The Twinkling of an Eye

The Twinkling of an Eye

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”(1 Cor.15:52)

This verse, as well as a few others, is used to explain the Rapture Theory. You’ve seen the Left Behind movies, right? One moment, it’s business as usual, and the next, driver-less cars are crashing into each other, clothing is found on the floor (minus the wearer) phone calls are dropped, etc. Sounds like science fiction.

That’s because, largely, it is.

Is the Tim LaHaye dramatization of pre-millenial rapture a fair representation of what Paul is referencing here? What type of change could represent this idea in Jewish thought of the Second Temple period?  Continue reading

A Sword In the Assembly

A Sword In the Assembly

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

The Lord goes on in this passage to quote Micah chapter 7, which is a foreboding prophecy of apostasy and of sublime faith, as he describes his ministry (“setting a man against his father…”).  This passage in the gospels, in Christian tradition, has always been analyzed independent of Jewish Oral Law, and is commonly interpreted as the Lord describing the division created by those who either accept or reject the gospel.

While this interpretation has merit on its own, what if the Lord is actually alluding to a famous incident in his nation’s recent history when he made this statement? How, then, would this change the way we envision how his audience would have heard him?

Consider this passage from the Talmud:

“Shammai said to him: If you provoke me and insist that there is no difference between gathering olives and grapes, then, in order not to contradict this, I will decree impurity on the the gathering of olives as well. They related that since the dispute was so intense, they stuck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who seeks to enter the study hall, let him enter, and one who seeks to leave may not leave, so that all of the Sages will be assembled to determine the halakha. That day Hillel was bowed and was sitting before Shammai like one of the students. The Gemara said: And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made, as Hillel, who was the Nasi, was forced to sit in submission before Shammai, and the opinion of Beit Shammai prevailed in the vote conducted that day. And Shammai and Hillel issued the decree, and the people did not accept it from them.” (Talmud, Shabbat 17a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)

This incident detailed in the Gemara would have taken place in the generation just preceding Christ’s ministry, and would have been a fresh memory among the diverse and politically tense population that the Lord ministered to.

The Steinsaltz commentary goes on to explain, concerning this passage in the Gemara, that while it is not entirely clear what exactly happened in the study hall that day, it was by all accounts a harsh dispute which nearly reached bloodshed, and that the sword was placed in the dirt of the floor of the study hall, signifying the gravity of the occasion. Much debate in the Mishna and Gemara continues concerning the eighteen decrees issued that day.

For our purposes, the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, and their respective houses of study, should be of keen interest. The Master’s teachings almost invariably took on the flavor and aggadic style of Beit Hillel. And while Beit Shammai certainly was highly regarded, and is quoted in the Talmud extensively, in most cases the halakha is ruled in favor of Beit Hillel, whenever the two great sages are at odds.

Among the eighteen decrees that were issued in this famous incident recorded in the Talmud, many were centered on the issue of ritual purity, a topic over which the Master found himself at odds with his critics quite frequently.

It is entirely possible, if not probable, that when the Lord makes his statement “I came to bring a sword”, that this would have immediately brought his audience to focus in on this famous dispute in their recent national history. The question then becomes, “On which side does this teacher fall?”, and further, “What is the occasion that his teachings would be equated with this incident?”

Rabbinic Judaism was still in development at the time of Christ. The Pharisees were at odds with the Sadducees. After the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Sadducean sect died off, but the Pharisees flourished and their doctrine became the central worldview of Rabbinic Judaism. Interestingly, the doctrine of the Pharisees is both endorsed and taught by Yeshua (in spite of the halakhic disputes in the narrative of the scriptures which would lead a person unaware of the hidden subtlety to think otherwise), and further promoted by his followers, the apostles, in their subsequent writings.

One of the core distinctions of the Sadducees was their unwillingness to acknowledge the Oral Law. They lived only by the written Torah of Moses, and did not acknowledge the validity of the traditions. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did. It is from the Pharisees that many doctrines so core to Christian faith are preserved, such as the believe in angels and demons, the belief in the afterlife, and perhaps most importantly, in the resurrection of the dead. All of these doctrines developed and were preserved through the Oral Law, not the written Torah. But within the Pharisees were varying interpretations of that law, and the Lord was most aligned with Beit Hillel.

Replacement Theology presumes that Christ abolishes the Jewish system of religion and replaces it with a new, more lenient faith system based on grace and not law. This is a result of reading the gospels as though they were written in a vacuum, divorced from the historical and religious context from which they sprung. But when we remember that the Master was an observant religious Jew, and that he taught from within this context, his teachings take on a richer, and more realistic tone.

The Lord taught from within Judaism, and from within the framework of the Oral Law, not from outside of it. A careful evaluation of his teachings in light of Jewish Law reveals this clearly. This should give pause to us as we evaluate any teachings which suggest that rabbinic authority has no bearing upon a Christian. We should be suspicious of any systematic theology that teaches that Christ has superseded the Law or the traditions of Judaism.

The dispute the Lord references in this passage in Matthew may not, in fact, be a warning that his appearance on the scene represents the end of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity. It may simply be his giving notice that he had the authority to rule on halakha, and that, just like the incident we find above in the Gemara, his presence was going to cast a sword in the study hall. Perhaps he is calling the sages of his day to attention, and telling them that “no one leaves until they decide the matter”.

In this context, he is not soliciting violence against his native faith, but insisting that all parties stay present while he resolves the dispute. The sword is a sword of peace, after all.

 

 

The Inside of the Cup

The Inside of the Cup

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” (Matt.23:25-26)

At the beginning of Matthew, chapter 23, in my New American Standard Bible, I find the sub-heading “Pharisaism Exposed”. This type of biased editorializing of the text is common in our English translations. The sub-headings serve to lead the reader towards a foregone conclusion which may or may not accurately represent what follows in the literal text. This is one such case, but it’s hard to discern this without knowledge of the Oral Law as later codified and illustrated in the Talmud.

In the passage above, the point is clear: “Worry about what’s going on inside of you more than how you seem to be viewed by the world and you’ll be on track. To make yourself presentable to the world without dealing with your own internal issues is hypocrisy.” We all can relate, but often, when reading this we position ourselves as co-accusers of the “religious hypocrites” without realizing that we may guilty ourselves!

But, back to the sub-heading, which is my real focus here. It is commonly assumed that the Lord was against the Oral Traditions, or Oral Law of Judaism, and that the Pharisees are the “poster-child” of this rejection. Since Rabbinic Judaism today is the direct descendant of the Pharisees, it is then fashionable and common to utterly reject the rabbis from the conversation concerning scriptural truth. After all, it would seem, the Lord rejected it and denounced it. But did he really?

In truth, what the Lord denounced was not Pharisaism per se, but hypocricy within the movement. After all, the Lord’s theology was clearly in line with the Pharisees. When we take a closer look at the teachings of Yeshua in comparison with the teachings of Pharisaism, we find a different story than the one that the Church tells us.

It turns out that that the Talmud completely agrees with the Lord concerning his chosen metaphor in this passage. Consider the following:

  “…earthenware vessels do not become impure from their outer side, i.e., if a primary source of impurity came into contact with the outer side of the vessel, the inside of the vessel does not become impure.” (Talmud, Shabbat 16a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)

We see from the discussion of the Oral Law in the Talmud that Yeshua is not casting aside the tradition of the Jewish sages, but teaching from within it. The point of this teaching of the Lord is not to discredit Pharisaic faith, as the sub-heading in my Bible may suggest, but rather to point out the hypocrisy of insincere religious activity which serves only to impress others.

When perusing the writings of great Jewish rabbis, one finds the same strain of argument: The Law performed devoid of faith and genuine devotion towards God is of no value.

The Church needs to reevaluate it’s position towards the Law and also towards Rabbinic Judaism. Semper Reformanda: “Always Reforming”.

 

 

Fear or Faith? The Parable of the Talents

Fear or Faith? The Parable of the Talents

Chapters 24-25 in the gospel of Matthew are very scary and difficult to reconcile with traditional Church doctrine and teaching. Using the Oral Law, we unravel the mysteries of the parable of the talents, in relation to Exodus 22, and discover how the Master’s audience would have heard him, and what would have surprised them about his teaching.

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure

In Exodus 21, we encounter God’s principle of justice, which is “measure for measure”. This is commonly used within Christianity to paint a false dichotomy between the Law of Moses and the grace available through the Messiah. However, no such dichotomy truly exists. As we seek to understand how this principle affected Jewish law, we learn how it also impacts our life of faith in Messiah, and that Christ himself also taught according to it.

Unity in Diversty

Unity in Diversty

“….by revelation there was made known to me the mystery…” (Eph.3:3)

It is tempting, yes, inevitable, that we will gravitate to the folks who champion our opinions.

Much is made about the fragmentation of the body of Messiah, sometimes too much.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to have groups who gather together to discuss, argue and even celebrate their distinctiveness from others. The trouble lies not in distinction, but in separation.

How do I cultivate a spirit of acceptance towards others who look, sound, and even think much different than I? Perhaps one place to start is by being thankful for their existence.

Yes. We do, in fact, need each other. Even when we disagree.

The Talmud has within its pages a curious passage in the tractate called Berakhot (meaning “Blessings”):

“The sages taught in a Tosefta: One who sees multitudes o Israel recites: Blessed…Who knows all secrets. Why is this? He sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other, and He Who knows all secrets, God, knows what is in each of their hearts. The Gemara relates: Ben Zoma once saw a multitude of Israel while standing on a stair on the Temple Mount. He immediately recited: Blessed…Who knows all secrets and Blessed…Who created all these to serve me.

Explaining his custom, he would say: How much effort did Adam the first man exert before he found bread to eat: He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed in the wind, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked and only thereafter he ate. And I, on the other hand, wake up and find all of these prepared for me. Human society employs a division of labor, and each individual benefits from the service of the entire world. Similarly, how much effort did Adam the first man exert before he found a garment to wear? He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove, and only thereafter he found a garment to wear. And I, on the other hand, wake up and find all of these prepared for me. Members of all nations, merchants and craftsmen, diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up and find all of these before me” (Talmud, Berakhot 58a, Koren Steinsaltz edition, emphasis mine).

In a day of political and religious tension, it is important to remember that the man or woman whom you are tempted to denigrate or criticize (often for good reason) is someone who serves a vital, though perhaps unrecognized, role in our lives.

This week is the traditional American holiday of Thanksgiving. It celebrates an event in which two people groups so very different from one another, the Native Americans and the European settlers, came together in the bond of peace for a common cause: celebrating life and, as it were, survival.

Despite the shameful future of the white man’s dealings with the Indians, (it should be remembered also, in today’s culture of revisionist history, that most Indians were not as gracious as the group at Plymouth Plantation), a legacy which is impossible to defend, we would do well to remember that it is entirely possible to put such racial memory aside for the sake of peace.

In this season of thanksgiving, perhaps we should remember to be thankful for our enemies. And to pray for them, even.

After all, we share the same soil.