by Dr. Keith Megilligan

“You have heard that it was said to those of old…You have heard that it was said…It was also said…” Jesus uttered these phrases near the beginning of His teaching of what has become known as His “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew 5-7. With each of these phrases He references subject matter that had been “said” to His audience. These things that were “said” were apparently (even obviously) passed on from prior generations to those of His day.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old.” This formulaic expression was used purposefully by Jesus. He was drawing attention to a teaching that had been passed down to His generation from an origin simply identified as being “of old.” But where, when and who were those “of old?” If it was Scripture to which Jesus was referring, why didn’t He just say, “It is written”? Instead He repeats again, “You have heard that it was said…” True, just a chapter later He would start using the phrase, “I say to you…” but in Matthew five Jesus keeps referencing things His audience had heard, etc. Further, the origin of these things being “heard” was referred to simply as being “of old.” Again, what was Jesus doing?

First, Jesus was doing what master teachers do: He realized His audience consisted of Jews, they would hear what He had to say more readily if He started from their point of reference. His audience was not only Jewish by birth, they were Jewish by heritage. That is, their existing (spiritual) culture stood upon the shoulders of those who had gone before them. Second, those before them had passed along not only their written Scriptures but also the oral tradition of their fathers. The oral tradition was the repeated (from generation to generation, century to century) instructions and comments (teachings) of their respected spiritual leaders (priests, sages, rabbis) about what the Torah (written Scriptures) said. These repeated teachings (which were memorized) became known as the “Mishnah.” The word Mishnah is taken from the Hebrew word that meant “to repeat,” or “repeated.”

The Jews’ spiritual forefathers believed they needed additional detailed instruction on how the fulfillment of the Torah impacted their lives. For example, the law gave clear instructions about a bill of divorcement (Deuteronomy 24), but it did not say specifically what the content of that bill should be. But the Jews wanted to know, how do we go about this matter of divorce? What provisions should be entered into in such a bill? This is just one illustration of the desired clarification on matters contained in the Torah that the Jews desired to have resolved.

Thus, from the time that Moses was given the written law, tradition has it that there was also an oral law given. This oral law (torah she’b’al pe) became an additional vehicle of teaching/explaining what the written law contained. As the children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness and for centuries thereafter, their priests and rabbis would faithfully pass on the oral explanation of the written law. This oral law was needed to help them as they “walked in the way” (Deuteronomy 4). In other words, it helped answer the question for the Jews, “What does the law mean by what it says?” This desire for an explanatory law to help govern their daily life came to be known as the halakhah, (going or path; halakhot (plural). The halakhot eventually contained both explanations taught as well as customs developed which were derived from the Torah. By the time of the Second Temple in the 5th century BC, these halakhot became collected and transmitted. “Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the earliest rabbis gathered and transmitted the laws learned from earlier sages.” (MyJewishLearning, Barbara Freedman). The ultimate work of collecting, transmitting and recording (putting in written form) the halakhot became known as the Talmud. The Talmud contains the Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnahwas codified in the 2nd century AD by Judah ha-Nasi and the Gemara, the interpretation of the Mishnah (Oral Laws), was codified from the 3rd to the end of the 5th century AD.

As can be imagined, the compilation of the extant (existing) transmissions was quite a chore. The rabbis spent at least two full centuries putting the halakhot together, debating as they worked over which were the best traditions to be maintained. The goal of the debate was to ensure the best sense of the tradition, not to determine who was right or wrong among them. They worked diligently at this project as they believed “both these (Talmud) and those (Torah) were the words of the living God.” (MyJewishLearning, Barbara Freedman)

But that is not even half the story. By the time the desire and coordination for the project had commenced, the Jewish community of scholars and schools of tradition had long been split geographically. The dispersion of the Jews in 586 BC re-located a significant portion of the Jews to Babylon. The Jewish community that developed there became (eventually) prosperous and religiously self-reliant. That is, there was little need to look beyond themselves for spiritual enlightenment. Thus, when Ezra and Nehemiah led a (small) contingent of Jews back to Jerusalem/ Judah, the “commonwealth” of Judaism was split into two portions. Those that remained in Babylon had assimilated much of the culture of that nation and peoples. The group that went back to Judah left with the good hand of the Lord upon them (Nehemiah 2:8). They believed both prophetically and spiritually they were doing the right thing, no matter their personal sacrifice.

And, because you have two Jewish (scholarly) communities, you have two Talmuds: the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud! Of the two, the Babylonian Talmud is the one preferred. The main reason (there are several) why the Babylonian Talmud has been received better is that the level of scholarship (detail of expression and explanation) is more thorough in the Babylonian Talmud. As one writer has put it: “The finished Talmud weaves all of these fragmentary traditions and texts into coherent dialogues among sages living miles and centuries apart, regularly transposing and reforming sources while adding a sophisticated apparatus of explanation.” (MyJewishLearning, Yehudi Mirsky)

Now, back to Jesus’ teaching. Even with the above brief summary and background, you should have a better appreciation for the context and content of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5-7. Though the writing of the Talmud would not be completed for at least a couple of centuries after Jesus’ time, the habit of the Jewish people would have been to have “heard” the law – the traditions and the explanations of both as they had been memorized and passed down faithfully from one generation to the next. This is a practice that was not taken lightly. The Jews revered the Word of God and became, as a people, the recipient, the transmitter, and thus the preserver of that Word. The evident problem became, which “word” do you revere/hold to more: God’s or man’s? Do both the Torah and the (eventual) Talmud carry equal weight? Or, have you been caught up heeding (man’s) tradition as much or more than Torah? This really became a weighty matter! It also became a contentious matter. From this point in Jesus’ ministry onward, Jesus would be hated for His character and for His (perceived) disrespect for the generational teachings passed down to His time.

Two points emerge in the text in light of this teaching. One, Jesus demonstrated the priority of His teaching over what they had heard: “You have heard…but I say unto you…”

Two, when Jesus was finished with His teaching, He left his audience almost speechless. And, I might add, at least at this point in Jesus’ ministry, He had captured their support. Why do I say this? Listen to Matthew’s conclusion to Jesus’ sermon: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” You see, even when you quote the Talmud, though it has been written very respectfully in its reflection of God’s written Word, it is still man’s explanation/opinion. When Jesus spoke, He was (is) the Word!