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The Tzaddikim Who Raised Yeshua

by Paul Sumner

 

A SEED HAS unique genetic identity and qualities. But the ground in which it grows also affects what the seed becomes and how it lives its life.

If we take the New Testament at face value, we find that Yeshua is portrayed as God's son. But he was raised by his mother and stepfather in Nazareth, Galilee, in northern Israel. God didn't birth and raise his son in heaven among the angels. He "begot" him in the womb of a Jewish girl who lived in a rural village among a community of Jews.

The seed was planted in specific soil. What kind was it?

Luke's Unique Records
Among the four historians in the New Testament, Luke records unique material about the people and surroundings in which Yeshua grew up.

In chapters 1 and 2 of Luke's gospel we find a warm and positive view of Jewish piety and spiritual fervor. There isn't a tone of condescension toward Judaism. There isn't a narrative impatience to quickly move the characters onward, out of their Jewishness into the brighter light of new Christianity.

(For further evidence of this loyalty to God's initial revelation see As Was Their Custom: The Disciples in Light of Scripture.)

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The Tzaddikim

Though the New Testament comes to us in Greek, the international language of the first century, it reveals a Hebrew language substratum.

Zecharyah and Elisheva
The first two people Luke mentions are Zechariah and Elizabeth. Of them he says, "They were both righteous in the sight of God" (Luke 1:6). The Greek term for righteous is dikaios. Its Hebrew equivalent is tzaddik [also spelled tsaddik or tsaddiq]. We know this because dikaios is used for tzaddik in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint.

Tzaddik is both an adjective and a noun. As adjective, it means just, righteous, or right. To be "tzaddik-ed" (declared righteous) means to be justified or vindicated (for being right, just, or acceptable to God). As a noun, the tzaddik is one who lives justly or righteously. In later Jewish culture a tzaddik is one who faithfully observes the Law of God.

Let's look again at Luke's full comment on Zechariah and Elizabeth and substitute Hebrew for the English:

They were both tzaddik in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. (Luke 1:6)
Zechariah was a priest from the tribe of Levi. His wife was from "the daughters of Aaron," the clan of the great high-priest-brother of Moses. The couple wasn't in the nether regions of assimilation. They lived at the heart of Israelite faith centered in the Temple. In Zechariah's prayer in Luke 1:67-79 we immediately hear the focus of his faith. It begins:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel . . .
He and Elizabeth were parents to John "the Immerser," the repentance-preaching forerunner of the Messiah.

Yochanan
John was raised in a home where knowledge of Hebrew Scripture was deep and loyalty to God was daily food. John's marrow was nourished on the prophets of Israel; their words became his. He wasn't a disenchanted, counter-culture hippie. He was a restorer, not destroyer, of Israelite faith. And he came from rich soil.

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Shimon
Another righteous person Luke mentions is "a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was tzaddik and devout [=Heb hasid], looking for the consolation of Israel [=nechamat Yisrael]" (Luke 2:25). Simeon was the first to publicly recognized Yeshua's identity when he was just a baby (v. 26).

When the parents brought in the child Yeshua, to carry out for him the custom of the Law, [Simeon] took him into his arms, and blessed God and said, "Now Lord, allow your servant to depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your yeshuah, which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon's life was also centered on the Temple. So he must have known Zechariah the priest. And through Elizabeth he may well have heard about her cousin Miryam who miraculously gave birth to this boy.

Years later, Yeshua taught that the reward of being tzaddik and doing tzedakah is being "repaid at the resurrection of the tzaddikim" (Luke 14:14). God does not overlook them. Yet Yeshua wasn't a fool. He knew people could fake it. He often exposed fraudulent tzaddikim "who trusted in themselves . . . and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). Such phony tzaddikim mingled with his disciples to spy on him (Luke 20:20). So he warns: it's possible to merely play the role, dress the part as a costume tzaddik.

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Other Righteous Ones

Later in his gospel history, Luke uses the term dikaios/tzaddik for two others.

Yosef
Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court. Like Simeon who looked for "the consolation of Israel," Joseph was "a good and tzaddik man . . . who was waiting for the kingdom of God" (Luke 23:50, 51). The two men's hopes were identical. But Joseph will be uniquely remembered for two righteous deeds: he "had not consented to [the Sanhedrin's] plan and action" to have Yeshua executed by the Romans (v. 51), and he buried the body of Yeshua in his own tomb.

Yeshua haTzaddik
The other righteous one Luke mentions is Yeshua himself. The attribution of "righteous" comes from a Roman centurion who witnessed (and perhaps even carried out) Yeshua's execution.


When the centurion saw "what had happened, he began praising God, saying, 'Certainly this man was tzaddik'" (Luke 23:47). Most English Bibles translate the original dikaios as "innocent." But given the sub-tone of Hebrew elsewhere, it's possible the centurion used a Greek word aware of its Hebrew connotations, as if to say, "Yeshua is a tzaddik and is tzaddik." (Modern Hebrew versions of 1 John 2:1 calls him: "Yeshua haTzaddik.")

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Righteous Acts
In Luke's second history volume, the Book of Acts, are statements that use the word dikaios as a title-noun for Yeshua:

Peter refers to Yeshua as "the Holy One and Righteous One [haTzaddik]" (Acts 3:14). Stephen calls him "the Tzaddik" (Acts 7:52). Ananias—"a man who was devout [= hasid] by the standard of the Law"—said to Paul of Tarsus, "The God of our fathers has appointed you to know his will, and to see the Tzaddik" (Acts 22:12, 14).
It's evident the term Tzaddik—as a noun and an adjective—conveyed high esteem for someone based on their response to the Law of God. But a truly righteous response to the Lord involved far more than rote compliance. It involved faith with obedience and enduring trust in him.
The Lamed Vav
In the Babylonian Talmud emerges the teaching about the "Lamed Vav" or Thirty Six tzaddikim (lamed=30, vav=6). The fourth century rabbi Abaye said: "The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are vouchsafed the Shekhinah's countenance" (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkah 45b). (The Shekhinah is the holy spirit presence of God.) Later traditions said the world would descend into chaos if there were less than this number of righteous ones present (C. Montefiore & H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, pages 231-32).

Among Hasidim in the Middle Ages, the role and stature of the Tzaddik grew to mythic proportions. In some circles, the man combined features of a prophet, a mystic, a miracle-worker and healer—even a substitute for the messiah. Gershom Sholem said the tzaddik was considered "the living incarnation of the Torah" (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,p. 344).

Modern Lubavitch followers of the late Rabbi Menahem Schneerson of Brooklyn thought of him as a Tzaddik and Tzemach Tzedek ("the Righteous Branch," of Messiah, Jer 23:5). After he died in 1994, many still asserted their belief that God will raise him from the dead and reveal him as the Moshiach (Messiah). [Consider the article Predictions of Messiah's Coming in Jewish Literature.]

Historian Luke applies dikaios/tzaddik to only a few people. That's not to imply the others around Yeshua weren't righteous or spiritual people. Far from it.

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The Anointed Ones

Another way to describe one's special status with God is to attribute what they do and say to the Holy Spirit. As they serve, their muscles are empowered by divine strength. When they speak, their words are formed by the Breath of God.

Luke marks these possessors of the Spirit:

Miryam (mother of Yeshua)—"The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35).

Elisheva (mother of John)—"Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed among women are you [Miryam], and blessed is the fruit of your womb'" (Luke 1:41-42).

Zecharyah (father of John)—"Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying: 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. . .'" (Luke 1:67).

Yochanan the Immerser (Zechariah's son)—"He will be great in the sight of the Lord . . . he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15).

Shimon—"This man was tzaddik and hasid . . . and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah" (Luke 2:25-26).

Hannah (Greek, Anna)—Her endowment with the Spirit is implied in the phrase, "there was a prophetess, Anna . . . (who) never left the Temple" (Luke 2:36, 37). All prophets possess the Spirit in measure. After seeing the baby Yeshua, Hannah "continued to speak of him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem"—that is, she prophesied about him (v. 38).

The Anointed One himself—"While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him" (Luke 3:21-22); "Yeshua, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led about by the Spirit in the wilderness" (Luke 4:1); "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me" (Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1); "[Yeshua] rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21).

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These texts illustrate the principle: "that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit" (John 3:6); that which is born among the Spiritual is nourished in the Spiritual.

Yeshua was raised by people known for their faith, knowledge of Scripture, and special gifts from God. He wasn't a prince raised by self-absorbed, backwater hermits. (See the evidence of widespread acceptance of Yeshua among all layers of Israelite society, especially the religious: Did the Jews Reject Jesus?)

Nor was that circle of Jews ignorant of Israel's grand, historic hopes.

Note how Miryam received the angel's announcement that she would bear God's Holy One. Instead of thinking to herself, "How grand am I. Such a mitzvah this will be for me!" she looked far beyond herself. The privilege being given to her was wonderful confirmation of her whole nation's longing:

He has given help to Israel his servant, in remembrance of his hesed [covenant loyalty], as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever. (Luke 1:54-55)
Given her faith, would she not teach this hope and promise to her son? (See The Hasidic Mother of Yeshua for details of her faith.)

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How Christmas Obscures Light
Why isn't any of this Jewish piety spoken of in the Church?

I think because Luke 1-2 are thought of as chapters in the "Christmas Story." They're read once a year, mostly for the children, young mothers and doting grandparents. It's sentimental and warm and reminds us that God loves babies.

But was that Luke's purpose in reporting these two chapters: to insert a "humble origins" motif in his portrait of the man Jesus? Or was it, rather, to begin the Messiah Story with familiar Hebrew themes of faith, courage, and loyalty to God, all to be woven later throughout the narrative fabric?

Turn off the Christmas lights for a moment. What you see in Luke's introduction are themes quite adult.

Scripture Ner Tamid
Luke carefully, methodically describes the covenant-loyalty of God toward the Remnant of Israel, and how a group of Jewish saints were loyal to God in return. They were folks who remembered, cherished, and nourished his promises in the face of centuries of Promise-fulfillment drought. (Remember: the promises given to Abraham their father were made 2,000 years before their time; 4,000 before ours.)

Luke (and the Author behind him) was reminding Israel about her calling and its boundless rewards. He was also teaching coming generations about the One born and formed within the specific soil of God's admat haqodesh, his "holy ground" (Zechariah 2:12).

It's all a lesson in horticulture: good ground nurtures good seed.

• Paul Sumner

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