Christians often mistakenly conclude that the primary basis of Judaism is the “law and the prophets.” Actually, Orthodox Judaism puts surprisingly little emphasis on Scriptural authority.
Jewish orthodoxy is not based as much on the Hebrew Bible as it is on “oral law.” It believes that when Moses wrote the law, he also inaugurated an “oral law” to be passed to each successive generation of Jewish leaders. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees considered themselves the recipients and guardians of this oral law. They believed that because they were the only people trained in the tradition of the oral law, they were the only people qualified to interpret the written law. For the Pharisees, the “oral law” had precedence over the written law.
Jesus accepted neither the “oral law” nor the Pharisees’ claim of privileged knowledge and authority. He considered the “oral law” merely the “tradition of the elders” and “commandments of men,” declaring it a man-made invention that “nullified” the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13; Matthew 15:1-20).
Jesus taught that it is the disposition of the heart not mere obedience to tradition that leads to true understanding of the law. Like Elijah (Mark 8:22-29), Jesus had supernatural power and authority (John 5:36; 14:7-11; Matthew 7:29). He knew that if the Pharisees truly honored the law and the prophets, they would see that He fulfilled them (John 5:46-47; Luke 6:6-11). Instead, the Pharisees chose to honor their traditions (John 5:43-44) while paying little heed to the great spiritual leaders and prophets of Israel’s past (Matthew 23:23-39). In spite of Jesus’ moral purity (John 8:45-47), they claimed He did His miracles through the power of Satan (Matthew 9:34; 12:24).
Although individual Pharisees were friendly to him (John 3:1-10; 7:50-52; 19:38-42), Jesus’ refusal to endorse the oral law generally resulted in their animosity both to Him (Matthew 21:23-46) and the apostolic church (Matthew 10:16-28; Acts 6:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
When Titus destroyed Jerusalem in ad 70, the surviving form of Jewish religion was that practiced by the Pharisees.2 During the next four centuries, the “traditions of the elders” were systematized, codified, and amplified in the Talmud.3In some ways, this emphasis upon the oral law continues to distort and contradict the plain meaning of the “law and prophets.” Israel Shahak, a survivor of German concentration camps and an Israeli citizen, scientist, scholar, and defender of human rights, made these striking observations about the Orthodox Jewish view of the Jewish Bible:
There is yet another misconception about Judaism which is particularly common among Christians or people heavily influenced by Christian tradition and culture. This is the misleading idea that Judaism is a “biblical religion”; that the Old Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority which the Bible has for Protestant or even Catholic Christianity.
Again, this is connected with the question of interpretation. We have seen that in matters of belief there is great latitude. Exactly the opposite holds with respect to the legal interpretation of sacred texts. Here the interpretation is rigidly fixed—but by the Talmud rather than by the Bible itself. Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing religious acts and obligations are “understood” by classical Judaism, and by present day Orthodoxy, in a sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament, who only see the plain text. The same division exists at present in Israel between those educated in Jewish religious schools and those educated in “secular” Hebrew schools, where on the whole the plain meaning of the Old Testament is taught (Jewish History, Jewish Religion, p.36).
Thoughtful Christians realize that Judaism is not unique in its emphasis on tradition. Christian leaders have also often elevated tradition to a higher level of authority than Scripture, with very destructive results. Christians have often nullified the clear meaning of Scripture on the basis of privileged interpretations by elites. In spite of human ambition that seeks to twist the meaning of Scripture to serve personal and institutional power, there have always been those, both in the Jewish and the Christian tradition, who have resisted the idolatry of tradition and institution. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and his apostles, these Jews and Christians have honored not only the letter of the law but its spirit as well. Like the saints of the Old Testament, these “are sure of what [they] hope for, and certain of what [they] do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 niv).
- Orthodox Jews do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not believe that every word in the Bible is a divine revelation. They consider only the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses, to be divinely inspired. The rest of the Bible is considered to be the product of human minds and hands (Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins, pp.142-45). Back To Article
- A leader of the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, Johanan Ben Zakkai, officially broke ranks with the Jews in rebellion with Rome and signed an agreement whereby he accepted Roman political authority in return for the right to continue his religious tradition. He established a center for Pharisaic teaching in Jamnia, which soon after the destruction of Jerusalem became the center of Judaism. Back To Article
- Modern Jewish orthodoxy interprets Scripture almost exclusively by means of the oral tradition embodied in the Talmud. In fact, when Orthodox Jews refer to “Torah,” they are referring as much to the Talmud as they are to the Old Testament. Back To Article