The origins of Rabbinic Judaism

The Establishment of Rabbinic Authority

Power struggles are nothing new. Men have always vied for positions of power and authority and will go to great lengths to entrench their power base once established. While the temple stood it remained the focal point of Jewish worship and thereby assured the priests of a central place of authority in the life of the community. The vacuum that was created by the destruction of the temple intensified the power struggle between rival groups within Judaism, but it was Rabbi Akiba who eventually prevailed in imposing his school of rabbinic authority, which gave the rabbis exclusive control over the interpretation of the Torah and thereby control over every aspect of Jewish life.

Rabbinic teaching suggests that the sages are worthy of greater honour than the prophets because they hold the keys of interpretation while the prophets simply brought the word of God. One passage in the Talmud suggests that even Moses, “when he ascended on high,” marvelled at the greater wisdom of Akiba (Menahoth 29b). Akiba taught that the sages were in the place of God and that their words are established forever and to all eternity. This process of interpretation of the Torah resulted in the creation of a hedge around the law, ostensibly to prevent transgressions, but the practical result was the imposition of countless rules governing every aspect of daily life, thereby making the role of the rabbis indispensable to the survival of Jewish communities. Rebellion against rabbinic authority was regarded as rebellion against God himself. The rabbis said that heaven and earth is bound by their decisions and that even God himself respects the authority of the rabbis! Even today the situation persists whereby the rabbis keep a level of control over the lives of the people by controlling marriages, divorces and burials. It is little wonder then, that the rabbis have maintained such a stronghold over the Jewish religious community.

Jesus’ challenge to Rabbinic authority

From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth he was seen as a threat to the rabbis authority: “Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?'” (Matthew 21:23). When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple they demanded to know, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:18).

Some modern rabbis suggest that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew and an influential rabbi who eventually died as a martyr because he clashed with both Rome and the Jewish religious authorities. They suggest that his disciples posthumously ascribed to him titles and authority that he never claimed for himself, dismissing the ‘Jesus of faith’ as a myth created by the church, while conveniently reclaiming the ‘historical Jesus,’ of whom they insist virtually nothing can be known since they reject the gospels as an unreliable witness.

Interestingly, Rabbi Jacob Neusner does not subscribe to this view. In his book, A Rabbi talks with Jesus, he recognizes that Jesus claimed a greater authority than Moses, an authority over the Torah itself. This is the basis of his argument – he takes up the argument directly with Jesus. He wrote that he could imagine himself saying to Jesus, “Friend, you go your way, I’ll go mine. I wish you well – without me. Yours is not the Torah of Moses, and all I have from God, and all I ever need from God, is that one Torah of Moses.”

Neusner observes that when Jesus speaks to his followers he treats the rest as outsiders, but when God speaks through Moses, it is to all Israel. However, he fails to make mention of Isaiah’s prophecy which describes this very scenario of the faithful remnant of Israel who rally to the Messiah while the LORD is hiding his face from the house of Jacob (Isaiah 8:16-17). Neusner objects when Jesus says, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” (cf. Matthew 5:21;27;31;38;43). He recognizes that Jesus was not so much directing the people to the authority of the Torah as much as he was calling them to submit to his own authority. He writes, “No wonder the narrator (Matthew) tells us, when Jesus finished his teachings, the crowds were amazed. But by the criterion of the Torah, Jesus has asked for what the Torah does not accord to anyone but God.” Neusner was referring to Matthew 7:28: When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their rabbis.

Does Jesus’ Authority Conflict with Moses?

Is Neusner correct in saying, “Jesus has asked for what the Torah does not accord to anyone but God”? God told Moses that he would raise up a prophet like Moses in whom he would put his very word and that whoever does not listen to him will be called to give account (Deut. 18:18). Most scholars have taught that this refers to the Messiah and the Torah itself affirms the authority vested in him. The gospel writers who reported the voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5), undoubtedly had in mind the prophecy of the prophet like Moses. Jesus attested to the authority vested in him as follows: “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 12:49). In other words whoever rejects his word is rejecting the very word of God! It is an irony that Neusner objects to Jesus’ bold claim to such authority when this is precisely what the rabbis have appropriated for themselves. The difference is that God affirmed Jesus’ authority by raising him from the dead.

Implicit in what Neusner says is that the teaching of Jesus and Moses are mutually exclusive. He maintains that the Torah is all he ever needs. This would imply that there is no need of a Redeemer because one can redeem oneself by living in obedience to the Law. The desire to live in perfect obedience to the Torah is laudable enough, but to pretend that one is able to is vanity. The problem is not with the Law, which reveals God’s perfect standard, but with ourselves. When we reflect upon the Law it exposes our shortcomings, but it cannot change our hearts, and this is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, to which Neusner objects. When Jesus says things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” he is pointing to the real problem, the place where sin originates, which the Law could restrain, but was powerless to change. The Law itself recognised its limitations and hence made provision for atonement for sin through the sacrificial system.

The Law in fact pronounces all men guilty of sin through their own transgressions. As the Scripture declares: “God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:2-3). If we claim to be without sin we contradict God’s own testimony about us. Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world, because the world already stands condemned. Those who refuse God’s only way of salvation remain condemned: Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).

Theoretically, if we could live in perfect obedience to the Law, we would attain life and blessing, but all are in fact under the curse for disobedience. Under the old covenant Jews were obligated to obey everything written in the Law of Moses. Partial obedience will not do. Just as a person can be convicted as a criminal for just one offence, we are law-breakers if we fail to keep just one part of the Torah.

The Old Covenant made Obsolete

The very Law of Moses, which Neusner claims to be all he needs, makes no such claim for itself. The Law shows us beyond any doubt that we need an atoning sacrifice. The Law also shows us that we need a change of heart. That is why the LORD said in the Law of Moses that a time would come when he would himself circumcise the hearts of the people: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Dt. 30:6). The LORD himself testified that, “the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 9:26). True faithfulness is not to make the Law the goal in itself, but to see that the goal of the Law is to expose our sinful hearts and lead us to the Messiah and Redeemer in whom God’s purpose in bringing us to righteousness is fulfilled. As it is written; “Abraham believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness”, and, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Gen. 15:6 & Hab. 2:4).

Neusner ignores the word of God spoken through Moses and the Prophets, which asserts that the Law of Moses is not all we need. The LORD said, “. . . I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel . . .because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them” (Jer. 31:31;32).

The LORD promised that he would make a new covenant with his people by which he would make atonement for wickedness, put an end to sin, bring in everlasting righteousness and change our very hearts (Jer. 31:31, Ezek. 36:26, Dan. 9:24). This is the new covenant confirmed through the blood of Jesus. The sacrifices of the old covenant were made obsolete by the final sacrifice of Jesus and God then allowed the temple to be destroyed because it had served its purpose (cf. Daniel 9:27). Therefore to say that the Law is all we need, when it is impossible to keep the Law, is a blind refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of our predicament. That is not to say that a reinstatement of the sacrificial system would solve the problem. God made the old covenant obsolete and handed all men over to disobedience in order that he might show mercy to all through the once for all sacrifice of Jesus (cf. Romans 11:32). That is the only sacrifice that will atone for sin!

Neusner is effectively saying to God, “I do not need you to make a new covenant because the Law of the old covenant is all I need. I do not need you to circumcise my heart. I do not need a sacrifice of atonement. I do not need a Saviour or Redeemer because I have the Law of Moses, which is all I need to save and redeem myself. I do not need the Torah of the Messiah written on my heart because I am able to attain righteousness through the Torah of Moses.”

The following Scriptures ought to give pause for some sober reflection if we think we have all we need in the Law of Moses, but reject the grace and mercy of God shown to us in Jesus the Messiah:

How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have? (Jeremiah 8:8-9).

These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the LORD’S instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!’ Therefore, this is what the Holy One of Israel says: ‘Because you have rejected this message, relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant. It will break in pieces like pottery, shattered so mercilessly that among its pieces not a fragment will be found for taking coals from a hearth or scooping water out of a cistern.’ This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it’ (Is. 30:9-15).

The Rabbis have established themselves in a place of self-appointed authority over the Jewish people, which is directly opposed to the authority that has been vested in Jesus. Despite two thousand years without a temple and priesthood, which were essential elements of the old covenant, they try to give false assurances to the Jewish people that they do not need a sacrifice of atonement, a new covenant or a Redeemer because the Law of Moses is all they need. Jesus said, “… do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:45).

In whose authority will you trust? In men who rely on false assurances that you will be saved by obeying some parts of the Torah or in Jesus the Messiah who completely fulfilled the Torah and then laid down his life as a willing sacrifice to atone for your sins? Those who acknowledge that they are sinners according to the Torah and who call upon the name of the Lord, (Jesus Christ), will be saved.

Daniel had a vision of the one to whom all authority has been given: In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18).