Pirkei Avot 1:13 — Messianic Commentary

Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.

Rabbi Hillel is one of the most famous rabbis of the Second Temple period. He lived during late first century prior to the common era through the childhood years of Yeshua. He was originally from Babylon, but came to settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) around the age of forty. He took up residence in the Galilee and came to establish his own rabbinic school, known as Beit Hillel (The House of Hillel), which became the dominant rabbinic school of thought at the end of the Second Temple period. Since his life briefly overlaps that of Yeshua’s and his ministry being located in the Galilee, as well as the fact that nearly all of his teachings align with Yeshua’s, many have suggested that Hillel could have possibly served as a mentor for Yeshua in his childhood. Another New Testament connection and well known fact is that Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin during Paul’s life. These are some of the words of this great sage…

“He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name.”

If this is true, then the converse should also be true: “He who loses his name, aggrandizes his name.” When we look at the words of our Master, we see that this is indeed what he taught. He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). He also taught his disciples that in order to become great, one first had to become a servant:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“He who does not increase his knowledge [of Torah], decreases it.”

In Irving Bunim’s classic commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, he begins his comments on this section with the following illustration: “A man’s knowledge must keep step with his general development. It is considered an achievement when a one-year-old child begins to speak. But we can hardly continue to admire the child of twelve for his ability to talk. If he has not progressed since one, the child is a case of arrested development.” This may sound harsh, especially to the ears of those who have been under the impression that the serious study of Scripture is reserved for the elect; however, if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then our knowledge of Scripture should be ever increasing, informing our day-to-day living. The author of Hebrews shows his frustration with a group of people who are slow to learn, saying:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Bunim’s observation is correct. The Word of God is the daily sustenance for our souls. In reference to the Word being spiritual nourishment, even Yeshua himself, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, says that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” We are responsible for the teachings of the Holy Writ, particularly the words of our Master. Yeshua confirms this concept by saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We generally associate these words of Yeshua to that of our spiritual abilities, i.e. our “talents” (from a sub-conscience association with the English homonym of the same name, rather than “talent” being correctly understood as a unit of currency). However, in this instance, Yeshua is clearly connecting this instruction with our responsibility as stewards of his teachings. His words are our very life. Peter came to this realization with his confession, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“He who learns not, forfeits his life.”

As we stated earlier, the Word of God is life. If man does not “live by bread alone,” his existence, therefore, is sustained by the Word of God. Again, if we think about the reverse, it should bear to reason that without the Word of God in our daily diet, our lives fade from existence.

“He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away.” The author of Hebrews says that the Word of God has the ability to discern our motives: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If we are making use of Scripture for personal gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end.

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 1

Melchizedek Scroll fragment
Melchizedek Scroll fragment

I’ve recently begun giving the Dead Sea Scrolls a closer examination, particularly in light of research I am doing on Jewish worship in the Second Temple Period. While researching this, I have read through a few different translations of the Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13), which is known by various titles.

There are several things that link this particular text to the New Testament, in that is paints Melchizedek in much the same light as the author of the Epistle of Hebrews. From this text I believe we can better understand and appreciate the Melchizedek imagery of the book of Hebrews. I believe the correlation in the Melchizedek Scroll also gives us solid evidence that the author of Hebrews’ interpretation of the Messiah’s role as a Divine High Priest was not limited to Christian interpretation or a late Christian-influenced theological development (I hope to share more on this later).

What I would like to share now is the scroll’s view of Melchizedek functioning as one who, in the year of Jubilee, proclaims not only a release from captivity, but from sin as well. Commenting on Deuteronomy 15:2 (which details the release of debts during the year of Jubilee), the Melchizedek Scroll states:

“[the interpretation] is that it applies [to the L]ast Days and concerns the captives, just as [Isaiah said: “To proclaim the jubilee to the captives” (Isa. 61:1) . . . . just] as [ . . . ] and from the inheritance of Melchizedek, f[or . . .  Melchize]dek, who will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing th[em from the debt of a]ll their sins.” (emphasis mine)

Wise, M. O., Abegg, J. M. G., & Cook, E. M. (1996). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. HarperOne, p.456.

In Luke 4:16-21 we find Jesus saying almost the exact same thing:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (ESV, emphasis mine)

In the Melchizedek Scroll, the author has done exactly what Jesus does when he reads the text of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. He links the text in Deuteronomy concerning the jubilee year and the release of debts to the passage in Isaiah where the speaker is “anointed” (Hebrew: mashach / מַשָׁח) in order to “proclaim liberty to the captives.” Many times Jesus couples his miracles of healing with the forgiveness of sin. In both the Melchizedek Scroll and in the thoughts of Jesus, bringing liberty to captives involved not only a physical release (and with Jesus, it began many times with healing and exorcism), but a spiritual release from the bondage of sin.

In the Melchizedek Scroll, however, it is not merely the Messiah who accomplishes this, but Melchizedek himself. We shall look at the scroll’s understanding of this Melchizedek figure more in subsequent articles.

Final Session, Shavuot ’09

I failed to mention the final session of the FFOZ Shavuot ’09 conference, which was taught by Daniel Lancaster. This was probably the biggest “aha!” moment at the conference for most attendees and ended with a long, standing, round of applause.

Daniel took a long, 2-part session to go into great detail and offer up an almost air-tight case for the proper interpretation of the terminology and analogy of the book of Hebrews (particularly chapters 7-10).

He first set his teaching up with three arguments typical of Christian theology & interpretation based on the book of Hebrews. With each of these, he presented the problems associated with such a perspective with an expression with Talmudic sentiments, “This is a difficulty.” Of course, he stated that the goal was to be able to reach the actual Talmudic statement, “There is no difficulty here” (for which he did—at least in my estimation).

He specifically addressed issues such as how to resolve phrases that seem to negate the Mosaic covenant, overthrow the Aaronic priesthood and the belittle the function of the Temple service.

His second part systematically worked through each of these “difficulties” and resolved them to what appears to be great satisfaction. Lord willing, I’ll be cleaning up my notes over the next few days and posting them. However, I believe Daniel is planning on posting a full, 30-page article (I am pretty sure I heard) on this teaching in the next Messiah Journal (which we all eagerly await!).

Thank you FFOZ for all of your hard work and diligent study, and for sharing it with us.