In the ’70s many of us were inspired, instructed and even informed by bumper stickers. Some people used their bumpers to speak out, others to talk back. One Christian group had a bumper sticker that proclaimed, We found it,” to which a group of Jewish people countered with their own bumper sticker declaring, “We never lost it.” But one particular bumper sticker stood out all around the country and I never saw anyone counter it. That bumper sticker had a simple but profound challenge: “Question Authority.”
Zola Levitt passed on a story from a pastor he once met. This big, burly, tough-looking man had been a highway patrolman before entering the ministry. As such, he once saw an automobile with that “Question Authority” bumper sticker prominently displayed. In fact, everything about the car and the driver seemed to repeat that motto.
So this highway patrolman pulled the driver over and slowly approached the vehicle. With all the police paraphernalia hanging from his belt and the Jack boots that patrol officers wear, he bent down to the driver’s side of the car, looked into the window and said with a smile, “What are your questions?” That highway patrolman had no doubt about the authority he symbolized, and he didn’t want anyone else to doubt it, either.
The “Question Authority” slogan seemed to mean different things to different people. Some questioned whether anyone had a right to such a thing as authority; others saw it as a warning to test authority figures to make sure they are true and trustworthy.
Life is full of uncertainties. Many people respond to them by spending time, money and energy on people or products that make authoritative claims. People hunger for certainty and frequently feed that hunger by trusting others who have a reassuring smile and a confident tone of voice. Countless self-serving people are ready to tell you how to invest your money in a “sure thing.” Self-anointed prophets will tell you how to find joy and heaven.
The seducers of this world can build your confidence on what you desire them to do for you. But it is what they want from you that can be so destructive. They make you feel good about yourself and about them by flattery, expertly and charmingly presented. Some lies are beautiful—at least for a while. Adults who look to others for certainty frequently end up with intoxicating certitudes —because they often drink without discernment if a fount seems to offer the answers they want.
How does one drink with discernment from a “fount of knowledge”? From time to time I have had the privilege of knowing authorities in different fields, professors and scholars, and I never lost the opportunity to ask one or two of the many questions I had. I wanted to establish a systematic way of understanding truth, so I set up what might be called a “hierarchy of authorities.”
For example, I was originally instructed in Jewish history from the writings of Solomon Grayzel. Later I noticed that many (including rabbis) differed with Grayzel on one point or another. I realized that if one looked at the history of Jews and Christians through Grayzel’s eyes alone, one might conclude that the whole purpose and design of the Church was to persecute the Jews.
Then I became acquainted with The History of the Jews written by Philip Johnson. Johnson, a Roman Catholic, didn’t gloss over the Catholic persecution of Jews. He also mentioned how the early church had received some persecution from Jews (a fact strangely passed over by Grayzel). I found what I believed to be more integrity—if somewhat less detail—in Johnson’s book. So where there was disparity between Johnson and Grayzel, my hierarchy of authorities put the writings of Johnson higher. I still valued Grayzel’s book. I simply questioned parts of it in light of another authority that seemed less biased.
Here’s another example of the hierarchy of authorities: when it comes to criminal law I can learn a lot from a policeman. I can learn more from a criminal lawyer. But the highest in my hierarchy of authorities would be a judge who hears criminal cases.
When it comes to religion, many “authorities” conflict with one another—and some authorities conflict with facts that people would rather not face.
The religion of Islam was spread by the sword as conquering hordes issued an ultimatum: accept Islam or be exiled. At times the choice was gentler: accept Islam or lose your civil rights—even then, the choice was given only to Christians and Jews. Others were given a choice to convert or die. History teaches us that Muslims have placed the Islamization of the world as the highest aim and freely sacrifice lives to reach that aim.
So when the President of the United States stated authoritatively that Islam is a peaceful religion, many wondered if he had read the same authorities who taught the rest of us history. Of course, he rightly wanted to prevent a backlash of violence against Muslims at a moment when people were poised to react to the events of 9/11. But ever since that time, the purveyors of the ever-so-politically-correct-civil-religion have been trying to tell us that the Muslim religion does not lay a foundation for terrorist acts. They speak authoritatively and say things people want to hear, but they ignore history—and they ignore the writings of the religion itself.
It is amazing how much people will ignore in order to avoid conflict—but ultimately reality catches up to us and conflict becomes unavoidable. This is especially true when it comes to religious authority. What does that mean to us as Jews who believe in Jesus? It means we must consider the conflict that exists between the rabbis and the gospel.
Many of us have been asked to see rabbis who apparently want to hear why we believe in Yeshua. All too often when we went to see such rabbis, wanting to explain our faith, we were reminded of our ignorance, and our experience with Yeshua was either trivialized or blamed for the sufferings of our people.
Most rabbis emphasize study as the way to know God. We’ve been told that unless we studied as much as the rabbis, we couldn’t possibly make an informed, intelligent decision for Yeshua. As with the Gnostics, they would have us “ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.”1 Unfortunately, most rabbis have accepted the role of an apologist for Judaism, rather than a spiritual authority who can aid in or inspire a true encounter with God.
The nature of Jewish logic allows rabbis to differ with one another on various issues of jurisprudence or theology. Yet they all seem to agree on one issue: Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah.
Have you ever wondered how rabbis can be so united on this one point when so many disagree on almost everything else? It makes sense if you see that modern Judaism is, in part, a reaction to the gospel.
In fact, rejecting Jesus as Messiah is practically an article of faith to Jewish people who place themselves under rabbinic authority. This forces us to ask: “Are rabbis God’s appointed authorities to guard, interpret and promote the Jewish understanding of who the Almighty is and what He wants?”
The Hebrew Scriptures list the God-sanctioned authorities for Jewish life: prophets, priests and kings— and of course the actual Scriptures. The word “rabbi” is not to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures—it is nowhere in the whole Tanach. The Old Testament describes no such office.
The system God established, through Moses, was the management of religious affairs by the priesthood. And just about everything was a religious affair. The priesthood were not only clergymen, but priest craft also included issues pertaining to health, education and welfare that were needful to instruct daily life. Priests functioned not only as judges, but also as notaries, scribes, physicians and teachers of literacy. If ancient Israelites had a problem—whether it was a health issue or marriage problem—they went to priests, not rabbis.
There were good priests and not-so-good priests, as we see in the Scriptures, particularly in the books of Samuel. It is not surprising that many people lost confidence in the priesthood.
The office of rabbi developed, along with the concept of the synagogue as the community center, and can be traced back to the Babylonian-Syrian-Persian captivity. The word from which “rabbi” is derived is found 15 times in the Tanach, but it is not a Hebrew word. The word is Rab, and it is an Aramaic or Babylonian word which means “master,” as to a servant. Therefore, the word is used only in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ultimately, the destruction of the Second Temple resulted in the death and dispersal of the priests. However, in addition to the priestly scribes, there were secular scribes, many of whom belonged to the party of the Pharisees. After the destruction of the Temple, these non-priestly scribes gathered at a place called Jamnia or Yavneh. It was there, in 90 A.D., that the rabbis promoted themselves to the present place of authority. 2
The modern concept of a rabbi has been through many changes. In New Testament times a rabbi was not so much a teacher as he was a judge. They were not the same kind of judges who ruled Israel after Joshua. Those judges governed instead of kings or tribal chiefs. They often delivered justice at the end of a sword. By the first century things had changed. Rabbis were not needed to lead battles or govern. The people were governed by those who did not know God’s law, and they needed rabbis to declare what was lawful according to God, and what was unlawful. We see this in the way that people brought matters to Jesus; not that He might elucidate or explain things, but that He might pronounce judgment.
Jesus never accepted this role. He did not quote other sages and rabbis as was the custom. He quoted God’s Word and explained things in His own words from His unique perspective. He took a role that not only differed from that of the rabbis, but made it pale in comparison. And He claimed such high authority for Himself that anyone who followed Him had to question the authority of those who did not.
You can understand why Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple, must stand against the gospel. Jesus does not fit into the structure of authority. He challenges it. The way He challenged authority then affected His followers…and it continues to affect us to this day.
In the next Havurah, Moishe will present Part 2 of “Question Authority” and explore how Jesus’ authority “then and now” compares to that of the rabbis. Tune in next time for more about what that means for us as we relate to our Jewish people.
- 2 Timothy 3:7
- A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ by Emil Schurer, Hendrickson Publishers, Volume 1 page 365: “Of profound importance to the further development of the scribism was the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the hitherto relative independence of the Jewish commonwealth. The ancient Sanhedrin, at the head of which had stood the Sadducean high priests, now forever retired from the stage. The Pharisaic teachers of the law, who during the last century before the destruction of the temple had already actually exercised very great influence, became the sole leaders of the people. Hence the direct result of the political fall was an increase of rabbinical power and an exaltation of rabbinical studies. Henceforth our authorities became more copious, the first codification of Jewish law having been undertaken by men directly connected with the generation which survived the fall of the city. “Jamnia or Jabne, which had since the Maccabaean periods been chiefly inhabited by Jews, became after the destruction of the holy city a chief seat of these studies. The most distinguished of those scholars, who survived the fall of Jerusalem, seem to have settled here.…”