Jesus the Rabbinic Sage?
"The main classes of work are forty save one: sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying a knot, loosening a knot...writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters..." (From Shabbath 7.1ff: taken from C.K. Barrett's The New Testament Background: Selected Writings, p. 195)
Though seemingly excessive to us, the Rabbis did have their reasons for adopting these various halakhot as is given in the following passage:
Pirqe Abot 1:1
A. Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders
B. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly.
C. They said three things:
1.) "Be prudent in judgment."
2.) "Raise up many disciples."
3.) "Make a fence for the Torah." (emphasis added)
The Rabbinic sages believed that part of what Moses handed down through a chain of tradition (oral Torah) involved the injunction to "make a fence around the Torah." The purpose of this "fence" was to keep people as far away as possible from breaking a commandment and so transgressing. The Oral Torah, as written, compiled, and redacted in the Mishnah (and further commented on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds) was precisely the barrier placed around the written Torah to prevent as much as possible Jewish transgression of that Torah. Thus the halakhot.
Again, though this may seem a bit excessive to us, especially those of us who like to affirm that we are justified by faith and not by "works of the law" Jesus acted in a very similar manner to the Rabbinic sages. Consider the following from the classic Sermon on the Mount:
1. "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill...' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable" (Matt. 5:21-22)
2. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (5:27-28)
3. "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, 'Do not swear at all'" (5:33-34)
What is Jesus doing here? He is, like the later Rabbis, putting his own "fence" around the Torah. The Jewish Rabbinic scholar Jacob Neusner elaborates further:
"Not only must I not kill; I must not even approach the threshold of anger that in the end leads to murder. Not only must I not commit adultery; I must not even approach the road that leads to adultery. Not only must I not swear falsely by God's name; I should not swear at all. These formulations represent an elaboration of three of the Ten Commandments. In the language of a text of Judaism attributed to authorities long before Jesus' own time, 'Make a fence around the Torah.' That is to say, conduct yourself in such a way that you will avoid even the things that cause you to sin, not only sin itself." (Jacob Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began, 24-25)
So then, Jesus in a similar manner as his Jewish successors provided his own version of halakhot to prevent as much as possible transgression of the Torah. Jesus on this score was not too far from his Jewish brethern as is sometimes maintained (as in the oft-repeated, "the Jews stressed rules and regulations, but Jesus preached love and mercy").
However, though Jesus was very similar to the Rabbinic sages in constructing a fence around the Torah, he differed from the Rabbis at an important point. After praising Jesus for acting as the later sages do, Neusner is quick to point out what is problematic with Jesus' assertions concerning the Torah:
"But what kind of Torah is it that improves on the teachings of the Torah without acknowledging the source-and it is God who is the source-of those teachings? So sages would be troubled not so much by the message, though they might take exception to this or that, as by the messenger. The reason is that in form these statements are jarring. On the mountain, Jesus' use of language, 'You have heard that it was said...but I say to you...' contrasts strikingly with Moses' language at Mount Sinai. Sages, we saw, say thing sin thier own names but without claming to improve on the Torah, to which they aspire to contribute. The prophet, Moses, speaks not in his own name but in God's name, saying what God has told him to say. Jesus speaks not as a sage nor as a prophet...So how are the sages to respond to this 'I,' who pointedly contrasts what 'you' have heard with what he says?" (ibid, p. 25)
In this passage Neusner highlights the difficulties from a Rabbinic perspective concerning Jesus' additions to the Torah. Where as the Rabbis were accustomed to acknowledging preceding sages (and ultimately God) as the source of their "fence" (as exhibited by their speech, 'Rabbi so and so said this, and Rabbi such and such said that) Jesus' 'I' points to himself as the source of the changes. Ulitimately, the sages and Jesus part ways at this point on the Torah.
Even so, Jesus' own building of a 'fence' around the Torah should cause us to be less apt to criticise the Rabbis for their own fence constructions even if their fence may seem to have been built a bit too high. Jesus and the sages ultimate telos in adding to the Torah was congruous: to further prevent possible disobedience to the Most High's law.