Friday, June 12, 2009

Mishnah madness

Sometimes, pastors and teachers rely on the Jewish Mishnah to give historical background to the New Testament. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Mishnah was the "collection and codification of Jewish oral laws, systematically compiled by numerous scholars (called tannaim) over a period of about two centuries" (see Mishna (Jewish laws)). This effort was done by the rabbis at the end of the second century AD.

For many reasons, Mishah studies and citations should be used very cautiously in biblical studies and preaching. It should not be assumed that everything in the Mishnah accurately describes the situation in New Testament Palestine 150 years earlier.

Case in point: the Jewish trial of Jesus Christ. Most people point out how illegal the proceedings of the Sanhedrin were during Jesus' trial. It certainly was unethical, and it may have been illegal, but it is anachronistic to simply cite the Mishnah in proof that the Jews violated their own law. Robert Thomas explains,
Possibly the Jewish leaders were so obsessed with quickly disposing of Jesus before the Sabbath and Passover Week that they knowingly violated their own procedures. This has been the traditional Christian exploration. More likely, however, the provisions of the Sanhedrin tractate were not operative in Jesus' time. The Mishnah was a collection of orally transmitted laws drawn up toward the close of the second century. By this time the ruling Sanhedrin, as it had existed historically, had ceased to exist and was only an academic institution having no authority. The regulations of the Sanhedrin tractate conflict with other Jewish sources closer to the first century, and its provisions are probably not a reflection of actual Sanhedrin procedures in the first third of the first century. Consequently, it is probably wrong to accuse the Sanhedrin of illegal procedures... (Thomas, A Harmony of the Gospels, p. 336)
Just a little word of caution to help us accurately handle the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Don't ignore the Mishnah, but do use it with caution and integrity.

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