aloud.

This male or another would then follow the reading with teaching that interpreted the text. Thus, in the passage in Luke, Jesus reads from Isaiah and then sits to offer a teaching on its meaning.

Most teaching was done by teachers who were laymen, men of the synagogue who worked at a daily trade, such as carpentry or pottery. A teacher who was gifted would gather disciples, who would study with the teacher until perhaps they were ready to gather disciples of their own.

Training in the Torah began for most Jewish boys at about the age of five. Mornings would be spent in a room attached to the synagogue where the boys would learn first the Hebrew alphabet, then words and passages by heart from the Torah. The aim of study at this first stage was memorization of substantial amounts of the Torah, which could then be drawn on for the arguments of more advanced studies.

Perhaps at age ten or so, these advanced studies would begin. A student would now be expected to memorize traditional arguments and judgments, as well as the Torah: when could wood be gathered? when was this prohibited? with what exceptions? Each point of the argument needed to be bolstered with a quotation from scripture.

Distinct Schools of Teachers
Teachers drawn from the different philosophies of Judaism, of course, differed in their teaching methods and contents as well. The Essenes, a quasi-monastic group best known for leaving us the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined their teaching with an ascetic lifestyle. The Zealots, a group that resembled the fighting Maccabeans of old, gathered disciples willing to fight the Roman oppressors as well as study. (Frequently called brigands, they may have included among their numbers Barabbas and the two “thieves” crucified with Jesus.) The Sadducees were the priestly aristocracy; they held a strict interpretation of scripture, only counted the five books of Torah as authoritative, and rejected completely the oral law.

The Pharisees were the best-known teachers of the oral law, and their teaching style shaped Judaism forever. The oral law consisted of interpretations, modifications, and expansions of the written law that had been handed down to make the law applicable to new circumstances. The oral law allowed Judaism to meet the challenge of shaping a code of life based on a primitive agricultural lifestyle to fit the new needs of the centuries. As the oral law itself became codified and written down, it formed the foundations of the modern Talmud.

Adult disciples who gathered around a Pharisee teacher were trained in midrash, the exposition of both the written and the oral law. Midrash could be divided into two different styles of exposition: halachah and haggadah. Halachah was a legal judgment based on the law. Good teachers were expected to be able to settle questions of daily conduct by making such judgments. We can read an example of such an argument in Romans 10:5-9 where Paul argues that faith in Jesus supersedes righteousness based on the law.

Haggadah was a more devotional approach to interpretation, consisting of sayings, stories, lore, parables, and sermons. The book of Hebrews contains many examples of such interpretation, including the Old Testament figures of faith in chapter 11, which the writer uses to exhort the Hebrews to steadfast faith in Jesus. Both styles of teaching depended on a faithful recollection and adherence to tradition. Midrashic teachers did not aim at novelty of doctrine, but fidelity of life.

Seeing Jesus’ Teachings in this Context
We can read the gospels in a new light when we see Jesus as a teacher in this milieu. Like many other Jewish teachers, Jesus gathered to himself disciples who were eager to learn from him. He was consulted on questions of doctrine, and he drew on parables and sayings to inspire righteousness in his disciples.

But the differences in Jesus’ teaching were proclaimed by his listeners in saying that he taught “with authority” (Mt.7:29).

In other words, he was not primarily concerned with biblical interpretation, but with proclamation: the proclamation of the kingdom. He showed himself ready to teach new doctrines and able to back his teaching with power: the power to work miracles, heal illness, and forgive sins. He was—and is— the teacher to whom his disciples could say, “We… have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”


This post comes from Living the Good News which is a lectionary-based curriculum that has been available totally online since the Fall of 2012. 

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