Yeshua and the Apostasy in Second Temple Era Judaism
James Scott Trimm
As I have shown elsewhere, the Original followers of Yeshua (the sect of the Nazarenes) were an unlikely union of School of Hillel Pharisees and Essenes.
Sons of Light
Like the Essenes, Yeshua and his original followers, believed that Judaism had fallen into apostasy (this did not mean it should be scrapped in favor of creating a new, non Jewish religion). For this reason the Essenes called themselves “Sons of Light” and non-Essenes “Sons of Darkness”. And for this same reason, Yeshua and his original followers also called themselves “Sons of Light” (Lk. 16:8; Jn. 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1Thes. 5:5).
Likewise the Essenes called the Pharisees “brood of vipers”
When Yochanan called the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to be immersed by him “generation of vipers” (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7) he was simply employing common Essene terminology for the Pharisees (whom the Essenes called “Wall Builders”). The Damascus Document states of the “Wall Builders”:
Also they have corrupted their Holy Spirit, and with blasphemous language they have reviled the statutes of Elohim’s covenant, saying, “They are not well-founded.” They continually speak abhorrent things against them. “All of them are kindlers and lighters of brands” (Isa. 50:11); “the webs of a spider are their webs and the eggs of a viper are their eggs” (Isa. 59:5) Whoever touches them shall not be clean.
(Dam. Doc. 5, 13-14)
…about whom Elohim said: “Their wine is the venom of vipers, and the cruel poison of asps” (Deut. 32:33)
(Dam. Doc. 8, 9-10)
Later Yeshua also invoked this same language in reference to certain Pharisees (Matthew 12:34; 23:33).
And just as the Essenes called the Pharisees “white-washers” (Damascus Document 8, 12) similarly Yeshua called certain Pharisees “whited sephulchers” (Matt. 23:27) and Paul called Ananias (a Sadducee) a “whited wall” (Acts 23:3).
The Three Traps of Belial
The Essenes taught that Israel had fallen into apostasy, and specifically what they called the “Three Traps of Belial”, as we read in the Damascus Document:
But in the present age Belial is unrestrained in Israel, just as God said by Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, saying, “Fear and pit and snare are upon you, dweller in the land” (Is. 27:17). The true meaning of this verse concerns the three traps of Belial about which Levi son of Jacob said that Belial would catch Israel in, so he directed them towards three kinds of righteousness. The first is fornication; the second is wealth; the third is defiling the sanctuary. Whoever escapes from one is caught in the next; and whoever escapes from that is caught in the other.
(Damascus Document 4, 13-19)
The problem is that, while the Essenes recognized that there had been an apostasy, they their attempt at restoration was just as errant in many ways, as it resulted in the Under the Law teaching, that elevated the importance of Sabbath observance above human health and life, and the Works of the Law teaching, that taught that salvation could be earned thru keeping certain purity regulations.
Isaiah 29 and the Apostasy
Yeshua quotes Isaiah 29:13 in a debate he had with a certain group of Pharisees in Matthew 15. Many who attack Jewish tradition and the Oral Law cite Yeshua’s words in Matthew 15:1-9 (and paralleled in Mark 7:1-13) concerning the “traditions of men.” These commentators argue that the “traditions of men” which Yeshua speaks of in this passage are either the traditions of the Talmud, Oral Law, or Jewish traditions in general.
But lets examine these verses to see if they can accurately be applied to the Jewish traditions of the Talmud.
1 Then came near to Him scribes and P’rushim from Yerushalayim, saying,
2 Why do your talmidim transgress the decrees of the elders? For they clean not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But He answered them and said: And why do you transgress the commandments of Elohim–by means of your decrees?
4 Is it not written in your Torah from the mouth of Elohim, Honor your father and your mother?(Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16) And moreover written, And he that curses his father and his mother will surely die? (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9)
5 But you say, Whoever says to father and mother, It is all an offering–[KORBAN] whatever of mine might profit you,
6 And he honors not his father and his mother. Thus have you made void the commandments of Elohim, on account of your judgments.
7 You hypocrites! Yesha’yahu did well indeed to prophesy concerning you, saying,
8 This people honors Me with their mouth and with their lips, but have removed their heart far from Me.
9 And their fear of Me, is a commandment learned of men.(Isa. 29:13)
(Matt. 15:1-9 HRV)
Now there are some important things we can immediately clean from these verses:
1. Yeshua is addressing a specific group of Pharisees whom he has encountered here, and not Phariseeism in general.
2. Yeshua is not criticizing “tradition” in general, but only “traditions of men” and specifically only “traditions of men” which conflict with the written Torah.
Now Yeshua gives us a very specific example of one of these “traditions of men,” a tradition that says that a man who makes a vow that his father or mother might not benefit from anything of his, even though this dishonors their mother or father.
Now interestingly exactly this question is dealt with in one of the many debates recorded in the Talmud. We read in the Mishna Nedarim 9:1:
R. Elieazar says: they open a vow for a man by reference to the honor of his father or mother. and the sages prohibit.
said R. Tzadok: before they open a vow for him by reference to his father or mother let them open his vow by reference to the honor of HaMakom.
If so there will be no vow.
But the sages concede to R. Elieazar, that in a matter that is between him and his mother or father they loose his vow by reference to his father or mother.”
Here the exact same question is here debated. (It is interesting to note that both Matthew 15 and the Talmud (m.Nedarim 9:1 and b.Nedarim 64a-64b) debate this same issue, but it is only the Talmud which gets criticized.)
The question is which commandment is weightier: the commandment to keep all of your vows (Num. 30:3(2)) or the commandment to honor your mother and father (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). What happens when there is a conflict between these two commandments and one must break one to keep the other?
Now for a complete understanding of this section of Talmud (m.Nedarim 9:1 and the Gemara at b.Nedarim 64a-64b) see my video “Talmud For Beginners Lesson One”.
It is sufficient here to show that the sages of the Talmud agreed that the type of vow that Yeshua discusses (one which involves “a matter that is between him and his mother or father”) is loosed (and therefore should not be kept) if it dishonors ones mother on one’s father.
So Yeshua and the Talmud agree with each other against the “traditions of men”. For anyone to try to identify the “traditions of men” of Matthew 15 (and Mark 7) with the traditions of the Talmud, the Oral Law, or Jewish tradition in general, is either dishonest or very shoddy scholarship.
Yeshua’s point here is that a tradition that conflicts with the written Torah should not be kept, a point with which any Orthodox Rabbi would agree.
The “Traditions of Men” spoken of in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7) are not the Oral Law, the Talmud or Jewish traditions in general. In this case the Sages of the Talmud stand with Yeshua in opposing “Traditions of Men” that conflict with the written Torah, even in the specific example Yeshua gives in these verses.
14 Therefore behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder. And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the prudence of their prudent men shall be hid.
(Isaiah 29:14 HRV)
The Talmud relates an understanding of this verse taught by Rab (Abba Arikha (175–247 CE)) who taught:
…for Rab said: The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, because it is said, Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful: (Dt. 28:59) now, I do not know what this wonder is, but when it is said, Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder [and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish],(Is. 29:14) it follows that this wonder refers to Torah.
Rab taught that this portion of Isaiah speaks of an apostasy from the Torah. The Talmud goes on to comment upon Rab’s teaching:
Our Rabbis taught: When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yabneh, they said, The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And it is said, And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. (Amos 8:11f) ‘The word of the Lord’ means halachah,’ ‘the word of the Lord’ means ‘The End’; ‘the word of the Lord’ means prophecy. And what does ‘they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord’ mean? Said they, A woman is destined to take a loaf of terumah and go about in the synagogues and academies to know whether it is unclean or clean, and none will know whether it is clean or unclean. But that is explicitly stated, All food which may be eaten […shall be unclean]? (Lev. 11:34) Rather to know whether it is a first degree or a second degree [of uncleanness], and none will know. But that too is a Mishnah. For we learnt: If a [dead] creeping thing is found in an oven, the bread within it is a second, because the oven is a first? — They will be in doubt over what R. Adda b. Ahabah asked Raba: Let us regard this oven as though it were filled with uncleanness, and let the bread be a first? He replied, We do not say. Let us regard this oven as though it were filled with uncleanness. For it was taught: You might think that all utensils become unclean in the air space of an earthen vessel: therefore it is stated, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean… all food therein which may be eaten: food and liquids become unclean in the air space of an earthen vessel. It was taught. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Heaven forfend that the Torah be forgotten in Israel, for it is said, for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed. Then how do I interpret, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any place.
So the Rabbis understood the apostasy of Isaiah 29 to be that mentioned in Amos 8:11-12 which reads:
11 Behold, the days come, says the Adonai YHWH, that I will send a famine in the land: not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of YHWH.
12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east: they shall run to and fro to seek the word of YHWH, and shall not find it.
(Amos 8:11-12 HRV)
And the Rabbis understood this not to refer to the written Torah but to the halachah derived from the written Torah. And this is exactly the way Yeshua understood Isaiah 29:13-14 as well!
The Talmud goes on to present a related teaching from Rabbi Jose ben Elisha:
It was taught. R. Jose b. Elisha said: If you see a generation overwhelmed by many troubles, go forth and examine the judges of Israel, for all retribution that comes to the world comes only on account of the Judges of Israel, as it is said, Hear this, I pray you ye heads of the house of Jacob, and rulers of the house of Israel, that abhor judgment, and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money; yet will they lean upon the Lord, etc. (Mic. 3:9-11) They are wicked, but they place their confidence in Him Who decreed, and the world came into existence. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring three punishments upon them answering to the three sins which they cultivate, as it is said, Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest. (Mic. 3:12) And the Holy One, blessed be He, will not cause His Divine presence to rest upon Israel until the wicked judges and officers cease out of Israel, for it is said, And I will turn my hand upon thee, and thoroughly purge away thy dross, and will take away all thy tin. And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning, etc. (Is. 1:25f)
So Rabbi Jose sees this apostasy of Isaiah 29:13-14 likewise as manifesting itself through apostate judges (members of the Sanhedrin) who give apostate rulings (and therefore apostate halacha).
There is much more written in this portion of Talmud on this subject which is worthy of study, but the key point I want to make here is that the sages of the Talmud and Yeshua both understood this portion of Isaiah to refer to an apostasy from true and correct halacha, that the Rabbinic authorities themselves would apostatize from a true and proper understanding of the Torah.
One key difference is that Yeshua saw this apostasy from sound halacha as already taking root by his day. It was not Pharisaic traditions and oral law in general that he opposed, as his halacha in Matthew 15 concerning oaths (as shown above) agrees with the ruling we find in the Talmud. However he also saw and criticized bad halacha that certain Pharisees were teaching in his days. However the Rabbis that re-established the Pharisaic Sanhedrin at Yavneh (90 CE) saw it as yet future (b.Shabbat 138b). It is also interesting to note that even the Talmud sees an eventual apostasy of Rabbinic Judaism.
(For more on Isaiah 29 and the Apostasy see my Commentary on this Chapter of Isaiah)
Yeshua gave us the principles by which we can restore true halacha, and I have laid out and explained each of these principles Here: הַדֶּרֶךְ לָלֶכֶת (The Way to Walk)
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