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How the leaders of Judaism
claimed God's authority for themselves

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The Messianic way of Judaism is consistent with every aspect of faith that preceded it. The atonement brought about by Yeshua (Jesus)is consistent with the principle of atonement described in the Torah, because it is based on a substitute that bears the penalty for sin, and it required the shedding of blood in order to accomplish that. The nature of Yeshua as the divine Son of God and the many attributes of the Messiah are exactly as the prophets foretold. So there is nothing about Yeshua that deviates in any way from over 1,000 years of revelation from God before He dwelled on this earth. It is a single path and a preservation of the biblical principles that were established by God.

But those who rejected Yeshua as the Messiah and the Son of God are those who took a divergent path away from those principles. They focused instead on preserving their own interpretations and religious practices. That was not difficult to do in the years following right after Yeshua's death. The temple authorities still had control of the on-going manner of worship and expectations for daily living in the community. They could easily dismiss believers in Yeshua as being deviates and to continue maintaining their religious practices as before.

But that lasted less than four decades. The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. was not only a life and death calamity, but it sent a shockwave throughout Judaism. It led to a process of reevaluation about how to retain meaning for the commandments of the Torah without a place and a priesthood to carry them out. This, of course, was not an issue for the Messianic believers, because the extensive number of commandments related to sacrifice and atonement and the forgiveness of sins had received their fulfillment in Yeshua. But traditional Judaism had to completely redefine those concepts. And that was a process that took considerable time.

The formulation of Rabbinic Judaism

The first major development was the compilation of the Mishnah in the early part of the third century. Those are the teachings that were originally handed down orally during the second temple period. For that reason, the Mishnah is also called the "Oral Law" or "Oral Tradition."

Many of these teachings are practical in nature. Some are what we call today case law. Those are rulings by authorities regarding specific situations that are not directly spelled out in statutory law like we have in the Torah. Clearly such rulings took place in the early days of Israel, as evidence by Moses having to appoint judges in Exodus 18:25-26. And later the Sanhedrin acted in a similar manner. These rulings were not recorded in the Bible and thus were only part of an oral tradition.

Some aspects of the Mishnah relate to the way that priests carried out their responsibilities in the temple that weren't specifically given by God in detail in the Torah. These tasks were passed on by the priests orally from generation to generation.

Other elements described in the Mishnah are expansions on what was prescribed in the Torah. For example, there are descriptions on how the week-long festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) was observed in second temple times, including the daily and nightly services at the temple, the water libation purification ceremony and the massive menorahs erected in the temple courtyard. Such things were never ordained in the Torah by God, yet those were clearly established practices in those days. And that included Yeshua who used them to reveal His purposes by declaring He is the living water (Jn 7:38) and the light of the world (Jn 8:12) at Sukkot. So we need to accept the reality that there were additional elements to the written Torah that were not contradictory and were only passed down orally, until they were later written down in the Mishnah.

But not everything in this oral tradition was consistent with the ways of God, because it included the burdensome requirements established by the Pharisees that Yeshua directly confronted as being wrong: "He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'" (Mat 15:3).

So it is important to recognize that in the days of Yeshua, there were streams of Judaism that were already straying from God's true way of life and plan of redemption. And those errant ways were blended in with ways that were acceptable to God into one Oral Tradition that became written down in the Mishanh. That should inform us that considering the Mishnah as a source for understanding the Bible requires considerable discernment, separating that which is informative from that which is burdensome and inconsistent with following Yeshua.

The recording of the Oral Tradition in the Mishanh was not the end of the story. As the generations passed, and layer upon layer of rabbis who rejected Yeshua came upon the scene, their opinions were also considered to be noteworthy. Their interpretations were also recorded over the next 300 years, and then compiled together in what is called Gemara (Heb. "study"). It was not a study of Torah or other parts of the Tanakh (Old Testament). It was specifically a study of the Mishanh.

All of these things were then compiled into volumes called Talmud (Heb. "learning"). The first compilation was completed in Jerusalem around 350 A.D. and the Babylonian version was completed around 475 A.D. Each of the two versions of the Talmud has two parts — Mishnah (the Oral Tradition) and Gemara (the interpretations and teachings on the Mishnah by later rabbis). It is not a commentary on the Old Testament.

Among these rabbinic interpretations in the Gemara are two that contributed greatly to the transformation of Judaism. The first was the claim that the Oral Tradition was not just a set of teachings developed over time and handed down from one generation to the next, but it was given to Moses along with the written Torah on Mt Sinai.

The flaws of Rabbinic reasoning for the Oral Law
being given on Mt Sinai

The following premises were established by the rabbis in the Gemara and later periods:

The rabbis teach that because Moses taught people under his authority, there had to be an Oral Law that came directly from God

They described the procedure for the Oral Law as beginning with God giving instructions to Moses, then Moses telling Aaron, then Aaron's sons, followed by the elders and then all of the people (Babylonian Talmud, Berachoth 5a).

But just because Moses gave instructions to Aaron and his sons does not mean that the words were given to him on Sinai but never recorded. He could just as easily used wisdom to give practical applications of the commandments that he had written down on Sinai.

The rabbis teach that because God refers to a commandment given by Him that is not recorded in the Torah, He had to have given an Oral Law

Deuteronomy 12:21 reads:

"If the place which Adonai your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter of your herd and flock which Adonai has given you, as I have commanded you; and you may eat within your gates whatever you desire."

The influential 11th century rabbi known as Rashi said regarding this verse that God had not given a prior commandment recorded by Moses regarding slaughtering. Therefore, there had to be an Oral Law that God did command (Sifrei Devarim 12:21).

But Rashi's claim of no previous commandment in this regard is inaccurate. In fact, God gave commandment about slaughtering earlier in that same chapter of Deuteronomy 12.

The rabbis teach that all of God's revelation was given by God on Mt Sinai, including the teachings of the rabbis

In Exodus 24:12 we are told:

"Adonai said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.'"

Here is how the rabbis of the Gemara interpreted this verse:

"Tables of stone': these are the ten commandments; ‘the law': this is the Pentateuch; ‘the commandment': this is the Mishnah; ‘which I have written': these are the Prophets and the Hagiographa; ‘that you may teach them': this is the Gemara" (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54b).

Centuries later, Rashi made the same kind of claim (Sifrei Shemot 12:21.) Today you will find a continuation of this teaching in Judaism, in which it is affirmed that God communicated to Moses on Sinai everything that would ever be taught by the rabbis later — literally thousands of principles. It was said that Moses never wrote them down and God concealed them. Then, it is claimed, after many centuries passed, the rabbis rediscovered those concealed principles in their studies.

But this way of thinking is completely illogical and it merely self-justifies their quest for authority.

The rabbis teach that there are two Torahs, and the Oral Torah belongs to Israel alone

The rabbis looked at Hosea 8:12, which reads: "Though I wrote for him ten thousand precepts of My Law, they are regarded as a strange thing." They interpreted it this way:

"R. Judah b. Shalom said: Moses desired the Mishnah to be also in writing, but the Holy One Blessed Be He foresaw that the nations of the world would translate the Torah, read it in Greek, and assert: ‘We, too, are Israel.' The Holy One Blessed Be He thereupon said to Moses: ‘Were I to write for you the multitudes of my Torah then they would be considered as a stranger' (Hosea 8:12). Why so? Because the Mishnah is the mystery of God which He transmits only to the righteous'" (Midrash Tanhuma; see also Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 2:6).

Thus, the rabbis set out to secure their control over their disciples. They claimed to have access to divine revelation that could only be obtained through study under their leadership. It has an eerie echo to what the Gnostics were teaching earlier in terms of having secret knowledge that only they could reveal.

But the claim that God established a written Law for all people and a secret oral Law for Jews alone contradicts God's declaration that there is to be only one Torah for native born Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (Ex 12:49).

Moreover, there is no direct reference to an Oral Law originating at Sinai anywhere in the Bible. Nothing by Moses, or by any of the Prophets or other Writings or the New Testament. Nothing is found in the writings of Qumran, even though the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a great number of discussions on the Law. The same is true in the writings of Josephus.

So in all of Scripture and all of the extra-biblical works of that era, spanning over 1500 years, there is not a single reference to an Oral Law being given to Moses on Mt Sinai. It is only found in the writings of the rabbis beginning in the Gemara long after the destruction of the temple.

The Bible itself shows that it is impossible for the Oral Law to have existed unbroken from Sinai to the Talmudic era. In 2 Kings we are given the record of the kings of Israel and Judah. We are told about the righteous reign of Hezekiah, followed by a number of kings who did evil and basically put an end to biblical worship, while severely damaging the House of the Lord. But nearly a century later, another righteous king, Josiah, reigned over Judah. He instituted reforms that set aside the worship of false gods and ordered the House of the Lord to be restored.

2 Kings 22:8 tells us that they found the Torah in the rubble. So Josiah had it read to him. He was so moved by the words that he tore his clothes in grief because of what had been lost. Then it was presented to the people of the nation and they received it as well.

The point here is that the Torah and all that it represented had been lost. There was not a single Torah-observant person in the nation. There were no priests serving in the temple according to God's commandments. For all intents and purposes, Judaism was dead and non-existent for a long period of time.

But the rediscovery of the Torah along with the willingness of the people changed all that. And that is where we see a great distinction between a written and an oral Law. A written Law can become dormant for a long time and yet be revived when rediscovered. But an oral Law disappears forever when people abandon it and die without passing it on.

The last piece of evidence we are given is an explicit statement in the Torah disproving the rabbinic teaching of the Oral Law being given on Sinai. After receiving the Torah from God on Mt Sinai, we are told:

"Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of Adonai and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which Adonai has spoken we will do!' Moses wrote down all the words of Adonai" (Exodus 24:3-4).

"Kol hadvarim — all of the words" having been written down leaves no room for an Oral Law that originated on Sinai.

In spite of the fallacy of their reasoning, rabbinic Judaism used it to claim authority that was equal to the Torah. But that was not the end to the transformation of Judaism. The next step was to supplant God's authority entirely.

The Rabbinic seizure of ultimate authority

A story is recorded in the Gemara entitled, "The Oven of Akhnai" (Baba Metzia 59a-b). It tells about a man who invented a new kind of oven in which sand was placed in between tiles. He brought it before the Sanhedrin in order to get a ruling regarding its ritual purity and thus approval for use in the Jewish community. The question was whether this new oven was a complete vessel or a reconstituted pile of rubble.

Rabbi Eliezer ruled that it was kosher (ritually clean and suitable for use). But the rest of the Sanhedrin, including Gamaliel, its president, ruled that the oven was tamei (defiled and unacceptable). Rabbi Eliezer was not satisfied with the ruling of the body of leaders. He kept arguing his point, but the rest were not convinced.

As the story continues, Rabbi Eliezer said: "If halacha (the legal portion of Torah) is accordance with my opinion, let this carob tree prove it," and the carob tree was uprooted by itself and moved one hundred cubits away. The majority replied, "That proves nothing about halacha."

Then Rabbi Eliezer said: "If I am right, let the stream of water prove it," and the stream flowed backwards. The majority responded, "The stream proves nothing."

So Rabbi Eliezer said: "If I am right, let the walls of the study house prove it," and the walls began to fall. But the rabbis rebuked the walls for interfering.

Then Rabbi Eliezer said: "If I am right, let it be proven from heaven." At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out: "Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, because in all matters halacha agrees with him!" In other words, God was saying, not only is Rabbi Eliezer right about the oven being acceptable for use, but he is always right in matters of the Law.

Not being satisfied by Eliezer's divine vindication, Rabbi Joshua then stood and exclaimed: "It [Torah] is not in heaven." That is a quotation from Deuteronomy 30:12. In this Talmudic story, another rabbi named Jeremiah explained their interpretation of this verse, saying:

"Because the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai. Now, we follow the decisions of the majority."

To put it another way, God had His say on matters of human behavior and then returned to heaven, leaving people to decide what is right and wrong.

The story goes on to say that Rabbi Nathan from the Sanhedrin met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: "What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?" Elijah replied that God joyfully laughed and said, "My sons have triumphed over Me, My sons have triumphed over Me." And then the rabbis excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer from the Sanhedrin.

This is no incidental story in the Talmud. It became the justification for centuries in Judaism for granting full authority to the rabbis. And they have claimed that God has stepped aside. This way of thinking now is manifested throughout all branches of Judaism. Human beings are now said to decide what is right or wrong with no need for knowing God's will on the matter. We see it manifested in Orthodox Judaism with its focus on studying the opinions of other rabbis from the past and present, not the Bible. And we see it manifested in Reform Judaism with its focus on redefining biblical concepts like the Messiah, atonement, and sin to that which is desired by the majority of the people.

That is why this story is so important for us to recognize, whether we are Jewish and trying to determine the place of God's Written Word and the place of tradition in our lives, or if we are a believer in Yeshua and trying to be a better witness to Jewish people. Yes, there are times that it is helpful for us to know what is found in the Mishnah because it fills in the gap regarding how things were done in second temple times. It's like adding schmaltz (Yiddish for "chicken fat") to chicken soup. That's what gives flavor to chicken soup. And yes it can be helpful to know what the rabbis are upholding in the Gemara, especially so that we can point out their errors of their interpretations, especially regarding the Messiah and salvation.

But it is contrary to God's revealed will in Scripture to give any authority to rabbinic teachings in the same way that it is true regarding Gnostic Gospels, the Quran and the Book of Mormon. They share in common the denial of Yeshua being the Son of God and the final prophet. They all deny that salvation is by grace through faith. And they are all not inspired Scripture, and lack the authority of the Creator of the Universe.

Rashi, for example, didn't just spend his time writing commentaries on the Torah. He engaged in many public debates seeking to invalidate Christianity. And his personal disciples were very aggressive in doing the same. He devised interpretations of Messianic passages that were intended to disprove the view that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 refers to Yeshua. Instead, he was the first to ascribe the historical suffering of the Jewish people to that chapter, which is the dominate view in Judaism today. So we would be naive to think that his anti-Christian bias did not filter down to his discussions on Torah.

For these reasons, we need to exercise great caution and much wisdom regarding rabbinic works. It's like adding too much schmaltz to chicken soup. When that happens, it starts to clog our arteries, and that is never a good thing.

Foundational principles regarding authority

Godly living is not intended to be complicated

The final portion of the book of Deuteronomy contains the sermon that Moses gave to the Israelites just prior to entering the Promised Land. So it carries a great deal of weight as his final exhortation to the people. Much had transpired before that time. The Torah had been given to Moses 40 years earlier. That meant there were plenty of opportunities to question and to form opinions on the Law itself. And human nature being what it is, that meant a propensity to make things more complicated over time. But in Deuteronomy 30 Moses called upon the people to resist that temptation:

"For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?'" (Deut 30:11-13).

Moses was saying that we simply need to let the words of the commandments speak for themselves without reading in to them. It was a call just to follow what God has stated:

  • Loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might is simply an attitude and on-going relationship with Him.

  • Loving your neighbor as yourself never needs to be legislated.

  • Resting on Shabbat really doesn't require an exhaustive list of allowable actions and those that are prohibited. God just said: don't work on that day and don't kindle fire, and make it holy, which means making it a day that is set apart from the rest and dedicate it to the Lord. But the rabbis weren't satisfied that and established according to their authority a great number of prohibitions, including such things as not watering your plants, writing, carrying a shofar (ram's horn trumpet), opening an umbrella, squeezing a piece of fruit, removing skin from a peanut, and cutting a tomato in your salad.

The reality is that the rabbis made it very difficult to observe, while God made it easy to observe. And the same is still true for us today. The question, then, is how can living a godly or a Torah-observant life be easy?

Godly living results from being led by the Spirit

Moses went on to say: "But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it" (Deut 30:14). According to the understanding of people in the Ancient Near East, having something in your heart meant that it was part of your thinking. It refers to an internalization of God's ways that do not require outside control. And that involves the Holy Spirit.

The prophet Ezekiel foretold this promise from God: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances" (Ezek 36:27).

Paul writes in Galatians 4:6 that when we believe in Yeshua by faith, God places His Spirit into our hearts. And when that happens, the Spirit leads and teaches us how to apply God's truths:

"As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him" (1 Jn 2:27).

That is the ultimate fulfillment of what Moses was talking about in Deuteronomy 30:14. It is the Spirit indwelling our hearts or our way of thinking that enables us to be faithful to the ways of God in a way that no rabbinical mandate could ever do.

So when I think about the way the rabbis applied Deuteronomy 30 in "The Oven of Akhnai" story in the Talmud by wrestling away all authority from God and claiming it for themselves, they missed the point entirely. The best authority — indeed the only true authority — belongs to God alone. He never lost it. And the only way to remain under that authority is to let the Spirit of God be at work within you.

In Galatians 5:1, Paul writes: "It was for freedom that Messiah set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." He is describing a freedom from the bondage of a legalistic approach that was clearly present in that particular community. But he is not talking about freedom from the commandments themselves, because he immediately goes into a discussion on the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

He exhorts us in verse 13: " do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." His solution is not to ignore the commandment simply because we have "freedom in Messiah," but to do it the right way. And that solution is to "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (v. 16).

Living a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led life doesn't just give us a freedom from the consequences of the Law, it gives us the freedom and the ability to be faithful to what God has commanded us. And that is exactly what Yeshua did. He was the most exemplary Torah-observant Jew who ever lived. He never went against anything that Moses wrote down. He lived out the commandments, He taught them, and He died in fulfillment of those that were sacrificial in nature. He made it clear that living faithfully was a result of what was in your heart, not according to the burdensome requirements of men.

That is why this subject applies to all of us. We all have issues of authority. Some of us might want to place ourselves under the authority of others who deny the Lordship of Yeshua. Some of us might say that God is our only authority, when in reality, we reserve that right for ourselves, as we pick and choose what applies to us. In either case, you miss out on what God desires for us.

He wants us to be indwelled by the Spirit, which means believing by faith in Yeshua. And He wants us to be led by the Spirit, which means setting aside all other things that claim to lead us. Instead of accepting the misleading claims of others, may we all trust in God's authority alone.


Dr. Galen Peterson
© 2018 American Remnant Mission