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Jewish Law

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ

hath made us free, and be not entangled again

with the yoke of bondage (Galatians 5:1).

      Some readers of the English Bible have a curious habit. They like to find the meaning of the words and then insist that they always carry exactly the same meaning, and no other, everywhere they are found. Why we do that isn’t clear. After all, English doesn’t work that way. Why should Greek and Hebrew?We understand that words have denotations and connotations, and the meaning of a word can vary with context. It can also vary depending on who is using the word. Some theological discussions can sound like Alice and Humpty Dumpty:


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all. . .They've a temper, some of them —par-ticularly verbs: they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!” Footnote

      Sometimes I think impenetrability is the object of some religious discussion. Semantics raises its head again and again, making it possible to carry on an argument indefinitely. For all I know, that may be the objective: endless argument.

      But I digress. There are two terms used in discussions of biblical law that leave non-Jewish readers at sea. They are “The Torah,” and “The Law of Moses.” The New Testament gives us reason to believe that the meaning of these terms depends entirely on who is using them, as well as the context. “Torah” is a singularly confusing word. If you look it up in an English dictionary, the first definition is, “the five books of Moses constituting the Pentateuch.” That, naturally, is the written law. The second definition is, “the body of wisdom and law contained in Jewish Scripture and other sacred literature and oral tradition” (emphasis mine.) The expression, “The Law of Moses,” carries the same ambivalence.

      There is a story behind this, but in order to tell the story, I have to call your attention to something Paul wrote to the Galatians. He began his letter with a striking statement.


I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:11-14 NIV).

      This is where Paul placed “Judaism” firmly in his past. All this seems to be very important to Paul, because he will end this section with an unusual affirmation: “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie” (v. 20 NIV).

      It was that excessive zeal that led him to persecute the first Christians. Nothing Paul said here is particularly difficult, but there is a common misconception lurking in the background. Not everyone agrees on what the word “Judaism” means. In modern usage, Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament. Abraham is called a practitioner of Judaism, never mind that Judah, after whom Judaism was named, would not be born for two more generations.

      As it happens, that is not how Paul used the term. And in fact, Judaism, per se, was a relatively late form of the worship of God, one that grew up after the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon. Prior to that captivity, there was no “Judaism.” The religion of Abraham, and indeed the religion of Israel all the way through the monarchy was never identified by name. It was not an “ism.” It was not merely a religion. It was the faith and practice of those who worshiped the one and only God. It was simply the worship of Jehovah, or Yahweh, if you prefer, by name.

      The consequence of this is that the modern reader is apt to miss what Paul is driving at when he speaks of his “previous way of life in Judaism,” and also likely to miss the point of what was happening in Galatia.

      It was Jacob Neusner who began to get this in focus for me. “Judaism is a religion,” said Neusner, “and every religion is a story.” It is a story that a group tells to explain where it came from, where it is going, what it is, in accord with God’s plan. Footnote He describes what he calls “the Generative Myth,” the story that Judaism tells about itself, and addresses the origins of what is today called “Rabbinic Judaism.”


Christianity began in the first five centuries C.E. (the Common Era = A.D.). With roots deep in the pre-Christian centuries, Rabbinic Judaism, the particular Judaism that would flourish from the first century to our own times, made its classical statement in that same period of about five to six hundred years. Footnote

      Neusner recognizes that many identify Rabbinic Judaism with the normative Judaism of the first century. He also points out that the record does not support that claim. There were many “Judaisms” extant in the first century. Footnote But in the process of explaining all this, he develops a theme that may shed some light on the issues before us. The “Generative Myth” of Judaism is expressed in the collection of wise sayings of the great Rabbinic sages called “Sayings of the Fathers.” According to Neusner:


The opening allegation is that Moses received Torah—Instruction—at Sinai. But it is not then claimed that Moses wrote the entire Torah in those very words we now possess in Scripture. Rather, Moses received Torah and handed it on to Joshua, and so on in a chain of tradition. That the chain of tradition transcends Scripture’s record is clear when we reach “the men of the great assembly,” who surely are not part of the biblical record. Footnote

      The Jewish story is that Moses received both written and oral instruction. The Oral Law, they say, has been passed down from generation to generation, and forms an important part of the Torah, the Law of Moses. This presents an important distinction for Christians, because Scripture says that Moses wrote down everything God told him:


And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD . . . (Exodus 24:3-4).

      What is important is this: In Rabbinic Judaism, tradition transcends Scripture. This fact underlies the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Rabbis. Judaism sees a line of tradition from Moses through the sages to later generations. Jesus challenged that tradition head on. The conflict is best illustrated by one particular encounter. Some of the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus asking why his disciples transgressed “the tradition of the elders” by eating without properly washing their hands (Matthew 15:2). There are two terms here that we need to understand before moving on. The terms are: “scribes,” and “the tradition of the elders.” The scribes are what Jewish scholars call “the sages,” while “the traditions of the elders” are what Jews call “the Oral Law.” Footnote To the Pharisees, the disciples of Jesus were offending against the Oral Law as defined by the sages. Jesus’ reply cuts sharply across this idea.


Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3-6 NIV).

      The Pharisees, who seem to be the progenitors of Rabbinic Judaism, would have admitted frankly that the traditions of the elders did indeed transcend the Scriptures. Jesus flatly rejected that idea.


You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (vv. 7-9 NIV).

      Thus Jesus characterizes the Oral Law: “Rules taught by men.” Footnote The Jews could not miss the stark contrast between their approach and that of Jesus. When they interpreted the law, they cited other sages, other rabbis. Here’s an example of Talmudic reasoning:


      Talmud of Babylonia tractate Baba Mesia to Mishnah tractate          Baba Mesia 4:10.I.15:/59a-b.

A. There we have learned: If one cut [a clay oven] into parts and put sand between the parts,

B. Rabbi Eliezer declares the oven broken-down and therefore insusceptible to uncleanness.

C. And sages declare it susceptible. . .

F. Said Rabbi Judah said Samuel, “It is because they surrounded it with argument as with a snake and proved it was insusceptible to uncleanness.” Footnote

      This is a long discussion of an issue among the sages, and the points are lettered A through X. No less than five different Rabbis are cited by name with their arguments for or against the proposition, some citing still other rabbinic sources. Now contrast this with the teaching of Jesus:


Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you . . .” (Matthew 5:21, 22a).

      Jesus does this over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount. Note well, he does not say “you have read,” nor “it was written.” It was almost an article of faith that the Oral Law should not be written, and it was a momentous decision when it finally was. Jesus’ approach would have jarred many of his listeners, and Matthew takes note of it:


And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:28-29 KJV).

      Lest we misunderstand the import of what Neusner is saying, and how this affects our understanding of the distinction, here is what he goes on to say:


Putting this together, we may say that the generative myth of Rabbinic Judaism, tells the story of how Moses received Torah in two media, in writing and in memory, the memorized part of the Torah being received and handed on a process of oral formulation and oral transmission. Footnote

      The “memorized portion of Torah” came to be called the Oral Law. In the New Testament, it is, “the traditions of the elders.” But there is more. According to Neusner, “What emerges is now clear, the masters of Rabbinic Judaism stand in a chain of tradition from Sinai. Their teachings form part of the Torah God gave to Moses at Sinai” [emphasis mine].

      You may want to read that again, because it really does say what it seems to say. The teachings of the sages of first century Judaism are said to be part and parcel of what God handed down to Moses himself. The generative myth of Rabbinic Judaism holds that Scripture, the written law, is only part of Torah, only part of the Law of Moses. The conflict generated by this myth underlies the entire argument that arises from the New Testament relative to the law. It is what prompted Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount—the one I will cite so often:


Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).

      In referring to letters and strokes of the pen, Jesus made a sharp distinction. He was talking about the written law. He offered no such permanence to the Oral Law or Jewish tradition, and his audience would have quickly picked up on that. I realize what enormous problems I raise here, for there is much in the written law that is simply untenable in the modern world, but we discussed that in preceding chapters.

      Judaism, as such, grew out of the period when Persia was the dominant force in the Middle East. It was the Babylonians who carried the House of Judah captive. Babylon was later conquered by the Persians, and it was the Persian kings who allowed the Jews to return home and establish themselves once again in Jerusalem. Not very much is known about Jewish life in this period, but there was a body of men called, “The Great Assembly.” Adin Steinsaltz writes of this group:


The exact nature of the great assembly is unclear; it may have been a permanent institution with legislative and executive powers, or merely a generic name for all the scholars of a given period. In fact, with few exceptions, the names of the sages and outstanding personalities of this age are unknown. The same cloud of obscurity envelops the activities of the members of the great assembly, and nothing is known of their conduct or methods. But, culturally and spiritually speaking, this period was a decisive one in the annals of the Jewish people. It gave Judaism its unique and well-defined spiritual framework, which has survived, despite changes and modifications, throughout the centuries in the Holy Land and the Diaspora. Footnote

      The Great Assembly probably traced its function to the original 70 elders appointed by Moses to render judgments about the law, and it would likely have been the precursor of the Sanhedrin of the first century. Nicodemus, who came surreptitiously to see Jesus is called an archon, a ruler of the Jews. I presume he was a member of that important assembly. Steinsaltz elaborates:


The members of the Great Assembly actually collected holy writings, decided which books would be canonized in the Bible, which chapters of each book should be selected, and gave the Bible its definitive form and style. The completion of the Bible, one of the greatest projects of the Great Assembly, also marked the beginning of the reign of the Oral Law. Footnote

      By the time Jesus came on the scene, there were two political parties who divided along this fault line, and who struggled for influence among the people. On the one hand were the Pharisees who believed that the Oral Law was of divine origin and carried authority equal to that of the written law. Footnote On the other hand were the Sadducees who rejected the authority of the Oral Law. It isn’t clear whether the Sadducees rejected it out of hand, or merely refused to use it for making rulings.

      With this background, we can return to the Sermon on the Mount and see what we make of what Jesus had to say. In affirming the permanent nature of the written law, he is establishing common ground and heading off an accusation that might come his way. He affirms the written law, but he makes no such affirmation of the Oral Law, embarking immediately on a challenge of the “traditions of the elders.”


I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-19 NIV).

      Jesus had to establish this distinction, because he was about to part company with the sages of an earlier generation. He was going to say, not only that they were wrong, but that they transgressed the written law by their interpretations. The practice of the Pharisees was not merely a matter of opinion or interpretation, but an active setting aside of the written law, of Scripture. It may be hard to get your mind around it, but realize that, for the Jew of that time, tradition was deemed part of the Law of Moses. It was the prevailing belief of the Pharisaic establishment that everything the sages said was part of that law, even the conflicts of interpretation, in some curious way. Having established that he had no quarrel with the written law, Jesus began to challenge the Oral Law, as we have just seen.

      Now we are equipped to consider a particular conflict in the early church, one that has generated much confusion. The first mission of Paul and Barnabas represents a major turning point in the history of the faith. Up to this point, very few Gentiles had been converted, and these all were people who believed in the God of the Bible before they ever heard of Jesus. They were Gentile practitioners of Judaism, commonly called “God Fearers.” The pattern, then, that Paul and Barnabas followed on this journey was to go first to the synagogue in every city and announce the good news that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. To their surprise, everywhere they went the Jews rejected the Gospel wholesale. Only a handful believed.

      But when they left the synagogue in defeat, they were thronged by the God fearing Gentiles who did believe. Paul and Barnabas taught them, baptized them, and went on their way. When they returned to Antioch, the church received, with great joy, the news that God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” But then a fly showed up in the ointment.


Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. . . . When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:1-5 NIV).

      Here I come back to the theme I opened with at the beginning of this chapter. When most Christian readers come to this passage, they think the expression “the Law of Moses” was referring to the first five books of the Old Testament. But now, thanks to Jacob Neusner, we can see this from another angle. What these believing Pharisees were talking about was broader than that. They were talking about the whole of what they called Torah, oral and written. For them, the worship of God was part of a system that included all the traditions of the elders, some of which were explicitly rejected by Jesus. Neusner again:


What we see at the end is what we saw at the outset: Judaic religious systems rest squarely on the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel. The Rabbinic sages read from the Written Torah forward to the Oral Torah. Footnote

      This is what I had long assumed to be the case. That the traditions of the Jews that formed what they call the Oral Law, were the accumulated judgments of the sages. I had never imagined that they considered them on a par with, or even above, the written law. I assumed that the traditions grew out of generations of precedents established by the interpretation of the written law. Neusner:


Then are the rabbis of the Oral Torah right in maintaining that they have provided the originally oral part of the one whole Torah of Moses our Rabbi? To answer that question in the affirmative, sages would have only to point to their theology in the setting of Scripture as they grasped it. Footnote

      What you see reflected in Paul’s writings is a conflict, not with the Law of God, but with the rabbis of the Oral Torah. Now with all this in mind, I can return to Paul’s statement I cited before and parse it: “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man” (Galatians 1:11).

      If we accept that the problem in Galatia was that sect of believers who followed Judaism, then this statement fits perfectly. My Gospel, said Paul, does not arise from human tradition: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (v. 12). This is in contrast with what Neusner said about the Rabbis:


Rabbinic Judaism is thus the Judaism that sets forth the whole teaching of Sinai, written and oral, and that points to its sages, called rabbis. . . who in a process of discipleship acquired (“received”) and transmitted (“handed on”) that complete Torah, oral and written, that originates with God's instruction to Moses. Footnote

      Paul, then, used the language of Judaism to emphasize that what the sages did was emphatically not what happened to him: “I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it.” Paul admits that he had been a serious practitioner of the Oral Law.


But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie (vv. 15-20).

      This last is striking. It is very strong and apparently it had to be. The statement represents a major break from the Jewish tradition of receiving from one sage and passing on to another. What Paul is establishing is that the Gospel was a matter of revelation, not tradition. This was in sharp contrast to the troublemakers in Galatia, who were apparently of the same stripe as those at the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15. Developing the theme a little further, Paul cites an instance of Peter’s behavior in Antioch.


When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:11-14 NIV).

      This is heart and core of what the Jerusalem conference was all about and it also serves as a good illustration of the struggle for the heart and soul of the early church. By this time in the first century, the Jews had created a whole new set of rules for their relationships with Gentiles. These rules, in many cases, ran directly contrary to the written law. The law was explicit. Strangers were to be fully assimilated into Israelite society, as we will see in chapter ten. There was to be one law for the stranger and the home born. Strangers were even allowed to offer sacrifices and to share fully in the worship of God. But by the time of the second Temple, all that had changed.

      What Peter was shown—in no uncertain terms—was that the Gospel was to go to Gentiles. He was forced to acknowledge that Jewish law was wrong on this issue. He told Cornelius:


You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean (Acts 10:28 NIV).

      Against whose law? Peter called it “our law.” We will walk through this in a later chapter. Gentiles were to be fully assimilated into the Israelite community. But by this time in history, Jewish tradition had led the Jews to separate themselves from Gentiles. As Paul continued his rebuke of Peter, the theme of justification emerges.


We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (Galatians 2:15-16).

      Implicit here is the belief of the Pharisees that doing the works of Judaism made a man just before God. Paul denied that explicitly and repeatedly. The only thing the law has to do with justification is that it creates an awareness of a need for justification. But for some versions of Judaism, one only comes to God through the law. Neusner:


But it is only through scripture that Judaism takes the measure of events and occasions in God’s self revelation. Scripture, the written part of the Torah or teaching of Sinai, preserves whatever can be known about how God has revealed himself. It is the writing down of the encounter—and the contents of encounter. If, therefore, people wish to know God, they meet God in the Torah. That guides them, to be sure, to know and evaluate and understand God's ongoing revelation of the Torah. Study of the Torah in the chain of tradition, formed by the relationship of disciple to master, from the present moment upward to Moses and God at Sinai, then affords that direct encounter with God through his revealed words that Judaism knows as revelation. Footnote

      Take a moment to consider the implications of that statement. It is not only Scripture, but the entire chain of tradition, that Judaism knows as revelation. If you are wondering how it is possible for sages of the first century to become a part of Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai, so am I. For better or for worse, here is what Neusner tells us about how that works.


Both Judaism and Christianity for most of their histories have read the Hebrew Scriptures in an other-than-historical framework. They found in Scriptures words, paradigms —patterns, models—of an enduring present, by which all things must take their measure; they possessed no conception whatsoever of the pastness of the past. In departing from Scriptures’ use of history to make a theological point—as the progression from Genesis through Kings means to do—Rabbinic Judaism invented an entirely new way to think about times past and to keep all time, past, present, and future, within a single framework. Footnote

      One begins to understand what Jesus was driving at when he told the Jews they were making the commandments of God of no effect, by their tradition. This suspension of time is, quite frankly and unashamedly, an invention of Rabbinic Judaism. Paul spoke of this sort of error in his letter to Titus: “Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth” (Titus 1:14). The comparison between Paul’s battles and what we now know of Judaism is instructive. Neusner went on:


For that purpose, a model was constructed, consisting of selected events held to form a pattern that imposes order and meaning on the chaos of what happens, whether past or present or future. Time measured in the paradigmatic manner is time formulated by a freestanding, (incidentally) atemporal model, not appealing to the course of the sun and moon, not concerned with the metaphor of human life and its cyclicity either. Footnote

      Jewish sages, if I understand what he is saying, step outside of time and become participants in the creation of the Torah God gave to Moses. If you found that hard to follow, you are not alone. Neusner has lapsed into philosophical jargon. It is what happens when men try to explain something that the facts won’t support. We get a lot of that in politics—and religion.

      If there is one thing that emerges from a careful reading of both the law and the New Testament, it is that during the entire period when the New Testament was being written, throughout all the existing churches, the Sabbath, the holydays, and indeed the written law, were honored. The Oral Law was dismissed as mostly irrelevant and utterly without authority.

      As is often the case with unsupportable law, the Rabbis resorted to sanctions to enforce it. It is the freedom from Jewish sanctions that Paul is so exercised about in his letters. “Stand fast therefore,” urged Paul, “in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

      Galatians is a little more complicated than that, but this is a start. “Thou shalt not steal” is not a yoke of bondage (unless you are a congressman, perhaps).


For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:23-25 NASB).

      I think the reason for James’ choice of words is the underlying conflict between the controls of Judaism and the liberty of the Christian.

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