Book: Judaism— Revelation of Moses Or Religion of Men?

“You reject the commandments of God all too well, so that you may keep your own traditions.”

By Jesus' time, Pharisaism—what the apostle Paul once practiced and later called “the Jews' religion” (Gal. 1:13-14; KJV)—was poised to give birth to full-blown Judaism. All that was needed was one final catalyst, which, ironically, came in the form of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.

As touched on earlier, pinpointing exactly when Pharisaism “became Judaism” is largely a matter of opinion. Scholars unanimously agree, however, that the Pharisees made their greatest gains in influence only after the destruction of the Temple and the dismantling of the Sadducean priesthood. For example, quoting Jacob Neusner's Rabbinic Judaism (p. 31), Michael Hoffman writes that Judaism's “initial catalyst was neither the canonization of the Hebrew Bible nor [the Pharisees' studious] research of Scripture, but the demise of the Second Temple.....” (Judaism Discovered, p. 215). From that time, Judaism developed entirely from the teachings of the Pharisees. As Joachim Jeremias notes, “the Sadducean role ended with the fall of Jerusalem, and the [religious] tradition [subsequently] handed down to us and fixed by the written word [in the form of the Mishnah] from the second century, came exclusively from their enemies the Pharisees” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 243; emphasis added). Indeed, as quoted earlier from The Jewish Encyclopedia, “Pharisaism shaped the character of Judaism and the life and thought of the Jew for all the future” (“Pharisees”). In a similar vein, George Robinson writes, “The importance of the Pharisees cannot be overemphasized. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, it was only through the efforts of the rabbis, the heirs of the Pharisaic world-view, that Judaism [rather, Pharisaism, as Judaism had not yet fully coalesced] was able to survive at all” (Essential Judaism, p. 321).

In fact, it was precisely in the Jews' struggle to survive the events of 70 AD—and their subsequent defeat in 135 AD—that Judaism began to homogenize. Two developments were particularly important, both of which centered on education. First, the scribal role would give way to a new generation of highly organized teachers called rabbis (from a practical standpoint, scribe and rabbi are virtually synonymous). Derived from the Hebrew rab meaning great, rabbi means great one or master, but is typically used in the sense of teacher. While the term rabbi was widely used throughout New Testament times (John 1:38; etc.), Robinson notes that the “rabbinical role” took on greater significance after 70 AD—that it was, in some fundamental way, a new role (p. 359; footnote). Other scholars agree, writing that “the basic form of the rabbi developed in the [post-biblical] Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism's ..... oral laws” (

Like the scribes of old, rabbis spent years in rigorous training. This new “rabbinic era” would be characterized by a network of academies in which to study the Scriptures as well as the growing body of oral laws. This naturally led to the second key development of the period: Rabbinical leaders would eventually conclude that the Pharisaic oral traditions had become largely unmanageable and should be codified, thus leading to the completion of the Mishnah by the end of the second century—the point many scholars consider to be the true beginning of Judaism.

Post-Biblical Rabbinism

The rabbis from about 70 AD through the end of the second century understood that the Jews' survival depended not on war and physical struggle, but on a new approach—one in which their religion took center stage. Jews would no longer be concerned with the Temple or even national sovereignty; instead, the Jewish people would establish their identity through the study of the Scriptures and the growing Mishnah. As a religion, Judaism would transcend all boundaries, enabling it to be practiced wherever Jews lived. And most importantly, because Jews would be living in what Solomon Grayzel calls “a land of the spirit,” they would be virtually immune from Roman persecution (A History of the Jews, p. 192). From the rabbis' perspective, “knowledge was to give Judaism indestructible power” (p. 31).

Of this time, John Phillips writes, “As some of the more farsighted Jewish leaders saw it, the only hope for national survival lay in producing a counterculture, something distinctly Jewish, something that would match, rival and outlast the culture[s] of the various Gentile countries in which the dismembered parts of the Jewish nation now lay buried.... For the centuries ahead, perhaps indefinitely, the Jews would have to survive without a land, a capital, a national government, or an army.... They [would need to] be able to adapt and change and yet remain the same” (Exploring the World of the Jew, pp. 42-43; emphasis added). Learning from their experience in Babylon, the scribes had long ago begun to invent a form of religion that would enable Jews to cope with the loss of homeland and Temple. As Phillips adds, “The basic concepts [of a new Jewish religion] had already been hammered out [by the Pharisaic scribes, as found] in the [traditions of the] Midrash and the Mishnah.” The rabbis of the post-biblical period only needed to build on that religious system in order to make Judaism “the true home of every Jew no matter where he lived, what language he spoke, or what cultural forces pressed upon him.” In order for Judaism to succeed, its designers also knew that it had to be “capable of being reshaped and adapted” (p. 43; emphasis added). As we will see in the next chapter, adaptability is a key feature of the so-called oral law.

In his foreword to The Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi J. H. Hertz writes, “The delight of all those generations [following Ezra and Nehemiah] was in the Law of the Lord.... [Toward the end of the first century AD] academies arose for [the] systematic cultivation of this New Learning, as well as for the assiduous gathering of the oral traditions current from times immemorial concerning the proper observance of the commandments of the [written] Torah.” (p. 14). One of the foremost rabbis of the first century was Johanan ben Zakkai, who strategically secured Rome's permission to open a school in the coastal town of Jabneh (also known as Jamnia) following the destruction of Jerusalem. Of this center of Rabbinic Judaism, Hertz writes: “By his academy at Jabneh, [Zakkai] rescued [the Jews' religion] from the shipwreck of the Roman destruction that overwhelmed the Jewish nation in the year 70 AD. Jabneh became the rallying ground of Jewish learning and the center of Jewish spiritual life” (p. 15). In fact, while the synagogue was Judaism's link to the Common People, it was the rabbinical academies that gave Judaism its growth and prestige. Grayzel writes that the success of the Jabneh academy helped to “prove, more than any other single event in [Jewish] history, that Spirit is mightier than the Sword” (p. 195).

Under Zakkai and the new rabbinical leadership emanating from Jabneh, “knowledge was to identify a Jew. The [priestly] nobility of blood which had existed among the Jews before the destruction of the Jewish state was to be replaced by a spiritual nobility of the mind and spirit. This spiritual nobility, the most respected group among the Jews, especially in Palestine, came to be known as rabbis” (p. 197). (This illusion of “nobility of the mind and spirit” will be exposed for its massive hypocrisy in a later chapter.) According to Phillips, “Zakkai was convinced that the Jews needed the oral law for their survival. They needed the Mishnah as a source of national identity in the dark days ahead. Deprived of their Temple, the Mish-nah would be their Temple” (p. 61; emphasis added). After also succeeding in reestablishing the Sanhedrin in Jabneh (albeit powerless and unrecognized by Rome), Zakkai set out to orchestrate the progress of the rapidly de­veloping Mishnah. “Within ten years of the fall of Jerusalem, rabbinic law had established itself firmly at Jabneh” (p. 62; emphasis added).

Zakkai's work was continued by one of the most prominent rabbis of the period, Akiba ben Joseph. One of the key instigators of the Bar Kochba rebellion, Akiba was martyred in 132 AD and never saw the outcome of the failed revolt against Rome. Akiba is remembered most for his contributions to the development of the oral law. In fact, according to Hertz, Akiba was one of the “key architects” of the Mishnah. “Akiba was the author of a collection of traditional laws out of which the Mishnah actually grew.... His keen and penetrating intellect enabled him to find a biblical basis for every provision of the oral law” (p. 15; emphasis added).

Following the Jewish rebellion of 132-135 AD, the Jews' religion was again prohibited by Rome. Emperor Hadrian dismissed the Sanhedrin and closed the academies and synagogues; Sabbath observance and study of the Scriptures were forbidden on penalty of death; numerous rabbis were martyred. Decimating the population of Judea, a half million Jews died or were taken captive; thousands more fled to Babylon where there were still large Jewish communities. And no Jew was allowed to set foot in Jerusalem. However, according to Grayzel, “in time the Romans came to realize the uselessness of persecuting Judaism” (A History of the Jews, p. 185). By about 150 AD, Rome relaxed its prohibition against the Jews' religion. Rabbinical schools, synagogues and Jewish courts of law were soon reopened; a considerable number of Jews returned to Palestine—and, once again, the development of the Mishnah was top priority.

Judaism Finds Itself in the Mishnah

During the second century, the Mishnah continued to grow. With the passage of time, however, “the whole process of commentary and interpretation degenerated into foolish hair-splitting with each rabbi trying to outdo his fellows in wresting new absurdities from the Mishnah. Various schools of thought sprang up, each one claiming to have arrived at ultimate truth” (Phillips, Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 63). Enter Judah Hanasi, the great grandson of the illustrious Hillel. Grayzel writes that “few among the rabbis have left so deep an impression on Jewish life as Judah.... The Jews stood in great awe of him, and subsequent generations have spoken of him as 'Judah the Prince,' or 'Our Holy Teacher.'..... His prestige as well as his authority were enhanced when Rome recognized him as hereditary head of the Jewish people, with the title of Patriarch” (p. 206).

As president of the Sanhedrin, Hanasi was determined to put an end to the confusion surrounding the oral law and personally took the Mishnah in hand. After sorting through the mass of material, he deleted ideas he considered nonsense and rearranged the remainder by subject matter. Grayzel describes Hanasi's codification of the oral traditions: “Judah the Prince undertook this work because such a [written] code was necessary in order to avoid [additional] confusion. There had been many teachers, and each one of them had left his interpretation as to what the duties of a Jew were to be under any set of circumstances. Anyone wanting to know the law or tradition on some matter might have to decide among a large number of opinions.... The great learning of Judah and his position as Patriarch combined to make the code arranged by him the final authority on any subject” (p. 207). Phillips adds that once Hanasi had codified the oral traditions, he “arbitrarily . announced [that] the Mishnah [was] closed” (p. 64) With Ha-nasi's death, however, other prominent rabbis began adding back much of the content he had discarded—thus spoiling his hope of a closed Mishnah.

Additional reasons exist for the codification of the oral law into the Mishnah. Robinson notes that in the time dominated by Hanasi, “the sheer volume of oral rulings had become so unwieldy that the rabbis reluctantly assented to their recording” (Essential Judaism, p. 226). The rabbis' goal, adds Robinson, was to create “a written version of the [oral] law that would be impervious to the vagaries of oral transmission. [By then] the body of oral law had grown so great that no one could possibly recall all of it accu­rately. The [development] of the Mishnah eliminated that problem” (p. 323). Hertz likewise brings out the necessity of the rabbis moving on to a codified tradition: “The product of the feverish activity of the Pharisaic schools threatened to become too unwieldy to be retained by unassisted memory. For all [of] this teaching was oral, and was not [up to this point] to be written down” (p. 14).

As mentioned earlier, one of the goals of the rabbis was to create a religion which would transcend time, geography and culture. The codification of the oral law was a necessary component of this plan. The Jews' oral traditions had been accumulating for many generations; now they would take on a new role, that of uniting the scattered Jewish communities. Solo­mon Landman, for example, notes that it was precisely because of the desperate, scattered condition of the Jews that “scholars felt it necessary to take steps to preserve the Oral Law.” (Story Without End, p. 110). In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern writes that after two failed Jewish revolts, “the P'rushim [Pharisees] and their [rabbinical] successors were ..... free to develop further their own received tradition [oral law] and make it the center of gravity for Jewish life everywhere. Eventually [by about 200 AD], due to the dispersion of the Jewish people . these oral materials were collected and written down [as] the Mishnah” (p. 18; “Matt. 3:7”; emphasis added).

Robinson further explains the reasoning of the key architects of the Mishnah in the development of Judaism. “The writing of the Mishnah and of the Gemara [a portion of the Talmud, composed of commentary] were the rabbis' answer to the destruction of the Temple . [in which they would create] a Judaism based on guidelines and norms of behavior and practice that enabled the Jews to survive an even longer exile than the Babylonian one” (p. 311; emphasis added). He adds that after 70 AD “the rabbis would turn their attention to the codification of Jewish [oral] law, shifting the focus . from [the now defunct] Temple to the [oral] Torah, to creating a Judaism whose invisible walls could not be breached.... [As a] handbook of legal codes, [the Mishnah] presented Judaism as a faith and practice not bound by the fleeting passage of historical time” (pp. 323324; emphasis added). According to Phillips, the rabbis were “creating a cumbersome legal code that would effectively seal off Jews from all other peoples and that, by its uniform application, would bind the Diaspora together” (p. 60; emphasis added).

During Hanasi's time, the rabbis of Palestine largely controlled the development of the Mishnah, carefully guarding their “copyright.” After his death, however, several of his top colleagues moved to Parthia (where some two million Jews and other Israelites were residing) and opened academies of their own. As far as the development of Judaism was concerned, from that time “the center of interest . moved away from Palestine to Babylon” (p. 64). In time, however, the Babylonian Jews found the Palestinian Mishnah awkward. Despite Hanasi's formal closing of the Mishnah, much had been added to the text; moreover, as Phillips notes, “it was obvious [to the Babylonian rabbis] that changes would have to be made. A new exegeti-cal system was now developed [which became] known as Gemara (supplement)” (p. 64; see Appendix One). Thus, a new generation of rabbis arose (ironically known as “reasoners”) and attempted to clarify and amplify the Mishnah. But the resultant Gemara was only a muddled rehash of the Mishnah—in Aramaic instead of Hebrew. And most significantly, whereas the Mishnah was, at least in theory, based on the Scriptures, the Gemara was based on the Mishnah. The rabbis who developed the Mishnah ostensibly regarded the Scriptures as the text from which they drew their “inspired” commentaries; the “reasoners,” however, looked to the Mishnah as their “received text” and devised their new commentaries accordingly. What a convoluted scheme! It begs the question Jesus asked, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” (see Luke 6:39).

Thus, after many generations of gestation, the Jews' so-called oral law—originally conceived by the esteemed sopherim and brought to fruition by the rabbis—had found a home in Pharisaic Judaism. Hoffman writes, “During this period [of the rabbis] the laws, doctrines and traditions of the [scribal] Pharisees processed from oral to written form as the Mishnah . [and] became the first written record of the traditions of the Pharisees that formed the law of the newly institutionalized religion of rabbinic Judaism” (Judaism Discovered, p. 134; emphasis added). According to Hertz, what the rabbis had sought was “the full and inexhaustible revelation which God had made. The knowledge of the contents of that revelation, they held, was to be found in the first instance in the written text of the Pentateuch; but the [so-called “greater”] revelation, the [oral] Torah, was [to be found in] the meaning of that written text, [in] the Divine thought therein disclosed, as unfolded in ever greater richness of detail by successive generations of devoted [rabbis]” (Foreword to The Babylonian Talmud, p. 14).

But in the end, as Phillips notes, the Mishnah (and, subsequently, the Talmud) “had little to do with the [written] Torah. The rabbis, while professing great reverence for the Mosaic Law, had buried [the Scriptures] beneath their oral traditions” (Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 61). It was just as Jesus had said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrine the commandments [traditions] of men.' For leaving the commandment of God, you hold fast the tradition of men.... Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may observe your own tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).