Friday, February 22, 2013

Paradigms, Tradition, and the Lexicon, Part 4

The Precedence of Written Torah. Or, Jason Stellman’s “already-existing apostolic tradition”.

We should keep in mind what Jesus thought of “oral tradition”. Oscar Cullmann notes (“The Tradition”, in “The Early Church”, London, UK: SCM Press Ltd, ©1956) “Jesus rejected in a radical manner the paradosis of the Jews” (pg 60). Consider how Jesus put it:

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

We have seen how this worked in John Wenham’s contribution in Norman Geisler, ed., “Inerrancy”, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, ©1980), when he says:

Our Lord used the Old Testament as the court of appeal in matters of controversy. Both with Pharisee and Sadducee, He did not call into question their appeal to Scripture; rather, He rebuked them for failure to study it profoundly enough. Even the seeming waste of time and effort by the Pharisees on detailed legal formulations based on their study of the Torah He commended rather than condemned. “You should have practiced the latter,” He said. Their mistake was not that they applied the law too rigorously, but that they left undone its more important matters (Matt. 23:23, pg 10).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

Markus Bockmuehl (“Jewish Law in Gentile Churches”: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2003) takes this notion further and puts real flesh on the bones of Wenham’s outline, exploring “your tradition” and how it intersected with “the word of God” in first century Palestine:

The Mishnah [the authoritative compilation of the oral law, ~200AD] commends that a good interpreter should ‘make a fence’ for the Torah, i.e., interpret in keeping with tradition… Pharisaic halakhah, and later normative halakhah, was a way of giving increasingly definitive traditional shape to the practice of Judaism. Whether or not the pharisaic respect for oral tradition had already crystallized into a formal doctrine of oral law, Jesus’ legal disputes with the Pharisees represent a clash between different conceptions of halakhah, different ways of building that protective hermeneutical fence.

That Jesus, too, was engaged in the erection of an interpretive fence cannot be in doubt, even if his overall concern had a different focus. Several emphases of Jesus’ teaching demonstrate this quite clearly. First, and most strongly attested, is his opposition to halakhic arguments that restrict or suspend the plain meaning of the written Torah (emphasis added).

The key illustration here must be the dispute about handwashing in Mark 7:1–13 par. The argument concerns the authoritative place of Pharisaic tradition in a matter of purity not explicitly legislated in the Torah, viz. that of ritual handwashing to cleanse any acquired contamination before each meal. Jesus’ interlocutors appeal to a well-known Pharisaic principle of halakhah that is not based on the Torah (and is apparently not attested at Qumran): food is rendered unclean at second remove, by derived impurity of the hands ([non-Biblical references omitted]; nb impurity of ‘hands’ as distinct from the body). Biblical law, by contrast, recognizes only direct sources of impurity, which affect the body as a whole (e.g. Lev 11:31–35).

Jesus’ reply, as recorded somewhat differently in Mark and Matthew, consists of two parts. First, he insists on the distinction between the authority of the Torah, which he accepts, and that of the ascendant Pharisaic halakhah, which he rejects (Mark 7:8–9 with reference to Isaiah 29:13). This insistence on the halakhic primacy of Scripture over against Pharisaic tradition was also shared by the Sadducees and the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls).

It was Jesus “making a fence for the Torah” – giving precedence to the Written Torah.

The second part of the argument in Mark 7, equally rooted in a Palestinian Jewish Sitz im Leben well before AD 70, illustrates Jesus’ charge that the Pharisees in practice assign a higher authority to their tradition than to Scripture. He does so by drawing on the familiar halakhic topic of vows (cf. also Matt 5:33–37; 23:16–22), to which the Mishnah later devotes an entire tractate and which was also of interest to the Essenes.

Bockmuehl notes that Josephus “suggests that the Essenes refuse to take vows altogether. Although vows are envisaged … the document nevertheless criticizes the conditional hedging of vows in terms reminiscent of Matt 5:34–36; 23:16–22.”

Jesus again was “giving precedence to Written Torah” in a way that was not unusual in his time.

The halakhah of Jesus’ opponents apparently did not allow them to release a person from a vow to make and offering in the Temple, even in the case where the designated resources were needed to support one’ parents. There is clearly a conflict of commandments here, between the duty to keep one’s vows (Numbers 30:2; cf Deut 23:21, 23) and that of honouring one’s parents (Exodus 20:12; Deut 5:16). The tradition of Jesus’ opponents; perhaps holding all mitzvoth to be of equally binding force [non-Biblical references omitted], had led them to a legal rigorism that made the mitigation or suspension of a lesser commandment in favour of a more important one very difficult to achieve.”

(Bockmuehl discusses “The Weightier Things of the Torah” shortly).

What is more, Jesus’ view in Mark 7 relates easily to the range of mainstream Jewish positions, as is clear from a late first-century debate recorded in the Mishnah (and previously, in Philo). There, a position not dissimilar from that of Jesus is taken by the late first-century R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (who is elsewhere reported to have been sympathetic to an apocryphal Halakhan of Jesus [non-Biblical references omitted]; the explicit Scriptural commandment to honour one’s parents can take precedence over the secondary and merely traditional rules about the cancellation of vows.

For Jesus, therefore, the ‘fence’ around the Torah is itself rigorously scriptural; in case of conflict, the Decalogue’s commandment to honour one’s parents takes precedence over the laws about vows, which are in any case voluntary. Jesus refuses to subordinate one written commandment to the oral tradition pertaining to another (a distinction recognized in [rabbinic doctrine, non-Biblical references omitted].

In the first instance, then, Torah serves as its own interpretive fence.

Thus, Jesus, in giving his teaching, was relying on sola Scriptura, the precedence of Scripture norming tradition, and emphasizing “the weightier things of the Torah”.

As I’ve related: “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.”

Jesus, in his teaching, was echoing and reinforcing Torah above all.

Thus, when Jesus, and then 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”, the “content” of that “tradition” was “oozing with Old Testament words and concepts.”

In the question of “The Tradition and the Lexicon”, the two were, in the New Testament, one and the same.

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