Book Excerpt from Jehiel Lichtenstein’s Hebrew Commentary on the New Testament by One of His Students
(in German; Leipzig, 1895). Out of print, but available at some large libraries or through inter-library loan.
One of the most intriguing eras in Messianic Jewish history is the 19th century, and one of its more fascinating characters was Jehiel Lichtenstein (1827-1912), author of perhaps the most unusual commentary ever written on the New Testament.
Lichtenstein’s surname by birth was Hirschensohn. Sometime in the 1850’s, he was confronted with the Gospel message and came to faith. Shortly afterwards, he baptized himself in a river near his home town of Jassy, Romania. (He was later baptized by another person in London.) Thereafter, Lichtenstein embarked on an amazing career. He tried to begin a messianic congregation; he served as a missionary in Poland; and he taught at the famous Institutum Judaicum in Germany, a training school for missionaries to the Jews headed by Franz Delitzsch, who among other things is known for his widely-used translation of the New Testament into Hebrew. Apparently Lichtenstein’s writings had a measure of effect: the Encyclopedia Judaica has memorialized him as an apostate and missionary” (in the article, “Hirschensohn-Lichtenstein, Jehiel Zevi Hermann”).
Lichtenstein lived in an age when it was common for Jewish believers to try and show the truth of the New Testament from the rabbinic writings and even from the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Lichtenstein was no exception, and he wrote a commentary on the New Testament, complete with his own translation of the Greek into Hebrew. The commentary is full of references to the Talmud, Rashi, and other Jewish sources. There is a reason for that. Then as now, opposition to the Gospel came from many in the Jewish community. In fact, one counter-missionary book, Faith Strengthened (in Hebrew, Hizzuk Emunah) by Isaac Troki, was circulated widely then as well as today. Many of Lichtenstein’s remarks in his commentary are designed to counter what Troki had written (even though Troki was a Karaite, a sect of Jews that did not recognize the authority of the rabbinic writings).
Lichtenstein wrote in a rabbinic style, which means that it was terse—even to the point of being cryptic to a modern reader unfamiliar with rabbinic literature. Fortunately, we not only have the commentary in Hebrew but an excerpt in German which adds explanations to clarify what Lichtenstein wrote.
The following are two extracts translated from the German version. The “student” of the title is one Pastor Z÷ckler. In these extracts, Lichtenstein discusses Matthew 1:3-6 and 5:43. Notice how freely he makes reference to the writings of the rabbis, assuming that his reader will be familiar with these materials.
Verse 3: Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Cf. verse 5: whose mother was Rahab…whose mother was Ruth. Verse 6: whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.
In emphasizing these four women, Matthew wants to show that in no way did the line of David have a blameless pedigree. How little reason is there therefore to find the virgin birth of the Messiah a problem. One should find it much more surprising that he was descended from a house that was cursed with as many blemishes as the Davidic line was!
However, the scholar of Old Testament prophecy will certainly understand why the Messiah came from such a house. In Isaiah 53:2 we read: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground, etc.” From this one learns that the Messiah had to be born from a line which had a blemished history. Many also point to Micah 5:1: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small (despised) among the clans of Judah, out of you will come etc.”
With this [the passage in the Talmud] Yebamoth 76b should be compared, according to which Doeg the Edomite pronounced David to be illegitimate on account of his descent from the Moabite Ruth. Similarly, according to Pesikta Rabbati 6 there was a generally held rumor about Solomon: “Is he not the son of Bath-sheba [and consequently illegitimate]?” Also very noteworthy is Yoma 22b, where Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Samuel: “The dynasty of Saul, to which was attached not the slightest blemish in regard to genealogy, did not last. But the line of David (in which the kingdom lasted), carried around a whole basket full of reptiles on its back [figurative expression for the genealogical blemishes attached to this dynasty].”
Jesus…says in each individual instance: “You have heard that such-and-such is said,” i.e., they have heard it that way from the mouth of the Pharisees, who explain and teach the Torah.…
Another legal teaching which the disciples had heard from the mouth of the Pharisees was that the passages Exod. 21:23f. and Lev. 24:19f. are to be explained according to the plain literal sense, that each person may avenge himself. Compare Mo’ed Katan 17a, Baba Bathra 99b, where the conclusion of the discussion is: “A man takes the law into his own hands.” And in Yoma 23a, the passage Lev. 19:18, “You shall not avenge yourself, nor keep your anger” is narrowed down, so that revenge is only prohibited if one has suffered property damage through the agency of another person—whereas it is allowed in the case of bodily injury. Jesus, however, recognizes the sense of the law (Lev. 24:19f.) to be that only the court authorized by God may take revenge on evildoers, but the individual person may not—as it stands written in Lamentations 3:30, “He gives his cheek to the one striking him,” and Prov. 20:22, “You should not say, I will repay evil. Wait for the Lord, he will help you!” If, however, David is speaking of revenge on his enemies, it is God’s enemies who are meant, who as such are also David’s enemies. He can say of them: “But you, Lord, be merciful to me and come to my aid, thus will I repay them” (Psalm 41:11).
Now the difficult passage in verse 43 becomes understandable: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” which isn’t found anywhere in the Torah of Moses. Nevertheless, the disciples had learned it as a genuine teaching of the Torah from the mouth of the Pharisees. Rashi lets us know the source of this basic scriptural interpretation in his commentary to Prov. 3:30: “Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, if he has done no harm to you.” Rashi remarks on this passage: “But if he has done harm to you, he has transgressed the commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ He is consequently an evildoer (an enemy of God), and for that reason you may hate him.” So is it enjoined in the Talmud, Pesahim 113b: “Whoever commits a transgression, to hate that person is a meritorious work (mitzvah).” In Gittin 7a on the occasion of the quarrel of Geniba with Mar Ukba…: “There will soon be an end of them.” Taanith 7b: “One may call every impudent person a scoundrel and hate him.” According to Jesus’ view of the Old Testament law, one should—to the contrary—love both one’s personal enemies and evil people, and should pray for their good (verse 45). In the passage cited, Prov. 3:30, the meaning is rather that in case someone else has done evil, one may certainly remonstrate with him and call him to account, but one may not hate him…
The above extract gives a taste of this remarkable work by a 19th century Messianic Jewish believer. Z÷ckler himself wrote that the commentary has “a practical and apologetical value. The main intention of the author is the same as in his earlier writing, that of convincing his Jewish brothers of the Messiahship of Jesus and refuting the usual Jewish objections to Christianity, especially those raised by the most famous challenger Isaac Troki in his Hizzuk Emunah. The chief attempt of the author in his apologetic is always to show the complete submission of the Messiah Jesus to the Law and the complete correspondence of what occurred with the picture of what was prophesied.”
How exciting to know that over a hundred years ago there were Jewish believers knowledgeable both in the Scriptures and in the world of the Talmud. How comforting to contemplate that in another time and another place, Messianic Jews experienced the same misunderstandings and accusations from their own people that we do today. And how wonderful to think that some of them answered these accusations by penning commentaries on the New Testament in the Hebrew language! We have an amazing heritage in those who have come before us in the faith.
In the future, we may hope to see commentaries like Lichtenstein’s translated into English. Meanwhile, readers of this publication should look for an upcoming feature article on “Jewish New Testaments” and Jewish commentaries on the New Testament. Jehiel Lichtenstein’s may have been one of the first, but it was certainly not the last!
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.