Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The Jewish Trial of Jesus (Part 2) It would help us understand what happened to Jesus before the Chief Priests and their colleagues if we had a clear picture of the Jewish legal system at that time. Then, if we must judge the participants, as inevitably we do, we would be able to judge them against a set of standards or "the system" to which they subscribed and not against those to which we subscribe. That would seem more fitting. We can assume that Jesus' adversaries knew the system. But I think we can also safely assume that Jesus had some idea of the system as well; his few remarks during the trial supports that assumption. But how do we know what the system was?

We know more than we might think we know about the sources of the Jewish law that made up "the system". Anyone who kept awake while growing up in Sunday School knows that there were two sources of law among the Jews of Jesus' time. There was "the Law", that is the Mosaic Code, the written law, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. And then there was the source that gave Jesus so much trouble: the pre-Talmudic oral tradition, a sort of commentary on the Pentateuch that became the trade of a class of professionals who were Jesus adversaries, the scribes and the Pharisees.

We have a two source system in our own legal culture. For example, there is the Internal Revenue Code. It contains the federal tax laws that were enacted by Congress and signed into law by the President. Right now on my bookshelf, I have a copy of the current Code. It consists of two volumes, two large paper back books, each at least an inch thick.

Then there is the second source of tax law, "the Regulations" or "the Regs". This is sort of a commentary or interpretation of the provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. The Regs were not enacted by Congress and signed by the President. Instead, they were developed by the Internal Revenue Service. They take up about six volumes on my bookshelf. A practitioner cannot feel comfortable about reading something in the Code without going to the Regs and reading what the IRS believes is meant by that part of the Code with which the practitioner is concerned.

Now and then, someone takes the position that the "real law" is in the Code and that the Reg that might apply to the particular subject matter of the Code must yield to what the Code "really" says. Except in the case where Congress has expressly authorized the IRS to make law through a Reg, the person contesting the Reg might actually be able to persuade a court that he is right and the IRS is wrong. In that case, the court would overrule the position of the IRS.

Is this a digression? Arguably yes, but it does show that there is a tendency not to leave a Code alone, whether it is the Mosaic Code or the Internal Revenue Code. Too many new circumstances arise that test the Code, that seem not to have been anticipated by it, that seem too particular for the more general aspects of a Code provision to control. So particular applications are developed. They seem to make sense and are passed around from user to user. A tradition develops and experts in the tradition rise up. Now we have two sources of the Law: the Code and the Regs. The Law and the laws. Maybe we should be a little more sympathetic to the system in which we see Jesus. Maybe it is a lot more like the one that we know than we would like to think.

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