On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus, as an integral member of the culture he lived in, was not only a rabbi with s’mikah, but he also took part in the rabbinic culture of his day, interacting with others in that culture. As such, he was called on to answer a number of questions and to weigh in with his opinions on issues of import to that culture.
Within his culture of early first-century Israel, there were seven primary rabbinic ’schools’ of thought, with followers – talmidim – in each school. These schools were named after the founding rabbi, even if that rabbi was no longer alive. Much like the discussion that goes on in CRN.Info, these schools of thought within Judiasm would debate key questions of theology and practice, often quite heatedly.
At the poles of thought within these schools, the most lenient (or liberal, though not in a modern sense) of the rabbinical schools was the School of Hillel. One of Hillel’s key teachings, recorded in the Talmud, is this:
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.
About ten years after Hillel’s death, Jesus took this concept, building onto it in a positive fashion:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
At the other end of the spectrum, the School of Shammai was the most strict in its interpretations. The remaining five schools of rabbinic thought ranged between these two, Hillel and Shammai, with key nuances – emphases or de-emphases – from the other schools. When Jesus began his ministry near the age of 30, he entered into this context, and as one might expect, he was asked to weigh in on the great debates of the day.
Question and Answer
Within the rabbinic schools, the primary means of debate was ask-assertive conversation rather than the highly expository method in Western/Greek culture. The reason for this is based on the theory that ‘if I tell you what you should believe, the answer you have is my answer. If, however, I ask you questions that lead to the answer, when you arrive at it, the answer will be your answer. As such, if you come into contact with alternative alternative answers, you will be much less likely to abandon the one I taught you.’
I saw this type of â€˜questioningâ€™ in action in Sefat, Israel in 2006 in a small photography shop run by an elderly Rabbi. The artwork in this shop was literally amazing, and one of the men in our group asked the rabbi which of the pieces was his favorite. The conversation then went like this:
Rabbi: May I ask you a question?
Rabbi: Are you married?
Jon: Yes, why?
Rabbi: Do you have children?
Jon: Yes. (pause) Why?
Rabbi: Which of them is your favorite?
And thus, he had his answer. To a westerner like me, it seems that it would have been simpler to say ‘I can’t pick one, because each has something I love’ (or something similar), but that answer would not have been nearly as personal as the one given by the elderly rabbi.
In a similar fashion, much of Jesus’ teaching was in the form of questions and stories rather than simple exposition. On the occasions when we see him interacting with students/adherents to other schools, he uses this technique to point to an answer before giving exposition on the subject, as the answer to his questions often contain the answer he is giving. Also, in many cases where Jesus is being questioned, it is out of an honest attempt to learn his teaching on a subject, not always to trap him.
When Hillel died in 10 A.D., the Shammites took over the Pharisee role within the Sanhedrin and became the primary religious influence in Judea, whereas in the Galilee region, where Jesus lived and was raised, the teachings of Hillel held sway. With this in mind, the pharisees that opposed Jesus we often identified as Judeans (or were located in Jerusalem in Judea), whereas the ones sympathetic to Jesus or his followers (like Gamaliel, Hillel’s grandson) were Gallilean.
According to Josephus and other Jewish records, there were a number of key debates being waged between the rabbinical schools. These included divorce, who is my neighbor, hand-washing, marriage in the afterlife, the greatest commandment, healing on the Sabbath (Shammai taught you shouldn’t even pray for the sick on the Sabbath, let alone heal them!), the purpose of the Sabbath and whether Gentiles could be saved. The animosity shown between the Shammites and the Hillelites are hard to understate, with comparisons to the classic Calvinist/Arminian debate holding similarities, with the Shammites holding to a strict fundamentalist view of scripture and practice and the Hillelites holding to a much more lenient, contextual view which emphasized the balance between love for God and love for your neighbor.
As such, it is interesting that in the eight key debates that Jesus entered, he sided with the School of Hillel – or went even farther than Hillel – in seven and only sided with Shammai in one case (that of when divorce is acceptable).
For instance, in the debate of “who is my neighbor?”, Shammai taught that only God-fearing, observant Jews were ‘neighbors’ (thus, the only ones worthy of love). Hillel, on the other hand, taught that everyone – including one’s enemies – were ‘neighbors’, with the exception of the hated, apostate Samaritans. And so, when Jesus was asked (in the scripture above), “Who is my neighbor?” he entered this debate:
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
It should be noted that the priest and the Levite were both obeying Torah by not touching a dead or nearly-dead body and becoming unclean, so they were following the law, as interpreted by Shammai and other strict rabbinic schools of thought. According to Pharisee teaching, though, all life was sacred and the proper thing to do would have been to stop and help the man or bury him (thus becoming unclean for a time) if he died. A number of commentators suggest that the expert in the Torah was likely expecting Jesus to make the “good guy” a pharisee, thus siding with Hillel on the issue of the importance of life above ritual cleanliness.
Instead, though, Jesus said:
“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” [Note: he couldn't even SAY the word 'Samaritan']
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
And so, Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” was everybody, including the most despised apostate you can think of, going further to the ‘left’ of Hillel.
So, when viewed within the context of his world, this is just one more example where we can get a view into why Jesus was asked certain questions, how he interacted with his world, and some of the political/religious backdrop that ultimately led to his death, burial and resurrection.