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

When they knew God, they glorified Him not as God.... but became vain in their reasoning, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”

The “Jews' religion” of first-century Palestine was the byproduct of centuries of change and upheaval. From the Babylonian Exile to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah—and from the Maccabean wars to the iron grip of Roman occupation—cultural, political and religious forces collided to shape the convoluted religion which would ultimately become known as Judaism. Benchmarks in that long and complex process include the augmented role of scribes after the close of the “age of the prophets,” which led to the development of so-called oral traditions; the influence of Hellenism, which prompted the emergence of the Hasidim, progenitors of the sect of the Pharisees; the rise of rabbinical Judaism as a result of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD; and, finally, the writing of the Mishnah around 200 AD and the completion of the Talmud in 500 AD.

Yet, the term Judaism is often misapplied. It is typically assumed to be the “religion” of the Old Testament—or at least the “religion” of post-exilic Judea under Ezra and Nehemiah; the term is also frequently used to generalize the various religious movements of first century Palestine. But as has been premised, Judaism is in no way representative of the “religion” of Moses or the prophets. Neither is Judaism representative of the restorative period of Ezra and Nehemiah (though the stage was set at that time for the rise of the scribes to prominence)—nor is it a conglomerate of the various Jewish religions or creeds of Jesus' day. Rather, as will be demonstrated throughout this book, Judaism is a religious system which developed through the teachings of the Pharisees (with their scribal leaders) primarily in response to the Hellenization of Judea in the second and third centuries BC. (Even the term “Judeo-Christian” is quite misleading, as genuine Christianity is in no way congruent with Judaism; see Appendix Six.)

It is important to reiterate here that Judaism is Pharisaic in origin and reflects the specific ideology, doctrine and practice of that cult alone. The following quote from The Jewish Encyclopedia is telling: “[With] the destruction of the Temple [in 70 AD] the Sadducees disappeared altogether, leaving the regulation of all Jewish [religious] affairs in the hand of the Pharisees. Henceforth, Jewish [religious] life was regulated by the teachings of the Pharisees; the whole history of Judaism [developed] from the Pharisaic point of view, and a new aspect was given to the Sanhedrin of the past. A new chain of tradition supplanted the older, priestly tradition. Pharisaism shaped the character of Judaism and the life and thought ofthe Jew for all the future” (1905 edition, “Pharisees”; emphasis added).

When did Pharisaism become Judaism? Certainly, Pharisaism was alive and well by Jesus' time. However, the Pharisees obtained dominance only after the destruction of the Temple and the dismantling of the priesthood by the Romans. As will be brought out in a later chapter, 70 AD was a critical turning point in the development of Judaism, leading to the establishment of trained rabbis and academies at which to study the growing Mishnah—all of which gave significant impetus to the further development of the Pharisaic religion.

Thus, it seems that Judaism—as an organized and well-defined religious system—appeared as early as the latter part of the first century. Some scholars, however, contend that the Pharisees' religion could rightly be called Judaism only with the completion of the Mishnah. Michael Hoffman, for example, refers to the time frame (around 200 AD) in which “the corrupt and reprobate oral occult tradition of the [scribal and Pharisaic] elders was [finally] committed to writing and compiled as the Mishnah, comprising the first portion of the Talmud. At that juncture,” he says, “the religion of Judaism was born” (Judaism Discovered, p. 140; emphasis added).

To say the Jews' so-called oral law was pivotal to the development of Judaism is an understatement—for their oral tradition is the very heart and soul of the religion. In fact, while it took centuries for Judaism to firmly implant itself in Palestine, it all started with one, simple—yet incredibly Machiavellian—idea: a secondary oral law to “explain” the written Torah. Thus, as we examine the historical and religious development of Judaism, our focus must be to understand the origin and character of the one thing that stands between Moses and Judaism—the Jews' oral tradition.

The Babylonian Captivity

In the year 586 BC, Judah, the smaller of the two Hebrew kingdoms, came to its end. The prophet Jeremiah had repeatedly warned the Jews of the inevitability of captivity as punishment for their proclivity toward idolatry. Some 130 years earlier, the northern kingdom headed by the tribe of Ephraim had been defeated and taken into captivity by the Assyrians. They were never to return—scattered among nations, becoming the so-called “lost ten tribes” of Israel. In fact, Babylonians were brought in by the king of Assyria to occupy the land vacated by Israel (II Kings 17:6, 23-24). And now Judah—its nobles, its priests, the am ha-aretz, all but a remnant of the poorest—faced exile in Babylon.

As a matter of historical background, it is important to understand that the Jews of ancient Judea were comprised primarily of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and included the Levites (II Chron. 11:12-14). Yet they are collectively referred to throughout Scripture as the “Jews” (II Kings 18:26, 28; Ezra 4:12; Jer. 40:11-12; etc.). Thus, Jews represent but a small segment of the original 12 tribes of the nation of Israel. Tremendous confusion has resulted from the claim by Jews today that they are Israel. This claim is patently false; Jews still represent only a tiny fraction of what was once the biblical nation of Israel. Jesus, in fact, sent His Jewish disciples to preach the gospel to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). (For more on the identity of Jews, ancient and modern, see Appendix Three.)

It was during the exilic period that the first seeds of Judaism were sown. It is precisely for this reason that J. D. Douglas writes, “Judaism is the religion of the Jews, in contrast to that of the Old Testament.... Judaism should be regarded as beginning with the Babylonian exile” (New Bible Dictionary, “Judaism”; emphasis added). What Douglas means is that the Babylonian captivity provided fertile ground for the origin of new ideas that would, in time, prove foundational in the development of Judaism. Paul Johnson makes the interesting observation that the Exile's “creative force was overwhelming” (A History of the Jews, p. 83). George Robinson writes that the Exile “impelled the leaders of the Jewish people to reshape their religious practice” (Essential Judaism, p. 296). In other words, the Jews were compelled by their new circumstances to reinvent their religion.

According to John Phillips, without their Temple and an organized priesthood, the Jews in exile “began to experiment with Judaism itself” (Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 31.) Judaism, of course, did not yet exist; here, Phillips erroneously uses “Judaism” to refer to the “religion” of Moses and the prophets. He adds, “They substituted the synagogue for the Temple, prayers for the Levitical rituals [and] scribes for the priests.... The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar (586 BC) diluted the authority of the Aaronic priesthood to the point that a new elite class arose and [over time] took their place, the rabbis” (pp. 31, 58; emphasis added). Phillips' use of rabbi simply means teacher, referring to the scribes; the term rabbi was not generally used until much later. He continues: “During the captivity in Babylon, those new teachers assumed the custodianship of divine truth. In the process of time they evolved a [fundamental] principle: At Sinai, God had handed Moses two sets of laws: the written Law, inscribed on the tablets of stone, and the oral law, which, so they said, gave specific elaboration on the [written] Torah” (p. 58; emphasis added).

This all-important transition in the role of the scribes occurred slowly, imperceptibly—and certainly continued into the post-exilic period and the time of Maccabean rule. But Phillips' point is that even in Babylon the scribes were already beginning to expand their role, positioning themselves as authorities on the Scriptures. And while the idea of an adjunct oral law did not actually originate in Babylon, it did ultimately arise as a direct result of the scribes' new role as “custodians of the truth.” Referring to those who worked alongside the prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) during exile, Solomon Grayzel likewise writes that “another type of leader arose during this period—the scribe. The scribe was a man whose chief interest lay in the preservation of the old [sacred] literature of the Hebrews. He collected the writings . [and] made them available for the Babylonian exiles to read” (A History of the Jews, p. 18; emphasis added).

On this point it is prudent to repeat a statement by Johnson, quoted earlier. In exile, he writes, the Jews “turned to their writings—their laws, and the records of their past. From this time we hear more of the scribes. Hitherto, they had simply been secretaries, like Baruch, writing down the words of the great. Now they became an important caste, setting down in writing [in rough, preliminary form] oral traditions [in addition to] copying precious scrolls brought from the ruined Temple.” (p. 82; emphasis added).

Early scribes served kings as secretaries, such as Shaphan under Josiah (II Kings 22:3); other scribes took dictation, such as Baruch, who recorded what Jeremiah spoke (Jer. 36:32). They appear to be educated—able to read and write well. With their Levitical heritage and close association with both the priesthood and the prophets, the scribes from the exilic period began moving beyond their ancient position, gradually taking on a scholarly role—studying and, ultimately, teaching the Scriptures.

Prominent modern-day rabbis agree that Judaism traces its roots to the exilic period. In the 1934 Soncino edition of The Babylonian Talmud, the renown Rabbi J. H. Hertz writes in the foreword: “The beginnings of Talmu-dic literature date back to the time of the Babylonian Exile . [which was] a momentous period in the history of [the Jews]. During that exile, Israel [actually, Judah] found itself. [The Jews] not only rediscovered the [written] Torah and made it the rule of life, but under its influence new religious institutions, such as the synagogue, i.e., congregational worship without a priest or ritual, came into existence.”(p. 13; emphasis added).

Hertz's comment that the Jews' “rediscovered the Torah” suggests a “religious revival” of sorts. But now the synagogue (out of necessity) had become the center of worship; the scribes were fast becoming the premier teachers of the Law; and, most significant of all, the Word of God for the first time began to be explored and interpreted by non-priestly Levitical scribes—contrary to the explicit instructions of the Scriptures. Again, the prophet Malachi is unmistakable when he says that “the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and the people should seek the Law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).

Despite the Jews' good intentions, the Babylonian Exile spawned an era of religious experimentation and free thinking. No wonder Hertz adds that even as early as the period of the Exile, Babylon was an “autonomous Jewish center” in the development of Judaism (p. 21). Ultimately, as we see following the restoration period under Ezra and Nehemiah, it was only a matter of time before the scribes—the grassroots leaders of Jewish religious revival—established their preeminence and began to imagine a so-called “oral Torah.”

The Reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah

The Babylonian Empire passed into history in 539 BC, and the Medo-Persian Empire took its place. Cyrus the Persian had new ideas about how to govern the vast empire he had won from Babylon. Instead of forcing his subjects to become a cultural homogeny, he allowed each vassal state to retain a significant measure of independence. This meant the Jews would be afforded an opportunity to return to Palestine and restore their land and rebuild their Temple. Indeed, the Jews' exile in Babylon ended after 70 years, just as Jeremiah had foretold.

It must be realized, however, that the majority of Jews did not return to Palestine. Robinson writes that roughly 50,000 Jews—about ten percent of those exiled—returned to the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel (Essential Judaism, p. 296). Most remained in the Mesopotamian area, and under the benevolent rule of Cyrus became land owners, built homes, schools and synagogues, started businesses—with many becoming wealthy and influential. Even with later migrations back to Judea, the overwhelming majority of Jews remained in the area. In fact, as late as the first century AD there were more Jews still in Babylon than in Palestine. This is why Peter—the apostle to the “circumcision” (Gal. 2:7)— spent considerable time in Babylon, preaching to the Jews of the Diaspora.

Under Joshua and Zerubbabel the Temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 515 BC. Fifty-eight years later, in 457 BC, Ezra the scribe led a second group of Jews to Judea. In addition to being a scribe skilled in the Law of God (Ezra 7:6), Ezra was a priest of the Aaronic line (verses 11-12, 21). The historian Josephus writes that Ezra was the “principal priest” of the Jews in Babylon (Antiquities of the Jews, XI, 5,1). Ezra had diligently “prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach [God's] statutes and ordinances” to the Jews (Ezra 7:10). Twelve years later, Nehemiah, an official of the Persian government, relocated to Palestine to assist Ezra.

Both Ezra and Nehemiah were on a mission—to restore the right worship of God and rebuild Jerusalem (its walls in particular). Ernest Martin writes that Ezra and Nehemiah—with the help of Malachi, the last of the prophets before John the Baptist—were “largely successful in bringing the people an awareness of God's true religion” (“Between The Testaments,” from Tomorrow's World, Sept. 1971, p. 20). Once the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt, attention was given to instructing the Jews in the ways of God. Ezra and Nehemiah instituted the practice of reading the Scriptures aloud to the people, interpreting the difficult passages. We read in Nehemiah that Ezra, assisted by certain Levites, “caused the people to understand the Law” as they “read distinctly from the Book of the Law” and “expounded the meaning” (Neh. 8:7-8). This passage suggests that non-priestly Levitical scribes were used—perhaps following a precedent set during exile—to expound the Scriptures to the people. Grayzel writes that “the scribes, Ezra's pupils and colleagues, undertook to spread the knowledge of the [written] Torah and of the prophetic literature” (A History of the Jews, p. 31; emphasis added). No doubt many of these scribes were, like Ezra, also priests. Apparently, however, Levitical scribes who were not of the Aaronic line had begun to be used to teach the Scriptures—a trend that would ultimately challenge the authority of the priesthood.

One of the difficulties of this time was that the average Jew could no longer speak Hebrew (the language of the Scriptures). Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the language of culture and commerce. Of this, Charles Pfeiffer writes, “During the Exile there arose a change in the linguistic habits of the Jews. Aramaic, the language of diplomacy in the Persian Empire, became the vernacular of the Jews—both those who returned to Palestine and those who remained in the eastern provinces of the empire. Jews who spoke only Aramaic would not be able to understand the Hebrew Scriptures without an interpreter. The custom arose of reading the Hebrew bible in the synagogue service, after which an explanation would be given in the vernacular Aramaic” (Old Testament History, p. 494). This of course made the Common People highly dependent on the scholarly scribes for interpretation. Hinting at the significance of the situation, Pfeiffer adds: “This oral explanation in time became a discourse, interpreting and applying the biblical message. Generations later these explanations, or 'targums,' were themselves written down.”(p. 494; emphasis added). Similar explanations and interpretations would eventually form the earliest midrashim—scribal commentaries on the Scriptures (midrash means to comment or expound; see Appendix One.) And remember, the scribes were not only experts on the Mosaic Law, they were skilled at preserving the spoken word in writing.

A pivotal accomplishment under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah was the formation of the Great Assembly (or Great Synagogue), a 120-member body of priests organized to guide the Jews in religious matters. As a religious “supreme court,” the Great Assembly was, according to Martin, “the center of authority in regard to education . and teaching the people the Law of Moses” (Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?, p. 22). Martin brings out that the Assembly was—at least from the beginning—composed of only priests, with the High Priest as its head. However, the priests utilized “regular Levites . [who] did much of the actual teaching.... In effect, the Levites represented the professional class among the people” (p. 32; emphasis added). This “professional class” was made up of none other than scholarly scribes who, perhaps unintentionally, were already beginning to assume the coveted role of teachers of the Scriptures.

In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern writes that in post-exilic Judah “the earliest students, developers and upholders of the [written] Torah seem to have been of the hereditary priestly caste—Ezra himself was both a cohen [priest] and a sofer [scribe]. But later, as the cohanim were drawn back into caring for the sacrificial system as it developed during the Second Temple period, a lay movement which supported the [written] Torah and favored its adaptation to the needs of the people arose and began to challenge the authority of the cohanim” (p. 18; “Matt. 3:7”; emphasis added). This “lay movement”—Martin's “professional class” of Levitical scribes—would team up generations later with the Pharisees in the development of Judaism.

For now, the scribes were content to work under the leadership of the priests of the Great Assembly in expounding the Scriptures in a mostly straightforward fashion. However, once Ezra and Nehemiah passed from the scene, the scribes' push for preeminence would accelerate.

Rise of the Sopherim

The passing of Ezra and Nehemiah brought an end to what might be considered an “era of discipline”—a period marked by the circumspect use of the Scriptures. Moreover, with the passing of the prophet Malachi, the “age of the prophets” also ended. As we will see, a subsequent change in the leadership of the Jews would occur—subtly, imperceptibly.

Of this time, Grayzel writes that it was “as though a curtain fell upon Judea and hid from sight all that went on within the tiny land. In fact, during the century between 450 and 350 BC [or, most likely, about 430 to 330 BC], the entire ancient East seems to have fallen asleep” (p. 33). It was a century of relative peace and quiet, but one of gradual change. During this entire period the Jews were allowed complete freedom by the Persians to practice their own customs, traditions and religion as they saw fit. Grayzel adds that while records from that time are few, “important changes were taking place which make that century one of the most fruitful in Jewish history. These changes were practically all intellectual and religious, therefore slow, outwardly invisible and undramatic” (p. 33; emphasis added). And most importantly, key changes were taking place in the Great Assembly— both in its composition and in its thinking.

As brought out earlier, the Great Assembly was originally composed of only priests (or priestly scribes). Over time, however, this would change. The hereditary, Aaronic requirement for membership in the Great Assembly gradually became unimportant; rather, what became important was the level of scholarly knowledge possessed by the scribe. Knowledge, as we will see, equaled power and prestige.

Because of the growing emphasis on the role of scribes—as opposed to the role of the priesthood—the Great Assembly was typically referred to as the Sopherim (the plural of sopher, sometimes sofer), though the term is also used collectively of scribes in general. Originally, the sopher or scribe was much like a secretary—he recorded information, kept the royal archives and made copies of books. Sopher, in ancient Hebrew, meant to count or to relate a thing. Under Ezra, the sopherim were responsible for copying the scrolls of the Scriptures; as a safeguard against corruption, they counted every letter of each line. This counting is no doubt how the term sopher came to refer to the scribes. In a broader sense, however, scribes were looked upon with a certain awe. They were educated and could read and write; they were considered an elite group occupied with books and the interpretation of books. Ultimately, scribe became synonymous with wise one (see I Chron. 27:32).

According to Phillips, after the passing of Ezra and Nehemiah “a new breed of interpreters, the sopherim, or scribes, emerged and took over the interpretation of Scripture” (Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 34; emphasis added). Joachim Jeremias refers to the same period: “Together with the old ruling class composed of the hereditary nobility of priests . there grew up in the last centuries BC a new upper class, that of the scribes” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 233; emphasis added). Over time, the Great Assembly moved from simply interpreting Scripture to creating laws and ordinances of their own. Robinson writes that during this time the Great Assembly “offered oral rulings on the [written] Torah and its precepts” (Essential Judaism, p. 312). These “oral rulings” were the beginnings of what would become the oral law. Notice what Hertz writes in his foreword to The Babylonian Talmud: “At the reestablishment of the Jewish Commonwealth, Ezra the sofer, or scribe . formally proclaimed the [written] Torah the civil and religious law of the new commonwealth.... His successors, called after him soferim (scribes), otherwise known as the 'Men of the Great Assembly,' continued his work. [Over time] their teachings and ordinances received the sanction of popular practice, and came to be looked upon as halachah, literally 'the trodden path,' the clear religious guidance to the Israelite [Jew] in the way he should go” (p. 14).

Phillips continues, adding that the scribes' “commentaries gradually assumed semi-inspired status and eventually [over a period of several decades] practically replaced the Word of God altogether. Those [very early] commentaries [however] were the first tender shoots of the Midrash [oral expositions on the Scriptures]. In time, that exegetical growth flourished into the vast, tangled jungle of the Talmud.”(p. 34; emphasis added). Phillips concludes that it was “in the Midrash”—those early oral commentaries on the written Torah—”that the seeds of the Talmud were sown” (p. 58).

Grayzel informs us that scribal “writers and teachers molded the destiny of the Jews.... The entire transformation in the life of the Jews from this time on [the period following Ezra and Nehemiah] was the result of teaching and interpretation. The scribes encouraged knowledge . they created literature; they formulated laws. They derived from the sacred books those ideas which were to guide their own people and, in time, inspire others” (p. 37; emphasis added). He adds that “whereas in the days of [Ezra and] Nehemiah the influence of the scribes was slight, a century later their ideas had become tremendously influential.... [Their] discussions [concerning Scripture] became embodied in traditional interpretations of the Bible which, under the name of [the] Oral Law, guided the Jews of later ages” (p. 38; emphasis added). In reality, the scribes' traditional interpretations, commentaries and discussions on the Scriptures became the very foundation of the “oral law.”

According to the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, the sopherim were to perform the following functions: make copies of the Scriptures; prevent the corruption of Scripture (through their systematic counting of letters); read and interpret the Law to the people; set up schools for the study of the Scriptures; and, establish “prohibitory laws” to protect the written Torah from being violated (vol. 9, p. 466). What were these “prohibitory laws”? Simon the Just—a noted head of the Great Assembly near the close of this period, just before Greek culture was introduced to Judea—is thus quoted in the above volume: “Our fathers have taught us three things: to be cautious in judging, to train many scholars and to set a fence about the Law” (p. 468; emphasis added). Solomon Landman concurs, writing that “the makers of the Oral Law felt it their duty to build a ' fence around the [written] Torah,' to make rules that would keep the religion pure and the people holy ....” (Story Without End, p. 74; emphasis added).

Undoubtedly, this so-called “prohibitory fence” about the Torah—as well-meaning as it may have been—was central to the development of the oral law. The scribes' “teachings and ordinances,” “oral rulings,” “prohibitory laws” (“fences”), and midrashim all point to one thing—their newfound role as guardians of Scripture and expositors of religious tradition. Over time the scribes would become a distinct class of educated “doctors of the law”—covering not only the Scriptures, but the entire field of Jewish civil and religious law. The seeds of the Talmud had been sown: What began innocently enough as various interpretations, comments and rulings would eventually take on an esoteric nature, evolving into a complex legal code that would in time eclipse even the Scriptures.

Esoteric Knowledge as Power

The reverence given the sopherim was extraordinary. By the time of the beginning of Hellenistic influence—about a century after Ezra and Nehemiah—not only were the scribes virtually on an equal footing with the priesthood, they were deemed worthy of honor typically shown only to the prophets. Grayzel writes: “As in government the high priest replaced the king, so in religious life the scribes took the place of the prophets. More prophets were not needed because the Jews now had books in which were written down the ideas of the great prophets of the past.... The scribes, who were the teachers, read these books before an assembled multitude and interpreted what Moses and his successors demanded of the Jewish people” (A History of the Jews, p. 36; emphasis added).

Without question, the key to the scribes' esteemed position was their knowledge—esoteric knowledge to be exact. Such knowledge was regarded as more important than even the hereditary (Aaronic) standard followed by the priesthood. Jeremias discusses this at length: “When we look for the origin of these scribes, a varied picture emerges,” he begins. “Among the scribes of Jerusalem . we find men who were not of pure Israelite descent” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 233). In fact, it seems that various scribes “had pagan blood in their veins.” And while such scribes “played a prominent role, it was not as a result of their origin [lineage]”—as many were of an “obscure birth” (p. 235).

Rather, according to Jeremias, “it was knowledge alone which gave their power to the scribes. Anyone [of any lineage] who wished to join the company of scribes by ordination had [only] to pursue a regular course of study for several years” (p. 235; emphasis added). Typically, at the age of 40 the trainee became a “member with full rights, an ordained scholar.... [And] only ordained teachers transmitted and created the traditions derived from the [written] Torah which . were regarded as equal to and indeed above the Torah” (p. 236; emphasis added).

The growing influence and power of the scribes was apparent in everyday Jewish life. “When a community was faced with a choice between a layman and a scribe for . the office of elder to a community, or ruler of the synagogue, or of judge, [the people] invariably preferred the scribe. This means that a large number of important posts hitherto held by priests and laymen of high rank had, [by] the first century AD, passed entirely, or predominantly, into the hands of the scribes.” Again, knowledge was the key. “The deciding factor was not that the scribes were the guardians of tradition in the domain of religious legislation, and because of this could occupy key positions in society, but rather the fact, far too little recognized, that they were the guardians of secret knowledge, of an esoteric tradition” (Jeremias, p. 237; emphasis added).

Jeremias notes that the scribes' mysterious knowledge “had as its object . the deepest secrets of the divine being” and was thus not to “be divulged to unauthorized people.” Indeed, “the whole of the oral tradition, particularly the halakah [religious ordinances], was an esoteric doctrine to the extent that, although taught in places of instruction and in synagogues, it could not be propagated by the written word since it was the secret of God.” (pp. 237, 241). Similarly, Robinson brings out that the sopherim declined to put the oral traditions into writing because they knew such laws would compete with the Scriptures (which they did anyway). They also saw the oral law as “subject to future change, a malleable thing.” Moreover, “to write it down would be to freeze it, to institutionalize it” (Essential Judaism, p. 313). Undoubtedly, the scribes also realized that to put such knowledge into writing and make it widely available would deprive it of its esoteric nature and subsequently dilute their authority and prestige. They, above all, understood that it was secret knowledge which gave them power.

Jeremias continues: “It is only when we have realized the esoteric character of the teachings of the scribes . concerning the whole of the oral tradition, even with respect to the text of the Old Testament, that we shall be able to understand the social position of the scribes. From a social point of view they were, as possessors of divine esoteric knowledge, the immediate heirs and successors of the prophets” (p. 241; emphasis added). By way of support, Jeremias quotes the Palestinian Talmud: “ 'The prophet and the scribe, to whom shall we liken them? To two messengers of one and the same king.'..... (j. Ber. i.7, 3b.56)” (p. 242). According to Jeremias, the context in which this Talmudic quote appears attempts to position the authority of the scribe above that of the prophet (p. 242, footnote 27).

In describing the lofty role of the scribes, Jeremias adds, “It may be that a [particular] scribe is of very doubtful origin, even of non-Israelite [origin], but that [fact] does not affect his prestige in the slightest.... Like the prophets, the scribes are servants of God along with the clergy [priests]; like the prophets, they gather round themselves pupils to whom they pass on their doctrine; like the prophets, they are authorized in their office, not by proving their [hereditary] origin like the priests were, but solely by their knowledge of the divine will which they announce by their teaching, their judgments and their preaching” (p. 242; emphasis added).

What scholars generally refer to as the “age of the prophets” passed with Malachi. Apparently, God would simply leave the Jews to their own devices until the introduction of the New Covenant by John the Baptist, the next prophet in line. Meanwhile, as Jeremias notes, “the scribes were venerated, like the prophets of old, with unbounded respect and reverential awe, as bearers and teachers of sacred esoteric knowledge; their words had sovereign authority” (p. 243; emphasis added). As we will see, it was the scribes' knowledge and scholarly authority that captured the imagination of the Hasidim—those pious, “People of the Land” who courageously fought against the corrupting influence of Hellenism. Ultimately, the Hasidim would become the Pharisees—led, empowered and motivated by the venerated scribes with their mystical knowledge.