As we have learned previously, a disciple is to learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations. Let me begin with a saying from the sages:
“Be meticulous in study, for a careless misinterpretation is considered tantamount to willful transgression.” (m.Avot 4.16)
While this seems rather harsh, I assure you that by the end of this teaching we will understand its truth and significance. With this in mind, I would like to begin to specifically focus on the importance of properly understanding the teachings of Yeshua. In order to understand the gravity of this, let us first turn our ears to the words of our Master. In the gospel record of Mark, Yeshua says:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25 ESV).
In this passage, Yeshua holds his followers accountable for the teachings he is giving them. He tells them that the more diligent they are about understanding his teachings, the more they will be rewarded. He also tells them the converse — that if they are not diligent in regard to understanding his teachings, even what they do comprehend will be taken away.
The Macaroni Principle
A few years ago D. Thomas Lancaster, of First Fruits of Zion, introduced what he called The Macaroni Principle. It’s based on the children’s song Yankee Doodle. I’m sure you know it. The first part of the song goes like this:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni
This song’s popularity arose from the American Revolution. Each of us grew up singing this song, but how many of us understand the words? There’s always that question in the back of our heads as to why this man named Yankee Doodle would stick a feather in his hat and name it after some kind of pasta. This song has been passed down to each generation over the last two centuries, yet today the meaning has been lost to the average person. But just like the words of our Master, it has been retained, however, for those seeking to understand it.
First, “Yankee Doodle” was not the name of an individual. We still understand that a “Yankee” is a person from the (now) United States, particularly of the northern colonies during the writing of this song. A “doodle,” however, is no longer in our language. But during this time period, a “doodle” was a word that was derived from the German word for “fool” or “simpleton.” Lastly, the term “macaroni” in this case has absolutely nothing to do with pasta. Rather, it has to do with a manner of dress style. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as, “an 18th-century British dandy (a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance) affecting Continental fashions.” With this information available, the lyrics of this song take on a whole new understanding.
If the meanings of these words in English have changed that much in just the last two centuries, how much more so have they changed from the time of our Master until now? If this simple children’s song needs unpacking, how much more so do the words of our Master, being distanced from us by way of language, culture and two thousand years?
Another example that I enjoy making use of can be seen in the classic film, The Princess Bride. In the movie, Vizzini (the short, loud-mouthed Sicilian “master criminal”), uses the catch-phrase, “Inconceivable!”, over and over when something doesn’t go as planned. He uses it more for “impossible” than “unimaginable.” At one point where something hasn’t gone as planned and he responds again with “Inconceivable!”, Inigo Montoya (the Spanish swordsman in the film), challenges him saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Albeit comical in nature, this infamous interjection in many ways parallels the typical use of the teachings of the New Testament in our present day. Many of us are quoting the words of Jesus in our teaching and preaching — talking a lot of “macaroni” — but do we really know what they mean? Let me give you a humorous example to illustrate my point.
Misunderstanding the Message
First, I’ll have to confess. I’m a closet Doctor Who fan, particularly the newer series. While at times it can be over the top, I really appreciate the insights into the human psyche, and the British humor that fills each episode. One episode of particular note was about a spaceship called the Titanic, filled with a host of inter-galactic creatures that was on a “cruise” to visit planet Earth. They had timed their arrival to correspond with the Christmas holidays (the writers of Doctor Who always seem to have universal calamity pivoting around Christmas). As they begin to approach the planet and are preparing for sending passengers to the planet in order to observe the holidays in Earth tradition, the ship historian has to give them a briefing about the Earth customs surrounding the holiday. This is his explanation of Christmas:
“Human beings worship the great god Santa — a creature with fearsome ‘claws’ — and his wife, Mary. And every Christmas eve the people of UK go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner like savages!”
While this is a humorous description, it reveals a deep insight into human nature as well as serves as an illustration for how understanding can easily be distorted over the course of time. Think about it this way. If we were to set a course from Virginia to California and start walking in a straight line, but not have any points of reference along the way, over the course of days, weeks and months of walking there would we no way we could continue our straight path. We would inevitably walk in circles, backtracking and crisscrossing our path, never to arrive at our destination. As a matter of fact, it has been shown in several studies starting in the 1920s, that when human beings lose their frame of reference, they tend to walk in random, circular patterns. A recent report on this by NPR says,
“Humans, apparently, slip into circles when we can’t see an external focal point, like a mountain top, a sun, a moon. Without a corrective, our insides take over and there’s something inside us that won’t stay straight.”
With these two examples in mind, think of how for the last two thousand years the message of Yeshua has been carried through multiple cultures and languages, theologies and agendas. Do you think our understanding of his original message has been skewed over the last two thousand years? Are we saying all the right words, but missing the proper meaning entirely? In our attempts to propagate the teachings of our Master, are we saying, “inconceivable” when we are trying to say “faith” or “repentance” or “kingdom of Heaven”? Are we teaching and preaching the words of our Master in a way that would have been foreign to his understanding? Unfortunately, this is how many people, theologians included, talk about Jesus and his message. They use the jargon, but they don’t fully understand what they are saying. Dr. Brad Young makes an interesting observation in this regard by saying,
“While few modern Christians would resort to changing the words of their Bible, they interpret the words of Jesus in a way that upholds their understanding… Prejudiced exegesis can have the same result as altering the canonical text.”
To paraphrase, he says that when we do injustice to the teachings of our Master, it can have the same result as re-writing our Bibles. Really? Let’s look at two real-life examples in which this took place. The first example is from one of the early Church Fathers. The second example is from rabbinic tradition.
Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria was a Church Father who lived from the late second century to the mid third century. He was a notable philosopher and theologian and became an influential Christian writer and apologist of his day. One of the more prominent teachings for which he is known is his emphasis on understanding the Scriptures through the lens of allegory. In fact, his stress of looking at the Scriptures allegorically overshadowed any literal or historical understanding of Scripture. Unfortunately, his influence in this area of interpretation has continued to affect modern theologians in their understanding of the biblical text, particularly of the Hebrew Scriptures.
He did take some things quite literally, however. In fact, too literally. Upon studying Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 19:12, he took drastic measures to uphold this teaching. Yeshua said,
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Origen’s understanding of this teaching lead to his castrating himself. Say it with me: “Inconceivable!”
Antigonus of Socho
Another example of misapplication through misunderstanding is the origin of the sects of the Sadducees and of the Boethusians (a lesser-known Jewish sect of the Second Temple period).
There is a famous teaching of Antigonus of Socho recorded for us in the Mishnah which appears as follows:
“Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you” (Avot 1:3).
Antigonus of Socho lived a couple of hundred years before the time of Yeshua. He was a godly and faithful teacher who wished to impress upon his students the value of sincere spiritual devotion. His first generation of students appears to have understood his message. However, in subsequent generations, his message was subject to hyper-literalism (not unlike the modern Karaite movement of today) and was thus distorted and for many more generations became the antithesis of his original message. Here’s the full account.
“Antigonus of Soko had two disciples who used to study his words. They taught them to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples. These proceeded to examine the words closely and demanded: ‘Why did our ancestors see fit to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer should do his work all day and not take his reward in the evening? If our ancestors, forsooth, had known that there is another world and that there will be a resurrection of the dead, they would not have spoken in this manner.’
So they arose and withdrew from the Torah and split into two sects, the Sadducees and the Boethusians: Sadducees named after Zadok, Boethusians, after Boethus. And they used silver vessels and gold vessels all their lives—not because they were ostentatious; but the Sadducess said, ‘It is a tradition amongst the Pharisees to afflict themselves in this world; yet in the world to come they will have nothing.’ ”
According to Jewish tradition, two latter-generation disciples of Antigonus of Socho, Tzadok and Boethus, were the founders of the sects of the Sadducees and Boethusians. They founded their heretical sects based on a misunderstanding of this seminal teaching of their rabbi. They turned the teaching of their rabbi completely on its head. As we know, the purpose of Antigonus of Socho’s maxim was to teach his disciples to serve the Holy One selflessly and without a need for reward. He wanted them to be faithful servants who fulfill their spiritual service under any circumstance, rather than only when they are rewarded for their service.
What was the practical result of this? Because the message of Antigonus of Socho was misunderstood, hedonism became common practice among the Sadducean sect, as well as social elitism, a “caste-like” system that was developed to separate the rich from the poor. Hedonism—since there was no reward in the Age to Come, all rewards must be received and enjoyed in this life. Social elitism—since the wealthy were surely blessed and favored by God and the poor were wicked sinners.
Bringing It Home
Many people today, and throughout the course of the last two millennia, have heard the teachings of Yeshua, and have incorporated them into their spiritual journey as a treasured possession. But how many thousands upon thousands over the course of this time have either not understood them, or misunderstood them. This is the equivalent of being stranded on a deserted island with crates full of canned food and a can-opener, and not knowing how to use the can-opener.
As we have seen by the examples of Origen of Alexandria and of the disciples of Antigonus of Socho, it is not enough to merely know the literal words of one’s teacher. One must be able to also understand them properly as well. Otherwise, misapplication and misinterpretation will be inherent. Ann Spangler explains, saying:
“Since any good disciple needs to understand what the master is saying, clarifying Jesus’ words is a necessary preliminary step to living out his commands.”
Beyond merely knowing the teachings of our Master (as we discussed in the section of memorization), this is indeed the “preliminary step to living out his commands.” And although Christianity has done well to retain an accurate record of the Master’s teachings, we have not done so well by way of transmitting his interpretations. This, in turn, has affected our application of his teachings.
It is our job as disciples of Yeshua to seek an accurate understanding of Yeshua’s teachings so that we will ultimately fulfill them in the proper manner. This follows Paul’s admonition to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). But how do we do so? The first step is to use the proper filter to approach his teachings. There have to be certain assumptions that we must either accept or reject to establish as a foundation before we can approach the individual teachings of our Master. This will be the basis for our next lesson, Understanding the Message of Yeshua. In it I will give specific examples of how we have traditionally misunderstood the message of Yeshua, and how we can seek to better understand his teachings.