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Basic Worldview:
104 Why Christianity?

History of Judaism Study

Introduction, Purpose, Definitions and Terminology
Timelines: Jewish and Gentile Writings and Thought
Eliminating Potential Sources of Complex Monotheism
Was Jewish Complex Monotheism Borrowed from the Greeks?
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 1
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 2
Complex Monotheism after the Close of the Hebrew Bible
Philo Affirms Complex Monotheism in Pre-rabbinic Judaism
Criteria of Biblical Monotheism, Christianity & Pre-Rabbinic Judaism
New Testament Christianity as a Sect of Judaism
When Was Complex Monotheism First Rejected?
Simple & Complex Monotheism before the Rabbinic Period
What Separates Biblical Judaism & New Testament Christianity?
God's Sovereign Choice of Abraham & His Offspring
Summary, Conclusions, and Implications

What Does Separate Biblical Judaism from New Testament Christianity?

What Does Separate Biblical Judaism from New Testament Christianity?

If those foundational beliefs, which are conventionally identified as the reason for categorizing Christianity and Judaism as separate religions, are in fact not legitimate differences, then is there any reason to categorize New Testament Christianity as a separate religion from the Judaism of the Hebrew bible? In his book, Sommer offers some thoughts on the remaining differences. We have underlined the important portion of the quote below.

Christianity in Light of Judaism’s Embodied God – This study forces a reevaluation of a common Jewish attitude toward Christianity. Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. 59 What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period. 60 To be sure, Jews must repudiate many beliefs central to most forms of Christianity; these include a commitment to a person whom Judaism regards as a false messiah; the repudiation of the Sinai covenant to which God committed Godself and Israel eternally; the veto on the binding force of Jewish law; those aspects of Christian ethics that subjugate justice to victimhood; and the rejection of God’s baffling but sovereign choice of a particular family and that family’s descendants. No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and heavenly manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one. A religion whose scripture contains the fluidity traditions, whose teachings emphasize the multiplicity of the shekhinah, and whose thinkers speak of the sephirot does not differ in its theological essentials from a religion that adores a triune God. 61 Note that the Christian beliefs that Judaism rejects are not specifically theological in nature. The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects. 62 – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 135-136

In the quote above, Sommer identifies several important issues which he believes constitute legitimate differences between Judaism and Christianity. Out of these issues, Sommer’s considers the fifth to be “the only significant theological difference” between the two religions. As listed by Sommer, the differences include:

1. The commitment to a person Judaism regards as a false messiah.
2. The repudiation of the Sinai covenant.
3. The veto on the binding force of Jewish law.
4. The rejection of God’s sovereign choice of a particular family and that family’s descendants.
5. Christianity’s belief in a dying and rising God.

Sommer contrasts these issues with other topics that are conventionally thought to distinguish Judaism from Christianity, but which the Hebrew Bible and history prove to be moot points. We have examined the material Sommer and Segal present and it is clear that Biblical Judaism as well as some forms of early-rabbinic Judaism do not contain any existing, substantive theological distinctions from or objections to New Testament teaching on God’s multiplicity of selfhood, corporeality, or incarnation. As we have seen, only post-biblical and, even post-rabbinic developments and reformulations of Judaism differ with Christian teaching on these particular, important subjects. If Sommer’s assessment is correct, then with regard to these 5 areas both Rabbinic Judaism and Biblical Judaism (not simply the former) will have to exhibit differences from Christian teaching that are more sustainable, documentable, and substantive than the conventional doctrinal issues that Sommer has shown to be untenable.

As we begin to investigate this question, it is important not to overlook Sommer remark that “Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form.” This comment acknowledges and highlights that over history at least one false difference has accumulated as part of popular justification for categorizing Judaism and Christianity as separate religions.

Moreover, to a significant degree, Segal’s work can be described as a documentation of the rise of historic rabbinic insistence that Complex Monotheism was, by definition, a heretical movement or, in other words, a separate religion from authentic Judaism. In the following quote, Segal provides an excellent summary of the rabbis’ argument against Christianity specifically on the grounds that Christians embraced the idea of at least two divine hypostases.

we have to conclude that “two powers” was a catch-all term for many different groups – including Christians, Gnostics, and Jews…The rabbis are saying that many varieties of Jewish sects – including Christians and Gnostics – are guilty of violating an essential premise of Judaism, even while they think they are exegeting scripture correctly. The rabbis are involved in the formulation of orthodoxy – a task necessary in their view because some Jewish sects have ceased to understand the theological center of Judaism…In calling the sectarians “those who say there are two powers in heaven,” the rabbis were stating that the sectarians violated the most basic tenet of the Israelite faith—the unity of God. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 58-59

Since modern and post-biblical Judaism have at times offered a false dichotomy with Christianity in regard to Complex Monotheism, other cited differences must be examined with at least some degree of healthy skepticism. Because the invalid distinction based on Complex Monotheism was so long-standing and persistent, we can no longer take every alleged fundamental, sharp divide between Christianity and Judaism as legitimate on face value. Consequently, differences from Christianity offered by later rabbinic or medieval Judaism will only demonstrate that such topics were held to be areas of distinction by various Jewish thinkers of those more recent eras. It will not demonstrate whether the reasons express by such writers are any more legitimate than the post-biblical repudiation of Complex Monotheism when it comes to the biblical era of Judaism. After all, if one prominent justification for separating Christianity can be historically illegitimate, it is at least possible that other differences may be historical (in a post-biblical timeframe) yet still lack historical legitimacy as far as the biblical era of Judaism is concerned.

It is important to note that while Sommer offers these five issues as legitimate grounds for maintaining a distinction between Judaism and Christianity, an examination and presentation of support for this claim is outside the scope of his book and, therefore, not included in it. Below we will examine these issues in greater detail with an awareness of Jewish and Christian texts as well as historical information. Again, it is clear that the 5 issues that Sommer provides do separate forms of modern Judaism and Christianity. However, in this study we are interested in determining whether these 5 issues constitute legitimate grounds for Judaism and Christianity to stand apart from one another in the pre-rabbinic period (prior to the second century AD.) It may be the case that even though Christianity and modern Judaism are categorically different religions with regard to the five topics identified by Sommer, Christianity and Judaism of the biblical period may be categorically the same religion with regard to those topics. We have already seen this is the case concerning the rabbinic and medieval repudiation of Christianity’s Complex Monotheism.

Here are the questions we will be investigating as we proceed.

Can a legitimate distinction be made between New Testament Christianity and Biblical Judaism on these 5 grounds? Or, will it turn out that these subjects are just as biblically and historically unjustified and untenable as conventional attempts to distinguish Biblical Judaism and New Testament Christianity along the lines of Simple and Complex Monotheism?

Regarding Jesus as a False Messiah

The first issue that Sommer lists as a necessary distinction between Judaism and Christianity is Christianity’s belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. According to Sommer, Judaism is distinct from Christianity in this regard because it regards Jesus as a false messiah. There are several important points worth considering on this topic.

First, it is important to again recall Rabbi Akiba. We already know that Akiba is considered to be a very important and prominent figure in Rabbinic Judaism.

Akiba ben Joseph – The Palestinian rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (ca. 50-ca. 135) was a founder of rabbinic Judaism. He developed a method of Hebrew scriptural interpretation. – Encyclopedia of World Biography

Akiba ben Joseph – Akiba ben Joseph , c.AD 50-c.AD 135, Jewish Palestinian religious leader, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism. Although the facts of his life are obscured by legend, he is said to have been a poor and illiterate shepherd who began his rabbinic studies at the age of forty. Tradition views him as one of the first Jewish scholars to systematically compile Hebrew oral laws, the Mishna. He is believed to have been executed by the Romans in the aftermath of the messianic revolt of Bar Kokba (AD 132-135), though the extent of his participation is a matter of controversy. – Columbia Encyclopedia

However, we also know from the Talmud that Akiba himself believed that his historic contemporary, Simeon Bar Kokhba, was the Messiah.

Akiba ben Joseph – Scholarly opinion is divided on the extent of Akiba's participation in an ill-fated rebellion against Rome (132–135) led by Bar Kokhba (originally Simeon ben Koziba). Some consider Akiba to have been the spiritual force behind the uprising. Others take note of the Talmudic report that Akiba considered Bar Kokhba to be the promised messianic king but see no evidence of further action on his part. – Encyclopedia Britannica

R. Akiba died as a martyr as a result of the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion and since he was known to have supported Bar Kokhba’s messianic claim…– Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 47-49

Rabbi Akiba died in 135 AD because of his belief in a false messiah. However, Rabbinic Judaism does not reject Rabbi Akiba as a heretic. Rabbinic Judaism does not reject Akiba from being a leader and teacher in Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism does not reject Akiba’s theology as non-Jewish or contrary to Judaism. To the contrary it embraces his teachings as foundational to Judaism. Why then, would the belief that Jesus as the Messiah necessitate that a person can no longer properly be considered a part of Judaism or the Jewish religious community? This is inconsistent. If Rabbi Akiba is not only accepted as a faithful Jew, but esteemed as an important Jewish theologian despite his belief in a person whom Judaism regards as a false messiah, then belief in a false messiah (alone) cannot be used to determine whether someone is a faithful adherent to Judaism or a heretic.

This last point deserves some emphasis. The issue here is not whether Jesus is a false Messiah. What the example of Akiba demonstrates is that the legitimacy of Jesus’ messianic claims isn’t particularly germane to the question of whether or not belief in Jesus can be regarded as heretical or “non-Jewish.” Even in the worst case scenario in which a particular historic figure is identified as a false messiah, belief in that figure does not render one a heretic. Consequently, no sect of Judaism can be labeled heretical strictly on the grounds that it believes in Jesus’ messianic claims. Whether or not Jesus’ messianic claims are legitimate is an important theological question, but it is an entirely separate issue to the question of what is and is not legitimately considered to be Judaism as the case of Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kokhba demonstrates.

In addition, it is certainly true that modern Judaism’s traditional position is to regard Jesus as a false Messiah. But, traditionally modern Judaism has also rejected the Christian belief in the multiplicity of God’s self, God’s corporeality, and the incarnation. On these issues, the labeling of Christianity as “heretical” to biblical Judaism has been shown to be illegitimate and historically unjustified. Modern Judaism’s distancing itself from Christianity over these doctrinal issues is not based on legitimate biblical or historical grounds. On the contrary, the rejection of Christianity over these issues resulted from Jewish traditions that emerged long after the critical historical period as a product of reformulations of Jewish understanding in light of Platonic thought and political developments rather than from longstanding, biblical rationale. Jewish objection to these Christian beliefs was a later development that was not authentically present in Biblical Judaism, pre-rabbinic Judaism, or even early-rabbinic Judaism.

A study of these issues has shown that the conventional positions offered by modern Judaism cannot be presumed to be historically legitimate grounds for rejecting particular Christian beliefs as “non-Jewish” or heretical. We have already seen long-standing rabbinic arguments concerning the heretical status of Christianity overturned by historic documentation of pre-rabbinic and biblical Judaism. Therefore, we likewise cannot assume the legitimatcy of the long-standing insistence of later rabbinic, medieval, and modern Judaism that Jesus was a false messiah and, consequently, that Christianity is a heretical form of Judaism. Perhaps, like the New Testament belief in God’s multiplicity of personhood, conventional Jewish perceptions about Jesus as a messiah are in error and historically unfounded. Perhaps, like the corporeality of God, Judaism did not reject a belief in Jesus as the Messiah until some point after the second-century AD. Perhaps Jews of the first and early second century AD did not share the universal or at least a formal or categorical assessment of Jesus that is exhibited by Jewish texts dating from the second-century AD and afterwards.

The point is simply this, modern Judaism’s identification of Jesus as a false messiah requires a historical, biblical, and theological basis. We cannot simply reject Jesus as a messiah on the grounds that other people reject Jesus as the Messiah, without first examining whether or not their reasons for doing so are sound. To do so would be circular reasoning. The question is this: why does modern Judaism regard Jesus as a false Messiah? The answer cannot be that Judaism regards Jesus as a false messiah because modern Judaism regards Jesus as a false messiah. If we want to suggest that Judaism has always rejected Jesus as a false Messiah, then we would need to be able to document that such a rejection occurred immediately and was based on pre-existing, firmly established and universarally accepted exegetical grounds.

It is certainly true that many Jews of Jesus’ day rejected Jesus as the messiah. However, many first-century Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 2:5-10, 14, 22-24, 30, 36, and 41 report that as a result of Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (just weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion on Passover of the same year) over 3,000 Jewish pilgrims from Israel and all over the Roman world accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 3:11-Acts 4:5 report that another 5,000 Jews believed Peter and John’s teaching and accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The next chapter of Acts reports that the apostles went out preaching about Jesus and healing in Jerusalem. Acts 5:14 states that multitudes of men and women were added to the Jewish-Christian community. And Acts 21:20 tells us that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem believed in Jesus.

These numbers may not seem like a lot in today’s world, but in ancient Judea, over 8,000 devout, practicing Jews from Jerusalem and all over the world believing Jesus was the Messiah (within weeks of his death) would constitute a sizeable group. Given the beliefs we have seen documented among first-century Jews, these Jews’ acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah seems understandable. The objections to Jesus’ teaching that developed later were not known or established for early first-century Jews. Neither was the identification of Jesus as a false Messiah. (See sidenote below.)

(Sidenote: While his crucifixion would have likely branded him as much a failure as the death of Bar Kokhba later did, claims of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection would have the immediate potential to overturn the fleeting disqualification of death so long as such extraordinary claims could be substantiated by physical evidence as well as  exegetical and miraculous proofs. Consequently, we must consider whether or not there is sufficient reason to conclude that many first-century Jews did accept Jesus as the Messiah despite reports of his death and to conclude that such conviction is best explained by their having seen convincing physical evidence as well as exegetical and miraculous proofs. While miracles may be regarded as rare or skeptically dismissed by even religious members of modern society, the backdrop of the Hebrew bible created a context in first-century Judaism that contained no such automatic incredulity toward the possibility of miraculous proofs. We must consider the possibility that first-century Jews observed such miraculous proofs from within that first-century context as we weigh the arguments for and against whether or not their behavior demonstrates a conviction that they had indeed received such supernatural evidence (or, in some case, even witnessed physical proof such as seeing the resurrected Christ.) Yet one thing is clear, given the post-crucifixion claims about Jesus and the conversion of many of his contemporary Jews under less than appealing conditions, we cannot conclude that Jesus’ death automatically established Jesus as a false Messiah in the minds of his contemporaries.)

Later in Acts 5, the apostles are taken into custody and questioned by the Sanhedrin for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. As they consider what to do to the apostles, a Pharisee on the council named Gamaliel advises his fellow counselors to be careful regarding the actions they would take. This is the same Pharisee that Paul identifies as his mentor in Acts 22:3. Biblical scholars identify him as Gamaliel I, a leader of the Sanhedrin and grandson of the renonwned Hillel.

Gamaliel I – Son of Simon and grandson of Hillel: according to a tannaitic tradition, he was their successor as nasi and first president of the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. Although the reliability of this tradition, especially as regards the title of "nasi," has been justly disputed, it is nevertheless a fact beyond all doubt that in the second third of the first century Gamaliel (of whose father, Simon, nothing beyond his name is known) occupied a leading position in the highest court, the great council of Jerusalem, and that, as a member of that court, he received the cognomen "Ha-Zaen."…Gamaliel appears as the head of the legal-religious body in the three epistles which he at one time dictated to the secretary Johanan (account of Judah b. 'Illai: Tosef., Sanh. ii. 6; Sanh. 11b; Yer. Sanh. 18d; Yer. Ma'as. Sh. 56c)… Gamaliel appears also as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin in the account given in Acts (v. 34 et seq.), where he is called a "Pharisee" and a "doctor of the law "much honored by the people. He is there made to speak in favor of the disciples of Jesus, who were threatened with death (v. 38-39): "For if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught: but if it be of God, ye can not overthrow it."…Gamaliel, as it appears, did most toward establishing the honor in which the house of Hillel was held, and which secured to it a preeminent position within Palestinian Judaism soon after the destruction of the- Temple. The title "Rabban," which, in the learned hierarchy until post-Hadrianic times, was borne only by presidents of the highest religious council, was. first prefixed to the name of Gamaliel. That Gamaliel ever taught in public is known, curiously enough, only from the Acts of the Apostles, where (xxii. 3) the apostle Paul prides himself on having sat at the feet of Gamaliel. – Jewish Encyclopedia

It is worth noting that Gamaliel’s statements explicitly express that he did not know if the apostles’ teaching was from God or not. As a result he advised that the council should leave the apostles alone because if the apostles were doing God’s work, the council would be fighting against God. Acts reports that the Sanhedrin agreed with Gamaliel’s assessment. This is evidence that even the Jewish leadership in first-century Jerusalem did not have an established conclusion about Jesus.

And while it is certainly true that many of the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day rejected Jesus as the messiah, it is also true that there were educated Pharisees who accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the first century. As we have seen, the Apostle Paul is an example of a Jewish man trained (by Gamaliel I) as a Pharisee and who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

Saint Paul the Apostle – Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia MinorAlthough the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was active as a missionary in the 40s and 50s of the 1st century ad. From this it may be inferred that he was born about the same time as Jesus (c. 4 bc) or a little later. He was converted to faith in Jesus Christ about ad 33, and he died, probably in Rome, circa ad 62–64. Until about the midpoint of his life, Paul was a member of the Pharisees, a religious party that emerged during the later Second Temple period. What little is known about Paul the Pharisee reflects the character of the Pharisaic movement. Pharisees believed in life after death, which was one of Paul’s deepest convictions…Pharisees were very careful students of the Hebrew Bible, and Paul was able to quote extensively from the Greek translation. – Encyclopedia Britannica

Acts 21:40 And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying, 22:1 Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. 2 (And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,) 3 I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

Acts 26:1 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself: 2 I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: 3 Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently. 4 My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; 5 Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.

Philippians 3:5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;

The New Testament reports that Paul was not alone among the Pharisaic community in his belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 15 provides an account of the elders and apostles coming together to consider the applicability of the Law of Moses. According to verse 5, there were Pharisees from Judea who were followers of Christ. The passage identifies the Pharisees as initially asserting the necessity for Gentile Christians to keep the Law of Moses. However, we must also keep in mind that Paul, a Pharisee himself, objects to their point of view. The conclusion of the chapter reports that all of those who were present ultimately came to agreement on the matter. No dissenters are presented. The Pharisees, elders, and apostles are all in one accord. 

Acts 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing (4803), Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. 22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting (396) your souls (5590), saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: 25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord (3661), to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. 30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: 31 Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.

In fact, even before Jesus’ resurrection, the New Testament depicts that prominent members of Jewish society, including at least one Pharisee (maybe more), still believed in Jesus despite his death. John 3 and 7 introduce us to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler among the Jews at that time, who considered Jesus a teacher sent from God because of the miraculous proof performed by Jesus.

John 3:1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

John 7:48 Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? 49 But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. 50 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) 51 Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?

Later, John 19 presents Nicodemus along with a man by the name of Joseph of Arimathaea quietly giving Jesus an honorable burial shortly after his death. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus are still depicted as devout followers of Jesus even despite the crucifixion.

John 19:38 And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. 39 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 40 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. 42 There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us a little more about Joseph of Arimathaea. From Matthew, we again learn that Joseph was a follower of Jesus even after Jesus’ death and also that he was a wealthy and prominent member of Jewish society. In fact, Mark and Luke both refer to Joseph as a “counsellor,” using a Greek word that designated members of the Sanhedrin.

Matthew 27:57 When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple… 59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth.


Mark 15:43 Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor (Strong’s No. 1010), which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.

Luke 23:50 And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor (Strong’s No. 1010); and he was a good man, and a just.

1010 bouleutes
from 1011; ; n m
AV-counsellor 2; 2
1) a councillor, senator
2) a member of the Sanhedrin

The historical account includes members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees among Jesus’ followers even after his death. And these accounts were written at a time when contemporaries could have disputed the New Testament claims about Joseph and Nicodemus. No such contrary accounts are found in the rabbinic literature, which of course, does not date until over century and a half later. The presence of members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees among Jesus’ followers even after his death further corroborates that the Jewish leadership in first-century Jerusalem did not have an established conclusion about Jesus.

We have already seen that even into the second-century the Jewish Christian community was closely linked with the rabbinic community and synagogue life. And we have seen that Jews who believed in Complex Monotheism were not officially or universally excluded from the rabbinic, synagogue community until the final decades of the second-century AD. Likewise, the rabbinic leadership didn’t exhibit a controlling authority over Jewish theology or communal life until at some point beginning in Yavneh at around 80 AD after the Temple was destroyed (70 AD.) This is over four decades after the emergence of the Christian sect. Almost all of the New Testament books had been written by this point with the exception of John’s contributions.

It is not possible to decide exactly when the rabbinic opposition to such doctrines started. For one thing, it is nearly impossible to be sure of the wording of rabbinic traditions before 200 C.E. much less before 70 C.E., when the rabbis became the leaders of the Jewish community. Most rabbinic traditions, at least as we have them, were written subsequently. So we cannot blithely assume that the rabbinic reports date from the Second Commonwealth. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 43

Then too, to a certain extent the application of the term “heresy” is anachronistic because the earliest witness to the rabbinic charge is the second century, and we cannot be sure that the rabbis were firmly in control of Judaism until the second century. So we cannot be sure that any of the systems would have been called heresy in the first century or even if there was a central power interested to define it. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 200-201

The rabbinic texts, which recorded only the rabbinic side of the argument, ordered and related the traditions thematically or by scriptural reference. This unintentionally obfuscated the historical progression of the debate. When both sides of the tradition have been presented and compared according to their use of scripture, the original order of the debate can be reconstructed. Once the debate is reconstructed, we are able to understand some of the historical issues affecting the exegesis. By the time of the consolidation of the rabbinic authority at Yavneh and the attempt at a new Jewish orthodoxy, mediation traditions were seen as a clear and present danger within rabbinic Judaism. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 263-264

Likewise, the Talmud isn’t compiled until 200 AD. Much of the material from the Talmud comes from centuries later. And the earliest mention of Jesus in rabbinic literature (the Talmud) does not appear until over a century or two after Jesus’ crucifixion.

These historical facts make it impossible to historically determine the exact nature of Judaism’s position about Jesus as a potential Messiah prior to the close of the second century AD. We are safe to conclude that many Jews and religious leaders rejected Jesus as a false messiah in the first and second century. After all, this is reported even in the New Testament itself. However, we also know that many Jews and even some rabbinic and Pharisaic leaders accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The historical evidence that is available from the first and second century makes it impossible to form any universal conclusions about the position of Judaism regarding Jesus as a potential messianic figure. Therefore, rejections of Jesus that developed in later forms of Judaism (after the second century AD) cannot be used as a basis for asserting that Judaism should or always has regarded Jesus as a false Messiah.

Certainly, modern Judaism regards Jesus as a false Messiah. But this isn’t an explanation or a list of reasons for why Jesus ought to be rejected as a false messiah. It’s a conclusion. The conclusion that Jesus is a false messiah must be based on theological grounds. As a matter of biblical and historical evidence, such a rejection cannot be based on the grounds that Jesus’ teachings include Complex Monotheism or divine incarnation. As we have seen, these are authentically Jewish ideas articulated in the Hebrew Bible itself and maintained by Judaism until the second-century AD. What we need then is to identify legitimate theological grounds for dismissing Jesus as a false Messiah.

We can see that modern Judaism’s identification of Jesus as a false Messiah is itself not a legitimate basis for discriminating between Judaism and Christianity. The available historical evidence shows that positions which were established in Judaism after the second century AD do not necessarily reflect the position of Judaism prior to the close of the second century AD. Consequently, they do not reflect what is or is not authentic Judaism from a larger historical perspective or a biblical perspective.

More specifically, it is not possible to make any definitive statements about the position of Judaism regarding Jesus as a messiah prior to the close of the second century AD. The Talmud, which contains the earliest account of Jewish groups rejecting Jesus as Messiah (apart from the New Testament), does not date until a century or two after Jesus and the spread of his teachings by his Jewish followers. This spread initially occurred among the Jewish community and later spread to also include greater amounts of Gentile converts. Within the Jewish community prior to the first and second century AD, there were Jews (including rabbinic, Pharisaic Jews) who accepted Jesus as Messiah and those who rejected him as a false Messiah. Only later did rabbinic leadership exhibit the authority and intent to remove followers of Jesus from the synagogue formally, permanently, and completely. Likewise, Rabbi Akiba is accepted and regarded as a leading figure in Rabbinic Judaism even though he himself believed in a person that Judaism regards as a false messiah. Yet Akiba is not rejected as non-Jewish or heretical. He is accepted as a faithful Jew and a leader of Rabbinic Judaism. Therefore, the question of whether or not Jesus is the true Messiah or a false messiah is really not even germane to the question of what is authentic or orthodox Judaism. Consequently, a person cannot be considered a heretic or excluded from Judaism for simply believing that Jesus is the Messiah or for believing in Complex Monotheism or the incarnation. Niether can Christianity be categorized as a separate religion from Biblical Judaism (or even historical Judaism prior to the second century AD) on these grounds.

Since the belief in Jesus as the Messiah cannot be used to discriminate between Judaism and Christianity, we must move on to evaluating the other issues that Sommer believes warrant a distinction.

The Repudiation of the Sinai Covenant and the Veto on the Binding Force of Jewish Law

The next issue that Sommer lists as a legitimate distinction between Judaism and Christianity is Christianity’s rejection of the Sinai covenant. Closely related to this is the idea of vetoing the binding force of Jewish Law.

Though his articulation may differ somewhat from how others might express it, the underlying concern that Sommer expresses is quite common and generally considered to be significant. For the purposes of clarity and making sure that we are being fair, it is important to be precise about what New Testament Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism teach and believe so that any rejection of Christianity will be fair and not misplaced. Again, we will be examining pre-rabbinic Judaism so that we don’t sever Christianity from biblical Judaism (Judaism of the biblical period) on the basis of developments that did not take place until centuries later. Likewise, we want to examine what New Testament Christianity teaches regarding this issue so that we do not confuse Jesus and his apostles’ teachings with later developments in the church community which may not faithfully represent authentic New Testament teaching.

So, does New Testament Christianity repudiate the Sinai Covenant? The word “repudiate” conveys formal separation from something, refusing to have anything to do with, disowning, refusing to accept, rejecting as unauthorized or as having no binding force.

Repudiate – 1: to divorce or separate formally from (a woman) 2: to refuse to have anything to do with : disown 3a: to refuse to accept; especially: to reject as unauthorized or as having no binding force – Merrian Webster’s Online Dictionary

It must also be acknowledged that the New Testament records Jesus’ apostles teaching that the Law of Moses was no longer in effect and that keeping the Law in its entirety was not required of Jesus’ followers (whether Jew or Gentile) in order to receive salvation. In particular, the New Testament does teach that the Law of Moses was replaced by the Law of Christ and that the Covenant that was made on Sinai was replaced by the New Covenant that Jesus established (Hebrews 8:13, 10:9.) Likewise, the Jewish apostles did not require Gentile converts to keep the whole of the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-29.) And the New Testament teaches that since God has made a new covenant, salvation is not through keeping the Law of Moses (the Sinai Covenant,) but by participating in the New Covenant established by Jesus (Galatians 2:16-19.)

Still, a few qualifying facts must be kept in mind.

First, Jesus and his apostles didn’t divorce or separate themselves from the Sinai Covenant. They didn’t refuse to have anything to do with it. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is depicted as faithfully keeping the Sinai Covenant and participating in Temple activities. (For a larger discussion of this fact, please visit our Premillennial Temple Study and a section titled “The New Covenant is Not Antithetical to the Temple.”) Even after his resurrection, his apostles continued to participate in Temple activities in Jerusalem. They rejoiced that Jewish followers of Jesus continued to keep the Law. And they recognized that the Sinai Covenant was authorized by God. This is not a depiction of men who can simply be described as rejecting the authority of the Sinai Covenant.

We have already noted that in the middle of the first century AD, thousands of Jews in Jerusalem and from the diaspora had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah. While the New Testament also reports that many Jews did not accept Jesus as Messiah, a conservative estimate measures the number of Jesus’ first-century, Jewish followers at over 8,000 (Acts 2:5-10, 14, 22-24, 30, 36, and 41, Acts 3:11, Acts 4:5, Acts 5:14, Acts 21:20.)

According to the Apostle James and the elders of Jerusalem, there were thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. What is important to note is that these thousands of Jews who followed Jesus were zealous for the Law of Moses. Likewise, the apostles and elders of the church are glad about this zeal. Belief in Jesus did not require a Jew to detest the Law of Moses or to stop keeping it.

Acts 21:17 And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. 19 And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:

In fact, if we read the rest of the story in Acts 21:21-27, we see that the Jewish apostles and elders including Paul are concerned about a misunderstanding that was occurring among some of Jesus’ Jewish followers. Some had mistakenly thought that Paul was teaching that Jews had to stop keeping the Law of Moses. In order to correct this misunderstanding the Jewish elders and apostles (including Paul) agree to have Paul go to the Temple and purify himself in accordance with Jewish custom.

Acts 21:21 And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. 22 What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. 23 Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; 24 Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. 25 As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. 27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, 28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.


Paul himself reports on these events and the misunderstanding that had occurred concerning his teaching in Acts 24 and 25. Although some Jewish groups had a perception of Paul as stirring up Jews against the Law of Moses, Paul states that he never taught or did such things.


Acts 24:5 For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes: 6 Who also hath gone about to profane the temple: whom we took, and would have judged according to our law…. 11 Because that thou mayest understand, that there are yet but twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem for to worship. 12 And they neither found me in the temple disputing with any man, neither raising up the people, neither in the synagogues, nor in the city:17 Now after many years I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings. 18 Whereupon certain Jews from Asia found me purified in the temple, neither with multitude, nor with tumult.


Acts 25:8 While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.

Ultimately, it would be historically misleading to suggest that Jesus’ followers simply rejected, denied, or forsook the Sinai Covenant and, subsequently, that Christianity must be deemed a separate religion from Judaism on these grounds. Jesus’ apostles and initial disciples were Jews who continued to practice the Law of Moses.

Second, it is important to emphasize that the New Covenant of Jesus did incorporate some (albeit not all) aspects of the Law of Moses. So, while it is true that the New Testament does not consider a large segment of the Law of Moses to be binding, it is also true that the New Testament does consider aspects of the Law of Moses to be binding under the New Covenant. (A few examples will be provided below. But for a fuller treatment of this topic, please see our study entitle Liberty in Christ.)

Third, the New Testament presents the New Covenant and the Law of Christ as a fulfillment of the Sinai Covenant and the Law of Moses. More specifically, Christianity teaches that the Sinai Covenant, which was embodied in the Law of Moses, actually called for a subsequent covenant and law code to eventually be given by another prophet and lawgiver like Moses. Prominent examples of this include New Testament references to Jesus as the Prophetic Successor of Moses from Deuteronomy 18 and the New Covenant as something promised in Jeremiah 31. (For more information on this please see our articles on Redemption, Liberty in Christ, and the Judaism and Christianity section of our Why Christianity study.)

Consequently, any summary concerning how the New Testament treats the Sinai Covenant must be worded precisely and handled with specificity in order to avoid portraying the New Testament’s treatment of the Sinai Covenant with hasty or unnecessarily blunt language. There are nuances to the way the New Testament simultaneously continues and discontinues aspects of the Sinai Covenant. Such nuances will become important later as we compare the New Testament to the way other forms of Judaism treat the Sinai Covenant. And ultimately, these nuances are not fairly represented by harsh characterizations that the New Testament simply “repudiates” the Sinai Covenant.

To provide further insight into the way Christianity views the Sinai Covenant, let us consider how the Sinai Covenant relates to God’s covenant with Abraham. First, the two covenants are separated by over 400 years. Second, the Sinai Covenant, embodied in the Law of Moses, contains provisions and requirements that were not given in the Abrahamic Covenant. Would it be accurate then to say that Moses and Israel repudiated the Abrahamic Covenant? Of course not. If a Jew living after the Sinai Covenant was established by Moses insisted on living only in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant and disregarded the Law of Moses would this have been acceptable? Of course, not. Once the Sinai Covenant was put into effect by God, the Jewish nation was obligated to be faithful to that covenant.

In the same way, the New Testament understood the Sinai Covenant to be the necessary next step in God’s plan of fulfilling the covenant he gave to Abraham. The Sinai Covenant did not reject or deny the Abrahamic Covenant, but it did supersede it. In a similar way, Christianity teaches that Jesus made a covenant with Israel in fulfillment of the covenant God had with Abraham and the Sinai Covenant. Just as the Sinai Covenant superseded the Abrahamic Covenant, so the New Testament superseded the Sinai Covenant. And because there was a new covenant, God’s people did not have the option of simply keeping the older covenant while rejecting the requirements of the new covenant.

The Law of Moses included a prohibition against adding to or detracting from its commands and requirements (Deuteronomy 4:2.) However, only a few chapters later, the Law of Moses itself speaks of another lawgiver and prophet like Moses who would arise in Israel and that the people would be obligated to follow him and the commands that he gave them.

Deuteronomy 18:15 The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; 16 According to all that thou desiredst of the LORD thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. 17 And the LORD said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. 18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. 19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.

It is obvious then that the commands of Moses’ successor constituted some exception to the prohibition of adding to or changing the Covenant of Moses. If no changes or new commands would ever be given, then Deuteronomy would not have spoken of another figure like Moses arising in Israel that the Israelites must obey.

The New Testament reports that Jews of the first century were expecting the arrival of the prophet like Moses mentioned here in Deuteronomy 18. In John 1, John the Baptist is asked directly by the priests and religious leaders of Jerusalem if he is that prophet mentioned in Deuteronomy 18.

John 1:19 And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? 20 And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. 21 And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No….25 And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?

Segal confirms that the Samaritans were well aware of the teaching that Deuteronomy 18 foresaw the coming of a prophetic successor to Moses.

The Samaritans, living in the North and rejecting the political control of Judea, did not await the coming of the Davidic Messiah, but the return of Moses or the coming of the “prophet like Moses described in Dt. 18:15 f. In their glorification of Moses they resembled Philo. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 198

And the New Testament records that the expectation of such a prophet was also common among the Jews of Jesus’ day. In Acts 7, we see Stephen making a speech before the Sanhedrin in which he invokes this interpretation of Deuteronomy 18 as though it is common knowledge and not even controversial among these religious leaders.

Acts 7:37 This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. 38 This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:

In John’s Gospel, even the crowds confirm the widespread nature of this interpretation of Moses and some of them even seem ready to identify Jesus as this prophetic successor.

John 6:14 Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.

John 7:40 Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet.

Concerning the legitimacy of Christianity’s specific appeal to Deuteronomy, the prophet Jeremiah provides additional insight into Deuteronomy 18’s proclamation about another prophet like Moses who would give God’s commands to Israel.

Jeremiah 31:31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: 33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah understood that God would make a new covenant with Israel which was different from the Sinai Covenant. This makes perfect sense because, according to Moses, his prophetic successor would not simply repeat Moses’ words but would receive commands directly from God in a direct fashion parallel to how God himself audibly spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. This would be unnecessary if the prophetic successor were merely saying the same thing as was already recorded in the Law of Moses, the Sinai Covenant. Consequently, we can see how Moses’ words infer a different law with different commands directly revealed by God to Moses’ successor. And this is precisely the interpretation that Jeremiah confirms.

In summary, Christianity teaches that Jesus is the successor to Moses prophesied in Deuteronomy 18. As such, the New Testament teaches that Jesus gave a new Law and a new covenant that the people of Israel are required to obey. While other forms of Judaism may reject the application of Deuteronomy 18 to Jesus, it must be noted that the basic interpretation at the core of the Christian position is generated from the Hebrew Bible itself and was widespread among Jewish religious groups of the first century including the religious leadership in Jerusalem.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for Rabbinic Judaism to offer similar arguments from the Mosaic narrative in support of rabbinic authority to modify, abrogate, and alter the requirements of the Law of Moses through the traditions contained and developed in their Oral Law. Such tendencies are summarized in the following quote from Encyclopedia Britannica, which states that the “Pharisees admitted the principle of evolution in the Law” and, consequently, would at times make changes to “supersede” the original meaning of Moses’ commands.

Pharisee - Whereas the priestly Sadducees taught that the written Torah was the only source of revelation, the Pharisees admitted the principle of evolution in the Law; men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems. Rather than blindly follow the letter of the Law even if it conflicted with reason or conscience, the Pharisees harmonized the teachings of the Torah with their own ideas or found their own ideas suggested or implied in it. They interpreted the Law according to its spirit; when in the course of time a law had been outgrown or superseded by changing conditions, they gave it a new and more acceptable meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through a ramified system of hermeneutics. It was due to this progressive tendency of the Pharisees that their interpretation of the Torah continued to develop and has remained a living force in Judaism. - Encyclopedia Britannica

The quote below states similarly but also describes how passages from the Exodus narrative (such as Exodus 18 and Numbers 11) are cited to justify rabbinical authority to implement changes to the Sinai commands.

“Rabbinic Judaism – Written and oral law – The feature which distinguished Rabbinic Judaism has been the emphasis placed on the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the insistence by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the written law, the Torah, and that the oral law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the oral law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. As an example, in Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible is cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties.– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbinic_Judaism [1. EARLY RABBINIC JUDAISM – HISTORICAL STUDIES IN RELIGION, LITERATURE AND ART BY JACOB NEUSNER LEIDEN E. J. BRILL 1975]

The idea of the ongoing authority of Moses’ successors is confirmed in the Jewish Encyclopedia’s description of the Sanhedrin, which also includes the appeal to Numbers 11 as the basis for that ongoing authority. Numbers 11 is the account in which God takes the spirit (or Spirit) that is on Moses and distributes it to seventy elders of Israel. These seventy elders are viewed as the original governing body known as the Sanhedrin whose authority the rabbis are said to inherit.

SANHEDRIN – II. The Religious Sanhedrin: The Great Bet Din. – This body, which met in the hall of hewn stone and was called also "the Great Bet Din" or simply "the Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone" (Tosef., Hor. i. 3; Tosef., Soah, ix. 1; Yer. Sanh. i. 19c), was invested with the highest religious authority. According to Talmudic tradition it originated in the Mosaic period, the seventy elders who were associated with Moses in the government of Israel at his request (Num. xi. 4-31) forming together with him the first Sanhedrin (Sanh. i. 6). The institution is said to have existed without interruption from that time onward…but the fact that no passage whatever in the pre-exilic books of the Bible refers to this institution seems to indicate that it was not introduced before the time of the Second Temple.  – The Jewish Encyclopedia, www.jewishencyclopedia.com

An interesting example of this essential rabbinic Jewish concept can be found in the quote below in which a modern rabbi explains why various Jewish sages and rabbis have taken contradictory position down through the ages. Notice that inherent to his explanation is the familiar argument that the books of Moses themselves (specifically Numbers 11) contain the justification for the rabbinic authority to make changes to the Sinai Covenant. The initial problem addressed in this quote is also important. The only way that the rabbis and sages could be asserting different conclusions and issuing contrary rulings is if they were making substanitive changes to the Sinai commandments.

The apparent differences found in the writings of our holy Sages are a gift to us from G-d to teach us profound lessons. While one Rav receives Divine revelation assisting him to understand and ordain Halakha in one form, another Rav is receiving the same Ruah haKodesh which enables him to understand Halakha and ordain practices of a totally different nature. How can this be? Why is there this apparent lack of consistency? If the Rabbis are all writing under the influence of Ruah HaKodesh, should they not all be saying the same thing? Indeed, the answer to this question reveals to us much about the nature of Ruah haKodesh itself…HaShem took from His Spirit that was on Moshe Rabbeynu and “poured” it onto the Seventy Elders, thus forming the first Sanhedrin. (Bamidbar 11:25) Moreover, what did all Seventy Elders first do? They prophesied! Only then did they settle down into their new offices as legislative leaders of the Jewish people. Now, here is the secret of Ruah HaKodesh. It is a known legal principle of Torah Law that no Halakha is ordained or revealed through prophecy. The Torah “is not in Heaven” (Devarim 30:12). It is here amongst us. The holy Sages must decide Halakha based not upon ethereal spiritual visions, but rather based upon practical human needs. - The Role of Ruah HaKodesh, in Establishing Halakha (Jewish Law), (Commentary to Parashat B’ha’alo’tekha), By Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok, Copyright © 1993 - 2003 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved. http://www.koshertorah.com/PDF/ruah%20hakodesh%20&%20halakha.pdf

This central rabbinic practice can also be seen in an immediate historical comparison in the first century setting. In contrast to their rivals the Sadducees, who refused to go beyond what was written in the books of Moses, the Pharisaic rabbis developed a host of post-biblical traditions which amended, added to, abrogated, and overrode teachings from the Law of Moses. The Pharisees believed in a second Torah (or Law,) the Oral Torah (Law,) which was beyond the written Law that Moses recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The rabbinic, Pharisaic leadership believed that the Law of Moses was not set in stone, so to speak. Instead, it evolved and changed. By participating in the generation of new traditions and the adaptation or abrogation of things written in the Law of Moses, the Pharisees believed they were continuing God’s revelation to his people.

Pharisee - The basic difference that led to the split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees lay in their respective attitudes toward the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the problem of finding in it answers to questions and bases for decisions about contemporary legal and religious matters arising under circumstances far different from those of the time of Moses. - Encyclopedia Britannica

Sadducee - The Sadducees and Pharisees were in constant conflict with each other, not only over numerous details of ritual and the Law but most importantly over the content and extent of God's revelation to the Jewish people. The Sadducees refused to go beyond the written Torah (first five books of the Bible)...For the Sadducees, the Oral Law-i.e., the vast body of post-biblical Jewish legal traditions-meant next to nothing. By contrast, the Pharisees revered the Torah but further claimed that oral tradition was part and parcel of Mosaic Law. - Encyclopedia Britannica

Pharisee - In their response to this problem, the Sadducees, on the one hand, refused to accept any precept as binding unless it was based directly on the Torah, i.e., the Written Law. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that the Law that God gave to Moses was twofold, consisting of the Written Law and the Oral Law, i.e., the teachings of the prophets and the oral traditions of the Jewish people. - Encyclopedia Britannica

Pharisee - Second, the Pharisees believed that there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized by the Saducees, which both Saducees and Pharisees believed was written by Moses, the Pharisees believed that there was another Torah. - wikipedia

Pharisee - Whereas the priestly Sadducees taught that the written Torah was the only source of revelation, the Pharisees admitted the principle of evolution in the Law; men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems. Rather than blindly follow the letter of the Law even if it conflicted with reason or conscience, the Pharisees harmonized the teachings of the Torah with their own ideas or found their own ideas suggested or implied in it. They interpreted the Law according to its spirit; when in the course of time a law had been outgrown or superseded by changing conditions, they gave it a new and more acceptable meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through a ramified system of hermeneutics. It was due to this progressive tendency of the Pharisees that their interpretation of the Torah continued to develop and has remained a living force in Judaism. - Encyclopedia Britannica

Pharisee - they asserted that the sacred scriptures were not complete and could therefore not be understood on their own terms. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate what was written... Thus, one may conceive of the "Oral Torah" not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of analysis and argument; this is an ongoing process in which God is actively involved...by participating in this ongoing process rabbis and their students are actively participating in God's ongoing revelation. That is, "revelation" is not a single act, and "Torah" is not a single or fixed text. It is this ongoing process of analysis and argument that is itself the substance of God's revelation. – wikipedia.com

In this way, Rabbinic Judaism understands itself as fulfilling the ongoing role of Moses’ successors who have the right to issue new commands and changes to the Law of Moses. If it is possible for Rabbinic Judaism to make these kinds of scriptural interpretations and arguments about changing the Law of Moses, then no principled objection can be leveled against New Testament Christianity for making similar ones.

It is not germane whether or not one agrees with the Christian application of these biblical teachings to Jesus specifically. It is simply impossible to dismiss the Christian treatment of the Mosaic Covenant as a principle violation of the Sinai Covenant, the whole of the Hebrew bible, or Jewish thinking up to the first century AD, particularly since rabbinic Judaism also uses Mosaic narratives to justify having the authority to make changes Sinai’s commands.

Although the New Testament teaches that the Law of Moses was changed and abrogated and that portions of the Law of Moses were set aside, amended or replaced entirely, the New Testament considers this to be legitimate because of Old Testament passages indicating this would happen and because it considers Jesus to be legitimately authorized to make these changes. The basis of the Christian position is found in the Hebrew Bible itself. It is not fabricated from post-biblical or Gentile traditions.

Rabbinic Judaism rejects Jesus authority to do so. But it does not reject the basic idea of setting aside, amending, abrogating, changing, and replacing even large segments of the Law of Moses. To the contrary, a distinct feature of Rabbinic Judaism was the Pharisaic notion that the Law of Moses could be altered, superseded, replaced, and abrogated through the development of the Oral Law. It was, in fact, this commitment to the evolution and abrogation of the Law of Moses which allowed Rabbinic Judaism to continue after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD when some of its competitors did not survive.

While the New Testament may focus on Deuteronomy 18 instead of Numbers 11 as the basis of the authority to supersede and make changes to the Sinai Covenant, clearly the issue of changing and superseding the commands of Sinai is not a difference between New Testament Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. There may be subtle differences in terms of the number of successors, whether the change would be gradual or more sudden, and exactly which portions of the Exodus narrative justified this abrogation of Sinai’s commands. But these are not differences in principle. Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism set aside the original binding authority of the Sinai Covenant’s commands and both New Testament Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism justify such action by suggesting that certain aspects of the Exodus narrative necessitate transformational authority.

It is important to realize the extent of the rabbinic (Pharisaic) transformation of the Law of Moses. After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and the second commonwealth of Israel was brought to an end by the Romans, significant and vast segments of the Law of Moses were no longer applicable to the people of Israel. In the period after 70-135 AD, Jews had no Temple and were largely excluded from Judea with no king and no political jurisdiction whatsoever over Jerusalem or the land of Israel.

Western Wall – Roman Empire and rise of Christianity 100–500 CE – In the early centuries of the Common Era, after the Roman defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, Jews were banned from Jerusalem. There is some evidence that Roman emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries did permit them to visit the city to worship on the Mount of Olives and sometimes on the Temple Mount itself.[13] When the empire became Christian under Constantine I, they were given permission to enter the city once a year, on the ninth day of the month of Av, to lament the loss of the Temple at the wall.[14] The Bordeaux Pilgrim, written in 333 CE, suggests that it was probably to the perforated stone or the Rock of Moriah, "to which the Jews come every year and anoint it, bewail themselves with groans, rend their garments, and so depart". This was because an Imperial decree from Rome barred Jews from living in Jerusalem. Just once per year they were permitted to return and bitterly grieve about the fate of their people. - wikipedia.org

Temple Mount After the Third Jewish Revolt failed, all Jews were forbidden on pain of death from entering the city.- wikipedia.org

Aelia Capitolina – The city was without walls, protected by a light garrison of the Tenth Legion, during the Late Roman Period. The detachment at Jerusalem, which apparently encamped all over the city’s western hill, was responsible for preventing Jews from returning to the city. Roman enforcement of this prohibition continued through the fourth century. – wikipedia.org

The Law of Moses includes major sections outlining very specific requirements for Temple service, priestly duty, annual festivals, Sabbath day offerings, tithing, how to live in the land, and how to enforce punishments for criminal actions. None of these vital portions of the Law of Moses could be or have been kept by Jews after 70 and 135 AD. Until 1948, Jews did not have political or legal authority in the land of Israel. Until 1967, they did not have political control of Jerusalem. To this day there still is no Temple. And the law code of the modern day nation of Israel does not have the same punishments for criminal acts that are required by the Law of Moses.

In Hilchot Melachim of the Mishneh Torah, the preeminent rabbi and influential theologian Moses Maimonides acknowledges these realities. In chapter 11, Maimondies explains that in the future during the reign of the Messianic King, all the laws and statues of the Law will be observed in their original state. He includes anything that requries a Temple such as sacrifices and offerings. In this way, Maimonides indicates that until the Messiah establishes his kingdom on earth, many important aspects of Torah cannot be observed.

1. In the future, the Messianic King will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, returning it to its initial sovereignty. He will build the Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. [Then,] in his days, [the observance of] all the statutes will return to their previous state. We will offer sacrifices, observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years according to all the particulars mentioned by the Torah. – Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 11, translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Moznaim Publishing Corporation

The fact is that for nearly 2,000 years no Jews of any sect, rabbinic or otherwise, have been able to keep significant portions of the Law of Moses. They cannot enforce the Mosaic Law code for criminals. They cannot perform Moses’ specific requirements for priestly service, sacrificial and offering rituals, tithing, annual festivals, Sabbath day offerings, etc. Aspects of the Law of Moses which could be and have been maintained since 70 AD include circumcision, dietary restrictions, and some components of Sabbath laws. However, because the Law of Moses required various sacrificial rituals and offerings to be performed on the Sabbath, even the Sabbath laws cannot be kept without a Temple. Simply put, with no Temple, no king, and no political authority over or even the ability to enter Jerusalem, it has been utterly impossible for Jews to practice a large portion of the Law of Moses for nearly 2,000 years. Consequently, either the Jewish people are essentially in wholesale violation of the Law of Moses or someone has the authority to set aside and replace a significant portion of the Sinai covenant.

Several other points are worthy highlighting individual in relation to this broader issue.

First, not only do both groups recognize that large portions of the Law of Moses are no longer applicable for God’s people today and have not been for nearly 2,000 years, but the truly amazing fact is that both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism have in large part abrogated the same portions and commandments of the Law of Moses. The realities concerning the absence of a Temple as well as legal and political power to enforce the Law of Moses over Israel prevent followers of either group from practicing the same portions of the Sinai Covenant. Not only are the two groups both abrogating and setting aside portions of the Sinai Covenant using similar types of scriptural justifications, but both they are largely setting aside the same aspects of Moses’ commands.

Second, it is not simply the case that Rabbinic Judaism has been unable to practice a significant portion of the Law of Moses. What is even more relevant to this discusion is the position that Rabbinic Judaism has taken in response to these realities. In accordance with the Pharisaic concept of the evolution of the Law of Moses, Rabbinic Judaism has modified and abrogated scriptural requirements from the Law of Moses in order to accommodate the inability of the Jewish people to implement the requirements of the Sinai Covenant as it is recorded in the Hebrew Bible. While rabbinic Judaism has long sought the rebuilding of the Temple and the reestablishment of important sections of the Law of Moses in the nation of Israel, it has also developed an alternative system of Jewish law which is seen as an acceptable substitute for the Mosaic Laws that cannot be kept. The rabbinic alternative to the biblical Law of Moses contains explanations and justifications for keeping these post-biblical traditions while biblical requirements are neglected or deemed inapplicable. But most importantly, it must be noted that such abrogations and alterations are only possible because of the belief that rabbinic leadership possesses a God-given authority to make these kinds of adjustments to the Sinai Covenant because the Law of Moses isn’t fixed and a second Law exists which authorizes such changes.

Third, it is important to highlight this issue of a “second Law.” At first glance, one perceived contrasts between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism centers on the ideas that Christianity has added a whole second book, the New Testament, to the Hebrew Bible while Rabbinic Judaism simply uses the Hebrew bible. Perhaps even more powerfully, this contrast can be framed in terms of Christianity as promulgating a second Law or Covenant given by Christ whereas Rabbinic Judaism accepts only one Law, the Law of Moses given at Sinai. In reality, here again both groups are on equal footing. Rabbinic Judaism has also produced a second book, which it at times refers to as a second Law and regards as a necessary and authoritative supplement to (or fulfillment of) the Hebrew bible. This second Law of Rabbinic Judaism is called the Oral Law, the traditions of Jewish sages and rabbis. This Oral Law was recorded in the form of a book known as the Talmud, which written down after the New Testament. Because so much of the commandments of Sinai cannot be kept by modern Rabbinic Jews as outlined above, it is the Talmud, not the Hebrew bible, which functions as the centerpiece of modern Jewish authority for virtually all aspects of daily. In short, there is no sect of Judaism today that holds solely to the Hebrew bible without adding another book that sets aside and makes changes to significant portions of the Sinai Covenant.

SadduceeFor the Sadducees, the Oral Law-i.e., the vast body of post-biblical Jewish legal traditions-meant next to nothing. By contrast, the Pharisees revered the Torah but further claimed that oral tradition was part and parcel of Mosaic Law. - Encyclopedia Britannica

Pharisee – ...the Sadducees, on the one hand, refused to accept any precept as binding unless it was based directly on the Torah, i.e., the Written Law. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that the Law that God gave to Moses was twofold, consisting of the Written Law and the Oral Law, i.e., the teachings of the prophets and the oral traditions of the Jewish people. – britannica.com

Judaism, Sources and scope of the TorahIn addition to this written Torah, or “Law,” there were also unwritten laws or customs and interpretations of them, carried down in an oral tradition over many generations, which acquired the status of oral Torah. The oral tradition interpreted the written Torah, adapted its precepts to ever-changing political and social circumstances, and supplemented it with new legislation. Thus, the oral tradition added a dynamic dimension to the written code, making it a perpetual process rather than a closed system. The vitality of this tradition is fully demonstrated in the way the ancient laws were adapted after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and by the role played by the Talmud in the survival of the Jewish people in exile. By the 11th century, Diaspora Jews lived in a Talmudic culture that united them and that superseded geographical boundaries and language differences. Jewish communities governed themselves according to Talmudic law, and individuals regulated the smallest details of their lives by it. – britannica.com

Mishna – also spelled Mishnah (Hebrew: “Repeated Study”), plural Mishnayot,  the oldest authoritative postbiblical collection and codification of Jewish oral laws, systematically compiled by numerous scholars (called tannaim) over a period of about two centuries. The codification was given final form early in the 3rd century ad by Judah ha-Nasi...Intensive study of the Mishna by subsequent scholars (called amoraim) in Palestine and Babylonia resulted in two collections of interpretations and annotations of it called the Gemara, or Talmud. In the broader sense of the latter terms, the Mishna and Gemara together make up the Talmud. – britannica.com

Pharisee - Second, the Pharisees believed that there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized by the Saducees, which both Saducees and Pharisees believed was written by Moses, the Pharisees believed that there was another Torah. - wikipedia

Fourth, these facts demonstate that the real difference between Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament Christianity is merely one of which party legitimately has the authority to change and set aside aspects of the Law of Moses and replace it with a new law code. Rabbinic Judaism vests this authority in the rabbinic leadership over the centuries who change and develop the Law of Moses in accordance with the second Torah (or Law) of their ongoing, oral traditions. Christianity places that authority in Jesus who they identify as YHWH God the Word who met with Moses and established the Mosaic Covenant on Mount Sinai, as the Messiah, as the Davidic King, and as the prophet and lawgiver who would come after Moses bringing God’s new covenant and new law (the Law of Christ) with Israel.

In all fairness, the New Testament claim that a Messiah (especially one who is a Davidic king and the incarnation of a hypostasis of YHWH) would have the legitimate authority to change God’s covenant and God’s law is neither unbiblical nor incompatible with pre-rabbinic or even rabbinic conceptions. The central concept arises as early as Deuteronomy and resurfaces as late as Jeremiah. Both Jews and Samaritans of the first century AD widely expected the coming of Moses’ singular prophetic successor. And the rabbis themselves have set aside and resplaced significant portions of the Law of Moses. If the rabbis can claim to have the authority to change the Law of Moses, then certainly a Messiah can do so as well, especially one who is God-incarnate, the Davidic king, and Moses’ prophesied successor.

Fifth, at this point it is also possible to address Sommer’s inherently related suggestion that Christianity must be rejected because it “vetoes the binding force of Jewish Law.” It is critical to recognize that the New Testament abrogation of portions of the Law of Moses differs in no substantive way from Rabbinic Judaism’s treatment of the Law of Moses. Like New Testament Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism has abrogated large portions of the Law of Moses. If Sommer’s use of the phrase, “vetoing the binding force of Jewish Law” is meant to refer to setting aside portions of the Law of Moses, then both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism commit this offense. And therefore, neither side can, in principle, object to the other on these grounds.

However, perhaps “vetoing the binding force of Jewish Law” is meant to refer to the fact that Christianity does not recognizing rabbinic authority. It is true that Christianity vetoes the binding force of rabbinic law and traditions. But this is because Christianity does not recognize the legitimacy of the rabbinic authority to make changes to God’s law or covenant. However, Rabbinic Judaism likewise does not recognize the legitimacy of Jesus’ authority to make changes to God’s law or covenant. Both appeal to a particular party whom they believe has the authority to make the changes necessary to the Law of Moses based on a second Law vested in Moses’ successor or successors an as authorized in the Law of Moses itself. In the end, the issue boils down to which side has the legitimate right to reject the other side’s authority and the binding force of the other party’s changes to the law. We cannot oversimplify this issue as if one side changes that law and the other does not or as if one side recognizes the binding force of Jewish law while the other does not. Alternately, to reject Christianity on the grounds that the rabbis have the authority to make changes to the Law of Moses is presumptuous to the point of being a circular argument.

Having reviewed these often overlooked facts, it is now possible to make some concluding summary remarks.

The two major Jewish sects that survived the 70 AD destruction of the Temple were the Pharisaic rabbis and the Christians. Both groups were enabled to survive because both groups appealed to religious authorities who abrogated significant sections of the Law of Moses and issued new law codes more suited to the post-70 AD circumstances of the people of Israel.

The inherent similarities between Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament teaching regarding the Law of Moses prevent Rabbinic Judaism from objecting to Jesus or Christianity on the grounds that Christianity claims the authority to alter and replace portions of the Law of Moses. Both groups have taken similar approaches to the Law of Moses with indistinct justifications for those approaches.

Nor can the rejection of Jesus be based on Jesus altering the Law of Moses with a new law and new requirements. Either making major changes and abrogations to the Law of Moses is a legitimate practice or it is not. If it is legitimate, then Jesus cannot be objected to because he is merely engaging in a legitimate and necessary procedure just as the rabbis have done. If it is not legitimate, then Rabbinic Judaism is likewise in error. Whatever the case may be, objections to Jesus and New Testament teaching based on changing the Law of Moses must be withdrawn either because they are not legitimate at all or because both parties commit the same offensive behavior in much the same way with similar types of scriptural justifications. In short, to reject Jesus as a false messiah or to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity based on changes made to the Law of Moses requires is a self-defeating argument for Rabbinical Judaism.

Ultimately, it is not as if we have one group maintaining and keeping the Law of Moses as it appears in the Hebrew Bible and one group disregarding and forsaking it. Saying the New Testament repudiates the Sinai Covenant or vetoes the binding force of Jewish laws is a gross oversimplification. (If such gross oversimplifications are allowable similar assessments could be made of Rabbinic Judaism.) A more properly nuanced characterization would be to say that New Testament recognizes that the Mosaic Covenant was given by God, asserts that the Law of Moses itself speaks of its own eventual replacement by a new lawgiver like Moses, and identifies the teachings of Jesus Christ as that prophesied replacement covenant from God. Rabbinic Judaism takes steps that are identical in principle in function and differ only in less relevant details, such as who is vested with the authority to make changes and which specific scriptural texts are appealed to as justification. With these considerations in mind, we can see that Sommer’s assessment that Judaism must repudiate Christianity because Christianity itself repudiates the Sinai Covenant is just as historically and biblical unsubstantiated as rejections of Christianity for Complex Monotheism or the incarnation. The same is true regarding the charge of “vetoing the binding force of Jewish Law.”

Therefore, we are still without grounds for rejecting Jesus as a false messiah and for separating Biblical Judaism from New Testament Christianity as fundamentally different religions. Below we will investigate the next issue that Sommer believes necessitates the rejection of Christianity by followers of Judaism.