You hate to say something critical about a trend which represents such a needed improvement, such a repair of the world. I’d rather Christians and Hebraic roots teachers fall for a mythological history than to continue the pogroms and anti-Judaism of the past.
But there are a number of reasons to call foul on the problem. The first is truth. It’s always good to have ideas, history, and theology built on truth. Anything built on error will eventually fall. And it will often be a hard fall with consequences we’d rather not experience. Another reason to add a corrective to this well-meaning, but fallacious, school of popular history is that the Jewish community is light years ahead on this issue.
What’s the point of being pro-Jewish and reaching across the religious divide, Christian person to Jewish person, if in so doing there is an obvious lack of historiographical maturity? If Christianity is going to get in touch with its Jewish side, it should do so in a way that will be affirmed and appreciated by the Jewish community.
And it’s not just Christians who have fallen at times for the mythology of an early and influential rabbinic movement. It’s also segments of Messianic Judaism and the many associated movements interested in Jewish or Hebraic roots of faith.
The Christian myth of an early and influential rabbinic authority goes back several centuries. Shaye Cohen, in his valuable book From the Maccabees to the Mishnah quite simply puts the reason for the error: Inasmuch as historians rely primarily on literary evidence, it highlights the fact that the major literary evidence for the Judaism of the second to sixth centuries is exclusively rabbinic (6).
The Myth of Jesus the Talmudic Era Sage
Most Messianic Jewish Musings readers have read the accounts. Jesus went to school starting at age 5. He started with Leviticus. That’s how Jewish education begins, right? He went through a rigorous Yeshiva, memorizing the teachings of the sages so that he could quote opinions and names, just like what we read in the Mishnah. He saw himself like one of the sages and his disciples were all familiar with Pirkei Avot and the sayings about walking in the dust of their rabbi’s feet and so on and so forth.
Many Christians have encountered this mythology in some rather excellent books and materials on the popular level encouraging a closer life of discipleship and study. In mentioning a book or teacher, I am not attempting to demean them. As I said, I think they have a valuable purpose and unfortunately bought into some less than up to date information.
Rob Bell is a Christian pastor who has done a great deal to turn people on to a more Jewish view of Jesus. He writes extensively in Velvet Elvis about Jesus as rabbi. He learned from Ray Vanderlaan (followtherabbi.com). The historical information is wrong, but I would not want to undermine the greater truth: that Jesus is a Jewish teacher and prophet as well as Messiah and we certainly should memorize his sayings and walk in his sandal steps.
A writer and teacher I have more of a problem with is Brad Young, whose books are a staple of Zionist Christian and Hebraic Roots reading. In all his books, Young incautiously applies the much later rabbinic writings to the life and message of Yeshua. He seems to fully buy into the rabbinic myth of an early pervasive movement of rabbis.
There are certainly more books and personalities involved in the mythology of first century rabbinic prominence.
A More Accurate Vision
If you want a short introduction to Jewish life in Yeshua’s time, I suggest Shaye Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. Cohen teaches at Harvard and his work reflects the latest scholarship.
If you want an introduction with more examples and with specific lists of information about beliefs and practices in Yeshua’s time, I recommend E.P. Sanders’ Judaism: Practice and Belief (63 B.C.E. – 66 C.E.) (the book is, sadly, out of print, but available used for a high price or from libraries for free). Sanders revolutionized the world of Pauline studies with the realization that Paul was pro-Jewish, not anti.
Just a note for readers who are not used to reading historical critical material: don’t be alarmed if you find ideas that seem liberal and which cast doubt on the provenance of some scriptural writings. You need not buy into every opinion about how the Bible came to be written to appreciate what these books are really for: illuminating Judaism from the best sources about the time of Yeshua.
Here are a few words of wisdom from Shaye Cohen:
The centuries after the destruction of the temple often receive the name the rabbinic period. The word rabbi means “my master” and was originally a deferential form of address (like the French monsieur). By the first century CE, the title was normally used by students when addressing their teacher (John 1:38). In the second century CE, the meaning of the word began to change. It remained a generic title for a teacher, but it also became a technical term designating a member of that society which, from the second century to the sixth, in both Israel and Babylonia, created a voluminous and distinct literature. The earliest of these works, completed around 200 CE, was the Mishnah. (p. 5).
The Judaism created by the rabbis of antiquity gradually became the dominant form of Judaism, and remained the dominant form until the nineteenth century. The rabbis were the “winners” of ancient Jewish history. But in the second to sixth centuries, the rabbis were not nearly as dominant as they would become later, and the concept “the rabbinic period” slights the rabbis’ opponents (the losers) and falsely implies that after 70 CE all Jews accepted the rabbis as their leaders and followed the way of rabbinic Judaism. (p. 6).
Most Jews [in the time from the Maccabees to the Mishnah] were not members of any sect. They observed the Sabbath and the holidays, heard the scriptural lessons in synagogue on the Sabbath, abstained from forbidden foods, purified themselves before entering the temple precincts, circumcised their sons on the eighth day, and adhered to the ethical norms of folk piety. (p. 165).
Why Then Follow Rabbinic Tradition?
Lastly, let me simply clarify something.
Some people see Messianic Judaism as a restoration of something that once existed and came to be no more: a Jewish expression of Yeshua-faith practiced by the apostles and the early believers.
Well, Messianic Judaism does involve such a restoration, but this is not its raison detre. MJ is more than bringing back a golden age of Torah, Messiah, and community from the first century.
Messianic Judaism is, to borrow the terms of MJTI’s vision statement (mjti.com), a movement for the renewal of Judaism in Yeshua.
Therefore, it was thought by many previously that the point of Torah living in MJ was to bring back what was practiced in the first century. Thus, any Jewish traditions developed later than the first century were thought by some to be irrelevant.
However, this is a view which does not take seriously the free and irrevocable election of Israel as the Chosen People. It assumes that God was not working with the Jewish people, being present in the midst of Israel’s national and religious life, in the intervening centuries since Yeshua’s time.
Messianic Judaism rejects this idea and finds that God and Yeshua have been present all along. Therefore, it is not vital at all to our enterprise to conclude that certain Jewish ways of life existed in Yeshua’s time, as if that alone could justify our practicing them today.