what is the talmud

What Is the Talmud, and Is It Beneficial for Christians?

What is the Talmud? Is it the same as the Mishnah and the Gemara?

No, they are not the same, but understanding how they are different can be a bit confusing (more on this below).

These three ancient Jewish texts and others—some that date back to the beginning of the nation of Israel (see Gen 12)—are the foundation of modern Judaism and what binds Jewish people together today. And though Christianity is based on the narrative of the entire Bible, which includes the story of the Jewish people, their laws, and their religious traditions, most Christian’s understanding of Judaism and where Jewish laws and regulations referred to in the New Testament come from is limited at best.

Some of these sacred texts we’re familiar with, like the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers—also called the Hebrew Bible), the Psalms, and the book of Esther. Others we might only recognize by name, like the Talmud.

What is the Talmud?

Meaning: “teaching”
Summary: a collection of rabbinic Jewish texts that records the oral tradition of the ancient rabbis1

The Talmud, which means “teaching,” is a massive collection of rabbinic Jewish texts that records the oral tradition of the ancient rabbis.2 Lexham Bible Dictionary says the Talmud is “the primary source for the study of Judaism from the first century AD up to the date of its final redaction (as late as the seventh century AD).”

There are actually two Talmuds (more on the difference between the two below). Out of the dozen or so early Jewish documents that form what Orthodox Jews today call “Oral Torah” (the body of teachings passed down word-of-mouth and eventually codified into writings that, alongside the “Written Torah” [the Hebrew Bible], direct Jewish faith and practice), the two Talmuds are the largest. The Jews claim these teachings were given to Moses at Mount Sinai, who then transmitted it orally, along with the written law.

For Jews, it’s the body of teachings that provides direction for living everyday life—almost like a “blueprint” for life. The Talmuds contain the foundations of halakhah, the religious laws that dictate all aspects of life for observant Jews from when they get up in the morning to the food they eat to when they go to sleep at night.

So why would Christians want to study the Talmud? Is there any benefit?

First, let’s address the difference between these “two” Talmuds.

The Talmud of the Land of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud

There are two versions of the Talmud: the Talmud of the Land of Israel (also called the “Palestinian Talmud” or the “Jerusalem Talmud”) and the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud of the Land of Israel is dated to somewhere between AD 400–450 and was likely compiled in Tiberias. The Babylonian Talmud was completed in Babylon around AD 600.3

Lexham Bible Dictionary distinguishes between the two:

The Babylonian Talmud is considered the most important collection of texts in rabbinic literature. It spans 2,783 folio pages in the standard editions. Although the collection takes the form of commentary on the Mishnah, the ancient rabbis included discussions and rulings on nearly every subject possible. Due to its incredible scope, the Babylonian Talmud became the fundamental text of Jewish life in the Middle Ages and for many people beyond this period.

The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Palestinian Talmud) was edited in Israel prior to the editing of the Babylonian Talmud. However, it is much shorter and lacks the heavy editorial work that characterizes the Babylonian Talmud; thus, the Palestinian Talmud never gained the high position that the Babylonian Talmud has. Nevertheless, both Talmuds contain material from an earlier period and are also extremely useful for illuminating the background of the New Testament and early Christianity.

Today, when people refer to the Talmud, they are speaking of the Babylonian Talmud.4

Now, let’s consider two other important Jewish texts—the Mishnah and the Gemara. Each is unique and has a different purpose in the world of Judaism.

The Mishnah

Meaning: “repeated study”
Summary: interprets the meaning of the oral law

The Mishnah is “a series of interpretations of the meaning of the law.”5 Rabbinic tradition says Moses also received these interpretations when God spoke the law on Mount Sinai, which were then passed down in oral form. Tyndale Bible Dictionary says the word “mishnah” means “repeated study,” reflecting how the material had been repeated orally and passed from teacher to student for generations.6

Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman, c. early twentieth century, Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Around AD 120, Rabbi Akiva7began writing these interpretations down (under Rabbi Judah, “the Prince), finishing around AD 200. It’s “the oldest authoritative postbiblical collection of Jewish oral laws systematically compiled by numerous scholars over about two centuries,” according to the Lexham Bible Dictionary.8 The Talmud and the Gemara (more on the Gemara below), which are essentially commentary on the Old Testament law, are based on the Mishnah. For example, the Mishnah “supplies proof-texts from Scripture and explores the underlying reason for a given ‘rule’ in the Talmud.”9

But demanding conformity to rules couldn’t stand by itself, says preeminent scholar of ancient Judaism (and one of the most published authors ever) Jacob Neusner: “[These rules] had to receive the imprimatur of heaven—that is, they had to be given the status of revelation.” Neusner says this meant that for Jews to embrace the Talmud as a constitution and code, it had to begin at (or relate to) Sinai, with Moses—and thus, come from God.

Because of this, Neusner says “The Mishnah is regarded in the Talmud of the Land of Israel as equivalent to Scripture.”10

The Gemara

Meaning: “to finish, complete, or perfect”
Summary: final comments on the Mishnah, Talmud, or tradition

After Rome destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70 and the Jewish community was dispersed among the nations (see Deut 4:25–28; Isa 11:12; Ezek 16–17), rabbis transmitted the teaching from the Talmud and continued to study traditional teachings, preserving oral discussions between rabbis by memorization. Those discussions were then compiled in a way that “place[d] generations of sages in conversation with one another” to “[bring] greater harmonization between biblical and rabbinic traditions, largely by providing proof-texts for known laws and explaining differences between the biblical and rabbinic versions of laws.”11 This text became known as the Gemara.

More simply, the Gemara12 refers to the part of the Talmud that gives final comments on the Mishnah, the Talmud itself, or tradition.13The name comes from a Hebrew root that means “to finish,” “to complete,” or “to perfect.”

First page of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud. The center column contains the Talmud text, beginning with a section of the Mishnah. The Gemara begins 14 lines down with the abbreviation גמ in larger type (circled). Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The Gemara includes halakhah (legal information), and aggadah (commentaries, philosophy, theology, historical material, and wisdom literature). The stories in the Gemara give insight “about life in ancient times, among Jews and between Jews and their neighbors, and folk customs.”14

What is the relationship between the Gemara and the Mishnah?

The relationship between the Gemara and the Mishnah can be confusing, but here’s a breakdown:

  • The Mishnah is the original written version of the Oral Law.
  • The Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah.
  • The Gemara clarifies words and phrases that are unclear in the Mishnah.
  • The Gemara helps apply laws from the Mishnah by bringing in various opinions from Mishnah sages.
  • The Gemara connects the biblical text to the law discussed; the Mishnah rarely cites biblical passages.
  • The Gemara “extends and restricts applications of various laws” and even adds rules and regulations on issues the Mishnah leaves out.15

Together, the Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud provide the foundation and framework of modern rabbinic Judaism.

Is the Talmud beneficial for Christians?

Though for Christians the Talmud is not Scripture and thus is not authoritative, there are valid reasons some choose to read or study it:

1. It can shed light on first-century Judaism.

Because the Talmud was the main text for Judaism from the first century AD through the seventh century, Lexham Bible Dictionary says it is “relevant to the study of Judaism in Jesus’ and the apostles’ lifetimes.” The Talmud may help clarify ancient Jewish terms and religious practices that show up in the Gospels but don’t make sense to modern, Western Bible readers. For example, the “oral tradition” in the Mishnah was the “word” (or “law” in some manuscripts) to which Jesus referred in Matthew 15:1–9 (specifically v. 6).16

2. It’s a valid historical document.

Just as the first-century Jewish historian Josephus was witness to the events and people of the first century and helps corroborate biblical events and religious practices in the New Testament, the Talmud provides insight into the perspectives of early Jewish leaders on various subjects not in other historical records.

3. It can help us “hear” Jesus’ words closer to how his followers might have heard them.

The Talmud contains many first-century teachings and discussions concerning the meaning of Old Testament Scripture, which can shed light on the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees (and others) in the New Testament. For example, Dr. Jim Solverg, National Director for Bridges for Peace, writes:

In Matthew chapter 19, when Yeshua [Jesus] is asked about divorce, his listeners were probably eager to see if he sided with the more liberal school of Hillel, who allowed divorce for any reason, or with the more conservative Shammai, who was very restrictive on the subject. Here Yeshua comes closer to the school of Shammai in his answer. Later, in Matthew chapter 22, Yeshua is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He gives an answer almost identical to that recorded in the Talmud by Rabbi Hillel.

Reading these debates and commentaries in the Talmud help us hear Yeshua words much closer to how His followers first heard them. That lively debate and discussion about how to interpret various passages of the Torah has continued through the history of Judaism to this very day.

4. It can help build relationships with Jewish friends.

On a more practical note, knowing just a smidgen about the Talmud can open up conversation and help build a more trusting relationship with Jewish friends and neighbors.

***

Learn more about the Talmud in Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash—the first-ever English translation (until now, only available in German)—now on pre-order through Lexham Press.

Of this work Wayne Grudem writes:

With this resource in English, we no longer have to depend on commentators who confidently claim (sometimes incorrectly), “The rabbis at the time of Christ taught this or that,” because now all the relevant quotations from this vast and diverse rabbinic literature can be quickly found here in one place—and in English, rather than the original Hebrew. Every pastor, every New Testament scholar, everyone interested in first-century history, and every library, should have this work.

—Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies,
Phoenix Seminary

Pre-order the three-volume Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash today.

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Related resources

  1. John D. Barry, Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Talmud” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA) 2016.
  2. John D. Barry, Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Talmud” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA) 2016.
  3. Jacob Neusner, Torah Through the Ages: A Short History of Judaism (Wipf and Stock, 2001), 76.
  4. Neusner, Torah, 76.
  5. Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, “Mishnah” (Tyndale), 2001.
  6. Comfort and Elwell, “Mishnah,” 2001.
  7. Rabbi Akiba is considered one the most important influences on modern Judaism. See https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rabbi-akiba/
  8. Barry, “Talmud” 2016. See also https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mishna.
  9. Barry, “Talmud” 2016.
  10. Neusner, Torah, 94.
  11. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/gemara-the-essence-of-the-talmud/
  12. According to the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, “Gemara” is the Aramaic name for both the Talmud of the Land of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud.
  13. Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Gemara” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 2016.
  14. Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Gemara.”
  15. Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Gemara” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 2016.
  16. Comfort and Elwell, “Mishnah,” 2001.
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Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

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Written by Karen Engle