Nazarene Halachic Authority
by James Scott Trimm
(This was originally written around 1996 and served as the springboard from which the International Nazarene Beit Din (now in it's 14th year!)
In recent times there has been great concern and interest in the Nazarene movement on the issue of Halachic authority. Because this issue is of vital importance to the restoration of the ancient sect of the Nazarenes (Netzarim) I have found myself compelled to clarify the matter by treating the issues involved.
Halachic authority is the authority to make halachic determinations interpreting the Torah forbidding and permitting activities based on these interpretations, and resolving matters between fellow believers. The word "halacha" means "the way to walk." Torah observance requires halachic authority for three reasons. First there are matters about which the Torah is ambiguous and must be clarified. For example the matter of what a "bill of divorcement" must actually say is not clarified. Secondly is the matter of conflicting Torah commands. For example the Torah requires the priests to circumcise on the eight day after a birth, but also requires rest from work on the Sabbath. Which commandment holds priority? Finally the Torah requires us to establish courts (see Deut. 16:18).
IN THE TENACH
In the Torah the Halachic authority was originally held by Moses himself (Ex. 18:13) but later a council of Elders were appointed (Ex. 18:13-26; Dt. 1:9-18) These Elders showed men "the way wherein they must walk" (i.e. Halacha) (Ex. 18:20) Their judgments were regarded as the judgment of G-d himself (Dt. 1:17) and were even called "Torah" (Dt. 17:11) At first these men had authority only in small matters (Ex. 18:22, 26; Dt. 1:17) but later their authority was expanded (Dt. 17:8). This council was later defined as seventy Elders whom G-d placed his Spirit upon (Num. 11:16-17; 24-25).
The Torah also allowed for the Halachic authority to be held by a King (Dt. 17:8-12; 14-20). Eventually the Elders decided to establish such a monarchy (1Sam. 8:1-7). The throne of these Kings was sees as being "the throne of G-d" (1Chron. 29:23) Their Halachic authority became termed "the key of the House of David" (Is. 22:21-22).
Upon the invasion of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity the monarchy was brought to an end. When the captivity ended and exiles returned, Ezra reestablished the council of Elders (Ezra 7:25; 10:14, 16) which immediately began making halachic decisions (Ezra 10:10-19). According to tradition this council was called the Great Assembly and consisted of 120 Elders.
IN THE POST-TENACH ERA
As time went on Judaism became fragmented into various sects. These included the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. As time continued the Sadducees gained more and more control of the Great Assembly. By the first century the centrality of the Halachic authority had fragmented. Each of the various sects had their own Halachic councils with their own Halachic authority.
THE PHARISAIC HALACHIC AUTHORITY
Now great confusion has been created by the fact that there were at least two Sanhedrins (Great Assemblies) in the first century. One of these was a political body which had become an instrument of Rome. This body is that often mentioned by Josephus and in the New Testament. It was headed by the High Priest (a Sadducee) (Josephus Ant. 20:9:1; Mt. 26:57-27:1;Mk. 14:53-15:1; Lk. 22:66-23:1; Jn. 18:12-28; Acts 4:5-23; 5:22-42; 23:6) and was made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts 5:22-42; 23:6) . (This may have been the remnants of the original "Great Assembly"). By contrast the Pharisee Sanhedrin was made up of Pharisee scholars only. It had seventy Elders plus the Nasi (m.San. 1:6). This is the body spoken of in the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmuds in tractate Sanhedrin. It was headed by Zuggot (pairs) made up of a Nasi and an Av Beit Din (m.Hag. 2:2). Hillel and his descendants served as Nasi of this Sanhedrin (m.Hag. 2:2; b.Pes. 66a; b.Shab. 15a; t.San. 2:6; b.San. 11b) who were descendants of King David (b.Ket. 62b; Gen. Rabba 98). Whereas Gamliel was Nasi of the Pharisee Sanhedrin (t.San. 2:6; b.San. 11b) he was only a member of the Political Sanhedrin (Acts 5:22-42).
THE QUMRAN HALACHIC AUTHORITY
The Qumran community, who are believed to be Essenes, also held their own Halachic authority. They saw themselves as the "sons of light" and all outsiders as "sons of darkness" (Man. of Disc. I,9; II, 24). The "sons of light" did not go to the "sons of darkness" to tell them how to walk in true Halacha. Their Halachic rule was headed by the Mevakker (Overseer) (Dam. Doc. xii, 7-9). The community also had panels of Judges as described in the Manual of Discipline:
In the delibrative council of the community there shall be twelve laymen and three
priests schooled to perfection in all that has been revealed of the entire Law. Their
duty shall be to set the standard for the practice of truth, ... and how one can walk
with all men with the quality of truth and in conduct appropriate to every occasion.
(Man. of Disc. viii 1ff)
Thus the Qumran community had its own Halachic authority apart from the rest of Judaism.
THE NETZARIM HALACHIC AUTHORITY
Now we must address the issue of Halachic authority among the ancient sect of the Nazarenes. As I have shown in the article "What is Nazarene Judaism?" the Nazarenes were a coalition of Essenes and Pharisees.
It is apparent that the Nazarenes also had their own Halachic authority.
Like the Qumran community the Nazarenes also saw themselves as the "sons of light" (Lk. 16:8; Jn. 12:36; 1Thes. 5:5). Now in 2Cor. 6:11-18 Paul gives us a Midrash (in the form of a poem) on Dt. 22:10 which ties the passage to Is. 52:11/Ezkl 20:34, 41/Zech. 2:11) The midrash is as follows:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.
For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?
And what communion has light with darkness?
And what accord has the Messiah with B'liya'al?
Or what part has he who believes with an unbeliever?
And what agreement has the Temple of G-d with idols?
For you are the Temple of the living G-d.
As God has said:
I will dwell in them
And walk among them.
I will be their G-d,
And they shall be My people.
(Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezkl. 37:27; Ex. 6:7)
Therefore come out from among them
And be separate, says YHWH.
Do not touch what is unclean,
(Is. 52:11; Zech. 2:11, note 2:7)
And I will receive you.
(Ezkl. 20:41, 34)
I will be a Father to you,
And you shall be My sons and daughters,
Says YHWH Almighty.
(2Sam. 7:14, 8; Is. 43:6)
Paul here tells us that just as the Torah forbids us to yoke different kinds of animals together (Dt. 22:10) the sons of light should not be yoked to sons of darkness and believers should not be yoked to unbelievers. "Halacha" means "the way to walk." Like different animals yoked together, believers and unbelievers cannot be halachicly yoked together. This is because they do not walk the same way. As a result the Nazarenes had to have their own Halachic authority.
The Nazarene Halachic authority, that is the Nazarene Sanhedrin, is documented in Acts 15. Here we are shown a Halachic court which has worldwide authority and which seems to be led by Ya'akov HaTzadik (James the Just) as Nasi and Kefa (Peter) as Av Beit Din. But how did this body get the Halachic authority? For the answer we must turn to the teachings of the Messiah himself.
In Mt. 23:2-3 Yeshua makes a surprising statement, he says:
The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.
Therefore whatever they tell you to observe,
That observe and keep.
but do not according to their works;
for they say, and do not.
This passage is often used to show that Yeshua endorsed the Pharisaic halachic authority. However there is serious question as to what this passage actually say or means. For example the Hebrew of the Shem Tob Hebrew version of Matthew reads:
Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and sages sit.
Now all which he says to you keep and do;
but their ordinances and deeds do not do
because they say, and do not.
(The "he" in line two reads "they" in Howard's English translation, however
the literal Hebrew has "he.")
At any rate Yeshua cannot be giving a blanket endorsement of Pharisaic halacha here because in verses 16-22 he specifically differs with a point of Pharisaic halacha.
Mt. 23:13 is key to understanding Yeshua's attitude to the Halachic authority of the Pharisees. Here Yeshua says:
But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men;
for you neither go in,
nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
A parallel passage appears in Lk. 11:52:
Woe to you lawyers!
For you have taken away the key of knowledge.
you did not enter in yourselves,
and those who were entering in you hindered.
Now when we look at these two passages together it becomes clear that the "key" in Luke 11:52 had the potential to open up or shut up the Kingdom of Heaven. This "key" is clearly then "the key of the house of David" in Is. 22:22:
The key of the House of David I will lay on his shoulder;
so he shall open, and no one shall shut;
and he shall shut and no one shall open.
This key is the halachic authority. Yeshua recognized that the Pharisees held that halachic authority but he also tells us that they had squandered it by rejecting the Kingdom offer (see article "The Kingdom Offer") and refusing to use the key to help Messiah open up the Messianic Kingdom.
The Messiah himself also had the Key of David (Rev. 3:7). In Mt. 16:18-19 Yeshua says he would give "the keys of the Kingdom" to Kefa and his students:
And I also say to you that you are Kefa,
And upon this rock I will build my assembly,
and the gates of Sheol shall not prevail against it.
And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
This passage is best understood when compared to Mt. 18:15-20 This passage deals with the law of witnesses (Mt. 18:16 = Dt. 19:15) and refers to an "assembly" (Mt. 18:17) which has the power to "bind" and "loose" (Mt. 18:18) just as does Mt. 16:18-19. Since Mt. 18:16 quotes Dt. 19:15 it is clear that the "assembly" in Mt. 18:17 (and also Mt. 16:18) is the "priests and judges who serve in those days" in Dt. 19:17. This is also clear because this "assembly" has the power to "bind" and "loose." These are two Semitic idioms used in Rabbinic literature as technical terms referring to Halachic authority. To "bind" means to "forbid" an activity and to "loose" means to permit an activity (as in j.Ber. 5b; 6c; j.San. 28a; b.Ab. Zar. 37a; b.Ned. 62a; b.Yeb. 106a; b.Bets. 2b; 22a; b.Ber. 35a; b.Hag. 3b). Thus in Mt. 16:18-19 & 18:18 Yeshua gave his students the Halachic authority which we see them using in Acts 15.
Today we as restored Nazarenes must also have our own unique halachic authority apart from that of Rabbinic Judaism. As "sons of light" we cannot be halachicly yoked with unbelievers. While we cannot be halachicly yoked with unbelievers (Rabbinic Judaism) we must "come out from among them and be separate" (2Cor. 6:14-18 & Is. 52:11) for we must ourselves establish courts (Dt. 16:18) so that we may "walk by the same rule and be of the same mind" (Phil. 3:16) and have "no factions among" us "but be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement" (1 Cor. 1:10) so that we might endeavor "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3).
We cannot turn to the "wisdom" of the "Pharisaic Rabbinical" Rabbis and sages of the last two thousand years and simply "accept all the Rabbinical Halakhah, except where Mashiach and His Talmidim clearly and definitely offer another position of Halakhah" for the Tenach warns us:
How can you say, "We are wise, and the Torah of YHWH is with us"?
Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood.
The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken.
Behold they have rejected the Word of YHWH;
So what wisdom do they have?
The unbelieving sages and Rabbis of "Pharisaic Rabbinical" Judaism claim they "are wise" and that "the Torah of the LORD is with us." But they have "rejected the Word of YHWH" (i.e. Yeshua the Messiah; see Jn. 1:1, 14; Rev. 19:13) "So what wisdom do they have?"
There are preserved for us five fragments from an ancient Nazarene Commentary on Isaiah in which the fourth century Nazarene writer makes it clear that Nazarenes of the fourth century were not "following Pharisaic Rabbinical Halakhah." The following is taken from the Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 8:14:
"And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock
of offence to both the houses of Israelâ€¦"
The Nazarenes explain the two houses as the two houses of Shammai and Hillel,
from whom originated the Scribes and Phariseesâ€¦ [they Pharisees] scattered and
defiled the precepts of the Torah by traditions and mishna. And these two houses
did not accept the Saviorâ€¦
The Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 8:20-21 has:
The Scribes and the Pharisees tell you to listen to themâ€¦ answer them like this:
"It is not strange if you follow your traditions since every tribe consults its own
idols. We must not, therefore, consult your dead [sages] about the living onesâ€¦."
So it is clear that the original Nazarenes were not "following Pharisaic Rabbinical Halakhah."
To those who would teach that Nazareans should "accept all the Rabbinical Halakhah, except where Mashiach and His Talmidim clearly and definitely offer another position of Halakhah" and "practice and behave alike Orthodox Jews, following Pharisaic Rabbinical Halakhah" I must cite the following from The Dead Sea Scrolls an New Translation by Wise; Abeg and Cook (p. 34):
For Jews, the Qumran texts say, "Our family was larger than you knew."
The watchword is diversity. Modern Judaism comes from Pharisaism,
but in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. there were also other kinds
of Judaism, and it was not obvious that the Pharisees would be the ones
still standing at the end of the day. Understanding the world of the first
century C.E. now means understanding the fact of diversity, and the
scrolls have helped cultivate a sense of the historical complexity of
the matrix of Judaism and of early Christianity. The scrolls teach,
indirectly, a message the scroll writers themselves would have repudiated;
that is, that there are different ways of being authentically Jewish. Any
effort to "reclaim the scrolls for Judaism" must acknowledge that truth.
In reconstructing the ancient sect of Nazarene Judaism we must recognize that Rabbinic/Pharisaic Halacha is not the only "authentic" Judaism. We must not Halachicly yoke ourselves with unbelievers. We must not blindly turn to the "wisdom" of Rabbinic sages that rejected the Word of YHWH (the Messiah). Although we must examine what these sages, as well as the Qumran writers, have written. We must examine their conclusions in light of ancient Jewish methods of interpreting the Scriptures to determine if their rulings constitute a valid Nazarene position on any given issue.