corner graphic

The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah

by 'Alfred Edersheim'

Book 1 — The Preparation for the Gospel: The Jewish World in the Days of Christ

Chapter 8 — Traditionalism, Its Origin, Character, and Literature

Resource Toolbox

Chapters:
 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8

TRADITIONALISM, ITS ORIGIN, CHARACTER, AND LITERATURE
THE MISHNAH AND TALMUD
THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST
THE DAWN OF A NEW DAY.

In trying to picture to ourselves New Testament scenes, the figure most prominent, next to those of the chief actors, is that of the Scribe (rpws, grammateuV, literatus). He seems ubiquitous; we meet him in Jerusalem, in Judæa, and even in Galilee. 1 Indeed, he is indispensable, not only in Babylon, which may have been the birthplace of his order, but among the 'dispersion' also. 2 Everywhere he appears as the mouthpiece and representative of the people; he pushes to the front, the crowd respectfully giving way, and eagerly hanging on his utterances, as those of a recognised authority. He has been solemnly ordained by the laying on of hands; and is the Rabbi, 3 'my great one,' Master, amplitudo. He puts questions; he urges objections; he expects full explanations and respectful demeanour. Indeed, his hyper-ingenuity in questioning has become a proverb. There is not measure of his dignity, nor yet limit to his importance. He is the 'lawyer,' 4 the 'well-plastered pit,' 5 filled with the water of knowledge 'out of which not a drop can escape,' 6 in opposition to the weeds of 'untilled soil' (myrwb) of ignorance. 7 He is the Divine aristocrat, among the vulgar herd of rude and profane 'country-people,' who 'know not the Law' and are 'cursed.' More than that, his order constitutes the ultimate authority on all questions of faith and practice; he is 'the Exegete of the Laws,' 8 the 'teacher of the Law,' 9 and along with 'the chief priests' and 'elders' a judge in the eccesiastical tribunals, whether of the capital or in the provinces. 10 Although generally appearing in company with 'the Pharisees,' he is not necessarily one of them - for they represent a religious party, while he has a status, and holds an office. 11 In short, he is the Talmid or learned student, the Chakham or sage, whose honour is to be great in the future world. Each Scribe outweighed all the common people, who must accordingly pay him every honour. Nay, they were honoured of God Himself, and their praises proclaimed by the angels; and in heaven also, each of them would hold the same rank and distinction as on earth. 12 Such was to be the respect paid to their sayings, that they were to be absolutely believed, even if they were to declare that to be at the right hand which was at the left, or vice versâ. 13

An institution which had attained such proportions, and wielded such power, could not have been of recent growth. In point of fact, its rise was very gradual, and stretched back to the time of Nehemiah, if not beyond it. Although from the utter confusion of historical notices in Rabbinic writings and their constant practice of antedating events, it is impossible to furnish satisfactory details, the general development of the institution can be traced with sufficient precision. If Ezra is described in Holy Writ 14 as 'a ready (expertus) Scribe,' who had 'set his heart to seek (seek out the full meaning of) the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel,' 15 this might indicate to his successors, the Sopherim (Scribes), the threefold direction which their studies afterwards took: the Midrash, the Halakhah, and the Haggadah, 16 17 of which the one pointed to Scriptural investigation, the other to what was to be observed, and the third to oral teaching in the widest sense. But Ezra left his work uncompleted. On Nehemiah's second arrival in Palestine, he found matters again in a state of utmost confusion. 18 He must have felt the need of establishing some permanent authority to watch over religious affairs. This we take to have been 'the Great Assembly,' or, as it is commonly called, the 'Great Synagogue.' It is impossible with certainty to determine, 19 either who composed this assembly, or of how many members it consisted. 20 Probably it comprised the leading men in Church and State, the chief priests, elders, and 'judges' - the latter two classes including 'the Scribes,' if, indeed, that order was already separately organised. 21 Probably also the term 'Great Assembly' refers rather to a succession of men than to one Synod; the ingenuity of later times filling such parts of the historical canvas as had been left blank with fictitious notices. In the nature of things such an assembly could not exercise permanent sway in a sparsely populated country, without a strong central authority. Nor could they have wielded real power during the political difficulties and troubles of foreign domination. The oldest tradition 22 sums up the result of their activity in this sentence ascribed to them: 'Be careful in judgment, set up many Talmidim, and make a hedge about the Torah (Law).'

In the course of time this rope of sand dissolved. The High-Priest, Simon the Just, 23 is already designated as 'of the remnants of the Great Assembly.' But even this expression does not necessarily imply that he actually belonged to it. In the troublous times which followed his Pontificate, the sacred study seems to have been left to solitary individuals. The Mishnic tractate Aboth, which records 'the sayings of the Fathers,' here gives us only the name of Antigonus of Socho. It is significant, that for the first time we now meet a Greek name among Rabbinic authorities, together with an indistinct allusion to his disciples. 24 25 The long interval between Simon the Just and Antigonus and his disciples, brings us to the terrible time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the great Syrian persecution. The very sayings attributed to these two sound like an echo of the political state of the country. On three things, Simon was wont to say, the permanency of the (Jewish?) world depends: on the Torah (faithfulness to the Law and its

pursuit), on worship (the non-participation in Grecianism), and on works of righteousness. 26 They were dark times, when God's persecuted people were tempted to think, that it might be vain to serve Him, in which Antigonus had it: 'Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of reward, but be like servants who serve their lord without a view to the getting of reward, and let the fear of heaven be upon you.' 27 After these two names come those of the so-called five Zugoth, or 'couples,' of whom Hillel and Shammai are the last. Later tradition has represented these successive couples as, respectively, the Nasi (president), and Ab-beth-din (vice-president, of the Sanhedrin). Of the first three of these 'couples' it may be said that, except significant allusions to the circumstances and dangers of their times, their recorded utterances clearly point to the development of purely Sopheric teaching, that is, to the Rabbinistic part of their functions. From the fourth 'couple,' which consists of Simon ben Shetach, who figured so largely in the political history of the later Maccabees 28 (as Ab-beth-din), and his superior in learning and judgment, Jehudah ben Tabbai (as Nasi), we have again utterances which show, in harmony with the political history of the time, that judicial functions had been once more restored to the Rabbis. The last of five couples brings us to the time of Herod and of Christ.

We have seen that, during the period of severe domestic troubles, beginning with the persecutions under the Seleucidæ, which marked the mortal struggle between Judaism and Grecianism, the 'Great Assembly' had disappeared from the scene. The Sopherim had ceased to be a party in power. They had become the Zeqenim, 'Elders,' whose task was purely ecclesiastical - the preservation of their religion, such as the dogmatic labours of their predecessors had made it. Yet another period opened with the advent of the Maccabees. These had been raised into power by the enthusiasm of the Chasidim, or 'pious ones,' who formed the nationalist party in the land, and who had gathered around the liberators of their faith and country. But the later bearing of the Maccabees had alienated the nationalists. Henceforth they sink out of view, or, rather, the extreme section of them merged in the extreme section of the Pharisees, till fresh national calamities awakened a new nationalist party. Instead of the Chasidim, we see now two religious parties within the Synagogue - the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The latter originally represented a reaction from the Pharisees - the modern men, who sympathised with the later tendencies of the Maccabees. Josephus places the origin of these two schools in the time of Jonathan, the successor of Judas Maccabee, 29 and with this other Jewish notices agree. Jonathan accepted from the foreigner (the Syrian) the High-Priestly dignity, and combined with it that of secular ruler. But this is not all. The earlier Maccabees surrounded themselves with a governing eldership. 30 31 On the coins of their reigns this is designated as the Chebher, or eldership (association) of the Jews. Thus, theirs was what Josephus designates as an aristocratic government, 32 and of which he somewhat vaguely says, that it lasted 'from the Captivity until the descendants of the Asmoneans set up kingly government.' In this aristocratic government the High-Priest would rather be the chief of a representative ecclesiastical body of rulers. This state of things continued until the great breach between Hyrcanus, the fourth from Judas Maccabee, and the Pharisaical party, 33 which is equally recorded by Josephus 34 and the Talmud, 35 with only variations of names and details. The dispute apparently arose from the desire of the Pharisees, that Hycanus should be content with the secular power, and resign the Pontificate. But it ended in the persecution, and removal from power, of the Pharisees. Very significantly, Jewish tradition introduces again at this time those purely ecclesiastical authorities which are designated as 'the couples.' 36 In accordance with this, altered state of things, the name 'Chebher' now disappears from the coins of the Maccabees, and Rabbinical celebrities ('the couples' or Zugoth) are only teachers of traditionalism, and ecclesiastical authorities. The 'eldership,' 37 which under the earlier Maccabees was called 'the tribunal of the Asmoneans.' 38 39 now passed into the Sanhedrin. 40 41 Thus we place the origin of this institution about the time of Hyrcanus. With this Jewish tradition fully agrees. 42 The power of the Sanhedrin would, of course, vary with political circumstances, being at times almost absolute, as in the reign of the Pharisaic devotee-Queen, Alexandra, while at others it was shorn of all but ecclesiastical authority. But as the Sanhedrin was in full force at the time of Jesus, its organization will claim our attention in the sequel.

After this brief outline of the origin and development of an institution which exerted such decisive influence on the future of Israel, it seems necessary similarly to trace the growth of the 'traditions of the Elders,' so as to understand what, alas! so effectually, opposed the new doctrine of the Kingdom. The first place must here be assigned to those legal determinations, which traditionalism declared absolutely binding on all - not only of equal, but even greater obligation than Scripture itself. 43 And this not illogically, since tradition was equally of Divine origin with Holy Scripture, and authoritatively explained its meaning; supplemented it; gave it application to cases not expressly provided for, perhaps not even foreseen in Biblical times; and generally guarded its sanctity by extending and adding to its provisions, drawing 'a hedge,' around its 'garden enclosed.' Thus, in new and dangerous circumstances, would the full meaning of God's Law, to its every title and iota, be elicited and obeyed. Thus also would their feet be arrested, who might stray from within, or break in from without. Accordingly, so important was tradition, that the greatest merit a Rabbi

could claim was the strictest adherence to the traditions, which he had received from his teacher. Nor might one Sanhedrin annul, or set aside, the decrees of its predecessors. To such length did they go in this worship of the letter, that the great Hillel was actually wont to mispronounce a word, because his teacher before him had done so. 44

These traditional ordinances, as already stated, bear the general name of the Halakhah, as indicating alike the way in which the fathers had walked, and that which their children were bound to follow. 45 These Halakhoth were either simply the laws laid down in Scripture; or else derived from, or traced to it by some ingenious and artificial method of exegesis; or added to it, by way of amplification and for safety's sake; or, finally, legalized customs. They provided for every possible and impossible case, entered into every detail of private, family, and public life; and with iron logic, unbending rigour, and most minute analysis pursued and dominated man, turn whither he might, laying on him a yoke which was truly unbearable. The return which it offered was the pleasure and distinction of knowledge, the acquisition of righteousness, and the final attainment of rewards; one of its chief advantages over our modern traditionalism, that it was expressly forbidden to draw inferences from these traditions, which should have the force of fresh legal determinations. 46

In describing the historical growth of the Halakhah, 47 we may dismiss in a few sentences the legends of Jewish tradition about patriarchal times. They assure us, that there was an Academy and a Rabbinic tribunal of Shem, and they speak of traditions delivered by that Patriarch to Jacob; of diligent attendance by the latter on the Rabbinic College; of a tractate (in 400 sections) on idolatry by Abraham, and of his observance of the whole traditional law; of the introduction of the three daily times of prayer, successively by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of the three benedictions in the customary 'grace at meat,' as propounded by Moses, Joshua, and David and Solomon; of the Mosaic introduction of the practice of reading lessons from the law on Sabbaths, New Moons, and Feast Days, and even on the Mondays and Thursdays; and of that, by the same authority, of preaching on the three great festivals about those feasts. Further, they ascribe to Moses the arrangement of the priesthood into eight courses (that into sixteen to Samuel, and that into twenty-four to David), as also, the duration of the time for marriage festivities, and for mourning. But evidently these are vague statements, with the object of tracing traditionalism and its observances to primaeval times, even as legend had it, that Adam was born circumcised, 48 and later writers that he had kept all the ordinances.

But other principles apply to the traditions, from Moses downwards. According to the Jewish view, God had given Moses on Mount Sinai alike the oral and the written Law, that is, the Law with all its interpretations and applications. From Ex. xx. 1, it was inferred, that God had communicated to Moses the Bible, the Mishnah, and Talmud, and the Haggadah, even to that which scholars would in latest times propound. 49 In answer to the somewhat natural objection, why the Bible alone had been written, it was said that Moses had proposed to write down all the teaching entrusted to him, but the Almighty had refused, on account of the future subjection of Israel to the nations, who would take from them the written Law. Then the unwritten traditions would remain to separate between Israel and the Gentiles. Popular exegesis found this indicated even in the language of prophecy. 50

But traditionalism went further, and placed the oral actually above the written Law. The expression, 51 'After the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel,' was explained as meaning, that God's covenant was founded on the spoken, in opposition to the written words. 52 If the written was thus placed below the oral Law, we can scarcely wonder that the reading of the Hagiographa was actually prohibited to the people on the Sabbath, from fear that it might divert attention from the learned discourses of the Rabbis. The study of them on that day was only allowed for the purpose of learned investigation and discussions. 53 54

But if traditionalism was not to be committed to writing by Moses, measures had been taken to prevent oblivion or inaccuracy. Moses had always repeated a traditional law successively to Aaron, to his sons, and to the elders of the people, and they again in turn to each other, in such wise, that Aaron heard the Mishnah four times, his sons three times, the Elders twice, and the people once. But even this was not all, for by successive repetitions (of Aaron, his sons, and the Elders) the people also heard it four times. 55 And, before his death, Moses had summoned any one to come forward, if he had forgotten aught of what he had heard and learned. 56 But these 'Halakhoth of Moses from Sinai' do not make up the whole of traditionalism. According to Maimonides, it consists of five, but more critically of three classes. 57 The first of these comprises both such ordinances as are found in the Bible itself, and the so-called Halakhoth of Moses from Sinai - that is, such laws and usages as prevailed from time immemorial, and which, according to the Jewish view, had been orally delivered to, but not written down by Moses. For these, therefore, no proof was to be sought in Scripture - at most support, or confirmatory allusion (Asmakhtu). 58 Nor were these open to discussion. The second class formed the 'oral law,' 59 or the 'traditional teaching' 60 in the stricter sense. To this class

belonged all that was supposed to be implied in, or that could be deduced from, the Law of Moses. 61 The latter contained, indeed, in substance or germ, everything; but it had not been brought out, till circumstances successfully evolved what from the first had been provided in principle. For this class of ordinances reference to, and proof from, Scripture was required. Not so for the third class of ordinances, which were 'the hedge' drawn by the Rabbis around the Law, to prevent any breach of the Law or customs, to ensure their exact observance, or to meet peculiar circumstances and dangers. These ordinances constituted 'the sayings of the Scribes' 62 or 'of the Rabbis' 63 64 - and were either positive in their character (Teqqanoth), or else negative (Gezeroth from gazar 'to cut off'). Perhaps the distinction of these two cannot always be strictly carried out. But it was probably to this third class especially, confessedly unsupported by Scripture, that these words of Christ referred: 65 'All therefore whatsoever they tell you, that do and observe; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with their finger they will not move them away (set in motion).' 66 This view has two-fold confirmation. For, this third class of Halakhic ordinances was the only one open to the discussion of the learned, the ultimate decision being according to the majority. Yet it possessed practically (though not theoretically) the same authority as the other two classes. In further confirmation of our view the following may be quoted: 'A Gezerah (i.e. this third class of ordinances) is not to be laid on the congregation, unless the majority of the congregation is able to bear it' 67 - words which read like a commentary on those of Jesus, and show that these burdens could be laid on, or moved away, according to the varying judgment or severity of a Rabbinic College. 68

This body of traditional ordinances forms the subject of the Mishnah, or second, repeated law. We have here to place on one side the Law of Moses as recorded in the Pentateuch, as standing by itself. All else - even the teaching of the Prophets and of the Hagiographa, as well as the oral traditions - bore the general name of Qabbalah - 'that which has been received.' The sacred study - or Midrash, in the original application of the term - concerned either the Halakhah, traditional ordinance, which was always 'that which had been heard' (Shematha), or else the Haggadah, 'that which was said' upon the authority of individuals, not as legal ordinance. It was illustration, commentary, anecdote, clever or learned saying, &c. At first the Halakhah remained unwritten, probably owing to the disputes between Pharisees and Sadducees. But the necessity of fixedness and order led in course of time to more or less complete collections of the Halakhoth. 69 The oldest of these is ascribed to R. Akiba, in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. 70 71 But the authoritative collection in the so-called Mishnah is the work of Jehudah the Holy, who died about the end of the second century of our era.

Altogether, the Mishnah comprises six 'Orders' (Sedarim), each devoted to a special class of subjects. 72 These 'Orders' are divided into tractates (Massikhtoth, Massekhtiyoth, 'textures, webs'), of which there are sixty-three (or else sixty-two) in all. These tractates are again subdivided into chapters (Peraqim) - in all 525, which severally consist of a certain number of verses, or Mishnahs (Mishnayoth, in all 4,187). Considering the variety and complexity of the subjects treated, the Mishnah is arranged with remarkable logical perspicuity. The language is Hebrew, though of course not that of the Old Testament. The words rendered necessary by the new circumstances are chiefly derived from the Greek, the Syriac, and the Latin, with Hebrew terminations. 73 But all connected with social intercourse, or ordinary life (such as contracts), is written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramæan, as the language of the people.

But the traditional law embodied other materials than the Halakhoth collected in the Mishnah. Some that had not been recorded there, found a place in the works of certain Rabbis, or were derived from their schools. These are called Boraithas - that is, traditions external to the Mishnah. Finally, there were 'additions' (or Tosephtoth), dating after the completion of the Mishnah, but probably not later than the third century of our era. Such there are to not fewer than fifty-two out of the sixty-three Mishnic tractates. When speaking of the Halakhah as distinguished from the Haggadah, we must not, however, suppose that the latter could be entirely separated from it. In point of fact, one whole tractate in the Mishnah (Aboth: The Sayings of the 'Fathers') is entirely Haggadah; a second (Middoth: the 'Measurements of the Temple') has Halakhah in only fourteen places; while in the rest of the tractates Haggadah occurs in not fewer than 207 places. 74 Only thirteen out of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah are entirely free from Haggadah.

Hitherto we have only spoken of the Mishnah. But this comprises only a very small part of traditionalism. In course of time the discussions, illustrations, explanations, and additions to which the Mishnah gave rise, whether in its application, or in the Academies of the Rabbis, were authoritatively collected and edited in what are known as the two Talmuds or Gemaras. 75 If we imagine something combining law reports, a Rabbinical 'Hansard,' and notes of a theological debating club - all thoroughly Oriental, full of digressions, anecdotes, quaint sayings, fancies, legends, and too often of what, from its profanity, superstition, and even obscenity, could scarcely be quoted, we may form some general idea of what the Talmud is. The oldest of these

two Talmuds dates from about the close of the fourth century of our era. It is the product of the Palestinian Academies, and hence called the Jerusalem Talmud. The second is about a century younger, and the outcome of the Babylonian schools, hence called the Babylon (afterwards also 'our') Talmud. We do not possess either of these works complete. 76 The most defective is the Jerusalem Talmud, which is also much briefer, and contains far fewer discussions than that of Babylon. The Babylon Talmud, which in its present form extends over thirty-six out of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah, is about ten or eleven times the size of the latter, and more than four times that of the Jerusalem Talmud. It occupies (in our editions), with marginal commentations, 2,947 folio leaves (pages a and b). Both Talmuds are written in Aramæan; the one in its western, the other in its eastern dialect, and in both the Mishnah is discussed seriatim, and clause by clause. Of the character of these discussions it would be impossible to convey an adequate idea. When we bear in mind the many sparkling, beautiful, and occasionally almost sublime passages in the Talmud, but especially that its forms of thought and expression so often recall those of the New Testament, only prejudice and hatred could indulge in indiscriminate vituperation. On the other hand, it seems unaccountable how any one who has read a Talmudic tractate, or even part of one, could compare the Talmud with the New Testament, or find in the one the origin of the other.

To complete our brief survey, it should be added that our editions of the Babylon Talmud contain (at the close of vol. ix. and after the fourth 'Order') certain Boraithas. Of these there were originally nine, but two of the smaller tractates (on 'the memorial fringes,' and on 'non-Israelites') have not been preserved. The first of these Boraithas is entitled Abhoth de Rabbi Nathan, and partially corresponds with a tractate of a similar name in the Mishnah. 77 Next follow six minor tractates. These are respectively entitled Sopherim (Scribes), 78 detailing the ordinances about copying the Scriptures, the ritual of the Lectionary, and festive prayers; Ebhel Rabbathi or Semakhoth, 79 containing Halakhah and Haggadah about funeral and mourning observances; Kallah, 80 on the married relationship; Derekh Erets, 81 embodying moral directions and the rules and customs of social intercourse; Derekh Erets Zuta, 82 treating of similar subjects, but as regards learned students; and, lastly, the Pereq ha Shalom, 83 which is a eulogy on peace. All these tractates date, at least in their present form, later than the Talmudic period. 84

In truth, Rabbinism, as such, had no system of theology; only what ideas, conjectures, or fancies the Haggadah yielded concerning God, Angels, demons, man, his future destiny and present position, and Israel, with its past history and coming glory. Accordingly, by the side of what is noble and pure, what a terrible mass of utter incongruities, of conflicting statements and too often debasing superstitions, the outcome of ignorance and narrow nationalism; of legendary colouring of Biblical narratives and scenes, profane, coarse, and degrading to them; the Almighty Himself and His Angels taking part in the conversations of Rabbis, and the discussions of Academies; nay, forming a kind of heavenly Sanhedrin, which occasionally requires the aid of an earthly Rabbi. 86 The miraculous merges into the ridiculous, and even the revolting. Miraculous cures, miraculous supplies, miraculous help, all for the glory of great Rabbis, 87 who by a look or word can kill, and restore to life. At their bidding the eyes of a rival fall out, and are again inserted. Nay, such was the veneration due to Rabbis, that R. Joshua used to kiss the stone on which R. Eliezer had sat and lectured, saying: 'This stone is like Mount Sinai, and he who sat on it like the Ark.' Modern ingenuity has, indeed, striven to suggest deeper symbolical meaning for such stories. It should own the terrible contrast existing side by side: Hebrewism and Judaism, the Old Testament and traditionalism; and it should recognise its deeper cause in the absence of that element of spiritual and inner life which Christ has brought. Thus as between the two - the old and the new - it may be fearlessly asserted that as regards their substance and spirit, there is not a difference, but a total divergence, of fundamental principle between Rabbinism and the New Testament, so that comparison between them is not possible. Here there is absolute contrariety.

The painful fact just referred to is only too clearly illustrated by the relation in which traditionalism places itself to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, even though it acknowledges their inspiration and authority. The Talmud has it, 88 that he who busies himself with Scripture only (i.e. without either the Mishnah or Gemara) has merit, and yet no merit. 89 Even the comparative paucity of references to the Bible in the Mishnah 90 is significant. Israel had made void the Law by its traditions. Under a load of outward ordinances and observances its spirit had been crushed. The religion as well as the grand hope of the Old Testament had become externalized. And so alike Heathenism and Judaism - for it was no longer the pure religion of the Old Testament - each following its own direction, had reached its goal. All was prepared and waiting. The very porch had been built, through which the new, and yet old, religion was to pass into the ancient world, and the ancient world into the new religion. Only one thing was needed: the Coming of the Christ. As yet darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness lay upon the people. But far away the golden light of the new day was already tingeing the edge of the horizon. Presently would the Lord arise upon Zion, and His

glory be seen upon her. Presently would the Voice from out the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; presently would it herald the Coming of His Christ to Jew and Gentile, and that Kingdom of heaven, which, established upon earth, is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. 91

Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology