Bringing Context to the Familiar Phrase, "The Light of the World," Part One of Two
The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In the first section of this two-part article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines fully what Jesus was conveying to His listeners when He was recorded by John as saying He was the light of the world.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world,” on two different occasions (John 8:12; 9:5). In both passages, He is in Jerusalem and in or near the temple. Did this language merely happen to occur to Jesus on the spot? Are the many scholars correct who dismiss the historicity of these statements as merely a theological theme that John develops by using “light” imagery frequently (John 1:4,5,7,8,9; 3:19,20,21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35,36,46; see also its appearance in the three letters of John and the Book of Revelation)? Or is it possible that, as with so many other teachings of Jesus, greater awareness of how He interacted with the realities of His world could bring greater clarity and depth to His words?
Light” imagery appears throughout Scripture. It is the result of God’s first act of Creation (Genesis 1:3), probably because it is a primary characteristic of His divine nature (Psalms 27:1; 89:15; Isaiah 60:1,19, 20; Micah 7:8; 1 John 1:5; Revelation 22:5). Special expressions of His presence (which we sometimes refer to as “Shekinah”) are often described in terms of light (Exodus 13:21; Acts 9:3; 22:6,9; 26:13; 1 Timothy 6:16; Revelation 22:5). Divine revelation (the “Word” of God) is also spoken of as light (Psalm 119:105,130; Proverbs 6:23; John 1:1-2,4,5,9; Acts 26:23).
Not surprisingly, then, the early rabbis often spoke of “the light of the world.” It is abundantly clear that this kind of thought and language is pre-Christian, because the rabbinic sage Bava ben Buta used it in the century prior to Jesus’ birth. He was the only rabbinic sage Herod the Great trusted to be one of his closest advisors. Consider this lengthy dialog found in Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 3b-4a in which these two older contemporaries of Jesus discuss “the light of the world”:
3b [Herod the Great] said, “Who are the people who teach, ‘From the midst of thy brethren thou shalt set up a king over thee’ [Deuteronomy 17:15]? The rabbis!” He therefore arose and killed all the rabbis, sparing, however, Bava ben Buta, that he might take counsel of him. 4a He placed on his head a garland of hedgehog bristles and put out his eyes. One day [Herod] came and sat before [ben Buta] and said: “See, sir, what this wicked slave [Herod] does.” “What do you want me to do to him?” replied Bava ben Buta. [Herod] said, “I want you to curse him.” [Ben Buta] replied with the verse, “Even in your bedchamber do not curse a king” [Ecclesiastes 10:20a]. Herod said to him, “But this is no king.” [Ben Buta] replied, “Even though he be only a rich man, it is written, ‘And in thy bedchamber do not curse the rich’ [Ecclesiastes 10:20b]; and though he be no more than a ruler, it is written, ‘You shall not curse a ruler of thy people’” [Exodus 22:28]. Herod responded to him, “This applies only to one who acts as one of ‘thy people’ [Deuteronomy 17:15], but this man does not act as one of ‘thy people’” [Deuteronomy 17:15]. [Ben Buta] said, “I am afraid of him.” But Herod said, “There is no one who can go and tell him, since we two are quite alone.” [Ben Buta] replied, “For a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter” [Ecclesiastes 10:20c]. Then Herod said, “I am Herod. Had I known that the rabbis were so prudent [with respect to their speech], l would not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.” [Ben Buta] replied: “Since you have extinguished ‘the light of the world’ [i.e., killed the rabbis], as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ [Proverbs 6:23a], go now and attend to ‘the light of the world,’ the Temple, as is written with regard to the temple, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it’” [Isaiah 2:2].*
This text reveals a number of things: 1) the language Jesus used is not new, but predates Jesus by at least a generation; 2) Jesus is therefore reusing well-known language because important historical figures were already employing it; and most importantly, 3) it provides three ways in which the phrase “light of the world” was used in the time of Jesus: as a reference to the rabbis, the temple, and the Torah (or Word of God).**
It’s clear that the rabbinic world into which Jesus was speaking was in the practice of referring to the Scriptures, the temple, and their authoritative teachers as “the light[s] of the world.” Therefore, when Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world,” He is appropriating this language to himself. He is declaring that He is 1) the embodiment of the Word of God (see John 1:1-5), 2) that He is the dwelling (“Shekinah”) presence of God (for the temple was the physical representation of God’s dwelling presence among His people — see John 1:14),*** and 3) that He is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and mediator of its meaning and relevance to God’s people (see John 1:9,17).
Seen from this perspective, Jesus is not speaking in vague platitudes, nor is He using new and therefore unclear metaphors. Instead, He is using contemporary language to declare himself to be the embodiment of the Word of God, its authoritative interpreter, and further, the very dwelling presence of God himself! These are astounding claims that would have attracted attention both positive and negative, but His intended meanings would have been perfectly clear to everyone in His original audiences, regardless of their response.
Please look for Part Two of “Bringing Context to the Familiar Phrase, ‘The Light of the World’” in a future PE News release slated for early September when Matthew chapter 5 will be closely examined. Update: Part Two has been posted — click here.
*At least three other passages in rabbinic literature describe the windows of the Temple, which were constructed in such a way as to “draw light out into the world” or “let the light of the temple out into the world,” for “from the place of the house of the sanctuary, light went forth to the world” (Midrash Tanchuma Tetsaveh 6:6; Piskhta d’Rav Kahana 21:5; VaYikra Rabbah 31:7).
**On this third point of reference, other rabbinic texts make clear what is only alluded to in passing by ben Buta. Midrash Tanchuma VaYakhel 6:3 speaks of “…the Torah, which is the light of the world and the world to come…”
***Another set of rabbinic texts elaborate on Bava ben Buta’s passing reference to God himself being “the light of the world”: “Jerusalem is the light of the world, as it says, ‘And nations shall walk at thy light’ [Isaiah 60:3]. And who is the light of Jerusalem? The Holy One [i.e., God], as it is written, ‘But the Lord will be to you an everlasting light’ [Isaiah 60:19]” (Bereshit Rabbah 59:5; cf. also Pesikhta d’Rav Kahana 21:4 and VaYikra Rabbah 31:7).