Friday, February 18, 2011

Jewish Implications for Discipleship, Part 5

Because of their revived and intense commitment to the Covenant and the Scriptures that embodied the Law, mainline Judaism from the time of the Maccabean Revolt through the following four centuries (roughly 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.) stood intentionally outside the Hellenistic world in its academic focus. By that conclusion, I do not mean that no written documents were produced or collected in libraries. Indeed, the Apocrypha (generally the collection of books that were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but were intentionally excluded from the Hebrew Scriptures around A.D. 90), the Pseudepigrapha (a large group of Jewish writings that were composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and often were falsely presented as the writings of great Old Testament characters), and even the Dead Sea Scrolls (the writings of the Essene community that were discovered at Qumran) indicate that the Hellenistic influence was broad and deep. Indeed, the period prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 likely represented a must more cosmopolitan Jewish society than the one that emerged after A.D. 70 and especially after the Council of Jamnia (Jabneh) in A.D. 90. The primary example of that is the demise of the Sadducees, who seem to have provided a vital alternative to Pharisaism prior to A.D. 70.

Mainline Judaism, however, with its rabbinic schools and intense focus on maintaining an orthodox Judaism, intentionally sought to remain outside that Hellenistic stream. That focus emerged with the Maccabees and it reached its zenith in the Mishnah. While the “academic” tradition was literary in its focus, the Mishnah was oral. Indeed, the word “Mishnah” comes from the Hebrew word, shanah, which means “repeat” and thus focuses on teaching by means of repetition. After A.D. 10, rabbis often are classified as Tannaim, literally “repeaters” of the oral law. Thus, the “Mishnah” is the collection of interpretations of the law that were transmitted orally from teachers to their disciples. The fact that these traditions were not finally compiled until the time of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (around A.D. 200) indicates the intentional separation of the written law (the Torah) from its oral interpretation and application embodied in the Mishnah. [One side note here: the Gospels recount the teachings of Jesus in much closer proximity to the original teachings (within 40-80 years after the fact) than does the Mishnah in quoting the earliest pre-Tannaitic rabbis (190-400 years).]

Scribes (in Hebrew soferim, which shares its derivation with our English word cipher) play a role in the New Testament and deserve attention here because they had a role that obviously was literary in its focus and might be considered an exception to the oral emphasis of the rabbinic tradition. Scribes generally were wise men of understanding whose primary focus was on gathering Israel’s sacred literature and interpreting it. They were copyists of the sacred texts, editors of the textual tradition, and guardians of the textual purity of the Scriptures. We might describe them as teachers or protectors of the Law in contrast to the rabbis, whose focus was on the detailed application of the Law to everyday life. The Scribes focused on expounding on the Law, while the rabbis focused on applying it to the daily experiences of life.

Let me close these reflections with a quotation from Herbert Danby’s introduction to The Mishnah: “’The Law’ (Torah), which it was the Mishnah’s purpose to cherish and develop, is a complex conception. It includes the Written Law, the laws explicitly recorded in the Five Books of Moses; it includes also ‘the traditions of the elders’ or the Oral Law, namely such beliefs and religious practices as piety and custom had in the course of centuries, consciously or unconsciously, grafted on to or developed out of the Written Law; and it includes yet a third, less tangible element, a spirit of development, whereby Written Law and Oral Law, in spite of seeming differences, are brought into unity and interpreted and reinterpreted to meet the needs of changed conditions.”

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