If you read almost any book nowadays by a professor, rabbi or Christian clergyman who cares deeply about Jewish-Christian relations and interfaith dialogue, you are likely to encounter the view that Jesus was basically a faithful Jew of the rabbinic (Pharisaic) persuasion. A pleasing notion, but is it accurate?
Yes, Jesus is repeatedly quoted in the gospels as embracing Jewish religious observance of a certain kind. He must have accepted broadly defined commandments like the Sabbath and Temple sacrifice, because just after his death his followers were still practicing them.
What Jesus rejected was the Oral Torah (scripture commentary passed down for centuries) that explains the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible). At the very heart of rabbinic Judaism, this notion of an Oral Torah recognizes that the first five books of the Bible are cryptic documents. It posits that these scriptures were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code. That key is oral tradition, passed from Moses to the prophets to the rabbis, later to be written down in what are now called the Mishnah and Talmud. Anyway that's the theory presented in the first chapter of the Mishnah's tractate Pirke Avot.
In the gospels, Jesus derides this orally transmitted teaching on matters including the details of Sabbath observance, praying with a quorum, burying the dead, refraining from washing and anointing on fast days like Yom Kippur, donating a yearly half-shekel to the Temple, and hand-washing before eating bread.
Stated laundry-list fashion, such details of the oral tradition may sound like trivialities. But from the constellation of such discrete teachings there emerges the gorgeous pointillist masterpiece of Torah-not merely "the Torah," the finite text of the Bible's first five books, but the infinite tradition of Judaism as a whole, reflecting God's mind as applied to human affairs.
Consider the Sabbath. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is the category of forbidden creative activities (melachah), reminding us of God's creation of the world and mistranslated as "work," ever defined. Only the Oral Torah does this.
The Mishnah was a first attempt to write down the traditions received from Moses. In its tractate Shabbat ("Sabbath"), the first paragraph deals with the prohibition of carrying. It would be left to later sages to explain what was so creative about carrying: put simply, it increases value, hence wealth. That's why people are paid to carry goods to market.
The rabbis took such matters seriously. Jesus didn't. On one Sabbath in Jerusalem, says John's gospel, he healed a man who had been sick for 38 years, then told him, "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk." His listeners remarked, "It is the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet" (John 5:8,10).
Healing on the Sabbath is a topic on which Jesus and his fellow Jews frequently disputed. In Jewish tradition, there is no problem with faith healing on the Sabbath since it involves no use of medicaments. When Jesus healed a blind man by making a salve and touching it to his eyes, the Pharisees objected: "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath" (John 9:16). By the light of tradition, they were right. While the Written Torah-the first five books of the Bible-says nothing about using a medical salve, the Oral Torah rules it out except in case of an emergency, which this clearly was not (M. Shabbat 14:3, Yoma 8:6).
On the day of repentance, Yom Kippur, the Oral Torah instructs the Jew to engage in acts of abstention from certain physical pleasures-not only fasting but also anointing and washing (M. Yoma 8:1). Jesus differed. On fast days, he taught, "anoint your head and wash your face" (Matt. 6:17). Again, while the intention may have been to slam pretentiousness, the prescription runs contrary to oral tradition.
The Oral Torah laid great stress on honoring life by showing reverence to those who have passed away, not allowing their bodies to lay out like carrion but rather to bury them immediately. The duty was to come before every other religious obligation in the entire Torah (M. Berachot 3:1). Jesus had no patience for this. To a man who had just lost his father and hadn't yet attended to the burial, he said, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:22, Luke 9:60).
Again, the Written Torah said nothing about an obligation to ritually wash one's hands before eating bread. This commandment was likewise entirely a matter of tradition. Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah, devoted an entire tractate to the subject, Yadayim ("Hands"), the intent being to elevate in holiness the act of eating above the crude animal need to feed the body. Jesus goes on the attack against the Pharisees who question his followers' neglect of handwashing: "You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8; also Matt. 15:9).
For Jesus, the commentary that comprises Oral Torah was a man-made accretion without transcendent authority. He tells a group of Pharisees, "So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God," citing Isaiah: "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matt. 15:7,9).
A phenomenally charismatic person, Jesus mocked the Jewish establishment of his day and was adulated by a following from Galilee, a region famous in this period (as Professor Geza Vermes shows) for the ignorance of the local populace. Knowing no better, they thought Jesus uniquely had Judaism all figured out.
However there is an integrity to the written and oral traditions. From Jesus' position it was a logical next step to that of St. Paul, who would abrogate Torah altogether, Oral and Written. Abandon the former and you'll soon abandon the latter. To the extent that Jesus' better informed Jewish listeners understood this, it was unsurprising that they should regard his approach to Torah with suspicion.