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.