The Torah's Goalkeeper: The More Jewish Jesus

August 15, 2015

Let’s talk about one of the key concepts here at Interfaithfulness: The More Jewish Jesus.

The Torah's GoalWe will be talking about him in this way frequently, but today, I want to do so in interaction with one area of discussion found in the e-book, The Torah’s Goal?, produced by the people at the Israel College of the Bible based project, One for Israel. I call this series "The Torah's Goalkeeper," because I believe the Risen Messiah wants to keep people from scoring points against God's Torah. 

In considering the text Matthew 23:2-3, the authors say this: 

“Yeshua is speaking before the New Covenant is made . . . Neither do the apostles teach us to follow the rabbis.” (loc 798)

Let’s deal with what Yeshua said which they say was only provisional, and which they say expired after the inauguration of the New Covenant at the time of Yeshua’s resurrection. In looking at this passage I expect most of you will grasp why I believe in The More Jewish Jesus.

For economy’s sake we’ll talk about three concepts. This session we will talk about Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 23, which they erroneously limit to prior to the New Covenant’s inauguration. Then next time we will look at their comment that the apsotles did not teach us to follow the rabbis.

The first concept – The More Jewish Jesus upheld Jewish community structures. Here is what he said, in two different translations of Matthew 23:2-3:

 "The Torah-teachers and the P'rushim," he said, "sit in the seat of Moshe. 3 So whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But don't do what they do, because they talk but don't act!” (CJB)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. (ES V)

There is much to be said about this. For starters we could talk about what is meant by Moses’ seat. Nahum Rabinowitz suggests four possbilities that have been offered to explain what is meant by the Pharisees sitting on Moses’ seat:

  1. An actual piece of synagogue furniture
  2. A metaphor for having usurped the role of being the Law's interpreters
  3. A specially designed chair to hold the Torah when it not being read from in the synangogue
  4. The social position of the Pharisees as those with the authority to interpret the Law

Archaeologisits have found five stone seats facing the congregation where the teacher might teach from have been found in five different locales both in the Land and in the Diaspora. Likely there were many other such seats made of wood which have long since become dust, but these ancient relics remain as mute testimony to the reasonableness of this interpretation. The second option, even though figurative, coalesces with the first. Yes, there was an actual seat, "the Seat of Moses" in synagogues where authorized teachers sat to teach Torah, and one could speak of the Pharisees sitting in Moses' Seat as a metaphor for this role.

This idea has echoes that have remained to this day. In Muslim culture, imams sit on a chair near a pillar of the mosque to teach while their students sit on the floor. This is "the teaching chair."  The Universities of Europe picked up on this custom, so that from Medieval times to the present day, we speak of people holding "the Chair of Jewish Studies" or "The George Eldon Ladd Chair of New Testament Theology" etc.  Why do we refer to "chairs?"  Because of the association with this ancient Middle Eastern custom of teachers sitting in chairs associated with their authority to teach.

In the Roman Catholic world, when the Pope makes binding doctrinal pronouncements, he is said to be speaking "ex cathedra." The Catholic Encyclopedia to be found at the website fills us in: "Literally ‘from the chair’, a theological term which signifies authoritative teaching and is more particularly applied to the definitions given by the Roman pontiff. Originally the name of the seat occupied by a professor or a bishop, cathedra was used later on to denote the magisterium, or teaching authority. The phrase ex cathedra occurs in the writings of the medieval theologians, and more frequently in the discussions which arose after the Reformation in regard to the papal prerogatives."

All of these usages of the term refer to the authority to teach.

The third choice, that the chair was a place where the Torah itself was placed, has its proponents as chairs have been found with holes to hold the wooden rollers of the Torah. However, in the arhaeological examples used to support this theory, these holes are not evenly spaced  and the model is underrepresented in the archaeological data. In fact, it is first attested to in the 16th century, and for these reasons is of dubious value. Dr. Rabinowitz views the fourth position to be even less likely, that is, that “’the Seat of Moses’ is a metaphor used by Jesus to describe the Pharisees’ role within the synagogue. . . . ‘their social position as people who control accessibility. They are the ones who know and are able to tell others what Moses said.’” (Mark Powell, “Do and Keep What Moses Says [Matthew 23:2-7], JBL 114 [1995]. 

In his article on this subject, Rabinowitz says that this is implausible because it is “unlikely that Matthew’s messianic community would be completely dependent upon the Pharisees for their access to the Scriptures." After considering all the possible positions, Rabinowitz says, “We return to our earlier assertion that the Seat of Moses was a physical piece of synagogue furniture upon which authorized teachers of the Torah sat." And as we said earlier, the parallel and ancient custom found in the Muslim world and in the Roman Catholic world, as well as in university practice make this to be an entirely reasonable and credible likelihood.

The authors of TTG state that when in our text, Yeshua is telling his disciples, “The Pharisees and Scribes have custody of the Scriptures, so listen to them when they read the Scriptures to you because in these texts you will find Messianic prophecies.” I find this explanation absurd and unwarranted by the evidence of the text. In his his admonition to “do whatever they tell you to do” Yeshua is echoing the very text the rabbis used to justify their authority, Deut 17:8-11 where we read this:

If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again. (Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ESV).

Yeshua was certainly a great communicator. Are we to assume that it is accidental that he echoes the language of Deut 17:8-11 when he admonishes his disciples to do whatever the Scribes and Pharisees say to do? Are we to assume he was sloppy to be inferring that their authority was legitimate, although their example was not? The authors of TTG insist that “context is king.” I agree. In context, it is irrational to conclude that Yeshua is simply saying “listen to them when they read the Bible to you, otherwise ignore them.” Are we to agree with this interpretation? Is that what we are to imagine here? To do so ignores the intentional intertextuality of Yeshua’s admonition—that he was echoing Dt 17.

No, in this Matt 23 context, Yeshua validates Jewish communal structures (do what the Scribes and Pharisees they tell you to do). To assume otherwise because we find this upsetting is to hide our heads in a pile of theological sand.

This brings us to our second point: The More Jewish Jesus upholds Jewish values. We see this in the first part of Matthew 23:23 –

23 "Woe to you hypocritical Torah-teachers and P'rushim! You pay your tithes of mint, dill and cumin; but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah -- justice, mercy, trust. These are the things you should have attended to . . .” (Matthew 23:23, CJB).

That he accuses the Torah-teachers (Scribes) and P’rushim (Pharisees) of neglecting these weightier matters of the Torah—justice, mercy, and trust, means that they knew these things but neglected them. These values did not originate with Yeshua. For example, remember that famous passage in the Prophet Micah – “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does the LORD require of you but to seek justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8), in other words, justice, mercy and trust.  These were and remain Jewish values, and the More Jewish Jesus validates them.

We come then to our third concept: The More Jewish Jesus upholds Jewish customs, that is, oral traditions. Let’s look at Matthew 23:23 again, and add in the part we left out.

23 "Woe to you hypocritical Torah-teachers and P'rushim! You pay your tithes of mint, dill and cumin; but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah -- justice, mercy, trust. These are the things you should have attended to -- without neglecting the others!

What is it Yeshua is telling the Scribes and Pharisees to not neglect besides the weightier matters of the Law? The tithing of mint, and dill, and cumin. Minutiae. And more than that, minutiae that are not taught in the Bible. The tithing of mint, dill, and cumin was a rabbinic custom, Oral Law, and Yeshua said, “don’t neglect them. Just make sure you don’t major in the minors!”

Did Yeshua have criticisms to level at the Scribes and Pharisees? Many! In fact, these very criticisms may be found in Jewish sources of the time! But amidst his scathing criticism, it is most remarkable that he upholds Jewish community structures, Jewish values, and Jewish custom—man made traditions. He is saying, “Look: the Scribes and Pharisees have God given authority which you must respect, values which you should honor and customs you should follow, but they have also set you terrible examples which you must not follow and here are some of them.” He would not need to warn his disciples and the crowd against the Pharisaic excesses and errors if he was recommending severing contact. It was because he was ratifying this continued contact that he issued his warnings. Nothing else really makes sense.

A Long-Awaited Dessert

One more point by way of dessert. The good people behind TTG, told us, “Yeshua is speaking before the New Covenant is made,” so presumably we need to realize these were mere provisional measures. That’s a weak argument and I will show how weak it is next time when we look at how the Apostles, who learned form Yeshua for forty days after His resurrection, understood things. But before we get to that next time, here’s that dessert.

After he was resurrected, we read of Yeshua meeting some disciples on the Road to Emmaus. This is the day of His resurrection. We read how he walked with them, and at their urging came in to share a meal with them that evening. And here is what we read about that encounter:

As he was reclining with them at the table, he took the matzah, made the b'rakhah, broke it and handed it to them.” (Luke 24:30)

Here he is, after the resurrection, eating matzah because after all, it is still the Passover season. AND, not only that, but the resurrected Messiah does something rabbinic! He makes a b’rakhah! There is NOTHING in the Tanakh about making a b'rakhah before a meal, only after a meal. This is a rabbinic traditiion! Didn’t he get the memo that all of that rabbinic stuff went out as soon as the New Covenant was inaugurated? Here we are with the Messiah making a motzi!

I guess he didn't get the memo. Maybe we should just say, “Old habits die hard.” Actually, old habits came to life again, in the risen Messiah, the Son of David, still living like a Jew. The More Jewish Jesus.

One comment on “The Torah's Goalkeeper: The More Jewish Jesus”

  1. […] Rather than ably refuting the teaching of Matthew 23:2-3, 23 where Yeshua upholds Jewish community structures, Jewish values, and Jewish customs (traditions), they simply tell us to ignore that argument, saying, “It is not wise to build a comprehensive and wide-reaching theology over a single verse taken out of context. At this point Yeshua is speaking before the New Covenant is made.”  I refer you to my previous blog which explores the context of this passage, which is NOT a single verse taken out of context, but three verses in Matthew 23 considered within the context of their chapter and the wider context of the Bible, especially relating to Deuteronomy 17. Read here. […]

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