Tag Archives: Pharisees

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century”

Much of the debate about whether Paul was a representative of first-century Judaism has centered on the question of his relationship to Jewish “law,” that is, Torah. Although a majority of proponents of the traditional view presume that following his “conversion” Paul no longer attributed an intrinsic value to Jewish identity and no longer considered Torah to be binding, adherents of the Paul within Judaism perspective generally maintain that Paul remained a Torah observant Jew throughout his life.

Karin Hedner Zetterholm
from the beginning of her essay
“The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

For me, it’s a foregone conclusion that Paul followed a Pharisaic lifestyle all of his life and that the revelation of Messiah was not a “conversion” from Judaism to Christianity (and I remind you that in the First Century, there was no such thing as Christianity), but the next step (quantum leap actually) into the understanding and lived experience of God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the Jewish people.

Nothing in the revelation of Messiah or becoming his disciple and the emissary to the Gentiles required Paul to change anything about his observance. Well, OK, he most likely developed a more liberal halachah regarding associating with Gentiles, but in terms of his obligation to Hashem, God of his fathers, to the Torah mitzvot, to davening at the set times of prayer, to returning (if at all possible) to Jerusalem for the moadim, to continuing to eat kosher and observe the rest of the commandments, he need change nothing at all.

In fact, if he did, he would be diminishing his relationship with God by not being faithful to the Sinai covenant, even as the Master, Yeshua (Jesus) was faithful to the covenant.

But that’s hardly the traditional Christian understanding of Paul. The Church believes Paul converted to Christianity, replaced the law with grace, and taught both Jews and Gentiles that the law was done away with and need not be followed any longer.

Not that the Gentiles were the least bit concerned about the law since they/we have never been subject to the Sinai covenant, but the accusation that Paul had turned away from the Torah, the Temple, and was teaching other Jews to do the same would have been devastating. In fact, it was:

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

Acts 21:20-22 (NASB)


When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

Acts 21:27-28

Paul in chainsEven though Paul vigorously denied these allegations under oath during a number of legal proceedings, both Jewish and Roman, most Christians believe that Paul really did the things he was accused of, and it’s OK with the Church because they believe Jesus wanted Paul to do all of these things.

But then, was Paul lying all those times he denied teaching against the Torah of Moses? If he was, why should we trust anything he wrote that’s recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures? Frankly, if we can’t trust Paul, most common Christian theology disintegrates since, oddly enough, most of what we understand about Christian faith in the Church comes from Paul, not Jesus.

Zetterholm in her article, proposes to show us that Paul remained a Torah observant Jew throughout his lifetime. Let’s have a look.

The first point she lands on is that Torah observance is not a distinct set of well-defined behaviors and that it “means different things to different groups and people, and, accordingly, different people define violation of Torah observance differently.”

She then cited different examples from the various branches of modern Judaism, comparing in one case, her Israeli friend who defines himself as “liberal Orthodox” to another friend who is a Conservative Jew. In referring to the latter friend:

In his view, he was not “breaking the law,” but interpreting it, or rather, applying the interpretation of the denomination to which he belongs.

Zetterholm further states:

Since Jewish law is the result of an ongoing collective interpretation and extension of injunctions and principles laid out in the Hebrew Bible, disagreements over their correct understanding are bound to develop.

Actually the matter of how Torah is understood and halachah applied between the different Judaisms of our day is enormously complex, and Zetterholm’s essay wouldn’t even begin to do this discussion justice if, for no other reason, than the fact that it’s simply not long enough. This is a book-length conversation at least.

I found myself disagreeing with her somewhat, since I know that an Orthodox Jew would not consider a Reform Jew, for example, to be Torah observant at all. The Orthodox aren’t terribly approving of Conservative observance, either. From an Orthodox Jew’s point of view, only they are observing Torah correctly. It gets even more complicated when you consider the different Chasidic Jewish movements exist, all of which are generally considered Orthodox.


The Qumran literature and the New Testament provide ample evidence that there was no consensus on this issue or in other areas of Jewish law in the first century. The Qumran community disagreed with the Pharisees on which activities were prohibited on the Sabbath…

Don't ArgueCertainly both the differing streams of ancient and modern Judaism debate, disagree, and outright argue regarding how Torah is applied, and yet they must also agree that Torah is being applied and the mitzvot are being observed, even as they may disagree in the halachah of how the mitzvot should be observed. We see examples of Yeshua (Jesus) doing this on a number of occasions in the Gospels, particularly on proper observance of the Shabbat:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Matthew 12:1-7

This isn’t the Master informing this group of Pharisees that he canceled the Sabbath or any of the mitzvot related to observing Shabbat. This is a passionate discussion between two poskim debating proper halachah for Shabbos.

That said, I think it goes too far to say all Judaisms may be equally valid in their interpretation of Torah and leaving it at that, but perhaps for the sake of time and word count, as I mentioned above, Zetterholm couldn’t drill down into the details. As I said, the topic is highly complex and nuanced and, not being an expert in Torah, Talmud, and halachah, I’m not particularly qualified to explain beyond a certain elementary point.

But what does any of this have to do with whether or not Paul was Torah observant?

So far, Zetterholm is laying the groundwork for her readers, and she has to assume that some, many, or most of them do not have a firm understanding of Torah observance among differing Jewish groups. I get that. She takes a number of pages to solidify her argument before moving on to what Torah observance may have looked like in Paul’s time.

In addition to the general factors pertaining to Torah observance outlined above, a discussion of Paul’s relation to the Torah is further complicated by the fact that we know very little about halakic observance in the first century.

We do know that the Pharisees, Sadducees, the Qumran community, and other Jewish streams differed in their halachic systems, but there’s more we don’t know about those details than we do.

Hillel and ShammaiHowever, we do, for example, know about the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai as they existed a generation before Yeshua. A number of their arguments are well documented. And yet, Zetterholm states that “both seem to have been associated with the Pharisaic movement…” It’s likely for Rabbis within the same stream of Judaism but from differing schools, to debate halachah while still considering each other as “observant.”

Our knowledge of how Torah observance was considered among the first century Judaisms is incomplete, but we don’t have to know all of the details to understand if Paul was observant or not. We have his own testimony about it:

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (emph. mine)

I don’t know what the Greek text says, but the English translation as the NASB presents it indicates Paul speaking of himself in the present tense (apart from his being a persecutor of the church at that time). These are things he considered himself as he was writing this letter, not things he was before he “converted to Christianity.”

The next question then is did Paul teach anyone to not observe the mitzvot, Jew or Gentile?

To answer this query, Zetterholm uses 1 Corinthians 10:23-30 as the foundation for her response. I won’t go into all of her arguments, but here’s what she said in part:

For instance, is Paul’s permission in 1 Corinthians 10:25 to eat food purchased at the market in Corinth and to eat whatever is served when invited to dine with “an unbeliever” (10:27) really evidence that he no longer considered Jewish law binding, as scholars commonly claim, or is it better understood as an expression of first-century Jewish Diaspora halakah for Jesus-oriented gentiles, as others have suggested?

In her discussion of 1 Corinthians 8-10, she answers that question, but in brief, she concludes that Paul was specifically developing halachah as it applied to Jesus-oriented Gentiles. This was not Paul abandoning the Torah or abrogating the commandments for himself or for other Jews, but adapting halachah for the needs of Gentiles, in this case, in the city of Corinth.

Ancient Rabbi teachingActually, Zetterholm wasn’t saying that Paul felt it was proper for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to eat meat sanctified to the pagan gods as such. If the Gentiles in question realized that these “gods” were wholly fictional and not “gods” at all, then whether or not foods were sacrificed to them would be meaningless and no harm is done in eating it.

Only if these Gentiles were in the presence of other non-Jews, either pagans, or Gentile believers who may have been “newly minted” or otherwise weak in their faith, should they abstain from such meat, lest they give the impression that they were approving of pagan worship.

Expressed another way:

Paul’s argument here bears a resemblance to the rabbinic idea of mar’it ‘ain, the principle according to which one must refrain from acts that are permitted but inappropriate because they may lead a less knowledgeable Jew to draw false conclusions and cause him or her to do something that is not permitted.

One example of this she gives is a Jew who puts a piece of cheese on a vegetarian “hamburger”. Although this is not mixing meat and dairy, another Jew who casually observed the event might get the wrong idea.

Zetterholm goes into the “nuts and bolts” of her argument using the 1 Corinthians 8-10 example in much more detail than I have room for here. For the complete answer, you’ll have to get a copy of the book and read what she’s written.

The bottom line is:

Far from declaring Jewish law null and void, Paul is engaged either in establishing a halakah concerning idol food for Jesus-oriented gentiles, or teaching them an existing local Corinthian Jewish halakah.

In either case, Paul is clearly not abrogating Torah observance for Jews, he’s adapting or creating halakah specifically for his non-Jewish students because such halakah wasn’t necessary before there were Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah operating in community with other Gentiles and with Jews in a Jewish religious movement.

She also said:

Far from “breaking the law,” Paul seems to be engaged in the process of applying it….establishing a rule of law for Jesus-oriented gentile, Paul was engaged in the balancing act involved in establishing halakah…

This also addresses (again) the matter of how Gentiles were to relate to the Torah in general, and Pharisaic halachah in particular. In this example, Paul was not teaching the Gentiles to observe the Torah and perform the mitzvot in a manner identical to the Jewish believers. He was adapting or inventing halachah that was specific to Gentiles but not necessarily applicable to Jews.

The Jewish PaulThis is probably why, referring back to Acts 21, some of the Jews in Jerusalem had the idea Paul was teaching against the Torah. He was teaching Gentiles that their obligations were different and certainly not as stringent as those of the Jews. Somehow the information was twisted, deliberately or not, to be interpreted that Paul was teaching Jews that they were not obligated to the mitzvot and did not have to circumcise their infant sons on the eighth day.

In her conclusion, Zetterholm wrote:

We have no means of knowing whether other Jews regarded Paul as lenient or strict, but in light of the complex nature of Torah observance in general and rabbinic legislation on idolatry in particular, nothing in his reasoning seems to indicate that he had abandoned Jewish law.

Derek Leman had written the first part of a two-part article for the now defunct AncientBible.net site called “Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue.” I reviewed it here on my blog about sixteen months ago. It was Derek’s opinion that Paul may have been too strict in his observance for many diaspora synagogues, indicating the Apostle’s devotion to the Torah of Moses was rather high.

In addition to Leman, I think Zetterholm makes a compelling case for concluding that Paul was indeed a Torah observant Jew throughout his life, even as he was also an emissary to the Gentiles at the command of the Master.

I’ll post the next part of my review of the Nanos/Zetterholm volume soon.

Jews Defining Their Own Relationship With God and the Torah

As the discussion that follows will demonstrate, I would not argue on behalf of all that Rabbinic authorities have asserted about Oral Torah. For example, I would not advocate the view that the teaching now found in the vast Rabbinic corpus was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Still, I would contend that the term is useful, for it rivets our attention on the central issues we must confront: Does the Written Torah require an ongoing tradition of interpretation and application in order to become a concrete reality in daily Jewish life? Does the tradition of interpretation and application of the Written Torah developed and transmitted by the Sages have any kind of divine sanction?

-Mark S. Kinzer
from “the 2003 Hashivenu Forum Messianic Judaism and Jewish Tradition in the 21st Century: A Biblical Defense of “Oral Torah,” pp.1-2
found at OurRabbis.org (PDF)

I assume that at least some of you who read my previous blog post about the “Oral Law” also clicked in the link I provided and read Dr. Kinzer’s paper. After I read it, I found myself pondering certain matters brought up by Kinzer, namely whether or not whatever we consider to be “Oral Torah” is at all authoritatively binding on the Jewish people as a whole or conversely, specific local communities of Jews.

Of course, why should I care? I’m not Jewish. Nothing we could consider a “Rabbinic ruling” was ever intended (perhaps with rare exception) to apply to a Gentile and particularly a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus).

But as I’ve mentioned before, Christians have used the Talmud and the wider concept of the Oral Law as one of their (our) clubs or blunt instruments with which we’ve battered, bruised, and bloodied (both literally and figuratively) the Jewish people across the history of the Church. If nothing else, it behooves us to take a closer look at our own behavior and whether or not we are actually opposing God in opposing Jewish traditions.

I know the concepts of “Oral Law,” “Jewish Tradition,” “Talmud,” and other similar labels are not exactly synonyms but they all point to the central question of whether or not the Torah contains all that a Jew needs to know to obey God and live a proper Jewish life. I’m not even arguing for the idea that the traditions as we find them today in Judaism were delivered whole to Moses on Sinai. I began this blog post quoting Kinzer who also does not believe such a thing.

What I want to explore is whether, both in ancient and modern times, those who lead or rule the Jewish people have the right, as appointed by God, to interpret the Torah and then to have those interpretive rulings be binding for general or local populations of Jews.

This idea probably seems a little ridiculous to many Christians, but I think Kinzer made a good point that it is at least possible that leaders in Israel have had and do have the divine right to issue halachah and expect that halachah to be adhered to, with penalties for non-compliance.

According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

Deuteronomy 17:11-13 (NASB)

This is one of the foundational scriptures that establishes a divinely appointed right of the Priests in Israel to issue authoritative rulings with consequences if their rulings are disregarded.

However, authority was not limited to the Priests:

The Lord therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25

PhariseesIt’s important to note that, as was established earlier (Exodus 18:17-26) these judges were to hear the common disputes among the individual tribes and clans of the people and issue binding rulings, and only the most difficult cases were to be brought to Moses. This means there were many local judges who had the authority to make legal decisions and establish binding procedures, resolving disputes, including any over how a particular mitzvah (commandment) was to be carried out.

It’s critical to realize that these seventy elders or judges were not relying only on their human wisdom, nor were they only appointed by Moses. We saw in the Numbers 11 passage these elders being appointed and approved of by God as evidenced by the Holy Spirit resting upon each of them.

Now that’s authority.

The importance of this central judiciary and its role as the latter day expression of the Mosaic office becomes clearer with a careful study of the pericope. The passage begins by directing that certain types of cases should be brought from the local courts to the central court. These are cases that are “too difficult for you (yipalay mi-mecha),” and that involve homicide (beyn dam le-dam), personal injury (nega), or disputes over the appropriate law (din) to apply (Deuteronomy 17:8). The meaning of this last type of case (beyn din le-din) will become clear in a moment. The central court shall hear the case, and render a decision. The persons involved are not free to disregard this decision, but “must carefully observe all that they instruct you to do” (ve-shamarta la’asot ke-chol asher yorucha) (Deuteronomy 17:10). The words “carefully observe” (shamarta la’asot) appear frequently in various forms in Deuteronomy, always enjoining obedience to the words of the Torah itself. Here they enjoin obedience to the high court.

-Kinzer, pp.6-7

Thus the Priests and Judges were divinely empowered to interpret the Torah and to issue what amounts to extra-Biblical halachah as to how to perform the mitzvot, and these rulings were legally binding for the immediate situation and across time.

We can certainly see where the later Rabbis get the idea that God authorizes all leaders and teachers of the Jewish people to be able to issue binding halachah.

But you are probably saying that in the Apostolic Scriptures, we only see the Holy Spirit being granted to disciples of Yeshua (Jesus). Doesn’t this mean that, even if this authority continues to exist, it is only available and effective within the Church?

If the answer to that question is “yes,” then God has abandoned the Jewish people, national Israel, and every single promise He made as part of the Sinai Covenant. But as you know, I don’t believe that the Sinai Covenant was rendered void because Yeshua inaugurated the very beginnings of the New Covenant, nor to I believe one covenant ever replaces another.

So if the Sinai Covenant remains in effect, then God’s relationship with all Israel remains in effect, both with Messianic and all other branches of Judaism. I’ve also said before that a Jew is the only person automatically born into a covenant relationship with God, whether he or she wants to be or not. You don’t have to be a religious Jew to be a part of the covenant, you just have to be a Jew.

So if under the Sinai Covenant, God established that Judges and Priests have the authority to issue binding rulings upon the Israelites, we can at least suggest that authority moved forward in time and across ancient and modern Jewish history.

But does having authority automatically make you right?

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

Matthew 23:1-3

I’ve previously referenced Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper (PDF) as evidence that Yeshua, though he had specific disagreements with the Pharisees, recognized that they had the authority to issue binding rulings on the Pharisaic community (and Yeshua’s teachings were very much in keeping with the Pharisees generally). If the Master acknowledged Pharisaic authority, this suggests that what once rested upon the Priests and Judges of ancient Israel was passed down to later authorities, and these authorities would eventually evolve into what we now call Rabbinic Judaism.

Yeshua didn’t always consider the rulings of the Pharisees correct, and even when he did, he recognized that they didn’t always obey their own decisions, so they could have authority and yet wield it imperfectly…but they did have authority

We even see Yeshua granting his own apostles that same authority; the ability to issue binding rulings upon the Jewish and Gentile disciples in “the Way”.

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

Matthew 18:18

FFOZ Bind and LooseThe concept of binding and loosing isn’t always well understood among some Christians. For an excellent treatment of what these legal terms mean in Judaism, please see the First Fruit of Zion (FFOZ) video teaching on binding and loosing which I reviewed some time ago. The video is only about thirty minutes long and well worth your time in helping you understand this important concept and how it applies to the current conversation (the image above isn’t “clickable” but the links in this paragraph are).

As far as how the ancient Messianic community applied this authority, the most famous example can be found in Acts 15.

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21

Here we have James the Just, head of the Jerusalem Council of Apostles and Elders, issuing a legal ruling after the Council had heard testimony, deliberated, and cited Biblical proof text. This ruling established the requirements and limitations regarding the entry of Gentiles within Messianic Jewish community, specifically exempting them (us) from having to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism as a requirement of admission.

The importance of this text for our purpose cannot be underestimated. Yeshua here employs the same verse to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Pharisaic teachers as is later used in Rabbinic tradition to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Rabbis. As we have seen, such a reading of Deuteronomy 17:10 suits well its original function within the Pentateuch. Though Matthew 23 proceeds to castigate those very same Pharisees for their unworthy conduct, this fact only throws the initial verses into bolder relief. In effect, the Pharisaic teachers have authority to bind and loose – even as the students of Yeshua have authority to bind and loose.

-Kinzer, p.27

Kinzer draws a line from the ancient Priests and Judges to the Pharisees and to Yeshua’s apostles as all having the authority from God to bind and loose, that is, to establish local interpretations that were not mere suggestions but had the force of law, even if those rulings were not explicitly stated within the written Biblical text. In fact, the purpose of “Oral Law” requires that it not be written or “hard-coded” into the mitzvot:

This view of the Oral Torah does not see it as a solidified code, given once for all to Moses on Sinai, and differing from the Written Torah only in its mode of transmission. Instead, it sees the Oral Torah as the divinely guided process by which the Jewish people seeks to make the Written Torah a living reality, in continuity with the accumulated wisdom of generations past and in creative encounter with the challenges and opportunities of the present. It thus presumes that the covenantal promises of Sinai – both God’s promise to Israel and Israel’s promise in return –remain eternally valid, and that the God of the covenant will ever protect that covenant by guiding His people in its historical journey through the wilderness.

-ibid, pp.18-19

I’ve heard the Torah compared to the United States Constitution. If the only Constitution we had was the original document from almost two-and-a-half centuries ago, it would be hopelessly archaic and incapable of dealing with many legal and social issues that exist in modern times but could never have been dreamed of by America’s Founding Fathers. If we didn’t have the ability to periodically amend the Constitution, we’d probably have to write new constitutions every so many years, just to keep the basis for our Government relevant.

So too with the Torah. Many of the issues facing modern Jews today could not have been taken into account when it was originally established. Even between the days of Moses and the days of Yeshua, hundreds, thousands, or more legal decisions and interpretations probably had to be made to address the shifting circumstances facing the Jewish people. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s Temple, with the Jewish people facing a seemingly endless exile, the Torah had to continue to be interpreted and legal rulings issued to ensure Jewish survival in a hostile world and across the changing landscape of history.

But you may disagree with my assessment and feel I haven’t proven my case. I really am not trying to provide definitive proof but rather, to open the doors to possibility. For many more details on this topic than I can provide here, I refer you to Dr. Kinzer’s original paper. All I’m saying is that, given the “paper trail” I’ve attempted to lay down and my faith that God has not abandoned the Sinai Covenant or His people Israel, I don’t think that what He once gave them, a method of continually evolving Biblical interpretation, died on the cross with Jesus.

I don’t think that God gave Moses what amounts to our modern understanding of the Talmud on Sinai 3500 years ago. I do think, at best, God gave Moses some general principles by which to interpret the written Law and gave other Priests and Judges (not just Moses) the authority to establish traditional methods of observing the mitzvot that aren’t explicit or even existent in the written Biblical text.

If that authority extends to the present, then we have to take another look at Rabbinic authority within the different streams of Judaism and the large and complicated body of work we collectively refer to as Talmud.

Talmudic RabbisA final note. Are all of the rulings of the Rabbis absolutely correct and is Talmud perfectly internally consistent? Probably not. To the degree that the Sages were human, then they were driven by human as well as divine priorities making them, like all men of authority (and all men everywhere) capable of all kinds of error. Yeshua, while he agreed (in my opinion) that the Pharisees had the authority to issue binding halachah, didn’t universally agree with their rulings (see Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23 for example).

Even less often noticed is the fact that the ritual norms that Yeshua upholds in this text are not found in the Written Torah, but instead derive from Pharisaic tradition! The tithing of small herbs such as mint, dill, and cummin was a Pharisaic extension of the Written Torah. Yet, according to Matthew, Yeshua not only urges compliance with this practice – he treats it as a matter of the Torah (though of lesser weight than the injunctions to love, justice, and faithfulness). This supports our earlier inference that Yeshua’s teaching and practice encourage the Pharisees to think of him as one of their own. His criticism of the Pharisees (or, to be more precise, some of the Pharisees) is a prophetic critique offered by one whose commitments and convictions position him as an insider rather than an outsider.

-ibid, p.23

Assuming I’m right about all this, I suspect when Yeshua returns, he will perform a similar function among his modern Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and encourage corrections and improvements on existing halachah and the traditions of Torah interpretation. I believe he will do so as a matter of his love for the Jewish people, not as a matter of criticism or censure. I believe we Christians, or whatever we call ourselves, dismiss God’s love for the Jewish people and His presence among them and their Rabbis at our extreme peril. Our redemption comes from the Jews (John 4:22) not the other way around.

Putting a New Face on Sunday School

In verses 22-23 of Acts 22, Give the details of the “hissy fit” Paul’s Jewish audience threw when he used the “G” word.

Have you or I ever felt or expressed similar emotions when we didn’t get out way in church? (The “no” word) How does submission allow the Lord to bring about spiritual growth in our worthy walk with Him?

-from the Sunday school study notes
on Acts 22:22-29 for June 8th

My Sunday school teacher has a tendency to compare apples with oranges and believe he is actually comparing apples to apples. For instance:

“And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

They listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way.

Acts 22:21-24 (NASB)

Teacher was comparing a near-riot situation not only to a “hissy fit” (which Urban Dictionary defines as a “sudden outburst of temper, often used to describe female anger at something trivial”) but to any relatively minor situation a person might experience in church that would cause them unhappiness or displeasure.

Either he thinks people’s problems in church border on crowd violence or he grossly minimizes the angst, frustration, fear, pain, and anger of the Jewish people whose land has been occupied by a pagan foreign army and who were highly sensitized to any offense by Gentiles during a moed such as Shavuot.

Since I published my previous blog post which merely anticipated last Sunday’s class, people have been asking me how class actually went. This is the answer.

Apostle Paul preachingI decided I could not remain completely silent and let what I considered to be unfair or inaccurate statements about Paul’s situation in particular or Christianity’s attitude about Judaism and Jewish people in general go unanswered. While I chose to ignore the “hissy fit” comment (though I was surprised at the number of people in class who agreed that the Jews in the above-quoted passage were merely “throwing a childish fit”), I did zero in on the humanity and the group dynamics of the situation.

I pointed out that presumably, some “Jews from Asia” (Acts 21:27) had been spreading rumors in Jerusalem that Paul had been “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21), and also that he had “even brought Greeks into the temple and [had] defiled [the] holy place.”

It only takes a few agitators to stir up a large crowd and start a riot. Jerusalem’s population had swelled to millions of Jews in preparation of Shavuot, and it was always during the moadim that emotions ran especially high. Any upset or offense at all, particularly the thought that a pagan Gentile would be taken into the Temple by a Jew who was presumed to be sympathetic to pagans if not a Roman collaborator, would be cause enough for disaster.

Now the Passover and Unleavened Bread were two days away; and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to seize Him by stealth and kill Him; for they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise there might be a riot of the people.”

Mark 14:1-2 (NASB)

We see even the Romans (not to mention the chief priests and scribes) could not execute the Master with impunity for fear of the crowds. In fact, in Acts 22, the Roman military authorities are doing all they can to prevent such a mass disturbance.

riotingSince none of that qualifies as a “hissy fit,” I decided to toss my two cents into the hat, so to speak, and explain all of this to the class. My teacher was in totally agreement and no one spoke up to suggest otherwise, though I can’t possibly know what anyone was thinking. My one regret was that the individual who previously made the Anti-Gentilism remark wasn’t present to either respond or not respond. But that was probably for the best since I can be more sure that my motivations were clear of the desire to make my own “response” to this person.

Earlier that morning, Pastor was extremely careful to point out that Paul’s troubles weren’t what we might consider in modern times to be “Jews persecuting a Christian.” At that moment in history, in Jerusalem, all of the people involved, apart from the Romans, are Jesus-believing Jews and Jews from other religious streams. The most accurate picture, in my personal opinion, we can paint, is that differing or opposing Jewish religious sects were engaged in “passionate” disagreement up to and including violent outbursts.

But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks.

Acts 23:6-10 (NASB)

Last week in one of my reviews of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, I wrote that Lancaster taught that the Pharisees and the Messianic Jewish believers all had virtually identical theology and doctrine. They both believed in the world to come, they both believed that God rewarded good and punished evil, both in this world and the world to come, they both believed in the resurrection of the dead, and they both believed in the Holy Spirit and in angelic beings.

But the Sadducees believed in none of that, which is what, according to Lancaster, resulted in the Sadducees barring the Messianic believers from the Temple prompting the Hebrews letter-writer to pen his epistle, and why the Sadducees and Pharisees sitting on the Sanhedrin argued so strenuously, putting Paul’s safety and even his life in danger.

That’s not the same as one religion persecuting another, dissimilar religion.

The Jewish PaulIn fact, in verse 6, Paul said, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees…,” and Pastor pointed this out, not I was a Pharisee. There was nothing inconsistent with being a Pharisee and coming to the realization that Yeshua was the Messiah, Son of God. Yeshua-devotion seems to have been the natural, logical, Biblical extension of Pharisaism in late second-Temple Judaism.

So we might even say (though I could be stepping out on a limb here), that modern Messianic Judaism, in some sense, is the inheritor of first century Pharisaic/Messianic Judaism.

As Sunday school class ended, a gentleman who looked familiar to me, but not in that context, approached me and introduced himself. Actually, he reminded me that he’s the father of my son Michael’s best friend. Apparently, he and his wife had attended this church some years back but left to plant another church in the community. They’ve returned, presumably for some time, so it’s become a more interesting situation.

I recall the few times I’ve spoken with this person before. He’s always been personable and interactive. Very much a “traditional Christian” but willing to listen and discuss my “Jewish” ideas.

No one else in class (or in church) has any connection to my family or my family’s history (my son has known this gentleman and his family for well over a decade, though I’ve only met them just a few times over the years) so I wonder how or if this will affect my future contributions? The situation certainly puts a new face on Sunday school.

One more thing. Pastor did talk about Christians who are being persecuted in the world today, and specifically Pastor Sergey Kosyak of Donetsk in the Ukraine. Please pray for him and for all the Christians who are authentically in danger, being injured, being incarcerated, being murdered for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ. May God be with them and protect them all.

Best Viewed Through a Long Telescope

phariseesThe Jewish-Christian schism in Late Antiquity has been studied from numerous points of view. This paper will approach these events by investigating the manner in which halakhic issues (questions of Jewish law) motivated the approach of the early Rabbis to the rise of the new faith, and the manner in which Rabbinic legal enactments expressed that approach as well. The eventual conclusion of the Rabbis and the Jewish community that Christianity was a separate religion and that Christians were not Jews, was intimately bound up with the Jewish laws and traditions governing personal status in the Jewish community, both for Jews by birth and proselytes. These laws, as known today, were already in full effect by the rise of Christianity. In the eyes of the Rabbis, the evolution of Christianity from a group of Jews holding heretical beliefs into a group whose members lacked the legal status of Jewish identity and, hence, constituted a separate religious community, brought about further legal rulings which were intended to separate the Christians from the Jewish community.

-Prof. Lawrence H. Schiffman
“The Halakhic Response of the Rabbis to the Rise of Christianity”

Yahnatan Lasko at the Gathering Sparks blog sent me the link to Professor Schiffman’s brief article (and with a title like that, I was surprised it was so short) with the idea that I might want to write something in response (and I’m not the only blogger in the “Messianic space” Yahnatan notified). I emailed him back with my immediate thoughts:

Schiffman seems to be saying that prior to the destruction of the Temple, he believes that Jews who believed Yeshua was the Messiah and even Divine wouldn’t have caused any sort of rejection from the larger Jewish population or authority structures since there were multiple streams of Judaism in operation, with the general expectation that they were going to disagree with each other. The destruction of the Temple was the catalyst for many things, including Jewish dispersal, the apprehension of Gentile leadership of “the Way” for the first time, the power surge of Gentiles entering that Judaism, all resulting in the shift from Messiah worship as a Jewish religion to Christ worship as a Gentile faith. As Schiffman said, the Pharisees were the only Jewish stream to remain intact after the Temple’s fall and while “the Way” also survived, it took a divergent trajectory, leading it away from Judaism, so by default, the Pharisees became the foundation for later Rabbinic Judaism.

Schiffman is being very “gentle” in his treatment of this topic. I can see a blog post coming out of this in the semi-near future. Thanks for sending the link.

Of course, Schiffman also said that Jews who had faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah were holding “heretical beliefs,” so I guess he wasn’t all that gentle, but he still seems to be treating the topic with a lighter touch than you’d expect.

I was somewhat reminded of Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s treatment of “the story of Jesus Christ” in his book The Jewish Gospels (a book I extensively reviewed in The Unmixing Bowl, The Son of Man – The Son of God, and Jesus the Traditionalist Jew).

Boyarin, of course, didn’t express personal faith in Yeshua as Messiah or assign any credibility, from his perspective, that modern Judaism could consider Jesus as Moshiach, but he is another Jewish voice saying that, given the understanding of the Torah and the Prophets in the late Second Temple period, it was certainly reasonable and credible to expect that some Jews, perhaps a large number of Jews, would have accepted Yeshua’s Messianic claim and even his Divinity.

mens-service-jewish-synagogueToday, for the vast majority of Jewish people, such thoughts are outrageous and offensive, but unwinding Jewish history and the development of Rabbinic thought back nearly twenty centuries, we encounter a different set of Judaisms than we observe in the modern era. We can’t really retrofit modern Jewish perspectives into the time of Jesus, Peter, and James anymore than the modern Church can insert post-Reformation and post-modern Christian theology and doctrine backward in time and into the original intent of the Gospel and Epistle writers, particularly Paul. Both inject massive doses of anachronism into the ancient Jewish streams of life when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem.

Today, it takes a tremendous amount of courage for any Jewish person, under any set of circumstances, to say anything even mildly complementary about the ancient Jewish stream of “the Way” and that it might be reasonable to believe that in that cultural and chronological context, Jewish people, from fishermen to scribes, might see the Messiah looking at them from the eyes of Jesus.

While our sources point to general adherence to Jewish law and practice by the earliest Christians, we must also remember that some deviation from the norms of the tannaim must have occurred already at the earliest period. Indeed, the sayings attributed by the Gospels to Jesus would lead us to believe that he may have taken a view of the halakhah that was different from that of the Pharisees,. Nonetheless, from the point of view of the halakhic standards, the early Rabbis did not see the earliest Christians as constituting a separate religious community.


A number of months ago, Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar made a statement that I think speaks to the above-quoted comment of Professor Schiffman:

But, to complicate matters, different social groups and congregations often have their own versions of Torah that they enforce in these ways. Obviously, this situation is far from ideal.

Fortunately, God is (in my considered opinion) not a perfectionist. Even as he calls us to holiness, he understands the limitations that surround us. For the most part, then, Torah observance is essentially voluntary and variable rather than compulsory and uniform. In fact, this is exactly the situation that existed in Yeshua’s, when the vast majority of synagogues were “unaffiliated” and most Jews practiced what has been called “common Judaism.” In common Judaism, Jews kept the basics of Torah observance according to their customs but did not acknowledge the authority of the sects (including the Pharisees) to impose additional laws.

ancient-rabbi-teachingMy understanding of what Rabbi Kinbar said was that while there was a basic or core set of standards and halachah that defined Judaism as an overarching identity and practice, not only were there multiple streams of Judaism (Pharisees, Essences, and so on), but significant variations of how Torah observance was defined among “different social groups and congregations” (and I apologize to Rabbi Kinbar in advance if I’ve misunderstood anything he’s said).

What this means for us as we’re gazing into the time of the apostles, is that there were many different expressions of what we call “Judaism” back in the day, but in spite of all the distinctions, including one group who paid homage to a lowly Jewish teacher from the Galilee as the Messiah and Divine Son of God, they were all accepted as Jewish people practicing valid Judaisms.

This situation changed with the destruction of the Temple. Divisions within the people, after all, had made the orderly prosecution of the war against the Romans and the defense of the Holy City impossible. The Temple had fallen as a result. Only in unity could the people and the land be rebuilt. It was only a question of which of the sects would unify the populace.


Holding all of this diversity together in a Jewish land occupied by the Roman empire was difficult enough, and more so for Jewish communities in the diaspora, but the Temple was the common denominator (even if you lived so far away that you could only afford to make the pilgrimage rarely) that defined all Jewish people everywhere. The Temple was always the center, the resting place of the Divine Presence, the only place on earth where once a year atonement was made for all of Israel.

And then it was gone.

As Schiffman points out, with their power base destroyed, the Sadducees where scattered to the winds. It could be argued that the Way, the ancient movement of Messiah worshipers, was a Pharisaic extension. We have indications that the apostle Paul not only did not abandon Jewish practice but remained Pharisaic throughout his life. Many of Yeshua’s teachings most closely fit the theology of the Pharisees. Even my Pastor said that if we lived in ancient Israel (and we were Jewish), we’d be Pharisees, because they were the “fundamentalists” of their day, the populist movement among the common Jewish people, Am Yisrael.

But the split would inevitably occur, perhaps not so much because one splinter group among the Pharisees, the Way, believed they had identified a Divine Messiah, but because a mass movement of Gentiles was entering that particular Jewish sect and, by definition, re-writing the nature of the movement as the majority Gentile membership achieved ascendency and as the Jewish membership were forced into exile, grieving a Temple and a Jerusalem left in ruins.

Of the vast numbers of Greco-Roman non-Jews who were attracted to Christianity, only a small number ever became proselytes to Judaism. The new Christianity was primarily Gentile, for it did not require its adherents to become circumcised and convert to Judaism or to observe the Law. Yet at the same time, Christianity in the Holy Land was still strongly Jewish.

As the destruction of the Temple was nearing, the differences between Judaism and Christianity were widening. By the time the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish Christians were a minority among the total number of Christians, and it was becoming clear that the future of the new religion would be dominated by Gentile Christians. Nevertheless, the tannaim still came into contact primarily with Jewish Christians and so continued to regard the Christians as Jews who had gone astray by following the teachings of Jesus.


Long telescopeAccording to Schiffman’s commentary, as long as the “Christian” movement was largely controlled by Jews, it was a Judaism and Jewish people who believed that a Jewish Rabbi was actually the Messiah were still Jewish. In fact, in that time and place, it was probably a no-brainer. No one would have even questioned that any Jewish adherent to the Way wasn’t Jewish, anymore than any Jewish person today would question the “Jewishness” of a Chabad adherent believing their beloved Rebbe will one day be resurrected as the Messiah.

Schiffman said that other Jewish streams would have considered Jewish Yeshua-believers as misguided but Jewish, much as other Jewish streams might consider the Chabad and their attitude about the Rebbe today.

If today’s Jewish people (or for that matter, today’s Christians) could look through that long telescope back to the world of Peter, James, and Paul, they might gain a vision that would help them see what I see in today’s Messianic Jewish movement; a perspective that illuminates the “Jewishness” of those men and women who are observant Jews and who have put their hope in the Messiah, who once walked among his people Israel as a teacher from the Galilee who went about gathering disciples, and ended up revolutionizing the world.

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 3

The title I have chosen for this study is a “tongue-in-cheek” attempt to highlight something that seems to be missed by many, namely, that the Mishnah did not exist as a written document in the pre-destruction era, so it is quite obvious that no one, including Paul, could have possibly read what is known in our day as the Mishanh (sic). In fact, as we shall see, the Mishnah was not widely read by Jewish communities in the centuries immediately following the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) either, for the Mishnah was not “published” as a written document until much later.

Along the same lines, it is a methodological error to speak of “1st Century Judaism,” for no such monolithic Judaism existed. We must rather speak of “Judaisms” (plural) in the pre-destruction era. Granted that a variety of Judaisms extant in the 1st Century surely had some things in common (Shabbat, circumcision, Tanach, etc.), it was nonetheless their clear and (in some cases) radical differences that produced the variegated Judaisms of that era.

Unfortunately, the presupposition of some in the Messianic movement is that the later corpus of rabbinic literature presents a monolithic, historically accurate description of “the Judaism” practiced by Yeshua and His disciples.

-Tim Hegg
from the Introduction (pg. 1) of
“What Version of the Mishnah did Paul Read?” (2012)

Since writing Part 2 of this series, I’ve been pondering how to proceed, since, as I’m sure you’ve gathered if you read the questions I’ve been posing, the scope of my inquiry is rather ambitious. Then the answer landed firmly in my lap. I’m indebted to Peter at Orthodox Messianic Judaism (something of a misnomer given the theological nature of his blog) for providing a link to Tim Hegg’s article. I read it through once, meaning to go over it again and eventually write something about it, but as I was getting into the shower, I had an “epiphany” and quickly rushed to my computer (I put a robe on first) to compose the paragraphs that are the heart of this missive (we’ll get to those by the by).

I should say at this point that I like Tim Hegg. He has been very gracious to me. I’ve spent Erev Shabbat in his home, I’ve been treated well by his family and his congregation, and I admire and respect him as a leader and a scholar. All of which added to my surprise when I realized in reading the Introduction to the above-quoted paper, that he had made some glaring and erroneous assumptions.

I can’t think of anyone in Messianic Judaism who believes that the Mishnah we have today is a direct reflection of how Judaism (or “Judaisms”) functioned back in the late Second Temple period, when Jesus walked among his people Israel. I have no idea, even after reading Tim’s paper in full, where he got that idea. Certainly my drive to investigate the evolution of Judaism as it relates, both to the ongoing authority of Judaism to define itself across time, and whether or not First Century halakhah and modern halakhah can be considered equally valid for the Judaism of their times, doesn’t assume a fixed, static, and non-adaptive set of applications of Torah over a 2,000 year span.

Also, his point that in the day of Jesus, that there were multiple “Judaisms” (Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, and so on) is hardly a revelation. Again, I don’t know anyone in the Messianic Jewish movement who would deny the “multi-sect” nature of First Century Judaism. On the other hand, if we look at modern Judaism or modern Christianity, we could say the same thing. If there was no, one unified “Judaism” in the day of Jesus, there must certainly be no one, monolithic, unified modern Christianity either. The fact that the Christian church exists as perhaps hundreds of denominational models and their variants, (including One Law or, if you will, “One Torah”) establishes this firmly. Nevertheless, no one balks at talking about “Christianity” or “Judaism” in the 21st Century as if they were specific, unified entities, since at their cores within each individual religion, they contain a basic, common set of theologies, doctrines, dogma, and the like that identify them as either “Christian” or “Jewish.”

It’s as if Tim constructed a very well written and organized paper based on faulty assumptions about Messianic Judaism. It’s never been about the Judaism of late Second Temple times being one unified entity, and it certainly has nothing to do with the belief that the Talmud, (which is comprised of Mishnah, Baraita, Gemara, Halakhah, and Aggadah) as we understand it, having existed as the same body of information in the days of Jesus and the Apostles as it does today.

(The evolution of the Oral Torah and halakhah of Christ’s day into what eventually became known as the Talmud is well beyond the scope of this article, but the seeds of what became Talmud certainly must have existed in some form in the Second Temple period and before. What we know of Hillel and Shammai is recorded in Pirkei Avot, which is the “ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period,” and yet both Hillel and Shammai pre-dated Jesus by a generation, and the formalization of Mishnah by centuries.)

In the Conclusions section of Tim’s paper (pg. 23, point 5), he states:

We see, then, that there is no historical nor biblical case for accepting oral Torah as divinely sanctioned. Even the suggestion itself is ill-founded, for it both presumes a monolithic “oral Torah” and that the rabbinic authorities who formulated and compiled the current corpus of rabbinic literature did so by the leading of God.

Point 7 of his Conclusions (pp 23-4) states:

As we avail ourselves of the wealth of rabbinic literature and gain value from the study of it, we must also keep in mind that it is the product of men and not that of divine revelation. It does not come to us with any sense of divine imprimatur nor should the rabbinic literature be considered as having sacred value greater than the works of non-rabbinic authors or sources. All the writings of men must be equally scrutinized in the light of the eternal word of God, the Bible.

There’s a certain irony in Tim’s statements if you fix your gaze, not on the Rabbinic writings that are encapsulated in Talmud, but on another “Rabbi’s” writings, which we find in “the light of the eternal word of God, the Bible.”

We take it on faith that the Bible, the Holy Scriptures of God, are Divinely inspired and not merely the writings of human beings, but even then, most of us don’t believe that God simply dictated the Bible to myriads of human beings over several thousand years of history, and that the authors involved were only human word processors. In fact, how much of the personalities and viewpoints of all of these authors made their way into our Holy Scriptures is a hotly debated point among religious scholars and worshipers.

Add to that the suggestion that the New Testament Epistles, which make up the majority of the Christian texts, were actually letters written mostly by Paul, with smaller contributions by a handful of others, to various early Christian churches, and you begin to wonder about the nature of “Divine inspiration.” More than one source has said that the New Testament letters could be of a “lesser authority” than the Torah, for example, and may indeed be Paul’s midrashim or commentaries on Torah, the Messiah, and on the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. If this is true, then the barrier between “Divine authority” and “human agency” in many of our holy writings is a lot thinner than most Christians (perhaps including Tim Hegg) would be comfortable with.

What if there’s merit to the idea that the Talmudic writings and subsequent commentaries, judgments, and rulings have a “Divine authority” involved, at least to a degree? If we can say that Paul’s letters are “Divine” in some manner or fashion, and yet were written by Paul with his mind and emotions fully engaged, (and who knows how “Divine inspiration” does and doesn’t work) then in Galatians, Ephesians, or Colossians, where does Paul leave off and God begin? There’s no way to know. Maybe God just “wired” Paul’s brain to write letters in a way that reflected His will and intent within the context of Paul’s personality, the place and time in which Paul was writing, who he was writing to, and the issues at hand that prompted the letter in the first place.

How is that different from the acknowledged and legitimate Rabbinic authorities issuing rulings, based on and extrapolating from Torah ideals and principles, and then applying them to their local populations?

Who can say if the Mishnaic Rabbis were Divinely inspired or not. How do you measure “Divine inspiration?” I suppose you can, as Tim says at one point, compare the Rabbinic rulings to the canon of Scripture and where they agree, you can say the Rabbis have produced value. Where they disagree, you can say they produced error. Detractors of the Talmud, as applied to Messianic Judaism, say that since “Rabbinic Judaism” does not recognize Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah, it invalidates everything produced by that “Judaism” including the Talmud as a whole (as far as Messianic Jews are concerned, anyway). On the other hand, as my friend Gene Shlomovich said recently in this blog comment:

If you want to believe, as much of Christianity and Islam does, that G-d has virtually abandoned the Jewish people by leaving them to fend for themselves without authoritative leaders and teachers because “they rejected Jesus”, that the Jewish people corrupted the interpretation of scriptures and have lost their right to interpret them, that G-d has removed his Spirit from my people, it’s your prerogative. You would not be the first or the last.

Traditional supersessionism states that God withdrew His Spirit from the Jewish people and transferred it to “the Church” because Judaism rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus. Not only do I believe that theology represents a tremendous error in thinking, but it is a gross simplification of a very complex set of events that occurred over decades and even centuries.

The paper Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah? written by Noel Rabbinowitz, which I introduced in Part 1 of this series, suggests that not only did Jesus acknowledge the legitimate authority of the Pharisees, but also of the scribes, who, as Carl Kinbar explains, were:

…an independent group affiliated not only with the Pharisees, but also with the Sadducees, Chief Priests, and elders. In fact, in Matthew, a quick check shows that 10 references to the scribes relate them to the Pharisees and 10 to other groups!

As soon as we grant the scribes the same place that Yeshua does in Mt. 23:2, it seems that Yeshua was not promoting the idea that one group should be in control of the halakhic process. Rather, he acknowledges the vital role of Torah teachers but criticizes them as part of his teaching on humility (read to verse 12).

In essence, it seems Jesus, to some degree, acknowledged the legitimate authority of the religious leaders in the various “Judaisms” of his day to have the right to establish halakhah for their communities. Of course the Mishnah as we have it today didn’t exist when the events in Matthew 23 were happening and later recorded, but if Jesus could recognize (and still criticize) Jewish religious leaders as having the right to establish religious practice for the First Century Judaisms, and if that authority was maintained across time as granted by God (I know…a big “if) and perhaps even as a function of an evolutionary process occurring within global Judaism and the local “Judaisms,” then maybe we can say that Jewish authority to legitimately define itself and it’s practice didn’t come to an abrupt end when it was “nailed to the cross with Jesus.”

No one is saying that the Mishnah existed in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. But even Tim Hegg must acknowledge that some sort of halakhah did exist as established by the Pharisees and scribes. Factor in Rabbinowitz, and you have established that Jesus agreed in principle, that the Jewish religious authorities were legitimate and he acknowledged much of their halakhah. We can build on this to explore the possibility that God did not turn His back on all of His people Israel across the last twenty centuries, and that He maintained His presence among them. If God abandoned Judaism totally, and completely “threw in” with Christianity, then whatever the Rabbis came up with was inspired by human imagination alone. But if God is with all of His people, those of the Covenant of Abraham and Sinai, as well as those of us who benefit from some of the blessings of the New Covenant, then both Christianity and Judaism have a place in God’s heart and in God’s plan.

Have God’s blessings continued to be with the Jews as well as the Christians? Considering the fact that Jews even exist today, let alone retain the faith, practices, and traditions of their Fathers, with some teachings stretching back over 3,300 years, it would seem the answer is “yes.” Has He let them spin out of control, creating laws, rules, and statutes that are made up of wishful thinking and pipe dreams, while only showering His “Divine inspiration” on the laws, rules, and statutes of the unified Christian church (I hope you’re picking up on my attempt to be ironic)? I seriously doubt it.

Tim Hegg, in point 6 of his Conclusions (pg. 23) states:

Our conclusion is that, while rabbinic literature does have much value, it is not to be received as having divine authority in matters of our faith and halachah.

Tim may esteem Rabbinic literature in terms of its historic value, as well as for its insights into “the perspectives, beliefs, and worldview of modern Judaisms,” which “aids Messianic believers in appreciating and understanding the religious perspectives of observant Jews in our own day,” but for those “observant Jews,” Messianic and otherwise, the meaning of Mishnah is a great deal more. It doesn’t have to mean the same thing to us, including me or Tim, as it does to observant Jews, since the vast majority halakhah does not apply to Christianity.

Will Jesus Christ, upon his return and when he establishes his reign over the earth and his throne in Holy Jerusalem, recognize the authority of the Jews of that day as he recognized the authority of the Jews of 2,000 years ago? I don’t know for sure. But as we’ve seen, Jesus didn’t reject the Jewish authorities of ancient days out of hand, though he didn’t completely agree with them, either. Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Jesus seeing modern Judaism in the same light, particularly because God doesn’t seem to have dismissed His Jewish people…ever.

Part 4 in this series will examine another aspect of the authority of the Talmudic sages and of modern Judaism. Does Judaism have the right to define itself, including Messianic Judaism? Find out in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 1

The ever present studentMoses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 1:1

Our first order of business must be to determine the meaning of the phrase “the Seat of Moses”… The precise meaning of the term remains a subject of much debate among scholars. Resolving this question is important, because it has direct bearing upon our understanding of the Pharisees authority and influence in Second Temple Judaism. If Jesus uses “the Seat of Moses” pejoratively, this weakens the argument that the Pharisees exercised any real, or at least any legitimate, authority within the religious and social life of Israel. If, however, he uses the term positively, or as a statement of fact, this strengthens our conviction that the Pharisees had become the authoritative interpreters of the Torah and that their halakhic decisions were accepted by most people within Israel.

-Noel S. Rabbinowitz
“Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees
and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?”
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-4 (PDF)

Yes, I know…another series. But this has been on my mind for awhile and during the Rosh Hashanah celebration, I decided to put it into words.

I’m hoping some of my loyal readers who are educationally equipped to examine this information will comment on this topic as it is quite complex and controvertial. Keep in mind, that’s not a promise that I’ll always accept whatever is posted as a response. Your priorities and perspectives may not agree with my own. For example, I reject the common Christian viewpoint that Jesus dismissed all Jewish oral tradition and halakhah of his day, as well as the Torah outright, and replaced it with grace. You’ll see support for my opinion in a minute.

This blog post quotes heavily from Noel Rabbinowitz’s paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” which was published in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-47. I want to acknowledge that I first found this paper linked to the Rosh Pina Project blog post, “Did Jesus Recognize Halakhah?” Although I don’t frequently visit their site, Rosh Pina has a good reputation in the Messianic Jewish space and they’re considered a good and fair source of information.

Why am I writing this?

There have been numerous suggestions on the web that there is no validity in the authority of the Talmudic sages to establish halakhah that would apply to the Messianic Jewish community. By “Messianic Jewish,” I specifically mean a form of Judaism, in its ideal expression, that is wholly “owned and operated” by people who are halachically Jewish (having at least a mother who is Jewish) and (again, ideally) raised in a Jewish home, possessing of a Jewish education, and who are fully identified as ethnically, culturally, and religiously Jewish.

OK, that’s a tall order, since even in the most “Jewish” of Messianic Jewish congregations, the majority of members, and probably a good number of the leaders, are non-Jews. But the idea is that people who come from a very Jewish lived experience and who have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah King, must have a completely appropriate synagogue setting at which to worship, daven in a minyan, celebrate the holidays, and be part of a fully Jewish community that is dedicated to the Jewish Messiah.

A Rabbi TeachingThe problem is that a significant number of non-Jews who are loosely associated with the Messianic Jewish movement via Hebrew Roots, One Law, and Two-House groups, mildly to vehemently oppose any authority outside of the written Torah, as having the ability to dictate religious and ritual practice. This sort of makes sense given the fact that all of the non-Jews and most of the Jews who make up any portion of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots entered the movement through the church. There’s an enormous perceptual and conceptual hold over from the church in the minds of these folks that says Jesus replaced, if not the Law, halakhah and oral tradition with a type of “grace” and pure interpretation of the Torah that doesn’t require Rabbinic judgments or rulings.

But if you’re Jewish in a fully lived and experiential sense and it is your complete identity, then one does not simply do away with the Talmud with a bit of theological slight-of-hand. My dear wife keeps trying to tell me that it’s impossible to understand and interpret the Torah apart from the traditions. For a Jew, this is obvious. For a Christian (and I include Hebrew Roots in this category), it is practically heresy.

But to delete the Talmud or even to substantially alter it such that it becomes more palatable to Christian Gentile theology and doctrine (again, I’m including Hebrew Roots here), results in the deletion of anything “Jewish” in that theology and doctrine. Jews get a little nervous when someone comes along and tries to invalidate their entire religious and cultural lifestyle.

The detractors and “enemies” of Talmudic authority say that they only recognize Jesus Christ has having authority to interpret Torah and establish a type of “Messianic halakhah” for at least Gentiles and maybe Jews in the modern Messianic movement. But doing away with Jewish “Rabbinics” to define Jewish (including Messianic) practice means that these detractors must discover or recover a complete understanding of how the First Century CE church was organized and operated…

…and we don’t have that. Right from the start, recreating the Church as it actually was in the day of Peter, Paul, and James is doomed to fail.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s OK for the Judaism and Christianity of today to not be exactly the same as it was 2,000 years ago. Maybe it’s even impossible to work from a twenty century old model of these ancient religious forms.

What if we don’t have to?

One of the problems with accepting modern Jewish halakhah as authoritative, is the question of whether or not Jesus even accepted the halakhah that existed in the Second Temple era. That’s where Rabbinowitz’s paper comes in. I intend to use his work to address the question of whether or not Jesus was likely to have accepted even some of the halakhah of his day. If he was, my next question (which will be the subject of a future “meditation”) will be whether or not, at his second coming (assuming it occurs within the reasonably forseeable future) he might accept modern Jewish halakhah. I know, that requires speculation and more guesswork than I probably should consider, but it’s a compelling question.

This also addresses a larger and related topic: Do religions evolve and is that acceptable to God? Yes, we know that Christianity today isn’t the same as it was when Paul was planting his first churches. Modern Judaism as well is, by requirement, practiced in a different manner than when the sacrifices could still be offered in the Temple of God.

But is “evolution” of religion reasonable, expected, and acceptable to God? I suppose there’s no way to know this in an absolute way, but we can take a stab at it. The first step is an examination of Rabbinowitz’s paper, “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?”

The first question we look at in the paper is whether or not Jesus accepted the scribes and the Pharisees legitimately possessing the authority to interpret the Torah for the Jewish population and to establish and enforce specific halakhah?

Rabbinowitz suggests (pp. 429-30) that “the scribes and Pharisees were the authorized and legitimate teachers of the Torah.”

But even if authorized, did Jesus endorse the Halakhah of the Pharisees? What did Jesus mean when he said, (Matthew 23:3 ESV) “…so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do.”

When Jesus said to practice what the Pharisees taught, did he say this in reference to their teachings regarding the Torah or was he referring to Pharisaic halakhah as well?

-Rabbinowitz (p. 435)

What’s really interesting, and perhaps exceptionally relevant to our conversation, is the footnote (62) for this text:

“It is unlikely that any group of early Christians ever acknowledged without further ado the authority of non-Christian teachers.” On the other hand, they insist that “the extra-canonical halakhah on tithing is neither dismissed nor belittled but affirmed” (Matthew 3.269–70, 295).

Further commentary adds illumination to whether or not it was even possible for Jesus to have separated Torah from halakhah.

Stein states that disciples were to practice what the Pharisees taught regarding the OT but not regarding their “oral traditions.” We must ask, however, is such a bifurcation possible? Can exegesis be so neatly separated from application and practice?

…Jesus’ own observance of oral tradition creates a very strong argument that “all things” includes at least some halakhic traditions. Even though Matthew is unrelenting in his criticism of the Pharisees, he nevertheless presents Jesus as adhering to the halakhah of his day. Contra Banks, Moo is most certainly correct when he states that “the verdict that there is no evidence that Jesus kept any of the oral law cannot be sustained.”

(pp. 435-6)

This is the same today in modern Judaism where one cannot properly read and interpret the Torah apart from halakhah and the traditions. Rejecting halakhah is only conceivable in religious groups existing wholly outside the ancient and modern structure of Judaism.

Rabbinowitz further nails his point home with the following:

The very fact that Jesus even engages Pharisaic halakhah implies that it possessed a certain legitimacy in contradistinction to other traditions. He acknowledges the authority of the Pharisees but rebukes them for violating the very law they claimed to protect (Matt 15:1–6). Jesus does not reject Pharisaic purity laws concerning the eating of food (Matt 15:10–11) or the washing of vessels (Matt 23:24–25), but he does excoriate the Pharisees for their moral and ethical failure to understand the Law’s true intent. Likewise, he upholds Pharisaic halakhah regarding the tithing of herbs but repudiates the Pharisees because they have stressed that point and neglected the Law’s emphasis upon justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23).

(p. 437)

According to Rabbiniowitz, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the fact that authority to interpret Torah was legitimately in the hands of the Pharisees, nor did he object to their halakhah, his problem was “for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3 NIV)

Interestingly enough, to those critics of Rabbinic Judaism who accuse the Talmudic scholars and judges of continuing to be afflicted with the “leaven of the Pharisees,” it should be noted that Rabbinic Judaism is also critical of the Pharisees.

Our final observation concerns rabbinic Judaism’s own critique of Pharisaic hypocrisy. Weinfeld demonstrates that Jesus’ accusations of Pharisaic hypocrisy are identical to charges of hypocrisy leveled against the Pharisees in the rabbinic material. To cite but one example, the rabbinic literature condemns the arrogant demonstration of piety by the Pharisees. Regarding the midrash on Eccl 4:1, we find the following condemnation of “Pharisaic pea-cockery”…

(p. 441)

The problem that most Christians (and probably some Jews) have with understanding Jesus upholding Pharisaic halakhah is encapsulated by Rabbinowitz:

To the modern reader, halakhic regulations regarding minute aspects of the Law may indeed seem legalistic and onerous. This perception, at least in part, arises out of the fact that the Torah is no longer the central structure around which we organize our daily lives. We no longer ask the all-important question, “How do I fulfill these commandments today?” But for the messianic Jews of Matthew’s Gospel, this was a very real and very practical question.

(p. 443)

Actually, in modern Judaism and especially among the Orthodox, this is a question that is very prominent, very real, and very practical today. Why shouldn’t it be a real and practical matter for some Messianic Jews as well?

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 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.

Is the continuing authority of Talmud sustainable in 21st century Judaism? I’m not a Jew so I’m probably not qualified to respond, but maybe the following makes the most sense, given the context:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Anais Nin