This is the fifth part of a series summarizing and discussing a paper by Dr. Mark Kinzer delivered at the 2003 Hashivenu Forum. In Part 1, I have a link to the original paper. I recommend you read Parts 1-4 before reading Part 5.
Thus far we have defined what Oral Torah is and suggested a healthy view of its origin and authority. Oral Torah is not a mythical body of law delivered to Moses on Sinai, but the working out through the generations in Israel of a way to keep the Torah. Torah does not give answers to many practical questions of observance. Oral Torah is the system of guidelines for the community of Israel about how to keep Torah. Oral Torah is rabbinic tradition.
We have also considered a biblical basis for rabbinic tradition: the Torah commands in Deuteronomy 16 and 17 for Israel to establish a central court to determine rulings about Torah life. Now we will look at the New Testament for further guidance. How does the New Testament treat rabbinic tradition?
Let me say from the outset, many Christians and Messianic Jews would be quick to say, “Yeshua opposed rabbinic tradition.” After all, there are many criticisms and denunciations of the Pharisees in the gospels. But let’s see what Dr. Kinzer has to say.
First, Dr. Kinzer suggests that there are strong continuities between pre-70 Pharisaism and post-70 Rabbinic Judaism. This is not as obvious a point as it might sound. Dr. Kinzer didn’t say this, but I will: we have been subjected for years to bad scholarship where rabbinic literature is directly equated with the Judaism of Yeshua’s day. You cannot quote the Mishnah and act as though it was the tradition of Yeshua’s time. The Mishnah was written down around 200 C.E. and a great many changes happened after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Nonetheless, I feel Dr. Kinzer’s point stands: there is at least a parallel between pre-70 Pharisaism and post-70 Rabbinic Judaism.
Therefore, the principle Dr. Kinzer goes by is that the New Testament attitude toward Pharisaism tells us something about Rabbinic Judaism. Josephus, writing in 96 C.E., affirms that the Pharisees passed down traditions about how to keep the Torah, traditions opposed by the Sadducees who had a Torah-only position (Antiquities 13:297). The Pharisees called the ”the traditions of the elders.” As far as we know, there was as yet no claim to Mosaic authority for these traditions.
Dr. Kinzer asks, “How do the New Testament documents respond to these traditions of the elders?” The first test case is ritual handwashing (netillat yadai’m). Many would be quick to say, “Yeshua opposed the ritual handwashing?” Dr. Kinzer suggests this interpretation is too hasty.
The Pharisees criticized Yeshua’s disciples for not washing their hands (Matt. 15 and Mark 7), but they did not say that Yeshua also abstained from the practice. It is likely that Yeshua practiced handwashing but did not teach his disciples that it was required. That is, he perhaps followed the tradition without making it mandatory. Also, the criticism was only of SOME of Yeshua’s followers, not all (Mark 7:2). Perhaps some of the disciples did wash hands.
Dr. Kinzer then makes an important argument, one we should consider. It is hard to imagine a Pharisee asking a Sadducee, “Why don’t your students wash their hands? It is reasonable, then, to assume that the Pharisees regarded Yeshua as one of their own, a tradition-keeping Jew.
Yeshua’s response to the Pharisees suggests two problems he had with the traditions: (1) he sees their preoccupation with ritual observances outweighing greater concerns of love and justice and (2) he opposes occasions where the traditions of the elders are allowed to outweigh biblical commands. Yeshua cites examples of both, ritual overpowering love and tradition overpowering scripture.
What then? Has Yeshua dismissed the tradition entirely? The fact that Yeshua appears to keep the traditions tells us he did not reject them wholesale. Dr. Kinzer suggests a better understanding: a prophetic corrective. The prophets spoke strongly about wrongs done in the worship of Israel but they did not oppose the worship of Israel. They sought to make it right. Yeshua was seeking to influence the tradition and not overturn it.
It is often overlooked in Matthew 23:23-24 that Yeshua affirmed the details of traditions (tithing herbs, which was not a biblical law) while calling for a greater emphasis on biblical love and justice. This is prophetic correction, not opposition to the entire enterprise.
I will stop here for today. This is plenty to chew on. Tomorrow we will continue looking at the New Testament and Rabbinic Tradition. For now, here are questions for thought and discussion:
1. Knowing that the Pharisees criticized only some of Yeshua’s disciples for not washing hands and that Yeshua affirmed the tradition of tithing herbs, is it still possible to argue that Yeshua rejected tradition? If you can make an argument, I’d like to see it.
2. How does prophetic correction serve as a better model (hint: consider Isaiah 1:10-15 as a paradigm)?
3. How does this change the way you view your Messianic Jewish lifestyle? (note: We are not arguing here that non-Jewish Christians are bound to Torah and tradition)