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.”
Check back Friday for part 2.