Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Law and Tradition

In the preceding chapter it has been seen that the most important part of public worship consisted in the reading and exposition of Holy Scripture, and that the synagogue was quite as much a school of instruction as a house of prayer. The books on which this instruction was based, and which constituted the contents of Holy Scripture in the time of Christ were essentially the same as those which now form the Old Testament canon of the Christian Church. In fact, they are quoted by the apostles, and were adopted by the Church as canonical writings on the authority of the Synagogue. These sacred books were divided by the rabbis into three classes—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, or Hagiographa. The Law, in the stricter meaning of the word, was contained in the Pentateuch; the Prophets included, besides what are known as the prophetical books, most of those documents which give an account of the pre-exilian history of the Israelites. The Writings were the last works to obtain admission within the sacred volume; the canonicity of some of them was long a matter of contention among the doctors of the Law, and it was not till the opening centuries of the Christian era that these disputes were settled, and that the canon in its present form was finally accepted by all the rabbis.

The principle which regulated the admission of books into the sacred canon was not primarily based on their antiquity or their authorship, but on the nature of their contents. Before all things it was imperative that the document which laid claim to the august title of Holy Scripture should contain nothing which was at variance or out of harmony with writings already recognized as coming from God. In the case of such works as the Song of Solomon, and the Book of Ecclesiastes, it was not around the question of date or of authorship that the dispute among the rabbis was keenest; these were matters of secondary importance in comparison with the supposed meaning and substance, and it was only after this point had been settled in their favour that they were permitted to rank as portions of the sacred record. Admission to the canon did not, however, immediately place a book upon the same level of authority as its older predecessors in that collection. Although all the books were believed to owe their origin to God, this did not prevent different degrees of inspiration from being recognized amongst them. In this respect the first place was unquestionably assigned to the Torah, or Law. In the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era, it is regarded as the supreme arbiter in matters of faith; it is believed to possess everlasting force; it is an incorruptible light, and it is better to die than violate its commands which are in reality the injunctions of God. To love the Law was the most sacred of human duties, and to be permitted by the foreign rulers of Palestine to practise it was looked upon as a boon of incalculable worth. In fact, it was better to rise in rebellion and fight with the courage of despair than to allow the Law to be trodden under foot. As time went on this tendency to exalt the Divine attributes of the Law continued to develop, until it attained its highest pitch in the oldest portions of the Talmud. To the rabbis of the first and second centuries after Christ the Law was a complete revelation of God's will, and with the Book of Joshua, which formed the concluding part of the original document, it would have remained the only revelation if Israel had not fallen into sin. It was the one thing absolutely indispensable to Israel. Nothing is expressed in the other books of Scripture which is not already implied in the Law, and no prophet has uttered anything which is not already revealed in the Law. Moses wrote it, but only at the dictation of God. Even the words in the last verses of Deuteronomy, in which the law-giver's death is recorded, were dictated to him beforehand by God, and it was the part of a liar and a despiser of God's Word to assert that a single verse of the Law had been written by Moses alone.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The pre-eminence accorded to the Law was not, however, intended to have the effect of reducing the other portions of Holy Scripture to a position of insignificance. No one but a renegade from Israel would deny their authority. In the language of the rabbis, to touch them defiles the hands, which means to say that they are only to be handled with becoming reverence. In quoting them precisely the same formula is used as in making a quotation from the Law, and the New Testament as well as the rabbis sometimes speak of them as forming a part of the Law itself. St. Paul, for instance, in making a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, introduces it with the words, "In the Law it is written," and in the Fourth Gospel a passage from the Psalms is introduced in exactly the same manner. To regard these books as parts of the Law, although it appeared to exalt their authority, had in reality a disastrous effect upon their true meaning, and in many cases transformed them from books of history, or of edification, into a mere collection of precepts and injunctions.

But in spite of this theoretical distinction which existed between the Law, on the one hand, and the Prophets and Hagiographa on the other, the uniting of the two collections within the same canon had the effect for all practical purposes, of placing them on the same footing as regards authority, and both Philo and Josephus look upon the whole of the Old Testament as equally divine. According to Philo it did not contain a single superfluous word, and not only every individual word, but every syllable of every word had its origin in God. Josephus holds substantially the same opinions. To him the whole of Scripture is divine; all its parts agree together; nothing has ever been added to or taken away from it, and it was better to die than utter a word against the doctrines it contained. The New Testament has expressions which are quite at variance with this abject worship of the letter, but it continues to regard the Old Testament as proceeding from God, or from the Spirit of God. In the First Gospel the Messianic dignity of Jesus is proved by adducing passages from the prophets in its support—a method which would not have been adopted unless the evangelist had believed in the Divine origin of his authorities. The Fourth Gospel expressly says that the Scripture cannot be broken, and it is the contents of the Jewish canon which are there referred to Passages from the Prophets and Psalms are frequently quoted as the words of God, and wherever such phrases as the Scriptures saith, or the Spirit saith occur they are equivalent to the expression God saith. Even St. Paul, in spite of his emancipation from the letter adopts the same methods of interpretation as the rabbis, and is in substantial agreement with their views respecting the origin of Holy Writ. In fact, there was a universal consensus of Jewish opinion in the time of Christ that the whole of the Old Testament was divine.

As the Scripture was on all sides admitted to have come from God, to know it was to know the will of God, and accordingly the study of the Law became the supreme duty of man. In the conflict of duties the study of the Law always took precedence. It occupied a higher rank than the duty of parents to children, or of children to parents, and it is related of a certain man that he sold his daughter in order that he might have the means to study the Law. Married men forsook their families to devote themselves to the Law; others renounced marriage altogether, and said, "Let the world be built up by other men, my soul cleaveth to the Law." It sometimes happened that rabbis sold or gave up all they possessed for the purpose of dedicating their lives to the study of the Law. Rabbi Jochanan was journeying from Tiberias to Sepphoris, and Rabbi Chija, the son of Abba, went with him. When they came to a field, Rabbi Jochanan said, "This field was mine, and I sold it so as to give myself up to the Law." Then they came to a vineyard, and he said, "This vineyard was mine, and I sold it so as to give myself up to the Law." Rabbi Chija, the son of Abba, then began to weep, and said to him, "I weep because thou hast kept nothing for thine old age." "But," he replied, "My son, Chija, my son Chija, is it then a small matter in thine eyes, that I have sold something which was made in six days, and have obtained in exchange that which was given in forty days and forty nights. The whole world was made in six days only, for it is written, ` In six days the Lord made heaven and earth; but the Law was given in forty days, for it is written, ` And he was with Jehovah forty days and forty nights."

On the other hand, not to know the Law was to be accursed, and a bastard who had this knowledge was superior to a high priest who had it not. To be ignorant of the Scriptures was to place oneself beyond the pale of human compassion. Chastisement shall befall the man who gives his bread to one who has no knowledge of the Law. The study of the Law was a duty incumbent upon rich and poor alike, and it behoved a father to teach his child the Law as soon as he could speak. He who did not devote himself to this highest of all studies should make amends for his neglect by marrying his daughter to a scribe, and supporting him out of his substance. As a reward for supporting the schools and scholars of the Law, the childless were blessed with children, and it was the duty of the people to maintain those who made this study the occupation of their lives. On the other hand, the students of the Law are required to be satisfied with a hard and humble life, to eat bread with salt, to drink sparingly, and to sleep upon the ground.?

Side by side with the written Law, which in its wider meaning was understood to comprise the whole of sacred Scriptures, there also existed, as may be seen from the New Testament, an oral or unwritten Law. The contents of this unwritten Law were called by the rabbis the words of tradition, and in the time of Christ these words were considered to possess the same authority as the written Law itself. Both were equally looked upon and spoken of as revelation. The oral Law, no less than the written, was derived from God, and was communicated by Him to Moses on Mount Sinai. Whilst Moses was alive he repeated and explained it in the Tabernacle of the wilderness; he also communicated it to Aaron, who in turn imparted it to his sons, these again made it known to the elders, and the elders to the masses of the people. As the Sanhedrin was the authoritative exponent of tradition at the opening of the Christian era, it was believed that Moses had created this institution for the express purpose of guarding and preserving the unwritten Law. Not only did he institute the Sanhedrin, but he was the first head of it as well, and before his death he committed the care of the oral Law to Joshua, who was supposed to have succeeded him in the presidency of this councils In after time the Judges and prophets formed the connecting link in the long chain of tradition as it passed downwards to posterity; then came the men of the great synagogue, the last of whom, Simon the Just, bequeathed the hallowed treasures of tradition to the scribe Antigonus of Socho. By him it was handed down to the heads of the Sanhedrin, till it reached the famous doctors Hillel and Schammai, who flourished in the time of Christ. It was then imparted to Gamaliel, the celebrated teacher of St. Paul, and it continued after the fall of the Jewish state to be handed on from generation to generation, till it was finally committed to writing and deposited in the pages of the Talmud. So runs the historic fiction which invested tradition with Divine sanctions, and made it such a mighty power in Jewish life.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


But the channel through which tradition flowed till it was committed to writing did not, according to the rabbis, succeed in preserving its contents intact. It sometimes happened that portions of the oral Law were lost. The grief which ensued on the death of Moses caused a vast number of traditions to be forgotten, and in many other instances besides, its precepts were believed to have experienced a similar fate. But these losses were only temporary, for, according to the rabbinic theory, the whole of the oral Law was implicitly contained in the written Law, and it was always capable of being restored by a searching study of the written text. This study was the great occupation of the rabbis. It is hardly necessary to say that it was not conducted on historical and philological principles; these methods are of very recent origin, and not only the Jews, but the whole ancient world were strangers to such instruments of research. Nor was it conducted in a multitude of cases with the object of getting at the original meaning of the writer. The lofty simplicity of the sacred text was often too obvious in its signification to satisfy the student of tradition. The rabbis' labours on the written Word were generally undertaken with a view to recover traditions that had been lost, or to find out some hidden precept of Divine wisdom which had not hitherto been brought to light. In order to achieve this object allegorical interpretations were constantly resorted to, as well as all sorts of ingenious and arbitrary combinations of unconnected texts. With such fanciful methods of interpretation it was easy to educe any doctrine from the pages of Scripture, and it was a customary practice with the scribes to put forward their dogmatic assumptions as the restored fragments of a lost tradition, or to urge some new precept as if it were an old one which had in the past been overlooked.

As the contents of Scripture fell into two parts the Legal on the one hand, and the Historical and Prophetical on the other so also did the contents of tradition. And as the Law enjoyed a certain pre-eminence over the rest of sacred literature, so also did those portions of tradition which handled the same subjects as the Law. All traditions of this nature were called the Halacha, or Law of Custom, while all traditions bearing upon the historical and prophetical books were called the Haggada, or edifying comment.

The laws of custom, like the corresponding laws in the Pentateuch, dealt principally with the great sacrificial system which was seated at Jerusalem, and with all the ramifications of that system in the religious life of the people. These laws entered with great fullness of detail into such subjects as the revenues of the priests and Levites, and the sums which they should receive from the people. Feasts and fast days were also the object of minute regulations; the Sabbath, the Passover, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, all came within the sweep of traditional Law; what should be done on these days and what should not be done, what sacrifices should be offered and what form of ceremonial should be observed in offering them, were matters which were regulated with the utmost detail and precision.

A multitude of regulations also existed respecting the purification of unclean persons and things, many laws were also devoted to vows and their proper observance, and a host of binding customs surrounded the subjects of marriage, betrothal, and divorce. Matters of a purely secular character were also within the sphere of tradition, and laws were laid down to regulate such purely civil transactions as buying and selling, and the administration of the criminal law. Upon a great variety of subjects the written Law had to be supplemented by the Law of tradition. The oral Law had to answer all questions on which the written Law was silent. It had to adapt some parts of the written Law to altered social conditions; it had sometimes to modify the rigour of written precepts, and to bring them by a process of interpretation into harmony with the feelings of the age; it had to adjust the written Law to the practical necessities of the times; it had to define the scope of the written Word, and to show in what circumstances it should be applied; and it had also to solve all difficulties and obscurities in the written text. So vast was the field in which tradition worked that its operations never reached an end, and new traditions and interpretations were constantly being added to the immense mass which had already accumulated.

It is difficult to say when these laws of custom first arose. In all probability they did not assume any considerable proportions till the official promulgation of the written Law after the return from Babylon. Such ordinances of the scribes as were in the nature of a commentary on the Pentateuch must have arisen in the centuries subsequent to the Captivity, and the same may also be said of many customs which were traced back to Moses, or which rested on immemorial antiquity. At the same time, it is possible and indeed probable that some of these laws of custom did actually belong, in a modified form, to a remote past, for many of them existed independently of Scripture, and were simply linked to it afterwards by the exegetical processes of the scribes. In theory, all traditions which had the reputation of belonging to the time of Moses, were considered to possess a more sacred character than those of later origin; but in practice, all traditional laws stood upon the same footing as regards authority when once they had been approved by the majority of the scribes.

From traditions which had the legal regulations of the Pentateuch as their basis, and which had assumed a binding force, we may now pass to the consideration of those traditions which were ostensibly grounded on the historical and prophetical books of Scripture, and which only possessed the weight attaching to pious and accredited opinions. Such traditions principally consisted of tales, legends, homilies, and embellishments of the written Word. In contra-distinction from the Halacha, or binding rule, they were known as the Haggada, or saying. The historical and prophetical books lent themselves most readily to the genius of the Haggada, but this form of tradition also entered with wings of fancy into the domain of Law, and wove around its abstract precepts the glow and colour of Oriental imagination. It was, in fact, a free and imaginative exposition of the whole contents of Sacred Writ. Just as the precepts of the Halacha grew up in great part to gratify a pious anxiety to fulfill every jot and tittle of the Law, so did the contents of the Haggada arise to satisfy pious curiosity respecting such matters as the heavenly world and its inhabitants, the past history of Israel and its future destiny among the peoples of the world. So keen was the desire for further knowledge on such subjects that the Haggadist was allowed free scope for the exercise of his imagination; he was not trammeled in his work like the Halachist, by rules of interpretation, and his fancy was allowed to play almost at will around the written text. The aim of the Halacha was practice; the aim of the Haggada was edification. It was the mystic, the imaginative, the transcendental side of the religious life which was nourished by the Haggadist, and in evolving his pious creations he was permitted to expand and transform the sacred narratives into almost any shape he pleased. The written text was toned down and accommodated to the prevalent ideas of the time, briefly told incidents were expanded and encircled with fanciful details which were sometimes of foreign growth, and every event which attracted pious attention was decorated with a garland of legendary lore. The beliefs and hopes of the age are accurately reflected in these legends, they are the form in which all new ideas took shape; they soon came to be regarded as actual history, and were believed in quite as firmly as the written text itself.

At the commencement of the Christian era the lore of the Haggada had attained such large proportions that it is not difficult to construct a complete system of theology out of its contents. It is replete with information concerning God's attributes, and the secret counsels of His will. It unveils the mysteries of the heavenly world, and is acquainted with the nature and functions of the spiritual beings who dwell in it. It knows the names of a multitude of the angels, and the kind of work which has been allotted to them in the Divine economy. It has many mysteries to unfold respecting what took place at the creation of the world, and is full of details as to the primeval state of man. The temptation of Eve, the fall and all its consequences, are minutely set forth in the Haggada. It has a great deal to tell of the evil spirits which haunt the world; it knows their powers and modes of action, how they enter and how they may be exorcised from the hearts of men. A host of traditions were in circulation on the subject of the Messiah and the Messianic age. This was a favourite theme with the populace, and the Haggadists dwelt minutely on the transcendent events which were to take place when the Messianic kingdom was proclaimed. Sin and death, the resurrection, and the great judgment, the new heavens and the new earth, were all illuminated by tradition. In fact, tradition was able to furnish an answer to every question which occupied the heart and mind of the Jewish race.

On questions of a purely historical character tradition was equally at home. In the domain of chronology it was able to tell the dates of all the manifold events which had happened from the creation of the world till the entry of the Israelites into land of Canaan. According to its computations the whole of these events lay within a period of two thousand four hundred and fifty years. It was known to tradition that all the beasts, as well as the serpent, were able to speak when they were first created, and tradition also knew the reason why the faculty of speech was taken from them. The Law had existed as a statute in heaven long before it was proclaimed on earth. The angels were subject to its decrees, and these heavenly beings remonstrated with the Deity when He announced His intention of making so divine a thing known to the sons of men. It was through the angels that man derived his knowledge of the story of the creation, and it was also at their hands that Moses received the Law on Sinai. It is said in the Old Testament that Joseph's wife was the daughter of an Egyptian, and tradition solves all difficulties as to her belief by the assurance that she was converted by an angel to the faith of Israel.

On the whole subject of the patriarchs tradition has much to relate which is not to be found in canonical history. The exact number of Adam's sons is known, and also where they obtained their wives. The sons of Seth were great astrologers according to tradition, and Noah was a distinguished writer on medicine. It was known how he procured all the different kinds of animals which were lodged in the ark, and on what peak of Ararat the ark rested when the waters of the flood began to subside. This patriarch was said to have been the possessor of a library, which he bequeathed to his son Shem. Shem was also celebrated for his knowledge of the medical art, and so was Solomon. But Enoch surpassed them both in his acquaintance with Divine mysteries. Both the past and the future lay before him like an open book, and he predicted the whole course of human history till the Day of Judgment. A great many traditions surrounded the life of Abraham, and in one of them we are informed that it was the study of astrology which taught him there was only one supreme God. Like the rest of the patriarchs Moses had a great reputation for learning. He was skilled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was able to overcome Pharaoh's magicians, Jannes and Jambres, when they set themselves up in opposition to him. It is only through the medium of tradition that the names of these magicians came down to aftertimes. And it is in the same way that succeeding generations came to learn that the rock which Moses struck for water in the wilderness followed the children of Israel till they reached the Promised Land. It was commonly believed that Moses did not die after the ordinary manner of men, but that he was suddenly and mysteriously hidden by a cloud from the eyes of Joshua and Eleazar, as they were accompanying him up Mount Abaris; and it was also believed, on the authority of tradition, that a tremendous struggle took place between Satan and the archangel Michael for possession of his body. It would be easy to multiply the number of these traditions. Philo, Josephus, the Midrasch, and the pseudonymous literature of both Jews and Christians abound in examples; but the instances which have just been adduced are sufficient to show with what freedom and latitude the Haggadists worked upon the written text, and what were the results which they obtained.