A reader wrote to me about a criticism of Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority which he had seen by Moshe Shulman on a website. I investigated, and then wrote the following response.

Shalom T--,
Thanks for informing me of Moshe Shulman’s comments about Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority. I looked at his website, and here is my response.
I am often involved in discussions about various Biblical and historical issues with people from many different cultures and beliefs. I don't, however, usually get involved in discussions with people who are more interested in making personal insults than in examining evidence. Such conversations have no point and no end. After looking at Moshe Shulman's website, it seems clear that he, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. He seems unable to respond with substance, but he doesn't want anyone else to actually examine the issues and think for themselves.
So, as he explains in his section on "Lies, Damned Lies...", his purpose there is to impugn the integrity of certain authors and damage their reputations. In that way, he hopes to keep people from examining the issues.
Nevertheless, I'll try to respond briefly to what he said, because I did learn something from it. So I appreciate what he pointed out without appreciating his lashon hara, i.e. his evil tongue. My response is longer than his attack, because I have attempted to respond with substance.
The self-definition of Shulman's website is: "Judaism's Answer is a site dedicated to strengthening Judaism, and providing Jews with answers to questions they have about Judaism and Jewish beliefs." That sounds like a good thing: providing answers to the questions that Jewish people have. And that makes it almost imperative that Shulman respond to the material in Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, because the book contains some very serious historical and talmudic analysis that challenges the very basis of the "Judaism" he wants to strengthen.
The first step in giving an answer is to articulate the question. Which of the many questions that Jewish people have about Judaism and Jewish beliefs is Shulman answering? He does not say. Nor does he mention what Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority is about, the issues it examines, or the conclusions it presents.
He does not refute, discuss, or even present a single issue or argument from the book. His only comment concerns one quotation from a secondary source, a quotation which he himself misrepresents. He has no response to 99.94% of the book.
Nevertheless, let’s briefly look at my quotation of Lukyn Williams in which he cites a passage of Josephus; and let’s look at how Shulman deals with it.

The Lukyn Williams quotation of Josephus appears in a chapter about Torah She'b'al Pe, which is part of an examination of the various rabbinic claims that God gave Israel an oral law. That particular examination contains more than a hundred quotations from Tanakh, Talmud, and various scholars. The first chapter of the section in which the quotation appears is entitled "Tanakh and the Oral Law". In examining the rabbinic claim, it presents and analyzes every relevant, direct quotations from Tanakh, including those cited by the Rabbis, leading to the following conclusions:
<<"According to the Torah, it is the written law that comprised God's covenant with Israel. It is the written law that is the guide to proper governance, and the standard by which those who govern will be judged. It is disobedience to the written law that will bring judgment and exile. It is obedience to the written law that will bring restoration. It is the written law that is to be taught to future generations.
"There is no mention of an oral law."
"...To summarize the record of Tanakh concerning the time from Moses to the exile: it was the written law that was to be the object of meditation and the guide for those who governed and led in Israel -- whether military general, priest, or king. It was the written law that defined individual and corporate fidelity or infidelity to the Lord.
"It was the written law that was followed in building the altar and in offering the sacrifices. It was obedience to the written law that would bring prosperity and success. It was the written law that was to be taught to future generations. According to Tanakh, concerning the time from Moses to the exile, not one word of all of the Torah of Moses was unwritten.
"...To summarize: The record of Tanakh concerning the time of the exile and the return is that judgment and restoration come according to what is written. Priests were installed, sacrifices were offered, and holy days were celebrated according to the written law. Ezra and the Levites taught the people what was written in the Torah. The people confessed their sins and repented according to what was written in the Torah. They bound themselves under an oath and a curse to obey the written law.
"...What then is the record of Tanakh concerning the oral law? On the basis of what is in the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets, was there, or could there have been, an oral law given by God to Moses at Sinai?
"If there was an oral law which God gave to Moses, Moses never mentioned it, nor did Joshua, Ezra, or any other person in the Bible. If it existed, it was not part of God's covenant with Israel. Nor was it relevant to the blessing or judgment of God.
"No prophet, priest, or king either mentions it or demonstrates any concern to know it or obey it. It was not relevant to the governance or required worship of Israel. Nor did it play any part in the instruction of the people or their children.
"In other words, on the basis of what is recorded in Tanakh, there was no Oral Law given by God to Moses at Sinai." >>

That’s context for the chapter, now here’s a little context from that chapter for the quotation. Earlier in the chapter:
<<"It is especially significant that the term 'Oral Torah', widely assumed to be a fundamental doctrine of the Babylonian Talmud, is attested in that document twice in the [above] anecdote in bShabbat 31a and only twice more, bYoma 28b and in bQiddushin 66a."2 The Talmud was completed hundreds of years after Hillel and Shammai. It often refers to received tradition [kabbalah] and to the correct way [halakha], but it only mentions the "Oral Law" in three passages. The passages in Kiddushin and Yoma place the concept and use of the term "Oral Torah" farther back in time than Hillel and Shammai.
The passage in Kid. 66a places the term "Oral Torah" in the time of the Hasmoneans. ...
Yoma 28b places the term "Oral Torah" even farther back in time. "Raba or R. Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the 'erub of the dishes,' as it is said: 'My Torahs': one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah."3 Abraham lived several centuries before God gave the written Law at Sinai, and therefore several centuries before there could have been any oral law related to it.>>
Elsewhere in Talmud, the Rabbis placed themselves and their teaching back in the time of Babel [Sanh. 24a], and even back in the days of Adam [Sanh. 38b].
Now here is the immediate context of the quotation in Rabbi Akiba's Messiah that Shulman mentions, with the Lukyn Williams quotation in double brackets, so you can more easily read the section without it.
<<The contemporary sources bear witness that there was a significant body of Pharisaic, and then rabbinic, law in the first century. The sources do not, however, indicate in any way that the Pharisees, and then the Rabbis, claimed at that time that this law came from Sinai or that it was solely an interpretation of the Torah.
The sources all speak in terms of tradition or an "oral tradition."15 None of them speak of an "Oral Law." "We thus have indications that in the time of Josephus and Philo oral transmission was looked upon as the characteristic medium of Pharisaic tradition."16 Though Josephus and Philo mention Pharisaic tradition, they do not mention an "Oral law."
The Pharisees did try to add weight to their tradition by placing its origin as far back in the past as they could. [["Josephus brings this out when he says of the Jewish leaders, ‘Their endeavor is to have everything they ordain believed to be very ancient.'"17]]
Josephus gives some of the political history of this tradition. He tells us, for example, about the reign of Alexandra towards the end of the Maccabean period. "So she made Hyrcanus [her son] high-priest because he was the elder, but much more because he cared not to meddle with politics, and permitted the Pharisees to do everything; to whom also she ordered the multitude to be obedient. She also restored again those practices which the Pharisees had introduced, according to the traditions of their forefathers, and which her father-in-law, Hyrcanus, had abrogated."18
In this account, the traditional practices of the Pharisees were enforced upon the people by the ruling governmental power. The extent of the common observance of Pharisaic traditions depended upon the extent of the Pharisees' political power.
The Sadducees had a different power base - the Temple and its institutions - and a different view of these traditions. Josephus tells us, "What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers..."19>>

Here is the immediate context of what Josephus says (in Contra Apion), from which Lukyn Williams quotes: "To begin then a good way backward, I would advance this, in the first place, that those who have been admirers of good order, and of living under common laws, and who began to introduce them, may well have this testimony that they are better than other men, both for moderation and such virtue as is agreeable to nature. Indeed their endeavor was to have every thing they ordained believed to be very ancient, that they might not be thought to imitate others, but might appear to have delivered a regular way of living to others after them. Since then this is the case..."
Josephus is making a general statement which he believes to be true of societies that have had a notable law-giver. It is an attempt on his part to demonstrate to his audience a common ground by which he can then refute the antagonists and defend the Jewish people. He does this same thing elsewhere when he says that there are teachings in Plato that Moses had already taught (Contra Apion 2:257/2.37.257); when he says that the earliest Greek philosophers followed what Moses taught (Contra Apion 2:281/2.40.281); or when he says that Pythagoras imitated the doctrines of the Jews (Contra Apion 1:165/1.22.165).
Lukyn Williams applied to the first-century "Jewish leaders," i.e. those who were giving their own new laws to Israel, what Josephus had said in general about notable law-givers. Lukyn Williams, I suppose, did this because of 1) the general nature of Josephus' statement, and because 2) Williams knew what Josephus had said elsewhere about the Pharisees and their views of the ancient and binding nature of their own traditions.
Josephus might have recognized that his own statement was true of the Pharisaic leaders who legislated in his days (e.g. Antiquities of the Jews 13:297/, even as he recognized it to be generally true of all such law-givers. But in the passage quoted, he was speaking specifically about notable individuals, like Moses, who initiate a legal system in whatever culture they live.
Lukyn Williams, however, presents Josephus' statement as though it were specifically applied to the Jewish leaders, which it is not. It would have been more accurate if he had introduced the quotation in its general context, and then presented his own specific application. Therefore I have removed the Lukyn Williams quotation from the new edition, because it stretches the quotation beyond its context. I am grateful to Shulman for pointing this out.
Shulman, however, errs in much the same way as Lukyn Williams did, only in the opposite direction. Shulman says, "Sections 151-153 are talking about the views of the GREEKS THEMSELVES!" That’s not the way Josephus presents what he says. The translation Shulman presents has Josephus saying: "I would advance this..." and "Since then this is the case..." Josephus explicitly presents what he says as his own view. He expects his audience, including the Greeks themselves, to agree with his statement. It is this view that leads to Josephus' discussion of Moses: "Now I venture to say, that our legislator is the most ancient of all the legislators whom we have anywhere heard of..." (Apion 2:154/2.16.154)
So whatever one concludes about Lukyn Williams' treatment of the quotation, the same should also be concluded about Moshe Shulman's treatment of the quotation. Shulman concluded that Lukyn Williams was a liar. It's not a warranted conclusion, but if that's what Shulman concludes about Lukyn Williams, then, using equal weights and measures, he needs to conclude the same thing about himself.
As for the use of the Lukyn Williams quotation in Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, it is normal, acceptable, and reasonable to quote the statements of others on topics which an author is discussing. More than that, if one intends to analyze different viewpoints, especially historical viewpoints, it is absolutely necessary. One always quotes a secondary source in order to present the view of the secondary source. There is nothing mysterious or nefarious about that.
In Rabbi Akiba's Messiah, there are, for example, numerous quotations of Talmudic or Midrashic passages that contain quotations from the Scriptures. The point of the quotations is to show what the Rabbis thought of those passages.
When I write something extensive, I always send out drafts to knowledgeable people whom I know to have views opposite to mine. I ask them to critique what I have written. I want to know any information I may have overlooked, any factual mistakes, any mistakes in reasoning, or any insufficient supporting evidence, etc. For Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, several rabbis, among others, were willing to read the book and give me feedback.
Nevertheless, several years ago, an Israeli reader found a particular quotation in the English text of Rabbi Akiba's Messiah from a secondary source that was completely unsupported by the Talmudic text to which it referred. It is, of course, a terrible feeling to find that one has failed to sufficiently check a quotation, and that one’s knowlegeable reviewers have likewise failed. But it does happen. We corrected it immediately in all available copies and for all subsequent printings.
In Rabbi Akiba's Messiah, there are some 1000 quotations cited in the text or in the footnotes. The particular point for which the Lukyn Williams quotation appears remains amply supported by the evidence from primary sources in the rest of the chapter. It is nevertheless unfortunate that I included a secondary source which on closer examination turns out to be presenting an application of the text it quotes as the quotation itself.
In terms of the actual issue, the appropriate question would be: "Is it true to say of the Pharisees and then the Rabbis that 'their endeavor was to have every thing they ordained believed to be very ancient...'? They placed their “Oral Law” back in the time of Adam! acknowledging, e.g. Baba Metzia 59b, that God Himself didn’t know their laws.
Shulman does not respond to this question in any way, nor to any of the evidence or matters of substance presented throughout that chapter, that section, or anywhere in the book. His lack of response is particularly striking in that he has on his website a short article of his own entitled "The Biblical Basis for Rabbinic Authority". The oral law is the foundational doctrine of the Judaism that Shulman says he seeks to strengthen. How could it be that he has nothing to say about this chapter or the entire book?
That was a perfect opportunity for him to show how and why the evidence, analysis, arguments, and conclusions presented in Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority are flawed. If the conclusions are not true, show it with counter-evidence. That would be a good thing, if they are not true. A substantive answer would express and confront the questions directly, and not avoid them.
If Moshe Shulman is "dedicated to strengthening Judaism, and providing Jews with answers to questions they have about Judaism and Jewish beliefs," then he needs to respond with substance. Tell Jewish people what the questions, issues, and answers are. Critique the opposing views and show why they are wrong. Certainly Jewish people deserve a good, honest answer. Give them evidence rather than a pretense.
Rather than attempting to respond to reasoned arguments which are amply supported by evidence, he has chosen instead to try to impugn the author's integrity and damage his reputation. He does that on the basis of his own misreading of one secondary quotation. That shows a significantly different goal than trying to give answers to the questions that Jewish people face.
Someone who is interested in real answers to real questions is not afraid to confront the evidence. Someone who is unwilling to confront the evidence is interested in something else.
I hope this is helpful.


FOOTNOTES in the quoted text from chapter 9. TORAH SHE’B’AL PE
2. Mayer I. Gruber, "The Mishnah as Oral Torah: A Reconsideration," Journal for the Study of Judaism, Vol. XV, 1984, P. 115 n.13
3. cf. Gen. 26:5
15. All peoples and cultures (and probably every person as well) accumulate traditions. Traditions are an almost indispensable part of life.
Given that, it was inevitable that traditions would develop concerning the fulfillment of Torah. As Hayim Donin noted, “The Written Torah commands us to ‘bind them as a sign upon your hands and as frontlets between your eyes.’ This reference to tefillin leaves us in the dark as to how they were to be made up, what they were to consist of, how they were to be donned... The Written Torah prescribes capital punishment for various crimes. What legal rules and procedures had to be followed before such a verdict could be handed down? What were the limitations? The Written Torah does not say.” Hayim Halevy Donin, To Be a Jew, Basic Books, 1991, P. 26
In terms of tefillin, it could be argued that the lack of specificity indicated God’s indifference to the particulars; and in terms of judicial procedure, it could be argued that God had clearly laid out the principles for making judgments. While that may be so, the tefillin and the judicial inquiry still had to be made in some particular way. That would inevitably lead to the development of tradition or sets of different traditions. The issue that concerns us here is the claim that the source of the Pharisaic and rabbinic tradition is God, not man.
16. Baumgarten, J.M., "The Unwritten Law in the Pre-Rabbinic Period," Journal for the Study of Judaism, Vol. III, no.1, 10/72, P. 15
17. C. Apion, II., xv, §152, in A. Lukyn Williams, Talmudic Judaism and Christianity, S.P.C.K., London,1933, P.46
18. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13,16,2
19. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13,10,6