From Cultic Piety to Torah Piety after 70 AD

Jacob Neusner, “From Cultic Piety to Torah Piety after 70,” inThe Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of Intellect in Judaism (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 29–40.

As I shall now show, the destruction of the Temple marks the shift from cultic piety to Torahpiety, that is, from the conception that the holy life consists in imitating at ordinary meals the cleanness required of the priest in the Temple, to the notion that the holy life consists in studying Torah and carrying out its requirements (commandments). Our task is to analyze this shift in the character of the central symbolic structure of that form of Judaism known to us from the rabbinic sources and assigned by them to the Pharisees before 70, hence of “Pharisaic-Rabbinic” Judaism.

To begin with, we must remind ourselves that before the destruction, there was a common “Judaism” in the land of Israel, and it was by no means identical to what we now understand as Pharisaic Judaism. We have concentrated on sects: Pharisees, Essenes, Christians. But the common religion of the country consisted of three main elements: first, the Hebrew scriptures, second, the Temple, and third, the common and accepted practices of the ordinary folk—their calendar, their mode of living, their everyday practices and rites, based on these first two. In addition, we know of a number of peculiar groups, or sects, which took a distinctive position on one or another aspect of the common, inherited religious culture. Among these sects, the best known are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes; this third group, described chiefly in the writings of Josephus, exhibits traits in common with the group known to us from the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, but cannot have been identical to it in every respect.


When the Temple was destroyed, it is clear, the foundations of the country’s religious-cultural life were destroyed. The reason is that the Temple had constituted one of the primary, unifying elements in that common life. The structure not only of political life and of society, but also of the imaginative life of the country, depended upon the Temple and its worship and cult. It is there that people believed they served God. On the Temple the lines of structure—both cosmic and social—converged. The Temple, moreover, served as the basis for those many elements of autonomous self-government and political life left in the Jews’ hands by the Romans. Consequently, the destruction of the Temple meant not merely a significant alteration in the cultic and ritual life of the Jewish people, but also a profound and far-reaching crisis in their inner and spiritual existence.

The response to the destruction of the Temple is known to us only from rabbinic materials, which underwent revisions over many centuries. But these late materials referring to earlier days—that is, fourth-century stories about first-century teachers—are serviceable, because they give evidence of how important shirts and turnings in the character of Judaism are recognized later on and given specificity and concreteness in the period in which, on firmer grounds, we conceive these changes to have taken place. One such story, about Yohanan ben Zakkai and his disciple, Joshua ben Hananiah, captures in a few words the main outline of what became of the pharisaic-rabbinic view of the destruction:

Once, as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins.

“Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”

“My son,” Rabban Yohanan said to him, “be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, For I desire mercy and not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6, Avot de Rabbi Natan, Chap. 6).

How shall we relate the arcane rules about ritual purity to the public calamity faced by the heirs of the Pharisees at Yavneh? What connection is there between the ritual purity of the “kingdom of priests” and the atonement of sins in the Temple?

To the Yohanan ben Zakkai of this story, preserving the Temple is not an end in itself. He teaches that there is another means of reconciliation between God and Israel, so that the Temple and its cult are not decisive. What is the will of God? It is doing deeds of loving-kindness: / desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) means to Yohanan, “We have a means of atonement as effective as the Temple, and it is doing deeds of loving-kindness.” Just as willingly as men would contribute bricks and mortar for the rebuilding of a sanctuary, so they ought to contribute renunciation, self-sacrifice, love, for the building of a sacred community.

Earlier, pharisaism had held that the cleanness of the Temple should be everywhere, even in the home and the hearth. Now Yohanan is represented as teaching that sacrifice greater than the Temple must characterize the life of the community. If one is to do something for God in a time when the Temple is no more, the offering must be the gift of selfless compassion. The holy altar must be the streets and marketplaces of the world, as, formerly, the purity of the Temple had to be observed in the streets and marketplaces. But this is essentially a backward-looking solution. How do we contend with the destruction of the cult, focus of the ancient piety? There was a second perspective, the one on the future: How shall we reshape the focus of piety, so that it is relevant to the conditions of contemporary life, when there is no Temple, and when the cultic analogy is no longer evocative? Pharisaic piety in the new age evokes a certain dissonance, since it rests on the comparison between the home and the Temple—but the Temple is no more. A new shape and focus for piety are to be found.


The reconstruction of a viable cultural-religious existence is the outcome of the next half century, for, between ca. 70 and ca. 120, a number of elements of the religious-cultural structure of the period before 70 were put together into a new synthesis, the synthesis we now call Rabbinic Judaism, with its stress on study of Torah as a principal expression of piety. It was in response to the disaster of the destruction that Rabbinic Judaism took shape. Part of its success lay in its capacity to claim things that had not changed at all—hence the assertion that even at the start, Moses was “our rabbi”—while making the very destruction of the Temple itself into the verification and vindication of the new structure.

Rabbinic Judaism claimed that it was possible to serve God not only through sacrifice, but also through study of Torah. There is a priest in charge of the life of the community, but a new kind of priest, the rabbi. As we saw, the old sin offerings still may be carried out through deeds of loving-kindness. Not only so, but when the whole Jewish people will fully carry out the teachings of the Torah, then the Temple itself will be rebuilt. To be sure, the Temple will be reconstructed along lines laid out in the Torah—that is, in the whole Torah of Moses, the Torah taught by the rabbis. And, like the prophets and historians in the time of the First Destruction, the rabbis further claimed that it was because the people had sinned, that is, had not kept the Torah, that the Temple had been destroyed. So the disaster itself is made to vindicate the rabbinic teaching and to verify its truth.


Now let us stand back from this synthesis and ask, How was it put together? What are its primary elements? What trends or movements before 70 are represented by these elements? Two primary components in the Yavneh synthesis are to be discerned, first, the method or mode of thought of pharisaism before 70, second, the putative values of the scribal profession before 70. The former lay stress upon universal keeping of the law, so that every Jew is obligated to do what only the elite—the priests—are normally expected to accomplish. Pre-70 pharisaism thus contributed the stress on the universal keeping of the law, on the pretense that all live like Temple priests. The second component derives from the scribes, whose professional ideal stressed the study of Torah and the centrality of the learned man in the religious system.

The unpredictable, final element in the synthesis of pharisaic stress on widespread law—including ritual law, observance, and scribal emphasis on learning—is what makes Rabbinic Judaism distinctive, and that is the conviction that the community now stands in the place of the Temple. The ruins of the cult, after all, did not mark the end of the collective life of Israel. What survived was the people. It was the genius of Rabbinic Judaism following upon pharisaism, to recognize that the people might reconstitute the Temple in its own collective life, just as was the case with purity before 70. Therefore the people had to be made holy, as the Temple had been holy, and the people’s social life had to be sanctified as the surrogate for what had been lost. The rabbinic ideal further maintained that the rabbi served as the new priest, the study of Torah substituted for the Temple sacrifice, and deeds of loving-kindness were the social surrogate for the sin offering, that is, personal sacrifice instead of animal sacrifice.

We see that Talmud Torah is only one element in the reformation of the symbolic structure of Judaism accomplished by the rabbis of the period after 70. It is part of a larger system in which study of Torah, the rabbi, the importance of moral and ethical action, all are put together into a coherent structure, upon the foundation of the people of Israel, the Jewish people, as the locus of the sacred in this world. These elements—religious behavior, religious official, religious way of life, and religious community—together form a whole and harmonious system. When we isolate Talmud Torah, it is only to discern how one of the several elements of the Judaic structure has been received into the whole. And in many ways, you will agree, it is the most distinctive element of the structure. The centrality of community, the importance of ethics, the authority of a religious leader qualified by learning—these are not uncommon in the religious experience of humankind. But the idea that what everyone—and not merely the virtuosi—must do to serve God is to study revelation is unusual. In my view, as I hope is clear, that notion derives from two disparate sources: the pharisaic concept that all Israel, a kingdom of priests and a holy people, must keep the purity laws of the Temple; and the scribal ideal of learning as a way of life. The method is pharisaic, the substance, scribal. But putting the two together quite changes what each was before. And, as is now clear, the context in which the two are put together is what accounts for the fact that they become something entirely fresh and important.

As we saw, pre-70 pharisaism is clearly defined by the Gospels’ pharisaic pericopae and the rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees. Both stress the same concerns: first, eating secular food in a state of ritual purity; second, careful tithing and giving of agricultural offerings to the priest and obedience to the biblical rules and taboos concerning raising crops; third, to a lesser degree, some special laws on keeping the Sabbaths and festivals; and, finally, still less commonly, rules on family affairs. Therefore, late pharisaism—that which flourished in the last decades of the Temple’s existence and which is revealed in the Gospels and in rabbinic traditions—is a cult-centered piety, which proposes to replicate the cult in the home, and thus to effect the Temple’s purity laws at the table of the ordinary Jew, and quite literally to turn Israel into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The symbolic structure of pharisaism depends upon that of the Temple; the ideal is the same as that of the priesthood. The Pharisee was a layman pretending to be priest and making his private home into a model of the Temple. The laws about purity and careful tithing were dietary laws, governing what and how a person should eat. If a person kept those laws, then, when he ate at home, he was like God at the Temple’s altar table, on which was arrayed food similarly guarded from impurity and produced in accord with Levitical revelation. By contrast, the rabbi was like God because he studied the Torah on earth, as did God and Moses, “our rabbi” in the heavenly academy.


Of the important sects known to us in the period before 70, present at Yavneh were surely the Pharisees and probably also a fair sampling of another sort of group, not a sect but a profession, namely, the scribes. It is, as I said, in the amalgamation of the method of pharisaism and the doctrine of scribism that Rabbinic Judaism, with its stress on universal learning in Torah, emerges. We have a good picture of the viewpoint of a putative adherent, after 70, of the conceptions of pharisaism in the person of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, an important authority of Yavneh. I may briefly summarize his conception of the laws necessary for the new age. Eliezer’s legislation suggests he presumed life would soon go on pretty much as it had in the past. Issues important to pre-70 Pharisees predominate in his laws. Issues absent in the rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees are mostly absent in his as well. Eliezer therefore comes at the end of the old pharisaism. He does not inaugurate the new rabbinism, traces of which are quite absent in his historically usable traditions. Indeed, on the basis of his laws and sayings, we can hardly define what this rabbinism might consist of. The doctrine of the oral Torah, the view of the rabbi as the new priest and of study of Torah as the new cult, the definition of piety as the imitation of Moses “our rabbi” and the conception of God as a rabbi, the organization of the Jewish community under rabbinic rule and by rabbinic law, and the goal of turning all Israel into a vast academy for the study of the Torah—none of these motifs characteristic of later rabbinism occurs at all.

Since by the end of the Yavnean period the main outlines of rabbinism were clear, we may postulate that the transition from pharisaism to rabbinism, or the union of the two, took place in the time of Eliezer himself. But he does not seem to have been among those who generated the new viewpoints; he appears as a reformer of the old ones. His solution to the problem of the cessation of the cult was not to replace the old piety with a new one but, rather, to preserve and refine the rules governing the old in the certain expectation of its restoration in a better form than ever. Others, who were his contemporaries and successors, developed the rabbinic idea of the (interim) substitution of study for sacrifice, the rabbi for the priest, and the oral Torah of Moses “our rabbi” for the piety of the old cult.


Let us now turn to the scribes and their ideal of Torah. The scribes before 70 form a distinct group—not merely a profession—in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ opposition. Scribes and Pharisees are by no means regarded as one and the same group. To be sure, what scribes say and do not say is not made clear. One cannot derive from the synoptic record a clear picture of scribal doctrine or symbolism, if any, although one certainly finds an account of the pharisaic law on ritual uncleanness and tithing. Since the materials now found in the synoptics were available in Palestine between 70 and 90, however, they may be presumed accurately to portray the situation of that time, because their picture had to be credible to Christians of the period. Now, having seen in Eliezer an important representative of the old pharisaism, we find no difficulty in accounting for the pharisaic component of the Yavnean synthesis. It likewise seems reasonable to locate in the scribes the antecedents of the ideological and symbolic part of the rabbinic component at Yavneh. Admittedly, our information on scribism in the rabbinic literature is indistinguishable from the later sayings produced by rabbinism. But if we consider that scribism goes back to much more ancient times than does pharisaism, and that its main outlines are clearly represented, for instance, by Ben Sira, we may reasonably suppose that what the scribe regarded as the center of piety was study, interpretation, and application of the Torah. To be sure, what was studied and how it was interpreted are not to be identified with the literature and interpretation of later rabbinism. But the scribal piety and the rabbinic piety are expressed through an identical symbol, study of Torah. And one looks in vain in the rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees before 70 for stress on, or even the presence of the ideal of, the study of Torah. Unless the Torah ideal of rabbinism begins as the innovation of the early Yavneans—and this seems to me unlikely—it therefore should represent at Yavneh the continuation of pre-70 scribism.

But pre-70 scribism continued with an important difference, for Yavnean and later rabbinism said what cannot be located in pre-70 scribal documents: The Temple cult is to be replaced by study of Torah, the priest by the rabbi (= scribe); and the center of piety was shifted away from cult and sacrifice entirely. So Yavnean scribism made important changes in pre-70 scribal ideas. It responded to the new situation in a more appropriate way than did the Yavnean Pharisaism represented by Eliezer. Eliezer could conceive of no piety outside of that focused upon the Temple. But Yavnean and later scribism-rabbinism was able to construct an expression of piety which did not depend upon the Temple at all. While Eliezer appears as a reformer of old pharisaism, the proponents of rabbinism do not seem to have reformed the old scribism. What they did was to carry the scribal ideal to its logical conclusion.

If study of Torah was central and knowledge of Torah important, then the scribe had authority even in respect to the Temple and the cult; indeed, his knowledge was more important than what the priest knew. This view, known in the sayings of Yohanan b. Zakkai, who certainly held that the priest in Yavnean times was subordinate to the rabbi, is not a matter only of theoretical consequence. Yohanan also held that he might dispose of Temple practices and take them over for the Yavnean center—and for other places as well—and so both preserve them (“as a memorial”) and remove from the Temple and the priests a monopoly over the sacred calendar, festivals, and rites. Earlier scribism thus contained within itself the potentiality to supersede the cult. It did not do so earlier because it had no reason to and because it probably could not. The later rabbinism, faced with the occasion and the necessity, realized that potentiality. By contrast, earlier pharisaism invested its best energies in the replication of the cult, not in its replacement. After 70, it could do no more than plan for its restoration.


Scribism as an ideology, not merely a profession, begins with the view that the law given by God to Moses was binding and therefore has to be authoritatively interpreted and applied to daily affairs. That view goes back to the fourth century B.C., by which time Nehemiah’s establishment of the Torah of Moses as the constitution of Judea produced important effects in ordinary life. From that time on, those who could apply the completed, written Torah constituted an important class or profession. The writings of scribes stress the identification of Torah with wisdom and the importance of learning. Ben Sira’s sage travels widely in search of wisdom and consorts with men of power. Into the first century, the scribes continue as an identifiable estate high in the country’s administration. Otherwise, the synoptics’ view is incomprehensible. Therefore, those who were professionally acquainted with the scriptures—whether they were priests or not—formed an independent class of biblical teachers, lawyers, administrators, or scribes alongside the priesthood. We do not know what they actually did in the administration of the country. Perhaps Yohanan b. Zakkai’s reference to decrees of Jerusalem authorities (M. Ketubot 13: Iff.) alludes to the work of scribes, who therefore were involved—as the Pharisees certainly were not—in the determination of family law and in the settlement of trivial disputes.

The New Testament references support the supposition that the scribes were a separate group, differentiated from Sadducees and Pharisees. The scribes occur in association with the high priests in Matthew 2:4, 16:21, 20:18, 21:15, 27, 27:41; Mark 8:31, 10:33, 11:18,27, 14:1,43, 53, 15:1, 31, etc., with the Pharisees in Matthew 5:20, 12:38, 15:1,23:2, 13 ff.; Mark 2:16, 7:1, 5. But they are not the same as the one or the other. The scribes are called “learned in the law” and jurists. (Matthew 22:35; Luke 7:30, 10:25, 11:45, 52, 14:3.) They are teachers of the law. (Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34.)

Mishnaic literature obviously will miss the distinction between Pharisees and scribes, both of whom are regarded as HKMYM, sages. But we have no reason to suppose all scribes were Pharisees. Scribes were merely “men learned in the law.” There must have been also Sadducean scribes. In fact, those passages of the New Testament, which speak of scribes who were of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30, Acts 23:9) point also to the existence of Sadducean scribes (Schurer). The scribes therefore represent a class of men learned in scripture, perhaps lawyers in charge of the administration of justice. They therefore had to develop legal theories, teach pupils, and apply the law. Naturally, such people would come to the center of the administration of government and law, so they could not have remained aloof from Yavneh. Some of them may, to be sure, have come because they were Pharisees. But others, whatever their original ritual practices, would have come because Yavneh represented the place in which they might carry on their profession.

Josephus—himself a new adherent of the Pharisees—does not confuse the scribes with the Pharisees. In none of his allusions to the Pharisees does he also refer to the scribes (grammateis) or call Pharisees scribes. In Life 197–98, he refers to a delegation of Jerusalemites to Galilee. Two were from the lower ranks of society and adherents of the Pharisees, the third was also a Pharisee, but a priest; the fourth was descended from high priests. These were all able to assert that they were not ignorant of the customs of the fathers. To be sure, the Pharisees are referred to as knowledgeable in the Torah; and they have “traditions from the fathers” in addition to those that Moses had revealed. But they are not called scribes. They were (War 1:107–14) exact exponents of the laws. But again they are not called scribes. The long “philosophical school” account in Antiquities 18:11–17 describes the Pharisees as virtuous and says that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their exposition”—but they too are not scribes.

When Josephus does refer to scribes, he does not refer to Pharisees. For example, in War l:648ff. (= Antiquities 17:152), he refers to two sophistai who ordered their disciples to pull down the eagle that Herod had set up in the Temple. They are Judah son of Sepphoraeus and Matthias son of Margalus, men who gave lectures on the laws, attended by a large, youthful audience. If these are scribes, they are not said also to be Pharisees, who do not occur in the account. We find also hierogrammateis and patrion exegetai nomon—but not in the context of the passages about the Pharisees. While, therefore, the Pharisees and the scribes have in common knowledge of the country’s laws, the two are treated separately. Josephus does not regard the scribes as wholly within the pharisaic group; he presents the scribe as a kind of authority or professional teacher of law. Josephus does not associate scribes with Pharisees; no scribe is a Pharisee; and no Pharisee is described as a scribe. The two are separate and distinct. One is a sect, the other is a profession.

Since later rabbinism found pre-70 scribism highly congenial to its ideal, it is by no means farfetched to trace the beginnings of Yavnean rabbinism to the presence of representatives of the pre-70 scribal class, to whom the ideal of study of Torah, rather than the piety of the cult and the replication of that cultic piety in one’s own home, was central. At Yavneh, therefore, were incorporated these two important strands of pre-70 times—the one the piety of a sect, the other the professional ideal of a class.


To summarize: The Pharisees before 70 extended the Temple’s sanctity to the affairs of ordinary folk, requiring that people eat their meals in a state of purity appropriate for the sanctuary and preserve their food from impurity originally pertinent only to the cult and priesthood. After 70 the rabbinical successors of pharisaism treated sacrifice itself as something to be done in everyday life, comparing deeds of loving-kindness to the sacrifices by which sins were atoned for. So it was an established trait of pharisaism and later rabbinism to apply cultic symbols to extracultic, communal matters, thus to regard the Temple’s sanctity as extending to the streets of the villages. This was done after 70 by assigning ethical equivalents to Temple rites, on the one side, and by comparing study of Torah to the act of sacrifice and the rabbi to the Temple priest, on the other. Cultic purity was extended to the home, and, later on, study of Torah was substituted for cultic sacrifice and deeds of loving-kindness for sin offering. Later it would be natural to take over the purity rules and to endow them with ethical, therefore with everyday, communal significance, instead of leaving them wholly within the cult. It was a continuation of an earlier tendency to ethicize, spiritualize, and moralize the cult by treating the holy people—the community of Israel—as equivalent to the holy sanctuary. The rabbis’ larger tendency thus is to preserve, but to take over within the rabbinical system, the symbols of the Temple. The rabbi is the new priest. Study of Torah is the new cult. Deeds of loving-kindness are the new sacrifice.