Is Rabbinic literature pertinent for New Testament studies? Rabbinic literature is a body of texts composed by Jewish sages who examined the written scripture in light of the oral Torah.[1] It can be divided into three parts: texts focused on the law, texts dedicated to the theology and exposition of the Old Testament, and texts containing sayings from ancient sages.[2] The consistent points of intersection between Rabbinic and New Testament literature offer a fuller perspective on ancient Christianity and bear witness to its relevance for the study of the New Testament. Two points of intersection that will be discussed in this essay are typological figures and axiomatic truths.

One typological figure that is used in both Rabbinic literature as well as the New Testament is Samuel (Babylonian Berakoth, Palestinian Hagigah, Tanhuma on Numbers, Luke 2, Acts 3, Heb 11). In both bodies of literature, Samuel is an archetypical figure and his wisdom, favor, and obedience are highlighted (Babylonian Berakoth and Luke 2). Moreover, just as Samuel is used as a model to be imitated in Rabbinic literature, in the New Testament Luke connects Jesus to Samuel by ascribing qualities to him that were attributed to Samuel.[3] Other shared typological figures include Moses (Mishna Pesahim, Exodus Rabbah, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, Palestinian Taanith, Deuteronomy Rabbah, Mekhilta on Exodus, Matt 2, 13, 16, Mark 6, Luke 4, John 4), Adam (Genesis Rabbah, Sipre Deuteronomy, Ad Autolycum, I Cor 12, 15, Rom 5), and Elijah (Targum Psalms, Babylonian Pesahim, Midrash Psalms, Babylonian Shabbath, Mark 11, Matt 21, Luke 19, John 12).

An axiomatic truth that is employed in both Rabbinic and New Testament literature is the truism, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (Derekh Eretz Rabbah and Rom 12). While there is some difference between these bodies of literature (in Derekh Eretz Rabbah the axiom is stated negatively: “A man should not be joyful among the weeping nor weep among the joyful”), the similarities are undeniable. Further, the Rabbinic use of this axiom is particularly helpful for the study of the New Testament, since there is question among commentators whether Paul is using this axiom to refer to those inside or outside the community.[4] Being aware of the Rabbinic use of this axiom is informative because it refers to the treatment of those outside the community.[5] Other examples of shared axiomatic truths within Rabbinic and New Testament literature are, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country” (Exodus Rabbah and Matthew 13, Mark 6, Luke 4) and “God is revealed through creation” (Genesis Rabbah and Romans 1).

An examination of Rabbinic literature is important for the study of the New Testament. Although much of this body of literature post-dates the New Testament and must be approached with prudence, there are many reasons it should be examined. A few of these are that it provides the New Testament exegete a point of comparison and contrast for both typological figures and axiomatic truths used in the New Testament.

  1. So Jacob Neusner, Rabbinic Literature: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abington Press, 2005), 2; H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 36; Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), xxii–xxiii; Chaim Milikowsky, “The Status Quaestionis of Research in Rabbinic Literature”, The Journal of Jewish Studies 39, no. 2 (Autumn 1988): 208–9.  ↩

  2. So Neusner, Rabbinic Literature, 2–3. Other scholars divide the literature into narrower categories. However, these categories still generally fit within the broader categories listed above. See Eyal Ben-Eliyahu, Yehudah Cohn, and Fergus Millar, Handbook of Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity, 135–700 CE (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). A few of the texts focus on the law, including: the Mishnah; the Tosefta and the two Talmuds. Some of the works within Rabbinic literature committed to the theology and exposition of the Old Testament consist of the following: Genesis Rabbah; Leviticus Rabbah; Pesiqta deRab Kahana; Lamentations Rabbah; Song of Songs Rabbah; Ruth Rabbah; and Esther Rabbah I. Two significant works from the third part of Rabbinic literature are the Tracate Abot (The Fathers) and the Abot deRabbi Natan (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan). See Ben-Eliyahu, Handbook, 23–60; 61–93, 126–38; 96–110, 140–53 and Neusner, Rabbinic Literature, 8–18; 19–73; 74–120.  ↩

  3. So David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1956), 13–16.  ↩

  4. So C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979), 2:628–29. ; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 756–57.  ↩

  5. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, 341–46.  ↩