From: The Good News Of Tomorrow’s World
By Ernest Martin and Harry Eisenberg
In the last installment, we saw how a majority of people were weaned away from their observance of God’s laws by the pressures of the Hellenistic culture. Under the rule of the Egyptian Ptolemies, they became interested in the education and culture of the surrounding nations. Later, under the domination of a cruel Seleucid Syrian king, the Jews revolted against Syria. The revolt was successful, and Hellenism, as a culture of which the Syrians were great exponents, was now discredited.
The priests (those descended from Aaron), many of whom had been leading Hellenists, were looked upon with distrust by many. Now laymen were beginning to make their voices heard in religious disputes. This was the rise of the Pharisees. It was a layman’s party, though some priests also belonged to it.
No one questioned the right of the priests to officiate in the Temple. But the priests pointed to Deuteronomy 17:8-13 as giving them, and not the lay teachers, the authority to teach and to decide questions pertaining to religion. They and their supporters organized themselves into the party of the Sadducees (name taken from Zadok, the High Priest in Solomon’s day).
The priests as a whole were wealthy. This and their previous support of Hellenism caused the people to mistrust them by and large. Josephus tells us, “The Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side” (“Antiquities of the Jews”, XIII, x, 6).
Lay Teachers Justify the People’s Errors
And yet the main reason for the popularity of the Pharisees and the rejection of the Sadducees was neither the tainted past nor the wealth of the priests. It was in the teachings of the Pharisees themselves. During the period of religious anarchy under Hellenistic rule, the continuity of official teachers of the law had been broken. Hellenism had made its inroads.
Consequently, when the Maccabean War came to an end, and some teachers did think of returning to God’s Law, it was found that “many new customs and practices for which there were no precedents in the traditions of the fathers, and not the slightest indication in the Book of the Law, were observed by the people and considered by them as a part of their religious laws and practices” (Lauterbach, “Rabbinic Essays”, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, p. 195).
In short, the people had adopted many customs and ideas which were in truth clearly pagan. The best example of these is the belief in the immortality of the soul already mentioned. “The difficulty was to find a sanction in the Torah (the Law) for the new customs and practices which had established themselves in the community …” (Herford, “Talmud and Apocrypha”, Soncino Press, London, 1933, p. 66). The teachers should have shown the people they were sinning (Isa. 58:1). Instead they chose to justify them. This should not seem strange. It was done in Jeremiah’s day (Jer. 23:21-22) and in Isaiah’s (Isa. 30:10).
Pagan Customs Called Jewish!
And yet the Scripture plainly states: “Learn not the way of the heathen” (Jer. 10:2). Consequently, the teachers taught that the new customs the people had adopted were not really pagan — they were actually Jewish!
They reasoned this: “It is hardly possible that foreign customs and non-Jewish laws should have met with such universal acceptance. The total absence of objection on the part of the people to such customs vouched for their Jewish origin, in the opinion of the teachers” (Lauterbach, p. 211). These teachers told the people that it simply was not possible for them, being Jews, to have inherited any heathen custom or practice. They furthermore taught that since the customs were “Jewish,” then they must have been taught by Moses himself. (This is no different from today, when churchgoers by the millions assume that the original apostles observed Sunday, Easter, Christmas and the like.)
“Accordingly, the teachers themselves came to believe that such generally recognized laws and practices must have been old traditional laws and practices adopted by the fathers and transmitted to the following generations in addition to the Written Law. Such a belief would naturally free the teachers from the necessity of finding scriptural proof for all the new practices” (ibid.).
In other words they claimed that these customs, since they were not WRITTEN in the Old Testament, must have been handed down ORALLY from Moses — by word of mouth. Actually, these traditional laws — these oral laws — were not from Moses nor any of the prophets. There is not a single reference in the Scripture that Moses gave the Israelites any oral or traditional laws that were to be transmitted to posterity along with the written Word. The Bible states just the opposite. It plainly says that Moses wrote the whole Law in a book. Notice. “And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were FINISHED …” (Deut. 31:24). There is no such thing as an “oral law of Moses.”
Oral Law Gains Acceptance
The theory of the “oral law” was accepted only gradually — a matter of a few years, rather than months. “The theory of an authoritative traditional law (which might be taught independently of the Scriptures) was altogether too new to be unhesitatingly accepted … the theory was too startling and novel to be unconditionally accepted” (Lauterbach, p. 211 ).
The greater opposition to the so-called “oral law” came from the priests who, as a whole, declared that the Scripture was the only necessary code of laws to obey. “This apparently simple solution offered by the priestly group in the Sanhedrin did not find favour with the lay members of that body” (ibid., p. 209). And, with the passage of time, the lay teachers ultimately came to constitute the majority of representatives in the Sanhedrin. These Pharisaic lay teachers succeeded in convincing the people that they were right and that the priests were wrong.
Some of the people’s fears concerning the priestly Sadducees were apparently valid, however. Many of the priests did become worldly minded and they found worldly politics far more interesting than religion. The Sadducees eventually adopted the belief that there was no resurrection and that angels did not exist (Act 23:8). This was probably a result of the influence of the Greek Epicurean philosophy. It taught that there was no future life of any kind and that man should therefore seek as many physical pleasures in this life as possible, since that was all there was.
New Laws of the Pharisees
Many of the Pharisees came to believe what they were doing was God’s will. “It is certain that they (the Pharisees) regarded themselves as the successors of the prophets, and not merely in fact but by right” (Herford, p. 71). Based on this claimed authority, they adopted a method of teaching what they believed to be laws of God, without any initial reference to Scripture for authority. “Finding no convincing proof for such laws in the Bible, they taught them independently of scriptural proof, i.e., in the MISHNAH-form” (Lauterbach, p. 229).
MISHNAH-form was the name given for laying down laws to be observed, apart from Scripture. This is not to say MISHNAH-form avoided Scripture altogether. But it was only AFTER a law had already been accepted that the Scriptures might be checked for corroboration. Sometimes “affirmation” of a new law was forced from Scriptures totally unrelated to the particular subject. The word MISHNAH is related to the Hebrew root meaning “second” and “study.” MISHNAH-form was the SECOND form that the Pharisees adopted for “STUDY” as opposed to the original form of properly expounding the Scriptures, which was called MIDRASH-form. This older, original form was known as “teaching after the manner of Moses” (“Talmud”, Temurah 156, “Yebamoth” 72b).
MIDRASH-form is based on deducing laws, teachings, legends, etc., from the Scripture. As time went on it too became perverted. “Whenever there was the remotest possibility of doing so, they would seek by means of new hermeneutical rules (rules pertaining to Biblical interpretation) to find in the words of the Torah support for these traditional laws” (Lauterbach, p. 212).
Thus the Pharisees were able to “find” the traditions they were now approving of by twisted interpretations of Scripture. In doing this they still claimed to be using the MIDRASH-form. Ezra is said to have taught in MIDRASH-form when he, and his helpers “read in the book in the law of God distinctly and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8).
There was, however, one major point which Ezra was aware of, but which the Pharisees missed. It is this: God, in the Bible, never contradicts Himself. Malachi, a contemporary of Ezra was inspired to write: “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3: 6). But many of the traditional laws the Pharisees approved of did contradict Scripture. What’s more, many of them even contradicted one another. With the introduction of the new MISHNAH-form, Scripture came to be less relied on than before. New laws, which were not even necessarily traditional, could be enacted.
The Pharisees found the MISHNAH-form to be an important weapon in their conflict with the Sadducees. Laws that were accepted after being handed down in the MISHNAH-form tended to enhance the authority of the Pharisees, since it was SOLELY on their authority that the law was accepted. The very first individual of whom we have any record who began to teach new commandments in the MISHNAH-form, apart from the scriptural basis, was Jose ben Joezer of Zareda.
Jose laid down three new commandments. The first concerned the eating of a certain locust; the second, the blood of slaughtered animals; and the third, the touching of a dead body. In doing this he became known as “Jose the Permitter” (“Talmud”, Abodah Zarah 37b). “Furthermore, Jose is called ‘the Permitter,’ evidently because in all three decisions he permits things that were formerly considered forbidden” (Lauterbach, p. 219).
These new laws of Jose were not customs the people had inherited from Hellenism. “It is therefore evident that these Halakot (rules) … were not older traditional laws transmitted by Jose as a mere witness, but Jose’s own teachings. He was the one who ‘permitted’ and he deserved the name (the Permitter)” (ibid., p. 218). These commandments of themselves were not earth-shaking violations, but they did set a precedent! Eventually others began to set down all sorts of new laws. These are what Jesus called “the commandments of men” (Mark 77).
The Prosbul of Hillel
Many others ultimately followed in the steps of Jose. If the majority of Pharisees agreed on a new decision, it was accepted as the Word of God — even if Scripture taught just the opposite. Of the myriad of new laws laid down, perhaps the best example and the best known is the Prosbul of Hillel. Hillel the Old headed a Pharisaic school in the days of Herod. He was noted for his gentleness and was greatly beloved among the people, but his decisions, nonetheless, were not always in keeping with the Word of God.
For example, “All private loans are automatically remitted at the end of the Sabbatical Year (Deut. 15:2) and hence it became difficult to obtain loans immediately before the onset of that year. In order to avoid hardship and encourage lending, Hillel instituted the “Prosbul” (Greek: “for the court”), which is a declaration made before a court of law by the creditor, and signed by witnesses, stating that all debts due him are given over to the court for collection. Since the remission of loans during the seventh year applies only to individuals but not to public loans, the effect of the Prosbul is to render the individual’s loan public, and it is therefore not remitted” (Werblowsky and Wigoder, “The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion”, art. “Prosbul,” p. 312).
Hillel’s motive was apparently quite practical. And yet the Bible clearly states: “Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the LORD (Eternal) against thee, and it be sin unto thee” (Deut. 15:9).
Rather, God says: “Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when you givest unto him: because that for this thing the Eternal thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto” (verse 10). It was because of rules like the Prosbul that Christ told the Pharisees, “Thus have you made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matt. 15:6).
Hillel saw that the poor were unable to obtain needed loans and was trying to remedy the situation, but he was not doing it God’s way! God says: “Trust in the Eternal with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). There were many such instances where the Pharisees enacted many new laws, based solely on their own human reasoning in an attempt to make what they thought would be a better way of life. Yet God tells us: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).
Cause and Effect
The Pharisees’ error was a classic one. Seeing wrong situations, but relying solely on themselves, they attempted to treat the EFFECT rather than the CAUSE. Notice the case of Hillel’s Prosbul. God plainly tells us that the CAUSE of the problem was in the HEARTS of the people (Deut. 15:9). Today too many see the problems besetting mankind. Governments have their solutions and the revolutionary activists have theirs. But all attempt to treat ONLY THE EFFECTS of the problems. None gets at THE REAL CAUSE — which is to be found for the most part in carnal human nature with its greed and pride.
Today, God is treating the cause of man’s ills in some individuals. He is presently changing the hearts of a few. “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them an heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11.19). God’s Law as revealed throughout all of Scripture is indicative of God’s CHARACTER. It is a giving, serving, sharing, concern for the other person as well as the self, and can be summed up by the word LOVE — love first of all toward God and then towards fellowman.
God’s Law shows us exactly how He would live if He were a human being. And this is precisely what Jesus did when He emptied Himself of His divinity and took on human flesh — He never once broke a single law of God. The rise of Pharisaism in the period between the Testaments represented an attempt on the part of these people to keep the Law. But they lacked a clear understanding of their own human nature as revealed in the Scriptures. Notice God’s deeply felt near-lament in Deuteronomy 5:29: “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever”!
But “such an heart” was not in them at that time. They had only the human nature that we all naturally possess — the heart that is “… deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9.) Joshua told his generation, “… Ye cannot serve the Lord nor is it in ours.
But man was not left without hope. There was a promise of better things to come. “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6).
The Pharisees as well as the other sects of the period wanted to serve God and keep His commandments. They had, as the Apostle Paul (who well knew) put it, “… a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Not aware of the necessity for a change in their own human nature, they found it necessary to change God’s Law. Not that this was done outwardly, but rather by forced interpretations, rationalizations, attempted codifications of laws that are all-encompassing, and new laws that were not admitted always to be new.
By changing the Law, they made it of “none effect.” That is, it did not have the effect that God’s laws should have on those who keep them. Inasmuch as the Pharisees did keep SOME of the laws correctly SOME of the time, it did have SOME good effects. But the overall results that come by living in total harmony with the laws the Creator set in motion simply were lacking. Pharisaic society did not abound with the love of God. You could never convince the Sadducees (with whom they often disputed) that it was otherwise. Nor could you convince the Romans. Nor could you convince the unlearned Jews of that day, whom many of the Pharisees thumbed their noses at with the epithet “am-ha-aretz” (“people of the land” — the term is used in a derogatory sense throughout the Pharisaic writings).
Pharisaic society was filled with strife. When Alexander Jannaeus, one of the Maccabean kings, ruled, the Pharisees were virtually at WAR with him and there was much bloodshed. The Talmud itself is a record of the Pharisees striving among themselves, one with another in religious DEBATES, each one trying to convince the others of the correctness of HIS particular idea, rather than all working harmoniously to seek GOD’S will.
Today, professing Christianity is treading down the same well-worn path the Pharisees mistakingly took. Where is the sect that has not attempted to read its own ideas into the Bible which it professes to obey? And where is the denomination that is truly bearing the fruits of God’s Spirit — love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance? Indeed which one even knows what true love is?
Don’t YOU follow the crowd. DON’T be led down the garden path into religious deception by any who would warp, distort and twist the scripture to their own destruction. As you peruse the pages of your Bible, we encourage you to search the scriptures daily WHETHER THESE THINGS BE SO (Acts 17:11). But by the same token we also ask that you apply the same criterion to all who claim to represent God! Remember, “… if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).