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Hermeneutics: The Rhabbi As An Exegetical Escort

"...I, THEREFORE, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to WALK in a manner
Worthy of the calling With which you have been called,...' Ephesians 4:1

Paul was a Rhabbi. He thought like a Rhabbi. He taught like a Rhabbi. He wrote like a Rhabbi. He lived his life like a Rhabbi. No one doubts this. No scholar claims that Paul’s conversion to the Lord suddenly altered his way of thinking so that Paul became a Greek philosopher or theologian. No, Paul was a Jewish Rhabbi through and through. He was a Rhabbi who believed that Yeshua/Jesus was the Messiah.

This fact is immensely important when it comes to understanding what Paul writes in his letters. If we ignore his Rhabbinic background, we are like to make assumptions about his words that do not fit the context of a teaching Rhabbi. Let me give you just one small example and then you can see for yourself what this might imply.

Abraham Cohen wrote a book called Everyman’s Talmid. It is a collection of topics from the vast literature of the Talmid, the written rhabbinic discussion of the Torah [God's Teaching and Instruction] and other Jewish literature. In his introduction, Cohen makes the following point about the way that rhabbis taught (this may seem to be a rather long quotation, but you need to realize what’s happening here).

“The miscellaneous material which constitutes the subject-matter of the Talmid is divisible into two main categories known as Halachah and Haggadah. The former denotes ‘WALKING,’ and indicates the way of life to tread in conformity with the precepts of the Torah.” This is essentially “practical religion, the doing of right actions for the service of God and man.”

“But it is impossible to separate the Halachah from the other main constituent, the Haggadah, without creating a distorted picture of Rhabbinic teaching. The Haggadah was the concern of the same teachers who pondered over the technicalities of the Halachah.”

“Haggadah (Narration), therefore, signifies the non-legal sections of Rhabbinic literature, and is equally important as the other for a correct understanding of the world of thought which generations of teachers lovingly evolved.”

“Whereas the Halachah remained the law to be observed in practice until it was abrogated by a competent authority, Haggadah was always held to be nothing more than the personal opinion (doxa )of the teacher. It possesses no binding force upon the community as a whole or any part of it.”

Did you get that? Since Paul taught in Rhabbinic fashion, and his audience was quite used to Rhabbinic teaching, that means that Paul undoubtedly used the same Rhabbinic techniques: Halachah and Haggadah. Some of his teaching was the explanation of practical religion based on Torah and some of it was simply his personal opinion, not binding on the community. We know that Paul used these two techniques because in some places he actually says that he does. But what we have not generally appreciated is that he is doing this all the time, moving back and forth between God's Teaching and Instruction based on Torah commentary and personal opinion and suggestion. His audience would not have been shocked at all. This is exactly what they expected of a Rhabbi.

In this verse you see Paul using Halachah. “I ENTREAT YOU TO WALK'” he says. That’s a clear indicator that he is explaining practical steps in relation to Torah living. That’s exactly what follows in the next verse. Every one of the next five actions comes right from Torah. But not all of Paul’s writings are Halachah. Some are Haggadah. The difference is absolutely crucial, because if we start thinking that everything Paul says is binding, we make the mistake of not understanding him as a Rhabbi. Paul is still today is an excellent exegetical escort, who leads us to the throne of Grace.

Now, go read those passages about marriage, women, submission and humility again.

KEYWORDS: Halachah, Haggadah, entreat, Ephesians 4:1, Rabbi, Paul, walk

Renew Your Mind: Psalms 1:1 (Amplified Bible) BLESSED (HAPPY, fortunate, prosperous, and enviable) is the man who WALKS and LIVES not in the counsel of the ungodly [following their advice, their plans and purposes], nor stands [submissive and inactive] in the path where sinners walk, nor sits down [to relax and rest] where the scornful [and the mockers] gather.

John 1:29 (Amplified Bible) The next day JOHN saw Jesus coming to him and said, Look! There is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:40-41 (Amplified Bible) One of the two who heard what John said and followed Jesus was ANDREW, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first sought out and found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found (discovered) the Messiah!—which translated is the Christ (the Anointed One).

Galatians 3:24 (Amplified Bible) So that the LAW served [to us Jews] as our trainer [our guardian, our guide to Christ, to lead us] until Christ [came], that we might be justified (declared righteous, put in right standing with God) by and through faith.

(Titus 2:15-3:3 NRSV) Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you. Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Book-of the Month: Doctrine That Dances [Bring Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life], Dr. Robert Simth, Jr, 2008, B&H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee  

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