Jewish Oral Traditions and Christian Faith

This is only a brief introduction to the Jewish Oral Law, the Christian Traditions and the Sola Scriptura of Biblical Christianity.
Since this is a short study, I have used minimum Bible verses and examples.
Still I hope this is worthy to listen.

When we speak of the Torah or the Jewish Law, we actually refer to “two” Torahs, which are one and the same.
One is the written Torah, known as the Tanach.
The second is the Oral Torah, known as Mishna

The Written Law or Tanach generally refers to the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
One of the most important foundations of Jewish faith is the belief that God gave Moses an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text.
This Oral Tradition or the Oral Law was given directly by God at the revelation of Mount Sinai.
God revealed to Moses all the details of how the commandments or the Written Law should be observed.
While Moses was on the mount, God taught him the Written Torah during the day, and the Oral Torah at night.
This is how Moses was able to distinguish between day and night while he was with God.

Why Jews need an Oral Law

 Why Jews need an Oral Law?
The Written Law is somewhat cryptic and requires explanation.
There are many passages in the Written Law that need further explanation to practice them in everyday life.
There are certain Laws that would have caused grave problems if carried out literally.

Let me give you an example.

The Written Law in Exodus 21:24, demands an "eye for an eye".
Did this imply that if one person accidentally blinded another, he should be blinded in return?
That seems to be what the Torah says.
But the Oral Law explains that the verse must be understood as requiring monetary compensation.
That is the value of an eye must be paid to the victim.
The Oral Law interprets and mitigates the Law and saves them from unethical acts.
All unethical acts is a violation of Laws prescribed elsewhere in the Torah.

It is important for us to note that the Jewish people depend on the Oral Tradition for the interpretation of the Torah.
The Written Torah or Tanach simply cannot be understood without the Oral Law.
A future generation could even perceive the Written Law as defective unless it is supplemented by the information contained in the Oral Tradition.
But Oral Tradition is never used to define or create a new doctrine or law.

So believing in the Divine source of the Oral Tradition is very important for the Jewish people.
Thus the Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out.
 The Oral Torah was originally meant to be transmitted by word of mouth.
It was transmitted from master to student in such a manner that if the student had any question, he could ask the teacher and thus avoid ambiguity.
Oral transmission was the only way to transfer the unwritten Law to the next generation.
So the teacher was particular in teaching the same words and ideas he has received from his teacher.
Thus the Oral transmission was truthful to the tradition.

For centuries, Jewish rabbis resisted writing down the Oral Law.
But with the deaths of so many teachers in the failed revolts, Jewish rabbis feared that the Oral Law would be forgotten unless it was written down.
Tradition permitted writing down the Oral Torah if there was danger that the Oral Torah be forgotten.

Thus in 200 AD Rabbi Judah the Prince decided to record in writing the Oral Law.
It was recorded in six orders and sixty three tractates which is called Mishna.


 Rabbi Judah's Mishna was studied exhaustively by generation after generation of rabbis.
These discussion known as Gemara developed orally for some 300 years following the Mishna.
And some of these rabbis wrote down their discussions and commentaries on Mishna in a series of books known as the Talmud.

Its main purpose was to clarify the Mishnah, establish which opinions are binding, provide derivations for the laws, discuss later legislation, and provide homilies and stories to enhance the discussions.
 There have also been historical dissenters to the Oral Torah in its entirety.
These dissidents in the Judaic history attempted to derive their religious practice strictly from the Written Torah.
They used Scripture's most natural meaning to form the basis of Jewish law.

The Sadducees rejected the legitimacy of any extra-biblical law or tradition.
At the same time Sadducees rejected also the immortality of the soul and resurrection from death.
Pharisees, a sect of largely lower- and middle-class Jews, stood in opposition to the Sadducees.
They accepted and followed the Oral Tradition.
 Jesus and the Jewish Oral Torah

Now let us discuss how Jesus approached the Mishna, the Oral Tradition of Jews.
Though Jesus quoted from the Oral Law, He never appealed to the oral traditions of the Jews as final authority or placed them on equal level with the Written Torah or Scriptures.
And there were sufficient reasons for it.

During the time of Jesus, Jews were following the Oral Tradition and interpretations which provided a mentality of justification by works.
The Pharisees were the interpreters and authority of Oral Traditions of the time.
Their interpretations appeared to be higher standard, by adding a list of don’ts.
But in fact they were mitigating the Written Torah and lowering the standards.
Their interpretations were harder for the people to follow.

The grave danger of the Pharisaic interpretation is that they pointed to justification by works and never pointed to the sacrifice of Christ.
The real purpose of the Written Law was to lead people to Jesus the promised Messiah of the Jews.
So Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the "tradition of the elders" or the "tradition of men" (Matt 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-23).

Thus in Matthew Chapter 5 to 7, in His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presented another interpretation to the Law.
Jesus presented a higher standard of spiritual and moral life than the Pharisees of the time.

 Gospel and Oral transmission

Now let us discuss Christian Traditions.
 We should keep in mind that the first century Jewish culture was an “orally dominated culture.”
Only a certain percentage of people could read and write.
So information was for the most part passed on by word of mouth.
Thus before and even after the Gospels were written, early Christians relied primarily on oral transmissions for information about Jesus.

Tradition and Transmission

 Before we continue to think about Christian traditions, let us distinguish between oral “tradition” and oral “transmission.”
The term tradition implies a long-held belief or practice that is not necessarily connected to any explicit facts or evidence.
Transmission is a method of conveying information.
The content of the Bible was, in some cases, first relayed through oral “transmission,” but not as the result of “tradition.”
Rather, what was being transmitted was a direct explanation of specific facts regarding certain people, places, and times.
In most cases, the biblical text was put into written form at the time of, or soon after, the events described.

Gospels and epistles are not written based on any traditions but the authors have used oral transmission.
A good example of this is the book of Luke, which explicitly states its origins in chapter 1.

Luke 1:1-4
1     Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us,
 2    just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us,
 3    it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus,
 4    that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (NKJV)

How the writers of Gospel used the facts that orally transmitted is mentioned here.
Luke was not writing down everything he heard, but was putting the results of his investigation into writing, using the experiences of actual eyewitnesses.
Historians have found Luke to be a first-rate source of accurate information.
Parts of this Gospel could be considered “oral transmission” prior to his authorship.
Many of the same facts are found in the earlier Gospel of Mark also.
In a time when most people did not read or write, oral transmission was common, and maintaining the exact original words was considered critical.

 Christian Traditions and Scripture

Basically there are two ways of defining and explaining Christian doctrines

1.      Catholic and Orthodox churches’ doctrine

2.      Protestant churches’ doctrine

1.   Catholic and Orthodox churches

What is the fundamental difference of Catholicism and Orthodox doctrines?
Why does it differ so significantly from Christianity based solely upon Scripture?
The answer is Tradi­tion.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence”.
Their faith is contained in Scripture and Tradition.
They use traditions, myths and legends to establish doctrines and as a rule of faith.
They do not base their beliefs on the Bible alone.
Along with the Holy Scripture, they are additionally bound by the traditions of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches.

Roman Catholic Tradition is an amorphous body of beliefs and practices which the Church claims has been handed down for some 60 generations in “human formulas”.

The sources of their traditions vary from a bishop teaching, a priest delivering a Sunday’s homily, a theologian writing, a mother reciting prayers with her children, a hymn, a stained glass window, or the unspoken “spiritual realities” shared by the faithful.

2.   Protestants

The Protestants believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura.
They believe that the Bible alone is a Christian’s authority in matters of faith and morals
It was one of the central tenets on which the Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church.

Let us remember that Jesus and the apostles have quoted from the Jewish Oral Traditions, but never used them as authoritative source to define a doctrine.

Biblical Christianity holds that the plain teaching of Scripture, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit, contains all doctrine essential for salvation and Christian living.
It recognizes Scripture alone as the supreme rule of faith.
Protestant churches value the information that the study of Biblical languages, archaeology, history, and early Christian writers can bring to the study of Scripture.
But Biblical Christianity rejects placing Tradition alongside Scripture as a rule of faith.


So far we have been placing some information about the Jewish Oral Tradition, Catholic and Orthodox Traditions and the views of the Biblical Christianity.

What conclusion should we come to?

By a careful study of the Traditions, we may come to the understanding that the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Traditions are not equivalent to the scripture.
It is unbiblical because their arguments mislead people from the central doctrine of the Bible.
It is not the direct oral teaching of the apostles as referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.  (NKJV)

The Greek word used for “traditions” here is “paradosis” which means transmission.
Paul is reminding about his teaching that is orally transmitted to the Thessalonians.

As we have said before, Jesus and Apostles have quoted from the Jewish Traditions in their speech and epistles.
Let me repeat once again: neither Jews nor Jesus and apostles used them to define, redefine or construct new doctrines.

The Bible says that every word in the Book is “God breathed” and divinely inspired.
That means whatever is in the Bible is recorded by the Holy Spirit and is true.
That justifies the quotes from the Jewish Oral Traditions.
And that is not an excuse to place any legends, myths or tales equivalent to the written scripture.

2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,   (NKJV)

The Scriptures are a written record of revelation.
They are tangible, unalterable, and accessible to all.
Scripture, therefore, is rightly called the Word of God.

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