Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Paradigms, Tradition, and the Lexicon, Part 3

Which “tradition”?

Everett Ferguson, in his “Backgrounds of Early Christianity”, (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, © 1987, 1993, 2003), defined the Halakah this way:

The authoritative compilation of the oral law in the Mishnah was the achievement of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch (or Prince) at the end of the second century. He was the great-great grandson of Gamaliel the Elder (Paul’s teacher from Acts 22:3 and Acts 5:34) and is often cited simply as “Rabbi”…

Rabbi Judah’s compilation of the oral law in written form and with a few minor additions is the Mishnah, a topical collection of legal rulings. The word comes from a verb meaning “to repeat,” and so means “study.” The Tannaim (lit. “repeaters”) were the rabbinic scholars of the first and second centuries whose interpretations are collected in the Mishnah. More specifically, the Mishnah is a codification of the Halakah (pl. Halakoth). The verb halak means “to walk,” and halakah referred to an authoritative legal decision on how one was to conduct himself according to the law. (Note the frequency of “to walk” in the practical, ethical sections of the New Testament Epistles – e.g., Gal. 5:16; Eph 4:1, 17; 5:2; 8’, 15; Col 4:5; 1 Thess 4:1) (pg 492).

This was a first century “oral law”, not written down and codified until about the year 200. However, various snippets of it were commented on in a variety of ancient sources, from which the following derives.

Halakah and Ethics in the Jesus Tradition
Previous generations of scholars frequently approached the ethics of Jesus from a naively Christian perspective, by categorically asserting the superiority of his love command and the Sermon on the Mount to the supposed ‘legalism’ and hide-bound casuistry of his Jewish contemporaries. More recently, however, the blossoming study of ancient Judaism has enabled us, perhaps for the first time since the first century, to explore Jesus’ moral teaching meaningfully in its original setting.

All the main features of Jesus’ ethics are deeply conversant with Jewish moral presuppositions. God is one and he is supreme. Ethics is therefore inalienably theonomous rather than autonomous: both the substance and authority of right behaviour have their source in the God of Israel. ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus asks. ‘No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18 par.). The commandment to love God in the Shema‘ Israel, along with the love of one’s neighbor, is for Jesus the heart of the Torah – as it was for some of his contemporaries (see Deut 6:4–5; Mark 12:29; [other non-New Testament references omitted], from Markus Bockmuehl, “Jewish Law in Gentile Churches”: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2003, pg 4).

Note here, whereas Bockmuehl does not hesitate to provide a source for Jesus’s ethical teaching (“deeply conversant with Jewish moral presuppositions”), Bryan Cross introduces his concept of “agape paradigm” to support the Roman Catholic view of “infusion of agape as “the law written on the heart”.

Jesus’s ethical teaching features no such “infusion” of anything at all, much less agape. In pointing to “law written on the heart” (Jer 31:33). Paul notes the nature of this in 2 Cor 3. Scripturally, this new ethical teaching is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”, “the ministry of the Spirit”, “the ministry of righteousness”.

He contrasts this with a so-called “list paradigm”, but this is what an ethical law is.

What is the content of this law? As I suggested in my last blog post in this series, the content of the New Testament is overwhelmingly taken from the Old Testament:

By standards that Beale relates, there may be more than 4,000 “allusions” or “echoes” of the Old Testament found within the New. Given that there are 7956 verses in the New Testament, more than half the New Testament can be seen as bearing at least some form of “echo of” or “allusion to” some Old Testament concept or idea.

Thus, when a New Testament writer talks of “tradition” “handed down (παρέδοσαν) to him by “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, which in Luke 1:2 is a clear reference to the apostles, the “content” of that “tradition” was oozing with Old Testament words and concepts.

Bockmuehl concurs with this:

To this day, textbooks continue to make much of the fact that explicit use of the Torah plays only a minor role for the Gospel writers. This in itself might seem to cast doubt on Jesus’ indebtedness to Jewish moral teaching. Three points, however, must be raised in defense of our proposition.

First, many other Jewish ethical texts also make only limited explicit use of the Torah (see Niebuhr 1987; also cf. the Mishnah), and one must not extrapolate from the specialized exegetical discourse of certain sages and Dead Sea Scrolls to the whole of pre-70 Judaism, as is still so often recklessly done.

Secondly we are dealing with Gospels written in Greek for a Gentile or mixed audience outside Palestine; and that in itself will have a great deal to say about the shape in which the gospel material has been transmitted.

But thirdly and most importantly, to understand the Jewishness of Jesus’ morality it is in any case far less appropriate to theologize abstractly about what he said (or indeed did not say) about the Torah in general than to examine the verbal and practical clues as to how and why he acted as he did. In other words, it is impossible to judge the supposed ‘uniqueness’ or otherwise of Jesus’ moral teaching without an adequate assessment of his practical ethics and his halakhah. It is to this subject, therefore, that we must now turn.


I’ll look at this in another blog post, Lord willing.

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