Rabbinic Tradition and Yeshua

I wrote a paper over a year ago and delivered it at the LCJE. The following is a brief excerpt. It was actually part of an appendix to the paper. I post it to begin a dialogue with Rich Robinson, of Jews for Jesus (who is a friend, a well-informed thinker, and a gentleman). I want to direct this especially to Rich, but I invite others to respond (pro or con). I direct it to Rich in particular because he said in a comment on this blog:

Therefore I believe it’s legitimate to take rabbinic traditions and reinterpret them. Would I always want to? No. Would I sometimes want to? Yes. Why? Because after all they are the symbols and traditions of my people, a link to my past and to people today. So why abandon them wholesale? Having grown up Reform, I am comfortable with a certain minimum degree of tradition in my life.

Rich, and anyone else, please share your thoughts:

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” Matthew 23:2-3.

There is a sort of minimalist interpretation of this passage. That is, Yeshua is not saying that the scribes and Pharisees are valid religious authorities. He is merely saying that they have God-ordained governmental power analogous to the power of Rome and the Roman governor, Pilate. Yeshua is here merely making a similar point to Paul in Romans 13. The people should obey their governing authorities even if they are corrupt, as indeed Yeshua says the Pharisees and scribes of his day are corrupt.

Those in tune with Second Temple politics ought to raise an eyebrow at Yeshua choosing the scribes and Pharisees instead of someone else. The Roman-ordained authority over the daily life of the people was the Sanhedrin, not the scribes and Pharisees. And there is good evidence that the Sadducees dominated the Sanhedrin and not the Pharisees or scribes.

N.T. Wright, for example, notes that Paul, a prominent Pharisee, had to go to the chief priests for permission to persecute Yeshua-followers in Antioch. Before the temple was destroyed, it would seem that the Sadducees held the majority of the power in Israel. And it was the Sanhedrin that Rome authorized, not the Pharisees and scribes.

If the Romans authorized the Sanhedrin, why would Yeshua authorize the Pharisees and scribes rather than the Sanhedrin or the Sadducees? This raises an interesting possibility: it was the halakhah and not the courts or governance that Yeshua was authorizing.

In other words, it was the work the Pharisees and scribes were doing, making communally accepted standards for Torah observance, that Yeshua authorized. This had nothing to do with governmental authority. It had to do with a body of elders in Israel, like the seventy elders of Moses’ time and the judges of Deuteronomy 17:10, defining for the people the details of Torah faithfulness in everyday life.

God ordained Torah scholars in Israel to define and preserve the practice of Torah for the people. In spite of corruption, just as God-ordained governments also have corruption, Yeshua authorized the work of the Pharisees and scribes where it did not contradict the written word of God. Yeshua did not authorize their writings as infallible or on the level of scripture, but merely as a human institution for preserving Israel’s Torah faithfulness. Therefore, this is not a wholesale authorization of the entire Talmudic and midrashic corpus that followed, but of accepted halakhah as a communal standard for Israel.

This interpretation of Matthew 23 surely raises many questions. But it establishes one basic point: rabbinic Judaism, heir to the scribes and Pharisees, is God’s ordained institution to preserve Israel.

Derek Leman


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish, Theology, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Rabbinic Tradition and Yeshua

  1. PB and J says:


    i think this raises an interesting point for the gentile portion of the community as well. (or the whole community of disciples, really) because in acts you have the jerusalem council where james says that it seemed good to “them and the Holy Spirit”. james is definitely saying that there is authority in the leadership of the Body coming together and deciding on an issue. also, the early church (although not the earliest church in acts, but a generation later when it was almost purely gentile) believed that when the community leaders (bishops of priest or pastors or presbyters or whatever you wanna call them) got together to decide on an issue, this was the final word. for instance, the major councils throughout the first few centuries were considered authoritative to the whole Body.

    so i think there is nothing wrong with having the leadership of the Body make authoritative statements, and i think it is very likely this is what Yeshua was referring to. however, i dont know that modern rabbis who do not believe in Messiah are necessarily the ones with this authority.

    but now that the Body is broken apart into so many factions, do we still have an authoritative source? can there be authority without a decision from the entire Body?/


  2. Peter:

    I took your suggestion seriously and thought about it. It is good to think and offer interpretive suggestions. Your suggestion, if I understood it correctly, was that Matthew 23:1-2 is talking about the authority of the leaders of the church. I guess the idea would be, there was no church when Yeshua said Matthew 23:1-2, the Pharisees were the leaders at the time, and now that principle should not apply to the Pharisees, but to the church.

    There are a few problems:
    1. There are other places (Matt 16 and 18) where Yeshua speaks of the disciples having authority to bind and loose (make halakhah). If that is what he meant to say in Matt 23, he would have said it.
    2. The Pharisees were not the leaders of the Jewish people. Rome and the Sadducees dominated the scene.
    3. Changing from the Pharisees to the church is a sort of supersessionist move (replacement theology).

    The fact is, Yeshua spoke of the authority of the disciples and of the Pharisees in setting halakhah. The balance is what we need to discover. But there is no balance when people completely reject the teaching of Matthew 23 and only insist on Matt 16 and 18.


  3. PB and J says:


    thanks for the response. i wasnt suggesting that the “church” mean a gentile body of gentile leaders. i was referring to either jewish or gentile leaders in either part of the Church. (i mean church in the most universal of senses, not in the way it is meant today)

    in light of what you wrote, let me rephrase my question, since Yeshua said this about the pharisees, does this mean that the gentile believers are also subject to them? if not, then who are we subject to? interestingly exodus says the japheth will dwell in shem’s tent and not the other way around. maybe we are supposed to be lead by yall (messianic jews)? and if this is the case, how do we find the balance between the disciples and the pharisees? do we follow judaism in its entire movement or just those who recognize Yeshua as Messiah? not sure if this got better to the point. but i think it is a very tricky situation because of all the faction.


  4. Shalom,

    Excellent discussion point.

    To follow along with the previous comment. That the Rabbi’s had authority to make Halacha is absolutely correct, and I agree with your (Derek’s) statement. The question that comes next is obvious, once Messiah was sacrificed, and the majority of Pharisee did not accept him, where does that leave modern Messianic Judaism?

    Do we follow the traditions (i.e. Rabbic rulings), if so, we would quickly come into conflict as Yeshua is recorded to be a heretic, which we cannot agree with.

    Do we follow the Sages prior and up to Yeshua, then develop our own Halacha? This approach has some advantages, but misses out on some very insightful gleanings from the Rabbi’s.

    Do we throw out all Rabbinical rulings? This is what was done in the past to our own detriment.

    Or, do we follow the Sages prior and up to Yeshua, then review each ruling by later Rabbi’s to determine applicability. This would require the most work, and it would require a type of Beit Din (which all Messianic Congregations would find great advantage to using). Would serious study and discernment be required, absolutely, but the reward would be great. We could then literally say, we follow the Rabbi’s except when they contradict Scripture or the Master.


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