Study, Martyrdom, Humble God

1.Michael Fishbane, “Use, Authority and Interpretation of Mikra at Qumran,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 344-345.

Knowledge and study of the Tora of Moses was thus a basic prerequisite for the proper understanding and faithful performance of the commandments. Contemporary Stoics queried about the relative importance of theory and practice; and our early Pharisaic sources show a Jewish adaptation of this topos in the recurrent debates over the relative importance of study (of Tora) and practice (of the commandments). A famous rabbinic resolution of this dilemma was to prefer study, and to say that ‘Tora is (the) great(er), for it leads to practice.’ Such a dilemma would have been resolved quite differently by the Qumran covenanteers. Faced with the question, they would have said that both are ‘great’, but that study of Tora is the greater, for without it there can be no true and proper religious practice. Study of the Tora is thus its correct study and interpretation; and only on this basis can there be legitimate and divinely authorized observance of the commandments.”

I don’t understand what this debate was about. After all, one has to study the law in order to do it, right? Study helps one know what is legal and illegal.

But one way I’ve read the rabbinic passage is that we should keep on studying, since learning about God inspires us to obey him. That’s why I do my daily quiet times, even though I usually don’t live an exemplary Christian lifestyle. Hopefully some of God’s goodness will rub off on me!

What did Jews study when they learned Torah? Probably halakhah–the nuts and bolts of religious practice: what they should do, and what they should not do. But they probably also learned aggadah, the legends that could inspire them. I’m not entirely sure if they learned the reasons for the commandments in the rabbinic period, since I’ve heard that was more of a medieval preoccupation.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 700.

A Stoic philosopher of this name [(Diognetus)] instructed Marcus Aurelius in his youth (about 133)…Perhaps he taught him also to despise the Christian martyrs, and to trace their heroic courage to sheer obstinacy. It is quite probable that our Diognetus was identical with the imperial tutor; for he wished especially to know what enabled these Christians ‘to despise the world and to make light of death.'”

Schaff relates elsewhere that Judaism and Christianity were pretty radical in their conception of the afterlife. According to him, the Greco-Roman culture either didn’t have one, or it had one that didn’t offer much hope.

I think about James Crossley’s book, Why Christianity Happened, which argues that people became Christians because they knew people who were Christians. Some were committed to the faith, and some were not. I agree that social networks played a role in the spread of Christianity, but I have a hard time believing that people just latched onto the Christian movement because of people they knew. The early Christians were willing to die for their beliefs! They had a conception of the afterlife that differed from the predominant one of their culture, yet they believed in it so strongly that they laid down their lives for it.

Christian apologists like to say that the early Christians died for their beliefs because they saw the risen Jesus. That may work for the first century, but what about the subsequent Christian martyrs? Did they rest their beliefs on the eyewitness testimony of those who came before them? Or on the miracles that early Christian literature mentions? Or on the beauty of their religion, which made brothers out of all types and classes of people? Or maybe they were on the low end of the social spectrum, so they assumed they didn’t have much to lose by laying down their lives. “Maybe there really is a good afterlife for us,” they may have thought.

3. “The Nature and Character of God and His Relations with Man,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 30.

“If a pupil is ill, and the teacher goes to visit him, the other pupils go before to announce the coming of the teacher. But when God went to visit Abraham in his illness, He went first, before the angels (Gen. XVIII, 1, 2). Is there anyone more humble than He? (Tanh., Wayera, 2, f. 31b.)”

On this blog, I often buy into Christian stereotypes of Judaism: that it is ritualistic and legalistic. But Judaism is not exactly like Islam, which (in my impression) views God as a righteous, omnipotent autocrat in the sky. Rather, like Christianity, Judaism views God as humble. Actually, Judaism is explicit about this, something Christianity is not, unless you count Philippians 2’s hymn about Christ humbling himself by becoming a human being and going to the cross. There’s a sense in which God exalts himself in Scripture, but he also humbles himself when he suffers indignity and offers numerous chances for people to repent.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Study, Martyrdom, Humble God

  1. FT says:

    Here’s another “new” concept (I speak sarcastically): Judaism also recognized the concept of grace too!


  2. James Pate says:

    I agree, Felix, in the sense that it believed God forgave people who repented. But Judaism also has a lot of emphasis on merit. It tried to find reasons that God chose Abraham or freed Israel from Egypt. For some reason, “grace” wasn’t good enough. The people had to be worthy of God’s goodness, in some sense.


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