Nazarenes and the Oral Law


Nazarenes and the Oral Law
By James Trimm

There has been a great deal of discussion in the movement today over how we as Nazarenes should view Jewish tradition, Oral Law and the Talmud.

Now it is important to understand the first century world from which
Nazarene Judaism emerged. There were three major sects of Judaism at the time: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.

The first century writer Josephus writes of the Pharisees:

“…the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many  observances by succession from their fathers, which arenot written in the law of Moses;…”
(Josephus; Ant. 13:11:6)

The Pharisees became what is known as Rabbinic Judaism and eventually wrote these traditions (known as “Oral Law”) down in the Mishna and later the Talmud. The Mishna and Talmud are not the Oral Law, but they do contain the Oral Law as recorded by the Pharisees.

The core of the Talmud is the Mishna. The Mishna was complied around 250 CE by Rabbi Y’hudah Ha Nasi from ealier oral and/or written traditions.  It cites the opinions or Rabbis and teachers who lived in the generation immediately following Ezra and Nehemiah, up until the time of its composition.  The Talmud was compiled around 500 CE and consists of the Mishna written in Hebrew and the commentary to the Mishna, known as the Gemara, surrounding it in Aramaic characters.

The Sadducees rejected these traditions, as Josephus continues:

“…for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we
are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are delivered from the tradition of our forefathers…”

The Sadducees HAD to reject the Oral Law. They did not believe in a resurrection or an afterlife. They had rejected the things that Judaism has always held to. It was hard enough to make their views compatible with the Written Torah, it was easier for them to simply reject the Oral Torah out of hand. In fact they HAD to reject the Oral Law if they wanted to reject any understanding of the written Torah that included a resurrection and an afterlife!

Then there were the Essenes, these are they who are believed to have
written the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes did not reject the concept of Oral Law, as the Sadducees did, but they did have an ALTERNATE set of such traditions, many of which are recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the Scrolls is a document called MMT (“Some of the Works of teh Torah). In this document the Essenes point out some of their differences with the Oral Law as recorded in the Mishna. For example in the Mishna (Hullin 4:1-5) there is an Oral tradition forbidding the eating of the fetus of a slaughtered animal, while item 12 in MMT allows the eating of such a fetus. Many of the points addressed in MMT are addressed directly at points of Oral Torah found in the Mishna. Essenes did not reject the Oral Torah, they had their own understanding of it.

Now our Nazarene forefathers had roots in Pharisaic Judaism and in Essene Judaism but not in Sadduceean Judaism.

Yeshua’s teachings often echoed those of the famous Pharisaic teacher Hillel. When Yeshu was still a child Hillel taught “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you” while Yeshua grew up to teach “do onto others as you would have them do to you.”

The Nazarenes also clearly had roots in Essene Judaism. There is evidence that Yochanan the immerser (“John the Baptist”) came out of the Qumran community.  Several of Yeshua’s Talmidim (including Kefa) had first been talmidim of Yochanan. Both the Essenes and the Nazarenes called themselves “The Way” and “Sons of Light”.

The Esseneic and Pharisaic origins of Nazarene Judaism are easily
documented and could fill volumes. I have reduced them here to a short paragraph each.

The written Torah is not complete in itself. Instead it presupposes that the reader also has access to additional information. For example the observance of Torah involves the use of the Hebrew calendar. Nowhere does the written Torah tell us the inner workings of this calendar, it presupposes that this information was also passed down to us orally by our forefathers.

There are actually two types of “Oral Law” and they are very different from one another.

The first is Oral Torah from Sinai. Moshe was on Mt. Sinai for forty days. During this time her received much of the material that we know as the Written Torah as recorded in the five books of Moses. However if one to get the five books of Moses as a “books on tape” edition, it would not take anywhere near forty days to listen to them. It would not even take one day to listen to them. So is this ALL the information Moses received on Mount Sinai? Why does Leviticus 26:46 say that Moses received “Laws” (plural) on Mount Sinai? Could he have received Torah She-Bi-Khatav (The Written Torah) and Torah She-Al-Peh (The Oral Torah)?

As we stated earlier, there is not sufficient information in the written Torah to allow it to be observed without some additional information.

For example the written Torah says not to go out of ones “place” on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29) but just what does this mean? If the Sabbath starts and I am in the latrine, must I stay there until it is over? If I am in my home and the Sabbath starts, must I wait until the Sabbath end to go out to the latrine? Does it mean I cannot leave my house? my yard? my city? Surely the ancient Hebrews (our forefathers) asked Moses what this commandment meant. Did Moses shrug his shoulders and say “heck if I know”, or was this part of the information he also received on Mount Sinai? If so then our forefathers had this information. Is this what the Psalmist means when he says:

1: Give ear, O my people, to my Torah: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2: I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
3: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
4: We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come the praises of YHWH, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
(Ps. 78:1-4)

Another example can be found in Deut. 12:21 which tells us that if we live to far from the Temple and need to slaughter an animal to eat, YHWH says we may do so as long as we do it “as I [YHWH] have commanded you”. But there are no instructions for the ritual slaughter of an animal in the written Torah. This commandment of the written Torah must be alluding to an oral companion to the written Torah.

One can give many more examples. What does it mean not to “work” on the Shabbat? what constitutes “work”? How does one “celebrate” the Shabbat (Ex. 31:16)? What constitutes a “Bill of Divorcement” (Deut. 24:1f) what is it supposed to say?

When Ezra read the Torah to the people in Nehemiah 8:1-8, he and the Levites also “gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (8:7-8). They gave them an oral companion to the written text:

1: And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Torah of Moses, which YHWH had commanded to Israel.
2: And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
3: And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the Book of the Torah.
4: And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5: And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:
6: And Ezra blessed YHWH, the great Elohim. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped YHWH with their faces to the ground.
7: Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the Torah: and the people stood in their place.
8: So they read in the Book in the Torah of Elohim distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
(Nehemiah 8:1-8)

When the old Worldwide Church of God began observing the biblical festivals, one of the problems they ran into was how to celebrate them. Only sketchy information is given in the written Torah on many of these festivals (we will revisit this issue again later in this article in relation to Yeshua’s observances of Sukkot and Passover).

When it comes to answering these questions, we can turn to the understandings our forefathers had of these things, which they passed down to us orally, or we can make something up. Short of a mutually accepted pipeline to Elohim, those are our only choices.

Another form of Oral Law are the decrees from the Elders. The Elders are said to have ha the “halachic authority”. Halachic authority is the authority to make halachic determinations interpreting the Torah forbidding and permitting activities based on these interpretations (for example if a matter came up which was not settled by the written Torah), and resolving matters between fellow believers. The word “halacha” means “the way to walk.” Torah observance requires halachic authority for three reasons. First there are matters about which the written Torah is ambiguous and must be clarified. Secondly is the matter of conflicting Torah commands. For example the Torah requires the priests to circumcise on the eight day after a birth, but also requires rest from work on the Sabbath. Which commandment holds priority? Finally the Torah requires us to establish courts (Deut. 16:18).

In the Torah the Halachic authority was originally held by Moses himself (Ex. 18:13) but later a council of Elders were appointed (Ex. 18:13-26; Dt. 1:9-18) These Elders showed men “the way wherein they must walk” (i.e. Halacha) (Ex. 18:20) Their judgments were regarded as the judgment of Elohim himself (Dt. 1:17) and were even called “Torah” (Dt. 17:11) At first these men had authority only in small matters (Ex. 18:22, 26; Dt. 1:17) but later their authority was expanded (Dt. 17:8). This council was later defined as seventy Elders whom Elohim placed his Spirit upon (Num. 11:16-17; 24-25).

The decrees of these elders added to the body of what was known as the “Oral Law” in much the same was as “legal precedence” does in secular law today.

One classic example of a matter settled by a Decree of the Elders was the issue of circumcision on the Sabbath. Circumcision is commanded to be done on the eighth day (Gen. 17:11) yet on every seventh day no work is allowed (Ex. 20:10). The Elders decreed that the commandment to circumcise on the eighth day held priority over the commandment to rest on the Sabbath (as recorded in the Mishna m.Shabbat 18:3-19:2 and in the Talmud b.Shabbat 128a). Yeshua alluded to and agreed with this Decree of the Elders when he said:

If a man is circumcised on the day of the Sabbath
that the Torah of Moshe be not loosed,
do you murmur against me because
I have healed a whole man on the Sabbath day?
(Jn. 7:23)

Similarly we read in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eleazar answered and said: If circumcision
which attaches to one only of the two hundred and
forty eight members of the human body, suspends
the Sabbath, how much more shall [the saving of]
the whole body suspend the Sabbath!
b.Yoma 85b

Yeshua clearly advocated and recognized the authority of these Elders when he said such things as “…whoever shall say to his brother, RAKA, shall be liable to the Sanhedrin…” (Mt. 5:22) and “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat…” (Mt. 23:1).

At the same time Yeshua also took issue with the Decrees of the Elders when they conflicted with Scripture (Mt. 15; Mt. 23)

The Torah also allowed for the Halachic authority to be held by a King (Dt. 17:8-12; 14-20). Eventually the Elders decided to establish such a monarchy (1Sam. 8:1-7). The throne of these Kings was sees as being “the throne of Elohim” (1Chron. 29:23) Their Halachic authority became termed “the key of the House of David” (Is. 22:21-22).

The Pharisees once held the Keys of the House of David. Mt. 23:13 is key to understanding Yeshua’s attitude to the Halachic authority of the Pharisees. Here Yeshua says:

But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men;
for you neither go in,
nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

A parallel passage appears in Lk. 11:52:

Woe to you scribes!
For you have taken away the key of knowledge.
you did not enter in yourselves,
and those who were entering in you hindered.

Now when we look at these two passages together it becomes clear that the “key” in Luke 11:52 had the potential to open up or shut up the Kingdom of Heaven. This “key” is clearly then “the key of the house of David” in Is. 22:22:

The key of the House of David I will lay on his shoulder;
so he shall open, and no one shall shut;
and he shall shut and no one shall open.

The Pharisees took away the key (authority) thus shutting up the
Kingdom. They lost the authority, it was taken from them and given to Yeshua’s Talmidim:

In Mt. 16:18-19 Yeshua says he would give “the keys of the Kingdom” to Kefa and his other talmidim:

And I also say to you that you are Kefa,
And upon this rock I will build my assembly,
and the gates of Sheol shall not prevail against it.
And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The Pharisees lost this authority because of hypocrisy. Yeshua describes their hypocrisy in Mt. 23 as follows:

On Moshe’s seat sit the scribes and P’rushim.
And all that he (Moshe) says to you observe and do.
But not according to their works,
for they say, but do not.
(Mt. 23:2-3)

Yeshua repeatedly charges the Pharisees with Hypocrisy (Mt. 6; 15:7
and Matt. 23 for examples). Yeshua often charged Pharisees with
“hypocrisy” even the Talmud itself makes the same association:

King Jannai said to his wife’, `Fear not the Pharisees and the
non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who are the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas’
(b.Sotah 22b)

Job 13:16 says “a hypocrite shall not come before him.”

Based on this verse the Talmud itself correctly lists Hypocrites as one of four classes who will not receive the presence of the Shekhinah:

R. Hisda also said in the name of R. Jeremiah b. Abba: Four classes
will not receive presence of the Shechinah, — the class of scoffers,
the class of liars, the class of hypocrites, and the class of
slanderers. `The class of scoffers’ — as it is written, He withdrew
His hand from the scoffers.(Hosea 7:5) `The class of liars’ — as it is
written, He that telleth lies, shall not tarry in my sight.(Ps. 101:7)
`The class of hypocrites’ — as it is written, For a hypocrite shall
not come before him.(Job 13:16) `The class of slanderers — as it is
written, For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness:
neither shall evil dwell with thee,’(Ps. 5:5) [which means] Thou art
righteous, and hence there will not be evil in thy abode.
(b.San. 103a)

We know from Numbers 11:16-17 that the Elders must have the Spirit of Elohim upon them, but since hypocrites cannot receive the presence of the Shekhinah, they cannot serve as valid Elders.

Job says: “the congregation of the hypocrites shall be desolate” (Job. 15:34)

Thus Yeshua took the Keys from the Pharisees and gave these keys to Kefa and his Talmidim:

This key is the halachic authority. Yeshua recognized that the Pharisees held that halachic authority but he also tells us that they had squandered it by rejecting the Kingdom offer (see article “The Kingdom Offer”) and refusing to use the key to help Messiah open up the Messianic Kingdom.

The Messiah himself also had the Key of David (Rev. 3:7). In Mt. 16:18-19 Yeshua says he would give “the keys of the Kingdom” to Kefa and his students:

And I also say to you that you are Kefa,
And upon this rock I will build my assembly,
and the gates of Sheol shall not prevail against it.
And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This passage is best understood when compared to Mt. 18:15-20 This passage deals with the law of witnesses (Mt. 18:16 = Dt. 19:15) and refers to an “assembly” (Mt. 18:17) which has the power to “bind” and “loose” (Mt. 18:18) just as does Mt. 16:18-19. Since Mt. 18:16 quotes Dt. 19:15 it is clear that the “assembly” in Mt. 18:17 (and also Mt. 16:18) is the “priests and judges who serve in those days” in Dt. 19:17. This is also clear because this “assembly” has the power to “bind” and “loose.” These are two Semitic idioms used in Rabbinic literature as technical terms referring to Halachic authority. To “bind” means to “forbid” an activity and to “loose” means to permit an activity (as in j.Ber. 5b; 6c; j.San. 28a; b.Ab. Zar. 37a; b.Ned. 62a; b.Yeb. 106a; b.Bets. 2b; 22a; b.Ber. 35a; b.Hag. 3b). Thus in Mt. 16:18-19 & 18:18 Yeshua gave his students the Halachic authority which we see them using in Acts 15.

Today we as restored Nazarenes must also have our own unique halachic authority apart from that of Rabbinic Judaism. As “sons of light” we cannot be halachicly yoked with unbelievers. While we cannot be halachicly yoked with unbelievers (Rabbinic Judaism) we must “come out from among them and be separate” (2Cor. 6:14-18 & Is. 52:11) for we must ourselves establish courts (Dt. 16:18).

We cannot turn to the “wisdom” of the “Pharisaic Rabbinical” Rabbis and sages of the last two thousand years and simply “accept all the Rabbinical Halakhah, except where Mashiach and His Talmidim clearly and definitely offer another position of Halakhah” for the Tenach warns us:

How can you say, “We are wise, and the Torah of YHWH is with us”?
Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood.
The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken.
Behold they have rejected the Word of YHWH;
So what wisdom do they have?
(Jer. 8:8-9)

The unbelieving sages and Rabbis of “Pharisaic Rabbinical” Judaism claim they “are wise” and that “the Torah of the LORD is with us.” But they have “rejected the Word of YHWH” (i.e. Yeshua the Messiah; see Jn. 1:1, 14; Rev. 19:13) “So what wisdom do they have?”

There are preserved for us five fragments from an ancient Nazarene Commentary on Isaiah in which the fourth century Nazarene writer makes it clear that Nazarenes of the fourth century were not “following Pharisaic Rabbinical Halakhah.” The following is taken from the Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 8:14:

“And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel¦”
The Nazarenes explain the two houses as the two houses of Shammai and Hillel, from whom originated the Scribes and Pharisees… [they Pharisees] scattered and defiled the precepts of the Torah by traditions and mishna. And these two houses
did not accept the Savior

The Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 8:20-21 has:

The Scribes and the Pharisees tell you to listen to them
answer them like this:
“It is not strange if you follow your traditions since every tribe
consults its own idols. We must not, therefore, consult your
dead [sages] about the living one.”

So it is clear that the original Nazarenes were not “following Pharisaic Rabbinical Halakhah.”

Let us return to the subject of the Oral Law in general. Now in Acts 23:6 Paul states “I am a Pharisee”. The Pharisees maintained a belief in the traditions handed down by their forefathers. As Josephus writes:

…the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great
many observances by succession from their fathers,
which are not written in the law of Moses; …
(Josephus; Ant. 13:10:6)s

Concerning his Pharisee background Paul says:

And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my
contemporaries in my own nation, being more
exceedingly zealous for the tradition of my fathers.
(Gal. 1:14)

Notice that in Acts 28:17 Paul insists:

I have done nothing against our people
or the customs of our fathers.
(Acts 28:17)

Paul writes to the Thessalonians concerning these “traditions”:

“Therefore, brothers stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught…
withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly and not after the traditions which he received from us.”
(2Thes. 2:15; 3:6)

Paul even made use of these oral “traditions” in his writings. Paul says “…they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them: and that rock was Messiah.” (1Cor. 10:4). The Torah records more than one occasion when Moshe (Moses) brought forth water from a rock (Ex. 16:4-35; 17:1-9; Num. 20:1-13; 16-20). According to Rabbinic tradition the rock did in fact follow them. The Talmud says that it was “a moveable well” (b.Shabbat 35a) and calls it “the Well of Miriam” (b.Ta’anit 9a). Rashi comments on b.Ta’anit 9a saying that the rock “rolled and went along with Israel, and it was the rock Moshe struck.” The tradition of the moving rock known as the “Well of Miriam” is also found in B’midbar Parshat Chukkat. Paul’s statement that the rock “followed them” testifies to the fact that he accepted this oral tradition as being factual.

The second century Nazarene writer Gish’fa (Heggissipus) made use in his writings of these oral traditions. Eusebius writes of him:

And he quotes some passages from The Gospel according to
the Hebrews and from ‘The Syriac’, and some particulars from
the Hebrew tongue, showing that he was … from the Hebrews,
and he mentions other matters as taken from the oral tradition
of the Jews.”
(Eccl. Hist. 4:22)

Yeshua himself seems to have also accepted the “traditions of our fathers” which had been passed down orally.

In John 7:37-38 we read:

“And on the great day, which is the last of the feast, Yeshua stood and cried out and said, If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures have said, rivers of water of life will flow from his belly.”

The occasion is the last great day of Sukkot (Jn. 7:2) and the setting appears to be the water libation ceremony at the Temple as prescribed by the Oral Law. A priest had a flask of gold filled with water and another has a flask of gold filled with wine. There were two silver bowls perforated with holes like a narrow snout. One was wide for the water the other is narrow for the wine. The priests poured the wine and water into each of their bowls. The wine and water mixed together. The wine flowing slowly through the narrow snout and the water flowing quickly through the wider snout. (m.Sukkot 4:9) Yeshua said that this ritual from the Oral Law was actually prophetic and symbolic of himself!

In all four Gospels Yeshua participates in the Passover Sader. The elements of the sader, such as the “cup of redemption”; dipping in bitter herbs; and the afikomen (the last piece of unleavened bread passed around and eaten at the end) all come from the Oral Law as recorded in the Mishna (m.Pes. 10). Yeshua not only accepted and kept these Oral Law rituals, but also spoke of them being prophetic of himself.

There is an interesting story in the Talmud which makes a profound point about the Oral Law:

Our Rabbis taught: A certain heathen once came before Shammai and asked him, ‘How many Torahs have you?’ ‘Two,’ he replied: ‘the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.’ ‘I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only]. [But] he scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, he taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth; the following day he reversed [them ] to him. ‘But yesterday you did not teach them to me thus,’ he protested. ‘Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral [Torah] too.’
(b.Shabbat 31a)

The point of the story is that the same forefathers that passed the written Torah down to us, also passed the Oral Torah down to us with it. What logic is there in accepting the written Torah that they delivered to us as truth, while rejecting the Oral Law passed down by the very same forefathers?

Now we as Nazarenes do not believe that the Rabbis of Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism held the power to bind and loose after the first century, perhaps not even before the first century. Thus we should not simply accept these rulings, on the other hand we should not simply reject them out of hand. In may cases the Talmud or the related halachic Midrashim present the line of logic which led to the decisions being made. We should look at these lines of logic to determine if the decisions were valid and sound.

For example I heard one Messianic Rabbi bashing the Talmud and claiming that the Rabbis had added thirty-nine rules to the simple commandment not to work on the Sabbath. In fact the thirty-nine categories (given in m.Shabbat 7:2) are drawn from the text of the Torah. In the Torah the instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle are interrupted by a restatement of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:12-17).  The connection this section of Exodus has with the surrounding material seems to be the word “work” (Ex. 31:14) and “workmanship” (Ex. 31:3) (same word in the Hebrew). Thus the commandment not to “work” on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14) is restated as a reminder to abstain from the  “workmanship” of the Tabernacle mentioned in Ex. 31:3. Thus the term “work” in the commandment not to work on the Sabbath may be elaborated and defined by the thirty-nine categories of  “workmanship” involved in building the Tabernacle.

We as Nazarenes should not reject the material in the Talmud out of hand, we should seek to understand it. Then we should “eat the date and spit out the seeds”. The same approach should be taken to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Nazarenes should not be modern day Sadducees.


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