Rabbinic Judaism began its development during the Babylonian Captivity. Away from Jerusalem with no temple to offer sacrifices, the Jewish people began to develop ways around the direct requirements of the Law of Moses so that they could practice their religion. Jacob Neusner, in a book entitled “An Invitation to the Talmud,” states that with the development of the oral traditions, the Jews succeeded in “removing themselves from history” so that, wherever they found themselves, that could continue the practice of the Jewish faith.
One example of what these oral traditions did involves the sacrifice. Without the temple, there was no way to sacrifice and therefore no way to absolve sin. The Rabbis answered this need by calling the dinner table the altar and the evening meal the sacrifice. They were thus symbolically fulfilling the requirements of the law in a place where the actual sacrifice had become impossible.
In short, these Jewish captives were erecting protective fences around the Law to keep people from transgressing. By Jesus’ day there were 714 volumes of traditions designed to keep people from transgressing the Law of God. But in the process, the traditions became more important than the Law, and like many today, most devout Jews read and studied the traditions, gave lip service to the Torah — the book of the Law — but few actually read it! The result is, the traditions became so heavy and burdensome that no one could possibly master it, yet the more burdensome and complex it became, the more zealously the Jewish legalists revered and propagated it. That is why Jesus accused them, “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4, NLT) and then says, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9, NIV84).
Sadly, in the Christian church we continue this propensity of substituting traditions for truth. One person, who should have known better, complained that “Christianity in America kept women down.” She is wrong. From its inception, the Christian faith elevated the position of women, but sadly, many times our Christian traditions do not follow the same path. Make no mistake about it, however, it is not Christianity that is the problem; rather it is some of our traditions that we have elevated to the place of revered truth.
Even the Apostle Paul warned of this dangerous practice when he wrote, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. . . Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:8 & 23, NIV).
The church has a sad history of this well-meaning but wrong-headed practice. In our attempt to “stay pure and unspotted” we have erected fences that have kept people from reaching the core of our message: the cross and resurrection. People are so put off with our traditions that they don’t bother to discover our truth.
The church today is in desperate need of recapturing a high view of Scripture. As we make that journey, it is imperative that we avoid the pitfalls on either side of the path. To the left is the pitfall of liberalism, which basically has set itself to the task of deconstructing Scripture and putting in its place a kinder, gentler, more inclusive version of the Bible. One man used to say, “I only believe the things in the Bible that are written in red.” And while that sounded good to those who followed him, those who knew him quickly realized that he didn’t even believe many of the things “written in red.” In fact, he reconstructed a view of Scripture devoid of the Divinity claims of Christ and devoid of a bodily resurrection, the cornerstone of our faith.
On the right side of the path is the danger of Pharisaism. That is, elevating certain traditions to the place of Biblical truth. May we come back to the place where the Bible is our authority and not some man’s opinion of it.