In the first half of the first century, there were very strong non-Jewish sentiments. We know the Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin and the Gospels and Epistles are a witness to this. We know there were Pharisee’s on the Sanhedrin, and Beit Shammai dominated. They were often able to get the Sadducees “in line” because they intimidated them, and the people followed the halakah of the Pharisees. The whole aspect of what is happening is that the Sadducee’s and Beit Shammai dominated, backed by the Zealots.
Beit Hillel was liked by the people but they did not control things, so to be a non-Jew was not a good position to be in. For believers in Yeshua, Yeshua knows things are going to be opened up for the non-Jews. So, in Matt 16.15-20, he gives authority within the believing community to set up a court that will set the halakah for their group. This court of believers will revoke the 18 Edicts of Beit Shammai passed by the Sanhedrin that made it unlawful to have any interaction between Jew and on-Jew. There are going to be “bumps in the road” on this and that is what Acts 15 and the Book of Galatians will be about. A non-Jew is to be an equal partner in the Kingdom of God and in their congregations. But, they will still follow the Torah as it applies to the Jew and the non-Jew. The 18 Edicts will be mentioned in Eph 2.14-15 as the “barrier of the dividing wall” that has been broken down. Now, we are going to look at the aggadot (parables) of Yeshua and the Pharisees, keeping in mind everything we have gone over so far.
Hillel was the Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin after Menachem left as Av Beit Din (vice-president) in 20 BC. This event happened after the meeting at Hananiah Ben Hezekiah’s house and the murder’s of the talmidim of Hillel. The 18 Edicts of Beit Shammai were passed, and Shammai becomes Av Beit Din, replacing Menachem. Hillel dies between 10-20 AD, and then Shammai takes over as the Nasi of the Sanhedrin and he serves till 30 AD, the year Yeshua is tried, executed and resurrects. Then, Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, takes over as the Nasi. So it is during the time that Shammai is in control of the Sanhedrin that the above events in Yeshua’s life takes place.
There was a bond between Shammai and Caiaphas because they both wanted the Romans and the non-Jews out of the land. We see many of the comments Yeshua makes are directed towards the Pharisees of Beit Shammai based on what they are saying to him and how he responds. Some of their arguments are the classic arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that are recorded in the Talmud (over 300 of them). But, even during this time, these two groups got along to a certain degree. It is like a family reunion, everyone can get along together if you stay away from certain topics. We do know that people intermarried from the two groups, so it wasn’t a total war.
Now, Yeshua said in Matt 15.9 that Beit Shammai (Matt 15.1-2) was “teaching as doctrine the traditions (“halakah”) of men.” Some believers today say they have come out of Replacement Theology and they don’t want to make the same mistake again, so they only want what is written in the Word of God. They say “A Pharisee is a Pharisee” so they aren’t interested in what the Pharisees have to say, but we are learning that not every Pharisee is the same. Like in Christianity, a person may be a Baptist but there are many types of Baptists (they believe different things). What we need to understand is that Yeshua is talking to Pharisees from Beit Shammai on many occasions, so we need to see what is happening. For instance, in Matt 15.1-20, Yeshua is dealing with Beit Shammai and was saying the exact same thing Beit Hillel was saying to them. The majority Jewish halakah today, since 70 AD, is according to Beit Hillel. There are exceptions, but the Jewish writings will tell you when it is a halakah from Beit Shammai. You can do further research on this by going to the Jewish Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.
In Matt 15.15-20, Yeshua gives an “aggadah” or “parable” which means “to tell.” A good source for Jewish aggadot (parables) is “Legends of the Jews” by Louis Ginzberg. You can access this work through the Internet. Another source is the “Midrash Rabbah” and the “Me’am Loez” commentaries. Yeshua is an “aggadic” teacher because he conveys spiritual lessons through “stories” or “parables.” The “washing of hands” mentioned in Matt 15.2 is a ceremony and “tradition of the elders” but it does not make one righteous. An “immersion” or “tevilah” is a ceremony, whether it is of the hands, body or vessels. In Heb 6.1-2, Paul mentions that one of the elementary principles of the faith is “baptisms” or “tevil’ot” and notice it is plural. Yochanon Ha Matvil (John the Baptist) alludes to “tevilah” in his title. Matvil is related to “tevilah” in Hebrew. Now, should we immerse? Yes! Believers in the first century immersed frequently, not only when they came to faith in Yeshua, but for family purity, changes in status (like getting married) and going into the Temple. You can go through a “tevilah” but if your mind is not centered on the Lord or you think you gain some sort of righteousness by doing it, then you are just getting wet. But, if you have the right frame of mind about it and the right intention, then things happen spiritually. Did it happen because of the ceremony? No, but it makes things come alive for you if your heart is right. A ceremony does not bring righteousness and this is what Yeshua is saying in Matt 15.15-20.
Another account of this aggadah can be found in Mark 7.1-23. It has an addition not found in Matthew’s account. The phrase “thus purifying all foods” or “purging all meats (KJV)” is how it is translated in v 19. The NIV says that Yeshua declared “all foods clean.” There is a big difference between these versions. There is a physiological process that breaks down the food and it is filtered for what is needed for the body and what is not. What is not needed passes through the body and is eliminated, and that is what is being referred to in the KJV. But the NIV gives the impression that anything is “kosher” and “Yeshua said so” by their translation translating it “declared all foods clean.” But the passage is not saying that. Now, to be fair, one of the fears that Beit Shammai had with the non-Jews that were coming into the faith was they would change everything, and in reality, they did. That is what we call Replacement Theology. So, when we come to things like this in the Gospels and Epistles, we need to look at different translations, the Greek and other tools.
Matt 16.1 is an example of things we have gone over before about an alliance between Beit Shammai and the Sadducees, starting in 20 BC to about 30 AD. The leader of the Sadducees in this verse is Caiaphas and Annas. Doctrinally, Beit Shammai is much different than the Sadducees, but then you have passages like this. As a side note, there is an incident in the Talmud about Hillel going to the Temple on the first day of a festival to give a korban and he was attacked by members of Beit Shammai because Beit Shammai said the offering was to be given at another time. Beit Shammai were the ones to “make things happen” and to “speak first” and in some cases being down right rude. However, Beit Hillel believed in letting the opposition “speak first.” There is no record of Beit Hillel “ganging up on” members of Beit Shammai. Again in Matt 16.12 we have a verse linking the Pharisee’s from Beit Shammai with the Sadducees, not the “Pharisees at large.”
In Part 9, we will pick up with Matt 19.1-12 and see that the Pharisees being referred to were from Beit Shammai and we will contrast the views of Beit Shammai with Beit Hillel on the issue of divorce in the first century.