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Focus On Rabbinic Literature

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Rabbinic Literature and the Christian Scriptures:
An Evolving Relationship

Joshua Ezra Burns

What is the Talmud to the New Testament?  Today, critical readers of the early Church typically recognize the Talmud and the other major treatises of the classical rabbinic literary tradition—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the works of the Midrash—as helpful comparative aids for the study of the Christian Scriptures.  This is nothing new.  From time immemorial, the works of the ancient Jewish sages were known to Christian theologians as sources of potential relevance to the historical study of the New Testament.  Despite having been written some years after the fact, these texts were thought to contain vital information on the life and times of Jesus as well as the keys to understanding the obscure exegetical methods and theological assumptions of Paul and other Christian authors of the apostolic period.  In short, the works of the early rabbis were acknowledged to preserve vital information on the social and intellectual circumstances of the formative Christian faith, ostensibly bearing witness to the integrity of its scriptural sources yet from outside the ranks of the Christian faithful.

Written, however, in idiosyncratic Jewish dialects and idioms, the works of the ancient rabbis are not naturally obliging to the typical Christian reader.  The resulting need of Christian scholars to bridge the communication gap between themselves and the authors of these texts has complicated the conversation considerably.  The critical study of the classical rabbinic corpus was initiated during the seventeenth century under the auspices of Christian theologians eager to exploit its supposed testaments to the gospel truth as proof of contemporary Jewish perfidy.  The early Christian Hebraists were not interested in producing complete translations of rabbinic texts demonstrating the range of religious and cultural discourses exhibited in their pages.  Only a handful of Jews, moreover, had any part in their conversations.  As a result, the efforts of these scholars to present the classical rabbinic corpus in terms intelligible to their fellow Christians yielded little more than a distorted mirror image of the New Testament.  Their research in the rabbinic corpus seemed to indicate that even the most learned and devoted Jews of the early Christian era could not help but think and act in spite of their knowledge of the gospel truth.  That subsequent generations of Jewish readers remained mired in the irrational prejudices of their ancient forebears was a foregone conclusion.  In short, while the rabbinic corpus was thought by learned Christian scholars to attest to the truth of Christianity, it was thought by the same scholars to attest no less to the abject falsehood of Judaism.

This pernicious and highly regrettable attitude toward the ancient rabbis remained, with few exceptions, the dominant mode of Christian thinking regarding their literary legacy through the early twentieth century.  Yet as the specter of anti-Semitism cast its shadow over the European academy, an epistemological revolution took root.  While many continental scholars of Christian origins continued to spew venom against the Jews, their colleagues in England and North America began to assume more constructive approaches.  Scholars such as Herbert Danby and George Foot Moore turned to the Talmud and other classical rabbinic texts for signs of positive theological exchange between the early followers of Jesus and their Jewish contemporaries.  That the Christian ethos itself was a product of ancient Jewish culture became the new norm among theologians sensitized to the poisonous implications of the old.  This critical reversal pervaded all corners of the academy in the wake of the Holocaust as scholars perceived an absolute moral imperative to reconcile the Christian tradition with its estranged Jewish past.  As a result, the Talmud and other classical rabbinic treatises became sites of positive theological reflection.  No longer interested in criticizing these texts for their supposed blasphemies against the Christian faith, Christian scholars now celebrated them as repositories of knowledge illuminating the newly rediscovered Jewish context of the New Testament.

But the impetus to hold the early Christian tradition to the light of classical rabbinic culture soon lost its luster.  Only years after mainstream theological scholarship began to acknowledge their work, scholars proficient in the history and literature of the rabbinic sages began to express concern over the viability of the great comparative project already well under way.  Experts in classical Judaica, their voices now welcome in the conversation, had learned how to hold the complex rabbinic literary tradition to the same standards of critical scrutiny to which their academic peers held the texts of the New Testament.  Scholars such as Saul Lieberman, Morton Smith, and Jacob Neusner demonstrated the analytical imperative to treat the books of the ancient rabbis not as individually authored works but as compilations of diverse textual traditions continually written and rewritten by generations of anonymous editors over the course of antiquity.  This caused a crisis of confidence in the documentary qualities of rabbinic texts.  No longer could one trust the attribution of a given legal opinion or exegetical reading to a given rabbinic sage, as the same statement was liable to be ascribed to another sage in some other rabbinic document.  Classical Jewish texts were now to be studied on their own terms rather than on terms delineated by Christian theological scholarship.  As a result, the prospect of reading the first-century books of the New Testament in dialogue with the wide-ranging patterns of practice and thought inscribed upon the classical Jewish tradition all but evaporated.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, a new leaf was turning in the discipline of Judaic studies that would signal the rehabilitation of its dialogue with the Christian Scriptures.  Advances in the study of the multiform textual development of the classical rabbinic corpus had led to a new brand of historicism treating individual rabbinic traditions as witnesses to the similarly diverse evolution of Jewish culture in classical antiquity.  Comparative analyses, moreover, of early rabbinic legal and exegetical texts to the recently published writings of the Qumran sectarians and other long-overlooked Jewish texts of the Second Temple period helped reinforce the credibility of the New Testament as a witness, however hostile at times, to modes of Jewish practice and thought later taken up by the rabbis.  These developments have helped reinvent the critical conversation on the correspondence between the New Testament and early rabbinic culture.  Where they once turned to the Talmud and Midrash for information on the context of the Christian Scriptures, scholars now tend to turn to the Christian Scriptures for information on the contexts of the formative Talmudic and Midrashic literary traditions.

Here's an example.  The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the synoptic gospels, features a story in which Jesus is said to have debated a group of Pharisees and scribes over whether one needs to cleanse his or her hands before eating (Mark 7.1–23).  By way of contextualization, the evangelist notes that "the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders (Mark 7.3)."  Thus, he asserts, did the Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for allowing his own disciples to eat with defiled hands (Mark 7.5).  The evangelist goes on to allude to the traditional Jewish laws of ritual purity prohibiting the consumption of unclean foods.  These laws, he argues, are no longer meaningful, for, as Jesus taught, it is not what goes into an individual that renders one impure but what comes out by virtue of his or her behavior.  Thus, the evangelist concludes, did Jesus deem all foodstuffs ritually clean and acceptable for consumption (Mark 7.18–20).  The same incident is reported in the Gospel of Matthew, albeit without Mark's overt appeals to contemporary Jewish practice (Matt 15.1–20).


While it seems reasonably clear that the point of this story is to establish a Christological argument against the traditional Jewish dietary laws, it also reveals something significant about ancient Jewish attitudes toward the idea of ritual purity.  That certain ancient Jews (if not, as Mark alleges, all of them) were preoccupied with keeping their bodies clean is clear enough.  The reports of Philo and Josephus on the Jewish sects of the late Second Temple period indicate that Pharisees and Essenes were among those who upheld the strict standards of physical purity prescribed for the Temple priesthood in the book of Leviticus.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by indeterminate Jewish sectarians, abound in instructions that their readers keep their entire bodies as free of defilement as possible.  Finally, later rabbinic legislation would present the need to wash one's hands as a major ritual imperative.  The Mishnah, written at least a hundred years after the gospels, includes an entire tractate, Yadayim (whose name literally means "hands"), devoted to the proper procedures for cleansing one's hands, body, and other sacred objects.  The precise parameters of these practices were actively debated in rabbinic circles well into late antiquity, as amply attested in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds.

Mark's mentioning of the custom of washing one's hands before eating seems to support the Mishnah's implication that this was already an established Jewish practice by the time of its composition.  In an earlier day, the critical reader of the gospel might therefore have the evangelist's critique as a statement of dissent from the common Jewish practice of his day.  Since the rabbis, whose opinions later came to define normative Jewish practice and belief, claimed to trace their ideologies to the Pharisees, one might well have assumed that the position of the Pharisees on ritual cleanliness likewise represented the Jewish norm of their day.  Yet a closer reading of the evidence suggests otherwise.  While Mark claims that all Jews were as fastidious as the Pharisees and scribes regarding the laws of ritual purity, the parallel account in Matthew includes no such broad generalization (cf. Matt 15.2).  To the mind of its author, apparently, washing one's hands before eating was a custom particular to the Pharisees and scribes but not, as Mark alleges, to all Jews.  Similarly, the Dead Sea Scrolls speak to the practices of a fairly limited and, moreover, fairly fanatical, section of ancient Jewish society.  Scrolls' emphasis on constant cleanliness does not necessarily reflect common Jewish practice.

Clearly, certain first-century Jews considered washing one's hands before eating more than sensible hygiene.  But the evidence is insufficient to support the supposition that this was a universal Jewish truth.  What appears, therefore, in the Mishnah and Talmud as a normative proclamation of Jewish practice is now shown to be a position statement.  In all likelihood, the original author or authors of the rabbinic legislation advocated a standard of practice formerly upheld by the Pharisees, the Essenes, and other devout Jews of earlier times admired by the early rabbinic sages.  If, therefore, we are to regard Jesus in Matthew and Mark as a voice of Jewish dissent, it would appear that the rabbinic stance on ritual cleanliness represented an attempt by the rabbis to establish a standard of Jewish practice somewhat at odds with reality.  Consequently, the Christian rejection of the traditional Jewish standards of ritual purity signifies more than just the emergence of the Christian faith as a distinctive system of belief.  It also signifies the start of a movement within the Jewish faith away from the diversity of the Second Temple period and toward the incipient orthodoxy of the rabbinic sages.

Although it would take centuries—and a global religious revolution—for the rabbinic way to achieve wide currency among the Jewish people, its roots are clearly visible in the New Testament.  All it takes to discover them are a discerning eye and attentiveness to the subtle vicissitudes of ancient Jewish history.  In reversing the supposed relationship between the Christian Scriptures and rabbinic literature, today's scholars have devised an analytical agenda more or less agreeable to everyone involved in the conversation.  As a result, the conversation has moved beyond the walls of its original home in the field of Christian theology and settled into a new home equally inviting to experts in the field of Judaic studies.  Each camp, moreover, now stands to benefit from the other's insights.  This partnership has opened new vistas in the study of topics such as early Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretation, early social relations between Jews and Christians, and the foundations of the theological rift between Judaism and Christianity.  Simply acknowledging that Jesus, Paul, and the evangelists operated within or close to the first-century Jewish society that incubated the rabbinic movement allows the critical reader to see with unprecedented clarity the differences of opinion as well as the areas of common concern that later came to define the Jewish and Christian faiths.  One can only hope that the resulting convergence of contemporary Jewish and Christian critical interests in the world of the Christian Scriptures leads to ever more constructive conversations in years to come. 


  • Bieringer, Reimund, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson, eds. The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010.
  • Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva, and Martin S. Jaffee, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Ruzer, Serge. Mapping the New Testament: Early Christian Writings as a Witness for Jewish Biblical Exegesis. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2007.
  • Sanders, E.P. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
  • Schäfer, Peter. Jesus in the Talmud. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Related Content

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

Matt 15.1–20
Mark 7.1–23

Subject Entries and Commentary

Rabbinic Literature
synoptic gospels
Oxford University Press

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