In Search of the Hebrew Roots:
Phariseeism or Biblical Judaism?

by Nehemia Gordon

In Matthew 15 the disciples sat down to eat bread without washing their hands in accordance with ancient Jewish tradition. Seeing this, the Pharisees approached Yeshua with an accusation: "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread" (v.2). Yeshua responded: "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" (v.3).

When most "bible-believing Christians" read this they are convinced that Jesus is setting them free from the "bondage" of the Torah. The old covenant required a ritual washing of the hands before eating, but Jesus came and set Christians free from this ritual.

Did Yeshua really annul the Torah in Matthew 15? Or at least annul certain ritual parts of the Torah? How could this be when Yeshua himself says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law... till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law" (Matthew 5:17-18)?

If Yeshua did not come to do away with even one jot or tittle of the Law, why did he defend his disciples when they ate food without washing their hands? To answer this question we must first determine where the Torah commands washing the hands before eating. Actually there is no such commandment in the Torah! This is surprising because when Orthodox Jews wash their hands they make the blessing, "Blessed art thou Lord, king of the universe, who has... commanded us to wash the hands."

Why would Orthodox Jews all over the world and throughout history bless God for commanding them to wash their hands when no such commandment can be found in the Torah? I was raised as a religious Orthodox Jew and this is a question I asked my Orthodox rabbis when I was growing up. My rabbis explained to me that the obligation to wash the hands is an enactment instituted by the Rabbis more than 2000 years ago. They explained further that the "Oral" Torah commands us to obey the Rabbis and by obeying the Rabbis we are indirectly obeying God. So the blessing that God commanded us to wash our hands is really a declaration of our obedience to the God-given authority of the Rabbis to enact new commandments.

To someone uninitiated in Orthodox Judaism this may sound incredible. But the key to understanding this is the ancient Pharisee concept of "Oral" Torah. Orthodox Jews believe that during the 40 days and 40 nights Moses was on Mt. Sinai he was given a second Torah that was to be transmitted orally. The belief in this Oral Torah (also called Oral Law) is the basic doctrine that defines modern Orthodox Jews and ancient Pharisees alike (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 31a; Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews 13.10.6).

The Oral Torah commands obedience to the Pharisee Rabbis and gives them the prerogative to create new commandments called takanot ("enactments"). Modern Orthodox Jews and ancient Pharisees consider obedience to these Rabbinical enactments as obedience to God and in some respects even more important than the commandments of the Torah. The Talmud says concerning these Rabbinical commandments: "Be careful concerning Rabbinical enactments even more than the Torah. Because... anyone who violates a Rabbinical enactment is worthy of death" (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 21b).

The problem with Rabbinical enactments is that the (written) Torah itself commands: "You shall not add unto the matter which I command you today nor shall you diminish aught from it" (Deuteronomy 4:2). But man-made Rabbinical enactments are an addition to the Torah! This is apparently what Yeshua meant in Matthew 15 when he sharply contrasted the "traditions of the elders" with the "commandment of God." The man-made "traditions of the elders" make the "commandment of God" of "none effect." Isaiah 29:13 calls these man-made laws "learned commandments of men" or as it is paraphrased in Matthew 15:9 "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Yeshua was not opposed to the "commandment of God" in the Torah but the "commandments of men" and "traditions of the elders" invented by the ancient Pharisees and still taught by modern Orthodox Judaism. Yeshua upheld Biblical Judaism but rejected the innovations introduced by Phariseeism.

If Yeshua opposed the innovations of the Pharisees, what did he mean in Matthew 23:2-3 when he said: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do" (KJV)? According to these verses the Pharisees have Mosaic authority, just as taught in the Oral Law. Furthermore, "whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do." Whatever the Pharisees teach, including their man-made laws, a disciple of Yeshua must obey! For centuries this statement has perplexed readers of the Gospel of Matthew. How could Yeshua teach obedience to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 if he opposed the traditions of the elders in Matthew 15?

A Seat of Moses Excavated from
the Ancient Synagogue at Chorazin, Israel

This is a question which has far-reaching application for modern disciples of Yeshua. Today's Orthodox Rabbis hold ordination going back in an unbroken chain to the Pharisee Rabbis of the First Century. This means a faithful disciple of Yeshua today would have to obey all the man-made rules and regulations taught by modern Orthodox Rabbis who sit in "Moses' Seat." Partly basing themselves on Matthew 23, many people seeking the "Hebrew Roots" of Christianity have in fact adopted Rabbinic traditions and practices. But should a search for the Hebrew Roots lead a true disciple of Yeshua to Phariseeism or to Biblical Judaism? The answer to this question can be found in the ancient Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew.

An Excerpt from a Manuscript of the ancient Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew

In my new book, The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus, I explore the ancient Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew from manuscripts long hidden away in the archives of Jewish scribes. My research reveals that the more "modern" Greek text of Matthew, from which the Western world's versions were translated, depicts "another Jesus" from the Yeshua portrayed in the ancient Hebrew version of Matthew. This ancient Hebrew version of Matthew gives new insight into the life and death conflict Yeshua had with the Pharisees as they schemed to grab the reins of Judaism in the First Century, and brings that conflict into perspective for both Jew and Christian alike.

The book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus by Nehemia Gordon can be purchased through:

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