The Oral Law—Why Was It Put in Writing?
WHY did many first-century Jews fail to accept Jesus as the Messiah? One eyewitness reports: “After [Jesus] went into the temple, the chief priests and the older men of the people came up to him while he was teaching and said: ‘By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?’” (Matthew 21:23) In their eyes, the Almighty had given the Jewish nation the Torah (Law), and it gave certain men God-given authority. Did Jesus have such authority?
Jesus showed the utmost respect for the Torah and for those to whom it granted genuine authority. (Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 5:14; 17:14) But he frequently denounced those who overstepped the commandments of God. (Matthew 15:3-9; 23:2-28) Such men followed traditions that came to be known as the oral law. Jesus rejected its authority. In turn, many rejected him as the Messiah. They believed that only someone supporting the traditions of those in authority among them could have God’s backing.
Where did this oral law originate? How did Jews come to view it as having authority equal to the written Law recorded in the Scriptures? And if it was meant to be an oral tradition, why was it eventually put in written form?
Where Did the Traditions Originate?
The Israelites came into a covenant relationship with Jehovah God at Mount Sinai in 1513 B.C.E. Through Moses, they received the statutes of that covenant. (Exodus 24:3) Following these regulations would allow them to ‘prove themselves holy as Jehovah their God was holy.’ (Leviticus 11:44) Under the Law covenant, worship of Jehovah involved sacrifices offered by a designated priesthood. There was to be a central place of worship—eventually the temple in Jerusalem.—Deuteronomy 12:5-7; 2 Chronicles 6:4-6.
The Mosaic Law provided the overall structure for Israel’s worship of Jehovah as a nation. However, some details were not explicitly stated. For instance, the Law forbade work on the Sabbath, but it did not draw an explicit line between work and other activities.—Exodus 20:10.
If Jehovah had seen fit to do so, he could have provided detailed regulations covering every conceivable question. But he had created humans with a conscience, and he allowed them the initiative to serve him with a degree of flexibility within the framework of his statutes. The Law made provision for judicial cases to be dealt with by priests, Levites, and judges. (Deuteronomy 17:8-11) As cases increased, certain precedents were set, and no doubt some of these were passed on from generation to generation. Methods of caring for the priestly duties at Jehovah’s temple were also conveyed from father to son. As the nation’s collective experience increased, so did its traditions.
At the heart of Israel’s worship, however, remained the written Law given to Moses. Exodus 24:3, 4 states: “Moses came and related to the people all the words of Jehovah and all the judicial decisions, and all the people answered with one voice and said: ‘All the words that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.’ Accordingly Moses wrote down all the words of Jehovah.” It was in keeping with these written commandments that God concluded his covenant with the Israelites. (Exodus 34:27) In fact, the Scriptures nowhere mention the existence of an oral law.
“Who Gave You This Authority?”
The Mosaic Law clearly left primary religious authority and instruction in the hands of the priests, the descendants of Aaron. (Leviticus 10:8-11; Deuteronomy 24:8; 2 Chronicles 26:16-20; Malachi 2:7) Through the centuries, however, some priests became unfaithful and corrupt. (1 Samuel 2:12-17, 22-29; Jeremiah 5:31; Malachi 2:8, 9) During the era of Greek domination, many priests compromised on religious issues. In the second century B.C.E., the Pharisees—a new group within Judaism that distrusted the priesthood—began instituting traditions by which the common man could consider himself as holy as the priest. These traditions appealed to many, but they were an unacceptable addition to the Law.—Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32 (13:1 in Jewish editions).
The Pharisees became the new scholars of the Law, doing the job that they felt the priests were not doing. Since the Mosaic Law did not allow for their authority, they developed new methods of interpreting Scripture through cryptic allusions and by other methods seemingly supporting their views.* As the chief caretakers and promoters of these traditions, they created a new base of authority in Israel. By the first century C.E., the Pharisees had become a dominant force in Judaism.
As they collected existing oral traditions and searched for Scriptural implication to establish more of their own, the Pharisees saw the need to give added authority to their activity. A new concept regarding the origin of these traditions was born. The rabbis began to teach: “Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly.”—Avot 1:1, the Mishnah.
In saying, “Moses received Torah,” the rabbis were referring not only to the written laws but to all their oral traditions. They claimed that these traditions—invented and developed by men—were given to Moses by God at Sinai. And they taught that God had not left it up to men to fill in the gaps but had orally defined what the written Law had left unsaid. According to them, Moses passed this oral law down through the generations, not to the priests, but to other leaders. The Pharisees themselves claimed to be the natural inheritors of this “unbroken” chain of authority.
The Law in Crisis—A New Solution
Jesus, whose God-given authority was questioned by the Jewish religious leaders, had foretold the destruction of the temple. (Matthew 23:37–24:2) After the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 C.E., the requirements of the Mosaic Law involving sacrifices and priestly service could no longer be met. God had established a new covenant on the basis of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. (Luke 22:20) The Mosaic Law covenant had been brought to an end.—Hebrews 8:7-13.
Rather than seeing these events as evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, the Pharisees found another solution. They had already usurped much of the authority of the priesthood. With the temple destroyed, they could go one step further. The rabbinic academy at Yavneh became the center for a reorganized Sanhedrin—the Jewish high court. Under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai and Gamaliel II at Yavneh, Judaism was completely restructured. The services at the synagogue, led by the rabbis, replaced worship at the temple, supervised by the priests. Prayers, especially those on the Day of Atonement, replaced sacrifices. The Pharisees reasoned that the oral law given to Moses at Sinai had already foreseen and made provision for this.
Rabbinic academies took on added prominence. Their main curriculum was intense discussion, memorization, and application of the oral law. Previously, the basis for the oral law was tied to Scripture interpretation—Midrash. Now, the ever-increasing traditions that were accumulating began to be taught and organized separately. Each ruling of the oral law was reduced to short, easily memorized phrases, often set to a melody.
Why Write Down an Oral Law?
The abundance of rabbinic academies and increasing rabbinic rulings created a new problem. Rabbinic scholar Adin Steinsaltz explains: “Each teacher had his own method and phrased his oral rulings in his own singular fashion. . . . It was no longer sufficient to be acquainted with the teachings of one’s own mentor, and the student was obliged to acquaint himself with the work of other scholars . . . Thus students were forced to memorize vast quantities of material because of the ‘explosion of knowledge.’” Amid a sea of disordered information, the student’s memory was taxed to the breaking point.
In the second century C.E., the Jewish rebellion against Rome, headed by Bar Kokhba, led to intense persecution of rabbinic scholars. Akiba—the foremost rabbi, who had supported Bar Kokhba—as well as many leading scholars were put to death. The rabbis feared that renewed persecution could endanger the very existence of their oral law. They had believed that traditions were best passed on by word of mouth from master to disciple, but these changing circumstances led to an increased effort to create an organized structure to preserve the teachings of the sages, lest they be forgotten forever.
During a subsequent period of relative peace with Rome, Judah Ha-Nasi, the leading rabbi of the late second and early third centuries C.E., gathered numerous scholars and edited vast amounts of oral tradition into an organized system made up of six Orders, each subdivided into smaller tractates—63 in all. This work became known as the Mishnah. Ephraim Urbach, an authority on the oral law, comments: “The Mishnah . . . was granted approval and authority such as had never been granted to any book except the Torah itself.” The Messiah had been rejected, the temple was in ruins, but with the oral law preserved in writing in the form of the Mishnah, a new age in Judaism began.
This style of Scripture interpretation is called midrash.
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Why did many Jews reject Jesus’ authority?