Introductory Note: The first part introduced the subject of the animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees, as He harshly opposed them. The main argument, as I showed, and will continue to show in this section, had to do with the interpretation of Scripture. Can all read and understand the Bible? Jesus said that the Holy Spirit interpreted Scripture, while Pharisees said it was the “oral Torah”, an invented idea to defend themselves from the people.
Statements like these, among the myriad clearly infuriated the Pharisees! The Pharisees, as all other rabbis, had to borrow authority from othersources, and teach truth based on an ideas’ acceptance within the group (Klinghoffer 59). Christ stepped into the traditional way of interpreting Scripture, into the discussions, in the midst of the debates, and simply pronounced truth. It is why “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). In one discussion with the Jewish people, at the temple, they asked Him about His claim to being eternal: “‘Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?’ Jesus answered… ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:53, 56-59).
In context, this seems absurd. The leaders were asking themselves: who was this Jesus? Why did He have so much sway on the people (John 12:19)? Was this not a simple Galilean from the tiny city of Nazareth (Matthew 13:55)? Who was this poor, untrained so-called rabbi (meaning ‘teacher’) fooling (John 7:14)? Was He speaking the truth, or dangerously leading people astray (John 7:12)? This Jesus would simply barge into synagogues and the very temple, teaching with no authority other than His own. The annoyance of the Pharisees is clearly understandable, to the point of seeking to kill Him (ultimately for blasphemy, as addressed later). After all, the oral Torah had been set-up to protect against such people, to defend against those who believed they could interpret and teach Scripture while untrained.
Speaking of Jesus’ followers, David Klinghoffer has this to say about the Galileans of the time: “Jesus’ fellow Galileans, the first to hear his message, were famous for being on average less knowledgeable about the Torah than their fellows to the south in Judea…[they were] viewed as rustics.” He also states that they were “relatively simple folk … [unlike inhabitants of] Jerusalem, with its rabbis, its priests, who would know better (than to believe Jesus)” (43). He then concludes by stating this as an explanation as to why Jesus’ ministry grew so powerful, because He was convincing the untrained crowd.
Clearly this is naïveté on the part of Klinghoffer, having overlooked Jesus’ impact on high class Jews, not least among them being Nicodemus, a member of the elite Pharisees, and of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1-21; 19:39). Also, the fact remains that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were absolutely unable and incapable of responding to the mental prowess of Jesus, whereas after a certain day of questioning, the Jewish leaders relented and “no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34b).
The reason why the Jewish leaders did oppose Jesus so strongly in His short career was because He was considered an apicurios (as being a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus). An apicurios, according to rabbinic literature (another name for the later-written oral Torah) is the “term for a Jew who knowingly rejects the oral tradition (or oral Torah) not from ignorance but from willfulness.” The Mishnah, the written form of the oral Torah that came out after Jesus around 200 AD (25), explains “a first century teaching that one must know how to rebut the apicurios even as one disdains the philosophy (of Epicureans)” (59-60; Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation 677-8). Thus it was the duty of a learned Jew to dispute Jesus, because according to the rabbinic teachers they had to hate those who rejected the oral Torah. It was likely the exact reason for why Jesus purposefully attacked these man-made traditions, as much of the Sermon on the Mount shows in Matthew 5:17-6:18, traditions and extra-biblical laws which Jewish leaders supposed had been passed down from Moses himself, along with the written text.
Jesus boldly met the opposition head-on, and would not let this lie continue being taught to those who feared and wished to live for God. As the Gospels say, Jesus was winning all the battles, so in fear of losing credibility and authority the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were now forced to swiftly plot the death of Jesus (Matthew 26:4; John 7:1). They had failed to defend Judaism before the imposing figure of the homeless man of Nazareth, so other, even illegal, means were sought after to rid themselves of Him.
Now, for further clarity, the purpose of the oral Torah must be understood. In the time of Jesus it is supposed that it had remained in oral format, being passed from rabbi to rabbi, but slowly written forms of the oral Torah began appearing between two and six hundred years after Christ. They are known today as the Mishnah, Palestinian Talmud, and Babylonian Talmud, among others (Neusner vii-viii). Neusner, an important Jewish scholar in this area, explains: “Judaism has always maintained that God revealed a dual Torah to Moses at Sinai: One Torah was to be transmitted to the people of Israel through the medium of writing; the other was to be handed down orally, memorized by successive sages” (vii; italics mine). From those outside of Judaism, this takes incredible criticism, for the Hebrew Scriptures make no mention of the existence of this so called oral Torah, and the fact that it was not written down until some 1,500 years after Moses’ writing of the Torah raises serious questions.
A likely verdict, and clearly the one Jesus came to, is that this oral Torah had not proceeded from God through Moses, but instead was a self-defense mechanism created by Jewish leaders. To the extent that those who held to the idea likely did not know it had been invented sometime in the past, and a repeated lie often seems like the truth when separated from the evidence. The fact of the matter is that there is little to no evidence of such an oral Torah existing for much time before Christ came on the scene, but Christ clearly knew of it as “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3, 5). Now, the obvious question becomes: why did the Jewish leaders feel the need to create a secondary source to interpret the Scriptures from? Unknowingly Klinghoffer gives us the answer, showing the drive behind the Jewish leaders: “Without tradition, either the cryptic text of the Pentateuch was locked forever, its true meaning indiscernible, or it was open to all to guess as their intellect or whim directed them—a free-for-all of scriptural interpretation where the Torah means whatever the reader wants it to mean” (59). Similarly, Alister McGrath, in his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, states the foundational truth that separates Protestants from Catholics: the radical concept that (perhaps) if all people had the Bible readily available to them, each could be saved, understand, apply it and be transformed by Scripture alone (208). This was the motto of the Reformers, standing on Luther’s concept of Sola Scriptura.
These two time periods, although being more than a millennia apart, relate in the following way. The fears of the Jewish leaders and the Catholic clergy seem one and the same in this area: that if ordinary people begin interpreting Scripture for themselves, they may come up with different interpretations of Scripture as the “educated” priests. Jesus was the forerunner in giving ordinary people the ability to read and understand Scripture for themselves, as He prayed to God in Luke 10:21-22,
In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
As stated before, Christ also explained that Scripture is interpreted by the Holy Spirit, and not the whims of the unlearned or so-called learned (John 16:13).
Ultimately, the pride and jealously of the Jewish leaders here shines forth. Jesus had struck a very deep and dark chord in them, much like Luther had done, for He attacked their authority and claimed Scripture’s authority superseded them, and that He Himself was its right interpreter, not their extra-biblical rabbinical tradition.
Slowly, as this reality grew on the Jewish leaders, they could no longer think properly to see if Jesus really was the Messiah, not even bothering to investigate if He was right or not. In the following passage, observe the layman’s desire to know if Jesus is the Messiah only to see it thwarted by the Pharisaic pride:
When they heard [Jesus’ teaching], some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him (to kill him)?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” (John 7:40-52; italics mine)
And so the hunt to find a way to kill Jesus began to mount, as all the Gospels recount.
The events of this sequence, from the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, to His crucifixion on the cross, and resurrection from the dead as proof of deity, is well-known to the reader of Scripture, so the overall details will not be belabored. What will be centered on is the first trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. After many attempts the Jewish leaders got their hands on the homeless man, Jesus of Nazareth, and brought Him to a secret tribunal in a Pharisee’s house while it was still dark. There they accused Him of blasphemy and agreed among each other that He was a deceiver of the people and a blasphemer, declaring Himself to be equal to God. Again, the accounts of this are found in all the Gospels.