Joseph Shulam, Hidden Treasures: the First Century Jewish Way of Understanding the Scriptures. Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry (distr.: Messianic Jewish Publishers)
Joseph Shulam is head of “Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry” in Jerusalem and pastor of a Messianic congregation. For years, he has been working on a series of commentaries on the Jewish roots of the New Testament, using rabbinic sources. In Hidden Treasures he pleads for a hermeneutics that does justice to the Jewish character of the Bible, both Old and New Testament. In the opinion of the author, traditional Christian hermeneutics has been too much defined by the several Christian confessions and ‘Greek thinking’, and therefore often misses the essence of the message of the text. Even many Jews who confess Jesus as Messiah often read the Bible through the same Christian, non-Jewish glasses, according to Shulam. The second part of this book is therefore devoted to “Contemporary Challenges for Messianic Judaism”, the first being the formulating of a Messianic Jewish hermeneutics. In the first part, Shulam gives an introduction into hermeneutics and explains the classical Jewish rules for interpreting Scripture.
He starts with the four levels of meaning or interpretation that are traditionally discerned: p’shat, remez, d’rash, and sod – explained respectively as the plain, literal meaning; the meaning at which the text hints; the associative meaning; and the secret meaning, only understandable for the initiated. The d’rash is reached for example by associating the text with other verses. The four levels of meaning are known by an acronym: PaRDeS. From Antiquity and Church history we know a similar concept of three or four levels. Shulam does not mention that. It would be interesting to compare “Jewish hermeneutics” with classical Christian on this point. Can you still maintain that spiritualizing or allegorizing is a “Greek method”, whereby ‘Greek’ apparently has a pejorative connotation? Not that I would plead for spiritualization or allegory – I only want to indicate that Greek and Jewish thinking sometimes are too easily seen as opposed against each other. The same counts for the Greek or Western conception of truth as supposedly opposed to the oriental. In general though, we can say that the method of pardes, even if associations reach high skies, never completely forsakes the p’shat, the plain, literal meaning.
Shulam continues by discussing the seven rules which are ascribed to Hillel the Elder (60 BCE – 20 AD), and which therefore were used in the times of Jesus and the apostles. These rules are mainly meant for the production of halachah, in other words, to apply the Biblical prescriptions to everyday life. Shulam illustrates them with texts from the New Testament, with quite some examples from the Letter to the Hebrews.
Finally, he discusses the method of hekkesh, which Jesus several times applies in the Sermon on the Mount. Shulam shows for example that the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in the Torah and Jewish tradition never was taken literally, as much Christian exegesis would take for granted, and that Jesus agrees with traditional Jewish interpretation.
It becomes really exciting in part two: “Contemporary Challenges for Messianic Judaism”. Here he describes the principles for a Messianic Jewish hermeneutics. That is not only important to Jews who believe in Jesus, but also for gentile Christians. For in that way the New Testament is read again in its original Jewish context.
Starting point for Shulam is that hermeneutics should be the tools to do God’s work among people. He writes: “God saves through grace. Yet, salvation is not the only thing God wants with us.” Redemption in Jesus does not annul the Torah, but enables people to obey the commandments. The question that I feel is not answered is, to what extent gentile Christians are called to live according to the Torah.
Interesting is Shulam’s exegesis of Matthew 16:19. The power of the keys that is given to Peter, refers to the authority the apostles receive to take halachic decisions that are binding in heaven and on earth. In this context he pleads for a far reaching acceptance and recognition of the traditional halacha of orthodox Judaism.
In this respect Shulam also points to the fundamental importance of the unity of the Jewish people, which is based in het Torah. At the same time he desires to prevent estrangement from non-Jewish Christians by a well-considered theology. His book is meant to provide a kind of programme to this end.