Jesus and the Oral Torah: Blessing

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Jesus apparently attached great importance to the Oral Torah (unwritten in his day), and it seems he considered it to be authoritative. When Jesus admonished his disciples to “do and observe everything they [the scribes and Pharisees] command you” (Matt. 23:3), he was referring to the Pharisees’ oral traditions and interpretations of the Written Torah. The Written Torah itself could not have been in question, for it was accepted by all sects of Judaism, and Jesus himself said, "Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than one 'yod' or even one 'kotz" from the Torah' (Matt. 5:18).

This article is one of a six-part series by David Bivin entitled Jesus and the Oral Torah.
Revised: 28-Oct-2016

When Jesus admonished his disciples to “do and observe everything they [the scribes and Pharisees] command you” (Matt. 23:3), he was referring to the Pharisees’ oral traditions and interpretations of the Written Torah. The Written Torah itself could not have been in question, for it was accepted by all sects of Judaism, and Jesus himself said,

Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than one yod or even one kotz from the Torah. (Matt. 5:18)

Many rabbinic statements express similar ideas, such as:

Should all the nations of the world unite to uproot one word of the Torah, they would be unable to do it. (Leviticus Rabbah 19:2)

Evidence of Jesus’ Observance

To what extent did Jesus observe the practices of the Oral Torah? Jesus was never charged with breaking any part of it, and although his disciples occasionally were accused of disobeying aspects of the Oral Torah (Luke 6:1-2), only one such accusation was made against Jesus—that he broke the Sabbath by healing the sick (Luke 14:1-4). However, even his Sabbath healings were permitted by rabbinic ruling, as the late Hebrew University professor Shmuel Safrai notes in The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1976), 805.

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Comments 5

  1. Of course, Jesus observed the Oral Law. As has been pointed out on this website and numerous scholarly writings elsewhere, Jesus wore the obligatory fringes that were commanded in the Torah for four-cornered garments worn by Jewish/Israelite males. Nowhere in the Torah is it described how these fringes were to look (other than the techelet/blue addition). How long? How many? How to be tied? Knotted? How many knots, etc.? These issues are all part of the oral, legal traditions handed down since Moses and still observed today. The Written Law is short on many details of many commandments: Shabbat, mezuzah, kashrut, tefillin, to name just a few basic ones. There had to be oral traditions from the moment Moses came down from Mount Sinai or the people would not have been able to carry out the most basic of commandments. Think just of the sacrifices. If everyone is allowed to imagine how to carry out the commandment on his own, there would be motley observance, more akin to the 30,000+ Christian denominations known to exist today, rather than the minor differences between different groupings in Orthodox Judaism. Archeology has proven a consistency in observance of commandments (e.g. phylacteries) over the millennia, adding to the proofs for an oral tradition. The Torah speaks of the rules commanded by G-d for the manner in which animals are to be slaughtered for food, yet they are nowhere recorded in the Written Torah, again indicating an oral instruction. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days, receiving instruction on all sorts of matters. The content of that instruction was delivered orally to Moses. Moses had to rule on issues of inheritance, not previously contained in the revelation at Mount Sinai, again suggesting oral traditions. The point being, you could not possibly administer the Torah’s instructions without an Oral Law, side by side. Though we don’t have direct evidence from the life of Jesus that he observed all precepts and adhered to all rabbinic/Pharisaical rulings, his comments and teachings suggest as much. The burden of proof is rather on the other side, that he did not.

  2. Pingback: SERIES: Jesus And The Oral Torah | Online

  3. Pingback: Jesus and the Oral Torah: Written and Oral Torah | Online

  4. Although this wonderful article brings to light the misunderstandings of Christians who tend to bless the food rather than the Creator of the food, I diagree with David Bivin’s assessment that Jesus followed the Oral Torah without fault because he was not accused of breaking it. And, although Bivin does not state that Jesus did so to the full extent of the Oral Torah, the implication is made when Bivin dismisses the Pharisees by stating, “. . . even his Sabbath healings were permitted by rabbinic ruling . . .” Thus, this releases Jesus from having issues with the Oral Torah as seen by the ruling authorities during antiquity and furthermore suggests Jesus’ full-compliance to it; however, I doubt that the matter was as black and white as Bivin presents it.

    Additionally, Bivin does not mention Jesus’ own disgust with the heavy bindings that the Oral Law placed upon the people when Jesus countered the Pharisees and teachers of the law with, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3, NIV). By stating this, Jesus made known that his view on some or many of the Oral Traditions, especially with some of the interpretations by the Pharisees, were not interpreted correctly according to the Written Torah. Therefore, Jesus often had to reinterpret the Written Torah according to how he and the Father originally intended it to be. If this were not the case, then Jesus himself would have corrected his disciples along with the authorities, and commended the Pharisees for rightly interpreting the Torah through their tradition(s).

    A disciple is not above his teacher (Matthew 10:24-25; Luke 6:40). Thus, it is fair to say that if Jesus did not correct his disciples for their interpretation of the Written Torah, then he agreed with the very act that his disciples were being accused of. Or, at the very least, saw that what his discples were doing hadn’t had any bearing on his reputation as a proper (righteous and just) teacher of the Torah.

    I beleive that we (believers in the Messiah), need to have caution when referring to the Talmud and Mishnah as “absolute” proof texts of first-century Judaism and its practices. Rather, the Tanach and the Apostolic Writings (NT) need to be proof texts to the rabbinical teachings, respectively. However, this does not dismiss the validity of the Mishnah for insight and knowledge according to the rabbinical teachings of the first century, including the extra biblical texts of the period. But it would behoove us to consider not the rabbinical teachings of the Mishnah as absolutes or completely accurate renderings of the rabbis during Jesus’ time, because these were redacted centuries later. Furthermore, their dismisal of Jesus being the Messiah, has to be considered when various rulings were adapted by the rabbinical court after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

    Finally, the admonishing of Jesus to his disciples regarding Matthew 23:3, “So you must obey them [teachers of the law and the Pharisees] and do everything they tell you . . .” (23a), needs to be further investigated as to its meaning. Why? Because, if this was to be taken at face-value, then all Christians today would be in direct violation to the rabbis, since most Christians do not follow the Oral Traditions. If all authority has been given to us (his disciples) and binding and loosing has to do with creating proper halakhah to the Writen Torah, then we, as biblical teachers, have failed the majority of Chritians’ observances to God by neglecting, or in some cases dismissing, the Mishnah’s teachings–for indeed, they are what the Pharisees tell us to obey–if it is understood that the rabbis are direct descendants of the Pharisees as they claim. Therefore, what does Jesus mean?

    It’s safe to presume that Matthew 23:3 is in direct relation to Exodus 18:13ff. If this be the case, which I strongly believe it to be, then Moses’ seat had to do with rightly judging God’s people; judiciously as well as properly dividing God’s Word. However, the lighter cases were determined by capable men, while the heavier cases were directed towards Moses (v. 26b). (A good case of Moses’ seat for the New Covenant Church can be seen in Acts 6:1-7, where the apostles appointed men to be fair in the distirbution of food among the widows of Grecian and Hebrew heritage. Thus, creating a New Covenant halakhah.)

    The teachers of the law, or what some call lawyers, and the Pharisees oversaw the rulings of Judaism, while the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple worhip. Their job, (lawyers and Pharisees) was to make sure that cases brought before them were judged according to God’s ways. However, it is evident by Jesus’ response shortly after stating, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you to do . . .” (vv.2-3a), that he was displeased with their handling of cases by sharply rebuking them with the opposite of what their job was intended to do.

    In the Exodus account, the “capable men” were to “make your [Moses’ and the people’s] load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and the poeple will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:22b-23).

    The problem, as Jesus saw it, was that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were not letting God’s people go home satisfied: You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces (v. 13b); You hypocrites! (v. 23a, et. al); You blind guides! (v. 24a); and, [You] tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but [you] are not willing to lift a finger to help them (v. 4).

    Those seating in Moses’ seat were in direct conflict to the purposes of Moses’ seat. And although it was meant to free God’s people to obey him, they (the teachers and the Pharisees) made it more difficult through their oral traditions (their fences) to “protect” the law.

    Yes, we are to honor those, even in this day, that seat in the seat of Moses so that we can represent God’s kingdom in being rightoues people; however, when their burdens no longer carry with them the wisdom and light of the Torah, then one must choose who they are to observe: man or God (Acts 5:29).

    Therefore, what must believer’s observe according to the Oral Traditions? Well, it’s really not that hard: those things which are not in direct conflict to God’s Word, do; those which are in direct conflict, don’t do.

    Shalom and blessings,

    1. As postulated by Nehemia Gordon in “The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus,” 2006, p 48, verse 23:3 of Shem-Tov’s Matthew (a family of extant scrolls that preserves the Hebrew Matthew), translates as “Therefore, all that he says to you, diligently do, …” where Moses is the antecedent to “he”. This Hebrew version of the gospel clears up the inconsistancies noted above, and puts Yeshua firmly in the camp of those who adhered only to the written law of the Torah.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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