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.
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.”