Hebrew Voices #107 – The Mishnah and the New Testament

In this episode of Hebrew Voices, The Mishnah and the New Testament, Bible Scholar Nehemia Gordon speaks with Rabbi Dr. David Moster about how the early rabbis dealt with supposed Biblical contradictions, what we can learn from the Mishnah and New Testament's approaches to the text of the Hebrew Bible, and why a famous rabbi made a cameo-appearance in the New Testament.

I look forward to reading your comments!

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Hebrew Voices #107 - The Mishnah and the New Testament

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Nehemia: Now, we’re gonna talk about the Mishna and the Bible. And you talk about how the Mishna deals with Biblical contradictions, and then the Mishna and the New Testament… go!

Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon with Hebrew Voices. And I'm here today, once again, with Rabbi Dr. David Moster. He's the Director of the Institute of Biblical Culture at Biblicalculture.org and we did some previous episodes with him. He has a PhD from Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. Shalom, Rabbi Dr. David Moster.

David: Shalom, thank you for having me. Always a pleasure, Nehemia.

Nehemia: Last time we talked about bathrooms and daily life in ancient Israel. Today, I wanna jump to the topic…

David: We did, and I'll say, if your listeners are still with us, then thank you for sticking with us.

Nehemia: Guys, go listen to the episode, it's one of the most interesting episodes I've ever done. Tell us about the Mishnah. What is the Mishnah, for those who don't know? I grew up studying the Mishnah, but I think most people have no idea what the Mishnah is. So, tell us what it is and why they should care about it.

David: The Mishnah is the beginning of the so-called “Oral Law” being written down in Judaism. Not including the Dead Sea Scrolls, just in Rabbinic Judaism. It's the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism, at least being written down. And it was about the year 200.

Nehemia: AD, right? 200 CE.

David: Yeah, and it was put together by someone named Yehudah HaNasi, Judah the Patriarch, but there were other Mishnayot. Also, it's a little complicated, because there were other versions. But what he basically did was take the five books of Moses, which talk about different laws in different places, and kind of organize them by different topics.

So, for example, there's an entire book on the laws of divorce. And you might be scratching your head and saying, “Well, wait a minute. There's only like one or two verses about divorce in the Bible in Deuteronomy. How do you have a whole book?” And so, what the Mishnah is, it’s the Biblical text, but it's also the Rabbinic interpretations and laws that come along with it. It's basically the great Rabbinic law book of the year 200.

Nehemia: Okay, and it compiles things from previous centuries. Not everything is from the year 200, right?

David: Yes.

Nehemia: It wasn't just invented out of whole cloth in the year 200. What they did, I think, is they took down traditions from previous centuries. And what Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi did is codified them into a running text, essentially. Or maybe he took earlier texts, as you said, as well, but he codified them into the current form.

David: Right. One of the things that the Mishnah is really good at is, it has this idea that there is no such thing as a Biblical contradiction. And with that concept in mind, the Mishnah will kind of tackle lots of really difficult issues of Biblical text in order to make everything really neat and nice.

Nehemia: Well, and I've talked about this on my program before, that there are in the Bible, in the Tanakh things that might be called “apparent contradictions.” And I want to share a quick story here. I was listening on the news the other night. I was watching a talk show and they had this guy on, a Jewish guy, a secular guy, but he was Jewish. And he was talking about why is it that certain religions get so offended when you talk about their religion? And I won't say which religion we're talking about. But he says, “Look, this is what scholars of religion have been doing for centuries is, they take the contradictions. They show you what the contradiction is and they talk about it and they deal with it.”

And I was thinking, that's such a Jewish perspective, right? He's a secular Jew, and he has no idea that's not what they do in other religions. But what you study from a very young age in Judaism is, what are the contradictions in the Bible? So, later on, you don't get surprised by somebody who blindsides you. And then what the Rabbis will do is they'll say, “This is the contradiction, and here are 14 ways of solving the contradiction,” right?

David: Right.

Nehemia: That's like what Abarbanel does in his commentary every week on the Torah portion. He gives you a list of 40 questions. And his questions are often more interesting than his answers, because his answers aren't always so convincing. And this is what we learned when we studied Rashi as a kid is, what's bothering Rashi? What’s bothering Rashi, the reason he's telling you some statement is because there's some apparent contradiction he's wrestling with, and he's giving you an answer.

And it should be so obvious to you what the problem is, that he just spoon-feeds you the answer.

Well, now after 1,000 years, or 800 years later after Rashi, we've got to ask ourselves, “What was the problem here?” He was smarter than some of us. And once you get used to it, you immediately pick up on these contradictions. So, the Mishnah solved contradictions.

David: And certainly, and after the Mishnah started this trend or reflected it, in Judaism as time would go on, it'll almost be a positive thing to have a contradiction. Because if you have a problem you get to a higher understanding, like a new answer.

Nehemia: Oh, absolutely. So, what you do in Judaism is you'll come to the Rabbi and you'll bring up a contradiction no one ever thought of. And that's a khidush, it's this innovation, it's a beautiful thing. It's not, “Get out of here,” which in some religions…

David: Don’t get out of here.

Nehemia: No, in some religions, you bring a contradiction in the Bible, and you're kicked out of church, you're stoned out of the mosque, or whatever. And in Judaism, it's like, “No, no, we want to know it's in the Biblical text.” And if there are apparent contradictions, we want to solve them, we want to know about this.

David: Right, so yeah, let me just give an example.

Nehemia: Yeah, please.

David: In Deuteronomy 15:19 it says, “You shall consecrate to the LORD your God, all male firstborns that are born in your herd and in your flock.” Okay? So, you should takdish, you should consecrate them. However, in Leviticus 27:26 we have the exact opposite. It says, “A firstling of animals, however, which as a firstling, is the LORD's, it cannot be consecrated by any man.” Okay, so you can't give it over as the offering, or you can? What are you supposed to do?

Nehemia: How does the Mishnah solve that? Actually, before you get to the Mishnah, so you studied in a university, and it was an Orthodox University. But I'm assuming you studied what's called "Biblical Criticism". That is, it's a secular approach that says, Moses didn't write the Torah. And if there's contradictions, we don't want to solve those contradictions, we want to emphasize them.

What would be the Biblical "higher criticism,” it's called, right? I've talked about textual criticism, which is something different. But what would be the approach of a so-called higher critic, of how they would deal with this problem?

David: The higher critical approach would be that there were two different sources, and that's why you have two different solutions.

Nehemia: And they actually contradict each other.

David: Right.

Nehemia: So, Leviticus was written by the P source and Devarim, Deuteronomy, was written by the D source, and they lived in different centuries in different places, and different interests. And they're not only seeming to contradict each other, depending on your view. Deuteronomy may have even read P and said, “I want to give the opposite opinion,” or vice versa, right? All right, so that's the higher critical approach. How does the Mishnah solve it?

David: The Mishnah says in Arakhin 8:7, and I have it here for you. “So, therefore resolve it as follows…”

Nehemia: And the words "resolve it,” those are in the Mishnah.

David: And before we even get to the answer, in the Mishnah it also says here that, you know, you can't say that it's one or the other. It has to be resolved. It's impossible to say one, because it contradicts the other. The answer is, “No, you may sanctify it by consecrating its value to the owner. But you may not sanctify it by consecrating it to the altar.” So, it's kind of this mid-level. So, you're consecrating the money, you're giving the temple the money, but you're not giving the temple the actual animal.

So, in this way it's kind of maneuvering these very difficult passages. And it's coming along, and it's getting into what would later become a hallmark of not only Jewish, but a lot of people's interpretations of the Bible, that there are no contradictions whatsoever.

Nehemia: Right. And the idea there is that this is the word of God, God wouldn't contradict Himself, and therefore it has a coherent message. Even though it appears to us incoherent or contradictory, there's a way of resolving this. If I was reading this and I wasn’t kind of thinking as a Rabbi, what I would say in Leviticus, what it means is that it already belongs to God. And therefore, you can't sanctify it, because it already belongs to God. In Deuteronomy it is saying, “Sanctify it, give it over to God, because it's His.” Therefore, it's not that it's a contradiction. It's using the word "sanctify" in sort of a different connotation.

David: Exactly.

Nehemia: And then the context might be important too, because Leviticus really is, a lot of it - not all of it, like Leviticus 19 obviously not - but a lot of things in Leviticus are laws for Priests. And especially Leviticus 27, this is very technical information that the average person wouldn't be interested in. Whereas Deuteronomy 15:9, the way it's presented is Moses's speech before he dies, and it is for the layman. And it was read publicly.

David: Yeah, you're right. And this is more important to the Hebrew readers, because in one passage it says, “takdish,” “you shall consecrate,” and in the other passage it says, “lo takdish.” So, these are such clear differences.

Nehemia: It appears to be almost a contradiction...Not almost. If you take it verbatim the way it's worded, it's a contradiction, a direct contradiction.

David: Exactly, and what I was gonna point out to you in the Hebrew…

Nehemia: Yeah, read me the Hebrew of the Mishnah.

David: So, “Rabbi Yishmael omer,” “Rabbi Yishmael says,” “katuv ekhad omer takdish.” One verse says that you shall consecrate, “vekatuv ekhad omer al takdish,” and one says that you should not consecrate. And here's the main line, “Ee efshar lomar takdish,” “You can't say to consecrate it,” “shekvar ne'emar al takdish,” “because it already says, don't consecrate it.” “Ve'ee efshar lomar al takdish,” “And you can't say don't concentrate,” “shekvar ne'emar takdish.” So, the answer’s gonna be about the money.

So, this one little Mishnah here, even though there's so many dozens of others we could have picked, is the main interpretive method, is that everything needs to work together, okay? So, with that, let's move to another interpretive method. This is called “omnisignificance.” It's a great word, you can use it for anything, but it's really great for Rabbinic texts. It's that every little bit is significant. Not just a Book of the Bible, not just a chapter, not just a verse, not just a word, not just a letter, even a dot.

Nehemia: I love what you're bringing here. So, guys, this is probably the central, most important thing in understanding Rabbinical Judaism, is what you're about to share. Okay, go.

David: Great, so for example, on the Passover in Numbers, 9:10-11, it tells the story of the second Passover. If somebody is not able to make the first Passover, they're able to have a second Passover exactly one month later. And the Hebrew, what it says is that if a person is “bederekh rekhoka, “on a distant path,” he's out of town, what we would say, “they're out of town,” right? So, that person is the one who could bring the sacrifice a month later. So, the Rabbis in the Mishnah say, “Did you notice in the Torah scroll there's a little dot on the heh, in that word, ‘derekh rekhoka?’” The last letter has a dot, which is superfluous. And so, the Rabbis are trying to figure out what is a…

Nehemia: This is really important, guys. There are 10 places in the Torah, 15 in the Tanakh, where there are dots which are not vowels, they're not accents. They're dots that actually appear...They're supposed to appear in a Torah scroll as well, and the Torah scroll doesn't have accents and vowels. So, these are 15 places that are permanently marked with dots, and what do they mean?

David: Okay, so in the Mishnah, in Psakhim, which is the Passover Mishnah, Chapter 9 Mishnah 2, the Rabbis are trying to figure out, how far is a far journey? You know, how far away do you have to be to bring a second... It's basically like saying, “Oh, instead of celebrating America on July 4, we'll do it on August 4,” or absentee voting, something like that.

It's like, who qualifies to push the Passover off for a month? How far do you have to be? Do you have to be 10 miles, 100 miles, 1000? So, the first opinion is no, you need to be already at Modi'in, which is at least a day's journey. The second opinion is, no. Even if you're one foot outside of the Temple, the minute you step out of the Temple, you're not in the Temple mindset, you could be considered far away. And that's what the little dot is teaching you.

Nehemia: Okay, and so what the Rabbis are doing here...So, it's really interesting. You mentioned here now, two Rabbinical methodologies. The first is, there are apparent contradictions. The Rabbis want to solve those contradictions. I completely accept that from my personal Bible perspective. The second one, this idea of reading meaning into every small characteristic of the Biblical text, even if it doesn't have linguistic meanings, omnisignificance, that's a part I don't personally adhere to or agree with, or ascribe to. But it's actually important, because the reason our Biblical text was preserved with such precision is because of this idea of Rabbinical omnisignificance. You could give the example, maybe. Rabbi Akiva famously would read meaning into every letter and every word to the point where other Rabbis mocked him about it.

David: The crowns.

Nehemia: Right, the crowns in the letters, even. So, every characteristic of every letter was preserved, or it was attempted to be preserved, with complete precision because the Rabbis believed every letter had significance. You could change a law, based on if a word was written with an extra vav or not an extra vav which doesn't change the meaning. But the Rabbis would say, “Why is it there if it doesn't change the meaning? It must have some hidden significance that we can read into the text.”

David: Yeah, and I'm really glad you're bringing this up, that you don't read it that way, because in our Institute, when we’re studying…

Nehemia: People should know about it.

David: When we were studying, you know, we had Jews of all different types and we have Christians of all different types. And everyone doesn't necessarily have to take the Rabbinic interpretation. But it's good to know and understand everyone's own assumptions about interpreting the Bible by studying the Mishnah.

Nehemia: That's true as well.

David: We learn a lot about ourselves by studying texts such as the Mishnah, by early Christian writers and things like that.

Nehemia: Okay, so the Mishnah now, you have a section in that course, which people can find on Biblicalculture.org, the Institute of Biblical Culture. And on your YouTube channel, every two weeks you have a new video. You have a section in that course where you talk about how the Mishnah applies to the New Testament. So, give us a little taste of that. We don't have time to go into the whole thing. Don't you have a whole course on studying the New Testament, as well?

David: Well, we have different people teaching courses about the New Testament. We just had a class by J. Thomas Hewitt about Philippeans, and in the future we're gonna have a lot of classes about specific books and things.

Nehemia: I love this, Rabbi Dr. Moster. He was ordained from an Orthodox institution as a PhD from Bar Ilan University, and his Institute teaches a class on the New Testament. And this gentleman who teaches the New Testament, he has a PhD and he's a Christian, is that right?

David: Yes, yes.

Nehemia: Okay, so you're bringing all these perspectives together. I love what you're doing here, it's very unique.

David: I'm really glad, and this is actually one of the things that there's a nice movement going on in Christian studies. It's been going on, you could say, for a long time. But it's really gaining a lot of momentum lately of saying, “Hey, Christianity, the New Testament texts, it's really beneficial to understand them in light of the Jewish texts at that time.” And then, what I'm saying here is it's not just one way, it goes both ways.

Nehemia: What do you mean "both ways?”

David: When I read the New Testament, I'm like, “Oh, wow, that's a really interesting way of interpreting in that time period in the land of Israel.”

Nehemia: Right.

David: You know, it's more organic interpretations of the Old Testament, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and then there's a lot of new stuff. And each tradition is going to go on its own way. Christianity is going to go its way, and Rabbinic Judaism is going to go its way, and so on and so forth. But let me just give you two examples of what we found very fruitful. The first one was just a technical thing. Every once in a while, you find little tidbits in the New Testament about halakhot, laws, you know, that are really cool. But there's a whole passage in the New Testament in Acts 5, about Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Gamaliel, right?

Nehemia: And Christians know him as Gamaliel.

David: Right, so it's more like Gamliel, which literally means, “God is also with me,” right?

Nehemia: And that's a name that actually appears in the Torah, Gamliel. I think he's one of the princes of the tribes, Gamliel.

David: Right. And so, Rabban Gamliel appears in this passage. And it's a really great passage, because Peter and the Apostles just escaped from prison, and then they get caught. And the question is, are they going to get killed? And Rabban Gamliel gets up and says, “Hey, you know, we've seen movements like this before, messianic movements. No big deal, everyone. Just let it go. Everyone just calm down.” And he lets them go, and everyone kind of takes a deep breath.

And from the Christian side, that's all you know, that there was this Pharisee named Gamaliel, right? But from the Jewish side, it's like, “Hey, Rabban Gamliel, he probably appears 1,000 times in the Mishnah or Talmud, and he's in the very first Mishnah. He's in the opening one about when you recite the Shema, and on the night of Passover and the Seder, he is the most important Rabbi.” It says, “He says that if you do not fulfill these three things, you have not fulfilled your requirement for the Passover Seder,” right?

And so, Rabban Gamliel is extremely important. And from the Jewish point of view, it also makes a lot more sense. “Oh, Rabban Gamliel. We've seen him a few times to be very lenient with the other.” There was this one time he was in this Roman bathhouse and it was dedicated to Aphrodite. And the students are like, “Rabban Gamliel, how on earth could you sit in this bathhouse?”

Nehemia: Wait, let's put some perspective here. So, he's sitting, as they would say here in the South, nekked (naked) in the bath house. And there's a statue of a naked woman in front of him, who is a goddess, who’s worshipped as a goddess. And they say, “What are you doing, Rabbi? You're going to the bathhouse to stare at the naked woman.” So, what's his response?

David: His answer was, “Oh, the bathhouse was made, that's the main thing, Aphrodite was just the thing you add on top, it wasn't the main thing.”

Nehemia: I think he said, “She came into my bathhouse, I didn't come into hers.” Isn’t that what he says?

David: Something like that, yeah.

Nehemia: “I was here first. Like this is my country and they put in a pagan statue. It's my bathhouse.”

David: And you see kind of lenient things. And it's interesting, now that we have this we can also, with that perspective, kind of understand what was going through Rabban Gamliel's mindset in the Book of Acts.

Nehemia: Wait, we've gotta get some more perspective here. So, in Rabbinical Judaism, you would never set foot into a house of idolatry. So, when he goes into the bathhouse and they say, “What are you doing?” And he says, “Well, she's in my place, I'm not in hers,” you can't underestimate what a big... It's not just that she's naked. He's walked into the house of idolatry, from the perspective of Rabbinical Judaism. And he's saying, “Look…” Like he said, “This isn't really a place of idolatry. It's a place of a bath house, which idolatry is encroached in there, it's secondary.” So, that really is a leniency, from a Rabbinical perspective.

David: Right. And so, yeah, we have all these things. You know, it's hard to emphasize how important a Rabbi he is in the Mishnah and the Talmud. We would definitely call him, I'd say, like a Hall of Famer. You know, there's no question that he's unbelievably important. And now, it's kind of like, “Oh,” from the Jewish perspective, “Oh, hey, he appears in the New Testament.” In Acts also, later on it says that Paul, who interestingly claims to be the most religious Pharisee of all the Pharisees, right? So, he actually studied with Gamliel, so these connections are very interesting. And so, for those reasons I actually call that the obvious connection. This is obvious. Hey, Gamliel, Gamliel, why aren't we both studying both, right? Why aren’t more Jews…

Nehemia: It's the obvious connection of the New Testament with the Mishnah, you're saying?

David: Right, that this one person appears in both. And that's really interesting, but it's only Gamliel. There's no one else that…

Nehemia: Before you leave Gamliel, or Gamaliel, it's actually interesting. So, Paul says in Acts 22:3, “I am a Jew born in Tarsus in Cilicia but brought up in the city, educated at the feet of Gamliel, according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.” I always thought that was a really interesting phrase, “educated at the feet of Gamliel.” Can you say something about that? There's something in Pirkei Avot that ties into that.

David: Yeah, there's a lot in Pirkei Avot about studying at the feet of the scholars. You know, it was probably both…

Nehemia: Right, that's an expression. It talks also about the dust of their feet, because literally, there probably weren't a lot of chairs and they'd be in a crowded room. And they'd literally be at the guy's feet.

David: Right, and you know, if they were in a Synagogue, there are only so many spaces on the wall where you could sit. Everyone else had to sit.

Nehemia: They were sitting on the floor.

David: And we don't have the same books like we do today. You know, you had to study mouth to mouth. You know, somebody would have to tell you and recite to you the Mishnah and things like that. So, definitely that ties in what Paul is saying. You know, it's interesting, elsewhere Paul says that he does so many things that are Rabbinic, but he obviously regrets that in some way, and takes a new life.

Okay, so the second thing which I call is a less, kind of, direct way. There's this kind of notion that the Jews were the ones who were slavishly keeping the law, and that the Christians were the ones who were completely abandoning the law of the Old Testament, the Tanakh. And so, what's interesting is that when you kind of study the Mishnah and the New Testament side-by-side, you start seeing that it's a more interesting tale than that, okay?

Nehemia: And look, that is the perspective presented by mainstream Christianity, that Paul came and did away with the law, or maybe Jesus did away with the law, depending on your particular theology. And the Jews were the ones who were legalistic, following everything in the law, and they were set free from that by Jesus or by Paul, depending on your theology, right? That is mainstream Christianity, what they teach. Okay, so you're saying there's more nuance there?

David: Yeah, because the truth is that when you study the Mishnah, you see…And the fancy word is “antinomianism,” you know, anti-law. You see these cases where…

Nehemia: Where the Mishnah is antinomian, anti-Torah?

David: Yeah, and you know, Judaism is gonna struggle with that for many, many, many centuries.

Nehemia: So, give me an example of that in the Mishnah.

David: Well, let's first take it a little bit slower. I want to read you just a passage in...

Nehemia: I'm the guy who wants to eat dessert first.

David: Right. So, for example, in Matthew 5:38, we have this idea, “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and so on and so forth. So, it's the eye for an eye. We're not doing that from the Christian perspective, Old Testament.

But from the Jewish perspective it's really interesting, because this was one of the major cases. It's in the Mishnah of Baba Kama, in chapter 8, where it basically interprets an eye for an eye, “No, it's not an eye for an eye, it's money for an eye. It's not tooth for a tooth, it's money for a tooth. It's not bone for a bone, it's money for a bone.” And so, what the Rabbis are doing is, they're actually saying that, “Hey, eye for an eye also, from our perspective, needs to be interpreted differently than the moment I first see it.”

Nehemia: So, why do you call that antinomian? I wouldn't call that antinomian. Meaning, in other words, you could take it literally or you could take it metaphorically as referring to some kind of equal compensation, which is how the Rabbis take it. I don't consider that antinomian. Antinomian is saying that the Torah is completely done away with, I think, I don't know. That's how I take it, anyway.

David: Okay, let's forget the term, let's scrap the term.

Nehemia: We're arguing semantics, okay.

David: Right, the idea is that the Rabbinic Jewish approach to ayin takhat ayin, eye for an eye, shen takhat shen, is that hey, it's not literal. It's almost the exact opposite of the literal. By saying "eye for an eye," it's being very clear it's eye for an eye. And in Rabbinic Judaism no, it's something else.

Nehemia: So, let's start with this. There were definitely people in the Second Temple times, there's a group called the Boethusians, the baytosim, who in one passage, and I think it's in masekhet Ta'anit, it says that they took the Bible “kekotva,” “according to the way it was written.” So, they interpreted this literally.

So, Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua, is saying, “You have heard it said that this is to be taken literal. I interpreted this other way.” And you're saying the Mishnah has almost the same sermon, except it's a different conclusion. Rather than saying it's a monetary compensation, he says, “You know what? Don't even demand compensation at all.” And by the way, that phrase, “turn the other cheek,” a friend of mine, Eitan Birnbaum in Israel gave this to me. He pointed this out to me, Lamentations 3:30, “He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him. He is filled with reproach.” This is talking about how Jerusalem is completely destroyed and humiliated by the enemy invader, the Babylonians. And the phrase there, “He gives his cheek to those that smite him,” so that was actually a phrase that existed in ancient Israel that Jesus is using in His sermon. And He's saying, “You heard ‘eye for an eye’ means punch out somebody's eye, or maybe even it means force him to pay you. And I say, do what it says in Lamentations, turn the cheek to him.”

David: Right, and you know, for generations, the Rabbinic texts are going to struggle with, “Well, what's going on here? You know, this is impossible. The Torah says this, and you're telling me the exact opposite.” There's a great Rabbi, Shimon Bar Yochai. He had a really great explanation for this. He said that it also says elsewhere in the Bible, “Torah ekhat,” “one law.” And it wouldn't be fair, because let's say there was a person who was blind, and then he took out someone's eye. So, the blind person, are you going to take out his eye? It's not fair, he's already lost his eye. So, therefore it has to be talking about money. But this concept is that it needs to be equal for everyone. That the Torah needs to apply to everyone is a really radical idea.

Nehemia: And what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai means there is for a two-eyed person, if you pop out his eye, he loses 50 percent of his sight. For a one-eyed person, if you pop out his eye, he loses 100 percent of his sight. So, his eye is more valuable to him than the one eye is for the two-eyed person, and that's a good point.

So, what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai does is he takes the extreme case. And he tries to say, “In this extreme case it doesn't work. And therefore, it can't work in the non-extreme case.” Of course, in modern law, they say you want to not do that. You know, the modern legal approach is you take the minimal case and you don't take the extremes, the extremes are left for a different situation. You want to define things as narrowly as possible, but whatever. But the point is that there's a literal interpretation, and the Rabbis don't always follow the literal interpretation. They offer an alternative.

David: Yeah.

Nehemia: And you're saying in the New Testament they're doing a similar thing, just with a different conclusion.

David: Once you kind of look at both, you're like, “Well, is it really as the Pharisees, the Perushim, the Rabbis are completely following the literal? And when Jesus, for example, says that He's the Lord of the Sabbath, does that mean that he's completely doing away with the Sabbath or not?”

Nehemia: Do you think he did away with the Sabbath?

David: Well, you know, it seems there was just a different interpretation, but it's a very interesting, strongly worded interpretation in that passage.

So, just to end up with another case, which is really interesting, of Rabbis kind of going a different path in the law. And what I mean is, the Mishnah is a very large, large corpus of work. It's all about the law. But every once in a while, you get these tidbits where it goes against it, is that Hillel the Elder, instituted something called a “pruzbul.” So, on every seventh year, all loans are supposed to be undone for the shmita year. But, you know, the problem was that people weren't lending each other money. And so, Hillel found a way that your loan is not a private loan, it's really a public loan. He found a loophole, and basically undid this really powerful Biblical law, which said that you can't loan past the shmita. People started loaning past the shmita. That's essentially what he did. And in his own traditional interpretation of how he did it, he was able to do such a thing. But this is very similar to some of the things we were seeing in the New Testament.

So, it wasn't just in a vacuum, the Christians were doing this or the Jews are doing this. In this context, you know, people were struggling with Biblical texts and coming up with very new ways to interpret them.

Nehemia: Well, I think this is a really important point, because if you were a Boethusian, let's start with that, you would look at what Hillel did as he did away with the law of shmita. He abolished the law of shmita. But from his perspective, he didn't abolish the law of shmita. He interpreted it in a way where he created a loophole that allowed him to circumvent what he viewed as the inconvenient parts.

And what Christianity has been accused of is doing away with the Torah. But what you're saying is another way, to at least in some instances, to view it is they're struggling with, how does this apply in these different circumstances, let's say, to Gentiles, right? And so, they're looking for ways to apply it in those circumstances. Maybe from the perspective of the Pharisees, they were doing away with the Torah. Like if you said to an Orthodox Jew, “I drive on Shabbat,” he'd say, “Well, you don't keep Shabbat.” But from the perspective of a Conservative Jew, he'd say, “I do keep Shabbat, I keep it 100 percent. I just don't think that's forbidden on Shabbat.” So, it's a matter of the New Testament has been kind of read, in a sense, through these Pharisaical eyes, as doing away with Shabbat. And even from Christian eyes, to some extent, not even understanding the subtleties of Pharisaism and Rabbinical Judaism.

And there's a lot more nuance here, is what you're saying. So, this is really important, guys. And I think what's important about what David is sharing here isn't just the specific information he's sharing, but it's an approach of how to read texts. I was at this event a few weeks ago. It was sort of an interfaith event in Dallas, where Jews and Christians got together and were reading the Haggadah. And I sat with this woman and we were reading the Haggadah together, and everything we read, she said, “Wow, that's so beautiful.” And I said, “Okay, it's beautiful, but why do they say what they say? What's the question that they're answering?” And this is a Jewish way of thinking that people from other cultures don't always have.

And it's so important for understanding the New Testament, the Tanakh, ancient Jewish sources, it's key. And I think that phrase you used on the significance is really important, because this is the question. When they're making a statement it's not just some, you know, beautiful, fuzzy statement. It's a response. There's a whole dialogue that goes behind that statement. There's an entire conversation going on, and they're giving you the answer, and you just missed the conversation.

David: Can I give you one last example?

Nehemia: Please, yes.

David: Okay, so we were studying just yesterday the Book of Joshua. And the verse says in Joshua 5:2, “At that time, the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites a second time.’” A second time. So, we're reading this passage, and one of our Christian readers, Larry, he says, “A second time of circumcision? Does that mean you're cutting... What, that doesn't make any sense.” I was like, “No, Larry, it's ambiguous here. It's not that the circumcision is the second time. It's the second time that the Israelite people got circumcised. It's not each person's second circumcision.” But I said, “This question, what you just kind of got at, like what does that mean, a second circumcision? That's a very Rabbinic question. There's gonna be an answer,” So, we immediately went to the Pirkey DeRabi Eliezer, and we say it says, “Oh, why did they need a second one? Because the first one they did wasn't good enough, so they had to cut off a second time, there was still foreskin left in the circumcision.”

Nehemia: Wow, okay. So, what it really means is that this was the second mass circumcision. There would have been the earlier one talked about in the Torah. So, this is a great example of an apparent contradiction that isn't a contradiction at all. In other words, you can say, “In Leviticus it says you're circumcised once. But in Joshua it says you get circumcised a second time.” That's beautiful. That's typical...But it's a great question. Even though it's not a real contradiction, it's a great observation. Wow.

David: But this relates to what you were saying about the Haggadah, is that if you were to just read the Pesikta DeRav Kahana, a Rabbinic work, in a vacuum, you'd say, “Oh, okay. They had some problem. They did a second circumcision. Let's move on.” No, it all stems from the Biblical problem. There was a problem in the text.

Nehemia: It also reflects something we didn't get to, which is the “sitz im leiben,” the life context, which is that if you are a convert, even today, to Orthodox Judaism, but back then for sure, and you were circumcised, then there was sort of a re-circumcision. There's a ceremony of drawing blood, right? So, there's a context here which they're reading and they're saying, “There is such a thing as getting re-circumcised.”

David: Right, yeah.

Nehemia: And then also, if somebody’s circumcised, it's another context of life. If someone's circumcised and it's a botched circumcision where they didn't adequately do it, they gotta go clean up and get more cut off, right? So, in our last episode we talked about toilets, now we're talking about this. All right, so the point is that it's not coming in a vacuum, it's like, okay, this is something these Rabbis are dealing with. And they've experienced this where there is such a thing, like that exists in real life. Yeah, very interesting stuff. Let's wrap it up.

David: So, what we saw is that in this ancient Jewish text - and for many people it's a dry text, it’s very legalistic - we were able to see actually Biblical interpretation grappling with Biblical contradictions. “Hey, there's no such thing as that. A dot on a letter, that's really important, everything's important.” And then, “Hey, in certain cases it's even possible to go, if the Tanakh says turn left, we can turn right, because we're able to interpret things that drastically different.” It's not just the Christians doing that, the Rabbinic Jews were doing it as well.

Nehemia: Thank you for coming back on the program. And give a pitch, give an invitation for people to come over to your website. What's your website? Tell them about it just really quickly.

David: We're at biblicalculture.org. I would love for you to come join a class and ask questions. We do it wherever you are. It's fantastic, come join us. And if not, you could take a recording at biblicalculture.org. And you can find us at biblicalculture.org on YouTube, where I'm putting out a lot of the things that I'm studying in the classes.

Nehemia: Very cool. All right, I'm gonna ask you, Rabbi Dr. David Moster, to end with a prayer.

David: Okay, so I like to give different blessings each time I come on, something a little different. Just the other day, we were studying at the Institute about fig trees, and figs, and vines, and this is actually a blessing in the Tanakh, in the Old Testament. It's kind of a roundabout blessing. People were happy, they were living under their fig tree, under their vine. Everyone was happy in the shade.

And so, in a certain way, it's very appropriate for today. It's more of a metaphor, in that each of us, in our own lives, in our own ways, we should be happy in what we're doing. We should be happy every morning getting up and doing the things that we do, our own fig tree, our own vines. These are the things that are very important to us and we should enjoy that, as well. So, the blessing of enjoying, enjoying what you do.

Nehemia: Amen. Thank you.

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Related Posts:
Toilets in Ancient Israel
The Scribe's Toolbox
Reading the New Testament Through Jewish Eyes
How the New Testament Interprets the Tanakh
Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder
Understanding the Difficult Words of Yeshua
When is Shemitah (Sabbatical Year)
How to Keep Shabbat


Rabbi Dr. David Moster is the Founder and Director of The Institute of Biblical Culture, a non-profit organization that aims to provide the general public with an in-depth understanding of the Bible and its cultural world. Moster holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from Bar Ilan University, an MA in Ancient Israel from New York University, and Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. In addition to his publications in the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, Moster is also the author of the book Etrog: How a Chinese Fruit Became a Jewish Symbol.

Passages Mentioned:
Deuteronomy 15:19
Leviticus 27:26
Mishnah Arachin 8:7
Numbers 9:10-11
Mishnah Pesachim 9:2
Acts 5
Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4
Acts 22:3
Matthew 5:38
Exodus 21:22-25
Leviticus 24:17-22
Deuteronomy 19:15-21
Mishnah Bava Kamma 8
Lamentations 3:30
Joshua 5:2

  • Ben says:

    I think Yeshua was telling people not to apply “eye for an eye” in daily matters – and not to seek revenge over small evils.

    He said if you’re slapped on the right cheek, turn the other also. Being slapped on the right cheek is to be “backhanded”, or insulted. I think that refers to more trivial, inconvenient problems.

    This fits the rest of Yeshua’s examples – they’re all day-to-day negatives, not major injustices.

  • Caedmin says:

    My understanding of the 2nd circumcision mentioned in Joshua 5 is that during the 40 years of wandering in the desert they did not circumcise their infants because they did not know their itinerary, they may be camped at one location for a day or a week or a month, and they did not want to endanger the life of the infant by having to travel (possibly) immediately after an extreme surgical procedure while he is healing. Traveling is hard on a body, young and old, male and female, everyone, so to add the stress of traveling on top of trying to heal from a painful operation would be too much suffering on a baby, possibly endangering his life. God says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” and Paul wrote, Mercy triumphs over judgement” so for mercy’s sake the babies were not circumcised during those 40 years. But once the wandering was finished, it was the proper time to circumcise en masse, and fulfill the commandment to circumcise all the males.

  • Joe Lesejane says:

    Thanks Nehemia on this lesson on the Mishnah and the New Testament. It really tells me how important it is to have a method or way of studying the Tanach and the New Testament as well as finding how to interpret the lessons. I must spend more time studying.

    I was also wondering the extent to which the New Testament could have been influenced by the Mishnah and oral law itself.

    Joe Lesejane

  • Matthew says:

    I don’t know, perhaps the KJV has translation issues, but I don’t see any contradiction between LEV 27:26 and DEU 15:19 at all.

    LEV 27:26 “no man shall sanctify it…it is the Lord’s”
    DEU 15:19 “…thou shalt sanctify unto the Lord thy God…”

    Where’s the contradiction?

    In Leviticus, a man can’t sanctify a firstling (unto himself), hence the, “no man” and, “…it is the Lord’s.”

    In Deuteronomy, a man must sanctify a firstling, “unto the Lord.”

    The key is not “no…shall” and “thou shalt,” but the target of the sanctification, which, is both cases, is YEhovah.

    Understanding meaning from word presence and placement, again, is key.

  • trefong says:

    From the Prophets; Yehovah said; “My Word will accomplish all my will.” That simple statement is profound in itself and can spark volumes of debates.

    It isn’t enough to just read God’s word we have to talk about it and debate what it means. We have to research it.
    Ah the Mishnah! ”
    Your great learning is is driving you mad Saul!” “I’m not mad most excellent Felix!”
    I have a few questions.
    In the Prophets God says: “Since the day I have brought you out of Egypt I have never required animal sacrifices of you!”
    ” I take no pleasure in the slaughter of innocent animals.”
    In the Psalms, when King David was older he said to Yehovah; ” I would give sacrifices and offerings but you have not desired it.”
    Another Prophet speaking of the coming Messiah’s reign said; ” In those days if anyone would sacrifice an animal, it would be like someone sacrificing a child.”
    So how does one explain the instructions for all of the Temple sacrifices?

    The 15 dots in the Tanakh, are they like question marks? You guys really didn’t expound on this enough for me.

    This was a really cool video/pod cast you guys. This is the kind of info people need.

    Thanks and Shalom

    • daniel says:

      One explanation is that He desired (desires) Obedience and the sacrifice might be Accepted, but a weak and temporary compromise. Continuous animal blood sacrifice from the same person and/or nation demonstrates a lack of learning from same.

  • Debra Oleskewicz says:

    Matt 5:39 Yeshua is Not contradicting the Torah, The word “But” in this verse is δέ which can be stated as “Moreover” or “also”. I see no contradiction. Vengeance belongs to Yehovah. Yeshua was just refuting what the Pharisee’s were teaching.