It is possible to draw some basic conclusions regarding Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Law (Torah), based on the narratives and sayings in the Gospels. I would reiterate the point that this analysis follows the methodological assumption that the sayings in the Gospels are substantially authentic, and that the narrative episodes likewise are derived from authentic tradition. The situation becomes more complex if one factors in critical questions and hypotheses regarding authenticity—I have touched upon some of these in the notes and articles, and may address them in more detail in future studies. Once sayings or episodes are taken out of consideration as being of doubtful authenticity or historicity, the picture will change somewhat; however, I regard such critical methodology as highly questionable. As an example, many critical scholars would doubt the authenticity of the Scripture citations (of Isa 56:7 / Jer 7:11) in the Synoptic account of Jesus’ Temple “cleansing” action, and yet this dual-citation provides the only explanation for Jesus’ action in the Synoptics; if it is ‘removed’, we are forced further into educated guess-work and speculation as to what the historical Jesus intended. While there may be value in such detective work (regarding the “historical Jesus”), it fairly well ignores the context of the Gospels themselves—thoughtful scholars and students should not be too quick to separate the historical and literary strands of the Gospel, for they are closely and carefully intertwined.
Source-criticism is helpful in outlining specific sources within the Gospels which should be taken into account when examining certain aspects of Jesus’ view of the Law:
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) shows Jesus affirming the continued validity of the Torah commands (esp. Matt 5:17-20), though giving to them a new dimension and interpretation, pointing to a deeper sense (or level) of religious and ethical commitment. The Woes against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matt 23 appear to have a similar emphasis and viewpoint. Jesus’ followers are required to take the more difficult road, going beyond what is simply written in the Law. Though expanded and developed in Matthew, these portions largely stem from the so-called “Q” tradition—material common to Matthew and Luke (but not found in Mark). For a similar example in the wider Synoptic tradition, see Jesus’ instruction to the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22 par). On Matt 5:17-20 and the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-47, see Part 3 of this series, along with a series of supplemental notes.
- On the other hand, there are sayings and episodes unique to the Gospel of Matthew which seem to devalue or minimize the importance of the Law, at least in its ritual/ceremonial aspects. These include:
(1) The citation of Hosea 6:6 in Matt 9:13; 12:7
(2) The saying(s) regarding the Temple in Matt 12:5-6
(3) The episode involving the Temple-tax in Matt 17:24-27 (esp. vv. 25-26)
There are also certain sayings in the “Q” tradition which seem to relativize or limit the force of the Law, e.g. Matt 11:13/Lk 16:16; Matt 8:21-22/Lk 9:59-60.
- The Synoptic (triple) tradition records numerous debates/disputes with “Scribes and Pharisees” regarding points of Law and/or Jesus and his disciples’ observance of religious custom, e.g. Mark 2:15-17, 18-20, 23-28; 3:1-6; 7:1-15; 10:1-12; 12:13-17, 28-34 etc. and pars. Especially noteworthy are the “Sabbath controversy” episodes (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6 par; also Lk 13:10-17; 14:1-6). These “controversy”-narratives serve as the setting for a saying or parable (often enigmatic or provocative) which provides an interpretation or comments on the Law in some way. The thrust of much of Jesus’ teaching in these episodes is to emphasize his personal authority and to stress the social-ethical aspect of religious matters. Jesus’ controversies and debates with religious authorities are narrated somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, but note the Sabbath-controversy framework of Jn 5 which has certain similarities with the Synoptic accounts. See Parts 4 & 5.
- All four Gospels narrate the Temple action (“cleansing”, Mk 11:15-18 par; Jn 2:13-17) and Temple saying of Jesus (Jn 2:19ff; Mk 14:58 par, not in Lk but cf. Acts 6:14); the authenticity of both seems secure (entirely on objective grounds), but their meaning and significance continue to be debated (see Parts 6 & 7 of this series). At the very least, Jesus appears to: (a) emphasize the temporary nature of the current/earthly Temple, and (b) attack the machinery associated with the Temple ritual (and the way it is used/abused), in a manner similar to that of the Prophets (note the citations of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 in the Synoptic accounts). See also my prior series of notes on the Temple action and saying.
- The Gospel of John provides a unique association of Jesus with the Israelite/Jewish holy (feast) days, in terms of: (a) the narrative framework of chapters 2-12ff centered on various feast days, and (b) the Discourses of Jesus in John. The Discourses combine and adapt Jesus’ sayings and teaching in a way that is very different from the Synoptics, while the narrative framework is used to incorporate the discourse-scenes in a festal setting. The result is that Jesus repeatedly ends up commenting on the various holy days (Sabbath and Feasts [Passover, Booths/Tabernacles, Weeks/Pentecost?, and Dedication/Hanukkah]), identifying himself (i.e. his own person and teaching) with many of their associated religious types and forms. This can be understood in terms of fulfillment and/or replacement (see Part 8 of this series).
I make the following summary notes, by way of response to hypothetical (but understandable) questions:
- Did Jesus and his followers observe/obey the Torah commands and ordinances? It is likely that Jesus himself was observant, though it must be admitted that this is not indicated especially in the Gospels. According to the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:21-24, 39, 41-42), Jesus’ parents were devout in religious/ritual matters, and presumably would have sought to raise him the same way (cf. Lk 2:51-52), so it can fairly be inferred that, as an adult, Jesus would have been similarly devout and “righteous” (in the traditional Jewish sense, cf. Matt 3:15; 5:6, 17-20). The Gospels depict Jesus attending the local synagogues on the Sabbath (Mk 1:21 par; Lk 4:16, etc), and the Temple in Jerusalem on the appointed (feast) days (Mark 11 par; Jn 2:13ff; 7-8; 10:22ff; 12:20ff, note also chap. 5). However, it is important to point out that Jesus is not depicted participating in the religious ritual as such (though at the historical level, he presumably would have); rather, he is always shown in the Synagogue and Temple in the role of teaching, and possessing a unique religious authority himself (cf. Mk 1:21-22; 12:35 par, et al; Jn 7:14 etc). It is even less clear from the Gospels that Jesus’ disciples observed the Torah, though there is evidence that the importance of the Torah was part of his teaching (see esp. Matt 5:17-20), and it is likely that they would have been devout in religious matters, though not necessarily according to every custom (cf. Mk 2:18; 7:1-5 par). In Luke-Acts, after the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, the disciples continued to frequent the Temple regularly (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42), though they are not depicted directly participating in the sacrificial ritual—the emphasis is rather on prayer and gathering together to worship God. Peter’s objection to the visionary command in Acts 10:9-16 (cf. v. 14f) would indicate that he faithfully observed the dietary regulations in the Torah. Indeed, it has been argued that the opposition among Jewish Christians to Paul’s teaching and missionary approach with the Gentiles regarding the Law (cf. Acts 15; Gal 2, etc) only makes sense if the early Jewish believers in Jerusalem had been strictly observant themselves.
- Did Jesus specifically command his followers to continue to observe the Law? This is a difficult question to answer, since the Gospels do not specifically address it; Jesus’ teaching was entirely within a Jewish context, and it would have been customary for Jews to observe the Torah commands, if only as a matter of religious habit. In other words, for someone who already keeps the Sabbath or the dietary regulations, it would hardly be necessary to command that these be kept. What Jesus does—in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere in his teaching)—is to point his followers to the deeper religious-ethical dimension which underlies the (written) Law. In terms of the ceremonial/ritual aspects of the Law, there is only one instance where Jesus directs a would-be follower to take part in the sacrificial ritual (Mk 1:44 par, cf. also Lk 17:4); in Matt 5:23-24 he appears to accept the validity of sacrificial offerings, or at least recognizes the practice. There is also the episode involving the half-shekel Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27), but in that instance the teaching is somewhat ambiguous. Similarly ambiguous is his teaching regarding the Sabbath (cf. above); interestingly, apart from a passing reference in Jn 7:22-23, he makes no mention of circumcision. With regard to the fundamental social-ethical commands of the Decalogue (Exod 20:12-17), the situation is somewhat different, for Jesus seems to treat these commands as binding (cf. Mark 10:19-20 par; Matt 5:21-30); likewise the underlying regulation related to divorce (Mk 10:1-12 par; Matt 5:31-32). Overall, Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:17-20 would seem to support observance of the Torah; however, these verses are rife with difficulties of interpretation.
- Did Jesus ever teach that his followers need not observe the commands/regulations in the Torah? It is hard to find a specific example of this, though there are a number of relevant instances which have been pointed out (cf. above and throughout this series), including: (a) the Sabbath controversy episodes, esp. Matt 12:1-8, (b) the teaching in Mark 2:19-22 and 7:14-23 pars, (c) the exchange in Matt 8:21-22/Lk 9:59-60, (d) the teaching regarding the Temple tax in Matt 17:25-26, and, perhaps, (e) the (apparent) temporal limitation of the Law in Matt 11:13/Lk 16:16.
- Did Jesus draw a distinction between the “ritual” and “ethical” parts of the Law? The answer appears to be a qualified “yes”, though we must be cautious about making too great of a ‘separation’ in the Law. As mentioned above, it is primarily the social-ethical side of the Decalogue that Jesus emphasizes, both in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in his teaching. The ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law also appear to be relativized or devalued, in sayings such as Mark 2:27-28; 7:15-23 pars; Matt 9:13; 12:5-7, etc. In the Temple “cleansing” action and Temple saying, Jesus emphasizes the impending destruction of the entire Temple apparatus, along with its associated ritual; in Jn 2:19ff, it is Jesus himself, by his death and resurrection, who effectively ‘replaces’ the Temple. The two-fold “Greatest Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34 par) effectively reduces the Law to the love of God and love of neighbor (cf. Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)—see especially the exchange in Mk 12:32-34 which places these two commands over and above all sacrificial ritual.
- Did Jesus see himself as superseding or ‘replacing’ the Torah? This is a most sensitive question; for the most part, he does not do this directly, but much of his teaching and example could be said to point in this direction. It is clearest in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is seen to be fulfilling, in his own person, the Temple (Jn 2:19ff) and many aspects of the religious feasts (with their symbolism and sacrificial ritual, cf. above). In the Synoptic Gospels, it also may inferred (cautiously) from many of the passages cited above; in particular, Jesus’ personal authority may be said to supersede the written Law in the sense that: (a) he provides a definitive interpretation of it (which his followers are to observe), and (b) his words, action and example (in healing, associating with ‘sinners’, declaring forgiveness of sin, etc) stems from a divine source which surpasses the written Law itself.
This concludes the series on “Jesus and the Law”; the wider series (“The Law and the New Testament”) will continue according to the following outline:
- The Law in the book of Acts (drawing also upon the Gospel of Luke)
- Paul’s view of the Law
- In Galatians
- In Romans
- Key references in the remaining epistles
- Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Epistles
- The Law in the Epistle of James
- The Law in the Epistle to the Hebrews
- The Law in the rest of the New Testament (with key references in the Apostolic Fathers)
Due to the length required, several of these articles may be divided into two or more parts.
NOTE: Most of these articles were already posted on Biblesoft’s earlier Study Blog; they will be (re-)posted here after Easter.