The use of ancient texts can certainly enhance our understanding of the world, ourselves, and God. But handling these texts is similar to handling fire. It should be done carefully, deliberately, and with much caution and skill. When used properly, ancient Jewish sources can enrich a sermon or sermon point. When used wrongly, ancient Jewish sources can confuse our understanding of the Bible, not to mention make a preacher look downright foolish. For instance, a preacher implied that after Jesus performed the Sabbath reading in the Nazareth synagogue (see Luke 4) he may have practiced a Jewish tradition of dancing with the Torah scrolls. But the fact is this tradition likely started 500 years after Jesus died and even then was only done on certain Jewish holidays. Another example of misuse, one that adds a Jewish tradition that isn’t there, is the often cited story of the tying of a rope around the High Priest’s waist before he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. The supposed reasoning was that if the Priest mishandled something and was struck dead by God, his body could be dragged out by the rope. However, this practice is never mentioned in any ancient Jewish sources. The first mention of it is from the Middle Ages…and that by Christian, not Jewish, writers!
While these examples are pretty harmless, others are not. A very popular recent teaching claims that in Jesus’ day it was the dream of every Jewish child and parent for the child to be one those lucky few “best of the best,” chosen to be a student of a rabbi. According to this teaching Jesus’ calling of His disciples to follow Him as His rabbinic students was an affirmation of them, that it was somehow Jesus saying “you have previously been rejected but you’re really good enough, you are the best of the best.” The problem is that this ignores the paradigm of the individual that was shaped by an ancient Jewish culture with very different family and social structures than today’s culture. It haphazardly assumes that our modern American ideas of social rejection and of individuals needing to feel “good enough” would even apply in Jesus’ culture. Furthermore, this theory assumes a much more structured rabbinic system than was actually in place in Jesus’ day.
The real problem with this teaching is it shifts the meaning of Jesus’ calling of His first disciples from the necessity of giving up everything, including all-important familial loyalty, to the “I” as now made “good enough.” In other words, it presents a Jesus that calls His followers in order to affirm them in a humanistic, positive-thinking sort of way, instead of a Jesus that calls His followers to get over themselves and give up everything in order to follow Him. It is more likely the disciples’ self esteem suffered rather than grew when they defied some of the most important social norms of their culture to follow Jesus. In in this misuse of Jewish sources, the kernel of the message of self denial is pushed aside in favor of one more modern and easier to accept.
Misuses like these happen when preachers use ancient Jewish sources without a clear understanding of their complex nature. They use them, in short, unskillfully and unwisely. Preachers must be so careful with these sources because they are so complex. The phrase “ancient Jewish sources” is itself hard to define. They start with the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation, but include other sources like the Talmud, which is itself an incredibly complex collection of biblical commentary, discussions, oral law, parables, stories, customs, history, and sometimes just plain rambling. Other sources are apocalyptic literature (like the Book of Enoch), the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, the writings of Josephus, the Targums (or paraphrased versions of the scriptures), and the Midrashim. These sources compose hundreds of books, organized in a way that is very unlike the way we organize modern materials. They can contradict one another, sometimes intentionally. Authorship is often anonymous or unverifiable or simply false, again, sometimes intentionally. Cross referencing passages in these materials is unimaginably more difficult than with our Bibles. It would be nearly impossible to organize them like the Thompson Chain Reference Bible does with our Scriptures.
The crux of the problem is this: ancient Jewish scholars and teachers faithfully and accurately handed down material from generation to generation by word of mouth. This process is called oral transmission and was incredibly accurate. But big chunks of Jewish sources were not actually written down until a hundred years after Jesus’ death. On top of that, Judaism changed significantly when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed just a few decades after Jesus’ death. That leaves us with the difficult task of trying to figure out what is really applicable to Jesus’ day. On the one hand, the Jews were experts at oral transmission. On the other hand things fundamentally changed from the destruction of the Temple until sources were written down. On the third hand, most of this material was actually written down long after Jesus. So, can we trust a particular story, comment, observation, etc as attributable to Jesus’ day or not? Good scholarship analyzes all the evidence and this calls for a methodical analysis and assessment of the ancients texts. We can’t attribute everything in these sources back to Jesus’ day, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss all such attribution without solid historical and scientific evaluation.
It is important for us “non-experts” to realize how difficult the process of analyzing, assessing, and evaluating these sources is. Jewish source experts must be familiar with volumes and volumes and volumes of ancient texts. They must understand how and why these texts are so different than modern literature. They must have a firm grasp of all the pitfalls of applying any given passage as to Jesus’ teaching. How to study these texts is way beyond the scope of this writing, and even further beyond this author’s ability to explain. But the point is this: we should all imitate the example of the Bereans and check if preachers are using this type of material well and wisely. And preachers should be critical thinkers and diligent in double checking how other preachers use these materials before borrowing their observations and conclusions. Maybe this is a trustworthy saying that deserves full consideration: if you can’t verify it through trusted scholarly sources, don’t use it in a sermon.