Today rabbinic Judaism is based largely on the Oral Law, even more than the Bible. How did this happen? In the period following the destruction of the temple, the Jewish religious leadership faced a serious problem. Unlike the first Diaspora, which would last for seventy years, according to God’s revelation through Jeremiah, there was now no prophecy with a specific time limit and Jeremiah 31 was ignored! So how do you maintain Judaism while admitting that God is rejecting your sacrificial system, without a temple and without the Messiah?
And so, what started out as a spiritual revival around the Word of God in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, grew to be a movement idealizing applicational traditions—Pharisaic tradition was evolving into Rabbinic Judaism. This was not a new idea (Isa 29:13), declaring man-made traditions to be the way, the truth and the life. Justification for giving such authority to these human traditions was made by claiming they had actually been given to Moses at Mount Sinai (the “Oral Law”). In the sixty-five-year formative period between 70 and 135 AD, Judaism had become a religion that found is authority in the rabbis, rather than in divine revelation. The new leaders of the Jewish world in that formative period intentionally disconnected from the Bible. This might sound harsh, but it is actually what the Talmud itself teaches.
There is a famous and foundational story in the Talmud, demonstrating the new authority claimed by the Pharisaic leadership that took over the Jewish world. This story concerns an argument between the famous rabbis Eliezer ben Hyrkanus and Joshua ben Hananiah about “Akhnai’s Oven” (Baba Metzia 59b).
Akhnai’s Oven: a game changer
The argument has to do with a question raised by a man named Aknai, who had an oven made of clay; he had enlarged it by cutting it to pieces and then joining the pieces with sand to create a larger oven. The question he brought before the Sanhedrin was whether the new oven was clean (kosher) or unclean. The Talmud details that Rabbi Eliezer brought “all the answers in the world” and proved the oven was indeed clean, but the majority of rabbis, from another school of thought, did not accept his answers and claimed it was not clean. Rabbi Eliezer began trying to prove with supernatural signs that he was right—a fig tree was miraculously plucked up by its roots and replanted on the other side of the yard, the water in an aqueduct ran uphill, and so on. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called out, “If I am right, the heavens will prove it!” Then, God spoke audibly from heaven (bat-kol), and said, “Rabbi Eliezer is correct”! Rabbi Joshua then makes one of the most significant declarations in the Talmud: “It is not in Heaven!” (a phrase taken out of context from Deut. 30:12). By this, Rabbi Joshua was saying that God no longer makes the decisions in heaven; rather, the rabbis make them on earth. He then continues with another famous saying: “Turn aside after a multitude”! He intended this to mean that the majority rules!
Interestingly, Rabbi Joshua is quoting Exodus 23:1 in the exact opposite sense of what the verse actually means. It says:
“Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice.”
The Talmud continues to say that the Holy One, blessed be His name, smiles and says: “My sons have been victorious over me,” meaning that God accepts the rabbis’ authority to be greater than that of the Scriptures and greater even than Himself. Or, in Rabbi Joshua’s own words at the end of this Talmudic passage,
“The Torah itself is to be uncovered not by prophets, nor even by God’s miracles or audible voice, but by man’s interpretation and decision making.” (Rabbi Joshua)
The Ascension of the “Oral Law”
The Jewish world began changing dramatically, no longer under the authority of God’s Word, but rather, under independent, creative, and man-made interpretation and application. From that point on, the Rabbinical tradition is called the “Oral Law,” and is “canonized” in the Talmud, which is comprised of the Mishna and Gemara. It is imperative to understand the magnitude and breadth of the change that the Jewish world underwent, when we come to talk about keeping or adhering to Jewish tradition. Paul, in fact, speaks of Israel’s zeal to establish a righteousness through man-made rules.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4).
Modern Judaism considers the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) no longer relevant. Instead, it’s only the “Oral Law” (allegantly given to Moses) that really matters. However, based on the Bible itself, we believe that the concept of a God-given “Oral Law” is a myth. An “Oral Law” was never given to Moses at Mount Sinai; it is 100 percent man-made, and one can even claim that it a significant part of Israel’s blindness and hardness of heart toward Yeshua to this day (Rom 11:25). As long as people try to work out their own salvation by keeping man-made traditions, they fail to understand their need for the Savior.The “Oral Law” has been the main reason Yeshua is a prohibitive, unknown person to Israel until this very day. But God always turns bitter into sweet! Though the “Oral Law” persisted as an apologetic against faith in Yeshua, this same “Oral Law” also served as an instrument in preserving Israel as a distinct nation. This is analogous to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, whereby God used Egypt’s loathing of the Hebrews as a protective incubator to multiply the nation and to keep it from assimilating with the Egyptians.1
Let us delve deeper. After the destruction of the Second Temple, without a functioning priesthood, an altar, or sacrifices, the Sages were desperate to find a way through which they could retain authority, and thus hold the Jewish world together, without Yeshua. They needed a Judaism that could continue to function without the temple and without the Messiah they had rejected. In other words, they had to establish their authority to carry God’s voice to the Jewish people, and the way to do it was to establish rabbinic traditions as the new law. This law gave them, the learned rabbis (i.e., the Sages), the authority and control over all religious and social aspects of the people of Israel, while annihilating any other Jewish tradition of the day (Sadducees, Messianic, etc.). In order to convince the people of Israel of the authenticity of this modus operandi, the rabbis claim that the “Oral Law” was actually given to Moses on Mount Sinai. For example, Maimonides claimed at the beginning of his introduction to the Mishnah (Tractate Avot 1:1) that Moses knew the entire “Oral Law” by heart, and that he imparted it to the wise men and to all the people. This sounds nice, but the truth is, as recorded four times in the Torah (Lev 24:12; Numb 9:8; 15:34; 27:5), Moses himself did not know how to give an answer with regard to the commandments. In each of these instances, Moses referred the question to God and waited for His answer.
This indicates, despite Maimonides’ claim, that Moses did not receive an “Oral Law” with a complete and detailed explanation on how to implement all the written laws in the Torah. The Scriptures clearly indicate that God’s covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai was based only upon the written Law, which He commanded Moses to write. In Exodus 34:27, God commands Moses:
“Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”
No other law is mentioned, no “Oral Law” of unwritten tradition that was supposedly transmitted orally. But the Sages tried to make us think that the “Oral Law” was indeed included. They came up with a new drash (a commentary or interpretation) on Exodus 34:27. The rabbis claimed that when God says, “in accordance with these words,” (al-pi) it actually means “on the lips” (lefi), that is, the “Oral Law.” However, this theory of an “Oral Law” comes from an intentionally twisted interpretation of a Hebrew phrase; as we have seen previously in the discussion about Aknai’s oven, this method has been widely used. The most natural interpretation of this phrase in its context is “in accordance with,” an interpretation that is supported by all other similar occurrences in the Torah (Gen 43:7; Exod 34:27; Lev 27:18; Numb 26:56; Deut 17:10–11). This interpretation is also supported by all modern English translations of this passage, be they Christian or Jewish: “And the Lord said to Moses: write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, 1985).
Is there evidence for the “Oral Law”?
No doubt, the Talmud is an impressive compilation full of human knowledge and even wisdom, but there is no historical or biblical basis whatsoever for the idea that the “Oral Law” was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The contrary is true. If an “Oral Law” did exist (the kind that was supposedly given to Moses by God), you would expect to read about it hundreds, if not thousands, of times throughout the Hebrew Bible. But neither God nor Moses ever mentioned the term “Oral Law.” Not even Joshua ben Nun, whom God appointed as Moses’ successor, gives us any indication of an unwritten law. God says to Joshua,
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8).
God tells Joshua he should do everything written in the Book of the Law. God did not specify or even imply the existence of an “Oral Law,” which was passed on to Joshua from Moses. The case is the same with Ezra the scribe, and any prophet or king in the Hebrew Scriptures; no one ever mentioned that term or implied the existence of such a God-given “Oral Law.” If an “Oral Law” truly existed, it was not a part of God’s covenant with Israel. If it existed, it probably was of little interest to anyone.
None of the biblical writers expressed any interest in or desire to know or to obey any sort of “Oral Law.” In other words, based on what is actually written in the Hebrew Scriptures, an “Oral Law” that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai never existed. The term “Oral Law” actually appears for the very first time approximately 1,500 years after the time of Moses!
Interestingly, the Qumran (Dead Sea) scrolls and the Jewish Apocrypha (100–200 BCE), never mention or even imply the existence of a God-given “Oral Law.” The Cyrus Cylinder (sixth century BCE) that describes the Jews of Babylon and their lifestyle not only fails to mention any existence of a God-given “Oral Law,” but actually sheds light in the other direction. According to Irving Finkel, a prominent authority on the Cyrus Cylinder, Jewish identity was internal only, without any external religious sign or mark. Another convincing proof comes from Ethiopia. According to their own traditions, the Jews of Ethiopia returned to Israel after thousands of years in exile, and from relative isolation. These Ethiopian Jews did not recognize the authority of the rabbis. They did not recognize the rabbinic traditions, and they had never heard of the rabbis’ invention of the “Oral Law.” Interesting, right? Is that surprising to you? This is merely more evidence that an “Oral Law” was never given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Rather, it was invented by the Sages in order that Judaism could continue to exist without the temple and without the Messiah whom they rejected under their exclusive authority.