Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mishneh Torah: On Elders.

One of the most common errors in the modern Christian church is the belief that the concept of Elder originated with a few New Testament writings written by the Apostle Paul. In fact, Elders were mentioned on many occasions throughout the Old Testament, yet modern Christian discussions of Eldership are invariably divorced from the Old Testament context.  Other comments about Elders exists in classical literature so that the practice was undoubtedly universal.  Moving into our era, it is common to pretend that the concept of Elder was just discovered in our own generation and proceed with the few New Testament snippets on the subject as if that was all that we could ever learn from the past regarding the subject.  Perhaps there is a defense of this methodology, but I have not come across it yet.

Maimonides gives a long discourse on this subject showing that the concept was derived from earlier works and provides some sense of the fact that the office of Elder was undoubtedly well established with the Jewish diaspora, thus, Paul's writings would not have been understood according to many of our modernist sensibilities.  Noting that Maimonides refers to elders as leader, scholar, rabbi or judge in different contexts, we have  a number of things that should be familiar to Christians who have studied the topic:

"A judge must not behave toward the community in a domineering and arrogant manner, but with humility and reverence." - Mishneh Torah: Judges

There are many of these statements regarding the expected good character.  A key part of their concept was that of honor and respect for elders, yet Jesus turned this upside down by washing the feet of his disciples.  For contrast:

"As soon as a person is appointed leader of the community, he must not do menial work in the presence of three men, so that he does not degrade himself in front of them."

But then there are a few remarks that indicate a realist mentality towards Elders:

"Two scholars who dislike each other must not act as judges together, since this might result in perverted justice.  Owing to the hostility between them, each will be inclined to refute the other."

Now what kind of elders would do that?!  There are notes regarding the size of a community that is needed to have a minimum set of elders sufficient for the necessary checks and balances.  A king cannot be an elder, because it is forbidden to contradict the king, thus, destroying the workings of the elders.  The most peculiar regulation is this one:

"Just as the members of a court of law must be cleared with respect to uprightness, so must they be clear of any physical defect.  Every effort should be exerted in an intensive search for sufficiently mature candidates, who are tall and handsome, easily articulate and conversant with most of the spoken tongues so that the Sanhedrin may dispense with an interpreter."

Yes, he must be a good looking polyglot.  A final point of interest is the general educational level expected:

"Only wise and intelligent men, who are eminent in Torah scholarship and possess extensive knowledge, should be appointed members of either the Great or the Small Sanhedrin.  They should be somewhat aware of such branches as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, forecasting constellations, astrology, methods of soothsayers, augurs and wizards as well as idolatrous superstitions, and the like, in order to be competent in dealing with them."

Wow!  This does go a long way towards explaining why the Jewish community finds studying honorable, and not just the Torah itself.

Many things are in Maimonides list that aren't in the Bible, but there is only one thing that I see in the Biblical account that doesn't appear in this (caution: abridged) Mishneh Torah:

"An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient." - Titus 1:6

Thus, he (yes he, a male) must be a parent with a well ordered family.  This I don't find mentioned by Maimonides, but there are many sections to Maimonides' discussion on elders that aren't included here.

4 comments:

Delirious said...

Our male missionaries are "Elders". I always wonder what non-Christians think of the title.

Looney said...

What are the female missionaries called?

Of course in most of American society, it is known that wisdom increases rapidly during the teenage years and reaches a maximum at about 16-20. At 25, the brain starts deteriorating rapidly, so that no one beyond 30 can be trusted!

Inklings said...

Sisters, Looney.

Delirious said...

Yes, the females are called "Sisters", but the title "Elder" is a Priesthood ordination, and women don't hold the Priesthood, so that is why they aren't called "Elder" too.