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.