Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Difference Between How Jews and Christians Read the Bible

This little anecdote from Chaim Saiman's article "Jesus' Legal Theory" shows a glimpse of the difference between how a Christian approaches Biblical commands and how a Talmudist approaches Biblical commands:

"A RABBI WALKS INTO A CHURCH ... I was recently invited to speak to an adult education class at a mainstream Presbyterian church.  The topic of the lecture was how the rabbis read the Bible.  I began by asking the group, 'What is the first commandment in the Bible?'  After a short pause, I received two responses:  'love the Lord your God' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'  Both fine answers, but neither was what I was looking for.  The group apparently interpreted me as asking either:  what is the first of the Ten Commandments (Decalogue), or, what is the first, i.e., primary, commandment?  The question I intended to ask [was 'what is the first commandment one encounters in the Biblical test?]
     After a short discussion, I told the group that the Talmudic rabbis maintain that the first 'commandment for generations' (applicable beyond Adam and Eve) was to '[b]e fruitful and multiply.'  The group nodded in approval, and I sensed we were on the same page.  Next, I asked a simple, almost inevitable, question from a Talmudic perspective, but one deeply foreign to my audience.
     C.S.:  "How many?"
     Group:  "How many what?"
     C.S.: "How many children?"
     Group:  "What do you mean, how many children?"
     At this point I realized that we reached a bit of a brick wall, so I backed up.
     C.S.:  "Do you believe the Bible is the word of God that expresses His Will?"
     Group: "Yes."
     C.S.  "Do you believe you have to follow it?"
     Group:  "Yes."
     C.S. "Well, then how do you know when you have done it?  How do you know when you have been sufficiently fruitful?"
     Again, blank stares from the audience.  It was clear that the last question produced some discomfort.  I proceeded to explain that when the rabbis read the Bible, they look to put it into practice, to operationalize it.  Thus, most of their questions, and the rabbinic discourse as a whole, look to define the nature and scope of various provisions in the Bible and Talmud....When the rabbis read the verse 'be fruitful and multiply,' they immediately attempt to define the properties and scope of this commandment...Here the issue boils down to how many children are required to fulfill the Biblical command.
     ... I explained that the rabbis assume that producing two children would satisfy the Biblical duty of fruitfulness...[But in] the Talmud's way of thinking, this is only the beginning.  The tradition continues to wonder:  If one remarries, must he or she have children again?  Is the obligation binding upon the man, the woman or the marriage?  What about children from an adulterous or illicit relationship?  If the children are incapable of reproducing, do they county? ....
     Not surprisingly, at this point I was beginning to lose the group.  I got the bug-eyed, 'you've got to be kidding,' expression from nearly everyone, as if to say, 'If this is what the Talmud is about, then the criticism of the Pharisees is dead on.'
     I then paused, saying, 'Let's leave the rabbinic answers to these questions for now, but let me hear how in your tradition, you reason toward the answers.  Surely you want to fulfill the word of God, so how do you know when you have done it?'
     The most obvious and telling response was the ensuing silence.  The uneasy quiet indicated that the group had never thought to break down this question into the level of detail found in the Talmud.  The command was not conceptualized as binding or operational in quite the direct way the rabbis assumed.  While all agreed that the Biblical directives are binding, in the churchgoers' minds the Biblical commandments took on a less concrete form.  The assembled group did not interpret the verses as having the same degree of presentness and immediacy as assumed by the rabbis,"  from "Jesus' Legal Theory--A Rabbinic Reading" by Chaim Saiman, Journal of Law and Religion Vol. 23, No. 1, 2007/2008.

However, both the Talmudist and the Christian read certain "New Testament" passages the same way.  For example, the story of the disciples plucking grain on Shabbat.  Citing to such incidents, Saiman concludes:

"Jesus and his followers sought to decrease the overall importance and density of the Torah's legal regime..."

But is this accusation really true?  Did Yeshua really advocate normative uncertainty?

Most people don't grasp that Law is actually a composite concept, consisting of two very different types of rules.  There are the rules themselves, those laws promulgated by the legal system.  But a legal system cannot itself exist without three meta-rules.  H.L.A. Hart calls them "secondary" rules but let's call them "systemic rules" or "systemic law"--the rules that necessarily must exist in order for a legal system to exist.  They are:

(1) the rule of recognition:  this rules establishes the criteria for legal validity.  Put another way, this rule establishes the sources of law.  Otherwise, there would be uncertainty as what "laws" in a given society were actually valid;

(2) the rule of change:  this rule confers power on the lawmaker to update the law to changing circumstances;

(3) the rule of adjudication:  this rule confers power on a person or institution to determine authoritatively whether on a particular occasion a primary rule has been broken.

It is self-evident then that each legal system necessarily contains systemic law:  rules of legal validity, rules of change, and rules of adjudication.  So if one accepts a law then one testifies that he accepts the underlying systemic law--one acknowledges that he accepts the entire legal system as valid.


But isn't the story of the grain plucking evidence that Yeshua rejected Rabbinic halacha?  

In actuality, this story is not dispositive.  There are many ambiguities that have been the subject of scholarly debate:  (1) what was the full factual context at the time? (2) what was the legal context in first-century Judaism?  Were the Pharisees correct that Yeshua had violated a rabbinic law? Were the laws at that time in a state of flux?  (3) how to we reconcile Yeshua's stated justifications?  He says some things that are very difficult to understand and open to different interpretations.

The upshot:  we lack sufficient information to draw conclusions from this story about Yeshua's personal theory of law.  

But that's fine because we have Matthew 23.  


It's wrong to cite Yeshua's tension with the Pharisees or even particular Pharisaic commands as evidence that Yeshua was against the Rabbinic legal system.  As long as Yeshua endorsed the "rule of recognition" (i.e. the criteria for legal validity in the Rabbinic system) then Yeshua can still be said to have accepted the Rabbinic system of halacha.  In those instances where Yeshua rejects a particular teaching, He can be read as arguing from within the halachic system, citing to rules of recognition for His assertion that a particular proposed law is actually an invalid law according to the Rabbinic system itself. 

From Matthew 23, we see that Yeshua endorses both (1) the Pharisaic teaching (i.e. laws) and (2) the rules of recognition (i.e. that the Pharisees had expert authority with which to determine what the halacha should be).  Hagner says it best:

"MATTHEW 23...Another favorite passage among Jewish scholars in their reclamation of Jesus is Matthew 23:1-3, 23 (cf. Luke 11:42).  Here Jesus says to the crowds and his disciples that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat and that therefore it is right to 'practice and observe whatever they tell you.'  Moreover, when Jesus faults the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith (Luke 11:42, 'justice and the love of God'), he says, 'These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others' (i.e., the tithing of dill, mint, and cumin--matters involving the Pharisaic extension of the Mosaic commandment concerning tithing).
How are we to reconcile these statements with the fact that, as we have seen, both Jesus and his disciples transgressed the teaching of the Pharisees (cf. Matt. 9:11, 14; 12:2)?  How can Jesus say, 'Practice and observe whatever they tell you' (23:3), when in the following sentence he indicates that the teachings of the Pharisees (especially in contrast of his, cf. 11:29-30) constituted heavy burdens and seems to rebuke the Pharisees for not making their demands lighter (23:4).  Furthermore, in the criticism of the Pharisees that follows, it must be noted that Jesus criticizes not only their conduct but also their teaching (e.g., 23:16, 18).  Indeed, earlier in the Gospel he has warned the disciples about 'the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,' which is explicitly identified as their teachings (16:11-12).  How are these apparently contradictory utterances to be reconciled?
The answer can only be that the Pharisees are to be honored simply because they concern themselves with the interpretation of the Law (they 'sit in Moses' seat').  They are to be obeyed, but only to the extent that what they teach is not inconsistent with the true meaning of righteousness, which the disciples learned from Jesus, or--put positively--to the extent that their teaching is in accord with the true intention of the Mosaic Law.  In principle, the Pharisees are correct;  in actuality, they are often wrong (cf. Luke 11:52:  'You have taken away the key of knowledge').  The issue is again the real meaning of the Law and the nature of true righteousness....There is, then, first and foremost a strong continuity between the Law and the teaching of Jesus:  Jesus brings the Law to its definitive interpretation.  His fulfillment of the Law by bringing it to its intended meaning depends directly on his messianic office and mission," pgs. 126-127 of The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus by Hagner

The key point I'm trying to establish is that Yeshua could not have been for rabbinic halacha and yet against the rabbinic halachic system.  Accepting one, you must accept both.


Does anyone have a different opinion?


  1. Yes. You spend all the money on Tim Hegg's book, so why don't you read it? Page 40 "Picking grain on the Shabbat."

  2. Ha! Okay. Won't have a chance till this evening though.

  3. Just glanced through it BEFORE work. My first reaction is that Hegg is wrong though he says some good things. Here's where he's wrong. He says "[the disciples] have not conformed to some of the laws formulated by some of the Pharisees..."

    That's incorrect. If Yeshua cited a justification for the disciples behavior (something greater than the Temple) then what His real defense of the disciples is this "Yes, the disciples violated rabbinic halachah by plucking (which by the way is not a violation of Written Torah); however, they were justified because they are engaged in something even greater than Temple service." Thus, the rabbinic prohibition doesn't apply (just as the Torah doesn't apply certain Shabbat prohibitions to the priests). And, therefore, Yeshua reasons that the disciples were guiltless (Matt 12:7)--i.e. they didn't violate a prohibition since the prohibitions didn't apply in this situation.

    Thus, Hegg's statement that the disciples didn't conform to rabbinic halacha is incorrect. There was no violation and thus no evidence of non-conformity.

    Dan, a question for you: I want your opinion this time and not Hegg's: do YOU think that the disciples violated rabbinic halacha that day?

    I want to hear your response (it's the least you can do for me since you made me late for work). : )

  4. You need to learn to read in context Bro. No-one says the disciples broke halacha. THEY WERE ACCUSED BY THE PHRISEES FOR BREAKING HALACHA....Got it?

  5. Re: "No-one says the disciples broke halacha."

    Hegg seems to say exactly that. Worse, he also suggests that the ENTIRE set of rabbinic halacha distorts the spirit of the day. He writes:

    "...the many Sabbath regulations that had been added by the rabbis threatened to turn the day into a ritual, losing sight of its true covenant significance. The manner in which they had accused Yeshua and the disciples of profaning the Shabbat was just one indication that this was happening....What, then, is the conclusion? Did Yeshua and HIs disciples disregard the Sabbath by walking through a field, plucking heads of grain, and eating the grain? The answer is 'No.' They may have not conformed to some of the laws formulated by some of the Pharisees, but they in no way violated any commandment of God."

    If Hegg is right that the rabbinic halacha loses sight of the true covenant significance of the Shabbat and is basically anti-Torah then why would anyone have respect for rabbinic halacha? He's calling it utter rubbish. Hegg's assertion would make it a religious obligation to disregard rabbinic halacha! And that contradicts what Yeshua says about Pharisaic norms in Matthew 23. Furthermore, those same Pharisaic norms that prohibited grain plucking and caused the Pharisees to accuse Yeshua and His disciples--those same norms exist today in rabbinic Judaism (despite the fact that Written Torah would seem to allow grain plucking). But they fenced it up! And Yeshua didn't tell them that they were wrong to add a fence. Even Hegg is forced to note: "Yeshua does not discount their judgment altogether. He could have retorted that neither He nor His disciples were required to obey man-made rules, but He does not."

    Yeshua does not say the fence is wrong. Rather, He cites to a justification--something greater than the Temple is here! Meaning the prohibition--valid or not--didn't apply to the disciples at that time because they were serving one who was greater than the Temple.

  6. I noticed this mistake you do again and again. Because your training you tend to analyze passages in modern law terms, discarding any theological, biblical and historical aspect of the passage.
    But then, you take one sentence out of one article that Hegg wrote and you apply it to his belief without reading all his material.

    Go to his website and find the article titled: "What version of the Mishnah did Paul read?" Page 14 under: " Matt. 23. Please read it with the exegetical, grammatical, and historical viewpoint, not from a Virginia's court room point of view.

  7. It's loaded with errors which I'll talk about in a separate post. All of these errors add up to the view that rabbinic halachah is garbage. So I'll do a separate post and go into some depth about Hegg's writings on this subject.

  8. What, are you now a BE guy?

    " All of these errors add up to the view that rabbinic halachah is garbage. "

    You better believe it is, it is men's invention, what is the matter with you? It led to Kaballa and all other Micky Mouse writings. These people reject you Messiah, these people equate you Gentile mind to an animal mind, and now you are kissing their collective butts?

    You have no idea what halacha is, it is not a Virginian law... You are showing total ignorance.

    Read: "A Rabbinic Anthology" by Montefiore & Loewe (2 Jews).

    Read: "Introduction to the Talmud & MIshnah by Strack & Stemberger.

    Read: Anything on the Mishnah by Jacob Neusner (a Jew and a Rabbi).

    Learn about halacha and then you can maybe critisize someone's else's writing just because they oppose you and your other 2 house friends....

    Did not mean to offend, just to put you in your place.....

  9. They are to be obeyed, but only to the extent that what they teach is not inconsistent with the true meaning of righteousness, which the disciples learned from Jesus, or--put positively--to the extent that their teaching is in accord with the true intention of the Mosaic Law. In principle, the Pharisees are correct; in actuality, they are often wrong (cf. Luke 11:52: 'You have taken away the key of knowledge'). The issue is again the real meaning of the Law and the nature of true righteousness...

    This is saying both, since the Pharisees might teach something inconsistent to the Torah, as is stated here, and thus some of what they teach is correct, while some teachings invalidate the Torah, then we cannot be definitive on this issue, either way. Clearly some of the Halacha, is wise and should be sought after, but then some should be set aside. There is no black and white answer here. Even the writer above, states that when the Pharisees are wrong, then the "true meaning of righteousness" or the "true intention of the Mosaic Law" should be sought after. So even according to the writer, he is not saying that Yeshua validated Halacha carte blanch, but he also shows that Yeshua did not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Yeshua Himself, makes a distinction between the Law of God and the Laws of Man... in Mark 7. This is very important in our understanding that they are not one and the same, however it does not automatically mean man made laws are wrong. We have some great ones, having laws for stop signs and stop lights are great inventions. Having laws on which door of the Temple to walk into to bring in a sacrifice, where to stand while you wait, etc are important man made laws... however there is a difference.

    The key point I'm trying to establish is that Yeshua could not have been for rabbinic halacha and yet against the rabbinic halachic system. Accepting one, you must accept both.

    But that is not what we see, and even the writer above disagrees with your conclusion. It is a lot more fuzzy than he is against or for it, it is a mix of both.

  10. For Yeshua to accept any of the rabbinic halachah of His day, this shows that He recognized (i.e. the meta rule of recognition) that the rabbinic system had some authority ("the seat of Moses"). If Yeshua disagreed with some of the halachah this does not mean that He rejected the entire system. Yeshua worked within the system, appealed to rabbinic logic, Torah, etc, whenever He confronted halachah that He disagreed with. He never said "The whole system is wrong! Abandon ship!" Quite the opposite.

    It's a fallacy to say that Yeshua rejected the halachic system because He sometimes argued against certain halachic teachings. We know He accepted the rabbinic halachic system not only because of Matthew 23 but also because logically if you keep halacha (e.g. tzitzit, etc), as Yeshua did, then you are showing yourself to have approved the institutions that created that halacha.

  11. So Yeshua contradicted Himself....At list according to you....OY!

  12. That is not the argument and you know it. You spoke as if you believe that halacha is authoritative. Shades of BE?

  13. Where is the Ruach in the whole discussion? Certainly, I would agree that there is some benefit in learning rabbinic halacha, but with the giving of the Spirit, can He not lead the individual in understanding the written Word to the extent that it is walked out without 39 Sabbath restrictions and precise hand washing ritual?

    There is a place of balance...

    I would see in order of priority:
    - The Written Torah
    - The Spirit leading the individual into truth
    - Some guidance/direction from the learned men of old, both among the rabbis and among some of Christian commentary, though both need to be closely scrutinized for the errors they contain.

    Enjoying the discussion and banter.

  14. RE: "Where is the Ruach in the whole discussion? "

    That'll be in part 2. See post dated 12/12/14 which I'm about to write in the next few minutes.