The Problem of Christian Rabbinic Mythology

It’s a problem. The cause of the problem is at least partially motivated by something good: the desire to recapture the lost Jewishness of the New Testament, of Jesus, of Paul, and of Christianity.

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.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Talmud and Tradition and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Problem of Christian Rabbinic Mythology

  1. Derek,

    I enjoy reading your blog quite a bit, thanks for posting your thoughts on this subject. It’s always good to come back to assumptions and test them to make sure they are true, and if not, then to throw them out.

    You are correct that Dr. Young is a staple of reading for Christians interested in their Hebrew roots (such as myself – I own all of his books). But if I understand you correctly, you are saying that Brad Young (and therefore his mentor, David Flusser) have the historical context for Yeshua wrong, and that Shaye Cohen has it right? What is your criteria for deciding who is right and who is wrong when both sides of scholars give historical citations for their conclusions?

    Peace to you,
    James

  2. christian4moses says:

    Very good post! Shaye Cohen is among my favourites when it comes to 2nd Temple Judaism.

  3. judeoxian says:

    I think calling it a “myth” is overstating it far too much. These are debated issues in the scholarly world (how influential and organized the proto-rabbinic Jews were pre-70). Young is one of the prime students of Flusser, and I would hardly call his scholarship “mythology.”

  4. Judeoxian:

    It seems to me these issues are actually not debated in the scholarly world.

    Hopefully I am here as a gadfly to help you rethink some of your early influences.

    The evidence that rabbinic thought was widely influential in the late Second Temple period comes only from rabbinic writings, most of which are very late, fourth, fifth, and sixth century. There is a trend in rabbinic writings of reading their community’s norms back into earlier times (Noah had a talmudic academy and so on).

    E.P. Sanders covers this all quite well in Judaism: Practice and Belief. Jacob Neusner has been saying it for many decades. Flusser no doubt did some good work, but is working, IMO, from a flawed understanding of history.

    Derek

    • judeoxian says:

      These aren’t really my early influences. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with what I’ve read from Young (though more for how he handles the biblical text), and I’ve never read Flusser. I have read Neusner, and though his work is beyond anything most of us could achieve in ten lifetimes, I don’t agree with his perspectives.

      Neusner represents one extreme on the sliding scale of how much post-70 rabbinic Judaism represents the first century situation. He sees the rabbis as complete innovators, and in good post-modern form, tries to de-legitimize their authority and charge them of impure motives (as is detected somewhat in your retelling of rabbinic origins). According to Neusner, Christianity has no Jewish roots. Judaism so radically changed after 70, according to him, that the Judaism and Christianity that now exist have practically no common theological ground to stand on.

      To go to the other end of the scale might be a mistake too. Maybe Bell, Vanderlaan, and Young cross this line (maybe). While it is partly true that the Mishnah and Talmuds represent developments within Judaism, they also contain earlier oral traditions. There are many different scholarly opinions on how to reconstruct the first century setting. But they all agree we have to see a kernal of historical truth behind the sometimes exaggerated claims of the sages.
      Not complete fabrications. So while Yeshua may not have memorized the Torah at age five, certainly an organized public educational system connected with the synagogue existed in the first century.

      The reality exists somewhere in the middle, often put forward by NT Wright. Yes, Judaism was pluriform in the first century. No, the proto-rabbinic Jews didn’t have a corner on the market. But, it wasn’t as though a new religion was created by Zakkai after 135. Phariseeism wasn’t mainstream, but neither was it marginal or fringe. After all, they feature prominently in 3 of the 4 Gospels, as well as Acts, so they must have carried some clout.

      Last, if you can’t trust the basic historical reliability of the rabbinic writings (since they are the ones who produced them), how can you then accept that the writings of Yeshua’s followers are historically accurate, since those documents are products of that community?

      • judeoxian says:

        sorry, I didn’t mean for that to be so long.

      • Ovadia says:

        “The reality exists somewhere in the middle, often put forward by NT Wright. Yes, Judaism was pluriform in the first century. No, the proto-rabbinic Jews didn’t have a corner on the market. But, it wasn’t as though a new religion was created by Zakkai after 135. Phariseeism wasn’t mainstream, but neither was it marginal or fringe. After all, they feature prominently in 3 of the 4 Gospels, as well as Acts, so they must have carried some clout.”

        Just out of curiosity, are you identifying Pharisaism with the proto-rabbinic movement?

  5. James:

    You ask a great question. What is a reader to do when books by various authors appear equally to be well-documented and yet they present different models of understanding.

    My simplest answer is that you have to decide who is more credible or you have to keep your mind open to both approaches until you have better information.

    I can tell you from knowing people in the field of rabbinics (I am not a rabbinics scholar by any means), that the idea of an early, influential rabbinic movement is nearly universally rejected. Young is not a scholar whose works are cited in the field (which is not in itself an indication that he is wrong, since those who write popular level books are often not cited in academics). I point out that Young is not cited as an authority only to say, he is getting his information from somewhere just like we are. Maybe we need to go over his head and see what the experts are saying.

    Derek

  6. Ovadia says:

    Derek:

    Great post. I started off with a maximalist view of the antiquity of rabbinic traditions and influence (I started off Zionist Christian with Vanderlaan and then headed into Orthodoxy with Artscroll) that has gradually tapered. Cohen, Sanders, and Neusner were all influential.

    Does anyone else get the impression that Neusner writes the same book over and over again? Not to insult the man’s genius or output, but some of the books are hard to distinguish.

  7. Derek, recent comments on Tzvee’s Talmudic Blog may support your concerns here. I’ll share them for you and your readers:

    . . . speaking of things published in the section that we do not get, there is a letter that makes no sense to us responding to a review of ‘Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch: Thine Is the Kingdom (April 4, 2010) . . . Not a word of the letter makes any sense, certainly not the use of terms like allegorical, supernatural, or literal or the anachronistic reference to the bar mitzvah of Jesus. We are mystified.”

    You can read the “letter” in question (evidently from a Christian whose assertions about Jesus’s Judaism Tzvee finds so mystifying) here.

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