Reading the Law and the prophets today

We invite you, through this study of the Law and the prophets, to rediscover

him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45).

As Philip announced to Nathanael, the Law and the prophets proclaim Jesus Christ through and through – and these were heard, studied, memorized and meditated upon week in and week out in every synagogue around the known world at the time – just as they are in synagogues in our day.  We invite you to join us in a quest to rediscover Christ in these very same readings and join in Philip’s excitement at their fulfillment in the life and person of our Lord1

The weekly Sabbath reading from the Law and the prophets consists of reading, in sequence, a predefined portion of text from the Law, a.k.a the Torah (the “books of Moses”: the first five books of Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) each reading being accompanied by a predefined portion from one of the prophets. As we will briefly see below, this is a very old custom. It predates by many centuries the division of Scripture into chapters and, even more so, of verses. Each portion comprises what is today between one and six chapters, and the reading from the prophets is usually between a few verses to a chapter long. The portion from the Torah is called “parasha” (“parashot” in plural) and its companion from the prophets is called a “haftarah” (plural: “haftaroth”).

A brief history of the parashot

The fact that the reading of the parashot is an old custom is well attested in the New Testament:

“For Moses has been proclaimed in every city from ancient times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21)

St. Paul makes reference to this ritual in his sermon at Antioch in Pisidia during his first missionary journey:

“The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning Him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.” (Acts 13:27)

In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ launched His public ministry in Nazareth as He was participating in the ritual of reading from the Law and the prophets on the Sabbath:

“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4:16-21)

Here, He read a “haftarah” from the prophet Isaiah. Knowledge of the reading cycle of the Law and the prophets can help us estimate the time of year in which Jesus read this passage, and when He launched His ministry. This chapter of Isaiah is read every year just before the beginning of the New Year2 – Rosh HaSahana – and, based on its content (the proclamation of a year of release) it seems highly fitting and likely that this was read at the same timeframe in the first century, indicating that Christ probably launched His ministry at the New Year. 

Studying the parashot today

Our podcast program is unique in the landscape of contemporary Christian bible studies in that it follows the weekly reading cycle of parachas as they are read in the Jewish synagogues, but from a Christ-centered perspective. As we’ve seen, this cycle is very old. We cannot be certain that today’s cycle is identical with the cycle that was read in first-century Palestine, but it is probably very close. One of the reasons we can be relatively certain of this is that the portions conform extremely well to the seasons — not only the natural and agricultural seasons: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer — but also the Jewish liturgical year. Therefore whatever the variations that have occurred over the centuries might be, the general sequence is probably very similar.

According to tradition the cycle of readings from the Torah was first instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century BC and the Dead sea scrolls also attest not only to their existence, but also to the fact that the division was quite similar to what is read in the synagogues today.

There are many advantages to adhering to this cycle. First, for the Christian listener, it is a chance to align one’s life with the same annual cycle that governed the early Church and gave it its strength, its vitality, its faith and its joy. Second, it is an opportunity to know the Torah in depth and to marvel at its depth, its consistency and its Gospel message.  Third, since the Torah is the foundation of all of Scripture, it build a solid foundation of the study of Scripture in general – from its roots. Finally, this study constantly reminds us of the indescribable and unending wisdom of God. May it strengthen your faith, bring you joy and make you grow in all knowledge and sanctity of life. 

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