V. 69. Objection 6.15
It is here that Brown addresses the third of my challenges to him: “An honest reading of the NT will reveal that Jesus and his followers believed in, and observed the unwritten traditions which the Jews accepted as God‑given.”
It is important to note that this discussion is not relevant from the stand-point of the Jew. Whether Jesus did or did not repudiate the Oral Law has no bearing on the Jews acceptance of the Oral Law. Furthermore, since the Jew sees no reason to trust the editors of the Christian Scriptures, the Jew is in no way convinced that the Christian Scriptures present an accurate portrait of Jesus and his disciples. Nonetheless, the Christian Scriptures as we have them today still contain strong evidence that Jesus and his Jewish disciples accepted the validity of the Oral Law. This, despite the fact that by the time the Christian Scriptures were being edited, the Church found itself in an intense conflict with the Pharisees – the bearers of the oral traditions. The editors of the Christian Scriptures were no friends of the Pharisees and their negative feelings towards them pervade their writings; still and all, they could not hide the fact that Jesus himself was a Pharisee.
Brown limits the challenge to Jesus’ directive quoted in Matthew 23:2,3: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
The fact is that there is more evidence in the Christian Scriptures that support the argument that Jesus believed in the Oral Law, and Brown does touch on some of it throughout his response to this objection, but he does not share with his readers the full scope of the argument or of the evidence that has been brought forth to support it.
Before we get to all of the textual evidence that supports the contention that Jesus himself observed and believed in the Oral law, let us summarize Brown’s response to the quote from Matthew 23.
Brown begins by acknowledging that certain Christian scholars, such as Dr. John Fischer, recognize that Jesus “even accepted Pharisaic extensions”; meaning that Jesus accepted both the Written and Oral Laws, including even rabbinic injunctions that were appended to the Law by the Pharisees. Brown lists the tithing of herbs (Matt. 23:23), the recitation of grace at meals (Mark 6:41; 8:6), blessings over wine and the recitation of Hallel at the Passover seder (Mark 14:22-23,26).
Brown however, argues that this interpretation of Jesus’ words must be wrong. Brown attempts to demonstrate that Jesus teaching was directly opposed to the teachings of the Pharisees in so many different situations, that his words in Matthew 23; (“do everything they tell you to do”) cannot be taken literally.
Therefore, Brown concludes, Jesus must have been speaking sarcastically, or what Jesus meant is that his disciples should obey the Pharisees insofar as they accurately represent Moses, or Jesus was only instructing his disciples to obey the Pharisees up until the time when “the kingdom would be taken from them”, which Brown associates with the destruction of the Temple. Brown offers yet a fourth interpretation of Jesus’ words, namely that the directive only applied to matters of local legal disputes, and finally, Brown offers us a variant reading of Matthew 23 as proposed by Nehemiah Gordon in which Jesus instructs his disciples NOT to obey the Pharisees.
Brown asserts that at least one of these interpretations must be correct because throughout the Christian Scriptures, we find Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees. On this basis, Brown negates the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ words.
As for Brown’s five interpretations; the first and the last don’t deserve a refutation (if Jesus meant this sarcastically, what else did he mean sarcastically? And Gordon’s variant reading is not found in any ancient manuscript). The second and third interpretations do not negate the point that Jesus accepted the Oral Law. In the context of Pharisee Judaism, the idea of “accurately representing Moses” would include the interpretations of the Oral Law. If Jesus meant to negate the authenticity of the Oral Law, he should have referred to the Sadducees, who were closer to Brown’s idea of ignoring the traditional interpretations and sticking to the Written word alone. As for the third interpretation, where Jesus has his disciples obey the Pharisees until the time that “the kingdom is taken from them”, this would still indicate that as far as the Law of Moses is concerned, the Pharisee approach is the one to be followed, and not the Protestant approach of “Sola Scriptura”. Brown’s fourth interpretation which limits Jesus’ directive to obey the Pharisees to areas of local legal disputes, also does not negate the argument that Jesus accepted the authority and the authenticity of the Oral Law. The Torah provides legislation on all matters of disputes that arise between man and man. The Law of Moses requires that each of these disputes be settled in a specific way. If Jesus believed, as Brown does, that the Pharisees possessed a completely crooked and inaccurate understanding of the Law of Moses, why would he submit his disciples to their authority? Why would he not send his disciples to the Sadducees, who were closer to Brown’s “Sola Scriptura” approach to Scripture?
When we us examine the areas of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as recorded in the Christian Scriptures, it will become clear that Jesus was NOT disputing the Oral Law as it was passed down from Moses. On some occasions he was disputing some rabbinic enactments, which are different from the Oral Law as an interpretation of the Law of Moses. Even in his disputes with these enactments, Jesus limits himself to those enactments which were disputed within the circle of Pharisees themselves, or to those enactments that were in the process of being instituted. On the other hand, on every occasion, we see that Jesus accepted the Pharisee interpretation and the Pharisee application of the Law of Moses. This helps us understand why some of Jesus’s disciples identified themselves as Pharisees (Acts 15:5 – a comparison with Galatians 2:11,12,14 will reveal that Peter himself was one of these Pharisees). It is obvious that they understood Jesus’ directive to obey the Pharisees in its most straightforward sense – obey the Pharisees!
Brown refers to the rebuke of the Pharisees that follows Jesus’ directive to obey them (Matthew 23:5-39. Brown points out that Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “blind men” and “blind guides”, which seems to indicate that they are not leading the people properly. Brown points to Matthew 15:14 where Jesus tells his disciples: Leave them, they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into the pit.” How then could Jesus’ original directive to obey the Pharisees be taken literally? – asks Brown.
This argument is refuted by Matthew’s Jesus himself. Jesus clearly says: “they do not practice what they preach”, or according to the King James: “for they say, and do not”. In other words, Jesus was arguing that as men who are supposed to lead by example, they are blind guides, but their words are true and authoritative. (As for Jesus’ words in the context of Matthew 15:14, see below.)
Brown points to Matthew 23 verse 4 where Jesus describes the Pharisees as people who: “put burdens on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Brown argues that the way the Pharisees put burdens on people’s shoulders was through their teachings, so how then can Jesus be instructing his disciples to submit to these same teachings?
This rebuke of Jesus can be understood in a way that does not conflict in any way with his clear directive to obey the Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat. We must put these words into their historical context. The Pharisee leadership in the time of Jesus were in the process of setting down rabbinical enactments. These were new decrees that were meant as a “fence” to the Law of Moses. One such decree, which was still in the process of being accepted in Jesus’ day was the enactment of hand-washing (- see below). It was these new decrees that Jesus was deriding as “burdens” that his contemporaries were placing upon people’s shoulders. He was not referring to teachings that his contemporaries were handing down from previous generations. This is obvious from the wording he uses. He throws out a personal accusation against the contemporary Pharisee leadership; it is these people who he accuses of placing the burdens, he is not referring to leaders from previous generations and neither is he referring to teachings that these people are passing on in the name of Moses.
Brown reminds his readers of the dispute that Jesus has with the Pharisees concerning the hand-washing decree as recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Here is an area where Jesus clearly rejects a Pharisee teaching. In light of this conflict how can we understand his instruction to obey the Pharisees?
The answer is to this question is quite simple. The hand-washing decree was never presented as an interpretation of the Law of Moses. It was a rabbinic decree that, at first, was not accepted by all. It is only the contemporaries of Jesus who gave this decree its full legal force (B. Talmud Shabbos 14b). So Jesus was not disputing an interpretation that the Pharisees were passing down from Moses, he was not even disputing an ancient tradition. Jesus was taking issue with a new decree that had a history of uncertainty surrounding it. This hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Oral Law; certainly not one which would force us to reinterpret the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ clear directive as quoted in Matthew 23.
There is another conflict that Jesus has with the Pharisees that Brown does not mention directly; this encounter is found in Matthew 15:5,6 and Mark 7:10-12. In these texts Jesus is criticizing a practice wherein one would consecrate his possessions so as to avoid having to honor his parents. The problem with this account is that there is no historical record of any Jewish leader presenting such an opinion. According to every opinion in Jewish law, honoring one’s parents is one of the foremost commandments, and no leader on record ever encouraged his followers to consecrate their possessions in order to avoid honoring one’s parents. In a situation where one went ahead and actually consecrated his or her possessions to the Temple treasury, those possessions would be assumed by the Temple treasury and in effect, this person would no longer be able to honor his or her parents because of a lack of means to do so. But this person would have utilized a Biblical Law (Leviticus 27:14, Numbers 30:3), and not an oral tradition, in order to avoid fulfilling the commandment to honor parents. So Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees for exalting their tradition above the commandment of God is not readily understood in light of what we know of the Pharisee teaching on the subject.
The most likely interpretation of these texts would have Jesus in conflict with a select group of Pharisees and not with the entire movement. Since this rebuke of Jesus is placed together with his arguments against the hand-washing decree, it follows that this was a recent innovation of some Pharisees that Jesus was criticizing. From the historical records, it seems that the opinion that Jesus was criticizing, never gained any level of popular support.
Brown goes on to the violations of the Sabbath that the gospels attribute to Jesus and his disciples. Brown tells his readers: “…the New Testament authors not only record these instances where Jesus’ disciples differed with the Pharisaic tradition, but at other times, they record instances where Jesus himself violated some of these traditions…”
Brown sees these Sabbath violations as an example of Jesus’ repudiation of the Oral Law. Let us examine these texts more closely. Mark 2 and Matthew 12 record an instance where Jesus’ disciples plucked some grain as they walked through the fields. The Pharisees challenged Jesus: “why do they on the Sabbath that which is not lawful?” According to Brown’s hypothesis which has Jesus repudiating the Oral Law, Jesus should have told these Pharisees that this activity is NOT prohibited on the Sabbath under any circumstance. Would Brown hesitate to pluck something off a tree to eat on the Sabbath? But this is not what Jesus answered. Jesus launches into a speech about David’s eating from the show-bread which was forbidden to him and about the priests violating the Sabbath in the service in the Temple. These two are examples of an activity that violates the Law, but is permitted due to extenuating circumstances. By providing these comparisons, Jesus affirms his acceptance of the Pharisaic definition of prohibited activity on the Sabbath. His only difference with the Pharisees was whether the prohibition was relevant in that specific situation.
In the book of John, Jesus justifies his Sabbath violation with the following argument: “If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?” (John 7:23). Again, Jesus does not argue that the activities that he did should not be defined as “work” that is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus fully accepts that his activities fall under the definition of forbidden “work”. He argues instead that his activities should be permitted because they are done for the purpose of healing.
Furthermore, the entire weight of Jesus’ argument rests on the assumption that the Oral Law is true. Without the Oral Law how would we know that the act of circumcision is considered a forbidden activity on the Sabbath? And after we accept that premise, then where in the Written Torah does it say that the act of circumcision may indeed be preformed on the Sabbath? The fact that Jesus accepted these two axioms (that circumcision falls under the category of prohibited “work”, and that for the sake of fulfilling the commandment, this act is permitted on the Sabbath), and the fact that he based his argument on these two axioms, tells us loud and clear that Jesus accepted the Oral law, and that he expected his audience to accept it as well.
The fact that Jesus observed the Pharisaic calendar, the fact that he observed many Pharisee teachings such as the blessings on wine and bread, and the order of the Passover seder (as Brown acknowledges), the fact that his disciples observed the times of prayer instituted by the Pharisees (Acts 3:1), and the fact that many of Jesus’ disciples identified themselves as Pharisees long after Jesus had died – testifies clearly that Jesus did not repudiate the Oral Law. When he instructed his followers to obey the Pharisees because they sit in Moses’ seat, his immediate disciples did not think that he meant it sarcastically.
If you found this article helpful please consider making a donation to Judaism Resources by clicking on the link below.
Judaism Resources is a recognized 501(c) 3 public charity and your donation is tax exempt.
Yisroel C. Blumenthal