Growing up, I could not understand how Jewish culture had turned its religion into an endless encyclopedia of rules and regulations. I did not understand why Jesus found it necessary to clarify all the intricacies of Old Testament law, and I did not understand why those intricacies had been invented in the first place. As I begin to scratch the surface of understanding rabbinic theologies of revelation, I am starting to understand. Essentially, I see two opposing views of revelation, but both views draw in God as the underlying authority for their interpretation.
In presenting one view, Zetterholm uses Sifre and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael to establish a view that sees God’s revelation of His will as working in conjunction with a rabbinic understanding of the texts. From this perspective, God calls His people to interpret the texts and make something out of them. Rather than continuallattemptingpt to uncover the original meaning of the text, this view pushes the Jewish people to develop new meanings for the text, applying its original content to the modern era.
The Torah’s call for complicated cases to be resolved by a magistrate furthered this view, and rabbis were able to use that law as evidence of their authority to interpret the Hebrew Torah. Despite the human creation that is inherent in that interpretation, Sifre’s analysis of Deuteronomy leads us to believe that even the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah are divinely revealed. The rabbinic leaders are then able to operate under the authoritative claims of God on Mount Sinai, rather than attempt to fabricate thein justification for the authority of their voice.
God has spoken, and the rabbinic leaders have become inspired extensions of that original conversation between Moses and God.
While this allowance for human participation in divine revelation has been accepted for a longer period, another view emerged during the fourth century. Pulling from the Oral Torah, R. Levi bar Hama argues that all of the Torah and its future historical interpretations were all originally revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Interpretation, then, is not the voice of man, but the voice of God spoken through rabbinic leaders throughout the ages of Israelite history. From this perspective, the revelation of God was already given to man in its entirety, but we uncover that revelation in pieces as we learn from the rabbinic teachings of the Jewish people. Humans do not interpret or add to Pentateuch in any fashion; they simply speak the words of God that had already been given to Moses.
To contrast the two views, Sifra would hold that a given interpretation had not always been the correct interpretation, but that the true interpretation had evolved with time as rabbis readdressed the meanings of the passage. On the other hand, R. Hama would argue that the true interpretation of a given passage has always been the same, but that we are working to uncover that original understanding. This understanding is slowly being discovered through each new rabbinical interpretation. These opposing views represent different ways of arriving at their conclusions, but both views ultimately point back to the authority of God over the decisions of men.
When placing these two views in the context of a Christian interpretation of Scripture, it seems to me that both are compatible with Christianity at some level. While I’m sure that rabbinical teaching after the divergence of Judaism and Christianity can be distinctly opposed to the Christian religion, both interpretations can be used before this divergence to lead to Jesus and His ministry. From the view of Sifra, rabbis are operating within their jurisdiction when they form new laws and teachings. Jesus would thus have been able to arrive on the scene as the ultimate rabbi and establish a correct interpretation for mankind, changing the Torah’s practical application once and for all. In my mind, however, it is far more feasible that Jesus would have come in the context of R. Hama’s theology on revelation. From that perspective, Jesus could reveal Himself on Earth to fully reveal the purpose of the Torah that has always been in existence. Instead of God’s will then being directly tiedbeabbinical the interpretation, God can establish His law in the beginning, reveal those laws slowly through his people, and then clearly and finally reveal His laws in the person of Jesus Christ. The rabbinical interpretations of the Old Testament would thus be able to flow directly into the Christian narrative.
To conclude, rabbinical theologies of revelation are fascinating, and both of Zetterholm’s opposing thoughts on these theologies present strong cases with logical proofs. Both of these interpretations seem to be reconcilable with Christianity at some level, and both allow for God to ultimately reveal Himself in Jesus Christ. However, at a deeper level, I find that both theologies point us powerfully to the sovereignty of God over the Torah’s interpretation. Regardless of which view is used to interpret the Torah, we can encounter God deeply and interact with Him in Biblical texts.