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The Traditions of the Elders

It would not have escaped your notice that many Jewish writings have been referenced in some of these articles. It's probably been a bit confusing, so here is a timeline and a description of all such writings to help you in your understanding. But first, a controversy.

Orthodox Judaism states that, when Moses was receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, he first received the written Torah, the words that would become the Holy Scripture of the first five books of the Bible. But that wasn't the whole story, they tell us, because then came the oral Torah, the words that would not be written down, but would become the commentary on the Scriptures. Poor old Moses, so much to remember - even the written Torah wouldn't be committed to parchment for another forty years or so!

In their view, the Oral Torah, is key as it explains how we should interpret the Scriptures. The written Torah is just the raw material, the shell from which to extract the vast teaching of the Torah. The idea seems to be that, although the Oral Law was given to Moses by God and preserved by being passed down intact from teacher to student, it had to be written down eventually. The reason for this was the turbulence and uncertainty of Jewish life, with expulsions and migrations forced upon them and the loss of a cohesive structured society in one geographical position. If it hadn't been written down it would have been lost.

So around 200 AD, Rabbi Judah HaNasi took on the task of writing down the Oral Law. He created the Mishnah (the 'repetition'), considered the first major work of Judaism since the completion of the Hebrew Scriptures. So the Mishnah is basically all the stuff that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai apart from what ended up in the first five books of the Bible. The sages who were the final generation of custodians of this Oral Law were the 120 teachers known as the Tannaim and who covered six generations from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD, to 200 AD, when the Mishnah was compiled.

Over the next four centuries, other sages known as the Amoraim took it upon themselves to comment on this written material, adding a vast amount of material as commentary to the Mishnah. Although the Mishnah was written in Hebrew, most of the commentary was written in Aramaic. This became known as the Gemara (the 'completion') and the whole lot together became the Talmud. The Gemara was compiled in two separate places, the two great centres of Jewish learning at the time. The first was in Israel, becoming known as the Jerusalem Talmud and the second, the larger volume, was the Babylonian Talmud. It was this latter one that became the Talmud of history. The most common Talmud available now is the Steinsaltz Talmud, with around 2 million copies distributed around the world. If you're thinking of adding it to your collection of holy books, think again, this one runs to 39 volumes, so don't expect much change from $1000.

The other main body of literature produced by the Jewish sages was the Midrash. These were commentaries, usually on books of the Bible, but also of the Talmud. The first of these were produced at the time of the Amoraim and some were still being written as late as the 12th Century AD. The Midrash used in the early chapters of this book is Genesis Rabbah, which was written between 400 and 650 AD.

At a little earlier than this was going on, other sages were writing the Targumim. These were Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible and made use of a lot of the techniques found in the Midrashim (plural of Midrash). The need for Targumim paralleled the current trend for producing versions of the Bible to speak into all sorts of sub-cultures. We have the Cockney Bible, the Manga Bible, even the Glasgow Bible, 'relating some of the biblical tales in the Glaswegian vernacular'. From before the time of Jesus until some time afterwards, the language of the people was not Hebrew, but Aramaic, a language brought back by the returnees from exile. Hebrew was the language of the "Hebrew" scriptures, so, when they were read out in synagogues, not everyone was able to follow what was going on. The Targumim were written to give extra insights into the Scriptures, written in the language of the times.

The two main Targumim were Onkelos, which commented on the Torah and Jonathan, which commented on the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Steve Maltz
May 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Jesus Man of Many Names)

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