Rabbinic Credentials of Jesus and St. Paul

Rabbinic Credentials of Jesus and St. Paul March 13, 2017

Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Authority (vs. Ari G.)


Jesus Teaches in the Synagogues, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




This exchange took place on a public Catholic Internet bulletin board. Ari’s words will be in blue:


A woman who used to be Catholic and is strongly considering converting to Judaism, inquired of one Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, who wrote (forwarded back to the public discussion board):

It is essential to understand that accurate Written Torah interpretation is only possible via the Oral Tradition – the “Mesora” – which was entrusted to Moses in the form of God’s spoken words, (not included in the Written Law) and without having such knowledge through the generations tracing back to Moses, one cannot possibly have the correct understanding of the Written Torah, Prophets or Writings – the only three components of the Scriptures given by God.

This proves little in and of itself, given the many strands of Judaism in late antiquity. Who is one to accept as the binding authority? The Pharisees? Sadducees? Essenes? Zealots? John the Baptist? Etc. Jesus was also a rabbi and an observant Jew, of course. Why would a Jew not be within his rights to accept Jesus’ teaching on the Torah?

The authority for a rabbi comes from receiving smicha from his teacher, and is as good as the smicha and reputation of the teacher. There is no indication whatsoever that Jesus had this authority. The term “rabbi” simply means “my master” or “my teacher” and is also used to refer to teachers of Jewish material who do not have smicha and are therefore not authorized to make rulings.

When the Great Sanhedrin exists, it has final authority on all matters, just as the Supreme Court does in the U.S. Anyone who teaches against the Sanhedrin is wrong and is in violation of the Torah (Deut. 17:8-12).

When rabbis contradict each other, what is the layman to do? Latitude can conceivably be allowed on many matters, but are not many instances of such contradiction tantamount to doctrinal or theological relativism?

It depends on the issue. If it is one of belief, layman can just ignore it, since belief is such a minor point. If a rabbi were to proclaim something that was clearly out of the bounds of Judaism (such as that it was permissible to eat non-kosher food or light fires on the Sabbath), that rabbi has just disqualified himself from all future rulings, and laymen should avoid him.

On points of halachic rulings, the answer nowadays is to follow your own rabbi. This is usually the rabbi of your synagogue, although some hold to the rulings of a yeshiva rabbi or their hometown synagogue rabbi. But you have to be consistent regarding whose rulings you follow. When there is any doubt, the practice is for the rabbi to write to one of the greater rabbis (in reputation and wisdom), explain how he rules and ask if it was the correct ruling. Answers to such question get published and act as a repository for precedents.

I understand that the Sanhedrin ceased to exist after A.D. 70.

Long after. Actually, it ceased to exist somewhere about 425, when the Roman Emperor banned it.

If that is correct, I still would like to know “who speaks authoritatively” for Judaism, so that the Jewish believer can distinguish truth from falsehood in matters relating to faith and practice.

In matters of faith and practice, there is no single authority; however, there exists a great consensus on most points. With regard to faith, the consensus is essentially the 13 principles articulated by Maimonides. Practice is also normative and generally follows the summation in the Shulchan Aruch, although different communities may differ in custom.

1. Does Saul of Tarsus (Paul) therefore possess validity as a rabbi?

He never offers any credible reason for us to believe that he has smicha, so no.

Acts 22:3 (RSV) ‘I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day.’ (see also Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5:34-39)

           Acts 23:6 . . . ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees . . . ‘

Acts 26:4-5 ‘My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and at Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews, They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.’

Philippians 3:5-6 ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.’ (see also Acts 7:58, 8:1,3, 9:1-2)

Would this not constitute having smicha, as Paul studied under one of the most eminent and respected rabbis of that time?

Information from The New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962):

Gamaliel was a grandson of Hillel, doctor of the law and a member of the Sanhedrin. He was held in such high honor that he was designated “Rabban” (“our teacher”), a higher title than “Rabbi” (“my teacher”).

The Mishnah (Sota ix.15) says, ‘Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died there has been no more reverence for the Law, and purity and abstinence died out at the same time.’ (p. 451)

Gamaliel receives a fair-sized mention in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 ed., v. 5, 101):

. . . one of a select group of Palestinian masters of the Jewish Oral Law . . . According to tradition – but not historic fact – Gamaliel succeeded his father, Simon, and his grandfather, the renowned sage Hillel (to whose school of thought he belonged) as nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court. It is certain, though, that Gamaliel held a leading position in the Sanhedrin and that he enjoyed the highest repute as teacher of the Law; he was the first to be given the title rabban. Like his grandfather, Gamaliel was also given the title ‘ha-Zaqen’ (the Elder) . . .

. . . (Acts 22:3) tells how St. Paul, in a speech to the Jews, tried to influence them by stating that he had been a student of Gamaliel . . .

Now, if studying under this man did not give Paul smicha, on what basis would you hold that opinion? Gamaliel himself did not rule out the possibility that Christians might be following God (and by extension, be legitimate Jews), for he referred to Peter and other apostles as follows (Acts 5:38-39):

‘. . . keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’

Therefore, the fact of Paul’s conversion to Christianity would not disqualify him from being a rabbi, according (by logical deduction) to his own rabbi, the eminent Gamaliel. Furthermore, we have record of Jesus being called “rabbi” by Pharisees:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi [Greek, “rhabbi”], we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.’ (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus appears to have been a member of the Sanhedrin, so one of that number (which you acknowledge as the supreme and binding authority for Jews) is recorded as calling Jesus a “rabbi,” whereas you deny that he was one at all.

Furthermore, did not the prophets possess smicha, whether or not they were commissioned by other men (rabbis)? Likewise, John the Baptist seems to have been commissioned by God. Jesus alludes to this commission from heaven in a dispute with scribes and elders who asked Him where He got His authority (Luke 20:1-8)

Jesus Himself followed the Pharisaical tradition, as argued by Asher Finkel in his book The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1964). He adopted the Pharisaical stand on controversial issues (Matthew 5:18-19, Luke 16:17), accepted the oral tradition of the academies, observed the proper mealtime procedures (Mark 6:56, Matthew 14:36) and the Sabbath, and priestly regulations (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:44, Luke 5:4). This author argues that Jesus’ condemnations were directed towards the Pharisees of the school of Shammai, whereas Jesus was closer to the school of Hillel.

The Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: 1971) backs up this contention, in its entry “Jesus” (v. 10, 10):

In general, Jesus’ polemical sayings against the Pharisees were far meeker than the Essene attacks and not sharper than similar utterances in the talmudic sources.

This source contends that Jesus’ beliefs and way of life were closer to the Pharisees than to the Essenes, though He was similar to them in many respects also (poverty, humility, purity of heart, simplicity, etc.).

Jeremiah was commissioned and called directly by God; he didn’t need a rabbi to give him legitimacy (Jeremiah 1:4-10). Likewise, with Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Hosea, Joel, Amos, and so forth. So we maintain that Jesus could have legitimate authority on the same basis (and much more, of course).

I am quite aware that Paul claimed to be a student of Rabban Gamaliel; and I have no questions at all about Gamaliel’s qualifications, based on the esteem in which he was held by his peers. I also know that Paul claimed to be a Pharisee. None of these mean smicha.

Set against these, we have to consider Paul misquoting the Prophets (if he did not do it deliberately but was merely using a Greek translation, it indicates that he was not reading the original Hebrew, as any true student of Gamaliel would have done). We have to consider his relationship with the High Priest, a Sadducee whom the Pharisees considered a Roman collaborator. We have to consider his assertion that the law is a curse and preference for celibacy, both of which are anything but normative Judaism.

In short, there is more reason to believe that he was not a disciple of Gamaliel than to believe that he was.

Now, he did not claim to be a disciple of Gamaliel, merely a student. That could mean that he simply attended some lectures by the learned rabbi. But studying for smicha is a fairly involved and intensive process, and not even every disciple of a rabbi achieves it. It might help to think of it as a graduate degree.

I am aware that the NT shows people calling Jesus “rabbi.” That does not prove smicha either. We tend to use the term for men who teach Jewish subjects even if they do not have smicha, and are not qualified to interpret halacha.

As for the prophets, what makes you think that they did not have smicha? I don’t remember the exact line of teacher-to-student, but the provenance of their learning and authority is known. It is they who were the conduits for the oral tradition between the period of the judges and the period of the Great Assembly. Jeremiah, for example, was a priest, as were a number of the others.

As for Gamaliel’s comment about leaving the Nazarenes alone, assuming that he actually made it, we would have to examine the context – when did he say it, whom did he mean, and what had they already said? It is far from a blanket endorsement of anything Paul might choose to say!

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