Having previously examined the kal vahomer approach of Jesus Christ that exposed the gap between the Pharisees’ perception of their own righteousness and the way it was viewed by God, it is worthwhile to examine the gap between the legitimate biblical approach to God’s word and law and the approach of the Pharisees towards it that the Bible views as lacking. Jesus’ words to this effect are serious, as he states in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves,nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” This statement signifies that something about the approach of the Pharisees towards the Bible prevented them from entering into the Kingdom of God and made them hinder the attempts of others to get into the Kingdom of heaven themselves. One of these major aspects was the whole approach of the Pharisees towards the law and in their attempts to enshrine human tradition as a supposed “oral Torah” that trumped their obedience to the law of God defended by the prophets and given at Sinai and followed by Abraham and other believers from the beginnings of human history .
We see some of the traditions of the Pharisees ridiculed by Jesus in Matthew 23:16-22: ““Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.” One of the issues of the second temple period, and indeed all periods, is the question as to the legitimacy of one’s word. To what extent are we bound by what we vow to do? It appears that at least some of the Pharisees dealt with by Jesus Christ were less than honorable in their vowing, trying to narrowly define ways that they could wiggle out of their oaths when they became inconvenient. Here again, we should note, that as before there is a kal vahomer argument being made about what is greater, the gift on the altar or the altar that sanctifies the gift, or heaven or the God in heaven.
This is not an isolated issue between Jesus Christ and the Pharisees. The issue of midrash as opposed to mishnah appears often in the Gospels, and sets a context for some of what the Bible says about “law.” One of the most notable examples where the conflict between the two is particularly heated takes place in Mark 7:1-13: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother,“Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”” Here we find a particular case, namely the fact that the disciples did not follow the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees considered to be “oral Torah” on an equal level with the written Torah of scripture. In a lengthy denunciation, Jesus Christ makes it plain that to fraudulently claim human tradition as being on an equal level as scripture is an act of hypocrisy, and attempts to trump the commandments with human traditions or human ideas is to cut oneself off from God and to make one an evildoer.
This contrast between two different conceptions of law, one of which viewed the scripture as the authority and human reasoning as merely an act of respect towards that divine authority, and one which viewed human reasoning as the source of authority that allowed one to pick and choose among God’s laws and to enshrine tradition as being binding on believers, was something that the early Church of God had to deal with. This respect for the law informed the early church in their writing to the Gentile converts in Acts 15:28-29: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” The hostility of Paul in Colossians 2:21-22 is directed again towards human tradition that is viewed as being a divine commandment: ““Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
An understanding of the biblical polemic against the mishnah approach in which human reasoning is viewed as authoritative and its careful following of the midrash form by which truth is gained from scripture is vital in understanding what the Bible says about law. According to the whole biblical view, mankind’s human reasoning is fallen, our hearts and minds deceive us, and we require God to open our eyes and prompt us to repent and turn towards Him with our whole being. Mankind is incompetent to serve as an authority of scripture because scripture condemns us before God. The approach of the Pharisees, both past and present, was entirely antithetical to this truth. For one, Pharisees viewed themselves as suitable textual critics in judging which aspects of the Bible were and were not valid for their times, seeing themselves as judges rather than those standing at the bar subject to the judgment of God according to the scriptures. In addition to this, the Pharisees thought that through their obedience they could earn salvation, while not recognizing that the perfect standards God demands for salvation are entirely beyond their possible adherence, such that only being judged with the imputed righteousness of Another that they can meet the required standard and enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whether it was in their views that they were righteous enough to enter into heaven on their own merits, or whether it was their desire to justify human tradition and reject the commandments of God, the Pharisees were opponents to God’s ways and not the proponents of them that they claimed to be, and a big part of the reason why was because they viewed themselves and their associates as authorities on the law rather than viewing themselves and their behavior as being subject to God’s laws. Well did Isaiah prophecy of them that they were hypocrites teaching as doctrines the commandments of man, something that many false teachers continue to do to this day.
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