Jesus and the Law, Part 3: The Antitheses and the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:21-48 represents the first major section of the collection of Jesus’ teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount” (chapters 5-7). These verses are typically referred to as the Antitheses, since they represent a series of six contrasting sayings. Before proceeding with a exposition of the Antitheses, it is recommended that you read and study carefully the preceding verses 17-20; I have previously discussed these in a separate note. Verses 17-20 present four statements by Jesus regarding his view of the Law (Torah)—principles which should be kept in mind when attempting to analyze and interpret what follows. Also important are the Beatitudes (5:3-12) which serve as an introduction (exordium) to the ‘Sermon’ as a whole; I have also discussed the Beatitudes in some detail in a separate exegetical study series.

The Antitheses each begin with the phrase h)kou/sate o%ti e)rre/qh (“you heard that it has been uttered/said…”), and once simply “it has been uttered/said” (e)rre/qh). In several instances this phrase is qualified with the expression toi=$ a)rxai/oi$ (“to the chief/leading ones”). The adjective a)rxai=o$ can be understood in the qualitative sense of leading or prominent people (i.e., elders, rulers, authorities), or temporally, those “at the beginning”, i.e. a long time ago. In other words, these are well-established sayings (or teachings) with some measure of authority and tradition behind them. The “leading men (of old)” (oi( a)rxai=oi) include venerable authorities on Scripture and the Law, extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets—cf. Luke 9:8, 19; Philo Who Is the Heir §181, 283; On Abraham §1-6ff; On the Special Laws I.8; On the Sacrifices of Abel & Cain §79 (Betz, p. 215, 216).

In each instance, Jesus contrasts the customary/traditional saying with his own teaching—e)gw\ de\ le/gw u(mi=n (“but I say to you…”). As we shall see, Jesus’ argument differs in each Antithesis; the customary saying may reflect a distortion of the original meaning and intent of the Law, or he may argue that simply following the letter of the Law is insufficient. The six Antitheses may be divided as follows:

    1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)
    2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)
    3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)
    4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)
    5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)
    6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

At first glance, there may seem to be no obvious pattern here; however, it is possible to view these as three (logical) pairs (see the concluding summary below).

1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)

Customary saying[s]:

    • “you shall not slay (a person) [i.e. murder]” and
      “who(ever) should slay (a person) will be held in (custody) for the judgment”

Jesus’ saying[s]:

    • “every one that (is) angered by his brother will be held in (custody) for the Judgment”
      “who(ever) should say to his brother ‘Rêqa!’ {‘Empty-[head]!’} will be held in (custody) for the Council [lit. {place of} sitting-together]”
      “who(ever) should say (to him) ‘Dullard! [i.e. Fool/Stupid]’ will be held in (custody) unto the Ge-hinnom of Fire”

Relation to the Law:

The first of the customary sayings comes from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:15 [LXX]); the second saying does not come from Scripture, rather it is a basic formulation of how the law would be applied—one who commits murder/manslaughter will be charged and held for judgment (and punishment).

Jesus’ Exposition:

The validity of the law concerning murder/manslaughter is not questioned; rather, Jesus’ extends the principle to any angry outburst against another person (one’s “brother”, i.e. neighbor). While the customary saying refers to normal judgment in a human court, it would seem that Jesus moves this into the Divine/Heavenly realm, in sequence:

    • the Judgment (kri/si$)—that is, the (end-time) judgment before God
    • the Council (sune/drion)—by a similar wordplay, this presumably is not a human judicial (or ruling) council, but the (heavenly) Council of God
    • the ‘Ge-hinnom’ of Fire (ge/enna tou= puro/$)—the “valley of Hinnom” came to be a proverbial symbol of the end-time judgment, where the wicked/worthless ones will be punished (with fire, burned as refuse)

Example/Application:

This warning against anger is followed by two examples illustrating the importance and (practical) value of reconciliation:

    • Vv. 23-24: reconciliation with one’s neighbor takes precedence over fulfilling religious/ritual obligations
    • Vv. 25-26: if you do not try to reconcile you may end up facing the harsh judgment of the court (to say nothing of God’s Judgment!)

2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)

Customary saying: “you shall not commit adultery”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looks (on) a woman toward setting (his) heart/desire/passion upon her already has committed adultery (with) her in his heart”

Relation to the Law: as with the first Antithesis, we have a simple citation from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:13 [LXX]).

Jesus’ Exposition:

His reply follows that of the first Antithesis: he does not deny the validity of the Law, but rather extends it to any lustful/passionate gazing upon a woman (naturally enough the reverse also applies—a woman gazing upon a man). Marriage (and at a very young age) was more widespread in the ancient Near East than in modern (Western) society—looking a woman typically meant looking at a married (or betrothed) woman; however, certainly the basic principle Jesus states is relevant even for unmarried men and women. The Greek word qumo/$ is somewhat difficult to translate in English; fundamentally it refers to a passionate/violent movement (as of wind or breath), which I prefer to render “impulse”, but (with human beings) can be understood in the general sense of “will”, “soul”, “mind”, “anger”, and the like. The verb e)piqume/w means to set one’s qumo/$ upon something (or someone); in English idiom we might say “set one’s heart (or desire)” upon someone/something, or simply to “desire”. Sometimes, as here, the verb is translated “lust (after)”—not a very literal rendering, but it does get the idea across.

Example/Application:

Verses 29-30 repeat a set of sayings by Jesus found elsewhere in Synoptic tradition (cf. Mark 9:43-48), told in provocative language—a crude (and graphic) warning to his followers to “cut off” any source of sin. As with the first Antithesis, the warning points to the end-time Judgment and punishment in “Gehenna”.

3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)

Customary saying: “who(ever) would loose his woman [i.e. wife] from (him), let (him) give her a (document of) separation [lit. standing away] from (him)”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looses his woman/wife from (him)—besides an account of porneia—makes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries (a woman) loosed from (her husband) commits adultery”

Relation to the Law: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 offers a provision for divorce—that is, for a man to divorce his wife (it is not clear that the woman is understood to have the same right). The acceptable justification for divorce is stated in vague terms, which Jesus clarifies: divorce is allowed only in the case of pornei/a (porneía). This Greek word is somewhat difficult to translate; originally it referred to sex for hire (i.e. prostitution), but eventually came to be used for any illicit sexual intercourse, and even to sexual immorality in general. Here it is generally synonymous with (but not strictly limited to) “adultery” (moixei/a).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 10:1-12 par) Jesus discusses the question of divorce (and Deut 24:1-4) more extensively—the only instance in the Gospels where he addresses a specific Torah regulation at any length. There he explains that the provision in Deut 24:1-4 was written as (a necessary) accommodation to the people’s “hardness of heart”. He further cites Genesis 2:24 to affirm the sacred and binding nature of marriage. In the Markan account (vv. 11-12) he makes a statement nearly identical to Matt 5:32 here—but without the porneia-exception. Scholars have long debated whether or not the historical Jesus forbid divorce outright, as indicated in Mark 10:1-12; this would certainly be the more radical approach. The teaching in Matt 5:32 differs only moderately from the Torah regulation.

4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)

Customary saying[s]:

    • “you shall not give a (false) oath” but (rather)
      “you shall give forth [i.e. give back, repay] your oaths to the Lord”

Jesus’ saying:

    • “wholly not to affirm (by oath)”—i.e. “do not affirm/swear (by an oath) at all”

Relation to the Law:

The first customary saying generally relates to the commandments in Exod 20:16 / Deut 5:20 (also Lev 19:12)—that is, against committing perjury (false witness which is taken on oath). For the expression in Greek, see LXX Zech 5:3-4; Wis 14:25; 1 Esdras 1:46, in Philo On the Special Laws I.235, etc., and esp. the Sentences of Ps.-Phocylides §16 (cf. Betz, p. 263). The second saying would seem to emphasize the binding, religious character of an oath (like a vow made to God)—see Deuteronomy 23:21ff for similar language. It should be pointed out that the Torah does not require oaths (or vows), but simply gives instruction concerning them.

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus’ teaching on the matter requires a clear sense of the ancient concept of the oath and is easily misunderstood today. The Greek word here translated as “oath” is o%rko$ (hórkos); its etymology is uncertain, but it seems to have the fundamental meaning of something which encloses or limits, or otherwise binds a person. The verb e)piorke/w (with the related noun e)piorki/a) also has an obscure origin, but the particle e)pi (“upon”) may indicate an action or gesture made “in addition to” the statement; however, the word (or expression) came to mean (giving) a “false oath” (i.e. committing perjury). For early use of these terms, see esp. Hesiod Theogony 231-32, Works and Days 193-94, 282-83 (cf. Betz, p. 264). In the ancient world, the oath had a religious-magical quality—it was intended to guarantee reliability of speech and behavior by calling upon the divine powers (i.e. specified gods, including [commonly] heaven and earth, sun, moon, stars, etc). The “gods” or divine forces were witness to the oath and would thus punish any violation or transgression. Even in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, we still see this usage of calling upon heaven and earth, etc. as witnesses (Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:40; Isa 1:2, etc). Of course, the monotheism of ancient Israel meant that oaths and vows were primarily made unto YHWH, or by His Name (Gen 24:3; Jos 2:12; 9:18-29; Judg 21:2; 1 Sam 20:12; 24:21, etc); and, according to the ancient religious mindset, the name of the Deity represented its very power and presence. It is this quasi-magical thinking that underlies the commandment in Exod 20:7—against using the name of YHWH for a false or evil purpose. However, by the time of the New Testament, oaths by God (or his name) were to be avoided altogether, as expressed clearly by Philo in On the Special Laws II.1-38 (commenting on Exod 20:7). Philo urges that oaths be kept as simple as possible (beyond “yes” or “no”), but suggests that one may (in addition) call upon the earth, sun, stars, etc. It is such a view that Jesus speaks against in Matt 5:34-36.

Example/Application:

Though not the only teacher who argued against the value of oaths (for examples from the Delphic oracle, Sophocles, Plutarch, Quintilian, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Diogenes Laertius, etc., see Betz, p. 267), Jesus’ blunt declaration in v. 34 that one should not affirm anything (by using an oath) at all is perhaps the most absolute and striking. As he states in the concluding verse 37, an emphatic “yes” (nai\ nai/) or “no” (ou* ou&) should be sufficient—anything beyond/exceeding [perisso\n] this is “from the Evil (One) [e)k tou= ponhrou=]”. This would seem to be an especially strict teaching, forbidding any sort of oath, with, as I see it, two principles at work: (1) Jesus objects to the quasi-magical character of the oath, and (2) he wishes to emphasize that trustworthiness should stem (internally) from a person’s own heart and moral character, requiring no practical or external prop. Many commentators argue that Jesus’ teaching here does not relate to the modern practice of taking oaths (in a court of law, etc). I thoroughly disagree with such an interpretation—even though our modern oaths are largely routine and but a faint vestige of the ancient usage, the underlying principle is the same, as defined by Philo (Spec. leg. II.10: “an oath is… to call God to bear witness in a disputed matter”) and Cicero (De officiis 3.104: “an oath is an assurance backed by religious sanctity”) [cf. Betz, p. 261]. It is up to each believer to follow his or her conscience in such matters, but the teaching of Jesus here should not be carelessly set aside or neglected out of practical concern.

5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)

Customary saying: “eye against eye and tooth against tooth”

Jesus’ saying: “not to stand [i.e. do not stand] against the (one doing) evil”

Relation to the Law:

The customary saying is taken from Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21 [LXX]. The Greek preposition a)nti (“against, opposite, over”) here has the meaning “in exchange, in place of”; the maxim is usually rendered in English “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. It is actually an ancient legal principle—the talio principle or lex talionis (ius talionis)—which extends back even earlier than the Law of Moses (cf. §196ff of the Code of Hammurabi). Its fundamental purpose was to regulate the administration of justice and ensure that punishment was commensurate with the crime or the injury inflicted. It was also meant to curb the seeking of personal revenge, which can easily become excessive and devolve into blood vengeance. Over the millennia legal experts and philosophers have debated whether the principle should be taken and applied literally—many have thought so, but from the earliest time we also find the practice of providing monetary compensation to the injured person (proportionate to the injury). Jesus here apparently takes the maxim literally (for such a contemporary view, cf. Philo On the Special Laws III.181-204).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus treats the underlying principle broadly, beyond the literal wording of the maxim itself; instead of specifically relating to a physical injury, he refers to any one who does evil. This is the best way to understand o( ponhro/$ (“the evil [one])” in verse 39—earlier in v. 37 it seems to refer to the Devil/Satan (“the Evil One”), but here the context requires “the one [doing] evil”. The verb a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”, “set [oneself] against”) can be understood several different ways: (1) to oppose someone (generally), (2) to resist someone, (3) to retaliate against someone. While the first two senses may still relate to Christian ethics, it is the third which seems to be in view here—Jesus is telling his followers not to retaliate (strike back) when struck by another.

Example/Application:

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Jesus goes beyond even this basic ethical principle with the examples which follow in vv. 39b-41:

    1. Verse 39b: if someone slaps/strikes you on the right cheek (perhaps with the back of the hand, as an insult), turn your (left) cheek (inviting him to strike you there as well).
    2. Verse 40: if someone seeks your shirt/tunic in a legal judgment (i.e. lawsuit) against you, give your opponent even more than he is asking (give him your coat as well).
    3. Verse 41: if a soldier (or other authority figure) commandeers you and forces you to walk a mile, do even more than he asks (go with him two miles).

The principle of non-retaliation is thus extended—to willingly accept greater hardship and suffering rather than to resist or strike back. While ancient philosophers and wisdom writings often counseled showing kindness and fair treatment to one’s enemies, it is hard to find a similar example of such bold and radical teaching in this regard (cf. further on the sixth Antithesis below). Jesus also acted out the principle (in striking fashion), according to Gospel tradition—Matt 26:50-54 par; Mark 14:60-65 par; cf. also 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9-12.

Verse 42 provides a maxim parallel to that in v. 39a: “give to the one asking of you, and do not turn away the one wishing to borrow from you”—the negative command has turned into a positive one.

6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

Customary saying:

    • “you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]”

Jesus’ saying:

    • “love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you”

Relation to the Law:

The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.

Example/Application:

As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:

    • makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
    • sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike

In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis is here on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.

Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.

Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:

“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”

This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.

By way of conclusion, we must consider the following:

  1. The relationship of the Antitheses to Jesus’ statements regarding the Law in verse 17ff
  2. How the Antitheses are summarized by Jesus in verse 48

Each of these will be addressed in a supplementary article.

Jesus and the Law, Part 2: Survey of Passages

As indicated in the previous article, I recognize three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah) which seem to be reflected in sayings and actions of Jesus preserved in the Gospel traditions. I will be using these as a framework for outlining the various relevant passages. However, to begin with, it is helpful to survey the Gospel passages according to specific aspects of the Law and Torah observance:

First, it is important to note that Jesus only rarely mentions the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, such as the sacrificial offerings and other cultic duties involving the Temple; indeed, I find only two (or three) passages where he directs someone to observe specific laws (or related practices):

  • Mark 1:40-44 (par Lk 5:12-14; Matt 8:1-4)—upon cleansing a man of “leprosy” (a severe skin disease), Jesus instructs him to offer “what Moses commanded” (cf. Leviticus 14:1-32); there is a similar directive in the Lukan account of the cleansing of the “ten lepers” (Lk 17:11-19, v. 14).
  • Matthew 17:24-27—on the question of whether Jesus and his disciples (should) pay the half-shekel “Temple tax” (cf. Exod 30:13; 38:26), Jesus ultimately instructs Peter to pay it (v. 27); however, the discussion in vv. 25-26 is much more ambiguous regarding the Law (see below).

Similarly, Jesus discusses (or mentions) specific laws only on rare occasions in the Gospels:

  • Most notable, is the question posed to him regarding divorce in Mark 10:2-12 (par Matt 19:3-9); from the so-called “Q” tradition (in Matthew/Luke), we find similar teaching (Matt 5:31-32; Lk 16:18); the specific Mosaic law is in Deut 24:1-4.
  • Interestingly, apart from Jn 7:22-23, Jesus never mentions circumcision.
  • Other laws, such as the Sabbath observance, are touched upon, but they are better dealt with under the category of Jesus’ discussion/disputes with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”, cf. below).

Mention should also be made of the so-called “greatest commandment”, whereby Jesus cites (or affirms) Deut 6:4-5 (love toward God) and Lev 19:18 (love toward one’s neighbor) together, in Mark 12:28-34 (par Matt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28).

On a number of occasions Jesus cites the Torah (as Scripture) or otherwise emphasizes the authoritative character of the Law:

  • Matthew 5:17-20 (see below)—this is Jesus’ most direct and specific teaching regarding the Law.
  • Most notable are the citations in the Temptation episode (Matt 4:1-11 / Lk 4:1-13), where he quotes Deut 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13—while being commands, these verses represent religious precepts rather than laws involving socio-political or ritual matters.
  • In several places, Jesus interprets (or is said to interpret) the Law (and Prophets), clearly implying its authoritative character—e.g., the ‘Antitheses’ of Matt 5:21-48 (also through chs. 6-7); the references in Luke 24:27, 44-45ff.

In numerous passages, Jesus is shown in debate with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”) over issues related to the Law. The “scribes” were the scholars and legal experts, many of whom were also Pharisees. Though frequently depicted as Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees would have had a fair amount in common with him; in general, their religious devotion was much to be admired, and Jesus must have engaged in lively discussion and debate with them (only a small portion of which is preserved in the Gospels). The noteworthy passages are:

Note also:

An important source of controversy in the Gospel tradition involves Jesus’ observance of the Sabbath. There are certain critical (and interpretive) questions regarding these passages, and I will be dealing with them in more detail in a separate article in this series. First, it should be pointed out here that Jesus is shown in the Synagogue in religious observance of the Sabbath, as in Luke 4:16-20ff; and Mark 1:21ff (par Lk 4:31ff)—this latter passage involves a healing miracle, but with no mention of any controversy. The Sabbath controversy traditions involve two episodes:

  • Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5), with the associated Son of Man saying(s) in vv. 27-28
  • A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition:
    Mark 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11): the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (as in Mark 1:21ff par)
    Luke 13:10-17: the healing of a crippled/hunchbacked woman (again in a Synagogue); this is almost a doublet of 6:6-11 par
    John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)—the Sabbath question continues into the discourse of vv. 18-29ff
    The question of healing on the Sabbath also appears in John 7:21-25 (note the connection to the Law in vv. 16-19) and 9:14-17; and Jesus deals with the question directly (responding to scribes and Pharisees) in Luke 14:1-6

In addition to the Sabbath, we should mention passages which refer to Jesus observing the other holy days (or ‘feasts’) prescribed in the Law—namely, Passover, which Jesus is shown observing on at least one occasion (Mark 14:12-25; par Matt 26:17-29; Lk 22:7-23; and cf. John 13:1-30). In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears in Jerusalem during the feasts on other occasions—Passover (Jn 2:13-25; and cf. also 6:4ff), Booths/Tabernacles (Jn 7-8), Dedication/Hanukkah (Jn 10:22-42), and an unspecified feast (Jn 5). On these occasions, at the historical level, Jesus presumably would have participated in the ceremonial/ritual aspects; however, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis is on his teaching and the fulfillment (in his own person) of the various religious and ritual elements.

Finally, notice should be taken of the interesting relationship between Jesus and the Temple. Apart from the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-19 (par Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48) and John 2:13-22, Jesus is mentioned subsequently teaching in the Temple (presumably over some days, see esp. Lk 19:47; 20:1; 21:5, 37-38), but otherwise is never seen there (as an adult, at least). His few sayings regarding the Temple—Mark 13:1-2 par; Matt 12:5-6; 23:16-21; John 2:19 (and cf. Mk 14:58 par); including the citation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 in Mk 11:17 par—are either critical of the Temple (and its establishment) or highly ambivalent. I will be discussing this entire question in a separate article in this series as well.

Now here is an outline of some key passages according to the three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah), mentioned above:

1. Traditions where Jesus advocates Torah observance, but where following him may involve going beyond it:

  • Matthew 5:17-20, which I have discussed in a previous note. Each of the four sayings in these verses would seem to imply that the commands and precepts of the Law (Torah) remain in force for Jesus’ followers; this is especially true if one understands the “commandments” in verse 19 as those of the Torah rather than Jesus himself, though I tend to think the latter is more likely. Much of the same thought pervades the entire “Sermon on the Mount” (chs. 5-7), and especially the so-called ‘Antitheses’ of 5:21-48; these, in particular, will be discussed in the next part of this series. The principle here understood is made explicit in 5:20: Jesus’ followers are expected to match (and surpass) the Pharisees in terms of justice/righteousness, which in context seems to include observance of the Torah (and/or Jesus’ own commands and interpretation concerning it).
  • In Matthew 23, the “Woes” delivered by Jesus in rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders (Scribes and Pharisees), we find the same mindset as in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly emphasizing that inward purity and devotion should match the outward observance; note especially verse 24, which suggests that the outward observance is still required (or at least is still important).
  • In the episode of the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22ff par), Jesus’ reply to the man’s question, citing the Ten Commandments, would imply that these fundamental commands (the ethical side, at least, i.e. Exod 20:12-17) are required to be observed strictly; however, it is also clear that following Jesus requires more than this (v. 21).
  • Consider also the Matthean version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matt 3:13-17); in verse 15, Jesus responds to John’s objection (toward baptizing Jesus) by stating “it is fit/proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. This principle expressed in this statement can be understood along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. above), that following Jesus involves fulfilling (i.e. observing) the Law (Matt 5:17)

2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance:

a) By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
b) By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations

There are a number of passages which can be understood especially according to (b); among the most notable are:

  • The saying in Mark 2:27-28 par, associated with the Sabbath controversy (plucking grain on the Sabbath), where Jesus declares two (related) principles:
    (a) the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (v. 27) and
    (b) the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) is Lord even of the Sabbath (v. 28)
    The second statement, especially, suggests that Jesus’ authority (in his own person) supersedes that of the Sabbath regulation (and, by extension, any other [lesser] law as well)
  • In the context of the Matthean version of the Sabbath controversy (mentioned above), three sayings are strung together:
    (i) “(something/someone) greater than the Temple is here” (Matt 12:6)
    (ii) “I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]” (12:7, citing Hos 6:6 [cf. also Matt 9:13 par])
    (iii) “for the Son of Man is Lord (even) of the Sabbath” (12:8)
    The second saying devalues (or relativizes) the important of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, while the first and third clearly indicate that Jesus himself supersedes both the Law and the Temple.
  • Similarly, the emphasis on Jesus’ authority, especially to declare forgiveness/pardon for sin, proved highly controversial for religious leaders. Though the objections are framed in terms of Jesus elevating himself to Divine status, the main religious issue would seem to be that, in declaring forgiveness, Jesus was essentially circumventing the sacrificial/ritual means for dealing with sin (as prescribed in the Law). For passages reflecting this, see esp. Mark 2:9-10 par; Luke 7:47-49ff; and see also Mark 2:15-17 par. For the related idea that belief/trust in Jesus removes any condemnation (according to the Law), cf. Luke 23:40-43; John 3:18; 8:10-11.
  • The saying in Matt 8:22 / Lk 9:60 is particularly striking: a man requests to bury his father before proceeding to follow Jesus, to which Jesus responds: “leave the dead to bury their own dead”. If taken at face value, Jesus is directing the man to disregard his filial obligation toward his father—effectively a violation of the commandment to “honor one’s father and mother” (Exod 20:12). Many attempts have been made to soften or mitigate Jesus’ difficult (and harsh-sounding) statement, none of which are especially convincing. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is declaring, in rather provocative language, that following him must (ultimately) supersede all family ties, including customary and/or legal-religious obligations related to them.

Passages according to (a) above may require a bit more speculative interpretation, however I would suggest at least the following:

  • The pericope of Mark 7:1-23 par clearly contrasts external observance of purity regulations or customs with the internal condition of a person’s heart/soul (vv. 20-23). While this passage does not specifically address the dietary laws, the principle stated in v. 15 certainly points toward their abolishment subsequently in Christianity (cf. Acts 10:9-16).
  • Similarly, one may interpret the ‘Antitheses’ of Matthew 5:21-48, and especially the teaching regarding prayer/alms/fasting in 6:1-18, as a contrast between outward religious observance and the inward purpose and intent. While this does not abrogate the law or ritual per se, it again leads in the direction of an emphasis on the ethical and spiritual aspect of religion.
  • Though a similar dynamic can be found elsewhere in Judaism, the manner in which Jesus distills the Law (and the Prophets) down to basic precepts—such as the twin “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34 par) or the “Golden Rule” (Matt 7:12 par)—effectively serves to devalue the many specific regulations found in the Torah. The end result can be seen in the way that the Torah commandments are summarized (and even ‘replaced’) in much of early Christianity by the “Love command”, most notably in the Gospel and First Epistle of John.
  • Jesus’ enigmatic saying in Luke 17:20-21 prefigures (or reflects) a tendency in early Christianity to “spiritualize” the Kingdom of God. This latter is a many-faceted concept within Judaism of the period, but it should be understood along two main lines: (i) an ethical-religious aspect, i.e. the righteous living according to the will and rule of God (expressed principally in the Law [and Prophets]), and (ii) an eschatological aspect, whereby God (and/or his representative) will appear and judge the world, establishing his rule finally and absolutely. Jesus uses the term in both aspects, though here in Lk 17:20-21 it is the eschatological aspect which is in focus. His twin declaration that the Kingdom will not come “with careful observation” and that the Kingdom “is in(side) of you [pl.]”, though difficult to interpret, I understand essentially as: (a) the Kingdom is manifest in Jesus’ own person (which is [already] in/among the people, though they do not realize it), and (b) the Kingdom is recognized (and realized) by believers at the spiritual level.

3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope:

In many ways this aspect cannot be separated from #2 above; certainly, in early Christian thought, the person and work of Jesus inaugurated an (eschatological) “new age”, in which the old religious forms and patterns either passed away or were given new meaning. We must be cautious about reading subsequent Christian thinking back into the teachings of the historical Jesus; however, there are certain passages (including sayings of Jesus) which certainly seem to follow this line:

  • The pair of sayings in Mark 2:21-22 par, especially the second (v. 22) involving “new” and “old” wine, suggests very much the idea of something new replacing the old. The sayings contain an implicit warning that attempting to hold onto the old (religious forms) along with the new (revelation) risks ruining them both. While the context relates to the general religious custom of fasting, rather than specific commandments in the Torah, the implication for Torah observance cannot be avoided.
  • Jesus’ sayings in Matt 11:11 (par Lk 7:28) and 11:12-13 (par Lk 16:16) indicate a clear division between the period up until the time of John the Baptist and the period after. The Law and Prophets belong to the period prior to (and including) John, but what place do they hold in the period after John? The implication (implied, but not stated) is that the Law and Prophets are now fulfilled in the person of Jesus (cf. John 1:17). Subsequently, a “replacement theology” (that is, Jesus replaces the older religious forms, including the law [esp. in its ceremonial/ritual aspects]) would develop in early Christianity (cf. in the Gospel of John and Hebrews), but in the Synoptic tradition this is not so clear.
  • In the curious episode regarding the Temple tax in Matt 17:24-27 (discussed above), even though Jesus ultimately directs his disciples to pay the tax (v. 27), the exchange in vv. 25-26 suggests that the “sons” (that is, Jesus and his disciples) are free (from the requirement to pay the tax). The tax is only to be paid so that they do not “trip up” (i.e. offend) other people.
  • In the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus’ action could be understood as striking against the entire machinery of sacrificial offerings. If so, then his saying (quoting Isa 56:7) emphasizes the proper role of the Temple as a place for prayer to God (rather than sacrifices). The eschatological orientation of the Isaian passage could mean that Jesus was declaring a new purpose for the Temple (as the house of God). Since the sacrificial offerings, along with the Temple cultus as a whole, are a fundamental part of the Old Testament Law, their abolishment puts the entire legal-religious establishment into question. At the very least, sayings such as Matt 9:13; 12:6-7 (citing Hos 6:6), devalue the significance of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

No doubt other verses and sayings of Jesus could be added to the various categories above, but I believe that what I have provided is representative and reasonably exhaustive. I will refrain from making any conclusions regarding Jesus’ view of the Law until evidence from the rest of the New Testament has been examined (throughout this series). This portion of “Jesus and the Law” will continue with a study of the so-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:17-20

Nowhere does Jesus offer such a clear example of his view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) as in Matthew 5:17-20, which also serves as the introduction to two key blocks of teaching: (1) the six so-called “Antitheses” [Matt. 5:21-48], and (2) instruction on specific religious behavior (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) for his followers [Matt. 6:1-18]. They are also among the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings, especially for (Protestant) Christians accustomed to the idea of a “Law-free” Gospel.

To begin with, it is important to consider these four verses in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (for a critical introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’, see the introductory notes of my series on the Beatitudes). Matt. 5:17-20 follows the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and several additional sayings illustrating the character of Jesus’ faithful followers (Matt 5:13-16). The sayings in vv. 17-20 need not have been uttered by Jesus at the same time—the “Sermon” is better understood as a literary and didactic arrangement or collection of Jesus’ teaching, rather than as a single discourse delivered on a particular occasion. Instead these four sayings are thematically related, representing, as it were, principles governing Jesus’ own interpretation of the Torah for his followers. They will each be examined in turn.

1. Matthew 5:17

Mh\ nomi/shte o%ti h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$: ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai
“Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. Similarly the opposing verbs katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”) have a very specific meaning in this context: as a legal term, katalu/w can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc., while plhro/w has the sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. Several points can be made:

    1. The juxtaposition of “Law and Prophets” here indicates hrwt/no/mo$ primarily as Scripture, rather than as the law-code or commandments per se. That is, no/mo$ here refers to the Pentateuch (books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and the “Foretellers” the Prophetic books (probably including Joshua–Kings and the Psalms). The conjunction h* means that Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”. The Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time.
    2. The ‘incorrect’ statement (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63), “I have come to dissolve the works of female-ness” (this unusual phrase refers to all the elements of the current world-order, including conventional religious forms). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176. It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”
    3. The verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law. Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

2. Matthew 5:18

a)mh\n ga\r le/gw u(mi=n: e%w$ a*n pare/lqh| o( ou)rano\$ kai\ h( gh=, i)w=ta e^n h* mi/a kerai/a ou) mh\ pare/lqh| a)po\ tou= no/mou, e%w$ a*n pa/nta ge/nhtai
For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.

There is an interesting chiastic form and parallelism to this saying:

    • “Until heaven and earth should pass along”
      • “One yod or a single horn will not pass along from the Law”
    • “Until all (things) should come to be”

The first and last phrases are both temporal expressions: the first in concrete terms, according to the ancient worldview (“heaven and earth” represents the universe as understood at the time); the second more abstractly, as the coming-to-be of all things. In between these two expressions is a statement regarding the (relative) permanence of the Law. The “yod” is traditionally the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and of the Greek as well); it is not as clear precisely what kerai/a (lit. “horn”, or possibly “hook”) signifies here, but presumably it indicates a small ornamental mark in the script. The force of the expression is rhetorical rather than literal, i.e. “not even the smallest letter or mark will pass away from the Law”. Noteworthy is the fact that the reference is specifically to a written text. It is not certain to what extent there was a distinction between written and oral Torah in Jesus’ time; but overall Jesus appears to have had a negative view of traditions added to the primary sense of the written text. Indeed, it can be argued that a fundamental purpose of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere) was to restore the true meaning and significance of the original (written) Torah. In any event, it is clear enough that here Torah means primarily sacred Writing (Scripture, as in v. 17); but it probably also refers to the Torah as (written) Law-code—i.e., the collection of commandments, statutes, etc., contained in the Pentateuch.

The saying as a whole seems to limit the force and validity of the Law to the current world-order, as opposed to subsequent Jewish ideas which often emphasized the eternality of the Torah. There is an eschatological aspect at work here, as in much of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ followers were to be aware of the (imminent) end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God (with its accompanying Judgment). The Law would only serve as a governing (religious) authority for believers during the present Age. Paul expresses a rather different view of the temporal limitation of the Law (see, for example, in Galatians 3:26-4:7).

3. Matthew 5:19

o^$ e)a\n ou@n lu/sh| mi/an tw=n e)ntolw=n tou/twn e)laxi/stwn kai\ dida/ch| ou%tw$ tou\$ a)nqrw/pou$, e)la/xisto$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n: o^$ d’ a*n poih/sh| kai\ dida/ch|, ou!to$ me/ga$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”
[in more conventional translation:]
“Therefore, whoever looses (a single) one of these littlest commandments and teaches men (to do) thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the Kingdom of Heaven; but (the one) who does and teaches (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the Kingdom of Heaven”

The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. There are a number of important questions within this verse, which I will discuss briefly in sequence.

  • How does the verb lu/w here relate to katalu/w in verse 17? The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”.
  • What exactly is meant by “these commandments”? Are these the commandments of the written Torah, or are they the commandments of Jesus? Arguments can be made for both views. The context of verses 17 and 18 would indicate that the written Torah is meant—if so, then the saying would imply that the written Law is fully binding for Jesus’ followers. However, many commentators would hold that Jesus’ commands are what is meant here; such commands would include Jesus’ (authoritative) interpretation of the Law, but would not be synonymous with the commandments of the written Torah itself.
  • What is meant by the “least/littlest” of these commandments? There are several possibilities:
    (a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
    (b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
    (c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
    (d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).
    In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.
  • How should the juxtaposition of “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here.

The most significant question remains whether “these commandments” are those of Jesus, of the written Torah, or both? I don’t know that it is possible to give a decisive answer here. Subsequent Christian tradition tended to identify “the commandments” with “the commandments of Christ” (I will be discussing this phrase in more detail in a later article), but is this the same as what Jesus means in the saying of verse 19? It is probably best to understand the phrase here in the qualified sense of “the commandments of the written Torah… as interpreted by Jesus”. Admittedly, we almost certainly do not have all of Jesus’ teachings related to the Law. The Gospels themselves contain, I am sure, only a portion of them; even here in the Sermon on the Mount, the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 and the instruction in 6:1-18 are only representative of the teaching Jesus gave to his followers. For this reason, in particular, the phrase “commandment[s] of Christ” requires a more thorough and systematic treatment.

4. Matthew 5:20

Le/gw ga\r u(mi=n o%ti e)a\n mh\ perissu/sh| u(mw=n h( dikaiosu/nh plei=on tw=n grammate/wn kai\ Farisai/wn, ou) mh\ ei)se/lqhte ei)$ th\n basilei/an tw=n ou)ranw=n
“For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”

This is probably the simplest, and yet, in some ways, the most difficult of the four sayings. It does not deal directly with the Law; rather it offers a challenging point of comparison for Jesus’ followers. The “Scribes and Pharisees” is a stock phrase and schematic expression in the Gospels, often related to those who question or dispute with Jesus, involving some point of legal or religious observance. They are typically mentioned only in the setting of the narrative, or in reaction to something Jesus says or does. The Pharisees have been given a superficially bad reputation by Christians, often as the result of careless reading of the Gospels. Of the major Jewish groups known from the time, the Pharisees probably had the most in common with Jesus himself. He doubtless had many interactions with them, of which only traces have been preserved in the Gospels; on the whole, they appear to have been thoroughly devout and scrupulous in religious matters, though not as strict as the Community of the Qumran texts (usually identified as Essenes). The Scribes [lit. Writers] were legal experts, largely synonymous with the “Teachers of the Law”, and certainly many Scribes were also Pharisees. Jesus’ disputes with the “Scribes and Pharisees” (and other religious leaders) will be discussed in some detail in an upcoming article in this series.

It is important to understand the sense of dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosún¢, “justice/righteousness”) here. As throughout the Sermon of the Mount, and much of early Gospel tradition, the term signifies obedience and conformity to the will of God as expressed in the Torah and the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. In this respect, it is comparable (and compatible) with the traditional Jewish sense of righteousness, and should not be confused with subsequent Christian (esp. Pauline) theological and soteriological use of the word. Presumably, for the first followers of Jesus, and early Jewish Christians, the point of the comparison with the righteousness of the “Scribes and Pharisees” would have been more readily apparent. Today, we can only speculate as to what precisely was meant. There are several possibilities:

    1. The Scribes and Pharisees did not go far enough in observing the Torah—that is, they did not penetrate to its deeper meaning and significance, as indicated by Jesus in his teaching. This would seem to be implied by the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48.
    2. Their approach to Torah observance and religious behavior was fundamentally flawed, and not the product of a pure heart. This seems to be the thrust of Matt 6:1-18, as well as the Beatitudes. Cf. also the association of Pharisees with “hypocrisy” at numerous points in the Gospels (esp. in Matt 23).
    3. The religious leaders who failed to follow Jesus were (all) missing the teaching and revelation which fulfills and completes the Law (and Righteousness). As such the righteousness of Jesus’ followers would (and should) by its very nature far surpass theirs.
    4. The comparison is primarily rhetorical and exhortative: a call to follow and obey Jesus’ authoritative instruction and interpretation of the Law.

I think there is merit in each of these four views, which can be supported by further detailed study of the Sermon on Mount itself.

Jesus and the Law, Part 1: Introduction

The first portion of this series will examine “Jesus and the Law”—that is, Jesus’ own view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) and his relationship to it. This initial article will draw attention to several key themes and issues. The next article will provide a survey of the most relevant passages.

The first key issue, connected to the overall question of Jesus’ view of the Torah, is that of the Jewishness of Jesus. During the past century, this has become an important critical question related to the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of the Gospels”. Was Jesus’ teaching and self-identity contained entirely within the Judaism of the period, or did he break from it to found a new religion (Christianity) centered entirely upon his own (Divine) person and message? From the critical standpoint early in the 20th century, two representative positions can be summarized by C. G. F. Heinrici and Julius Wellhausen:

“Jesus ist nicht der letzte Jude, sondern der Schöpfer einer neuen, wurzelechten Religion; er ist der erste Christ”
(“Jesus is not the last Jew, but [rather] the Creator of a new, genuinely-rooted Religion; he is the first Christian”)
—Heinrici, Bergpredigt [Sermon on the Mount] (1905), p. 98.
“Jesus war kein Christ, sondern Jude”
(“Jesus was not a Christian, but [rather] a Jew”)
—Wellhausen, Enleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien [Introduction to the first three Gospels] 2nd ed. (1911), p. 102.

Today, in critical circles especially, the pendulum has swung fully in the latter direction: of Jesus as a Jew. Related to this is the marked tendency to regard theological and Christological elements in the narrative traditions and sayings of Jesus as products of the early Church rather than a reflection of Jesus’ own self-understanding. However, even among more traditional-conservative commentators, there is evident a greater interest than in generations past toward recovering the authentic Jewish background of the sayings and narratives. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has certainly played an important role in this regard. For a reasonably thorough and readable (though highly critical) treatment of the subject, see E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985).

A second key issue involves the nature of the Gospel traditions and sayings of Jesus, particularly their authenticity. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to accept that the Gospels record Jesus’ words and actions more or less exactly as they occurred (with only a small amount of editing by the authors and their sources). For many Critical scholars, on the other hand, there is considerable debate as to whether, or to what extent, the traditions have been shaped and colored (or even created) by the early Church. A number of “Criteria of Authenticity” have been developed over the years to aid critics in attempting to establish the sayings and traditions which are more likely to be authentic. I prefer to use the term “authentic” in a slightly different way: to indicate traditions which have come down (generally) from the time and place of the sayings and events described. This itself does not establish or safeguard factuality or historicity of the traditions in detail—these have to be argued (or simply believed) on other grounds. With regard to critical studies on the authenticity of Jesus traditions, I neither reject nor disregard them as such; however, for the purpose of these articles, I assume that all the sayings of Jesus generally reflect his actual words—if not the ipsissima verba, then at least the ipsissima vox.

Still, even if one accepts the essential historicity of the Gospel traditions, they have been given a distinct literary form which must be recognized. Historical accuracy should not be confused with literary purpose and arrangement. This leads to a third key issue: the shaping of narratives and blocks of teaching by the Gospel authors (and/or their sources). The relationship between the Gospels (and their sources) is a highly complex and much disputed topic. In these articles, I have adopted the following framework in citing references and developing the various studies:

    • The common Synoptic tradition—that is, traditions common to Mark-Matthew-Luke; Markan priority is assumed, but only as a method and primary point of reference for presentation of material
    • Material common to Matthew and Luke (but not Mark)—this is so-called “Q”. It is generally assumed here that most, if not all, of sections in Matthew related to the Law are part of this common tradition, and not uniquely the product of the Gospel writer.
    • Special material in Luke. There is more evidence for a distinctive theological and literary handling of material related to the Law and Judaism in the Gospel of Luke, which I will be examining separately when treating the Law in the book of Acts. However, several Jesus traditions unique to Luke’s Gospel will be discussed together.
    • Traditions in the Gospel of John.

The fourth and last key issue has to do with what many interpreters regard as contrasting (even contradictory) views of the Law present in the Gospel traditions. Setting aside for the moment, the material unique to the Gospel of John, I would suggest that there are three basic points of orientation for the traditions in the Synoptic Gospels:

    1. Traditions where Jesus seems to advocate observance of the Torah, but that following him entails going beyond the (letter of the) Law.
    2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance, in two principal respects:
      a) By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
      b) By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations
    3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope

I will be looking at these apparent differences in more detail in the next article. To begin with, however, it may be helpful to undertake a brief examination of the fundamental sayings in Matthew 5:17-20 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) which deal explicitly with the Torah.

The Law and the New Testament: Introduction

This is the beginning of a series on the Old Testament Law (of Moses) as it is treated in the New Testament Writings. This issue, of course, cannot be separated from the question of the relationship between the (Christian) believer and the Law. Christians have long struggled with this question—from the very beginning until the present day, it has been a pressing concern, both in terms of doctrine and practical application to daily life and belief. It is deserving of thorough and thoughtful discussion today, particularly as modern society continues to move further and further away from the ancient thought patterns and religious culture in which the Old Testament Law first came to light. This study has, as its primary aim, to present a careful and objective survey (and exegetical Commentary) on many (if not all) of the relevant New Testament passages dealing with this subject. A basic outline of the study will be presented below.

To begin with, it is important to recognize several fundamental difficulties involved with a proper understanding of “the Law”:

1. First is a terminological difficulty. There are three primary words with overlapping ranges of meaning:

  • Law—the English word is from Germanic derivation (Old English lagu), in the basic sense of something laid down, i.e. a “binding custom or practice (of a community)”, as defined by M.-W. It is partially synonymous with the word rule (Lat. regula, regere, “[lead/make] straight”)—i.e., something which leads or guides a person or community.
  • hr*oT—the Hebrew word hr*oT (tôr¹h or tôrâ) is typically translated “law”, but is more properly rendered “instruction”. It is derived from a root word hr*y` (y¹râ) with the fundamental meaning (in the hiphil causative stem) of “direct, instruct, teach”. The related term hr#om (môreh) would be rendered “teacher, instructor”. The word hroT appears (in both the singular and plural) more that 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in the general sense of teaching/instruction (whether human or divine); however, it can also refer to a specific body or collection of (authoritative) teaching. The teaching which was understood to govern the ancient Israelite Community—in both religious (cultic) and social aspects (the two being closely interwined)—is preserved in the books of Exodus and Leviticus (also portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy), forming significant blocks of what is commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), and which in Israelite/Jewish tradition is itself called “Torah” (hr*oT). The Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that this authoritative Instruction is the product of Divine Revelation, and is frequently referred to as “the Instruction [Torah] of God” (hw`hy+ tr^oT, tôra¾ YHWH)—cf. Exodus 13:9, etc. Several partially synonymous words appear in conjunction with hr*oT, such as: (a) qoj/hQ*j% (µôq/µuqqâ), indicating something inscribed or engraved, often understood in the sense of “statute, decree, ordinance”, etc.; (b) hw`x=m! (miƒwâ), from the root hw`x* (ƒ¹wâ), “direct, order, command”, and usually rendered as “commandment”; (c) fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), “judgment”, often in the technical sense of a specific legal case or decision. These three terms, especially, can be seen as covered under the wider concept of hr*oT.
  • no/mo$ (nómos)—the Greek word usually translated as “law” originally had the basic sense of something assigned for particular use (spec. an allotment of land), and developed a broad range of more abstract meaning, such as a “(proper) custom, order, arrangement, usage,” etc. Within the political-legal sphere, the word took on the sense of a “(binding) custom” or regulation, much akin to the English word “law” (see above). Despite the clear difference in history and primary meaning of the two words, no/mo$ typically was used to translate hr*oT (in the Septuagint, etc). Indeed, within the New Testament itself, no/mo$ is usually understood in this manner—of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish “Law of Moses” (or “Law/Torah of God”), rather than Greco-Roman Law or “law” in a more general/abstract sense. The verb nomi/zw, which we might translate as “regard as proper/customary”, also has a technical legal or religious meaning, the background of which is important to keep in mind when examining certain New Testament passages.

We should be sensitive to the differences and nuances of language and meaning between these words, and be cautious against reducing everything to a specific or generalized concept of “Law”.

2. Second is a further difficulty of definition. At the time of the New Testament, how was the word hr*oT (Torah) understood? There are several aspects which should be considered:

  • As a law code—this stems from the basic definition of hr*oT as an (authoritative) body or collection of instruction (see above). Jewish tradition established the number of Scriptural commandments (twwxm) at 613 (see the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b-24a, and especially the “Book of the Commandments” [Sefer ha-Miƒwôt] by Maimonides)—365 negative, and 248 positive, commandments—compiled ostensibly from the relevant portions of Exodus-Leviticus and Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • As a corpus of religious tradition—this includes not only the written instruction found in the Pentateuch, but two further related aspects: (1) the “Oral Torah/Law”, instruction passed down through the generations (beginning with Moses) and transmitted orally; and (2) authoritative commentary and interpretation of both written and oral Torah. This material is extensive and wide-ranging, having been preserved (and, in a sense, codified) in the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the various Midrashim. Many of the earliest Rabbinic traditions—of the Tannaim—may be contemporary with (or even pre-date) Jesus and the New Testament authors. The extent to which Rabbinic literature can be used to document beliefs and traditions from Jesus’ own time remains a topic of considerable debate.
  • As Scripture—sometimes “Torah” specifically refers to the sacred Writings, whether limited to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, trad.) or the whole of Scripture. This latter sense is often covered by the expression “the Torah/Law and the Prophets”; however, even here the Torah tends to have priority, with the Prophets (probably including both the Historical books [Joshua–Kings] and the Psalms) seen as expounding/interpreting the Torah of God.
  • As a religious way of life—the observance of the Instruction (Torah) of God (as revealed in Scripture and tradition) was (and still is) fundamental to the Israelite/Jewish religious identity. It reflects the terms of the Covenant between God and His people. As we shall see, the idea of Torah observance as “works-righteousness”, by which one obtains salvation, is something of a serious distortion of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. More properly, we should regard Jewish observance of the Torah from the standpoint of a requirement (or obligation) which maintains and preserves the covenant (agreement) with God.

3. Third, and finally, is the difficulty of interpretation. All Jews in Jesus’ time would have agreed on the importance and necessity of observing the Torah; however, various groups differed in two respects: (1) on the precise nature and extent of the Torah, and (2) on what constituted definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Torah. This involved what we might call the perennial question of religious authority—who determines the required rules and customs, and how should they be performed or followed? The New Testament gives us only a narrow window into the debates and discussions which must have taken place in this regard. By all accounts, Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees (or the “scribes and Pharisees”) over points of Torah, but only traces of this survive in the Gospels. There were fundamental differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees on chief points of doctrine. More notably, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts also had serious disagreements with other groups [including Pharisees, it would seem] over the proper interpretation and application of Torah. The centrality of Torah observance for the Qumran Community is especially clear in the so-called “Rule of the Community”:

As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way…” This is the study [vrdm] of the law [hrwth] which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy spirit… (1QS 8.14-16)

The commitment to study (lit. searching, vrd) and observance of the Torah is virtually synonymous with entry into the Community (1QS 1.1-3ff, 5.1, etc), by which a covenant is established (or re-established) between the faithful and God (1QS 1.16-17). A basic premise for the Community was that Israel had abandoned the way of truth and no longer followed the Instruction of God (Torah) properly; furthermore, new revelation and insight regarding the Instruction was being given to the Community (as the faithful end-time Remnant). There are several references to an “Interpreter [lit. searcher] of the Law” (hr*oTh vr@oD, dôr¢š hattôrâ)—an idealized, eschatological figure representing the importance of authoritative instruction (CDMS A 7.18ff [4Q267 ii 15f]; 4Q174 fr. 1 col. 1, 11-12; 4Q177 col. 2, 5). This Interpreter is connected with the coming Davidic Ruler (i.e. Messiah, “Prince of the Congregation”), and may be identified with either the “Prophet like Moses” who is to come or to a Priestly ruler (“Messiah of Aaron”). However, in the history of the Community the role also seems to have been filled by the person known as “the Righteous Teacher” (CDA 6.7)—in such an eschatologically-oriented religious sect, present and future are closely intertwined. This “Righteous Teacher” (qdxh hrwm) or “Teacher of Righteousness” (hqdxh hrwm) served as a title for the leader who would offer divinely-sanctioned interpretation of both the Law and the Prophets; on this figure, see CDA 1.11; 6.11; CDB 20; 4QpPsa col. 3-4, etc; and throughout the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk, e.g., 4QpHab 1.13; 2.2; 5.10, 7.4, 8.3, 9.9, 11.5. In many ways, Jesus filled this same role as authoritative Interpreter, especially in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, as we shall see. The apostles, too, worked long and hard to clarify the relation of the Christian Community (broadly speaking) to the Torah and the Prophets. It was on this very point that the fiercest early battles were fought—most vividly demonstrated in Paul’s harsh polemic (esp. in Galatians) against other Jewish Christians who opposed his approach to Christian identity (in particular, the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring observance of the Torah).

As indicated above, Christians continue to struggle with the question of whether, or to what extent, it is necessary for believers to follow the Old Testament Law (Torah). A number of differing approaches have been taken, the most notable of which may be summarized as follows:

  • Believers are obligated to observe the Torah fully. This was a serious issue in the earliest years of the Church, but today it really only applies to Jewish Christians (or “Messianic Jews”).
  • Believers are entirely free from the Torah, and not required to observe it in any way; religious and moral conduct is now governed by other means (the Holy Spirit, inspired Christian instruction, etc). This view derives primarily from Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans.
  • Believers are still required to observe all things in the Torah which have not been explicitly (or practically) abolished (or rendered unnecessary) according to the teaching of the New Testament.
  • The ritual or ceremonial portion of the Torah no longer applies (nor does most of the political-social legislation and case law); believers are only required to observe the ethical precepts.
  • Believers are only required to observe the Ten Commandments (a narrower version of the two previous approaches).
  • Believers are required to observe only the “Commandments of Christ”, which can be defined various ways, but certainly includes Jesus’ own instruction related to the Torah (such as in the Sermon on the Mount).
  • The entire Torah for believers is reduced to the “Love-Commandment” (love of God and neighbor), according to the example of Christ. This is more of a general principle than a law or commandment as such.
  • Rather than observing the Torah commandments literally, believers should, by a process of interpretation, seek to understand and apply the underlying principles to modern religious and social circumstances.

I will reserve comment on these (and possibly other) approaches until the end of this series of studies. Here is a simple outline of how I will be proceeding:

  • Jesus and the Law—covering the following areas:
    • Evidence for two contrasting approaches by Jesus to the Torah
    • Jesus’ handling of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. in the Antitheses)
    • Jesus’ interaction with Pharisees and religious authorities (esp. the Sabbath controversies)
    • Jesus’ relation to the Temple
    • The Law in the Gospel of John
  • 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)

Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Qumran texts used in this series are taken from: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8.