Who Was Jesus? – Excerpt from “Covenant Nation” – a critique of D. Boyarin’s “Borderlines”

Who was Jesus?
Boyarin presents us with an analysis of the hand-washing incident described in the seventh chapter of the book of Mark (TJG; pgs. 106-127). Boyarin concludes that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, this incident does not teach that Jesus abolished the dietary laws altogether. Rather, Jesus was opposed to the specific rabbinical enactment of hand-washing, which stands apart from the general dietary laws.

I find myself in agreement with Boyarin on this point. Reading the book of Mark with an understanding of Jewish law one recognizes that there is a distinction between the purity laws, which Jesus was contesting, and the general dietary laws, which Jesus does not mention. Boyarin however does not stop there. Boyarin goes on to argue that Jesus stood against all Pharisaic innovations and additions to the Law. This position is not supported by the Christian Scriptures, the only source we have for Jesus and his teachings.

Boyarin has ignored a significant piece of evidence in this discussion. The Talmud records that there was an inner-Pharisaic conflict concerning the hand-washing enactment, and that this conflict was still unresolved in the generation of Jesus (Shabbat 14b). In other words by taking a stance against the hand-washing enactment, Jesus is not standing outside of the Pharisaic community. Instead he was taking part in an inter-Pharisaic debate.

This is corroborated by Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew: “the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (23:2,3). Although Jesus goes on to malign the Pharisees for hypocritical behavior, but he does not take issue with their authority or their interpretation of the Law. In fact some of the laws he mentions and upholds in his subsequent diatribe (such as the tithing of spices) are of rabbinic origin.

Jesus is described as observing the Passover Seder according to rabbinic tradition (Luke 22:18-20). When Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law, an accusation that only makes sense according to the Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he never exonerates himself by arguing against the Pharisaic definition of the Law. Jesus’ defense always assumes that the Pharisaic definition of the Law is correct, it is only the application of the Law in those particular instances (i.e. for the purpose of healing) that Jesus takes issue with.

Many of Jesus’ followers considered themselves Pharisees long after Jesus had died (Acts 15:5). These people were prominent figures in the community of Jesus followers and their opinion was taken seriously. A comparison between the debate described in Acts 15 and Paul’s dispute with Peter recorded in Galatians 2:14 shows that Peter, the prime disciple of Jesus, was of the “Pharisee party”. Paul accuses Peter of “compelling the Gentiles to live as do the Jews”. This was the opinion of the Pharisaic segment of the early Christian community as recorded in Acts 15 and Paul attributes this outlook to Peter. A straightforward reading gives us to understand that Peter himself belonged to this group.

If, as Boyarin claims, Jesus took a clear stance against the Pharisee approach to the Law, why would his followers accept this very approach that he discredited? It is clear that Jesus did not reject the Pharisee approach to the Law as a whole it was only some details of the Pharisaic application, details that were being disputed within the Pharisee community itself that Jesus was rejecting.

In the book of Mark (7:8-13) we do indeed find Jesus striking out at the general concept of the traditions. He rebukes the “Pharisees and all the Jews” (Mark 7:3) for using the traditions to make the Law of God null and void. However, the example that Jesus uses to demonstrate how the Jews were using the traditions to nullify the Law of God, is perplexing. Mark’s Jesus accuses the Jews of using the law of taking vows as a method of avoiding honoring their parents. The technical aspects of this accusation are confusing enough (the laws of taking vows are Biblical in nature (Numbers 30:3) and not a part of the traditions as Mark’s Jesus seems to believe). But what is really difficult to understand is that in all of the rabbinic writings, there is not one statement that can be taken as an encouragement to avoid honoring one’s parents. The consistent position of Pharisaic Judaism, according to every historical record, places the honor of parents on the highest pedestal. In sharp contrast, the Gospels leave us with several statements that seem to go against the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (Matthew 10:37; 12:48; 19:29; Mark 3:33; Luke 14:26). The targets of Jesus’ invective left us a literature that is far more extensive than the 4 books of the Gospels, yet nothing equivalent is to be found in their writings.

This would lead us to one of two conclusion; either the group that Jesus was castigating was a fringe sect that never left their mark on mainstream Judaism, or we can conclude that the redactors of the Gospels put this anti-Pharisaic tirade into their book long after Jesus died and were not familiar with the ways of the Jews. Either way, Boyarin’s conclusion that Jesus was anti-Pharisaic cannot be substantiated from this enigmatic passage, especially in light of the totality of the available evidence.

It is interesting to note, that Boyarin does not hesitate to slice up the Hebrew Bible and attribute various sentences in the same narrative to different authors who subscribed to conflicting theologies (TJG, pg. 43). He does this without any explicit evidence for the existence of the conflict that he assumes as the root of this editing procedure in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Yet he takes the Christian Scriptures at face value despite the fact that the same Christian Bible admits that there was deep discord in the early Church between Paul and a faction of “super-apostles” who opposed him. Had Boyarin taken the same irreverent attitude towards the Gospels as he does towards the Jewish Bible, he would have realized that the most probable explanation for the pro and anti-Pharisaic tendencies in the Gospels reflects the tendencies of two conflicting communities in the early Church. The Christian Bible itself acknowledges this rift in the early Church, there is no reason to assume that this controversy left no mark on the editing process of the books produced by these conflicting communities.

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The Myth of the “Frightened Jew”

The Myth of the “Frightened Jew”

One of the popular myths that abound in missionary literature
describes the Jewish teachers quaking in “fear” when they encountered
the “proofs” to the alleged Messiah-ship of Jesus that are supposedly
found in the ancient texts of Jewish literature. According to the
missionaries, these Jewish teachers resorted to all types of nefarious
tactics in their “desperate” effort to “hide the truth” from their
naïve and trusting audiences.

Typical of this category of missionary mythology is the claim that the
rabbis altered the very text of the Bible in their effort to counter
the claims of the Church. The great commentator of Judaism, Rashi
(Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 11^th century France) is accused of
slanting his commentary on the Bible so that his Jewish readership
will not learn of the arguments that would support Christian claims.
And Maimonides is charged with formulating his teachings in a way that
would preclude the doctrines of Christianity.

Let us step back and analyze this accusation against the teachers of
Judaism. The Christian charge is that these rabbis saw these proofs to
the claims of the Church in the sacred texts of Judaism and they
distorted the intention of these texts in their teachings in order to
prevent their disciples from being persuaded by these so-called proofs.

This charge is demonstrably false. The only Christianity that existed
in the days of Rashi, Maimonides was a Christianity that believed in
replacement theology. For centuries upon centuries the various
Churches taught that the Jewish nation’s positive place in God’s plan
was replaced by the community of believers in Jesus and that the Law
of Moses was replaced by the teachings of Jesus. It is only in the
relatively recent past that some denominations of Christianity have
reconsidered one or both of these erroneous positions. But as far as
our teachers from the distant past (such as Rashi and Maimonides) were
concerned, the only Jesus that existed was one that came along with a
rejection of Israel as God’s nation and a repudiation of the Law of Moses.

The clarity that the Scriptures give us on these two subjects is
overwhelming and irrefutable. The following Scriptures speak of the
eternal election of Israel and of the centrality of that election to
God’s plan:

Genesis 12:2,7; 13:14,15; 15:5,7,18; 17:7-14; 18:18; 22;17,18; 25:23;
26:3-5; 28:13,14; 35:12; 48:4,16,20; 49:10; 50:24; Exodus 2:24;
3:8,17; 4:22; 6:4,7,8; 15:16,17; 19:5,6; 24:8; 29:45,46; 31;12-17;
33:1,16; 34:10,27; Leviticus 11;45; 20:24,26; 22:33; 26:44,45; Numbers
15:41; 22:12; 23:21; 24:9; 33:53; 35:34; Deuteronomy 1:8;
4:7,20,31-39; 6:10,18; 7:6-8; 8:1; 9:5,26,29; 10:11,15; 11:31; 14:1,2;
21:8; 23:6; 26:15-19; 27:9; 29:11-14; 32:9-12; 33:28,29; Joshua 1:6;
5:6; 21:41; 1Samuel 12:22; 2Samuel 7:23,24; 1Kings 8:13,51-53; 9:3;
10:9; 11:36; Jeremiah 2:2,3; 10:16; 12:14; 14:9; 31:2,8,34-36;
32:37-41; 33:19-26; 46:27,28; 50:20,33,34; 51:5; Ezekiel 11:16; 16:60;
37:20-28; Isaiah 41:8-16; 43:1-21; 44:1-8,21-23; 45:4,14-17; 46:3,4;
49:14-16; 51:7,15,16,22-52:12; 54:10; 55:5; 59:21; 60:1-22; 61:6,9;
62:1-12; Hosea 2:1,21,22; Joel 4:17,20,21; Zephaniah 3:20; Haggai 2:5;
Zechariah 2:12; 8:20-23; Malachi 1:2; Psalms 28:9; 29:11; 33:12;
44:18; 47:4,5; 48:9,15; 50:7; 68:35,36; 74:2; 78:5,69; 79:13; 89:16;
94:14; 95:7; 98:1-3; 100:3; 105:8-45; 111:4-9; 114:2; 125:2;
132:13-18; 133:3; 135:4; 144:15; 147:19,20; 148:14; 149:2,4; Nehemiah
1:10; 9:7,8; 1Chronicles 15:2; 16:15-22; 17:21,22,24; 23:13,25;
2Chronicles 6:6; 7:16; 9:8; 20:7.

The following scriptural passages speak of the importance of the Law.
Some of these passages teach us that the Law is relevant for all
generations, into and including the Messianic age. Other passages
confirm that the Law is beautiful, holy, life-giving and central to
our relationship with God. Some of these passages refer to the
totality of the Law while others focus on a specific subset within the
larger framework of the Law.

Genesis 2:3; 17:7-13; Exodus 12:14,17,24,42; 13:10; 19:9; 27:21;
29:28,42; 30:8,10,21; 31:12-17; Leviticus 3:14; 6:11,15; 7:34,36;
10:9,15; 16:29,31,34; 17:7; 18:5; 23:14,21,31,41,43; 24:3,9; Numbers
15:15,21,23,38; 18:8,11,19; 19:10; 25:13; 35:29, Deuteronomy 4:2,6;
5:3; 6:18,24,25; 7:11-16; 8:1; 10:12,13; 11:1,9,13-25,27; 12:28;
13:1,18,19; 15:4,5; 16:20; 18:5; 25:15; 28:1-14; 29:8; 30:1-20; 31:21;
33:4,10;, Joshua 1:7,8; 23:6; Judges 5:31; 1kings 2:3; 8:23; Jeremiah
31:32; Ezekiel 36:27; 37:24; 44:23,24; Psalms 19:8-11; 111:7,8;
119:1-176; Malachi 3;22; Esther 9:28; Nehemiah 9:13,14.

Whoever wrote the Jewish Bible wanted to make these two points
abundantly clear; that Israel is forever God’s elect and that the Law
of Moses is eternally relevant. The Author emphasized these two
teachings, repeatedly and with force. He used every literary tool in
His arsenal to bring these lessons to our heart.

If we combine all of the arguments that the Church uses in its effort
to substantiate her claims on the basis of the Jewish Bible we will
find that they do not come close to the evidence that the same Bible
supplies to inform us that God’s choices of Israel and the Law of
Moses are irrevocable. Even according to the mistranslations and
misinterpretations of the Churchmen, the Jewish Bible doesn’t provide
anywhere near this level of support for the teachings of Christianity.
Even if a Jew would not see through the hollow arguments of the
missionary, the Jew could never come to the conclusion that the God of
the Bible encourages faith in Jesus.

As long as the Church was teaching replacement theology there was no
way that a missionary could persuade a Jew that the Bible supported
faith in Jesus. Rashi and Maimonides as well as every teacher who only
knew of a Jesus that rejected Israel and the Law of Moses never had a
personal need to refute Christian arguments. The Bible itself
repudiated Jesus in the strongest terms.

Yes, Rashi did respond to Christian arguments in his commentary to the
Bible, but this was not because he had any personal “fear” from the
arguments of Christianity. Rashi supplies his readers with responses
to Christian arguments because the Christian culture forced Jews to
respond to their specific “proof-texts,” be it in the setting of
formal debates or in the setting of private conversations between
Christians and Jews. But as far as Rashi’s personal faith in God was
concerned and as far as the Jews of his generation were concerned, the
arguments of the Church did not deserve any responses. Because the
only Jesus that existed in Rashi’s day was a Jesus that hated the
nation that God loved and rejected the eternal teachings of Moses.

The fact is that even now that many denominations of Christianity are
reconsidering their position on the election of Israel and on the
eternal relevance of the Law of Moses, the faith of a Jew is not
challenged by the missionary arguments. The overall message of the
Bible still repudiates the devotion and worship of Jesus that the
Church is promoting. This repudiation of faith in Jesus is spelled out
with such force and clarity that all of the missionary “proof-texts”
together do nothing to undermine the strength of this repudiation.

However, I do not know if I can expect a Christian to appreciate this
fact. Christians that are used to seeing the Jewish Bible as
supportive of their faith have a difficult time seeing the same Bible
from a Jewish perspective. But now that they have come around on the
issue of replacement theology I expect that they recognize the force
with which the Author of the Bible repudiates that error. And if they
recognize the power of the Bible’s support for the election of Israel
and for the Law of Moses I expect them to appreciate why Rashi and
Maimonides and all the Jews of their generation had nothing to “fear”
from the Christian arguments.

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Psalm 22 and the Dead Sea Scrolls – a video by Yosi Feigenbaum

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Literary Skill

1000 Verses - a project of Judaism Resources

Literary Skill

Did the Author of Scripture know how to write? Does He have the literary ability to make His point with clarity and with force?

Let us make a case study. God said very clearly that the Jewish people should observe the Sabbath. He said this in a commanding way and He repeated it many times promising reward for obedience and threatening punishment for disregarding His eternal sign (Exodus 16:29; 20:8; 23:12; 31:14; 34:21; 35:2; Leviticus 23:3; Numbers 15:35; Deuteronomy 5:12; Isaiah 56:2; 58:13; Jeremiah 17:21).

Upon reading this selection it will become obvious that the Author of Scripture knows how to get a point across to His readership. He knows how to make clear that Israel’s observance of the Sabbath is important to His heart.

This brings a question to mind. According to Christianity, practical observance of the Sabbath is not very important, to put it mildly. Belief…

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Passover and First-fruits (Bikurim)

1000 Verses - a project of Judaism Resources

Passover and First-fruits

The Passover Haggada is one of the most accepted Jewish books after the Bible. It is not known who authored the Haggada, nonetheless, the Jewish people recognize in this work the heart and soul of the Passover Seder.

We will focus here on the section of the Haggada which recounts the exodus from Egypt. The author of the Haggada structured the exodus story around the verses from a passage in the book of Deuteronomy (26:5-9). The Haggada quotes one phrase from that passage after another and builds the exodus stories on the amplification of these verses.

Why? From all of the passages in Scripture that speak of the exodus, why did the author of the Haggada choose this particular passage in Deuteronomy?

If we read the passage in its original context, we find that it relates to the bringing of first-fruits to the Temple. When Israel dwelt…

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The Passover Altar

The Passover Altar


There were ten miracles that occurred in the Temple on a regular basis. One of these miracles involved the smoke that arose from the fire of the altar. The altar was a large structure situated in the open courtyard of the Temple and there was a fire constantly burning on top of the altar (Leviticus 6:6). This fire consumed the offerings of Israel and sent them heavenward in a pillar of smoke. The miracle that was manifest in the smoke was that the wind never dispersed the smoke. The smoke always ascended heavenward in a solid pillar.


We can imagine that when the pilgrims journeyed from afar to worship at the Temple the first thing they would see from miles around Jerusalem was this pillar of smoke. Long before they could see the towering structure of the Temple itself they would see this pillar of smoke.


In a certain sense this pillar of smoke symbolized everything that the Temple stood for. The Temple stood for Israel’s submission towards God, Israel’s love for God and Israel’s recognition of God’s absolute sovereignty over every facet of existence and all of these found expression in the fire on the altar. The fire represented the yearning in Israel’s heart to connect to God. When Israel saw the fire consuming the offerings they saw how every facet of life ought to be directed towards God and it was at the altar where the Jewish people would dedicate and rededicate their every breath to the God of their fathers.


With all of this in mind we run into a problem when we study that first Passover offering. When the Jewish people slaughtered the lamb on that fateful evening in Egypt there was no altar upon which they could place the blood or the fats of their offering. How can there be an offering without an altar? If the altar and her fire represent the dedication of life in service of God then why was it absent in that first national offering? How could the central message of the sacrificial system be conveyed without an altar?


The passage that describes that first Passover offering can perhaps shed some light on this question. When God commands Moses concerning the Passover He emphasizes the concept of a “house” or a “home”. The offering is to be taken for each “house” of fathers. The blood of the offering is to be placed on the doorposts of the “house”. Yeast and leaven cannot be found in the “house”. The meat of the offering must be eaten in one “house” and it cannot be removed from the “house. And when the Israelites are to explain the miracle of Passover to their children they are to say that God passed over our “houses” while He smote the Egyptians and He saved our “houses” (Exodus 12:3,7,15,19,27,46).


The houses that were saved were the houses that God loved (Numbers 24:5). He loved them because of the charity and justice that was planted in those houses by Israel’s forefather Abraham (Genesis 18:19). And justice and charity are more beloved by God than the offerings (Proverbs 21:3).


The fire and the smoke of the altar only represented the yearning to connect to God and Israel’s submission towards God. Justice and charity are in and of themselves a connection to God and submission to God (Jeremiah 22:16).


Just as the blood of offerings sanctified the altar (Leviticus 8:15) so it was with the houses of Israel. These houses were sanctified with the blood of the Passover so that Israel can be a nation unto God (Exodus 6:7).


The Passover offering was not done without an altar. The altar was the home of the Jew. The altar of the Temple is actually meaningless without the altar of the home. It is only to the degree that we have incorporated the concepts of charity and justice into every step of our daily life that the fire on the altar represent a true yearning for God (Isaiah 1:10-17). But if we don’t know God in our daily lives then what does the smoke on the altar mean?

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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The Oral Law in Judaism and Christianity – by Jim

The Christian missionary often challenges the existence of the Oral Torah with the question: “Where in the (Written) Torah does it say anything about an Oral Torah?” He assumes that the text should come with some statement instructing the reader that it has an accompanying unwritten explanation that one should seek out if he wishes to understand the work. Barring such a statement, any claim to an Oral Torah can only be an excuse to impose upon the text the interpretations of the rabbis and to substitute divine instruction with their own. This objection, however, is unreasonable. Other—more able writers—have already shown that the Written Torah cannot be understood without accompanying information. Certain commandments, for example, are too indefinite in the text to be practicable. Because this territory has been well-explored by others, this brief essay will attempt a different course, demonstrating the priority of the Oral Torah by drawing an analogy from Christianity to Torah.

Christianity does not begin with the written word. It begins, rather, with the teachings of Jesus as delivered to crowds on hillsides, in the houses of various interested parties, and in private with his disciples. He is not known to ever have written any of his teachings but given them over orally. After his death, his disciples carried on in the same way at least initially. Peter did not begin his own ministry by composing a body of Christian scripture but by teaching in Jerusalem. Later, he composed a few letters, but those were not the foundation of his teaching. Similarly, though Paul wrote several letters, his ministry began orally, teaching various communities outside of Israel. From this fact it can be seen that within Christianity, oral teaching preceded written teaching; oral teaching is prior in time to Christian scripture.

It was decades after Jesus’ death that his teachings were written down. The first gospel is thought to have been written by Mark and is generally considered to have been based on the teachings of Peter. In order to show the importance of the oral tradition, even within Christianity, the following two thought experiments are presented for consideration:

Thought experiment #1:

Mark has just completed his gospel, based on the oral teachings of Peter as above. Several copies are distributed to various communities, including a Church community in Emmaus. Peter has been travelling, ministering to different communities and has not yet seen the completed work. In the course of his travels, he comes to Emmaus, where they are studying the newly received gospel. As a leader reads the gospel aloud to the congregation, among whom Peter is sitting, the leader reads that Jesus imparted to his disciples such-and-such a saying, at which point Peter interrupts and says that Mark has not got that quite right. Jesus did not say such-and-such, but something similar, the difference of which is important enough to correct. At this moment, a conflict has arisen between the oral tradition and the written transmission. Is it possible that the congregation will ignore Peter and adhere to the written gospel before them?

It is possible, but it is not likely. The written word depends upon its adherence to Peter’s teaching for its own authority. Mark is purportedly giving over what he was taught. If his teacher says that on some point or another Mark is mistaken, either misunderstanding or misremembering, then Mark’s writing is subject to correction and alteration upon that point. The fact that his work is written rather than oral does not imbue it with special authority. On the contrary, the authority of the written tradition is derived from the oral tradition. Any deviation from the oral tradition in the written word is a flaw. From this, it can be seen that the oral tradition has priority over the written word, both in time and in authority.

Thought experiment #2: Imagine the same scenario as above, only this time, when Peter listens to the reading of Mark’s gospel, he has no objection to what is written. Instead, the congregation has a question about just what such-and-such means. Jesus is supposed to have spoken in riddles, after all. After their local leader propounds an interpretation, Peter says that the man has not got it quite right. Peter puts forward a different interpretation of Jesus’ words. In this instance, the question is this: whose interpretation is more likely to be in line with Jesus’ actual teaching?

Again, the answer is Peter. Peter is not relying merely on the text to determine what Jesus’ meaning was. He learned from Jesus for about three-and-a-half years. His familiarity with the teachings of Jesus must be more thorough than almost anyone else’s. At the least, he would have a feel for Jesus’ meaning, an intuition based on his learning directly from Jesus. Moreover, those riddles that Jesus spoke in the hearing of the masses, he is supposed to have explained privately to his disciples. They had opportunity to ask questions and gain clarification on issues that might have confused them. Similarly, they would have heard the same teachings multiple times, phrased in different ways, so that it would become clearer to them. The leader of this congregation does not have any of those advantages of insight. A chasm of understanding separates those that study with a person and those that have only read a book that he wrote. So, even in matters of interpretation, priority must be granted to the oral transmission over the reading of the written word.

These thought experiments and the beginnings of the Church serve as a rough analogy to relation of the oral transmission to the written transmission within the Torah system. The Five Books of Moses were not documents found in the desert, void of context. Nor was the teaching of the Torah confined to those five books. Even before Sinai—and certainly before the written Torah—Israel had knowledge of God and of certain commandments, though they had not been written down. They knew and kept the Seven Laws of Noah. They kept circumcision. Before Sinai, they kept Passover and the Sabbath, even though the laws thereof were written nowhere, but were transmitted orally to the people: from God to Moses, from Moses to the elders, and from the elders to the people. Israel was a community of people that was taught how to observe its laws, not merely through the written word, but through the instruction of Moses, a prophet whose credentials were established before them.

It is the oral transmission that verifies the written word. Israel knows that God spoke to Moses, not because it said so in a book, but because the nation witnessed the event and passed that knowledge on from generation to generation. The book is known to be true, because it comports with their knowledge. Similarly, because they were already keeping Sabbath before the written word, they understand the meaning of the written word through their prior knowledge. R’ Hirsch compares the written Torah to a system of notes. It is not the entire teaching that the Jewish people received. But it is a system used to bring to memory what the people learned already. One outside the Torah tradition can read those notes and understand some but not all without consulting a student of the Torah, one who heard the lecture to which the notes correspond.

Another thought experiment may be useful to elucidate this point.

Thought experiment #3: Imagine that the written Torah has been finished for a couple of months and one copy of it is misplaced by Fred, who is known for his carelessness. And the missing copy is found by a man who, for whatever reason, believes that he has just come upon what he considers to be undeniably divine revelation. And, he seeks out Israel, so that he can join them. In the meantime, he practices Sabbath observance according to his own interpretation of the text he has found. When he finds the Jewish people, he is excited and wishes to join them. But, he is dismayed to find differences in their Sabbath observance and his own. He pulls out his copy of the Torah—the one that Fred lost—and he shows them a verse, and he tells them that, clearly, they are supposed to do such-and-such or abstain from doing this-or-that. Will they follow his interpretation?

It should be obvious that they will not. They were intimately familiar with the details on how to keep the Sabbath before receiving the written Torah. Any ambiguities in how to keep the Sabbath could be cleared up by asking questions. They did not need merely to probe the text looking for clues. If a stranger, who did not receive this instruction and had not practiced keeping the Sabbath in a community of other Sabbath observers, introduces his own interpretations of the text, it will hold no weight with them. He does not have the context necessary to understand the Torah the way that they do.

The written Torah relies upon the oral Torah. It is the oral that verifies the written, not the other way around. Moreover, the written Torah cannot be fully understood without the oral Torah.

But, if this is true—and if it is as true for Christianity as it is for Torah—then one might well ask why Evangelical missionaries seek confirmation of the oral transmission from the written transmission. What I have written here argues that their question inverts relationship of written teaching to the oral teaching and suggests that their error is quite basic. If it is so basic, obvious even, how do they even make such an error?

The error of the missionary is rooted in the loss of the oral tradition in the Church. It is not just that Evangelicals, being Protestants, denied the oral traditions of the Church, cutting themselves off from tradition. The problem is much deeper and more significant than that. No reliable oral tradition existed in the Church from the beginning, so that, within the first generation after Jesus, confusion about his message already existed.

This confusion is evident from the beginning of the post-resurrection movement. According to Matthew, even after Jesus appeared to the surviving eleven disciples, “some doubted” (28:17). This suggests that from the beginning of the movement, different accounts existed for what happened, that not all eleven disciples believed they had seen the resurrected Jesus. It is suggestive of competing claims being made from the first generation of Jesus’ students. This doubt is remarkable, because it is hard to doubt a shared sensory experience. Jesus is supposed to have appeared to them and taught them, but still, some doubted? Thus, even the written transmission suggests that no unified understanding of the resurrection existed among the supposed witnesses. It is quite possible, likely even, that not all the early followers of Jesus’ message taught that he was resurrected, including among his immediate disciples, which is why Matthew has to comment on some doubting.

Certainly, as the gospel spread, it became muddled. It is clear from what Paul writes to the Galatians that multiple gospels with competing claims were being spread within decades of the death of Jesus. He issues a warning to the Galatians that they heed no other gospel than his own. Multiple oral traditions, then, circulated early on. Confusion beset the Church within the second generation of believers, if not earlier.

Paul, himself, is not a reliable source of Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus was alive, of course, Paul did not study with Jesus. However, he claims that his gospel comes to him through Jesus, through a revelation—a claim that could not be verified (Galatians 1:12). He goes on to insist that his gospel did not come through studying with Jesus’ disciples, and that when he went to Jerusalem, he only stayed with Peter 15 days. If a reliable oral transmission had existed at that point, from Jesus to the disciples, that chain was broken with Paul.

Indeed, it is remarkable that two of the most influential figures in the early Church are two men that did not learn from Jesus, one being Paul and the other James, Jesus’ brother. From the gospels, it appears that James did not follow Jesus’ teachings while Jesus was still alive. Only later would he become involved in the Jesus movement. This provokes certain questions that are not immediately relevant, so they will be put aside. What must be noted, however, is that he did not study with Jesus, just as Paul did not. It is not clear that James ever studied with Peter or the other disciples, and it is not surprising then, that these two men, neither of whom studied with Jesus, should end up in conflict over what the teachings of Jesus meant.

The early conflicts in the Church speak to the lack of a reliable oral transmission. The Church did not know what it meant for non-Jews to become believers in Jesus. Did they need to convert to Judaism? Or could they remain non-Jews, observing the Seven Laws of Noah with a couple new practices to commemorate Jesus? As time went on, the questions and disagreements became larger. Was Jesus divine, semi-divine, or not at all divine? From early on in Church history, the message of the Church was a muddle, with various gospels and theologies circulating and competing.

Moreover, much of Church doctrine is received only through the written word. When a Christian reads the epistle to Ephesus, he does not have the context of what Paul taught to the Ephesians in person. He has no access to the oral teaching given over in that church or at Corinth or at Philippi. He does not even have access to the oral teaching in Jerusalem, only bits and pieces of it. And this is not a matter of things being lost to the modern age, it was a problem from the foundation of congregations outside Jerusalem. The Church was a diffuse body—not a Church, but churches—that did not have the context of the teachings in other areas. Those churches were receiving different gospels, which they interpreted in different ways based on their lack of context.

The diffusion of the Church is not its strength, but a source of confusion. In order to maintain an oral tradition, one needs a community. A community is able to identify new teachings as they arise. If someone says that he believes God should be worshipped in this or that way, based on his own interpretation, the community can counter that his teaching is unknown to them. A community has the strength to resist innovation, because the teachings do not reside with a few, which, if corrupted, can pollute the entire system. Rather, the community can always appeal to the common knowledge.

For a long time, the Jewish people had just such a community. As a nation, as a community, they had a system of checks and balances in place to avoid the introduction of error or the loss of information. The Torah system did not rely solely upon the knowledge of a few in the clerical class. The knowledge of Torah ran through the whole society, so that it did have teachers in the Levites, but it also had judges who must be also learned in Torah, and it was carried also from parent to child, so that the whole nation served carriers of Torah knowledge. Even while some departed the way of Torah, they did not corrupt the Torah system, as it was guarded by the nation as a whole and not a few, which could not be held accountable.

With the Church, things were the opposite. The Church had no reliable system to guard its teaching. Being geographically spread out, distortion and confusion were easily able to enter the Church. Ideas counter to the original message—which itself was a distortion of Torah—or distorting the original message were carried into the diverse churches. Gospels multiplied and the oral teachings of the Church were lost.

The dispersal of the Jewish people created a similar problem for the Torah system. However, the Jews were careful to preserve their oral teachings and not let the message be lost. Some small elements of confusion crept in, but the essentials were preserved. However, the Church lost its original teachings. It is for this reason that missionaries ask a question that is based on confusion. The Church lost its oral tradition, so the missionary does not consider the foundation of the written tradition. He comes to his religion solely through the written word, and it does not occur to him that the written word is subsequent to oral teaching or that its authority is borrowed from the oral transmission.


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