Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 2

Who were the Jewish followers of Jesus?

The members of the Jesus sect were clearly religious Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They could not have believed that Jesus was “god” and remained Jewish, as such a belief would have been complete idolatry in Jewish eyes and would have appeared closer to the Greco-Roman pagan beliefs where gods took on human form and had relations with humans.

At any rate, the Jesus sect, like numerous other sects in the Land of Israel, would certainly have died out even if its members had survived the revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries. (The Pharisees survived in part due to the vision of their leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai)

So where did all the Christians comes from? Indeed, where did Christianity come from?

For the answer, we must look at another colorful personality who appeared on the scene after the death of Jesus, and who is given the credit by virtually every historian of Christianity for spreading the message of Jesus worldwide, if not fashioning Christianity for the consumption of the pagan world.

He was a Jew—originally known as Saul—who became famous in Christianity as “Saint Paul.”

Rabbi Ken Shiro
“Seeds of Christianity”
#40 in the “Crash Course in Jewish History” series
Judaism Online: SimpleToRemember.com

Do religions evolve? That is, can we believe that it is reasonable and expected for any given religious structure to evolve over time in order to adapt to changes in the environment that affect the requirements of the religion’s followers? I asked that question in Part 1 of this series and it stands before me, taunting me, and perhaps even haunting me.

Among people of faith, Christians particularly tend to believe that the truths we possess about God and who we are in Christ are fixed, immutable, unchangeable information that exists and is applied universally in the same manner as when Jesus walked the earth.

That’s not actually true, of course. Over the past 2,000 or so, the Christian faith has metamorphosed tremendously. It’s extremely unlikely that the Apostle Paul, walking into a modern Baptist church, would recognize anything as familiar, even understanding that the church was for only Gentiles and that no observant Jews would be present. What would Paul make of Constantine? How would he perceive the ancient Holy Roman Catholic church? And what about Martin Luther and the reformation? How would Paul look at a 19th century American “fire and brimstone” preacher leading a tent revival meeting somewhere just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma?

(If you want to get a sort of “snapshot” of the changes that Christianity has undergone over the long centuries, visit Wikipedia’s History of Christianity page)

Wait a minute. Doesn’t the title of this series say “the Evolution of Judaism?” Yes, it does. However, in trying to figure out how to write Part 2 of this series, it was easier for me to approach the evolutionary progression of Judaism by way of Christianity. After all Christianity started out as a small sect of Judaism and, through an extraordinary process, spread like wildfire through the Gentile diaspora world of the First and Second Centuries C.E. Since a large part of the audience for this series are both Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, and non-Jews who worship Jesus and yet, in some manner or fashion, are attracted to Judaism, my decision to access Judaism by accessing Christianity makes sense to me (though you may not agree).

While the changes that have occurred within Christianity and it’s somewhat fragmented nature in the early 21st century are undeniable, are these changes actual developmental or evolutionary stages that are required of this, or any religion, in order to survive? After all, like many species of plants and animals, over the long centuries many religions and faith groups have died out. They existed once, even flourished for a time, but are no more.

I can’t say that they ceased to exist because they failed to adapt, although that’s certainly an interesting thought. I can’t really find much (at least that’s readily available online) to support what I’m trying to say, but a site called TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, Design: a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), presents the following questions:

Have religious belief systems evolved over time?

While many religious believers do not accept the theory of evolution in regards to the development of life, from a historical perspective it seems religious and spiritual belief systems themselves have evolved and developed over time.

From the earliest Venus figurines, cave paintings, early burial sites, naturel and ancestor spirits, polytheistic beliefs to the monotheistic, to deist and others.

Do the strongest survive? Do they adapt? Do they interbreed and influence each other? Do they go extinct? Is there some natural selection process that passes on religious ideas memes, and sees others become extinct?

What properties help a religion survive and thrive? Invisible gods perhaps. Evangelical rather than hereditary. Religions linked to economically and militarily strong cultures perhaps. Do religions have a symbiotic relationship with their host cultures – making them stronger and more united supporting development and progress and hence protecting the religion itself.

What are the greatest challenges to the survival of different religions today, and what will help them survive and thrive?

from “Do religions evolve?”
TED.com

I could probably study for years and eventually write a paper trying to answer those questions. But maybe the seeds of the answer are found in Judaism:

“I think sometimes Christians read the Bible and think, ‘Oh, this is what Judaism is,’” he says. “Judaism is a living tradition that continues to grow and adapt and change well beyond the Biblical age.”

-Greg Johnson quoting
Rabbi Mike Uram, director of Penn Hillel
“Tracing the Talmud’s journey”
upenn.edu

Rabbi Uram is describing the point that I’m trying to make: that religions, particularly Judaism, aren’t fixed and static entities with wholly unchanging rules, commandments, and practices that are frozen across history, geography, and culture. The Talmud and how it is studied and understood in Judaism helps us (well, it helps me) comprehend how religious structures can purposefully adapt and change over time and across sub-groups of the religion, in order to better serve the needs of each generation of followers.

PogromNaturally, I can’t say that all changes across Christianity and Judaism have always been beneficial and productive. Certainly the schism between the church and the synagogue that occurred in the early centuries of the common era has resulted in tremendous harm to the Jewish people. The church is guilty of a long list of crimes against the Jews, including the pogroms, the inquisitions, the burning of synagogues, the destruction of Torah scrolls and volumes of Talmud, and quite horribly, the wholesale slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children. All committed in the name of Christ.

But all of that is rapidly (relative to the speed of history) changing. There is more interfaith cooperation between many Christians and religious Jews. It is common to find Christians supporting Israel and Jewish Israeli causes. If the church is currently evolving, it definitely does seem beneficial in terms of its current viewpoint toward Judaism.

The dark side of suggesting that religions evolve is that such change may be at the cost of the enduring truths of the Bible and the will of God. Such change may be solely for the purpose of fitting in with the surrounding culture, while throwing principles, morals, and ethics under a bus.

I can’t say that hasn’t happened in either Christianity or Judaism.

But I can’t say that all change is bad, either. It seems, especially in the case of Judaism, that a fine balance must take place between adapting to environmental changes and protecting the inner core of the faith. I believe that, more than anything, that is exactly the function of the Talmud in Judaism. In spite of overwhelmingly hostile attempts to eradicate Judaism and exterminate anything that might appear distinctively Jewish (including the people), not only do Jews remain in the world today, but a significant portion of the practices established in the Torah 3,300 years ago continue to be performed in some manner.

Jewish men still wear fringes on their clothing. The Shabbat rest is still observed. Prayers are still offered while facing Jerusalem. Meats are still slaughtered in the customary fashion, and prepared in accordance to the traditions. Men still daven in minyans and their prayers are spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Why am I writing this? I live in the world today, so why should I be concerned about whether or not the church has evolved? The church is what it is today and I live in today, so why does it matter? Here’s what I said in Part 1 that’s relevant to these questions.

Now that we’ve seen evidence that it is reasonable to believe Jesus could have accepted Pharisaic authority to establish ancient halakhah and that he not only upheld portions of that halakhah but practiced it as well, (see the full text of Rabbinowitz for details) Part 2 (although I’m not sure when I’ll write it) will examine the “reasonableness” of Christianity and Judaism evolving or developing from ancient to modern forms. After examining that point, we shall try to see if it is even possible for a returning Jewish Messiah King to accept the halakhah that will exist on the day of his return to Jerusalem.

I have no way to really prove that religions evolve or develop forward in time in a productive and beneficial manner. There are hints that how Talmud and tradition is applied in Judaism is both adaptive and stabilizing, and that this is what has enabled religious Judaism and Jews as a people to be preserved throughout their history.

But what does God think about it all?

I have no idea and I don’t believe anyone can know.

But we can speculate (and speculate and speculate, the blogosphere is full of speculation). In Part 1, I presented some information that seems to support how Jesus upheld the authority of the Pharisees (and the larger structure of religious Judaism) to establish and apply halakhah, and how Jesus even advised his Jewish disciples to follow the halakhah of the Pharisees.

But the Rabbinowitz paper (PDF) also said that the authority of the Pharisees was destined to pass away. Eventually, it would no longer be valid. So what would replace it, not just among the small sect of Jewish “Nazarenes” who followed Jesus, but for all of Judaism in its various divisions, both during the life of Jesus and well beyond?

If Jesus established a distinctive halakhah for his Jewish disciples, it died with the passing of ancient “Messianic Judaism”. The Gentile church moved far, far away from anything even remotely Jewish, so they wouldn’t have carried his halakhah forward, and the descendants of the Jews who were disciples of Jesus fell away in only a few centuries or less. After that, only a Judaism that did not recognize Jesus as Messiah remained to establish law, interpretation, tradition, and halakhah for the Jewish people.

the-teacher2All we have of the teachings of Jesus are what is recorded in the Gospels. The early days of the First Century church are seen mainly through the eyes of Paul and a small group of other disciples. We aren’t even sure of who really wrote most of the New Testament, but if there was a “halakhah of Jesus” that deviated from the halakhah established by Second Temple period normative Judaism, only tiny bits and pieces survived in what became canonized into our Bibles.

I’m not proposing any answers today. I just need to throw some large, sweeping concepts out into the open, because I can see them better there than inside the swirling maelstrom of my thoughts.

Ultimately, the questions are:

  • Do religions naturally evolve in productive ways, both to preserve the core faith and to adapt to external changes in history, geography, and culture?
  • Can we see and trace the evolutionary mechanisms and stages in order to differentiate between productive, expected changes and developmental dead ends?
  • Has Christianity evolved in a productive manner and can we identify the benefits (local or global) of that evolutionary process today in the church?
  • Has Judaism evolved in a productive manner and can we identify the benefits (local or global) of that evolutionary process today in the synagogue?
  • At the coming/return of the Messiah (your specific viewpoint on this depends on whether you’re a normative Jew, Messianic, or a Christian), how might the Messiah view and judge Christianity and Judaism relative to how they have changed in the past 2,000 years?

I guess I should have added one last question: “Do I have a prayer of even beginning to answer those questions in a meaningful way?

Probably not, but as I’m fond of saying, this blog is more about chronicling whatever I’m thinking about at any given point in time than actually doling out satisfying answers to complicated questions.

That said, Part 3 of this series, which will be tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” takes an extremely interesting direction, leveraging the opinions of a particular and well-known (in some circles) “One Torah” scholar who believes that Mishnah and “Divine authority” have nothing to do with each other.

6 thoughts on “Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 2”

  1. An outstanding read and one which I’m going to have to go away and mull over somewhat. One quick question though – could the start of the divergence between Christianity and Judaism be said to have begun with the Council of Jerusalem in 50CE? Acceptance of Gentiles as members of the ‘Jewish Christians’ meant a refutation of circumcision and thereby of the whole covenant of Abraham – or am I getting this wrong?

    best wishes

  2. I’m still working my way through all that, but one way of looking at the Abrahamic covenant is that the people the Abrahamic covenant was directed at are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob: the Jews. There are blessings within the Abrahamic covenant that are specifically for the nations through Messiah, Jesus Christ, (I’m exploring the matter of the covenants in a different series) but the full set of covenantal requirements don’t apply to Christians. Otherwise, we’d all inherit physical real estate in Israel. The sign of the covenant (for Israel) is circumcision, and I don’t see how this applies to Christianity. In fact, Paul makes a big deal out of the non-Jewish disciples *not* becoming circumsized, which could also mean he opposed non-Jewish Christians converting to Judaism because, somehow, they felt only then they would be justified before God.

    Probably the place where I tend to see the first seeds of the schism is Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he toggles back and forth between his Jewish and non-Jewish audience trying to meditate between them (natural vs “foreign” branches, grafted in, knocked off, and so on). I think the Jewish and Gentile believers were “jockeying for position” so to speak in terms of who had more blessings/authority, and so on.

    The Jerusalem Council, as I see them, was the Jewish Christian body that administered the application of halakhah to the body of Christ (both Jewish and Gentile) and I agree, trying to understand the sudden influx of Gentiles must have been a tremendous administrative and conceptual struggle. When Jesus commanded his Jewish disciples to make disciples of all the non-Jewish people (the nations), he did something that probably had never been imagined before: bringing non-Jews into discipleship under the Jewish Messiah and into covenant relationship with God (under the Abrahamic and most likely the New Covenant [Jer. 31, Ezek. 36, the “Last Supper”]) without requiring that they covert to Judaism.

    I could go on, but then, I might as well just write another blog post.

    BTW, thanks for visiting and following my blog. I appreciate your comments.

  3. Hi James. Your comment that “If Jesus established a distinctive halakhah for his Jewish disciples, it died with the passing of ancient ‘Messianic Judaism’.” We’re putting aside the rest of the New Testament, right? OK. But I think it’s all too easy to miss the forest for the trees.

    Jesus elevated the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” from one among many commandments to the second commandment (and thus the first commandment regarding our relationship with others). He then defined our neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who treated the injured Jew as his neighbor even though the two groups were at odds.

    Another important remark was Jesus statement that “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” are “the weightier matters of Torah” (Mt. 23:23), which one should do without neglecting matters of biblical and rabbinic tithing. This is very much in line with Prophetic precedent, but in itself it is a distinctly Messianic Jewish formulation.

    These words come from Messiah’s lips and are of the highest possible authority. They are also distinctly Messianic Jewish halakhic innovations that have become common property of Christianity and even, to some extent, Judaism. They are consistent with some opinions in Rabbinic Judaism, of course, but not derived from them.

    In my view, it is crucial for Messianic Jews to view the “commandments between a man and his neighbor” in light of #1 and Torah as a whole in light of #2.

  4. Thanks, Carl. I really appreciate your comments and what you are saying is just the perspective I’m looking for. I apologize if some of my comments are presumptive, but I’m trying explore what is probably supposed to be familiar territory using a different sort of “map” (at least for me). Perhaps we have a lot more of the Messiah’s distinctive halakhah than I realized, but while all of the information is probably there (or more than I thought, anyway), it’s a matter of changing perspective and “mindset” in order to see what you’ve just described. I’m still working on that perspective. I probably always will be in one way or another.

    Thanks again.

  5. James,

    Glad to see you grappling with this. Also, if Part 3 is about the scholar that I think it is, we should have an interesting discussion tomorrow. : )

    Shalom my friend,

    Peter

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