CHAPTER 7: The Inter-Testamental
The inter-testamental period was a time of assiduous activity for the
Jewish teachers, for it was then that they developed a
plethora of oral traditions relating to the Mosaic Law. In this chapter, we
shall look at some of the traditions, their content, purpose, and their impact
on the lives of the Jewish people. Having this overview enables us to put into
context those parts of the Gospels that detail Jesus’ manner of
Sabbath-keeping, His teachings and His encounters with the Jewish leaders.
7.2 The different oral
7.2.1 Public readings of the
in the fifth century BC, when the Jewish
exiles returned to Jerusalem, the religious leaders strived to promote a
renewed understanding of the Scriptures. Ezra, the priest and scribe, began the
process by instituting public readings of the Mosaic Law, with help from the
Levites (Neh 8:1–8). This period marked the beginning of the Sopherim movement.
issue facing the returnees was a language barrier. After seventy years in
exile, the new generation had difficulties understanding the Hebrew Scriptures
and needed them to be interpreted into Aramaic (see Neh 8:3, 8). It was against
this background that the scribes began the oral transmission of targumim, which were the interpretations, transliterations
and paraphrases of Scripture. In time, these were put into
writing, resulting in two official Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Scriptures: Targum Onkelos on
the Torah (the Law) and Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel
on the Nevi’im (the Prophets).
7.2.3 Midrash and Halakah
also developed a method of scriptural interpretation called midrash which provided the people
with a verse by verse commentary on the Scriptures. The method used to
interpret the Mosaic Law specifically was called midrash
halakah, while the method used to
interpret the moral teachings and theological concepts was midrash aggadah. These were the scribes’
attempts at making the content of the Scriptures more comprehensible and
relevant to the new generation of Jews. Following on was the development of a
body of oral laws and traditions called the Halakah that were
based on the literal or implied meanings of the Mosaic Law. Over time, they
became as important and as binding as the written Law.
intention of the religious leaders was to ensure the people’s absolute
understanding and compliance with the Mosaic Law. However, the outcome was an
ever-expanding body of judgments, opinions and rules. To complicate matters,
there was often more than one school of thought.
mishna method of interpretation
first century AD, another group of
teachers, the Zugot, developed a method of teaching
and study that no longer involved direct reference to the Scriptures. This
method was called mishna.
Due to their volume, it was now easier to study and teach the oral laws by
topic, rather than to follow the order of the Scriptures. Committing the laws
to memory was achieved through a process of continuous repetition, hence the
which is derived from the word shana, meaning “to repeat”.
fifth century BC, the scribes also began
developing parables, homilies, stories, prayers and letter symbolism whose
purpose was to amplify the Scriptures. These were known as the Haggadah. Some of the material was
later incorporated into the Talmud, the Jewish canon.
7.3 The redaction of the
Jewish oral laws
7.3.1 The Mishna,
Gemara and Talmud
In AD 200, Judah haNasi
collated and wrote down many of the oral laws from both midrashic
and mishnaic sources. The result was the Mishna. After that, the Amoraim spent another 300 years analyzing, discussing and
commenting on the text. Their written commentary became the Gemara,
which, together with the Mishna, formed the Talmud
(“Oral Law”). Two versions of the latter were produced: the Palestinian
(Jerusalem) Talmud, written in Western Aramaic in AD
425, and the Babylonian Talmud, written in Eastern Aramaic in AD 500.
7.3.2 Structure and content of the Mishna
Mishna, there are six orders (sedarim)
containing a total of sixty-three books or “tractates” (massekhtot), which are further
divided into chapters (peraqim).
The six orders are:
• Zera’im (“Seeds”)—laws pertaining to agriculture.
• Mo’ed (Festival”)—laws on ceremonies and rituals, and prohibitions
relating to the Sabbath, festivals and fast days.
• Nashim (“Women”)—laws on betrothal, marriage and divorce.
• Neziqin (“Damages”)—civil and criminal laws.
• Qodashim (“Sacred Things”)—laws on temple sacrifice,
offerings and donations.
• Tohorot (“Purifications”)—laws relating to the ritual purity
of vessels, dwellings, foods and people.
7.3.3 Sabbath regulations in
the laws concerning the Sabbath come under the order of Mo’ed.
Two entire tractates are devoted to them: Shabbat (“Sabbath”) and Erubin (“Mixtures”).
types of prohibited work
Sabbath regulations are found in Shabbat, which has twenty-four chapters.
Shabbat 7:2 details thirty-nine types of prohibited work:
sews, ploughs, reaps, binds sheaves, threshes, winnows, selects [fit from unfit
produce or crops], grinds, sifts, kneads, bakes;
shears wool, washes it, beats it, dyes it;
loops, weaves two threads, separates two threads;
stitches, tears in order to sew two stitches;
traps a deer, slaughters it, flays it, slats it, cures its hide, scrapes it,
and cuts it up;
writes two letters, erases two letters in order to write two letters;
builds, tears down;
he who puts
out a fire, kindles a fire;
hits with a hammer; he who transports an object from one domain to another—
lo, these are the forty generative acts of labor less one.
Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah:
A New Translation, 1988
in its most basic form originated from the rabbis’ exegetical analysis of
Exodus 35—a chapter that records God’s commandment to rest (Ex 35:2), the
prohibition against the kindling of fire (Ex 35:3) and the instructions for the
building of the tabernacle (Ex 35:4–35). The opinion of the rabbis was that the
actions required to build the tabernacle constituted “work” of the sort that
must be prohibited on the Sabbath.
(b) Other Sabbath laws
to the thirty-nine prohibited types of work, the rabbis also developed laws
about things to be avoided on the Sabbath, even though work is not directly
involved. They included a prohibition relating to the consumption of eggs laid
on this day (Betzah 1:1).
also prohibited some activities they felt had the potential to detract from the
Sabbath rest and the sanctity of the day. They included the climbing of trees,
riding animals, swimming, clapping, slapping the thighs and stamping the feet.
Other prohibitions related to the administration of justice, betrothal,
levirate marriage and burials (Betzah 5:2; Shabbat
Sabbath regulations dealt with cooking (Betzah 2:1)
and the seventh year of rest (Tractate Shebit; cf. Ex 23:10–11; Lev 25:1–7; Deut 15:1).
(c) Laws relating to the healing and saving of life
In the Mishna, there is a prohibition against healing on the
Sabbath. This originated from a concern on the part of the rabbis that people would
break the law relating to work in the course of preparing medicines,
particularly when grinding herbs and other therapeutic substances. The outcome
was that they forbade the treatment of any non-life threatening or chronic
condition. The Mishna states, for example, that
people are not permitted to:
• eat Greek hyssop, or use root oil as a
remedy (Shabbat 14:3)
• gargle with vinegar for toothache, or treat
a pain in the pelvic region with wine or vinegar (Shabbat 14:4)
• take an emetic, or pour cold water onto a
dislocated hand or foot (Shabbat 22:6)
One of the
few matters that overrides the Sabbath laws is the
danger to life. If there is any possibility that a life is in danger, a person
can, and is obliged to, act. The tractate Yoma
contains the following teaching from Rabbi Mattiah
ben Harash: “He who has a pain in his throat—they
drop medicine into his mouth on the Sabbath because it is a matter of doubt as
to danger to life. And any matter of doubt as to danger to life overrides the
prohibitions of the Sabbath” (Yoma 8:6). The same
tractate states that if a building falls down and it is uncertain whether
someone is alive or not, others can shift the debris to look for him. If he is
found alive, he should be freed; if he is dead, his body should be left where
it is until after the Sabbath (Yoma 8:7).
(d) Laws on travelling and carrying
Mishna there are many laws to do with the carrying of
items on the Sabbath: from a private to a public domain and vice versa, and
within a public domain. These derive from Jeremiah 17:21: “Thus says the Lord:
‘Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it
in by the gates of Jerusalem, nor carry a burden out of your houses on the
Sabbath day, not do any work, but hallow the
Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.’ ”
rabbinical laws address matters such as the transfer of objects between domains
(Shabbat 1:1; 11), the amount that may be carried (Shabbat 7:3–4; 8:1), and the
manner in which they can be carried (Shabbat 10:2–4). Underpinning a number of
these laws is the issue of motivation, as indicated by the descriptions of the
quantities that are prohibited: “Honey enough to put on a sore; oil enough to
anoint a small limb…” (Shabbat 8:1).
tractate Erubin (“Mixtures”), ten chapters concern
travel and the carrying of items on the Sabbath. They also detail the
circumstances under which the laws can be alleviated. It is here that we find a
travel restriction of 2000 cubits (Erubin 4:3, 5, 7,
8)—a law that was evidently familiar to the people of the New Testament (see
Acts 1:12). The law itself was derived from Exodus 16:29, while the specific
figure of 2000 cubits was linked to Numbers 35:5.
(e) Laws on animal husbandry
The Mishna goes into some detail about the care and treatment
of animals on the Sabbath day. In it, we find laws relating to the type of
equipment that can be used (Shabbat 5); moving and handling (Shabbat 18:2);
hygiene (Shabbat 20:4); feeding (Shabbat 24:2–4); assistance during birthing
(Shabbat 18:3). In general, the laws allow people a fair amount of leeway to
tend to the needs of their livestock.
later articulated a principle which was familiar in the time of Jesus, which
was that a person could go to the aid of an animal on the Sabbath if it was in
danger (see Lk 14:5, cf. Talmud Tractate Shabbat 128b).
7.4 Jewish teachers
responsible for the oral traditions
teachers who taught and elaborated on the body of oral traditions included the
• The Sopherim
(Scribes) who were active from 450–180 BC.
• The Hasidim (“Pious Ones”) in the period of
• The Zugot
(“Pairs”): five pairs of teachers who developed the mishna method of teaching from about 200 BC–AD 30.
• The Tannaim (“One
who studies or teaches”), whose work in the first and second centuries AD entailed teaching by the mishna method and consolidating the midrashic and mishnaic materials.
The Tannaim included Judah haNasi
who compiled the Mishna in AD 200.
• The Amoraim
(“Interpreters”) who analyzed and commented on the Mishna
in AD 200–500, giving rise to the
development of a supporting commentary, the
Gemara, which, together with the Mishna, formed
• The Savoraim
(“Explainers”), whose work from AD 500–540
included the teaching and editing of the Talmud.
Geonim, heads of the Jewish academies in Sura and Pumbedita, Babylon from
the sixth to the eleventh centuries AD.
They produced a body of question and answer literature known as the Responsa.
7.5 Writings of the period
of the legalistic culture in the inter-testamental
period can be found in the religious writings of that time.
7.5.1 The Book of Jubilees
of Jubilees (part of the Pseudepigrapha),
written around 100 BC, reveals a very
strict attitude to Sabbath-keeping. In chapter 50, the writer begins by citing
the Fourth Commandment (Ex 20:9–10):
Six days shalt thou labour, but on the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord
your God. In it ye shall do no manner of work, ye and your sons, and your
men-servants and your maid-servants, and all your cattle and the sojourner also
who is with you.
Book of Jubilees 50:7
proceeds to detail a number of prohibitions that are punishable by death which
are not found in the Mosaic Law:
And the man
that does any work on it shall die: whoever desecrates that day, whoever lies
with (his) wife, or whoever says he will do something on it, that he will set
out on a journey thereon in regard to any buying or selling: and whoever draws
water thereon which he had not prepared for himself on the sixth day, and
whoever takes up any burden to carry it out of his tent or out of his house
of Jubilees 50:8
man who does any work thereon, or goes a journey, or tills (his) farm, whether
in his house or any other place, and whoever lights a fire, or rides on any
beast, or travels by ship on the sea, and whoever strikes or kills anything, or
slaughters a beast or a bird, or whoever catches an animal or a bird or a fish,
or whoever fasts or makes war on the Sabbaths: The man who does any of these
things on the Sabbath shall die, so that the children of Israel shall observe
the Sabbaths according to the commandments regarding the Sabbaths of the land,
as it is written in the tablets, which He gave into my hands that I should
write out for thee the laws of the seasons, and the seasons according to the
division of their days.
of Jubilees 50:12–13
the first set of oral laws to appear in written form. Interestingly, they are
even more stringent than those in the Talmud.
The International Standard Bible
compiling of the Halakoth [i.e. oral laws] the author
of Jubilees was a forerunner of the Pharisees; the strictness of the
regulations and the failure to mention exceptions also suggest, however, that
the author was a spiritual ancestor of the conservative Jewish group that
withdrew to Qumran. Fragments of Jubilees have been found at Qumran, and the Damascus Document apparently
quotes Jubilees (CD 16:2–4). The Damsacus Document
also calls for strict observance of the Sabbath. Like Jubilees, it prohibits
food preparation (CD 10:22) and the carrying of objects into or out of one’s
house (11:7–9). It also provides several regulations not found in Jubilees
and allows for the saving of human life in emergencies (11:16f). The penalty
for profaning the Sabbath is not prescribed; rather, a seven-year period of
probation is required (12:4–6).
vol 4, p 250
7.5.2 1 and 2 Maccabees
In the fourth
century BC, the Jews began experiencing
great political upheaval once more. In 332 BC,
Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) gained
control of Judea, and when he died in 323 BC,
Ptolemic and Seleucid forces fought over the land. In
time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek king of the
Seleucid empire, came into power.
of a Jewish uprising reached Antiochus in 168 BC,
he responded by sacking Jerusalem and killing a large number of Jews, and then
proceeded to stamp out the Jewish faith by outlawing Sabbath observance and
circumcision, making pagan sacrifices mandatory, bringing in temple
prostitution, and ordering copies of the Torah to be burnt. Some Jews complied
with the king’s tyrannical demands; others resisted to the point of death.
king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each
should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king.
Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and
profaned the sabbath.
king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he
directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings
and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the
priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to
sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.
They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so
that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances.
whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” In such words he
wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and
commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the
people, every one who forsook the law, joined them,
and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of
refuge they had.
the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and
forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege
upon the altar of burnt offering…The books of the law which they found they
tore to pieces and burned with fire. Where the book of the covenant was found
in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of
the king condemned him to death. They kept using violence against Israel,
against those found month after month in the cities. And on the twenty-fifth
day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar
of burnt offering.
Maccabees 1:54, 56–59
It was at
this point that a priestly family, the Maccabees, came forward to lead a Jewish
revolt. It was led by Mattathias and his five
sons—the most famous being Judas Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees, two books of the
Apocrypha, record their fight for independence.
Maccabees, which details the start of the struggle in 168 BC, describes the extreme piety of some Jews. We
learn that a thousand of their number were willing to
be killed by enemy forces rather than take up arms on the Sabbath.
And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice,
saying, Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me. So he and his
sons fled into the mountains, and left all that ever they had in the city. Then
many that sought after justice and judgment went down into the wilderness, to
dwell there: Both they, and their children, and their wives; and their cattle;
because afflictions increased sore upon them. Now when it was told the king’s
servants, and the host that was at Jerusalem, in the city of David, that
certain men, who had broken the king’s commandment, were gone down into the
secret places in the wilderness, they pursued after them a great number, and
having overtaken them, they camped against them, and made war against them on
the sabbath day. And they said unto them, Let that
which ye have done hitherto suffice; come forth, and do according to the
commandment of the king, and ye shall live. But they said, We
will not come forth, neither will we do the king’s commandment, to profane the sabbath day. So then they gave them the battle with all
speed. Howbeit they answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor
stopped the places where they lay hid; But said, Let
us die all in our innocency: heaven and earth will
testify for us, that ye put us to death wrongfully. So they rose up against
them in battle on the sabbath,
and they slew them, with their wives and children and their cattle, to the
number of a thousand people.
1 Maccabees 2:27–38
However, Mattathias soon realized that the continuation of such a
stance would lead to annihilation and decreed self-defence
to be lawful:
Now when Mattathias and his friends understood hereof, they mourned
for them right sore. And one of them said to another, If
we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws
against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth. At that
time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with
us on the sabbath day, we will fight against him;
neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret
2 Maccabees indicates that fighting only took place on the Sabbath when it was
deemed absolutely necessary. For example, when the Maccabean forces won a
particular battle on the Day of Preparation (i.e. Friday), they did not pursue
their enemies the next day:
And by the help of the Almighty
they slew above nine thousand of their enemies, and
wounded and maimed the most part of Nicanor’s host,
and so put all to flight; And took their money that came to buy them, and
pursued them far: but lacking time they returned: For it was the day before the
sabbath, and therefore they would no longer pursue
them. So when they had gathered their armour
together, and spoiled their enemies, they occupied themselves about the sabbath, yielding exceeding praise
and thanks to the Lord, who had preserved them unto that day, which was the
beginning of mercy distilling upon them. And after the sabbath, when they had given part of the spoils to
the maimed, and the widows, and orphans, the residue they divided among
themselves and their servants.
long series of wars, the Maccabees finally regained control of Jerusalem. Their
priority was to ritually cleanse the temple and to rededicate it—matters which
duly took place in 164 BC. At last, the
king rescinded the edict prohibiting Judaism, and the Jews were once again free
to observe the Sabbath.
Maccabees, however, were far from content with these minor victories and
continued their fight for freedom. A long and protracted war ensued that
resulted in definitive victory and the establishment of the independent Hasmonian kingdom. The latter lasted until 63 BC, at which point the Romans took control of
Judea. The freedom of the Jews to practise their
faith thereafter was dependent upon the goodwill of their rulers.
Jews returned from exile, there was a far greater challenge facing the
religious leaders than just the physical rebuilding of the temple and city
walls; they had to rebuild the faith of the nation. To this end, they developed
various techniques to explain and teach the Scriptures. They also developed a
body of oral laws whose purpose was to promote absolute compliance with the
written Law. This led to an increasingly strict and legalistic stance towards
Sabbath-keeping which is evident in the literature of the time.
© January 2012
True Jesus Church.