Monday, September 7, 2015

Jesus' Use of Scripture

One of the most obvious features of Jesus’ teaching and preaching was his regular appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures. While the fixing of the Hebrew canon was an historical process, by the time of Jesus there seemed to have been a generally accepted consensus about the three major sections, the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Jesus regularly used introductory formulae for citing Scripture, such as, “It is written” (Mt. 4:4, 6-7, 10; 21:13; 26:24, 31; Mk. 7:6; 9:12; 11:17; 14:27, etc.) and “Scripture says” (Mk. 12:10; Lk. 4:21; Jn. 7:38, 42, etc.). Such formulae imply an appeal to authority that Jesus certainly did not accord to the oral tradition.

Oral tradition, especially by the Pharisees, was believed to hold the same authority as the written Torah. To them, the Torah was a living tradition, not a static collection, and capable of fresh interpretations for each succeeding age. The collection of rabbinical running commentaries on the Torah, the Torah expansions (the so-called “fence” around the Torah consisting of cautionary rules as corollaries to Torah laws), the Halakah (regulations about civil and religious law), and the Haggadah (those things that were not points of law), made up the oral Torah, which stood alongside the written Torah. Both were believed to be of equal antiquity, handed down by God to Moses at Sinai and transmitted faithfully through the generations.

Yet, though Jesus was deeply reverent toward the written Scriptures and in fact interpreted the spirit of those Scriptures at levels higher than anyone had ever before known, he was decidedly negative about the oral Torah. He chose to ignore breaches of oral law (Mk. 7:1-13//Lk. 11:37-41//Mt. 15:1-11). Kosher laws were not the final defining factor for purity (Mk. 7:17-23). Sabbatical laws were not sacrosanct (Mk. 2:23-28//Lk. 6:1-5//Mt. 12:1-8; Mk. 3:1-6//Lk. 6:6-11//Mt. 12:9-14; Lk. 13:10-16; 14:1-4). Hence, while Jesus felt free to dispense with rulings from the oral Torah, he held the written Scriptures in the highest possible esteem, even to the point of declaring that the Scriptures could not be broken (Jn. 10:35) and the law would not fail until all was fulfilled (Mt. 5:18). Jesus' rejection of the oral Torah reached a climax in his discourse in Matthew 23, where he charged that such regulations "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders". It was in this discourse that Jesus called the Pharisees blind guides and hypocrites, the descendants of those who murdered the prophets but whitewashed their tombs at the same time.

Christian groups, if they are not careful, can also create their own sort of oral Torah. Many of us grew up with such regulations that stood alongside Scripture even though they were not a part of Scripture. I suspect that Christ would say to those who create these modern versions the same thing he said to those who created the ancient ones, "Woe to you, blind guides!" At the same time, in an era where Christians can also become very casual about what the Scripture actually does say, I think he would challenge modern believers to be as rigorous as necessary to live in harmony with the spirit of the ancient written Word of God. "You have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." (Mt. 5). As a contemporary Christian, I find that issues which once loomed large in my eyes now have given way to much deeper and more important concerns, such as, loving my neighbor as myself. Mark Twain, who was no theologian by anyone's standards, nor a Christian either for that matter, nonetheless said it well: "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it's the parts I do understand."

1 comment:

  1. I have recently read a book on this topic that I found particularly challenging: "Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus" (Harvey Falk, 2003). Falk argues that not only must Jesus and his immediate followers be understood as observant second temple Jews, but that Jesus actually engaged in the Pharisaic debates of his day - clearly siding with the more liberal school of Hillel over against the more narrow Torah interpretation of the school of Shammai. The obvious exception concerns the issue of divorce.

    Falk reads almost all of the controversy/dispute stories in the Gospels against this backdrop of inter-family debates within the Jewish sectarian groups. He explains the negative statements about the Pharisees and "the Jews" in general found in the Gospels as extensions of these arguments rather than any rejection of Torah observance.

    His argument leads to this conclusion - while Jesus certainly held the written Torah in the highest esteem, he rejected not the WHOLE of the oral law, but rather some widely held interpretations of the oral law.

    Although I am not completely persuaded, this book really makes me think.