Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Messiah and His Miracles (Continued)

The conflict over the oral law (1)

So, at the time of the Messiah the oral law, a binding set of rules which did not prescribe what a person must believe, only what a person must do, (sometimes called, “the tradition of the elders”), was in its second stage.  It was designed to cover every contingency of life and conduct.

The oral law is designated in the New Testament by various forms of words, some of which include the word ‘tradition’, for example, “tradition of the elders”,[1] or, “your tradition”,[2] or, the “tradition of men”.[3]  Paul, himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees, in his unregenerate state, was a zealous supporter of the oral law and he refers to it as the “traditions of my fathers”.[4] Jesus, in referring to the oral law in His teaching, used the phrase, it was said by them of old time”.[5]  This is in direct contrast to His references to the Pentateuch where He used the phrase, it is written.[6]

The difference between Rabbinism and the teachings of Christ is that Rabbinism, in practice, emphasises what a man should do, while it is concerned less over what he should believe.  Christ prescribes what a man should believe, while his conduct is largely left to his own conscience.   Rabbinism insists on works and gives liberty of faith, while Christ insists on faith and gives liberty of works.

The contrast between Jesus’ attitude to the Hebrew written scriptures, and His attitude to the ‘oral law’ is clear in the Gospels.  The evidence of the Gospel writers shows that He honoured the Hebrew Scriptures. He quoted the Pentateuch when Satan tempted Him.[7] He often quoted the prophets.[8] He acknowledged Old Testament events such as Noah and the flood,[9] Solomon and the Queen of the south,[10] Jonah and the sea creature and Jonah’s preaching at Nineveh,[11] as well as Sodom and Gomorrha.[12]  He referred to events from the first and last books of the Hebrew Scriptures - the death of Abel in Genesis and the death of Zacharias in Second Chronicles.[13]  If the definition of ‘Torah’ had been confined to the Pentateuch or even to the Hebrew written Scriptures, the Messiah would have been supportive.  He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil”.[14]  But He was unwilling to endorse the ‘oral law’, and led opposition to it. 

As was intimated earlier, the Pharisees were the champions of the ‘oral law’.  They thought of themselves as the logical descendents of the Torah movement, begun by Ezra and continued by the ‘Hasidim’ (pious/priests) who so valiantly resisted the Hellenisation of the Jews. The Hasidim fought, often to the death, every effort of foreign invaders, to replace Hebrew culture with Greek culture. The Pharisees, in the same spirit, wished to defend any attack on the traditions for which their fathers had fought and died.  As the descendents of the Hasidim, they focused on ritual purity, calling on all households to apply the same standards of purity to the home that the priests observed in the Temple.  The Pharisees wanted to establish a kingdom of priests.  They were also very concerned with table fellowship (including dietary restrictions), Sabbath observance, tithing and circumcision.

Being guardians of the oral law, they expected Messiah to both commend them and support their work.   They reasoned that Messiah would surely expect the nation to be a law-abiding people.  However, Jesus asserted that Pharisaic legalism was external and though giving the impression that it was designed to please God was, in fact, directed towards man. It was hypocritical, and it negated both faith and love, the two basic ingredients in any relationship with God.  Jesus’s attitude to the ‘oral law’ became the focus of conflict and opposition.  When He opposed them and their doctrine, they opposed Him and His Messianic claim.

The Scribes and Pharisees, interpreters of the law, used legalism to keep power in their own hands.  However, God had never been interested in legalism. Even during Israel’s training under the Mosaic Law, the truth was ever, “the just shall live by faith”. The Talmud indicates as much.  A Talmudic passage,[15] states God gave to Moses 613 precepts, but that later seers and prophets reduced these to certain basic principles:

(1)  David reduced them to eleven,[16]Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?

(i) He who walks uprightly, (ii) And works righteousness,  (iii) And speaks the truth in his heart; (iv) He who does not backbite with his tongue, (v) Nor does evil to his neighbour, (vi) Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; (vii) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, (viii) But he honours those who fear the Lord; (ix) He who swears to his own hurt and does not change; (x) He who does not put out his money at usury, (xi) Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

(2) Isaiah reduced them to six,[17]

(i) He who walks righteously and (ii) speaks uprightly, (iii) He who despises the gain of oppressions, (iv) Who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes, (v) Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, (vi) And shuts his eyes from seeing evil:

He will dwell on high; His place of defense will be the fortress of rocks; Bread will be given him, His water will be sure.

(3) Micah reduced them to three,[18] He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you

(i) But to do justly, (ii) To love mercy, (iii) And to walk humbly with your God?

(4) Habakkuk reduced them to one.[19]

“… the just shall live by his faith”.

Moreover, when the Messiah quoted the summary of the Law, the Sh’ma, He emphasised love as the key, “The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.[20]

[1] Matt.15.2; Mark 7.3,5;
[2] Matt.15.3,6; Mark 7.9,13
[3] Mark 7.8
[4] Gal.1.14
[5] Matt.5.21,27,33,43
[6] Matt.4.4,7,10
[7] Matt.4.4/Deut.8.3; Matt.4.7/Deut.6.16; Matt.4.10/Deut.6.13;10.20
[8] Matt.11.10/Mal.3.1;Isaiah.40.3; Matt.21.13/Isaiah 56.7;Jer.7.11; Matt.26.31/Zech.13.17
[9] Matt.24.37ff
[10] Matt.12.42
[11] Matt.12.39ff
[12] Matt.10.15; 11.23f
[13] Matt.23.35/Genesis to 2nd Chronicles
[14] Matt.5.17
[15] Talmud Mak.23b-24a
[16] Psalm 15
[17] Isaiah 33.15,16
[18] Micah 6.8
[19] Hab.2.4
[20] Mark 12.29-31

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Messiah and His Miracles

Investigating a Messianic Claim  - Stage 2: The Stage of Interrogation

On the basis of attesting signs, the Sanhedrin decided to proceed to the stage of interrogation.

Most of the members of the Sanhedrin were either Pharisees or Sadducees.  The Pharisees, who were in the majority, considered themselves guardians and cultivators of the ‘oral law’, a body of tradition that had been derived from, and then superimposed on, the T’nach. Therefore, they needed to know the attitude of Jesus to this additional legislation that they obligated the nation to obey – did he accept it or reject it? To understand this issue it is necessary to trace the history of the oral law in order to realise how great an issue it had become at the time of the Messiah.

The history of the oral law

The Mishnah declares, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets delivered it to the men of the Great Synagogue ….”[1] And so on, down to Hillel and Shammai who were contemporary with the beginning of the Christian era. The Rabbis traced their own system to Ezra and Nehemiah.  Their theory was that the Torah, which Moses himself handed down, included the oral law as well as the written law.

The word ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching’ and was understood to be inclusive and regarded as containing the whole of divine truth, not only that which had already been discerned but also all that in future ages might be brought to light.  The explicit was contained in Scripture, the implicit was the further yet undiscovered meaning contained in the Torah.  The Talmud says, “Even that which an acute disciple shall teach in the presence of his Rabbi has already been said to Moses on Mt. Sinai”.[2]  Therefore, ‘Torah’ denoted the whole of what, according to Jewish belief, was revealed to man, not merely the written but also the unwritten ‘tradition’, the ‘oral law’.

The foundation of the Torah is the Decalogue[3] and the summary of the Decalogue is the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”[4] According to Rabbinical theory, the T’nach[5] rests on the Pentateuch[6], the Pentateuch rests on the Decalogue and the Sh’ma is the summary of the Decalogue. All Scriptures were to be interpreted in conformity with the Pentateuch. A key figure in the development of the ‘Torah’ was Ezra.   Historically, he is the founder of Jewish legalism.

The historical succession is developed thus: “In the beginning, when the Torah was forgotten, Ezra went up from Babylon and founded it; again it was forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian went up and founded it; again it was forgotten and Rabbi Hija and his sons went up and founded it.”[7]

Ezra, the founder of Jewish legalism, started the school of Scribes called the Sopherim.  He had reasoned that the Babylonian captivity was a judgement of God, the cause of which was broken law.  Moses had warned:

“So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you.”[8]

Ezra reasoned, to avert a further judgement, Israel must obey the law of God. Therefore, Scribes were to examine and teach the Law of Moses to overcome the lack of knowledge.

However, to the foregoing, laudable aim they added the seed of something that was to undermine the written Hebrew Scriptures themselves, for to Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue, was ascribed the ancient saying, “Make a hedge for the Torah”.[9] There are 613 explicit laws in the five books of Moses.  These were to be examined and re-enforced. The purpose was to set the bar higher, to make the law stricter, thus preventing even breaking the Mosaic Law inadvertently.  It was second generation Sopherim who sought to fulfil that ambition.  The principle on which they worked was, a Sopher could disagree with a Sopher but not with the Torah.  When they reached a majority agreement then it became binding on all Jews.  They used ‘Pilpul’, that is, the logic of deriving another law from the original law.  For example, from, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”,[10] came the kosher food laws.   Therefore, an observant Jew should not eat meat and dairy products together so there could be no chance of having both the milk of the mother and the meat of the kid seething together in their stomach, thus breaking the Mosaic Law.

In about 30 BC a new school arose - the Tanaim (Repeaters).  They said there were too many holes in the fence around the Law. They worked on the principle that a Tana may disagree with a Tana but not with the Sopherim.  This meant that the work of the Sopherim could no longer be challenged, so it became as important as the Pentateuch. The work of the Tanaim was still proceeding at the time of the Messiah, which partially explains why the Sanhedrists questioned Him so closely on these matters.

Up to about AD220 the work of the Sopherim and the Tanaim, had been committed to memory and mostly passed on orally.  It had never been organised and recorded. But in the third century, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch gathered together the work of seven centuries of Jewish Rabbis and teachers and wrote it down - it is called the Mishnah (denoting both teaching and repetition). 

The Sopherim and Tanaim claimed great authority for their work.  They said, “a more strict rule applies to the teachings of scribes than to the teachings of Torah”.[11] 

[1] Abot 1.1 ff (Mishnah)
[2] j.Hag.i.8.76c
[3] The ten commandments
[4] Deut.6.4,5
[5] The T’nach (the Old Testament) contains, the Law; the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, and the Writings.  The Law is Genesis to Deuteronomy; the Former Prophets are Joshua to Second Kings but without Ruth; the Latter Prophets are Isaiah to Malachi, but without Lamentations and Daniel.  The Writings are the books that are left - Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles in that order.
[6] The five books of Moses
[7] b.Succ.27a
[8] Deut 4:23-27
[9] Abot 1.1.I.C(3) (Mishnah)
[10] Exod.23.19
[11] Sanhedrin 11.3 (Mishnah)

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Life of the Messiah

Investigating a Messianic Claim

The healing of the leper required the Sanhedrists to act. Investigating a Messianic claim involved three stages.

(i) The stage of observation. This first stage required a delegation from the Sanhedrin to visit and observe the ministry of the Messianic claimant, and then return to Jerusalem and report to the authorities. During this stage, the Sanhedrists were not allowed to cross-examine the claimant; only come to an opinion as to the significance of the Messianic movement.

(ii)   The stage of interrogation. If the movement was considered significant, the representatives of the Sanhedrin could question the claimant, check his beliefs, raise objections and receive answers to any concerns they had.

(iii) The stage of decision/declaration. At this stage the Sanhedrin were required to declare whether they upheld or dismissed the Messianic claims of the individual, and give reasons for their    decision.

The healing of the leper caused such interest that in addition to the delegation coming from Jerusalem for the stage of observation, “there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, which had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). These were in the house where He was - observing, taking note. 

A Sinner - Forgiven and Healed - Hallelujah!

Five friends, driven by need, came to this house, four of them carrying a fifth that lay on a pallet.  Trusting that the young Rabbi, who helped the disadvantaged, could help them, they tried to get   admittance to the house, but the crowd was too thick.  So climbing to the roof, they made a rough entrance and gently dropped their friend at the feet of the Messiah in silent appeal for His help. Jesus, aware of the delegation from the Sanhedrin and the procedure involved in the stage of observation, took the opportunity presented by the presence of the paralytic to demonstrate His Messianic credentials.

The condition of the paralytic was the result of personal sin, which brought into focus the rabbinical teaching, “the sick is not healed, till all his sins are forgiven him”.  Deut. 28 lists diseases of body and mind that could cling to those that obdurately refuse to honour the Law.  From these passages arose the practice of giving up such offenders to a ‘cherem’ or curse, that is, in Jewish teaching, giving them up to Satan. An offender who resisted correction and exhausted all remedy contained in the Law would become “a curse among his people”. The Messiah remarked on such a one, “… ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  (Luke 13:16) The paralytic brought to Jesus was one who had been an obdurate sinner whom Satan had bound!

So Jesus first says, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”  (Matt.9:2) Because it was the stage of observation, the delegation could not question the Messiah but they were making mental notes of objections that would later be raised, so it is   recorded, “And some of the scribes were sitting   there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  (Mark 2.6,7) Their theology, of course, was correct, and    confirmed by three of the greatest writers of the T’nach. Daniel said, “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness” (Dan.9:9). Moses quoted God’s self-revelation: The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”.(Exod.34:6,7) And David couples the  healing of the body with the forgiveness of sins: Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases”.(Ps.103:2,3) God had never delegated the authority to forgive sins to any other, a truth that was surely included in the statement, “my glory I will not give to another”.(Isa.42:8) Although the complaint of the scribes was unspoken, yet the Messiah knew and responded to it: “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, Your sins are forgiven you,  or to say, Arise and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins —then He said to the paralytic, Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house. And he (the paralytic) arose and departed to his house.”  (Matt.9:4-7) Therefore, this miracle was not only a sign of Messiahship but also implied deity. Of course, there was an immediate effect on the crowd, who marvelled and glorified God.  The Messiah had further supported His Messianic claim and sent the delegation back to Jerusalem to report a significant Messianic movement. It was enough to indicate that the movement deserved further investigation.  But the issue that would cause the most difficulty for the Jewish leaders was already visible at this early stage – Jesus’ claim to deity!  As to His work, He was offering Himself to the nation as the Messiah of God; but as to His person, they would have to appreciate that the Son of God was among them.