Jewish Culture / Torah/Talmud/Mishna

Breaking the Rules, Part One

Breaking the rules? This is not something that most Christians think about with a positive frame of reference. When we think about “breaking the rules” we generally tend toward the topics of sin and rebellion.

It may surprise you to know that during the days of Jesus’ ministry He broke many long-established religious rules. And He did so knowingly. Intentionally. This begs at least two questions: what manner of religious rules did Jesus break? And why did he break them? To better answer these questions some background information will be helpful….

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the Old Testament Law. To the Jew of Jesus’ day this was known as the written Torah. Specifically, the written Torah was recorded in the first five books of our Old Testament (known to the Jew as the Pentateuch). These books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are the written documents that were given directly from God to Moses. The Ten Commandments are without question the most familiar part of the Pentateuch to modern, western Christians.

But according to rabbinic tradition God gave Moses more than just these five books. God also, according to tradition, gave Moses a bunch of additional information. This additional information, however, was not written down. Instead, it was given to Moses orally. As the years passed, both “torahs,” the written Torah and the oral Torah, were passed down from generation to generation. The written Torah remained fixed, while the oral Torah grew larger and larger with every passing generation.This process continued through the time of Jesus.

The purpose of the written Torah was to give Israel God’s unchanging, eternal law. The purpose of the oral Torah (also known in Jesus’ day as the teaching of the elders) was to teach Israel how to rightly apply God’s unchanging, written law to one’s current circumstances. So while the written Torah was fixed the oral Torah was constantly changing, adapting itself to the culture and situations that were present in any given generation. For example, God told the Israelites in the written Torah to honor the Sabbath and to keep it holy by doing no work on this day. This is a fixed, unchanging law, recognizable to us as the fourth of the Ten Commandments. This commandment reads the same today as it did three thousand years ago. But for today’s orthodox Jew there is more to consider on this subject as the oral Torah tells them, amongst other things, not to push an elevator button on the Sabbath as this has been construed to be work that would violate the written Torah. While such a midrash (ruling) would have been nonsensical in Jesus’ day, or even just two hundred years ago, it is a necessary ruling for this generation’s orthodox Jew.

It may help our understanding here to think in terms of the relationship between our nation’s Constitution and our Supreme Court. The Constitution is a fixed document. It reads the same today (twenty-seven amendments notwithstanding) as it did in 1789. The written rulings (laws) of the Supreme Court, however, are ever changing and ever expanding, as they strive from generation to generation to best determine how to correctly apply the Constitution to our culture. So is the relationship between the written Torah and the oral Torah.

Now, back to the time of Jesus.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes and certain elite Rabbi’s were in “the seat of Moses.” They were the ones who made rulings that became part of the ever-evolving oral Torah. The Pharisees (or separated ones) were the ones who agreed to live in submission to these rulings. In fact, they believed that the oral Torah and written Torah were of equal authority…to break the oral Torah was to break the written Torah (in contrast, the Sadducees were under no such compulsion as they held that only the written Torah was binding).

So now we can ask our questions again; which rules did Jesus break…the oral Torah or the written Torah? And why would He bother to break either of these? Well…the answers are coming in the next two blog posts. For now, we need to make one more observation.

If we accept what remains to be established, that Jesus was a rule breaker, then another question begs to be answered: did Jesus consider the existence of all these religious rules, especially the oral, ever-changing man-made rules, to be a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, He must have taken issue with these rules on some level or why bother to break them at all?

This will likely be the second time I surprise you in this post because I contend that Jesus would say that, in and of themselves, man made religious rules are good. Taking our earlier example, I believe Jesus would say that not only is it good to honor the Sabbath but it is also good to decide in advance what that might look like. So religious rules…even the man-made ones…are good and necessary.

In closing, consider a contemporary example: a man-made, religious rule of seeing no “R” rated movies would probably be a great rule for most Christian families.This could be a way of deciding in advance how one will honor and obey Jesus’ teaching about lust, or David’s commitment to set before one’s eyes no vile thing. But what if Mel Gibson makes a movie about the Passion of the Christ and the MPAA gives it an “R” rating? What happens then? Do you submit to the man-made rule and therefore never see the movie, or does the man-made rule submit to you, allowing you to take into consideration the facts in this particular situation and break the rule if doing so seems proper and good? In other words, how is the rule to view no “R” rated movies applied? It was this very thing – the application of the rules – that we will find Jesus taking issue with.


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