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Three Tannaim

The birth of Christianity, part 03

A. One party, two parties, three parties…

Stating that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism is nothing revolutionary. And as true as it may be, it is a gross simplification of a very complex and centuries’ long process. If it were really that simple, you could say that Christianity was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism and you’d be equally correct. As much as I personally like things to be simple, they rarely are. This applies especially to the roots of Christianity, probably the most complex field a religious historian could dig into. Just as there are many different forms of Christianity with different nuances in their theologies and / or philosophies in the 21st century, there were differing forms of Christianity from its earliest years. Assuming one could group those different forms under the common denominator ‘Christianity’, you’d still have to delve into the question: which Judaism (or form of Judaism) was the parent of Christianity?

The Jewish first century author Joseph ben Mattias gives us a peek in the main “sects” within Judaism of his era. He describes 4 of them: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots. It takes quite the amount of study to grasp the differences as well as convergences between them and I will not get too deep into this matter. A good way to summarize the situation is perhaps to compare all four of them with the present day political parties making up a parliament in a 20th or 21st century democracy. Such a parliament could consist of

  • a conservative party, made up of the landowners, nobility and the higher clergy (who in many cases would just as much belong to the former two). This could be representative of the Sadducees.

  • a liberal party, made up of the nouveau riche, industrialists and merchants, roughly depicting the Pharisees.

  • a smaller contingent of "socialists" [in a very broad sense!], represented by the Essenes.

It would be wrong however to regard these sects as rigid structures. Although the above three each represented their own take on Judaism, they were still made up of individuals who had their own ideas, interpretations and views; or their own interests to protect. Much like today, a conservative landowner could have business interests in trade and therefore prefer more libertarian rules. A liberal can at the same time be a devout Catholic and nothing prevents a socialist of becoming mixed up in party politics and struggles for power or position, while still being very religious. Similarly, in the three ‘sects’ described by Josephus, there would be ‘hardliners’ alongside ‘centrists’. Some politicians would switch parties just as some do today, whether out of perceived personal gain, or because they simply changed their ideas and views. Josephus himself had been both a Pharisee and an Essene (according to his own statements). Some issues would transcend sectarianism; others would divide all three of them.

Such division could certainly be caused by the emergence of the so-called fourth philosophy, the zealots. Although this group would indirectly still be motivated by religious considerations, as religion was and often still is politics and vice-versa, it was mostly a purely politically motivated, heterogeneous group of militant freedom fighters. Their one goal: the expulsion (or annihilation) of the Roman forces and their collaborators. The Sicarii were yet another spinoff of this Israeli Republican Army. Targeted collaborators obviously consisted mostly of Sadducees and the Herodians. Opposition to the zealots could come from some Pharisees, while other Pharisees would be supportive of the guerrillas. Just as in modern times, a lot of lobbying would be going on and each group would at times gain influence and lose some at others. This was the political background in which the events of the four gospels and the book of Acts took place, even though they seem to remain conspicuously quiet about much that is going on. It may explain however why the Joshua of the gospels would sometimes eat, drink and converse with Pharisees and government officials, while rebuke, mock and insult them at other times.

One of the recurring and major triggers for armed resistance and revolts against Roman-Herodian rule was the ritual purity of the temple and its priesthood, and purity of religious observance in general. To some “hardliners” this purity would already be defiled by the mere presence of foreigners, but no matter what position they may have taken, the Judean society was deeply Hellenized as a whole and its religion already was since centuries. Only the most extreme fundamentalists would or could reject any Roman or Greek influence and it may explain why some Essenes decided to completely separate themselves from society altogether, abandon temple worship and form their own communal cloisters. The Sadducees and Essenes did not survive the First Jewish-Roman War as recognizable groups, leaving the Pharisees to become the new face of Judaism. The Pharisees themselves had already been divided over many issues before the war; but even within rabbinic Judaism that formed out of them, the debate between tolerance and intolerance of Hellenistic influences or “gentiles” in general would rage on for decades to come. We find these same disputes across the “Christian” board and they are pervasive in its earliest literature. We find them in the letters of Paul, in the gospels and in the book of Acts. In its earliest stages, Christianity was almost identical to the evolving rabbinic Judaism. All of its elements were already present in Judaism decades before the assumed birth of Jesus: the belief in the resurrection of the body, the immortality of the soul, the atonement for, redemption of and salvation from sin, the end times and judgment days, the establishment of god’s kingdom on earth by proxy of a Messiah. From the mid-first century only one difference would eventually lead to a completely separate religion: the belief that the Messiah had already come. Whether or where a historical Jesus fits in all of this is something I still leave open. Keeping in line with the theme of the three wise men, I will feature three men who were actors in the above described debates.

B. Three teachers and sages

John, son of Zachariah

Yohanan ben Zakkai was the first of the Sages (Tannaim) in the Mishnaic era following the era of the Pairs (ca. 170 BC – 30 AD). John lived from approximately 10BC-10 AD to 80 AD. He was a disciple of Hillel and Shammai, but leaned towards the “liberal” side of Hillel’s school. Between 30 and 40 AD he was already recognized as a foremost leader of the Pharisees. His school was in Jerusalem, but John spent almost two decades living in Galilee. He predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and , like Josephus, that Vespasianus would become emperor. Aided by two disciples, Lazarus and Jesus, he made his escape from the besieged city by “dying inside and resurrecting outside the city walls”. He is generally seen as the one most responsible for Judaism’s survival after the destruction of the Temple, moving the center of Torah study and the Sanhedrin to Yavne (Jamnia).

Jesus, son of John

Yeshua ben Hananiah, as noted in the Wikipedia page about him, is the seventh-most-frequently mentioned Tanna of the Mishnah. He was a Levite and served in the Jerusalem Temple. Regarded as the head of the above mentioned John’s inner circle of five most intimate disciples, he was known for his mild and temperate nature. His own character as well as John’s teachings led him to oppose the severity of regulations upheld by the school of Shammai, which were normative prior to the destruction of the Temple. He regarded openly displayed and exaggerated piety as hypocrisy and a danger to general prosperity. In the same line, he condemned exaggerated fasting [Compare Mark 2: 18-20, Matthew 9: 14-15]. He was one of the wise men who travelled to Rome to plead in favor of the Jews and is attributed with the prediction that comet Halley would appear during their voyage (thus placing the envoy at 66 AD). He was particularly fond of his fellow disciple Lazarus ben Hyrcanus, even though they would disagree at times and often engage in heated debate.

Lazarus, son of Hyrcanus

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was a fellow student of Jesus at John’s school up until the last days before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. He established his own school at Lydda, but would also become a member of the Sanhedrin in Yavne. He was greatly respected by his teacher as well as his fellow Tannaim. His character led to many unpleasant interactions however. He was also very conservative in some regards. He did not allow Midrashim interpretation to pass as authority for religious practice. His refusal to align his position with the majority of the Sanhedrin would eventually lead to his spiritual death (excommunication). Only at the very end of his life would Jesus resurrect him and revoke this excommunication (although Jesus was not given the authority to do so by consensus of the Sanhedrin).

Bible scholars have long proposed that the gospels of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark as a base, but added or edited material from another shared source, known as Q or the Q-source (derived from the German word for source Quelle). In addition, both gospels include material unique to themselves (Matthew about 20 %, Luke about 30-35 %). I personally wouldn’t leave out the possibility that both Matthew and Luke could have simply made up some of their gospels, especially when it comes to the birth narrative of Jesus. When it comes to the Q-source however, I think it is rather obvious that we have the written record staring us right in the face. The long debated but elusive oral tradition that all gospels are said to make use of, were not the witness accounts of witnesses to a biological Jesus, but the views, comments and rulings of the Pharisees which were themselves finally written down around 200 AD in the Mishnah. To what extent the gospel of Matthew indeed represents the more conservative Pharisaic views, represented by the Shammai school or perhaps Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, is something I leave to the biblical scholars specialized in these matters.

That Jesus’ teachings were not entirely new, or at least not created ex nihilo, is perhaps exemplified by Hillel the Elder, to whom the above three rabbis owe their own wisdom to one extent or another. Hillel the Elder is accredited with the following statement: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.BT, Shabbat 31a Sounds familiar? Matthew 7: 12 (NIV): So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Once you pierce through the veil of allegory or parable in the gospels, you start to notice how the authors are describing the actual political history, which in their time is inseparable from the religious history. None of the above would necessarily exclude the existence of a historical human Jesus. There were after all a great deal of Yeshuas walking around in the first century: some of them were known and respected rabbis, some even made it to High Priest. Good luck however if you want to identify a Jesus ticking all the contradictory boxes of the gospels, especially if you look for a Jesus in the time frame tradition has placed him. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but if you don't have any evidence of a crime being committed, then maybe that is because no crime has been committed.

The gospel authors may not have been objective history writers or historians in the modern sense even when writing history. In our time we describe history chronologically, rather than thematically. The gospel writers’ approach allows for the use of historical events as illustrations to the message they tried to convey. Even today our story tellers still do the same. The History Channel drama series “Vikings” tells the story of a Viking family set against the background of the Viking expansion of the middle ages. It uses real historical events, but shifts some of them in time to magnify the characters and of course, to add drama.

Matthew’s story of the star and the Magi’s visit is in my opinion a very good example of a similar use of history and it is why I chose it to open this series with. It is why many passages of the gospels are allegorical or concealed accounts of political developments, but possibly rearranged to fit literary structure and magnify the message without openly antagonizing the Roman authorities, who would be keeping a very watchful eye on any Jewish leader or anything Jewish after the first Jewish-Roman war. By use of satire, I tried to show how a literal reading of the gospels doesn’t make any sense. In this post and the previous one I touched on some underlying realities of this seemingly impossible story. Part 4 will start with the topic Matthew’s birth narrative ended with: the Nazarenes.

Darryl P.A, 14 April 2022



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