The Tale of the Talmud

  • Question 104, from JV, United Kingdom

    I am currently looking into the Hebrew roots of Christianity, I was wondering as to whether we need to study the Talmud (oral laws), as God gave them, as well as the commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus is said to be the fulfilment of the law not the abolisher of it, does that include the oral laws? I find there is great wisdom in them and the fact that Jesus himself studied the oral laws and argued with them show to me that they are of value!

    The Talmud (technically Talmuds, because there are two of them) are systematic commentaries on the Mishnah, which is the rabbinical law code of proper Jewish practice. The final version of the Mishnah is generally dated to the second century AD, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (AD70) and the ‘diaspora’ as the Jews made their home in other countries. The Talmuds are usually dated two to three centuries later.

    The general consensus is that as the life of the Jewish community adjusted to the upheaval of the dislocation from Temple-centred religion, a revised law code was needed to ensure that Jews were still living according to the customs and rituals that marked them out as God’s chosen people. The Mishnah, based on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also called the Pentateuch), therefore enabled Judaism to continue despite the Temple being razed to the ground on the orders of Titus Caesar.

    Unlike the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, the Mishnah is arranged systematically by topic, rather than by author. It is divided into six broad parts: Agriculture (mainly farming according to the principles of Torah), Appointed Times (how to celebrate the holy days of Judaism), the role and status of Women, Damages (dealing with governmental issues and conflict resolution), Holy Things, and Purities (including lists of things that make a Jew impure).

    The Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud each develop the teaching of the Mishnah, although neither expand upon the Purities section. The Palestinian Talmud omits Holy Things, while its Babylonian counterpart does not reference Agriculture. As such the Talmuds fill in some gaps that have been left out of the Mishnah.

    While the Torah, and later the rest of the Hebrew Bible, was regarded as divinely inspired before the Mishnah was compiled, it was not long before the Mishnah was regarded as being the embodiment of an oral tradition that was alleged to date back to the time of the exodus. There is no way of proving whether this belief has any truth to it, although historians tend to assume that it does not. However, the Mishnah, and the Talmuds, do contain material which probably had a long folk-history before it was ever written down. Jesus therefore was probably aware of, and may have been influenced by, this material, but chronologically he was unable to engage with the Talmud during his earthly ministry.

    The Talmuds also refer to extra material not found in the Mishnah, including previous commentaries on the Torah. The two Talmuds also contain references to the Mishnah as the ‘oral Torah’ and, because of their inextricable links to the Mishnah have thus taken on a semi-canonical status in Judaism themselves. In fact, the sixth century Babylonian Talmud is regarded as the authoritative encyclopedia of Judaism.

    While the Mishnah and Talmuds provide Christian theologians with valuable insights into Christianity’s Jewish roots, it is generally held that these works are not authoritative. The New Testament in its current form dates from a similar time, and it could be argued that the Talmud and the New Testament represent two diverging views. One was a retreat back into the legalistic world of the Torah; the other looking outward beyond the confines of one people group into a wider world.

    Thanks for your question JV.

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