Did Jesus Reject the Oral Law?

Rembrandt's "Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law"

This question really deals with to what extent do we allow the historical Jesus be part of his culture. As David Flusser once noted, Jesus being Jewish is matter of historical record (Jesus [Jeusalem: Magness, 2000]), and the arguments in favor of his Jewishness are old and exhaustive. There remains, however, many areas where Jesus remains the theological caricature of late Christian tradition and the extent to which late antique Judaism should inform Synoptic studies is lacking. The situation of Second Temple Judaism, that is, Judaism with both its common and variegated religious beliefs and practices, as well the literature of Rabbinic Judaism (in particular the generation of the Tannaim), should be a necessary criterion to any so-called quest for the Historical Jesus. While such a discussion is not without representation in academic discourse, there is still much to be desired. (For an interesting look into this see Amy Jill-Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus [HarperOne; 2007]).

One of the matters that surrounding this discussion is “Did Jesus reject the Oral Law?” For the sake of simplicity, since this is just a blog, let us define the Oral Law as those laws that offer an interpretation of the Torah (5 books of Moses) and were past down orally. Many of these laws became authoritative ways of interpreting theTorah and on Shavuot the giving of both Torahs, written and oral, are celebrated. Many of these laws were not written down until the 3 C.E. in the first codification of the oral law known as the Mishnah (though many of these laws and traditions derive after the destruction of the Temple).

There does seem to be some evidence that neither the sectarians at Qumran nor the Sadduccean priests accepted by the Oral Torah; the former wrote down their legal commentaries and the latter apparently rejected all but the five books of Moses (though this is still up for debate). Furthermore, the Synoptic gospels seem to indicate that Jesus was not a member of either group. In fact, according to the gospels the manner in which Jesus interprets the Hebrew bible is quite similar to what is later attributed to the Pharisees (See my forthcoming post on “Jesus’ Hermeneutic”). Jesus’ heavy emphasis on action, especially in regards to giving charity, place him in line with the little-known Hasidim, which were also in some way related to the Pharisees. The Pharisee did in fact accept the Oral Law, whether or not what we have in the Mishnah existed en toto before the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.).

The briefest and clearest argument then in favor of Jesus following the Oral Law, might look something like this, “If Jesus’ religious leanings, as attested in the gospels, are towards what we find in the Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition, then it is likely that he followed the Oral Law.”

But is there evidence in the gospels that Jesus followed the Oral Law. Much has been made of the occasion where Jesus gets into a dispute with some Pharisees regarding the his disciples who were accused of not washing prior to eating a meal. Many scholars have utilized the pericope in Mark 7:1-23, and it parallels (Matt 15:1-20; Luke 11:37-41), as the best indicator that Jesus did not in fact follow the Oral Law and rejected such a concept. Without dealing with the intricacies involved in this triple Synoptic tradition, let us present some Synoptic evidence that tends to outweigh the conclusion that Jesus rejected the Oral Law.

The following is only a portion of the discussion but I think it is a good starting point:

"Seat of Moses" Replica from 3rd Century C.E. Synagogue at Chorazin in the Galilee

1) Logic indicates that Jesus would have necessarily observed some form of oral law since as the Judaism develops and moves further from Israelite practice (whether or not some of the legal prescriptions were authored during the exile) a contemporary interpretation of how to apply Torah laws would have been necessary. As Albert Baumgarten noted in his article The Pharisaic Paradosis (HThR 80/1 [1987], 65), every Jewish group had its traditions and “no Jewish group could live by scripture alone, plain and simple.”

2) Matthew 23:2-3: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” While the contents of this chapter are primarily negative, one must note that Matthean tradition presents Jesus teaching that his follower should practice and observe what they teach. In this small verse, Jesus’ problem seems to be more related to “practice” than “teaching.” It is undoubted that Pharisaic teaching would have included contemporary interpretations on how one should observe the written Torah.

3) Jesus’ view of charity is part of the developing notions in the Second Temple Period regarding the inherent value of every human being (See “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and The Christian Message” HThR 61 [1968]; repr in Judaism and Origins of Christianity). Furthermore some of Jesus’ discussions parallel nicely the legal discourse present in the Mishnah and Tosefta.

For example, take the pericope of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-22; Mk 10:19-22; Luke 18:18-23; Mishnah & Tosefta Peah). For the sake of space I will give you the references and a comparison chart.

“The Rich Young Man”                                                Mishnah/Tosefta Peah

• Murder (T).• Sexual Immorality (T).

• Honor father and mother (M).
• Making peace between a man and
his fellow (M).
(1) Deeds of Loving-kindness (M).
(2) Doing good [related to the
righteous person] (T).

• Do not kill.• Do commit adultery.

• Do not steal.

• Bear false witness.

• Honor father and mother.

• Love your neighbor as yourself.

Give to the Poor.

The most important portions are those that are not part of the Written Law, that is, “giving to the poor”, technically, a “deed of loving-kindness.” This parallels the developments that occur in Second Temple Judaism to the Law and those that that were and stay part of the Oral Law.

*In conclusion, many things within the search for the historical Jesus are matters of probability, and while we cannot say definitively that Jesus followed the Oral Law as we have it in the Mishnah, some important things can be said. The question here does not deal with  to what degree one can determine which laws Jesus observed but whether or not he observed legal interpretations that are not explicitly present in the Pentateuch but are rather legal developments that derive from a necessary contemporaneous application. While more research is necessary, I think we can safely say: No. No, Jesus did not reject the Oral Law and in fact seems to practice some parts of it. Moreover, Jesus’ teachings preserved in the Synoptic Gospels at times parallel the legal discourse attested to in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, that is, the Oral Law.


14 thoughts on “Did Jesus Reject the Oral Law?

  1. I was pointed to your post simultaneously by a friend and by James (above).

    Thanks for your scholarly opinion on the matter. Interesting read.

    James, myself, and a few others were recently discussing Jesus’ relationship to Judaism’s traditions and whether it affects Jesus’ followers today. If you’re interested, see the discussion here.


    • Thanks for the comment. When I get time I plan to do more posts in this area. In the meantime, I will look at your discussion. Thanks again.

  2. I believe since Yeshua was the one who instucted Moses what to do and how to do it he did not need to follow the oral laws since he was the one who came up with the original laws for the h
    ebrews to follow and did not need the Rabbi’s added laws to tell him how to run his own kingdom. Just my own viewpoint. Thank you for the blog it was interesting reading.

    • The question is not really whether Moses followed the oral law, or even had an oral law, for that matter. The question first begins “As we move out the world of the Israelites and transition is what I will call ‘The world of Second Temple Judaism,’ is there a need to reorient some of the laws in order to address contemporary concerns?” The evidence seems to indicate that the overwhelming answer is “yes,” and that this reorientation is both written (Qumran sectarians) and oral (Pharisees). The purpose is not to change intentionally the meaning of the Torah laws but rather to understand them in a setting, several generations later, whose concern to live out God’s commandments is a bit different. Furthermore, seeing that there is an oral law, the next question we must ask is “Did Jesus, as part of this world” reject that oral law?” The answer seems to indicate that although we cannot necessarily determine with specificity which oral law Jesus followed, or the exact parameters of the oral law before its first codification in the 3rd century C.E., there are in fact some oral traditions that he accepted.

  3. It is quite clear that Yeshua adhered to standing traditions:

    Matt. 3:5
    Where in the Tanach is public Mikvah commanded?
    Matt. 12:5
    Where in the Torah does it say this? (Babylonian Pes. 64a, Babylonian Yoma 66a)
    Matt. 23:16-19
    It appears that Yeshua here accepts the rabbinic tradition that the Temple and the altar has sanctifying authority, but where can we find it in the written Torah?
    Matt. 24:20
    Where in the written Torah does it prohibit travel on the shabbat? It appears that Yeshua has accepted the rabbinic tradition of how far one can walk on the Shabbat. (Acts 1:12).

  4. Might it be that Jesus simply paralleled the oral tradition to the extent that it paralleled God’s original intent for the practice of the Law?

    Clearly there is at least some evidence that he rejected aspects of the oral law. (I would say not simply in handwashing, but in the interpretations of whether or not his disciples were working when they picked and ate on the Sabbath)

    • Speaking from a historical point of view, the most likely scenario is that Jesus paralleled the oral tradition because he knew it an employed it in some case. His disagreement is not really a problem since strands of mishnaic and toseftan tradition seem to indicate that some of the traditions attributed to, and perhaps even taught by some of the rabbis are in disagreement with others. We shouldn’t presume that the codification of the oral law necessarily indicates that all the rabbis are in complete agreement.

  5. Pingback: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival – Early Edition « Exploring Our Matrix

  6. The oral law (Mishnah) as a whole was not finished until the second century CE by Rabbi Jehuda Hanassi. So it did not exist as a whole in the times of our Lord CHRIST. It is true that HE was at odds with the Pharisees and Scribes, so for this reason it is very likely that whatever portions of oral law existed, HE did not abide by them. The Old Testament is divided in three; The Law (Torah), The Prophets, and The Writtings which were not finalized until the end of the first century (council of Jamnia), or perhaps the second century. The old testament is not the oral law, and CHRIST plus HIS Apostles (including Paul) did abide by The Law which is Torah.

  7. Pingback: Did Jesus Accept or Deny an Oral Law? and What the Heck is the Oral Law!? « Returning to "The Way (הדרך)"

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