Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Torah, Tradition, and Scripture

After the national tragedy of 586 B.C. the study of the Law became a critically important practice for the Jews.  They went into exile because they did not follow the Law, therefore they devoted themselves to the study and practice of Law. The first two divisions of the Hebrew Bible, Torah, Nebiim (Prophets) were “compelte” by the end of the exile, and the Kethubim (Writings) was likely completed by the beginning of the second century B.C. (depending on the date of Daniel).

Image result for Torah, Tradition, and ScriptureAll of the books were considered Scripture, but not all equal in authority. The Law was primary, the rest was commentary (Ferguson, Backgrounds, 540). By the first century the Pharisees attempted apply Torah to every aspect of life by developing an oral tradition, a “fence around the law,” a halakah or interpretation of the Law. Some of the oral traditions appear to be designed to circumvent some aspects of the Law, such as the prosbul (a method of making a loan near a Sabbath year which allowed for the loan to be collected rather than forgiven).

E. P. Sanders makes a good case showing this “relaxing of the law” is in the favor of the common people and was not intended as a way to get out of keeping the law. Modern (western) readers tend to think of some rabbinic discussions as overly legalistic, but most of these are interpretations the Law which apply the ancient Law to a new situation.

Because most of the early Christians were Jewish, the church inherited some of the methods of exegesis used by the Jews in the first century.  Since Paul was a Pharisee he often engages in interpretation of Scripture using methods similar to the rabbis.

These methods included:

  • Literal. The straightforward meaning of the text, such as Galatians 3:16 interpreting the word “seed” as a literal child.
  • A Targum is an “interpretation by paraphrase” or running commentary on Scripture, usually in Aramaic.
  • A Typological interpretation uses some correspondence between older texts and some present situation. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 Paul uses the Exodus and Wilderness experience as an analogy for the experience of the Corinthian church.
  • Occasionally New Testament writers will interpret the Old Testament as Allegorical.  Although this method should not be confused with the later methods used by the medieval church, Jewish writers did tease out spiritual truth and meaning without any connection to the original historical context. The allegorical method is best demonstrated by Philo of Alexandria, but Paul creates an allegory using Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:21-31.
  • Midrash and Pesher. Paul often connects Scripture to teach something new about Jesus. His synagogue sermon in Acts 13 is a clear example of midrash techniques, as are the two sermons preached by Peter in Acts 2 and 3. A pesher reading discovers meaning by means of a one-to-one correspondence between a word or phrase and some current situation. This method was used at Qumran and in the New Testament by Matthew and the book of Hebrews.

These Jewish views of Scripture and how to interpret Scripture were adopted by the early Church writers. To what extent ought these Jewish views on Scripture guide Christian exegesis today? For example, I think a high view of Scripture is essential for Christian exegesis, but is it necessary to have a “center” of the canon? If a Second Temple Jewish interpreter looked at the rest of Scripture through the lens of the Torah, should a Christian interpreter read the rest of Scripture through the lens of Jesus? Paul? The Sermon on the Mount? The book of Romans?

Although some of the methods of reading Scripture are similar to the modern grammatical historical method, most modern scholars would reject an interpretation which allegorized a text to mean something the original author could not possibly mean. But there are several postmodern approaches to Scripture which do just that. Is it possible reader-response hermeneutics reflect an ancient allegorical method and are somehow legitimate?

17 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Torah, Tradition, and Scripture

  1. Phillip,
    you said QUOTE:
    “I think a high view of Scripture is essential for Christian exegesis, but is it necessary to have a “center” of the canon? If a Second Temple Jewish interpreter looked at the rest of Scripture through the lens of the Torah, should a Christian interpreter read the rest of Scripture through the lens of Jesus?”

    .A)
    In Orthodox Judaism, “the first 5 books,” Torah, are the most important “Scriptures,” above everything else.

    .B)
    In Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox) Christianity, “the first 4 books”, the “Book of the 4 Gospels” (Matthew Mark Luke and John,) are the most important “Scriptures”, above everythig else.

    .C)
    In Peter’s Second Letter, chapter 3 verse 2, Peter gives us his “lens.”
    The Law, the Prophets, and the Red Letter commands of Jesus recorded by Matthew and John.
    Much of Gospel of Mark is identical to Matthew. In essence Matthew confirmed Mark by copying Mark as the starting framework for his carefully documented more complete “Gospel.” Mark seems to be serving as the scribe for the initial teachings of Peter and other Apostles who could not yet write.

    Most importantly,
    We can look at the words of Jesus for HIS opinion on this question.

    .1) At the Last Supper, with His 11 appointed Apostles present, Jesus said: “My prayer is not for THEM alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through THEIR message, that that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” [John 17:20-21]

    THEM and THEIR MESSAGE = the message of the 11 appointed Apostles present at the Last Supper with Jesus.

    ,2) When Jesus commissioned the same 11 appointed Apostles, the men of Galilee (at what men have traditionally labeled “The Great Commission”) Jesus told these 11 men to be “teaching” others “to obey everything I have commanded YOU.” [Matthew 28:16-20]

    YOU = the 11 appointed Apostles.
    They were commissioned to teach people what Jesus taught THEM.

    Only 3 of these men wrote “Scripture” in our Bible- Matthew, John, and Peter.

    .3) Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but MY WORDS” will never pass away.” [Matthew 24:35]

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  2. I think the concept of a center canon is itself not biblical. “All scripture is profitable…” 2 Timothy 3:16

    If we are not careful making a center to the canon will allow for heretical beliefs to arise. If we leave out any part of scripture for our own purposes the same can happen. “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” Deut. 4:2
    Cherry picking is what I have heard this called by atheists that I know. This is by far their greatest claim against Christians because they are right when they say we pick out and study what we like to hear not what is truly Biblical. This is why proper study methods are important as well as studying the whole of scripture.

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    • Dear Bradley,
      It’s good to hear from a man who is willing to open his Bible and read the text. I have two questions for you.

      .1) If you decide not to “cherry pick” one verse out of context, namely 2 Timothy 3:16, and you read the previous verse, 2 Timothy 3:15, yes FIFTEEN…..
      Is it reasonable to think that “from infancy you have know the holy Scriptures” means that Timothy had been reading Paul’s letter decades earlier, before it was written?

      .2) Deuteronomy is basically the text a sermon given by Moses. If we don’t “cherry pick” 4:2, but we start with Deuteronomy 4:1, we see Moses says: “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to give you.”

      So Moses is referring to the Book of Deuteronomy in the following verse, 4:2. You could make a case he means the entire Torah, the first 5 Books of the Bible. But he certainly isn’t referring to Paul’s letters, or any other part of the “New Testament”.

      Since you have a high view of Scripture, I look forward to hearing back from you, with Scripture backup, if you think I’m somehow “wrong.”…..
      As Jesus reminded us from the Law, “Let every matter be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Jesus loves you!

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  3. My main concern as far as how Scripture is interpreted is that the original intent of the message be preserved. By no means should it be allegorized or otherwise twisted to mean something the author did not intend. Reader-response hermeneutics carry no legitimacy as a method to interpret Scripture as it allows the reader to change the meaning to their own liking and the truth is thrown out. When it comes to studying through the lens of other parts of Scripture, I would not do it for most readings. I would really only interpret Scripture through another part of it if I was doing a special study on how they relate to each other. Mainly as a tool for looking for connections between them and not using one as a lens to determine the meaning of the other.

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    • Dear Ethan,
      Your comment is loaded with the underlying assumption that “All Scripture is EQUAL” – in authority, importance, accuracy, value, etc.
      But no one in the pages of the 66 Books of the Bible ever said that. Jesus clearly taught that some parts are more important than others.

      What did Jesus teach, – recorded by His appointed Apostles (Matthew and John first and foremost), in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets – should be what concerns us first – not some other author’s “intended meaning” when it contradicts Jesus.

      Our opinion about “what was in the mind of Paul” is not God’s Word. Rather, Matthew and John recording Jesus speaking – THAT is “God’s Word.”. Saying we should “interpret Scripture with Scripture” is begging the question and making it all equal, making Paul equal to Jesus. He is not. Paul must decrease, and Jesus must increase.

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  4. The interpretation of Scripture is something that I have somewhat struggled with recently. I was raised that all Scripture can be applied to our life, and it does not matter (Old or New Testament) to consider the original context because God intends for His Word to be useful to all of humanity throughout time. Like Bradley said regarding 2 Timothy, I like to think that all Scripture is profitable in some form. However, I have recently found that it is not always intended to interpret Scripture through a literal lens. It is extremely important to consider the context and possible implications that are all throughout Scripture before automatically applying it to our own life. I think the Jewish views on the interpretation of Scripture can be profitable to how we interpret today. Personally, I think it is important to have the center lens to be through Jesus when we read His Word.

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    • Dear Kitty,
      Like Bradley and Ethan above, (and most “Evangelicals”) we have been trained to think we should center on Jesus, theoretically – but practically speaking, our center lens is one verse written by Paul alone, misinterpreted, out of context – 2 Timothy 3:16, ignoring the previous verse, 3:15. Then, our human tradition takes over, and interprets “All Scripture” to mean “The 66 Books of the Bible”, and we assume it’s all “EQUAL”, and all “God’s Word.”

      We have been conditioned to play fast and loose with a number of terms and expressions found within the pages of the Bible, and outside, and think of them all as synonymous with “Scripture.”

      The Bible, The Law, This Book of the Law (Deuteronomy), This Book of Prophecy (Revelation), Scripture, All Scripture, God Word, The words of God, The Law and the Prophets, The Law the Prophets and the Psalms, The Law The Prophets and The Writings, your law, their law……
      Please take a look at 2 Peter 3:2.

      Phillip wrote above regarding the Jewish viewpoint QUOTE:
      “All of the books were considered Scripture, but not all equal in authority. The Law was primary…”

      No one in the pages of the Bible ever said that all Scripture is EQUAL.

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      • 2 Timothy 3:16 does say “all scripture,” so that would imply the whole Old Testament is inspired and profitable. You really have to mishandle the language of that verse to claim any given book of the OK is “less valuable” than others. Your motivation is wholly theological (you reject the traditional Christian Canon), perhaps you are conditioned towards this?

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      • Phillip,
        It seems we agree that based on 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul was implying in the following verse that the whole OLD TESTAMENT was inspired and profitable – not the letter Paul was in process of writing, or any of his letters…..

        Since Paul stands alone making this solitary statement, and has no second witness to back him up, it’s difficult to know exactly “what Paul really meant” by “inspired” or “profitable” – so I don’t necessarily disagree with Paul’s opinion here about the Old Testament Scriptures.

        I see in Matthew 22 and Mark 12, Jesus established the following priories in the “Old Testament” Hebrew Scriptures:
        The Law and the Prophets were above The Writings
        The Law was above the Prophets
        Two commandments were above all others
        Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was above Leviticus 19:18

        So some parts are more important than others, according to Jesus. And this necessarily means that other parts are less important. I interpret importance to be connected to value.

        The terms “New Testament” and “Old Testament” were coined by the Second Century heretic Marcion -they don’t appear in the pages of the Bible, nor do the words “Bible” or “Canon”….

        Marcion’s new book contained nothing but 10 of Paul’s letters and an abbreviated Gospel of Luke. (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were NOT in Marcion’s “New Testament.”) And Marcion disagreed with Paul about the “Old Testament” being “inspired” and “profitable.” Rather Marcion said it was “OLD” and outdated – hence the label……

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    • I think that it is hard sometimes when it comes to reading Scripture. We need to keep in mind that all Scripture is written for us but not all of it is written to us. The Scripture that is not written to us is written for us to read and see how God worked in that situation and the faith that that person had when told to do something out of faith. I agree completely that all Scripture is profitable, but it is just as important as well to keep in mind the context and the audience that it was written to in order to have a better understanding.

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      • Megan,
        And sometimes, as in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10, Paul was WRONG – because Paul contradicted Jesus (in Matthew 22 and Mark 12).

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      • Megan, you said QUOTE: “I agree completely that all Scripture is profitable…”

        This is called “begging the question”.
        You have accepted one phrase, written by one man, Paul, as the one lens to determine and evaluate “God’s Word.”
        No one else ever said this except Paul, once, (and this is an English translation anyway.)
        Paul isn’t God, so why should one phrase from Paul determine what is “God’s Word”?

        If you read the previous verse, 2 Timothy 3:15, you will see that Paul wasn’t even referring to his own letters here, he was referring to what we call the “Old Testament.”
        So “All Scripture” does NOT mean “The Bible” according to Paul.

        No one in the pages of the Bible ever said all Scripture is EQUAL.

        What does “profitable” mean exactly, and profitable to WHOM in what way or ways? Is it true that it’s “profitable” and is it good and right and holy to be “profitable” ?
        Financially profitable to Paul the Pharisee and modern Pharisees who want to “be like Paul”?

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  5. It is intriguing that the Jews have a fervor to study the law to make sure that they do not go against the Lord. I don’t know why but it reminds me of someone who learns to walk more cautiously in the dark because of them severely stubbing their toes on furniture. Israel’s desire just to stay close to the Torah almost further blinds them when the truth Joshuah was preaching to them. It is easy for us to falling into practice and tradition, because we want to be in control. Salvation by works presents you with that enticing desire. I think the example of the dangerous webbed theology and doctrine that the Jews made for themselves should be a reminder to Christ followers that we can blind ourselves from interacting with the true God, because we’d rather have our theology right than having God interact with a sinner. We must be cautious to not repeat the same mistakes as the Jews because if Christ came today would our doctrine hold us back from following Him?

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    • Benjamin, you asked, QUOTE:
      “…if Christ came today would our doctrine hold us back from following Him?”

      Well, PAUL’S doctrine would.
      Paul’s false teaching spoke of Jesus “abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2 verse 15.
      Luke recorded that Paul was in Ephesus for 2 years and 3 months [Acts 19:8-10], and later Luke recorded Paul’s boastful exaggerated testimony about his own ministry, claiming to be in Ephesus for “three years…. night and day with tears.” [Acts 20:31]

      But Jesus commanded us “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
      Recorded by the Apostle Matthew in his Gospel, chapter 5 verse 17.

      So Benjamin, will you follow Boss Paul the Pharisee?
      Or will you follow Jesus Christ, revealed through His appointed Apostles?

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