Source: Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 39.
“The Talmud is the slow growth of several centuries. It is a chaos of Jewish learning, wisdom, and folly, a continent of rubbish, with hidden pearls of true maxims and poetic parables…It is the Old Testament misinterpreted and turned against the New, in fact, though not in form. It is a rabbinical Bible without inspiration, without the Messiah, without hope. It shares the tenacity of the Jewish race, and, like it, continues involuntarily to bear testimony to the truth of Christianity.”
At the outset, let me say this: I’m not reading Schaff as if it’s an unbiased scholarly source. I’m reading it to get a feel for Christian history–who lived when, what did they teach, and what was going on at the time?
What’s interesting is that Schaff wrote in roughly the same time as Graetz, whose History of the Jews I’ve also been reading. Both can get pretty mean, let me tell you! Schaff writes that Judaism is uninspired and without hope, and Graetz portrays Christians as constantly distorting the Hebrew Bible (though he has a soft spot for Origen).
I took a class on the Talmud a few years ago at Jewish Theological Seminary, and one on the Mishnah here at Hebrew Union College. Both documents can be rather tedious, I have to admit. As I go through rule after rule about what is and is not permitted on the Sabbath, I inadvertently start to ask myself: “Who cares?” The Mishnah and the Talmud have a lot of beautiful stories (or “pearls”), such as one we read about a rabbi who honored his parents above himself. But much of these documents is law. What I liked about my Mishnah class, however, was that we got into the theological and religious significance of the laws.
This raises an important point: I may ask myself, “Who cares?” But somebody cares–for some reason. The Mishnah and the Talmud flow from a certain view of God and the universe–one that values a righteous order with clearly-defined boundaries. It may not be my view of God and the universe, since I prefer a “big picture mindset,” which says that it doesn’t matter if a person walks out of his house on the Sabbath carrying an object, just as long as he worships God and is kind to his neighbor. But maybe other religious views have something to teach me. Plus, Judaism isn’t getting its focus on the nuts-and-bolts of law from nowhere, since the Torah has a lot of laws that many would consider tedious. In certain respects, Judaism is a continuation of the Torah’s trajectory.
Is the Talmud void of inspiration, a Messiah, and hope? A Messianic Jew once asked me if I thought that the oral law was inspired. He loved studying the Talmud, and he was hoping my answer would be “yes” (not that anything I said would shape his beliefs, one way or another!). But I couldn’t really answer “yes,” since there are many places in the New Testament where Jesus opposes Pharisaic tradition. In Matthew 15:6, Jesus tells the Pharisees that their tradition makes void the law of God! So is the oral Torah inspired? I’m sure it has a lot of good things, but, as a Christian, I’d have to say “no.”
Is the Talmud without a Messiah? No! It believes a Messiah will arrive! But I remember my Talmud professor saying that Jews have to obey the law for the Messiah to come. In Judaism, he asserted, the Messiah is not a hero like he is in Christianity–a Savior from sin. Rather, the Jews play a role in ushering in the Messianic era.
That may look rather hopeless, especially since so many Jews are not orthodox, or even mildly observant. But it probably wasn’t hopeless to the authors of the Talmud. And I’m not even sure if traditionalist Jews today see it as utterly hopeless. When I was in Israel, a Chabad Jew was handing out tefillin on a Friday afternoon, since obeying the law of wearing tefillin on the Sabbath can help bring about the Messiah. I’m sure he realized that many of the Jews on the street were not orthodox! But he tried to do his part, once person at a time.
This whole topic of studying Judaism overlaps with my daily quiet time. I’m reading Ignatius, and Ignatius says that Christians shouldn’t be taught by non-Christian Jews. In Philadelphians 2:6, he states, “But if anyone shall preach the Jewish law unto you, hearken not unto him; for it is better to receive the doctrine of Christ from one that has been circumcised, than Judaism from one that has not” (from the Lost Books of the Bible). Ignatius means spiritual circumcision here: for him, Christians are circumcised in the sense that Christ has removed from them their sinful flesh; the Jews who rejected Christ, however, still have their sinful human nature. So Ignatius is asking what non-Christian Jews have that can benefit Christians. The law? That’s a path to nowhere, as far as Ignatius is concerned! Plus, in his eyes, Christ has fulfilled it.
We see this sort of sentiment in the New Testament. Titus 1:14 says that we should “not [pay] attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.” Does that mean we shouldn’t study other religions? In the eyes of the early Christians, other religions were a path to nowhere. They did not make people moral, since only Christ could conquer people’s sinful nature. And they often focused on irrelevant details rather than what’s important: godliness and faith.
But there have been prominent Christians who have learned from the Jewish people. Origen and Jerome studied Hebrew under them. I wonder myself if there is a way to study and appreciate Judaism, without compromising my Christian beliefs. “Jewish fables” can teach a lot of valuable lessons about God and morality. And, while I don’t think that laws by themselves can conquer a person’s sinful nature, I wonder if I as a Christian can appreciate the order that Judaism strives to accomplish.