02.02.18 Oral Law

02.02.18 Oral Law

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 18, 2016  -  Comments Off on 02.02.18 Oral Law

02.02.18 Oral Law. (See also Mishnah – 02.02.16 and Oral Tradition – 02.02.20). Today, and in the days of Jesus, Jewish people believe that the “Torah” is divided into two parts:  the written and the unwritten (known as the Oral Law).[1] Some scholars believe that the phrase in 1 Peter 1:18 “handed down from one’s fathers” (Gk. patroparadotos 3970) is a reference to the oral tradition of conveying an historical account from father to son.[2]  It was the Oral Law, also known as the “Law of the lip, or Torah Shebeal pih,[3] although some Jewish scholars today believe that ancient rabbis were permitted to keep personal notes on issues not discussed often.[4] Nonetheless, it was the cause for confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees because they considered it to be superior to the Mosaic laws. However, the Oral Laws were not honored by the Sadducees.  When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, they instituted this new set of regulations to protect themselves from sinning against God, and later, from the influences of the Greco-Roman culture.  They felt that failure to protect themselves would most certainly cause them to be exiled again.[5] The irony is that the Oral Law was the major reason the Jewish leadership rejected Christ, which led to their dispersal from the land in A.D. 70 and in 135.

There is a debate as to when the Oral laws originated.  Most Jews believe it originated as the verbal explanation of the written law by Moses[6] while Christians believe it dates to the time of Ezra.  When the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem were gathered at the temple, Ezra read the Torah to them (Neh. 8).  After the reading, he explained the biblical text “so that the people could understand what was being read” (Neh. 8:8).  The Torah by this time was nearly a thousand years old and the language and customs had changed, making the reading somewhat archaic. Hence, Ezra’s explanation of the Law became the foundation of the Oral Law.

Many years later, in the first half of the second century B.C., when the Holy Land was dominated by the Greeks, Antiochus IV Epiphanes forced the Greek culture upon the Jews. The need for a “protective fence” around the Torah became critical, as the Jews strengthened their set of laws to insulate themselves from the pagan influences.[7]  These laws enhanced the “Oral Law,” or “Oral Tradition.”  The purpose of the additional laws was to serve as a protectorate so that the religious authorities could punish anyone before he had the opportunity to break one of the more serious laws of God, and thereby possibly cause the entire nation to suffer divine punishment. While the intent of the Oral laws was good, in time, they become oppressive and restrictive for the people whom they were intended to protect.[8]  To the Pharisees the Oral Law superseded all Scripture, and therein was the foundation for the conflict with Jesus. In the Aboth 1:1 there is an interesting statement that clearly defines the Oral Law.  It reads:

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets.  And the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Synagogue.  They said three things: Be prudent in judgment. Raise up many disciples. Make a fence around the Torah.  

Mishnah, Aboth 1:1[9]


In the three centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 135, the Oral Laws were recorded and by the end of the second century or early third century, these became known as the Mishnah.  Other commentaries followed such as the Tosefta, Mekilta, Sifra, Sifre, and the Baraita.   The oral traditions were well preserved by professional scribes,[10] even though there were other writers who attempted to remold and reshape Jewish history with writings known as the Pseudepigrapha. Therefore, the scribes preserved an excellent background on how the Torah was interpreted and applied to daily life during the time of Christ as well as other aspects of Jewish life. By the first century rabbinic rules influenced every part of a Jewish person’s life including the dimensions of tombs. For example, in the Mishnah are the rabbinic directives that stated that a burial niche had to be four cubits long and seven handbreadths high and six handbreadths wide.[11]   Furthermore, carcasses, graves, and tanneries were not permitted within 50 cubits of a town.[12] If a town grew to the point that it surrounded a cemetery, the tombs had to be removed.[13]

Today, the various sects of the ultra-orthodox Jews, such as the Satmars, the Gerers, the Bratslavers, and the Lubavitchers believe that the five books of Moses are absolutely divinely inspired. But they also believe the Oral Law that includes the Talmud, are also divinely inspired and are bitterly opposed to Christians and Messianic Jews.[14] In that sense, the first century Pharisees live on.

Most of the arguments Jesus had with the leading Pharisees pertained to the regulations of daily life, known as the Halakhah.[15] These were oppressive restrictions religious peddlers promoted rather than helping people find the purpose God has for their lives. The question people today have about stories of Jesus that were passed down until they were written is, did the stories change during transmission? In other words, can we trust the biblical narratives?  Those are valid questions.

The fact is that the ancient Jewish culture was an oral culture. That means that Oral Laws were passed from one generation to the next, and often recited publically. When there was an error made by the speaker, one or more listeners quickly corrected him. Furthermore, if a law was quoted correctly, but in some way its meaning was belittled or degraded, he was quickly corrected. Since there is no equal in Western culture, it is difficult to accept the fact that traditions and information were accurately transmitted, but that is precisely what occurred.[16] 

[1]. Chajes, The Student’s Guide through the Talmud. 1.


[2]. Vine, “Handed Down.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:288.


[3]. Farrar, The Life of Christ. 241.


[4]. Parry, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud. 20.


[5]. Danby, ed., The Mishnah. 60-61; Neusner, A Midrash Reader. 4.

[6]. Parry, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud. 9.


[7]. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, 77-79, 99-103; Wheaton, “Antiochus.” 1:71-72


[8]. Lee, U., The Life of Christ. 60-61.

[9]. Danby, ed., The Mishnah; See also Neusner, Rabbinic Judaism. 207. See video 02.02.16.V by Messianic Rabbi  John Fischer who discusses the term “fence around the Torah” from a first century Jewish perspective.


[10]. Freeman, The New Manners and Customs. 420-21.


[11]. Mishnah, Baba Bathra 6.8

[12]. Mishnah, Baba Bathra 2.9.


[13]. Mishnah, Baba Bathra 1.11; See also Kloner and Zissu. The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period. 21.

[14]. Schneider, “Who are the Ultra-Orthodox?” 15.


[15]. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, 107.


[16]. The Jews were by no means the only ones with an oral culture. Oral cultures existed in many parts of the world. In fact, some Native American Indians also had an oral culture in which laws and traditions were passed from father to son.


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