In order to have a proper understanding of the early Christian view of Scripture, it is necessary to pay close attention to the development of this view within the early Tradition, with its roots in the Gospel tradition, going back to the words of Jesus. The place of Scripture in early Christianity cannot be separated from the role of the Law (Torah) for early believers, since the Law represents one major division (i.e., the Pentateuch) of the Old Testament Scriptures. We have already examined certain aspects of the Law in Jesus’ teaching, and the influence of this teaching among early Christians. Let us now consider this influence further, illustrated through comparison of a key Gospel (Synoptic) tradition with a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Mark 10:17-22 par
The episode of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ is found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23), and, within the Synoptic narrative, it is one of the last episodes before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (and the beginning of the Passion narrative). The authority of the Scriptures is quite clearly expressed by Jesus, and generally corresponds with his teaching in Matt 5:17-20 (discussed in an earlier study in this series). The young man asks Jesus: “What should I do (so) that I might receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]?” (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18 par). Jesus’ answer is simple and direct: “You have known the (thing)s (laid) on you to complete” —that is, “You know what is required of you to do”. The noun e)ntolh/, usually translated concisely (but flatly) as “commandment”, properly denotes a duty that someone is obligated to fulfill. Within Judaism, the noun (usually in the plural, e)ntolai/) refers specifically to the regulations in the Torah, recorded (in written form) in the Pentateuch.
Jesus’ unqualified reference to ‘the commandments’ is certainly meant in a general and comprehensive sense—that is, to all of the Torah regulations and requirements. However, the requirements that he specifically mentions are focused entirely on the ethical side of the Law, as represented by the second part of the ‘Ten Words’ (Ten Commandments, Decalogue). The five commandments cited (Lk 18:20 par) comprise most of the social-ethical side of the Decalogue (Exod 20:12-16; Deut 5:16-20), including the command to honor one’s parents. Matthew’s version (at 19:19b) also includes the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18b), which is telling from the standpoint of the early Christian view of the Law (cf. below). The lack of any mention of the ritual-ceremonial side of the Law is also most significant, and is typical of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. In only one instance (Mark 1:40-44 par Lk 5:12-14; Matt 8:1-4) does Jesus instruct a disciple (or potential disciple) to observe the ritual regulations of the Torah (a second ambiguous instance could also be cited, Matthew 17:24-27). For the most part, the ritual-ceremonial parts of the Torah are devalued or simply ignored in the early Christian Tradition; essentially, only the social-ethical commands are preserved as authoritative for early believers, and, in particular, those of the Ten Commandments. As the episode in Mk 10:17-22 makes clear, this emphasis can be traced back to the teachings of Jesus.
At the same time, Jesus confirms that being his disciple requires something even more than fulfilling the (ethical) demands of the Torah (cp. Matt 5:20):
“One (thing) is lacking for you: Lead yourself under [i.e. go away], sell as many (thing)s as you hold and give (the money) to [the] poor, and you will hold treasure in heaven, and (then) come follow me!” (Mk 10:21 par)
This has important implications for believers, as it may be said to represent the beginning of the early Christian tendency to place being a disciple of Jesus above fulfilling the Torah regulations. The Torah (and the Pentateuch Scriptures containing it) may continue to be authoritative for early Christians, but only in a qualified sense, and only in relation to the greater duty of following the teaching and example of Jesus himself. For more on the subject of the Jesus’ view of the Torah, cf. the articles in my earlier series, which includes a convenient survey of the relevant Gospel passages.
Paul’s brief discussion regarding the Law in Romans 13:8-10 well illustrates the early Christian tendency mentioned above, and also shows something of the way that the Christian view of the Law (Torah and Pentateuch) developed from the Gospel Tradition (sayings/teaching of Jesus). The extent of this development can be seen clearly enough from Paul’s words in verse 8:
“Owe nothing to no one, if not to love each other; for the (one) loving the other (person) has fulfilled the Law.”
On the surface, this could simply mean believers should fulfill the command of Leviticus 19:18b (included in Matthew’s version of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ episode, cf. above), as if it were simply one of the many Torah regulations we are required to observe. However, Paul clearly has something else in mind—namely that the ‘love command’ serves to represent in itself all of the Torah regulations, and effectively replaces them for believers. Note what Paul says in verse 9:
“For the (requirement) ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ ‘you shall not murder,’ ‘you shall not steal,’ ‘you shall not set your (heart) on (anything belonging to your neighbor),’ and if (there is) any other thing (laid) on (you) to complete [e)ntolh/], it is gathered up (under one) head: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
For believers, there is essentially just one command—the greatest command, the love-command—that we are required to obey. All other commands and regulations (from the Torah) are contained and comprehended within this single duty (e)ntolh/) to love. This view is hardly unique to Paul, but is part of a much wider teaching throughout early Christianity. It goes back to Jesus’ own teaching (esp. Mark 12:28-34; cf. also Matt 5:43-44ff par; 7:12 par), is referenced on more than one occasion by Paul (cf. below), is expounded clearly in the letter of James (2:8-13), and can be found prominently in the Johannine tradition (Jn 13:34-35; 14:15ff; 15:9-10, 12-13ff; 17:26; 1 Jn 2:5, 10, 15; 3:10-11ff, 17-18, 23; 4:7-12ff, 20-21; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 5-6).
To be clear, the essential early Christian teaching in this regard, as it developed, was that the entire Law is fulfilled when one obeys the ‘love command’ :
“Love does not work ill for the neighbor; therefore love is (the) fulfilling [plh/rwma] of the Law.” (v. 10)
By this, Paul means that, since one who loves others will do nothing bad against them, all of the social-ethical requirements of the Torah will automatically be fulfilled, and thus are no longer necessary. This means that the authority of the Torah (and thus also the Scriptures that contain it) is no longer the same for believers in Christ. The Law/Pentateuch continues to be authoritative for early Christians, but its authority is no longer primary. In place of the Law, there are two higher sources of authority—(1) the ‘love command’ as embodied by the teaching and example of Jesus, and (2) the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul does not specifically mention the Spirit here, but he certainly understands it as the source of the Divine love that guides our thoughts and actions (5:5). He brings out the role of the Spirit much more clearly and strongly in Galatians, where his similar discussion of the ‘love command’ (as replacing/fulfilling the Torah, Gal 5:6, 13-14) is connected with the guiding presence of the Spirit (vv. 16-26). These two sources of authority—love and the Spirit—are primary over the Torah (and the Scriptures).
Even so, it must be emphasized that, for early Christians of the first-century, the Old Testament Scriptures continued to be authoritative, if only in a secondary and supplemental way. This can be illustrated from dozens of passages and references in the New Testament, but perhaps the best examples are found in the ‘Scripture-chains’ that early missionaries and Church leaders utilized in their preaching and teaching. We will examine one such chain (catena) of Scripture—perhaps the most famous in the New Testament—in our next study, continuing in Paul’s letter to the Romans. At the same time, mention will be made of the other chains in the New Testament, and of parallels in contemporary Jewish writings.