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Saturday, June 03, 2006 

Jesus the Rabbinic Sage?

For some people, many of the regulations and rules (halakha, halakhot) that are given as supplemental (or complemental) to the written Torah by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Tannaitic periods may seem superfulous to us today or even legalistic as it seemed to many interpreters before E.P. Sanders paradigm shifting Paul and Palestinian Judaism. One need only look at the various Rabbinic discussions concerning what actually constitutes breaking the Jewish shabbot (sabbath) for a prime example of this adding to the law. Consider the following the discussion about what actually constitutes work on the sabbath:

"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
to prophets.
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.

That's an interesting perspective. I hadn't seen it that way before.

Of course, Matthew has long been recognized as the most Jewish of the Gospels. Whether these sayings originate with Jesus or are the product of Matthean redaction is a fair question.

I believe Mark 7:1-23 // Mt. 15:1-20, in which Jesus "declared all foods clean" (Mark) or declared that eating with unwashed hands is not a source of defilement (Matthew) originated with Jesus. (Dunn has a good analysis of these two texts in Jesus, Paul, and the Law. I analyse the different "spins" of Mark and Matthew here.) So I don't regard Jesus as a rabbinic sage who erected a fence around the Torah.

But I think your exegesis makes good sense with respect to the theology of Matthew, and it's a new insight for me.


You're absolutely right to raise the question of the historicity of this portrait of Jesus provided by Matthew who no doubt, as you observe, is the most Jewish of the gospels. In fact, I have my doubts about its historicity and almost refrained from writing this post due to those doubts.

On the other hand even if the exact approach to Torah that Matthew gives us is not historical I still think a case can be made for other instances in the gospel narrative as being historical that pertain to Jesus' relationship to the Torah favorably. The problem, as scholars have long noted, Jesus does not seem consistent on his approach to the Torah. At times he appears to uphold it thoroughly, while at others discarding certain aspects of the law.

This exhibits just how ambiguous Jesus own approach to the law was. This is further corroborated by the lack of Jesus tradition found in the later debates over the "works of the law" during the ever increasing Gentile influx of believers. If Jesus had been quite unequivocal about his view on the Torah there may have never been an issue with the Gentiles over things like circumcision and such. Furthermore, the fact that the early Jewish followers still upheld the law and worshipped at the temple further points to the fact that Jesus probably didn't make a wholesale rejection of the law.

But, Q, you are certaintly correct that given the Jewish proclivities of Matthew's gospel, "whether these sayings originate with Jesus or are the product of Matthean redaction is a fair question."

If Jesus had been quite unequivocal about his view on the Torah there may have never been an issue with the Gentiles over things like circumcision and such.

I know that's a standard scholarly argument, and I don't deny that it has some validity. In particular, I accept the consensus that Jesus remained a Jew throughout his life, and restricted his ministry to Jews (perhaps with a few exceptions that only "prove the rule"). So he didn't establish a precedent for making a clean break with the law.

On the other hand, law-keeping was simply an ingrained practice for the first Christians. It was their culture; they had lived that way from birth. They understood the law to embody God's rules of right and wrong.

Therefore, even if Jesus had been clear on the subject — as Mark makes him out to be ("Thus he declared all foods clean") — I'm not convinced the disciples would immediately have "gotten" it. Remember, the Gospels depict them as being slow to understand Jesus' message and example.

I'm inclined to believe (with Dunn, op. cit) that Jesus made some statements that undermined the authority of the law. But the disciples had to be nudged by the Holy Spirit to get the message, like a baby bird being shoved out of its nest.

Still, it's hardly a conclusion that can be established with any historical certainty.

That's a great post Chris, I've never heard the SOTM explained in that way before, there's much to think about.

Following that line of thought, why do you think Jesus' fence around the Torah was so radically different to that of other Rabbis?


"Remember, the Gospels depict them as being slow to understand Jesus' message and example." Just as we have to reckon with the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount is not historical so too we have to proceed in caution concerning the way Mark and the other Gospels depict the disciples since this may not be historical either.


Hey, Sven. You raise a great question. I'd hate to give you the oft-repeated "Jesus made the Torah a matter of originating in the heart" but that seems to be the best explanation offered. However, I think the later Rabbis would assert the same, that obeying and keeping the Torah is first a matter of one's inward disposition. This is something I definitely have to think about further myself.

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