As a collection of ancient oral Jewish traditions, the Talmud holds special significance in Jewish life and Judaism. For the religious Jews, this collection of ancient oral traditions provides guidelines on every aspect of life. Since Christianity borrows much from Judaism, many Christians wonder when this collection was written and how they could benefit from it. So when was the Talmud written?
There are two Talmud versions. The first, the Talmud of the Land of Israel, also known as Talmud Jerusalem, was written between AD 400-500. The second, the Babylonian version, also known as Talmud Bavli, was completed around AD 600.
What Does Talmud Mean?
Before we venture into the reasons that made it necessary to have the Jewish oral traditions provided in writing, we need to understand what the Talmud means. Very simply, the Talmud means teachings. It covers every aspect of Jewish life and that’s why Talmud has been christened a way of life. From the Talmud, the modern Jew learns religious laws, Jewish ethics, customs, history, and much more. According to the New York Times, the importance of the Talmud is underscored by the fact that every day, tens of thousands of Yeshiva students spend time going through the text.
From the Oral to The Written
Yehuda Shurpin in Why Was the Talmud Written explains that the oral Torah was given to Moses together with the commandments. Given the brevity of the commandments, the writer explains, the people receiving them could have failed to understand their complete meaning without the use of oral explanations, or oral Torah.
The written Torah and the oral Torah were to be used in tandem. The Israelites could, therefore, not write oral Torah or recite the written one. Beginning with Moses and then proceeding to Joshua and other future leaders, the oral Torah was passed down by word of mouth.
Torah, or the law, could mean different things for Christians and Judaists. For Christians, the Torah stands for the Old Testament. For Judaists, however, the term could mean several things. It could mean:
- The written Torah which covers the first five books of the Bible, aka, the books of Moses
- The Torah scrolls used in synagogue worship
- Jewish laws and culture that are not covered in the written Torah – the oral Torah
Conquest Makes Oral Torah Impracticable
In AD 70, the Roman Empire attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Consequently, the attack dispersed Jews to all corners of the world. Since the temple was one of the main venues for teaching oral Torah, it now became impossible to carry on the teaching. Moreover, with the people dispersed, the risk of oral Torah becoming forgotten for good became a real possibility.
To safeguard the oral Torah, it had to be written down. Initially, the oral Torah was preserved in the form of scrolls and later as books.
The Two Talmud
As we have already established, there are two types of Talmud namely;
- The Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud of the land of Israel
- The Babylonian or Bavli Talmud
The Jerusalem Talmud was compiled by Jewish scholars in the land of Israel. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in Babylon and completed around AD 600. While there are similarities between the two Talmud, the Babylonian version is considered superior to the Jerusalem one. For this reason, when people talk of the Talmud, they have the Babylonian version in mind.
Many reasons make Talmud Bavli superior to the Jerusalem one, and these include:
- Talmud Bavli is more detailed than Talmud Jerusalem
- Talmud Bavli is compiled in a more consistent format. For instance, when this Talmud cites a law from the Mishna (repeated study), it follows it up with the meaning of the law as discussed by the Rabbis
- The Jerusalem Talmud only cites the opinions of rabbis from the land of Israel. Talmud Bavli, on the other hand, records the opinions of rabbis from both the land of Israel and Babylon
- Since Talmud Bavli was completed much later than the Jerusalem version, it contains the opinions of more generations.
- In Judaism, Talmud Bavli is credited with providing the greatest contribution to rabbinical literature
- Talmud Bavli is more intellectually stimulating
Should Christians Read the Talmud?
From the New York Times article cited above, we learn that most of the people working hard to understand the Talmud are neither practicing Judaists nor students of Yeshiva (Jewish academies). On the contrary, some learners are secular professionals who reach out to the scripts to hone intellectual skills.
Just as non-Judaists find it beneficial to learn from the Talmud, a Christian who reads it can gain many important insights crucial for Christian living. The Talmud could help clarify Jewish terms that appear in the gospels but which might not be easily understood by a non-Jew. Secondly, studying the Talmud could help a Christian gain a deeper understanding of the arguments between Jesus and the Sadducees, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.
Finally reading the Talmud will help a Christian become more tolerant of Judaists (and by extension members of other faiths). Such tolerance and understanding are crucial for good Christian living.
The Talmud is an important book that is indispensable for Judaism. Since it carries a great wealth of wisdom collected over the centuries, it’s the source of indisputable truths. Perhaps the biggest validation for the Talmud is that it’s found useful by practicing Judaists as well as secular people who desire to learn more about Judaism and the Jewish culture. For Christians, the Talmud could be very enlightening. When you remember that Christianity is derived from Judaism, the book will help a Christian understand biblical concepts and scenarios that might not be very clearly understood. Ultimately, reading the Talmud will add to rather than subtract from your belief in the Bible and Jesus Christ.