Home » Uncategorized » The Shema (Deut 6:4) and John 20:28 – Part 1

The Shema (Deut 6:4) and John 20:28 – Part 1



a שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד[1]

4 Καὶ ταῦτα τὰ δικαιώματα καὶ τὰ κρίματα ὅσα ἐνετείλατο Κύριος τοῖς υἱοῖς Ἰσραήλ, ἐξελθόντων αὐτῶν ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ· Κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν Κύριος εἷς ἐστιν[2]


“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[3]


The Shema is a section of the Bible that is now and also was in the early centuries AD foundational to certain Jewish practices; the verse that this study will be restricted to is Deuteronomy 6:4. In the course of two posts issues such as the daily recitation, the pronunciation, the grammar and the interpretation of the verse will be analysed. It will also be contended that this verse contains the relevant context within which Thomas’ climactic words in John 20:28 should be understood.

In order to support the contention that Thomas’ words in John 20:28 knowingly utilise the language of the Shema five lines of evidence will be drawn from

  1. The Jews may have recited the Shema twice a day as part of their devotional practice
  2. The evidence of phylacteries highlights the importance of the Shema for prayer
  3. Jews at the time of Jesus found the Shema to be an important creedal statement/command
  4. Jesus highlighted the Shema (Deut 6:4-5) as the most important commandment
  5. The Jews substituted the word Lord for the divine name Yahweh

Given the five lines of evidence listed above it will be argued that Thomas would have known that the language he was using in stating “My Lord and my God” could only be applied to God alone and yet he chose to apply it to Jesus


The first two of these lines of evidence will be addressed in the first post with the final three addressed in a following post. The Grammar of the passage will also be examined to assess whether this creed stood as a monotheistic creed in the eyes of the Jews.

The Shema and Early Judaic Practice – Recitation

Amongst many scholars it can be found stated that the Shema was a verse or number of verses (if the addition of verse 5 onwards is included) that were recited daily or regularly;[4] therefore, these verses would, according to these scholars, have formed part of the Jewish religious/devotional praxis. The formal name for the recitation of the Shema is Keriʾat Shemaʿ


The practice of citing the Shema would have been both a personal recitation and also a corporate one. The corporate element is picked up by Weinfield: “The Shemaʿ was recited antiphonally: the cantor apparently recited the words, “Hear O Israel, YHWH is our God,” while the congregation responded, “YHWH is one.””[5] Gould goes further, stating that “These words, calling the attention of Israel to the oneness of Jehovah, were used at the beginning of morning and evening prayer in the temple, as a call to worship.”[6] There seems to therefore be a threefold use of the Shema in the ancient Jewish culture of Jesus’ time (if these scholars are correct) – the call to worship, the use in corporate worship and the private recital.

What is the evidence however for the early recitation of these verses? In the majority of the literature that I have surveyed the fact of recitation is not supported through documented evidence. Despite this, a number of resources do direct the reader’s attention to supporting evidence; it is this evidence that shall be reviewed below.


Ancient Writers


The first possible reference (according to Joachim Jeremias) to the practice of reciting the Shema in ancient literature can be found in the letter of Aristeas. Jeremias dates this document to 145-100 BC.[7] The relevant sections have been placed in bold by me in the translations below

“Moreover, upon our garments he has given us a symbol of remembrance, and in like manner he has ordered us to put the divine oracles upon our gates and doors as a remembrance of God. 159 And upon our hands, too, he expressly orders the symbol to be fastened, clearly showing that we ought to perform every act in righteousness, remembering our own creation, and above all the fear of God. 160 He bids men also, when lying down to sleep and rising up again, to meditate upon the works of God, not only in word, but by observing distinctly the change and impression produced upon them, when they are going to sleep, and also their waking, how divine and incomprehensible the change from one of these states to the other is. 161 The excellency of the analogy in regard to discrimination and memory has now been pointed out to you, according to our interpretation of “the cloven hoof and the chewing of the cud”.”[8]


Aristeas’ references are clearly hearkening back to Deuteronomic law given the references to the binding on the hands and the gateposts and the morning and evening meditation. However the question is whether this is a reference to Deuteronomy 11 or Deuteronomy 6 or both. All of the necessary elements can be found in Deut 11 and therefore there is no absolutely certain reference to the recitation of the Deuteronomy 6 and its words “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one”



Josephus, the 1st century Jewish writer is another author who has been called upon when looking at the practice of the recitation of the Shema. Josephus writes in his Antiquities of the Jews:

Let everyone commemorate before God the benefits which he bestowed upon them at their deliverance out of the land of Egypt, and this twice every day, both when the day begins and when the hour of sleep comes on, gratitude being in its own nature a just thing, and serving not only by way of return for past, but also by way of invitation of future favors. (213) They are also to inscribe the principal blessings they have received from God upon their doors, and show the same remembrance of them upon their arms; as also they are to bear on their forehead and their arm those wonders which declare the power of God, and his good will towards them, that God’s readiness to bless them may appear everywhere conspicuous about them.”[9]

Larry Hurtado sees in this text an echo of the Shema.[10] This is presumably due to the possible reference in Josephus here to what could be verses 6 and 7 of Deuteronomy 6.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [11].

If verse 6 onwards is being referenced, then the knowledge of the words in verses 4-5 is surely implied. These verses form the foundation of the words that follow in verse 6 onwards.


However what at first glance may perhaps seem clear cut is clouded somewhat, just as with the Letter of Aristeas, by the almost duplicate material in Deuteronomy 11. In Deuteronomy 11, as well as Deuteronomy 6, references are made to the binding of laws on the body and the gateposts and the remembrance of them in the evening and the morning. Crucially for this investigation, Deuteronomy 11 does not contain the words found in Deut 6:4.


Whilst the Letter of Aristeas and Josephus are hardly conclusive on the issue of whether it was Jewish practice to recite the Shema twice a day at the time of Jesus, a further line of evidence that can shed light is that of the Mishna. It may be possible to read the Mishna back to at least the time of Josephus who was writing late in the first century.



The Mishna, a collection of Jewish traditions that date from the first century BC up to the end of the second century AD, are also often cited sources regarding the tradition of reciting the Shema.

The very opening section of the Mishna (Berakhot) deals with the Shema in its first chapters.

Berakhot takes the recitation of the Shema for granted; it is the peculiarities around when the Shema should be recited and in what manner that takes precedent.

The translation provided by Neusner of Berakhot 2:2 is as follows:

2:2       A         The following are [the breaks] between the paragraphs:

B         (1) Between the first blessing and the second [of those which precede the Shema];

C         (2) between the second blessing and [the paragraph which begins] Shema (Dt. 6:4–9);

D         (3) and between [the two sections which begin] Shema and And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken (Dt. 11:13–21);

E          (4) Between [the two sections beginning] And it shall come to pass and And God said [to Moses] (Num. 15:37–41);

F          (5) Between [the two sections] And God said and True and Certain.

G         R. Judah said, “Between [the two sections] And God said and True and Certain one may not interrupt.”

H         Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]?

I           “So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

J           “[Why does] And it shall come to pass [precede] And God said?

K         “For And it shall come to pass is recited by both day and night.

L          “[But] And God said is recited only by day.”[12]

Neusner has inserted the relevant citations here, but the rabbinic intent can be clearly seen when they quote the beginning words of the relevant passages such as “Shema” which means “Hear”.  Deuteronomy 6:4 precedes Deuteronomy 11 in the recitation. This means that despite the potential ambiguity in Josephus and Aristeas with regards to which passage they are citing, it is possible that Deuteronomy 6:4ff could well have been at the forefront of their thoughts. The reason provided by the rabbis is that the yoke of the kingdom of heaven needed to first be accepted and then the yoke of the commandments.

Berakhot 2:2 does not state that the recitation has to happen twice a day, this is however covered in Berakhot 1:1 to 1:2.


It is also interesting to note in Berakhot how strictly the observance of the recitation of the Shema was to be taken. Some Jews felt that it must be performed lying down in the evening and whilst rising during the day

1:3       A         The House of Shammai say, “In the evening everyone should recline in order to recite [the Shema] and in the morning they should stand,

B         “as it says [in the passage of the Shema], When you lie down and when you rise (Dt. 6:7).”

C         But the House of Hillel say, “Everyone may recite according to his own manner [either reclining or standing],

D         “as it says, And as you walk by the way (ibid.).”

E          If it is so [that one may recite however he wishes] why does [the verse] say, When you lie down and when you rise?

F          [It means you must recite the Shema] at the hour that people lie down [night] and at the hour that people rise [in the morning].

G         Said R. Tarfon, “I was coming along the road [in the evening] and reclined to recite the Shema as required by the House of Shammai.  And [in doing so] I placed myself in danger of [being attacked by] bandits.”

H         They said to him, “You are yourself responsible [for what might have befallen you], for you violated the words of the House of Hillel.”[13]


It cannot be argued conclusively that the Mishnaic rigour was representative of first century debates but it is certainly possible. Shammai and Hillel (referenced in Berakhot 1:3 above, lived in the first century BC.[14] Given the early dating of Shammai and Hillel it is possible that the arguments that formed part of their “houses” dated back to that time.


The recitation of the Shema can also be found in Tamid 5:1

5:1       A         The superintendent said to them, “Say one blessing.”

B         They said a blessing, pronounced the Ten Commandments, the Shema [Hear O Israel (Dt. 6:4–9)], And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken (Dt. 11:13–(21), and And the Lord spoke to Moses (Num. 15:37–41).[15]


Interestingly, in this passage the Decalogue is included amongst the verses that commanded the Jews to bind God’s words to their heads and arms. Later phylactery evidence and Mishnaic evidence indicates a move away from such an inclusion.



The order of priority of the Shema first and then other elements can also be found explicated in the Babylonian Talmub (circa 600AD).

  1. R. Judah said, “Between the two sections ‘And the Lord said’ and ‘True and upright’ one may not interrupt.”

Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does Shema precede ‘And it shall come to pass’ in the order of this liturgy? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards accept the yoke of the commandments. Why does ‘And it shall come to pass’ precede: ‘And the Lord said’? For ‘And it shall come to pass’ is customarily recited by both day and night. And ‘And the Lord said’ is customarily recited only by day.

  1. IV:1: It has been taught on Tannaite authority: R. Simeon b. Yohai says, “It is quite proper that one should say, ‘Hear O Israel,’ before the paragraph, ‘And it shall come to pass, if you listen …,’ for the former speaks of learning, the latter of teaching. And the paragraph, ‘It shall come to pass …,’ should come before, ‘And he said …,’ for the former speaks of teaching and the latter of doing.”[16]



A second century BC papyrus called the Nash Papyrus that contains the Decalogue along with the Shema has been cited by some as evidence of early recital of the Shema.[17] Unfortunately there is little evidence adduced to support this conclusion. The Nash Papyrus will be dealt with in the section on Phylacteries below.

Summary of Recital Practices

There seems to be some evidence in the resources available to me to back up the claims of scholars that the ancient Jews recited the Shema twice daily. The early evidence as found in the sources available to me is, in my opinion, not conclusive and requires the later interpretation of the Mishna to clarify the words of Josephus and the Letter of Aristeas.

For the purposes of this post it will simply be affirmed that reciting the Shema may have been the Jewish practice at the time of Jesus and therefore may have been something that a Jew such as Thomas would have been familiar with.


The use of Phylacteries in prayer can help to shed light on the Jewish knowledge of the Shema, these shall be discussed now.


The Shema and Early Jewish Practice – Phylacteries

What a Phylactery is

A Phylactery is a box that contained passages of scripture. These boxes were, in accordance with an interpretation of such passages as Deuteronomy 11:18-20, bound upon the hands and forehead during prayer; other boxes were also bound to the gateposts of houses.

Lim et al note that there were two types of phylactery :

One contains the same exact Scriptural passages as required by the Rabbis and these may be termed ‘Pharisaic’ Tefillin. The other type is based on the same selection of basic texts but add additional material to each passage, something clearly forbidden by the later Rabbis.[18]

Nash Papyrus


The Nash Papyrus is a second century B.C.E. papyrus found in Egypt that lists the Shema along with the 10 commandments in what seems to be designed as a liturgical or catechetical aid.[19] Whilst most scholars date the papyrus to the century Century B.C., some more conservatively date it to the second century AD or earlier.[20]  Burkitt for example is inclined to date the papyrus to roughly 50AD based on palaeographic considerations.[21] If the later date is preferred, the relevance of the papyrus is not completely removed, as discussed ahead it would still constitute an early witness to the use of the Shema in early Jewish practice.

A translation of the text has been given by Burkitt

[(?) And these are the statutes and the judgements that

Moses commanded the [sons of]

23 [Israel] in the wilderness, when they went forth from

the land of Egypt. Hea[r]

24 [0 Isra]el: Jahwe our God, Jahwe is one; and thou

shalt love]

25 [Jahwe thy G]o[d with al]1 t[hy heart … . ].[22]

Another possible translation is Hear, O Israel; Jehovah, our God Jehovah, one is he: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart.…[23]

The text is related to the text of the Septuagint given the preceding introductory words to the Shema “These are the ordinances and the judgments that Moses commanded the sons of Israel in the wilderness when they went forth from the land of Egypt.”[24] These introductory words are also found in the Septuagint nut are not found in the Hebrew Masoretic text. Wegner does go on to note that there is uncertainty around the dependency between the Nash Papyrus and the Septuagint; the Nash papyrus could have conformed to the Septuagint or they both may have had common sources.

Qumranic Evidence


The phylacteries recovered from the Qumran caves contain a range of texts within them. Significantly for this study, Deuteronomy 6:4 is not consistently located within these phylacteries. Whilst this may lessen the force of the argument being made here, a couple of mitigating factors need to be taken into account.

  1. Some of the phylacteries consist of numerous fragments – it is possible that Deuteronomy 6:4 was there originally in some of these texts e.g. 4Q142; this fragment starts its reading of Deut 6 at verse 7 and there is evidence that this is not where it originally started.
  2. Some of the phylacteries are of single texts e.g. Deuteronomy 11 in 4Q146 – we should perhaps not expect to find Deuteronomy 6:4 where only one text is being cited in that find.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:4 is located in a number of these texts (4Q129,[25] 4Q130,[26] 4Q135,[27] 4Q140,[28] 8Q3[29])

The lack of a fixed phylactery text at the time of Jesus makes this evidence tenuous for establishing a firm Jewish familiarity with the text of Deuteronomy 6:4 amongst the common people. What can be said is that the text of Deuteronomy 6 did form part of the Jewish practice of at least the community of the Essenes.


Commentating on the finding of the Decalogue amongst the Qumran phylacteries and its absence from the later site of Murabbaʿat Fagen states that the final text from was not set in the first century.[30]

Wadi Murabba’at

Wadi Murabba’at contains texts dating up to the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion in the second century AD. These texts form part of the Dead Sea scrolls corpus.

Unlike the Qumran scrolls, the phylactery texts located within Wadi Murabba’at do not contain the Decalogue. According to Schiffman, the phylacteries here constrain themselves to the “restricted corpus”[31] which would have included Deut 6:4 as the first text cited.

The Familiarity of the Jewish People with the Shema – Conclusion

If indeed the Nash Papyrus and the Qumran finds constitute early examples of general Jewish liturgical/catechetical practice, we have further evidence here that the words of Deuteronomy 6:4 would have been familiar to the Jewish people at the time of Christ. The Mishnaic practices and the evidence of Josephus and the letter of Aristeas in conjunction with the phylacteries indicate that these words may have formed part of the Jewish cultural identity. The relevance for Thomas’ words in John 20:28 will be discussed more fully in a later

It remains to be discussed whether the Jews would have said Lord instead of Jahweh, and it is to this that the next post will turn

[1] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: SESB Version. (2003). (electronic ed., Dt 6:4). Stuttgart: German Bible Society.

[2] Swete, H. B. (1909). The Old Testament in Greek: According to the Septuagint (Dt 6:4–9). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 6:4). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[4] See for example:

  • James D.G. Dunn (2010). Did the first Christians worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence (94). Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky
  • Richard Bauckham (2008). Jesus And the God of Israel – ‘God Crucified’ And Other Studies On The New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (5). Paternoster

[5] Weinfeld, M. (2008). Deuteronomy 1–11: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 5, p. 353). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

[6] Gould, E. P. (1922). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark (p. 232). New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.

[7] Joachim Jeremias (1967). The Prayers of Jesus (68). SCM Press LTD. London.

[8] Charles, R. H. (Ed.). (2004). Letter of Aristeas 158-161. Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Vol. 2, p. 109). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[9] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). Antiquities of the Jews 4.212-213 – The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

[10] Larry W. Hurtado (2005). How on Earth Did Jesus become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (123). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 6:4–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[12] Neusner, J. (1988). Berakhot 2:2. The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 5). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[13] Neusner, J. (1988). The Mishnah : A new translation (pp. 3–4). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[14] Goldenberg, R. (1992). Shammai, School of. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 1158). New York: Doubleday.

[15] Neusner, J. (1988). The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 869). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[16] Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 460). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

[17] Fagen, R. S. (1992). Phylacteries. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 369). New York: Doubleday.

[18]  Lim, T. H., Hurtado, L. W., Auld, A. G., & Jack, A. M. (2004). The Dead Sea scrolls in their historical context (pp. 138–139). London;  New York: T&T Clark.

[19] Daniel I. Bock (2004). How Many Is God? An Investigation Into The Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 47(2), 194–195.

[20] F.C. Burkitt (1903). The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Quarterly Review 15 (392). Accessed https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/text/articles/burkitt-10commands-jqr.pdf

[21] F.C. Burkitt (1903). The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Quarterly Review 15 (400-401). Accessed https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/text/articles/burkitt-10commands-jqr.pdf

[22] F.C. Burkitt (1903). The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Quarterly Review 15 (396). Accessed https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/text/articles/burkitt-10commands-jqr.pdf

[23] Barton, G. A. (1925). Archaeology and the Bible (p. 521). Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union.

[24] Wegner, P. D. (2006). A student’s guide to textual criticism of the Bible: its history, methods & results (p. 148). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[25] 4Q129 Phylactery B. (2010). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[26] 4Q130 Phylactery C. (2010). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[27] 4Q135 Phylactery H. (2010). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[28] 4Q140 Phylactery M. (2010). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[29] 8Q3 Phylactery. (2010). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[30] Fagen, R. S. (1992). Phylacteries. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 369). New York: Doubleday.

[31] Lawrence H. Schiffman (2000). Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls vol2 (200). Granite Hill Publishers

Preview accessed http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jAsaAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA200&lpg=PA200&dq=murabba%27at+phylactery&source=bl&ots=VuNNRYK112&sig=i3RYjp0lUu0A4bWki2aFMV4DXck&hl=en&sa=X&ei=F818VMSwFcLiO-zWgZAH&ved=0CEQQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=murabba’at%20phylactery&f=false  01/12/2014



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