Jesus and the Rabbis (1

)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)
Jesus' attitude toward the Torah and Jewish oral tradition
By Dr. Robbert A. Veen Huizen, the Netherlands @ all rights reserved 2008

Summary: Though Jesus affirmed the validity of the Torah and obeyed its precepts, He did interpret it in a particular way. The Kingdom, Gods presence among His people, exceeds the boundaries of Israël and favors moral integrity above cultic purity. Is this new interpretation of the Torah a complete deviation from Jewish Oral tradition? Or is it part of an ongoing debate between Pharisaic teachers of the Law? Here we might need to make a distinction between what Jesus taught and how the early Church received His teaching. In the light of contemporary events, the Church exaggerated the differences between Jesus and the rabbis. In this first part I will investigate the rabbinic institution of the washing of the hands as discussed in Mark 7. In the next article I will deal with the passage itself.

what consequences this has for the shape of Christian obedience. First, to simply go to the opposite and assume agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees on major issues of law, based for the most part on silence, is a dangerous enterprise. There is more than enough positive evidence to suggest that in many cases there was agreement between Jesus’ position and at least some of the reconstructable early sources of rabbinic doctrine. Jesus would certainly have agreed with the majority of his contemporaries that the Torah contained the decisive revelation of the will of God. However, there are differences. The texts show us that a different understanding of the nature of God and a different response to the social tensions of his time made Jesus stand out in some of his decisions on Jewish law. Consensus on the shift in attitude There is a considerable consensus about the shift in attitudes that Jesus' preaching presupposes. In the traditional view three basic shifts account for the difference in Jesus’ position vis-à-vis the law: 1. Salvation without the Temple Jesus accepts the gospel of John the Baptist that there was only one way to escape the coming judgment, and that way did not lead through the Tem-

How did Jesus approach the Torah? If Jesus did not abrogate the Torah1 what then was He teaching His disciples about its function? We must turn now to the difficult question of what Jesus really taught about the Mosaic law and of

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

ple and its system of sacrificial atonement. One needs to be baptized and follow the will of God with a new commitment. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan therefore implies Jesus’ rejection of the sufficiency of the Temple cult. It includes an image of God as avenging Judge that soon afterwards is transformed in Jesus’ own preaching. 2. God is coming like a bridegroom Jesus shows that God is about to renew his marriage vows to Israel. God, the Bridegroom of Israel, is coming to His people to save them. That is why there can be no fasting! There is a deep sense of the presence of God among His people. 3. Kingdom beyond Israël If God is coming like that to His people, then Israel is not identical to the Kingdom of God. That kingdom was present since the Mosaic law, the commandments, were given to realize God’s sovereign rule in this world. What Israel is awaiting is a new kind of presence of God in the midst of His people without the mediation of the Temple, i.e., directly, forgiving the sins of all people without condition. That is the reason that Jesus is not interested in matters of holiness and purity. Jesus looked at the Torah in the light of this particular understanding of God. The Torah had the function to reveal to humankind God’s boundless and

benevolent love for man. Because God had already begun His new kingdom of divine presence, it was not important to direct everybody’s attention to the Torah as a rule of life. Not the text of the Torah, but the revelation of God’s love contained in it, was to Jesus the essence of the traditions of Israel. It seems clear that though this is a different position from that encountered in mainstream Pharisaism, it does constitute a radical effort to affirm the validity of the Torah as a vehicle of revelation and the basis for man’s behavior. The nature and extent of Jesus’ abrogation of the Torah in its aspect of law could be combined with His statements on the validity of the Law as vehicle of the revelation of grace. Is this picture correct? Then we should find a clear rejection of the rabbinic way of thinking in Jesus’ teaching on the Law. After all, if the Torah remains a revealed text, but its focus is no longer on human behavior but on Gods revealed grace, Jesus stands in opposition to the Rabbis that tried to claim both at the same time. Since the affirmation of the Torah as Law is the viewpoint that is most often associated with the Pharisaic approach to Torah, our attention now must shift to Jesus’ connection with the proponents of oral law.

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jewish traditions We must ask what Jesus’ response was to the Pharisaic traditions. Was He really that far removed from the way the Pharisees explained the law? We cannot accept beforehand the idea that Jesus was a part of the Pharisaic tradition, and the classical view informs us that Jesus was in opposition to the Pharisaic exposition of the Torah. We need to examine the evidence to reach a conclusion. The most decisive opposition to Pharisaic thought in the gospels seems to be found in Mark 7 so it seems evident that we should start here. If Mark 7 does not give evidence for a rejection of oral law by Jesus, the other passages, with far weaker statements, should be reconsidered along the same lines. In order to understand what is going on, some introductory remarks are needed. The gospel of Mark is based on Palestinian traditions about Jesus, which account for most of the sayings, and Hellenistic and Galilean narratives. Marks main effort was to provide a consistent narrative that could combine the various traditions that he had received into one continuous story. That does not mean however that Mark did not have a specific message he wanted to convey. The main intent of Marks theology seems to be linked to a very early type of piety that saw in Jesus the exceptional teacher, debater, leader, and healer. The debates are constructed in order to show Jesus’ exceptional nature, and they focus less on the con-

tents. Nevertheless, Mark received Palestinian traditions that did focus on the contents, as is clear in particular from such passages as Mark 2 and 7. These traditions were not simply reported, but used as building blocks within the context that Mark constructed for his major purposes. It is Marks strategy to use them in such a way, that the emphasis shifts from the dialogue and its issues to a statement about Jesus. He uses the dialogue as a means to portray the various responses to Jesus. The crowds, the disciples, the Pharisees, and other groups are confronted with Jesus and are astonished or in fear. (E.g. 1:22, 27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:20, 42; 6:50; 7:37; 9:14; 10:32; 12:17, 34; 15:5; 16:8) In the same manner, the role of the disciples is portrayed in various ways as a response to Jesus. The meaning of Jesus’ mission is not presented in a more or less independent Christology, but through the response of men to the exceptionality of Jesus’ character and mission. Dialogue therefore is not represented for its own sake, but with this larger issue in mind. It seems obvious that the Palestinian traditions that Mark received, have had their own meaning taken up and altered by the wider context. We might expect that every passage that shows Jesus in dialogue must then have two distinguishable layers. The one is the tradition that Mark had to report, the other is the wider context and certain additions that Mark made to achieve his own theo-

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

logical goal. This has consequences for the way we read the dialogues about Jewish oral tradition. Jesus' position, if still known with some degree of certainty, would still be used to proclaim Jesus status or explain His character. But some continuity between these statements and the theological image of Jesus should be present. The two layers would need to be harmonized. As far as I can tell, this had to be achieved by linking the original dialogue or event to the surface issues that Mark wanted to deal with. That link involves an interpretation of the received tradition in the light of the new question of Jesus' identity. The older material would be used to extract an answer to that question and then in return the text would be remodeled to reflect this understanding even better. Jesus’ own position may have given rise to a variety of positions on the Torah and, by implication, a variety of positions with regard to what constitutes Christian obedience. The interpretation of the material would provide an more uniform statement about who Jesus was. Knowing who Jesus was became more important, especially to non-Jewish Christians, than knowing what He had said. How can we hope to regain some insight into Jesus' teachings if we need to differentiate between the sayings in their original context and the way they gave rise to and were taken up in the new context?

The separation of the oldest traditions and the layers of reflective materials is motivated and driven by the form of the material. If a text is halakhic in nature, we probably have before us the material that occasioned the labor of the redactor. That is based on the assumption that the more Jewish a quotation of Jesus is, the more authentic it will be, because keeping it would be motivated solely by the respect for its source. The apparent need to provide an interpretative framework to dispel unwanted consequences when taken on its own, is precisely evidence of its authenticity. The Church itself after all, as is clear from Acts and the letter of Paul, moved away from its Jewish center soon after Jesus' death. The Palestinian traditions, most notably what scholars have called the logia-source, are in some respects akin to the language of the Mishnah. It might consist of a single quotation with a legal conclusion. It might consist of a single statement about proper behavior. Such halakhic statements take precedent over Christological material which is more likely to have been added since they answer the question who Jesus was. As an example I'll consider the material present in chapter 7:1-23 of Marks gospel first. The passage is about eating bread with defiled, that is unwashed hands. It obviously contains elements dealing with behavior (7:2-4) , it contains dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees (7:5-17) and a quotation of scripture with an application to the situation at hand

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

(7:10-13). All ingredients are there: halakhic statements, dialogue and scriptural exegesis. But it also belongs to a strain of events that ultimately answered the question who Jesus was in relation to the Pharisees (7:37). Impurity of the hands I will examine the impurity of the hands first from a Jewish perspective to see precisely what issue Mark is dealing with. The Gemara2 in Sabbath 15a quotes Rav Judah (Judah b. Ezekiel, a Babylonian Amora3 of the third century) as saying in the name of Samuel, who lived one generation earlier at the end of the 2nd century, that King Solomon had instituted the ritual washing of the hands. That seems to indicate that the discussion was settled and the ritual an ordinary part of Jewish life. The statement about the antiquity of the ritual is then hardly exaggerated. If we take all of this at face value, we might agree with what seems to have been a long standing consensus, that Jesus violated Jewish Law here, as well as in Mark 2 with regard to the Sabbath. These conflicts are then taken as decisive for measuring Jesus' opposition to His contemporaries and as ultimately leading to His death. Mark himself suggests as much when he states at the end of the passage about the man with withered hand being healed on the Sabbath: 'And the Phari-

sees going out straightway with the Herodians took counsel against him, how they might destroy him.' (Mark 3:6; Darby) If we take the opposite direction by claiming that the incident is not worth our attention since there cannot have been any serious infringement of the Law, we still have to explain why both the Sabbath infraction in Mark 2 and the washing of the hands are being treated with so much weight by Mark. This is even more so, when we consider the unrealistic quality of the event. It is highly unlikely that the Pharisees would find Jesus in Galilee in order to find an deviation from rabbinic law in His disciples. That would motivate the notion that the conflict stories were actually composed in the light of the growing conflict between Judaism and Christianity. But it might even be more unrealistic than that. In the view of E.P. Sanders, the discussion in Mark 7 is also highly artificial because washing the hands before a common meal (as opposed to a festive meal or on Sabbath), was a Pharisaic tradition at most and not a law; there is hardly any evidence for it in the 1st century; it was certainly not a uniform tradition; most Jews probably did not abide by it, so it could not have been a cause for deadly enmity.4 Sanders5 maintains that the issue arose much later, in the early period of the formation of the Mishnah tractate Yadaim, in his estimate well after A.D. 70, which deals extensively with the purity of the hands. That would mean that not only the circums-

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

tances, but the heart of the conflict itself is highly dubious. Sanders then comes to the conclusion: 'Surely stories as these should not be read as describing actual debates between Jesus and others.'6 My answer: Yes and no, I would say. No, in the sense that the incident as a whole, with all the weight it has, did not happen as described. Yes, in the sense that after separating the incident from the reflective layers, the debate is probable and its consequences correctly drawn out. The only thing is, it might not be really about washing the hands after all. Could it have been an original first century debate? Let's consider that question first. James Dunn, disagreeing with Sanders on this question, sees in Mark 7 strong evidence that the issue of washing the hands before meals was already under debate. In his estimate, the core issue of Mark 7 is indeed a Jewish debate on a point of law.7 Dunn more or less accuses Sanders of having introduced the dogma that there could have been no conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about halakah. Mark 7 would actually show the opposite. Whereas Sanders reconstructs the Pharisee position from later sources and on that basis rejects Mark 7 as improbable, Dunn accepts the historical information of Mark 7 and concludes that the Talmudic position is late in origin. Dunn of course has some historical support in the probability that the decree demanding a washing of

the hands must have been old, precisely because the Talmud cannot remember who started it: the reference to the days of King Solomon might support that. But that is not a decisive peace of evidence by any standard. Based on Talmudic evidence, a debate on the washing of the hands is not completely to be ruled out. The decree that triggered the later - later in Sanders' estimate that is - conflict, could have been at least as old as the 1st century BC, the era of Shammai and Hillel, though the same text seems to indicate that there was initially a difference of opinion amongst them and that the matter was brought to agreement only afterwards amongst their pupils. Therefore, presuming that the Talmud is historically accurate, the matter was concluded after Jesus’ lifetime. If therefore the Talmud is correct in pushing the institution of the washing of the hands toward an earlier date, it thereby also moves the conflict about its validity to an earlier date. The latter means that Mark 7, if we take Dunn's side and see it as evidence of an early institution, is at the same time evidence of it being debated among the Rabbis. Sanders is then right in his conclusion that the issue would never have led to a violent conflict as such, because no Pharisee consensus would make it so. But he is wrong about the idea that the debate as such was not important. As I will show, the debate about the washing of the

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

hands was important but not because of its legal contents as such, but because of the implications concerning Rabbinic authority. Why does it matter? Is it all of minor importance because it is just about a point of law or is more at stake? Is Mark taking a dialogue on a point of law out of context to present us with the theological opposition between the Messiah and the Pharisees? Or is he merely reflecting the opposition between the Church and Judaism of his own time, constructing a debate that never happened and never could have happened but was plausible to a Roman audience without any real knowledge of Judaism? To my mind, it seems clear that the debate about hand washing has to be about something else. Precisely because in this rabbinic commandment both the issue of the authority of rabbinical enactments and the Pharisiac drive towards sanctification of ordinary life were at stake, it must have been an item of grave conflict. The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees was not about washing hands as such, as James Dunn emphasizes, but about who could decide such an issue and for what reason it could be deemed desirable to have such a halakah. Rabbinic law on washing of the hands What did the rabbis actually say? The Mishnah in Chagiga II,4 states that hands need to be rinsed be-

fore eating unconsecrated food, and the Gemara (18b) explains that this must be for bread, while one need not rinse his hands before eating fruit. (If we take Mark 7 as historical, this shows that it must at least have been valid law before the year 70.) In this context we may make a motivated guess that the historic referent of Mark 7 seems to belong at least partially to the first stage of the conflict, and that it is set against the background of the Sadducee conflict because it is about the authority of the oral tradition; in part, however, it also belongs to a much later Christian-Jewish debate, when the ritual itself was abolished for Christians. The element of the inclusion or exclusion of gentiles is then made into the context of the entire debate. I will go into this hypothesis in more detail later. So the core of the debate is probably authentic, and we may identify it as pre-70, following Dunn’s analysis. The first stage of this debate as it unwinds in the Talmued was most certainly a debate between Sadducees and Pharisees, the second stage exclusively a debate among Pharisaic teachers themselves. Now we must ask the next question: what was this debate exactly about? The Gemara in Chulin 106a discusses the custom in a way that makes it clear that the rationale behind the commandment was secondary in nature. It was an already established custom that the Rabbis debated.

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Rabbinic origin First of all, it surely did not originate in the Torah itself. It was reported that R. Eleazar b. Arach (a teacher, Tanna, of the 1st century) commented upon a baraita (a Mishnah not found in Rabbi Judah’s compilation) that simply stated:
It is written: And whomsoever he that hath the issue touches, without having rinsed his hands in water, Lev. 15:11, herein, said R. Eleazar b. Arach, the sages found biblical support for the law of washing the hands.

even. (Lev. 15:11)

But the biblical support they found was derived by a procedure called asmachta, i.e., a rabbinic ruling was given and afterwards it was homiletically linked to a quotation from the Torah without contending that the text actually taught the ruling. In the text of Torah, the washing of the hands is not a separate act, but one that is included in bathing, In the rabbinic ruling the washing of the hands becomes a separate act, implying that all those who did not wash their hands are unclean and unfit to partake of the meal. It is however important that the text used refers to uncleanlines of an entirely different nature:
If any man have a flux from his flesh, because of his flux he is unclean. (Lev. 15:2) And whomsoever he toucheth who hath the flux and hath not rinsed his hands in water--he shall wash his garments, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the

In fact, as is clear from Hirsch’s commentary on Leviticus 15:118, the text itself implies that any man who bathes also cleans his hands by doing so, and the hands are mentioned as a meaningful pars pro toto for the body as a whole, emphasizing that the capability to act was restored in such ritual bathing. It is clear, then, that an application of Lev. 15:11 to the washing of the hands before meals presupposes an intent to make the common meal into an analogy of the priestly meal, which indeed required Levitical purity. We must note in passing that I accept the general idea that Pharisaic teaching was characterized by the intent of applying Levitical purity to ordinary life, to “educate the masses in holiness” as was shown e.g. by Jacob Neusner.9 Neusner expressed the view that the Pharisees contributed a viewpoint and a method. The viewpoint addressed “all Israel,” and the method focused upon the sanctification of “all Israel. "The Pharisees contributed to the nascent system after 70 a fundamental attitude that everyone mattered and an emphasis on the holiness of everyday life.”10 James Dunn mentions the “received wisdom” that the Pharisees at the time of Jesus were a purity sect. Their concern was to keep the purity laws, which governed access to the Temple and participation in

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

the cult, outside the Temple, to extend the holiness of the Temple throughout the land of Israel. Rabbinic authority Secondly, it is also clear that the custom is intrinsically linked to its authoritative source. In the same passage we discussed above, we find R. Idi b. Abin (a Babylonian Amora of the 4th. century) stating that the washing of the hands was instituted because of the ritual purity of terumah, food consecrated to the Temple. This provides the argument for my contention above, that the ritual that was prescribed for the priests - bathing the whole body, including hands before a consecrated meal was transferred by the Pharisees beyond that sphere to become a washing of the hands before a common meal. Hands are considered unclean, but only in the second degree, meaning that they could not defile common food but could defile consecrated food. However, this is valid for priests, and, on the assumption that the festive meals on religious holidays constituted an analogy to priestly gatherings, only valid for such occasions. How could it, on the basis of Torah, be applied to ordinary meals as well? In fact, only tradition itself could provide a foundation for that, and there can be a connection between two efforts to give a basis for the ritual: the one implying the priestly analogy, extending the ri-

tual laws to laymen in order to sanctify Israel, and the other the sheer fact that it had been handed down by tradition. Obviously, R. Idi considered compliance with this rabbinic institution a meritorious act, even if there was no basis for it in written law. Obeying the rabbis is in itself a form of piety, since it expresses loyalty to the system in which halakah is produced. Therefore, when the Gemara asks the obvious question “why?” it is understandable why the younger contemporary of R. Idi, Abaye, is thought to have answered with a general principle:
It is a meritorious act to hearken to the words of the sages.

The formal reason for the obedience lies therefore in the authority of the sages themselves. Dispute about the practice But the sages’ opinion was not fully undisputed. Rab (2nd and 3rd century) argued that after a person had washed his hands in the morning, this would serve him all day if he so stipulated in his mind, if he did not dirty his hands or render them unclean later. Nevertheless, this opinion did not survive: it lost the analogy with the priestly requirements and contradicted the specifics of the earlier and already widespread Pharisaic institution. It implied also a

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

more “material” and rational way of looking at the issue of impurity or cleanliness. All of this shows that to the third and fourth generations of Amoraïm the only real reason for obedience to the commandment is the fact that the rabbis instituted it and that they loosely accepted the priestly analogy as the general motivation for it. This is shown also by comparison with a related minor issue. In the Chulin passage we also find mention of the sages instituting the washing of the hands before eating fruit, and not only before partaking of a common meal with bread. The reason for that institution is given by the same R. Eleazar as “reasons of cleanliness.” Raba explains this as meaning that washing the hands is neither a duty (not a rabbinic enactment) nor a meritorious act (which though not commanded is an act of piety), but merely a matter of free choice. What does this say about the washing of the hands before eating bread? Surely that to some rabbis the washing of the hands (since ritual defilement cannot be conferred upon the bread) is intrinsically a matter of free choice or only an issue of cleanliness. Intrinsically, the rabbis of the Talmud accept the verdict that Mark 7 pronounces upon the custom and agree with Jesus’ main principle that there was no real defilement here. But the result of the discussion in the Talmud is

not the abrogation of the institution of the washing of the hands before a meal where bread is used. Rabbinic authority makes it a duty on account of that authority itself. As we have seen, it is a meritorious act when the sages institute it as such. There is no valid ground for it apart from an analogy with priestly customs, which to some was not a sufficient reason. The washing of the hands, included in his bathing, was a prerequisite only for the priest when he had his meal in the Temple. So his “preparation” for partaking of consecrated food, terumah, provides analogous grounds for the washing of the hands of the non-priest before a common meal. It is an act that strengthens the similarity between life at home and priestly life in the Temple. And that in itself is a choice the rabbis made, and which then, because of their status, becomes meritorious and a duty. The act itself is an acknowledgement of their authority and their intent to sanctify life outside the confines of the Temple. The issue in its final stage in Mark 7 is therefore moved beyond the question of purity or impurity to become focused on the authority of the rabbis themselves to build up the Jewish way of life. The gospel of Mark in its editorial layer very accurately opposes that by showing Jesus’ authority to reject not only the specific halakhic decision , but the system itself. In Mark’s rendering of the conflict, messianic authority clashes with rabbinic authority,

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Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

Jesus and the Rabbis (1)

Robbert A. Veen

even when originally a debate on the issue itself must have been concerned with principles and arguments along the lines of the debate recorded in the Talmud. So we can conclude: in the ritual commandment to wash the hands before eating a complete meal (implying bread), the rationale rests on a loose analogy with priestly law and ultimately on the fact that it was an institution of the sages, making what is in itself an “act of free choice” into an honoring of rabbinic authority and the intent to sanctify life. In this honoring of rabbinic authority, the acceptance of the basic Pharisaic endeavor to make life at home into an analogy to Temple symbolism is implied. Utensils, food, and company at meals must comply with specific rules for holiness. Obviously, a person who would not comply with this institution would be excluded from fellowship, since that would involve a rejection of rabbinic authority as such. However, the basis for that exclusion would not be, as we have seen, the fact that such non-compliance constituted a breach of Torah, but merely disregard for a rabbinic institution. That changed an “act of free choice,” which might have been prompted by arguments of cleanliness, into a prescribed ritual. All of this allows us to reconstruct the Mark 7 passage and differentiate between its core - the incident - and its reflective stages. That I will do in my next contribution.

Notes
See my 'Why We Can't Have Jesus Without the Torah?' (2008-09-13) and 'Jesus Fulfilled the Law, But What Does It Mean?' (2008-09-15) on http://www.journalofcrisistheology.com/articles.php. 2 Gemara, literally: completion. The word refers to the oral discussions on the body of Jewish Law as they were recorded and collected in the two recensions of the Talmud, the Babylonian or the Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmud, or to the whole of the Talmud consisting of Mishnah and Gemara. 3 The authorities in the Mishnah are called Tannaim, expounders (of the law). The authorities that commented on the Mishnah are called Amoraim, teachers (of the law). These Amoraim lived in Babylonia or Palestine from the 3d century onward. 4 See note 3. 5 Sanders, E.P., Jesus and Judaism, (Philadelphia:Fortress press), 1985, p. 264 - 267. 6 Sanders (1985), p. 265. 7 Dunn, James, D.G., The Partings of the Ways, London, 1991, p. 43. Dunn focuses his counterargument on E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985), pp. 178, 199, 209, 264-5. 8 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, translation and commentary, translated by Isaac Levy, London, Judaica Press, 19762 (1867 – 1878). 9 Neusner, Jacob, Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees (1971). 10 Neusner , Jacob, Rabbinic Judaism, (1995), p. 52.
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