This post is a reflection on something I’ve heard or read a number of times over the past several months from some pretty different sources. Although I wouldn’t say that any aspect of it was something I didn’t know beforehand, it’s been bouncing around my head now for some time. It’s time to express those thoughts in writing.
We know some things about the rabbinic strand of Judaism that began during the exile and continued into the second temple period in which the Christian gospels are rooted. The things we learn about that period historically sometimes cast a particular light on something in the gospels. For instance, there was and is a rabbinic teaching (Berachot 6a) that wherever two or three are gathered together studying Torah, the shekinah of God (the presence and glory of God that, for example, filled Solomon’s temple) is with them. When you understand that teaching, it sheds a deeper light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 (originally written, remember, for a Jewish audience): “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
When a rabbi taught or spoke, those listening would say “Amen” when he finished if they concurred. “Amen” is the transliteration of an aramaic word that means, in essence, “I agree. I accept it.” Those listening to the rabbi would thus give their “amen”, their agreement after the rabbi had spoken.
That becomes significant as you read the accounts of Jesus teaching in the New Testament. Again and again, Jesus starts his teaching with “verily” (KJV), “truly” (many translations), or “I tell you the truth” (a lot of the more modern translations). We’ve gotten so used to it, I’m not even sure we tend to notice the phrase as we read the gospels. The phrase being translated, though, is “Amen” or “Amen Amen”. When Jesus says that at the start of something he is saying, it stands in sharp contract to typical rabbinic practice of the time. Basically, he is not only giving his own “amen” at the start, he is telling those listening that their “amen” is unnecessary. Jesus doesn’t need it. He is saying that his words are truth whether or not the hearers agree. When people said that he did not speak as other teachers did, that he spoke with authority, that’s certainly a part of what they meant.
That can be a difficult concept for me in many ways. Of course, on one level, it’s obvious that if God is who we find in Jesus of Nazareth, then many things we can imagine about the nature of reality are necessarily ruled out. If reality is resurrection, then reincarnation is ruled out. If reality is love and mercy, then at some level we have to let go of our ideas of karmic retribution. If reality is unfailing love, then we have to let go of the capricious gods that have dominated human history. And yet, the idea that reality is a particular way and does not require my “amen” still at some level bothers me. “Everybody wants to rule the world” as they say — or least their little slice of reality.
And, of course, not only does Jesus need no “amen”, not only does he give his own “amen” before he speaks, we see in Revelation that he is even named the Amen. I sense in that name that Jesus is the Amen of man. He is the true man, the faithful man, the man who gave to God his Amen. And as the faithful man, he recapitulates our story, joining our nature once again with God’s. We withheld our “amen” from God. Jesus stands as the Amen of man to God.