Yeshua: The Living Torah

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following is an article that I originally wrote for HebrewRoot.com over ten years ago. Since I have recently received some inquiries about it and am no longer affiliated with HebrewRoot or its host ministry, I thought it best that I reproduce it here. I’ve cleaned up a few typos and made a few alterations (mostly replacing a picture too closely affiliated with my previous ministry), but for the most part I have left the article as-is, meaning that it has quite a few more Hebraisms than my more recent work. Hopefully that won’t cause any confusion.

In the opening verses of his Gospel account, the Apostle Yochanan (John) makes a statement that has been a source of both inspiration and debate for the last twenty centuries:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-5, 14, ESV)

But what exactly does Yochanan mean when he calls Messiah the Word, the Logos (Λογος) of God?  The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary hits very close to the mark, saying, “He who is to God what man’s word is to himself, the manifestation or expression of himself to those without him.”  Or as Sha’ul (Paul) writes in Col. 1:15 (CJB), “He [Yeshua] is the visible image of the invisible God.”

So far so good, but there seems to be a deeper meaning to Yochanan’s choice of introductions here.  The idea of the Word, or Memra in the Aramaic, of God as an almost independent attribute was known to the rabbis of the Apostolic era and afterwards, and this has long been noted by Christian commentators.  Thus, for example, Barnes[i] notes,

This term was in use before the time of John.

(a)  It was used in the Aramaic translation of the Old Testament, as, “e. g.,” Isa. 45:12; “I have made the earth, and created man upon it.” In the Aramaic it is, “I, ‘by my word,’ have made,” etc. Isa. 48:13; “mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth.” In the Aramaic, “‘By my word’ I have founded the earth.” And so in many other places.

(b)  This term was used by the Jews as applicable to the Messiah. In their writings he was commonly known by the term “Mimra” – that is, “Word;” and no small part of the interpositions of God in defense of the Jewish nation were declared to be by “the Word of God.” Thus, in their Targum on Deu. 26:17-18, it is said, “Ye have appointed the word of God a king over you this day, that he may be your God.”

Lightfoot[ii] concurs, adding other examples from the Targums (Aramaic translations of the Tanakh), including this example from Exo. 19:17, “And Moses brought the people out of the camp לקדמות מימרא ד” to meet the Word of the Lord.”  Stern writes that memra was “a technical theological term used by the rabbis in the centuries before and after Yeshua when speaking of God’s expression of himself.”[iii]  It seems likely that Yochanan, who being from Galilee, an area where Aramaic rather than Hebrew was the common tongue, would have likely known the Tanakh first of all from the Targums, and that it was from seeing how the Memra (מימרא) was used in the Targums to describe the part of the Eternal One whom the people could “meet,” came to understand this Word to be one and the same with the Messiah Immanuel, God-With-Us.

In the Beginning . . .

TorahScrollBut there is still a deeper meaning to Yochanan’s choice of words.  To the Jews of that era, not yet having chapter and verse divisions by which to reference passages in the Tanakh, quoting even part of a sentence sufficed to call the whole passage to mind.  Thus, by using the phrase, “In the beginning,” Yochanan is guaranteeing that his audience will automatically call to mind the first words of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  (Yeshua was not only there at the beginning, creating all things, but His Coming brings about a new beginning as well.)

The Midrash (Beresheit [Genesis] Rabbah 1:1) notes that just as each of the books of Torah is called by (according to their Hebrew names) the first significant word that appears in the book, so the whole of Torah, being one book can also be called by the first significant word that appears in the whole text:  Reisheit (Beginning).  Therefore, according to the Midrash, the first sentence can also be read, “In/With the Torah, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Indeed, the rabbis have long believed that God created the universe with the very letters of the Torah:

Said R. Judah said Rab, “Bezalel knew how to join together the letters by which the heaven and the earth were made. Here it is written, ‘And he has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge’ (Eze. 35:31), and elsewhere it is written, ‘The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding he established the heavens’ (Pro. 3:19), and it is written, ‘By his knowledge the depths were broken up’ (Pro. 3:20).” (b. Berakhot 55a)

“Ah,” one might object, “but that’s just rabbinic superstition, not Scripture.”  And we might agree, except that Yochanan uses very similar terms to describe the Messiah, and as we will see the early Ekklesia did as well.  This means that both Messiah and the Torah would be identified as the Word by which God created the universe, which would make the Messiah and the Torah one!

Such an idea must surely seem radical to a faith that is used to reflexively portraying Christ and the Law as in opposition to each other!  After all, doesn’t John 1:17 say, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”?  Indeed it does!  But as we have demonstrated in numerous articles, there is no true opposition between accepting God’s grace and being Torah-observant.  And if this idea of identifying Yeshua HaMashiach with the Torah is correct, then certainly all theology which depends upon this idea of enmity between Grace and Law must be radically rewritten, for how could the Messiah be in enmity with Himself?  And how could He have come to free us from Himself?

Therefore, let us turn carefully and prayerfully to the Scriptures, seeking to understand them as their Apostolic students did, and see if this possibility that the Messiah Himself is the Living Torah, the very embodiment of the Torah, stands on solid ground.

Hypostatic Wisdom

In synagogues all over the world, the following liturgy is recited when the Torah is returned to the ark (the container which holds the Torah):

It is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of it, and those who support it are happy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.  Bring us back to you, O LORD, and we will come; renew our days as of old.

The first line is a direct quote from Proverbs 3:18, which goes on to say in the next verse, “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth . . .”  Now, on the surface, it may be objected that this passage is referring to Wisdom, not to the Torah.  Let us put that aside for a moment and look at the relationship of the Messiah to this personified Wisdom.  Apologist J.P. Holding writes in Jesus: God’s Wisdom,

The background with Wisdom Christology is found in the concept of hypostasis. What is a hypostasis? Broadly defined, it is a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity, occupying an intermediate position between personalities and abstract beings…

Technically speaking, hypostasis is not restricted to the attributes of a deity.  It literally means “that which lies beneath,” and is used of such mundane things as the sediment that settles at the bottom of a river or the foundation standing beneath a house.  It could also refer to one’s plan or purpose (which “stood beneath” one’s actions as a foundation), and came to mean the “substantial nature,” “substance,” or “essential reality” of an object.  It was the actual reality which “stood beneath” the image one might see in a mirror.  (See here for a lexicon’s definition.)  Readers familiar with classical descriptions of the Trinity are probably already familiar with the phrase “hypostatic union,” in which the essential reality of God and the essential reality of Man are explained to have come together in one essence in the Person of Yeshua.

In regard to deities, their attributes were given a hypostasis, an essential reality, all their own for literary and philosophical purposes, so that the attribute could be seen as almost an independent entity, yet finding its source in and emanating from the god.  So it was with God’s Wisdom—and with Yeshua HaMashiach, God’s Word.  Holding, citing the same Targum as found in Lightfoot above, notes, “This conception of Wisdom parallels a less significant, general Jewish explanation of how a transcendent God could participate in a temporal creation” (ibid.).  He adds:

N.T. Wright observes in Who Was Jesus? [48-9] that Jewish monotheism “was never, in the Jewish literature of the crucial period, an analysis of the inner being of God, a kind of numerical statement about, so to speak, what God was like on the inside.” Rather, it was “always a polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations.” Rabbis of Jesus’ time had no difficulty in personifying separate aspects of God’s personality – His Wisdom, His Law (Torah), His Presence (Shekinah), and His Word (Memra), for example. This division had the philosophical purpose of “get(ting) around the problem of how to speak appropriately of the one true God who is both beyond the created world and active within it.”

With this we agree completely, though with the added explanation that God’s Torah, His Presence,[iv] and His Word are all found in one unique person in history.  Such an understanding of Yeshua’s nature explains how He can be both “God-With-Us” and yet subordinate to (e.g., John 5:19 & 8:28) and emanating from (e.g., Heb. 1:5) the Father.  Just as our words which we speak are the “image” of who we truly are (Mat. 12:34), Yeshua is the perfect image of God, reflecting His true nature, expressing His perfect mind and will.  One might say that the Father is the Will of God, Yeshua the Word that He speaks, and the Spirit is the Breath that carries the Word forth.[v]

In developing his argument, Holding cites both the Tanakh and the apocryphal books of the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach to demonstrate the union between the Apostolic conception of Yeshua and the Jewish conception of Wisdom:

The Word was in the beginning (John 1:1)
Wisdom was in the beginning (Prov. 8:22-23, Sir. 1:4, Wis. 9:9)

The Word was with God (John 1:1)
Wisdom was with God (Prov. 8:30, Sir. 1:1, Wis. 9:4)

The Word was cocreator (John 1:1-3)
Wisdom was cocreator (Prov. 3:19, 8:25; Is. 7:21, 9:1-2)

The Word provides light (John 1: 4, 9)
Wisdom provides light (Prov. 8:22, Wis. 7:26, 8:13; Sir. 4:12)

Word as light in contrast to darkness (John 1:5)
Wisdom as light in contrast to dark ness (Wis. 7:29-30)

The Word was in the world (John 1:10)
Wisdom was in the world (Wis. 8:1,  Sir. 24:6)

The Word was rejected by its own (John 1:11)
Wisdom was rejected by its own (Sir. 15:7)

The Word was received by the faithful (John 1:12)
Wisdom was received by the faithful ( Wis. 7:27)

Christ is the bread of life (John 6:35)
Wisdom is the bread or substance of life (Prov. 9:5, Sir. 15:3, 24:21, 29:21; Wis. 11:4)

Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12)
Wisdom is light (Wis. 7:26-30, 18:3-4)

Christ is the door of the sheep and the good shepherd (John 10:7, 11, 14)
Wisdom is the door and the good shepherd (Prov. 8:34-5, Wis. 7:25-7, 8:2-16; Sir. 24:19-22)

Christ is life (John 11:25)
Wisdom brings life (Prov. 3:16, 8:35, 9:11; Wis. 8:13)

Christ is the way to truth (John 14:6)
Wisdom is the way (Prov. 3:17, 8:32-34; Sir. 6:26)

Holding is not alone in his argument.  This same identification of Messiah and Wisdom was utilized by many of the early Christian apologists in their arguments, as Skarsaune demonstrates:

When Justin [Martyr] calls Christianity the true philosophy and as a Christian missionary wears the cloak of a philosopher, he is steeped in the most profound Greek understanding of the task of philosophy.  The striking thing about Justin is not a Hellenistic definition of Christianity but his loftiest Jewish definition of philosophy!

Justin paints this overall picture of the incarnate Christ: As God’s own Wisdom and Logos, Christ was a co-worker in creating the world and the human race. . . [I]n Christ, the Wisdom and Logos of God became a human being.[vi]

Torah: The True Wisdom

By the “loftiest Jewish definition of philosophy,” Skarsaune refers to the Jewish answer to Greek philosophy.  As Paul notes, “Greeks search for wisdom” (1 Co. 1:22)—philosophy had become the religion of the western world, with men seeking to know and understand the cosmos and man’s place in it by pure reason.

Thus Greek philosophy contended that it had insight into the ground of being of one’s existence and insisted that it had discovered a universal ethic applicable to all people.  A Jew who followed the commandments in the Decalog must have appeared very peculiar and different to Greek philosophers.  In fact, we have evidence that many Jews themselves in the Intertestamental Period found the Law an ever increasing problem, because it isolated them from their environment and was difficult to substantiate philosophically.

This was the challenge to which the authors of the Book of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon directed their attention.  It also explains why the apocryphal Book of Wisdom was so important to them.  To these authors, the “general plan” from which the world was created, the “world reason” which constituted the foundation of law in the world and which gave rules for the good life was none other than the Wisdom of God. . .  To make sure that it wasn’t a question of any kind of wisdom but rather the Wisdom of the only true God who alone could dispense it, both authors identify this Wisdom with the Law.[vii]

It is not difficult to see how effective this Jewish answer was to the challenge of Hellenism.  Israel’s election and subsequent history, the commandments and regulations which make her a holy people, unique and different from all other people, are not strange, odd, or unreasonable, but are derived from the same Wisdom who is the architect and artist in the work of creation.[viii]

In Sirach and in the Wisdom of Solomon, we see only the beginning of an initial identification of Wisdom and the Law.  It would become more pronounced as time went on, and in later rabbinic theology the roles would be reversed, with Law replacing Wisdom as the dominant concept.  But, without question, this early identification of Wisdom and Law left permanent impressions in the rabbinic understanding of law.  The Law was thought of as being preexistent, as an agent of creation and the primal plan according to which the world was created.  All of these are motifs earlier associated with Wisdom.[ix]

It was in this environment that the Apostles penned the Renewed Covenant (or New Testament).  Later Christian writers de-emphasized the link between Wisdom and the Torah, instead identifying Him with the commandments of a supposedly new “Law of Christ,” but to the Apostles, who scrupulously kept Torah even to the point of taking voluntary Nazrite vows and making the requisite sacrifices (Acts 21:20ff), the Incarnate Wisdom of God could only be identified with the Torah, the revealed will and commandments of the Eternal Creator.

A Kosher Torah

Luxembourg_City_Synagogue_Torah_ark

A kosher Torah scroll is made of lambskin on which the Word of God has been written, which is impaled on two rollers of wood which the rabbis refer to as the Etz Chaim, or Tree of Life.  It is then “dressed” in a beautiful mantle and adorned with a breastplate representing the breastplate of the Cohen HaGadol (High Priest). Finally, a crown or pair of finials representing crowns are set on the top of the Etz, representing the crowns of a king.

Now what is the Messiah?  He is the Word of God (John 1:1) in the form of the Lamb (v. 36), impaled on two pieces of wood (the Cross) which are to us a Tree of Life (cf. Gal. 3:13f).  He was then robed in glory (Rev. 1:13), given the role of our great High Priest (Heb. 7-10), and crowned with many crowns (Rev. 19:12).

We in the Messianic movement didn’t make up this way of dressing a kosher Torah scroll; this is the way the rabbis have dressed theirs for thousands of years.  Even in the traditions of the Jewish people, traditions that they could not possibly have realized pointed to the Messiah, we see Yeshua’s identity as the Living Torah, of which the written Torah is only a reflection, confirmed.

Conclusion

We have seen that even non-Messianic writers have understood Yeshua’s identity as God’s Word and Wisdom, and how this impacts our understanding of His Deity and the Trinity.  But we now also understand that to the 1 st Century Jewish mind, the Word and Wisdom of God were also identified as His Torah, the teachings and commandments given to His Chosen People at Mt. Sinai.

If Yeshua is indeed the Living Torah, how can putting our trust in Him and keeping the Torah’s commandments be in opposition to each other?  And how can we believe that He came to abolish the Torah, even by fulfilling it?  That would amount to saying that He came to do away with Himself or to free us from Himself.  And finally, how can we believe that He came to replace the “old law” with a new “law of Christ”?  That would amount to saying that God changes.

“The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psa. 19:7).  This hasn’t changed, nor could it, for it is and always has been Yeshua who is perfect, who brings repentance to the soul, who is sure, and who makes wise the simple.

Shalom!

[i] Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, John 1:1, available on e-Sword (v. 7.8.5), edited by Rick Meyers

[ii] John Lightfoot, A Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 3 (Hendrickson 2003), p. 238

[iii] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (JNTP, 1989), p. 154

[iv] The word Sh’khinah is of Chaldee (Aramaic) origin, but comes from the same root as the Hebrew sukkah and Greek skenoo (see John 1:14), a dwelling-place or tent. In rabbinic literature it is thought to be the place where the transcendent God enters into a specific point of space and time to dwell with His people—first in the Tabernacle, later in the Temple, and (in our belief) finally in the Person of the Messiah Yeshua.

[v] Special thanks to Rabbi Gavri’el Moreno-Bryars, who first taught me this idea.

[vi] Oskar Skarsaune, Incarnation: Myth or Fact? translated by Trygve R. Skarsten, (Concordia 1991), p. 69

[vii] Ibid., p. 30, emphasis mine

[viii] Ibid., p. 31

[ix] Ibid., pp. 32-33

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