But I Tell You
During the past few years I’ve had the privilege to get to know two Jewish views on the Sermon on the Mount. One comes from a Jewish rabbi and the other from a Jewish professor (for the sake of clarity I’ll call them Rabbi Zvi and Professor Uri). Both of them had a lot to say about the most known and appreciated teaching in the New Testament, one from the viewpoint of the Talmud and the other from the perspective of pre-Talmudic Judaism(s). In this article I will present a few insights they offered me. After that I will draw the evident conclusion on Jesus’ way of teaching, partly from the views they offered and partly from the New Testament texts themselves.
In the time of Jesus, one of the most discussed issues was the true meaning of the Torah. When God commanded or forbade something, was that to be taken literally or could one derive a wider meaning from the actual written words? Jesus often had discussions with the Pharisees or the teachers of the law about the meaning of a certain commandment and its application to everyday life. According to Professor Uri, one school of thought wanted to keep the literal meaning of the commandments. When God forbade adultery, it was to be taken literally and left there. It was the forbiddance of actual adultery and nothing else. The other school of thought understood the commandment to be not only about actual adultery but also about the thought or desire behind it.
According to Professor Uri, Jesus took part in this discussion in a very normal Jewish way in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus backs the idea of a wider understanding of the letter of the law. That was the view most Pharisees held. This is not even an exception, since most of the views Jesus presented concerning the Torah were in line with those held by the Pharisees and later recorded in the Mishna. This wider understanding of the Torah became the official Jewish position when rabbinic Judaism became authoritative among the majority of the Jewish people in the early Middle Ages. [Author’s note: One can see that the discussion is not completely over even today. On the one hand, one can see some religious Jewish men avoiding eye contact with women in order to obey the command forbidding adultery in its full meaning. On the other hand, a more literal understanding still lives on, and on this basis some religious Jewish men believe that certain kinds of prostitution do not violate the Torah.]
The Mishna, the oldest part of Jewish tradition, is the main source for Rabbi Zvi’s comparison of the Sermon on the Mount with Jewish thinking. He takes parts of the Sermon and the Mishna where similar topics occur and compares them with each other. Some of Jesus’ views at first seem a bit odd, but eventually find their support in the conclusions that were drawn in the Talmud on the relevant topic. The Sermon on the Mount seems to fit fairly well inside the frame of Jewish tradition. This is not very surprising since, as stated above, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed quite often on the meaning of the Torah. However, they didn’t always agree, and one of the most notable disagreements was about divorce. Here, rabbinic Judaism ended up being much more lenient than Jesus. But even on this topic, Jesus’ teaching fits into the Talmudic discussion, where two Pharisaic schools argue and the stricter school of Shammai (more in line with Jesus) loses to the more lenient school of Hillel. Jesus’ views are acceptable; they are sometimes controversial, but definitely Jewish. The crucial difference between Jesus and the Pharisees and later rabbinic Judaism lies elsewhere.
There is only one issue on which Rabbi Zvi thinks Jesus was out of line. In the Talmud, discussions on the true meanings of God’s commandments are held between rabbis who quote earlier rabbis or teachers, or refer to the prophets or Moses. In Jesus’ time as well, discussion about the correct interpretation had to be backed by and based on the Scriptures, especially on the Torah. Jesus does none of that. He does not reference earlier teachers to back his views. He does not refer to the prophets to prove that his teaching is the right way to understand the commandments of God.
Jesus uses his own authority to proclaim the will of God (Matt 7:28-29). There’s no authority borrowed from Moses or any other past man of God. [Author’s note: Once, in the case of divorce, he even appears to overrule Moses (Matt 19:8).] Jesus rebukes the opposing views just by saying, “But I tell you,” and demands to be believed simply because it’s him saying it. Rabbi Zvi concludes that this is the authority only God, and no one else, can claim. This is where Jesus crosses the line and becomes unacceptable.
These viewpoints from a professor and a rabbi are in line with the New Testament’s descriptions of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. Unlike, for example, the Sadducees, the Pharisees are close enough to interact and argue with. At times Jesus disagrees with them and even warns against their teaching (Matt 16:12). But, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount he mostly seems to share their views—or at least the views that prevailed in early rabbinic Judaism, which developed from Pharisaic Judaism. Jesus isn’t rejected by the Pharisees because of his teachings but because of the authority he claims (e.g. John 10:33: “’We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God’”), which was recognized by his audience (Matt 7:29).
This was the crucial line between Jesus and the Pharisees, and this is still the point of division between Jesus and Talmudic Judaism. It was not and is not the teaching or other actions of Jesus but his person and authority that divide Judaism and Christianity. Jesus claims the authority that only God can have. This makes him either a blasphemer or God.