Jesus and the Law, Part 10: Concluding Observations

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.

Jesus and the Law, Part 5: The Sabbath Controversies (continued)

In the Part 4 of this series I examined the main “Sabbath Controversy” story in the Gospels—the Sabbath healing miracles; here I will look at the second narrative tradition (Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath), as well as provide several concluding observations on the subject.

The Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

This episode appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), and follows a simple narrative outline (using the Markan version):

  • As Jesus and his disciples pass through a grainfield on the Sabbath, the disciples pluck the heads of grain (to eat, being hungry), v. 23
  • Pharisees observe this (or otherwise learn about it) and apparently object to the disciples’ action: “(for) what are they doing on the Sabbath (day)s that which is not right/lawful?”, v. 24
  • Jesus responds by citing the episode of David at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6), where he and his men ate from the sacred loaves in the sanctuary (the “bread of the Presence”), vv. 25-26
  • The narrative concludes with a twin saying in vv. 27-28: (a) “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath”, and (b) “so too the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath”

The Lukan version is nearly identical to that of Mark; in Matthew there are included additional/expanded sayings of Jesus (Matt 12:5-7, on which see below). Interestingly, neither Matthew nor Luke includes the saying of v. 27 in Mark. Clearly this narrative is much simpler and shows less development than the healing miracle story-form previously discussed; however, it does have several elements in common (in addition to the Sabbath setting):

    • Jesus (or his disciples) take part in modest activity which responds to human (physical) need
    • Religious authorities (Pharisees) object to it as a violation of the Sabbath (though by any reasonable standard it is hardly such)
    • Jesus answers with a declarative saying and a practical example

Some critical scholars have thought that the narrative episode is an artificial construction, either as a reflection of early Jewish-Christian disputes, or to provide a setting for the saying(s) in Mark 2:27-28 par. However, if it is a product of the early Church, one would perhaps expect a more relevant life-setting than we find here. The healing miracle stories are more clearly intended to illustrate a saying of Jesus, and the critical view is more plausible in those instances.

Whether the disciples’ action in any way constitutes a violation of the Sabbath, as the Pharisees in the narrative claim, will be touched on briefly below. More noteworthy is the way that Jesus comments on the incident (and the Pharisees’ objection to it):

  • The example of David and his men from 1 Sam 21:1-6 demonstrates an instance when a far more egregious (apparent) violation of religious law and ritual was permitted in the face of human need (physical hunger). In the original historical context of the Old Testament narrative, the only issue mentioned is whether David and his men were in a state of impurity (vv. 4-5); if they had been, presumably they would not have been permitted (properly) to touch the sacred bread. Interestingly, this example does not deal directly with the legal question raised by the Pharisees, though the added sayings in Matthew increase the relevance.
  • The principal saying of Jesus (in all three Synoptics) is: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”. This will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. Mark has the additional saying “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath” (v. 27). The Greek preposition used is dia/ (“through”), but here better rendered in normal English as “for (the sake of)”—that is, God instituted the command to rest on the Sabbath to serve and help human beings, not the other way around (but cf. the reason stated in Exod 20:9-11). The twin sayings in Mark, then, make two basic points: (a) the Sabbath rest is meant to aid the human condition, and (b) the Son of Man has authority over the Sabbath.

These sayings of Jesus are fundamental to his teaching and view of the Sabbath—but how exactly should they be understood? Here it is necessary to refer back to the conclusion of Part 4, where I specified two main aspects for understanding and interpreting the Sabbath controversy stories—the legal-religious aspect, and the theological-christological aspect. Each will be discussed here in turn.

Conclusion:
The legal-religious aspect

The command to observe the Sabbath is specified in Exodus 20:8-11 (part of the Decalogue), cf. also Exod 16:26; 23:12; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2; Lev 19:3, 30; 23:3. The reason given is that the Sabbath—the seventh day—is holy, dedicated to YHWH (v. 10), in honor of his work as Creator (v. 11a); God blessed the Sabbath day and declared (made) it holy (v. 11b). The basic command involved the prohibition that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but there are few specific and practical examples in the Torah itself as to what defines or constitutes “work”; thus, one task of religious authorities and interpreters of the Torah, was to clarify this point (e.g. tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah, ch. 7).

Interestingly, in neither the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics nor the episode of the disciples’ plucking grain, is there a clear violation of the Sabbath. Jesus’ healing miracles (as recorded) involve no actual work—commanding the man to stretch out his hand, or laying his hands on the crippled woman. Exod 34:21 forbids work on the Sabbath related to harvesting (and see m. Shabb. 7.2), but the disciples’ behavior would scarcely qualify; the example in Num 15:32-36 is perhaps a closer fit, but even that is highly questionable. What, then, should we make of the objection made by the religious authorities (“scribes and Pharisees”)?—there are several possibilities:

    • it is a sincere objection, based an ultra-strict interpretation of the Sabbath law
    • an overly-strict interpretation is being used (under pretense) in order to accuse Jesus or to portray him as a “sinner”
    • it is being used as a pretext to mask opposition to Jesus, out of jealously, personal animus, etc
    • it is a caricature, lampooning the religious views of the “scribes and Pharisees”

Arguments could be made in favor of each of these; the second and third would best fit the actual description of events in the Gospel narrative, though I am inclined to believe there is a touch of the fourth in the Gospel tradition as well. The response of the Synagogue leader in Luke 13:14 is the only instance where we find an explanation: superficially, at least, he draws upon the actual reasoning in the original command (Exod 20:8-11), with the implication that healing could be done on any of the six days when work is allowed—why not wait a day to heal the woman? Jesus’ response dramatically emphasizes the human element—this woman has been suffering for eighteen years, why should she not be healed on the Sabbath (i.e. why should she have to wait another day)? With regard to the Sabbath healing stories, the legal question is clearly specified—

“is it right/lawful [e&cestin] to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10; Lk 14:3)

which Jesus expands/generalizes in Mk 3:4 as:

“is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath … to save life… ?”

Three different (but parallel/similar) examples are used in dealing with the care of animals; even on the Sabbath, one would naturally: (a) untie an ox/donkey and lead it to drink (Lk 13:15), (b) lift out a sheep that fell into a pit (Matt 12:11), or (c) pull out an ox that has fallen into a well (Lk 14:5 with var.). The implication is obvious—how much more should one care for a human being on the Sabbath! But is it possible that this principle giving priority to human (physical) need over technical observance of the Sabbath regulation means that Jesus is, in fact, opposing the Law? Consider the example in Num 15:32-36, regarding the man who is put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath—would not Jesus oppose such an application of the Law, in a manner similar to that described in John 8:1-11? It is an interesting question, but one which requires that we proceed to the second main aspect of the Sabbath-controversy stories.

The theological-christological aspect

This is best examined in terms of the principal saying of Jesus in Mark 2:28 par:

“the Son of Man is lord [ku/rio$] (even) of the Sabbath”

I discuss this saying (in its Matthean context) in more detail in a supplemental note, but here several different interpretations can be considered:

    • taking the Hebrew/Aramaic expression “son of man” in its ordinary sense (as “human being, mortal”), it may be a more dramatic way of saying what Jesus does in v. 27—that human need and care takes priority even over the Sabbath law
    • that Jesus (as the “Son of Man”) has authority (ku/rio$ in the basic sense of “lord, master”) which surpasses even that of the (Sabbath) Law, either in the sense that
      (a) by his word or action he can override the Sabbath regulations
      (b) he has authority to declare the true purpose, intent, and interpretation of the Sabbath
      (c) following the teaching and example of Jesus takes priority over specific observance of the (Sabbath) Law
    • that Jesus (the “Son of Man”) is also Lord, in the divine sense (as “Son of God”), even as God the Father (YHWH) is Lord; the Sabbath observance is dedicated to God, in his honor, and he has complete control over it

Again, arguments could be made for each of these points, but 2b perhaps best fits the overall Gospel presentation. We should, however, consider several related points:

  • Rather than simply rejecting (or correcting) the Pharisees’ criticism and application of the Law, Jesus takes the opportunity to address a deeper question as to the nature and ultimate purpose of the Sabbath command, much as he does else where in his teaching (such as in the Sermon on the Mount)
  • In what is perhaps the earlier strand of Gospel tradition, Jesus’ emphasis is on the priority of caring for the (physical) need of human beings, rather than the nature of his personal authority (regarding the Law)
  • The saying in Mark 2:28 par would seem to emphasize Jesus’ authority (as “Son of Man”, cf. also Mk 2:10 par) in relation to the Law
  • The additional sayings in Matt 12:5-7 stress even more clearly that Jesus’ authority—in his own person—surpasses that of the Law (and the Temple)
  • The Sabbath healing in John 5 is connected with an even more developed discussion regarding Jesus’ divine authority (as Son of God) and his relationship to God the Father

This suggests a process of development in Gospel tradition, leading from a relatively simple combination of short narrative and saying of Jesus to a more extended discourse with unmistakable Christological implications. But is it possible, at the historical level, that Jesus’ opponents—that is, certain “scribes and Pharisees” and other religious authorities—recognized the claims implicit in his words and actions from the beginning? Consider how, in the Synoptic tradition, the Sabbath healing of Mark 3:1-6 par represents the moment when the religious authorities begin to seek Jesus’ destruction (v. 6), a result seemingly out of proportion with the events of the narrative as we have them. John 5:18 specifically connects Jesus’ violation (“loosing”) of the Sabbath with saying that God was his Father (“making himself equal with God”), as their reason for wishing to kill him. This same question and issue will arise again regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Temple—which is the subject of the next part in this series.

Jesus and the Law, Part 4: The Sabbath Controversies

The so-called “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospel, at first glance, appear to be among the most prominent traditions relating to Jesus and the Law (Torah); however, a closer examination reveals a number of historical-critical and tradition-critical difficulties which complicate the picture. These traditions are part of a larger grouping of narrative episodes, which one may refer to under the heading “Controversies and disputes between Jesus and religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees)”. For a thorough list of relevant verses, see my Survey of Passages earlier in this series. Such episodes typically follow one of two basic narrative patterns:

    1. The religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) react negatively to an action or saying by Jesus, which provides the setting for a subsequent saying or parable. A developed (and especially memorable) example is the episode in Luke 7:36-50, involving the anointing of Jesus by a “sinful” woman, and which takes place in the house of a Pharisee.
    2. The Scribes and Pharisees ask a question of Jesus, in order to test him, which elicits a (sometimes enigmatic) saying or parable in response. In some stories, the end result is that Jesus’ opponents are silenced—they are unable to answer or unwilling to question him further. The episode involving the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) or the question regarding paying tax/tribute to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17) are among the more familiar examples.

The “Sabbath Controversy” stories follow the first pattern; there are two basic traditions involved:

    1. The episode involving Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5).
    2. A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, but the most widely attested (in the triple Synoptic tradition) is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11).

Critical commentators have expressed doubt generally regarding the authenticity and historicity of these stories, claiming that the setting is artificial and contrived. This may, however, be partly due to a misreading of the traditional narrative, ignoring the natural simplifications and formal/typical elements shaping the story. For example, we need not imagine that there were Pharisees standing around in the fields on the Sabbath at just the right moment to catch Jesus’ disciples plucking grain—rather, the traditional narrative simply records, in representative and typical fashion, the ways in which certain scrupulous and religiously devout Jews responded and reacted to the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. The sheer number of these controversy-stories in the Gospels makes it virtually certain, on objective grounds, that Jesus’ often provocative teaching and actions struck many religiously-minded observers as questionable or problematic.

Yet many scholars would hold that the Sabbath Controversy stories are actually products of the early Church, reflecting the disputes between Christians and Jews regarding Sabbath observance, etc. However, if this were the case, one might expect a narrative context that better fits the life-setting of early Christians—healing miracles and plucking grain in the fields do not seem especially relevant in this regard. A more plausible critical approach—at least with regard to the Sabbath healings—is outlined below. Since the healing miracle story setting is more prevalent in the Gospel tradition, I will begin there.

Healing Miracle(s) 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. The main episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, which takes place in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11). The common elements (using the Markan account) are as follows:

    • Jesus is in a local synagogue on the Sabbath (vv. 1-2)
    • A person is present with a noticeable physical ailment (man with a dried/withered hand, v. 1)
    • People (presumably Pharisees, but unspecified) watch Jesus to see whether he will heal the person on the Sabbath (v. 2)
    • Jesus asks those watching: “is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)
    • They are silent, and Jesus looks around at them with grief/anger (over their hardness of heart) (v. 5)
    • Jesus tells the man “stretch out your hand”, the man does so and is healed (v. 5)
    • After this event, the Pharisees leave with the purpose of destroying Jesus (v. 6)

There are several key differences in the Matthean version:

    • It is certain of the people watching (presumably Pharisees) who ask the question “is it right/lawful to heal on Sabbath (days)?” (Matt 12:10)—Matthew adds the detail that they asked the question so that they might be able to accuse/charge Jesus with an offence (controversy pattern #2 above)
    • Similarly, instead of the question in Mark 3:4, here Jesus cites the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, how naturally one will grab hold to lift it out. He concludes with a statement, similar to the question in Mk 3:4, “it is right/lawful to do a fine thing [i.e. do good] on Sabbath (days)”

Luke’s account generally follows the Markan, but with several additions (some which heighten the dramatic effect):

    • He adds the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue (Lk 6:6)
    • He specifies that it is the “scribes and Pharisees” who are watching Jesus (v. 7), including (with Matthew) the detail that they asked the question in order to accuse Jesus
    • He explains that Jesus saw/knew their thoughts (v. 8)
    • He adds the detail that the Pharisees were filled with mindless rage (v. 11)

Luke also records a similar story in Lk 13:10-17; it is worth comparing the similarities and differences with the prior episode. First the similarities which fit a basic narrative form:

    • The Synagogue setting (v. 10); as in Lk 6:6, Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogue
    • A person with a physical disability (v. 11)—here it is a woman who was bent/stooped together and unable to straighten up (she is described as having a “spirit of weakness/infirmity” for eighteen years)
    • Jesus calls the person to him (v. 12); upon his command, the person is healed (v. 13)
    • A statement by Jesus to the effect that it is proper to to good (i.e. to heal) on the Sabbath; the statement, with its example involving animals, is similar to that in Matt 12:11-12
    • Jesus’ opponents are effectively silenced (here, “put to shame”, v. 17)

Apart from certain details, there are also these notable differences:

    • The personal detail in vv. 11, 12, 16, which suggest a stronger or more developed tradition
    • The response to the healing by the ruler of the Synagogue (v. 14)—this is especially significant in the way it frames the religious-legal issue (see below)
    • The positive response of the people in the Synagogue is emphasized, rather than the negative reaction of the suspicious/hostile Pharisees (vv. 13, 17b)

Even though Lk 13:10-17 is almost a doublet of Lk 6:6-11, there are enough differences to suggest that we are dealing with separate historical traditions (at some level), which may have been combined in Matthew’s single account. It is possible to isolate two distinct core elements (sayings) central to the episode(s):

    1. The question whether it is right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and
    2. An illustration involving caring for an animal on the Sabbath

These two are incorporated in different ways within the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics. It is noteworthy, however, that we find the same two elements in a sayings-context where the healing miracle is less prominent—in Luke 14:1-6. Consider, indeed, how close this is to the account in Mark 3:1-6 / Matt 12:9-14:

    • Jesus is in a particular place on the Sabbath, in the presence of Pharisees (here it the house of a Pharisee, not a synagogue)
    • A man is present suffering from a physical ailment (here “dropsy”, i.e. excess of water or fluid, resulting in edema or swollen-limbs)
    • Jesus responds to the “scribes and Pharisees” and asks: “is it right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (cf. Mark 3:4; Matt 12:9)
    • Jesus’ ‘opponents’ are silenced (twice, v. 4a, 6)
    • Jesus gives an illustration involving caring for an animal in need, close to that in Matt 12:11—here it is an ox in a well instead of a sheep in a pit

Thus we have (in Luke) three separate narrative episodes each with a similar format and common/overlapping elements. This raises the critical question whether specific sayings of Jesus (in various/variant form) have been applied to the diverse healing-miracle tradition in such a way as to produce the distinct narratives we see in the Gospels. In other words, might not the Sabbath healing narratives serve as dramatizations, illustrating the sayings of Jesus in Lk 14:3, 5, along with the religious-legal issues involved? It is possible that we can see something of the sort at work in the Gospel of John; the fourth Gospel has no narrative matching that of the Synoptics (above), but in the two closest healing miracles (involving physical disability), there is also a “Sabbath controversy” element:

  • John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)
  • John 9:1-7ff: the healing of man blind from birth

These two narratives are similar in many respects: each involves a reaction from the religious authorities, and a questioning of the man who was healed (cf. Jn 5:10-16; 9:13-34), followed by Jesus encountering the man a second time and addressing him (5:14; 9:35-38), and finally Jesus answers the religious authorities (5:17; 9:39-41). In neither narrative is the Sabbath setting central to the main account of the healing miracle, though in John 5 it is more closely connected, at least at the literary level—note:

    • The healing miracle itself (vv. 1-9a)—no mention of the Sabbath
    • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-18), with two overlapping themes:
      (i) Jesus violating the Sabbath by performing work (healing)
      (ii) Jesus identifying himself with God the Father
      These are combined in the saying of Jesus in verse 17, and the summary in verse 18
    • Discourse of Jesus (vv. 19-47)—on the Son doing the work of the Father

This is a far more developed and expanded narrative structure than we find in the Synoptic Gospels, and, as such, is typical of the Gospel of John. Despite the centrality of the Sabbath motif in chapter 5, there is reason to believe that it represents a secondary development or application. Consider, for comparison, the way the Sabbath motif is similarly introduced in 9:14-16, but otherwise plays no part in the narrative of chapter 9. In John 7:21-25 mention is made of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, with controversy surrounding it implied, but without any clear narrative context—is it a reference back to chapter 5? There is, of course, no way to be certain just how the various Gospel traditions and narratives developed, and traditional-conservative commentators will always tend to take the narrative episodes more or less at face value. Still, the manner in which the “Sabbath controversy” element variously presents itself, in my view strongly suggests adaptation and combination of traditional material.

What exactly is at work in these narratives? The following aspects of the question should be considered:

  • The legal-religious aspect, as best represented by the twin sayings of Jesus in Luke 14:3, 5
  • The dramatic aspect—historical-critical questions aside, it cannot be doubted that the Sabbath controversy element heightens the dramatic effect of the healing miracle stories in the Synoptics; it also dramatizes powerfully the conflict between Jesus and many of the religious authorities of the time
  • The literary aspect—illustrated by (a) the use of the Sabbath theme to join traditions together (as in Mark 2:23-3:6), and (b) the role of the Sabbath setting to join narrative and saying (in John 5, a more complex structure joining narrative and discourse)
  • The theological-christological aspect—whether at the historical or literary level (or both), the “Sabbath-controversy” setting was joined with the larger theological (and religious) issue of Jesus’ own (personal) authority. This is most prominently displayed in John 5 (with its great discourse of vv. 19-47), but is manifest in smaller ways in the Synoptic Gospels as well.

It is the legal-religious and theological-christological aspects which relate most directly to the topic of Jesus and the Law; I will discuss these after first examining the second of the main “Sabbath Controversy” narratives—Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5)—in the continuation of this article in the next part of the series.

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:19

The previous two daily notes treated Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17, as a supplement to my article on the Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47) [part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”]. This note will look briefly at the saying in verse 19, while a following note will examine the saying in verse 48 which concludes the Antitheses (and chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount). By way of review, here are the four sayings in Matt 5:17-20:

Verse 17—”Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

Verse 18—”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’.”

Verse 19—”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.”

Verse 20—”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.”

I have also discussed these verses together in an earlier note.

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]”. The verb lu/w is a simple form related to the compound 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”. The main interpretive question in the verse regards the nature of the commandments; there are three possibilities:

    1. They are the commands and regulations of the (written) Torah
    2. They are the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere)
    3. They are Jesus’ own commands (in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere)

The immediate context of verse 17 and 18 would suggest the first view—that he is referring to the written Torah. It must be kept in mind, however, that the Sermon on the Mount likely represents a collection of Jesus’ teaching—the sayings themselves were not necessarily all uttered on the same occasion (and in the same order) as we have them preserved in the Gospel. More to the point, it is difficult to find another (similar) saying in the Gospels which indicates that the written Law remains fully binding for Jesus’ followers; what few sayings are preserved relating directly to the Law could be taken to suggest the opposite; in any case, the evidence is ambiguous. If Jesus had made such an apparently decisive statement regarding the Jewish Law, one might expect even greater controversy and opposition toward Paul’s teaching that Gentiles should be accepted as Christian believers without requiring specific observance/performance of the Law.

For these reasons (and others), many commentators hold that Jesus’ own commands are what is meant here. Certainly Jesus’ teaching, from the very beginning, would have had an authoritative character and quality, and regarded as such by his devoted followers. Jesus gives many commands and precepts throughout the Gospels, but, as far as I am aware, in the early Church no clear attempt was made to collect them into a definitive corpus—perhaps the closest we have is in the Sermon on the Mount itself (and the Lukan parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’). The early Christian usage of the phrase and concept of the “command[s] of Christ” will be discussed in some detail at a later point in the series on “The Law and the New Testament”. Where the idea of the commandments required for a Christian is spelled out most clearly (as in the “Two Ways” section of the Didache chs. 1-6), it goes little beyond the Sermon on the Mount, adding to it specifically the dual “Great Commandment” and the Ten Commandments themselves (in a manner similar to that summarized by Jesus in Mk 10:18-19 par). See the Epistle of James (esp. 2:8-13) for a similar epitome and exposition of early Christian “commandments” in the New Testament itself.

If Jesus is referring to his own commands, which ones precisely? And how would this relate to the distinction of the “least/littlest” of these commandments? This particular distinction perhaps makes more sense in relation to the written Torah, and could be seen as an argument in favor of view #1 above. 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”.

View #2—that it is the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus that are meant—perhaps best fits the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Antitheses which follow in Matt 5:21-47. As previously discussed, in the Antitheses, Jesus deals with specific Torah regulations (and how they are customarily understood), providing his own (authoritative) instruction and interpretation for his followers. In many ways, the collection of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is truly formative for Christian instruction—the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets), and especially the Torah, provide the baseline and foundation upon which Jesus builds. As mentioned in the previous discussion on verse 17, Jesus “fulfills” the Law by completing it—giving to it a new (and deeper) revelatory and religious-ethical dimension. In this sense, Jesus’ own commands cannot entirely be separated from the commands of the written Law, even if the Torah commands themselves come to apply less and less to the new Christian situation and spiritual ethic.

What of the juxtaposition between “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven in verse 19b—how should this 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. In any event, Jesus clearly speaks against those who relax (or disregard) the commandments (and teach others to do so). It must be admitted that this is truly a difficult statement (for Christians) if Jesus is referring to the Torah regulations; however, let us consider for a moment how this may apply to the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 (as well as the religious instruction which follows in 6:1-18):

  • A person may fulfill and observe a command while being mistaken or ignorant regarding its true meaning and intent. This is partly what Jesus’ teaching addresses—pointing the way to the true precepts underlying the Torah regulations, along with the mind and character of the God who revealed them.
  • Similarly, Jesus emphasizes the heart and intention of the person, rather than the validity of the Law as such.
  • As I argued in the prior note, the practical result of following Jesus’ teachings will be that much of the Law effectively becomes obsolete. For example, by dealing properly with the root of anger and lust, the commands against murder and adultery are made irrelevant, and so forth. This is quite a different matter than flagrantly violating or transgressing the Law.
  • If one may summarize: going beyond what the Law requires (from an ethical standpoint), and emphasizing the inward dimension of it, does not result in “loosing” the commandment—far from it! In every meaningful sense, it reflects a more stringent standard of religious and ethical behavior.

There would come a time, of course in early Christianity when the validity of specific laws and ordinances—such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, the dietary regulations, and so forth—would have to be addressed; however, this goes beyond the scope and purpose of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is perhaps better dealt with under the heading of New Testament Theology, along with the doctrine of progressive revelation. I will also be discussing these matters at the appropriate junctures in my series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

Jesus and the Law: The Antitheses (continued)

This note follows up on that of the previous day (on Matthew 5:17), and also serves as a supplement to my survey and discussion of the Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-47) of the Sermon on the Mount in the previous article (Part 3) of this series.

As previously discussed, the two key terms in Matt 5:17 are the verbs katalu/w (katalu¡œ, “loose down, dissolve”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”); Jesus’ declaration is “I have not come to loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] (the Law or the Prophets), but to fill up [i.e. fulfill]”. In the prior note, I looked at other (similar) instances of katalu/w in the New Testament, including references related to the destruction of the Temple; here, before proceeding, it is worth looking at other occurrences of the verb plhro/w.

There are four references which seem to be close in context to Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:17:

  • Matt 3:15—”for thus it is proper/fitting for us to fulfill [plhrw=sai] all justice/righteousness” (response to John’ objection regarding baptizing Jesus)
  • Rom 8:4—”that the justice/righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled [plhrwqh=|] in us, the (ones who) walk about not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”
  • Rom 13:8—”for the (one) loving the other (person) has fulfilled [peplh/rwken] the Law”
  • Gal 5:14—”for all the Law is fulfilled [peplh/rwtai] in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself'”

The last three reference involve “fulfilling” the Law, primarily in the sense of 4a above (completing a purpose or intended course of action)—that is, believers, by walking according to the Spirit and loving one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18), effectively observe and complete the demands and requirements of the Law (without necessarily completing the specific commandments). This could also be understood in the sense of 4b (making a condition, situation, or goal complete), though this latter sense perhaps better fits the reference in Matthew 3:15 to “fulfilling all justice/righteousness”. Jesus’ use of dikaiosu/nh (“justice, just-ness, righteousness”) very much follows the traditional Jewish usage—i.e., observing and obeying the will of God as revealed in the Law (and Prophets); though he evidently extends the usage to baptism by John (toward repentance and forgiveness of sin) and his own teaching (in the Sermon on the Mount, etc).

Now it is time to look at how the Antitheses in Matt 5:21-47 (see the previous discussion) relate to Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:17. The Antitheses follow the pattern in v. 17 of a customary (but incorrect or insufficient) saying which is ‘corrected’ by Jesus’ teaching; in v. 17, as previously noted, it is:

    • Customary/incorrect saying: “I have come to dissolve the Law and/or the Prophets”
      Correct saying by Jesus: “I have not come to dissolve (the Law or the Prophets), but to fulfill (them)”

Similarly, in each of the Antitheses, there is a customary saying (“you have heard it uttered…”), followed by Jesus’ own saying/teaching (“but I say to you…”). Each customary saying relates in some way to the commands or regulations in the Torah; the nature of the command/regulation, and Jesus’ interpretive argument, proceeds along three distinct lines or patterns, which can be seen by grouping the six Antitheses into three pairs:

Antitheses 1 & 2 (on murder/anger and adultery/lust), 5:21-30—Jesus in no way opposes the commandments against murder/manslaughter and adultery (Exod 20:13-14), which, in any case, are fundamental socio-ethical commands accepted, even taken for granted, by nearly every culture. Rather, Jesus extends the command to the underlying human tendency or inclination which provides the seed for transgression: just as anger directed toward another person may lead to murder/manslaughter, looking with desire upon another person may lead to adultery/fornication. The standard of moral behavior for Jesus’ followers goes beyond the written Law (cf. verse 20).

Antitheses 3 & 4 (on divorce the the swearing of oaths), 5:31-37—Here the situation is different; instead of fundamental commands, we are dealing with instruction regulating certain social and legal-religious aspects of society—for divorce cf. Deut 24:1-4, for the swearing of oaths, cf. Exod 20:16; Deut 5:20; Lev 19:12; Deut 23:21-23. Divorce and the use of oaths are practical realities (if not a practical necessity) in most societies; so, too, the Torah provides instruction regarding them: (i) circumstances (not clearly spelled out) where divorce may be permitted, and (ii) commands against false/vain oaths and emphasizing the importance of fulfilling oaths/vows made to God (or by his Name). With regard to oaths (vv. 33-37), Jesus’ teaching to his followers is simply to speak and behave in an honest and trustworthy manner, without the use of any oath. His teaching on divorce here (vv. 31-32) specifies the only circumstance (adultery or other illicit sexual behavior) where divorce should be considered. Very likely, vv. 31-32 serves as a shorthand for his longer discussion on divorce in Matt 19:3-9; in the parallel Markan account (Mk 10:1-12), Jesus appears to forbid divorce outright, but in Matthew there is the porneia-exception. It can be said that divorce and the use of oaths are accommodations to human weakness and wickedness—if people were all faithful to the marriage bond, a provision for divorce would not be necessary; similarly, if people were all true to their word and faithful in social and religious matters, there would be no need for oaths. Jesus’ followers should be honest and faithful (“pure of heart”) and render unnecessary these parts of the Law.

Anitheses 5 & 6 (on retaliation and love/hate for one’s enemies), 5:38-47—Again, Jesus’ approach here is different: in each of these Antitheses, he is dealing with an incorrect or flawed interpretation of the Torah. The first is the talio-principle (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, cf. Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21), meant to provide just compensation and regulate punishment for a crime resulting in personal injury, but which can easily be distorted and used as justification for retaliation and personal vengeance. The second is the command to love one’s neighbor (as oneself, Lev. 19:18); one might naturally assume the opposite to be true—one should hate one’s enemies. Jesus’ teaching corrects (and turns on its head) these mistaken interpretations: not only should Jesus’ followers not retaliate (when facing injury or oppression), but actually must show love to their opponents and enemies, even praying to God on behalf of their enemies (and persecutors).

Does Jesus actually invalidate or oppose the Torah outright in any of these Antitheses, as v. 17a might suggest? Perhaps the closest he comes is in Antitheses #4 and 5. With regard to oaths (#4) the emphasis in the Torah is on the command forbidding false oaths (perjury), but overall oaths and vows made to God (by his Name) are viewed in a positive light, and are nowhere prohibited. Yet, for his followers (at least), Jesus’ rejects the use of oaths outright. The situation regarding Antithesis #5 is more ambiguous, as the lex talionis is not so much a command as a legal principle; however, it is a principle that Jesus appears to oppose (again, at least for his followers).

It is, I think, better to view Jesus’ teaching in the Antitheses as going beyond the written Law itself (but not opposing it as such). If we return to the saying in verse 17, it may be possible to formulate a more accurate interpretation regarding the use of the verbs katalu/w (“loose/dissolve/destroy”) and plhro/w (“fill up/fulfill”):

  • “I have not come to loose/dissolve (the Law or the Prophets)”—I take this to mean that Jesus’ purpose (in his teaching, work and personal example) is not to abolish or invalidate the Torah (or Scripture) as a whole. To be fair, there is little in the Sermon on the Mount (or elsewhere in his teaching) which indicates that he is expressly invalidating the Law (or transgressing specific regulations). However, in at least two respects his teaching can be seen as (ultimately) pointing in this direction: (a) by pointing to a ‘deeper’ meaning to the Torah commands (centered on a person’s heart/intention), and (b) by emphasizing the authority of his own person and teaching. The accusation of abolishing/invalidating the Law better fits Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, his protestation to the contrary in Rom 3:31 notwithstanding (this will be discussed in its proper place).
  • “(I have come) to fill/fulfill (the Law and the Prophets)”—I do not take this to mean observance of the specific Torah regulations, though most likely Jesus and his disciples were observant; rather, the use of plhro/w should be understood principally according to sense 4b above (making a condition, situation, or goal complete). In other words, Jesus is completing the Law (and Prophets) through his own teaching and work (and in his own person). In the main Gospel tradition, this does not (yet) take on the idea of Jesus replacing the Torah, though eventually in early Christianity it will reach that point. Rather, here we should understand Jesus as giving a new (and deeper) meaning to the Torah regulations.

It must be admitted, however, that there is a sense in which, by following Jesus’ teachings, much of the Law does become obsolete. As suggested above, this is clear enough by a careful study of the Antitheses. If one deals properly with the roots of anger and lust, the commands against murder and adultery become irrelevant. Similarly, if one is faithful to the bond of marriage, and completely trustworthy in speech and action, the regulations regarding divorce and oaths are totally unnecessary. And finally, if a person loves even his/her enemies, it should be a small matter indeed to show proper love to one’s neighbors. As for the talio-principle, if one never retaliates or seeks compensation for injury, then the principle becomes entirely meaningless. If we were to extend this logic, for the “pure/clean of heart” there is no need for the Law, much as Paul teaches for those who walk and live “according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16-24)—ultimately this is the goal (and ideal) to be realized for Jesus’ followers (see the Beatitudes).

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).

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.