The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Sukkot (Part 1)


This is the second installment of a period series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles (earlier this year) dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4). This current set will explore the festival of Sukkot, which is celebrated at this time of the year.

Name and Origin

The name Sukkot is a transliteration of the Hebrew toKs% (s¥kkô¾), a plural form of the noun hK*s%, from the root iks which has the fundamental meaning “block off, cover”. The noun refers simply to a covering, usually in the sense of a protective dwelling or shelter; the related noun Es) has essentially the same meaning, and may be viewed as a byform of the same word. The word hK*s%, in spite of being a common noun, is relatively rare in the Old Testament, at least when it is used in the general sense of a shelter—cf. Gen 33:17; 2 Sam 11:11; 22:12; 1 Ki 20:12, 16; Job 27:18; Isa 1:8; Jonah 4:5, etc. At least as often, it is used in the specific context of the festival under discussion here (Lev 23:34ff; 2 Chron 8:13, etc).

The name derives from the practice of families and individuals setting up temporary (and ceremonial) shelters (toKs%) to dwell in during the festival. In English, the Hebrew term is often translated loosely as “booths” (i.e., festival of Booths), though the more traditional rendering is the archaic (and rather inappropriate) “Tabernacles”.

Even though the name Sukkot (toKs%) came to be traditional designation for the festival among Israelites, the earliest (historical) tradition clearly indicates the festival’s origins. In the instructions (Torah) given in the book of Exodus, it is called the festival of “the gathering” ([ys!a*h*), Exod 23:16; 34:22. All of the three major pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Weeks, and Sukkot/Booths—were originally agricultural festivals, tied to specific points of the harvest season. This is quite clear from the instruction in Exod 23:13-16; 34:22-24.

The festival of Sukkot/Booths celebrates the “gathering”, in reference to the end of the harvest generally, but also specifically to the gathering of the grapes and olives which marks the end of the season (in the late summer/early fall). This occurred during the seventh month, Nissan, which corresponds to a period in September-October of our calendar. The festival was held over an eight-day period, 15-22 Nissan, following the harvest (Lev 23:33, 39; Deut 16:13; Num 29:12ff).

Ancient Practice and the Torah

The instruction for the festivals in the book of Leviticus (chapter 23) provides some basic information on how Sukkot/Booths is to be celebrated (vv. 33-43). The first and last days of the festival are marked by a “call to holy (observance)” (vd#q) ar*q=m!), which means that the time (and space) is to be kept pure and set apart, so that no ordinary labor is to be done (v. 35-36). This sets the boundaries and establishes the sacred character of the festival: its time belongs to YHWH (vv. 39, 41), and should be devoted to worship. In particular, a sacrificial offering (“[by] fire”) is to be presented to God on each day (v. 36).

The second component of the festival is described in verse 40. The people are to take leafy branches from various trees (lit. “tree[s] of splendor”), and use them in joyful acts (vb jm^c*) of celebration and worship “before YHWH”. The palm-tree and brook-willow are specifically mentioned as sources of these branches; they presumably they were to be waved about as part of the rejoicing.

The final component involved the construction of temporary shelters (toKs%), the significance of which is explained:

“In s¥kkô¾ [i.e., shelters] you shall sit [i.e. dwell] (for the) seven days; (all) th(ose) grown up in Yisrael [i.e. native Israelites] shall sit in the s¥kkô¾. (This is so that) as a result, (the) circles of your (descendants) may know that I made (the) sons of Yisrael to sit in s¥kkô¾ in my bringing them forth from (the) land of Egypt. I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One).” (vv. 42-43)

The shelters thus represent and symbolize God’s providential care for the people during their Exodus-journeying out of Egypt. The shelter-coverings, by the very meaning of the word hK*s% (cf. above), allude to protection, to the “blocking out” of the elements, etc. There may also be a bit of wordplay involved, since the homonym Sukkoth is also the name of first stopping-point on the Exodus journey (according to Exod 12:37).

An interesting final detail is that the eighth (final) day of the festival is specifically referred to by the term hr*x*u&, indicating that, as with the first day, the time was sacred (like the Sabbath) and that no ordinary work/labor was to be performed (v. 36). The precise meaning of hr*x*u& here, however, is uncertain. The basic meaning of the root rxu is something like “hold back, restrain, detain”. Probably the significance of the term in relation to the eighth day of the festival is that the people should refrain from doing work; however, it has also been suggested that the idea of the people being ‘detained’ for an additional (eighth) day was intended.

In Numbers 29:12-38, there is additional instruction given for the observance of Sukkot, devoted to descriptions of the prescribed sacrificial offerings for each day. The brief instruction in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 includes the detail that all adult males shall appear before YHWH (in Jerusalem) for the festival, along with the principle that each person shall give an offering as he is able, according to the extent to which God has blessed him and his family. In Deut 31:10-13, the festival of Sukkot is marked as the occasion when “this Instruction [Torah],” referring to the book of Deuteronomy itself, is to be read out before the people.

There is no specific indication of the festival of Sukkot being celebrated prior to the Kingdom-period (cf. the notice in Neh 8:17). According to 1 Kings 8:2ff, it was celebrated, in a grandiose manner, by Solomon, when it was utilized as the setting for the inauguration of the newly-built Temple in Jerusalem. As would be fitting for the importance of the occasion, an additional seven days were added to the prescribed seven for the festival, doubling its length to fourteen, after which the eighth/final day was celebrated (v. 65). In the separatist Northern kingdom, under Jeroboam, the Sukkot festival was celebrated in Bethel, rather than in Jerusalem, for obvious reasons (12:32).

Apart from brief notices or allusions to Sukkot in Hosea 12:9 and Lamentations 2:6-7, the only other Old Testament references come from the early post-Exilic period. Celebration of the festival is mentioned in Ezra 3:4, as part of a program of restoration and reform, which entailed both the rebuilding of the Temple (with its ritual/sacrificial apparatus) and a renewed adherence to observing the Torah. Once the Temple and its altar were rebuilt, the prescribed sacrifices for the festival (cf. above) could be offered (cp. 2 Chron 8:13). A more detailed description of the celebration of Sukkot is mentioned in Nehemiah 8:13-18, more or less following precisely the Levitical instruction regarding the festival (cf. above). Branches of olive, myrtle, and palm trees are specifically mentioned (cp. Lev 23:40). It is also noted that the shelters (toKs%) were constructed variously on the rooftops and in the courtyards of individual homes, but also in the courts of the Temple and in the public squares at two of the city gates, presumably to allow for additional access to the ceremonial shelters by the population (v. 16). Also, in accordance with the Deuteronomic directive (Deut 31:11-13), the author mentions that the “Book of the Instruction [Torah] of God” (i.e., Deuteronomy) was read out loud before the people during the festival.

In Part 2, I will examine the influence of Sukkot, both within the Old Testament, and in the subsequent early Jewish tradition. Particular attention will be focused on the important reference in Zechariah 14, and on the possible setting of the festival for a number of the Psalms (esp. Psalm 118).




The People of God: Holiness (Part 1)


This is the third set of articles in the series “The People of God”. The first two dealt with the topics of “Israel as God’s People” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) and “The Covenant” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The primary characteristic of the People of God is holiness. This is especially clear from a number of declarations (by YHWH) presented in the Torah, as in Leviticus 11:44-45:

“For I, YHWH, am your Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall make yourselves holy [vb vd^q*], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=]—for I am holy [vodq*]…. For I (am) YHWH, the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt, (in order) to be for you (your) Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=], for I am holy [vodq*].”

This is summarized in the terser, and more famous, directive in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH, your Mighty (One), am holy.”

Because the People of God are God’s people, they are to share His fundamental (and central) attribute of holiness. In Lev 11:44-45 above, both the verb vd^q* and the related adjective vodq* are used. Thus, we can see that the root vdq represents the principal word-group in the Hebrew Old Testament (and in ancient Israelite thought) used to express the idea of holiness. It is important to begin our study with an examination of this word-group.

The RooT QDŠ

First, it is interesting to note that the root qdš (vdq), both in ancient Hebrew and the other Semitic languages, is used almost exclusively in a sacred or religious context; there is very little evidence for ordinary ‘secular’ usage. This is problematic for scholars who wish to assign it an original meaning of “cut” or “separate”. While vdq can, at times, carry the specific meaning of “set apart” (i.e., separate), this seems to be secondary, as a result of the more primary meaning “(be) clean, pure”. That which is pure, and which must remain pure, is to be set apart for this purpose. This secondary meaning covers the entire realm of the sacred, both from a religious and ritual standpoint (cf. the three aspects of holiness outlined down below) within society. That is to say, certain places, objects, and people are set apart and treated as holy.

As we see from the declarations in Lev 11:44-45 and 19:2 (above), purity or holiness is a fundamental attribute of God. The people are to be pure and holy because YHWH, their God, is pure and holy. This theological point is expressed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures—see, for example, Exod 15:11; Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 2:2; 6:20; Job 6:10; Psalm 22:3; 60:6; 77:13; 99:3, 5, 9; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:16; 6:3. The substantive adjective “Holy (One)” (vodq*), used as a Divine title, is relatively common, and obviously reflects the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness—cf. Job 6:10; Isa 40:25; 43:15; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3. Particularly important is the use of this title in the expression “Holy (One) of Israel”, which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah (1:4; 5:19; 10:20; 12:6, et al), and is attested throughout the Scriptures—cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Jer 50:29; 51:5. Only rarely is the title “holy one” used of lesser heavenly (angelic) beings or a (consecrated) human being (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10 [in its original context]; 106:16; Dan 4:13, 23; 8:13. There are examples of a cognate divine title (Qudšu) in Canaanite, used to represent a particular female deity (goddess), similarly emphasizing her holiness (cf. Cross, pp. 33-5).

Holiness: The Realm of the Sacred

Obviously, the longer title “Holy (One) of Israel”, noted above, captures the unique relationship between YHWH and Israel—He being their God, and they being His people (i.e. the People of God). The key declarations in the Torah clearly express this. In addition to Leviticus 11:44-45 and 19:2 (cf. above), we may note: Exod 19:5-6; Lev 20:7, 26; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9. The Deuteronomic treatment of this theme will be discussed at a later point in this set of articles.

If YHWH, as God, is holy, then everything associated with Him is (and must be) holy as well. His name is holy (Lev 20:3, etc; 1 Chron 16:10; 22:19; 29:16; Psalm 30:4, and with some frequency in the Psalms; Isa 29:23; 57:15; Ezek 20:39; 36:20-23; 39:7, etc; Amos 2:7). The place where He dwells is holy—both in heaven (Deut 26:15, etc), and in his symbolic/ritual dwelling-place on earth among human beings (His people). The idea of the holy mountain of His dwelling rests midway between these two concepts—heavenly and earthly dwellings. The Temple locale, on the hilltop site of Zion, fulfills this sacred mountain typology at the local level (cf. Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 44:3, etc). The Temple sanctuary, like that of the earlier Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) is called the vd*q=m! (“holy place”), the –m preformative indicating a location or place (Exod 25:8, et al); the noun vd#q) (“holiness”) can also have a similar locative meaning (“holy place”), Exod 26:33ff; 36:1, etc. The innermost shrine of the sanctuary, where the Golden Chest (Ark) that represented the dwelling-place (and throne) of YHWH resided, was called the “holy (place) of the holy (place)s” (<yv!d*Q(h^ vd#q))—an idiomatic syntax that carries a superlative meaning, i.e., “the holiest place” (Exod 26:33-34, etc).

The maintenance of the symbolic/ritual dwelling of YHWH among His people—that is, in the sanctuary (“holy place”) of the Tent-shrine (and later Temple)—required an ‘apparatus of holiness’ to match that of the holy dwelling-place itself. Everything associated with the shrine had to be set apart and consecrated (i.e., made holy). For this reason, the vdq word-group—verb, adjective and noun(s)—occurs scores of times within the Torah regulations, documented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Every object and utensil, the altars, the curtains and framework of the building itself—all of it had to be consecrated. Similarly, those who are to serve and work in the shrine—the sacred officials (priests) and related ministers—all had to be consecrated; for the priests, this meant both their person and their garments had to be made holy.

Moreover, it was necessary that this level of holiness be maintained, throughout the operation of the shrine, requiring a related set of purity restrictions and regulations. That which applied to the priests in this regard, however, was simply an extension of the purity regulations that applied to the people as a whole. This principle is expressed at a number of points in the Torah. For example, there is the key declaration in Exodus 19:6, in connection with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai:

“And you shall be for me a kingdom of sacred officials [i.e. priests] and a holy [vodq*] nation”

The entire kingdom and nation is essentially required (by YHWH) to function like priests ministering the “holy things” of God. As we proceed in our study, this requirement of holiness for the People of God will be broken out into three main areas, or aspects:

    • Ritual—the need to maintain ritual purity, particularly in connection with the sacred domain centered around the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (and Temple). Many of the Torah regulations deal directly with this idea of ritual purity.
    • Ethical—i.e., holiness as expressed in socio-religious terms, through proper conduct and behavior.
    • Spiritual—though specific use of the term “spirit” (j^Wr) is generally lacking in the holiness-references, the basic concept has it parallel in the idea of the heart, i.e., the willingness of the people to fulfill the requirements of the covenant, and the obligations associated with living out their identity as God’s people.

In the next study (Part 2), representative passages, primarily from the Torah/Pentateuch, will be examined in relation to all three of these aspects of holiness outlined above.

References above marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).


The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 2)

Passover—Part 2:
Old Testament and Jewish Tradition

The Earliest Festivals

The ancient historical tradition, associating the Passover festival with the Exodus (Exod 12-13), was discussed in Part 1. The same tradition clearly connects the Passover (js^P#) feast (on the 14th/15th of Abib-Nisan) with the festival of ‘Unleavened (Bread)’ (toXm^) on the 15th-21st of the same month. The two festivals are thus joined together from the earliest times, with the js^P# feast effectively marking the beginning of the seven days of toXm^.

Interestingly, in the Torah regulations found elsewhere in the book of Exodus, greater attention is given to the festival of toXm^. The main reason for this is that the annual cycle of Israelite festivals was, from the very beginning, closely tied to the agricultural cycle. The three great festivals, outlined in the early calendar-notices in the Torah (Exod 23:14-17; 34:18-23), were all harvest festivals. The festival of toXm^, in particular, was related to the barley harvest. It is the first of the three gj^-festivals mentioned in these passages. The etymology of the word gj^ remains uncertain, but it is used almost exclusively in reference to pilgrimage festivals—that is, occasions when the people would travel to a (central) sanctuary location, and there celebrate the festival. The related verb gg~j* (Exod 23:14, etc) denotes the celebration of the festival.

More expansive and comprehensive instructions on the festivals are given in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy 16. In these sections, the Passover is included as a primary festival (Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25; Deut 16:1-8), though always in connection with the seven-day toXm^ period. The notice in Lev 23:4-8 is relatively brief, but declares that the first day of the toXm^, the day of the Passover proper (Abib-Nisan 15), is a call (ar*q=m!) for the people to gather for a holy assembly, a day on which no regular work is to be done (v. 7). Sacrificial offerings are to be made to YHWH at the sanctuary on each of the seven days (v. 8); the seventh day is a day of holy assembly, just like the first. The requirements for the daily offerings are given in Num 28:19-24.

The instruction in Deut 16:1-7 shows signs of development, indicating that we are dealing with a well-established tradition. The reference to the historical tradition of the Exodus in v. 3 sounds very much like a fixed liturgical formula, by which the elements of the Passover feast are meant to remind the celebrants of the Exodus event in Egypt. The main Deuteronomic feature of the Passover instruction involves the centralization of cultic ritual and worship at the (Temple) sanctuary in Jerusalem:

“You are not able [i.e. allowed] to slaughter [i.e. sacrifice] the Pesaµ in any of your gates [i.e. of the towns/cities] which YHWH your Mighty (One) is giving to you, for (it is only) to (be done) at the place which YHWH your Mighty (One) shall choose for (the) dwelling of His name…” (vv. 5-6)

The implication is clear enough: the people must travel to the Jerusalem Temple-precincts, bringing the Passover lamb, to have it slaughtered there. This also means that ritual meal has to be eaten in Jerusalem as well (v. 7).

Old Testament References to Passover

The second celebration of Passover is recorded in Numbers 9:1-14, said to have taken place one year after the first Passover (v. 1), and held at the appointed time (v. 2) and according to the established instructions (vv. 3-5, 11-12, cf. above). This festival was held, at Sinai, following the construction and consecration of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), including a consecration/purification ceremonies for the Levites (8:5-22) in preparation of the performance of their duties in the Tent. This emphasis on (ritual) purity is also prominent in the instructions regarding Passover (9:6-13).

In Joshua 5:10-11, it is stated that the people of Israel celebrated the Passover while they camped at Gilgal, on the 14th day of the month (Abib-Nisan 14/15), according to the tradition. There is no indication that the festival was celebrated during the years of ‘wandering’, prior to the people’s entry into the Promised Land. This essentially confirms the connection between Passover (and the festival of Unleavened bread) and the agricultural cycle (cf. above)—which requires a presence on the land. From this point on, the Israelites will cultivate and farm the land, a change that is symbolized by the manna ceasing on the very day following the Passover (v. 12). This date corresponds with the beginning of the toXm^ festival, and, correspondingly, the people partook, in a very rudimentary way, of the produce of the land.

The notice in 1 Kings 9:25 (par 2 Chron 8:12-13), indicates that king Solomon presided over the festal sacrificial offerings at the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem. This parallels the setting of the Sinai Passover, following the construction of the Tabernacle (cf. above).

According to the Chronicles, the first proper celebration of Passover, held (as intended by the Deuteronomic instruction) in Jerusalem, was arranged by king Hezekiah. According to the Chronicler’s narrative (2nd book, chap. 30), it was truly a grand affair. The call to assemble was sent, even into the northern territories, where it was clearly intended as a (symbolic) way of uniting the remnants of the northern Kingdom with the southern Judean Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). The exhortation for the people to repent and to “return” to YHWH is expressed in traditional prophetic language. The celebration of Passover is described as part of a wider project of Hezekiah to ‘cleanse’ the Temple from the idolatrous influence and corruption that took place during the reign of his father Ahaz. Because of the work required to restore the proper functioning of the Temple, the celebration of Passover had to be delayed until the second month (vv. 2-3). The narrative also alludes to the fact that, up to that point, the Passover had not been observed as often as it should have been. Indeed, in the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, the Passover organized by Hezekiah was the first since the initial celebration at Gilgal in the time of Joshua (cf. above).

The books of Kings do not mention the Passover during Hezekiah’s reign, indicating that the first proper Passover, held according to the Torah instructions (especially those in Deuteronomy 16:1-17 [cf. above]), took place during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23). It was part of the Josianic program of religious reform, tied explicitly to the regulations and instructions given in the “book of the covenant” (i.e., the book of Deuteronomy). This entailed, above all else, the centralization of worship at the Temple-sanctuary in Jerusalem, just as Deut 16 prescribes. A parallel account of Josiah’s Passover is given in 2 Chron 35:1-19, in much expanded form; the grandiose details mirror the earlier Passover held by Hezekiah.

There are only two other direct references to the Passover in the Old Testament. First, there is the notice in Ezekiel 45:21ff, part of the instruction regarding the ritual activities to be held in the new Temple of the (eschatological) New Age. The book of Ezekiel is a product of the exilic period, a period of generations when it was no longer possible to celebrate the Passover at Jerusalem. The first post-exilic celebration (in Jerusalem) by the returning exiles is described in Ezra 6:19-22; this apparently took place sometime prior to the beginning of Ezra’s mission in Jerusalem (c. 458 B.C.).

Jewish Tradition in the First Centuries B.C./A.D.

It is somewhat surprising how rarely Passover and the festival of Unleavened bread are mentioned in Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. For this study, I will focus on writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., from c. 250 B.C. to the mid-second century A.D. These texts would pre-date the Mishnah tractate Pesaµim (c. 200 A.D.) which gives extensive information on the festival, along with instruction on how it is to be observed.

Prior to the first century A.D., the main surviving passage dealing with Passover is chapter 49 of the book of Jubilees, a work usually dated to the middle of the 2nd century B.C. The bulk of Jubilees is a reworking of the narratives in Genesis and Exodus (up to Exod 24:18), presented as an Angelic revelation to Moses. The thrust of this historical presentation is to affirm, for Israelites and Jews of the 2nd century (in face of the influence of Hellenism), the importance of adhering to the Torah regulations. The section on Passover (chap. 49) comes at the conclusion of the work. In light of the overall emphasis on maintaining ritual purity (vv. 9-11, cf. Num 9:13), the instructions regarding observance of Passover are reiterated (vv. 12-15, 19-21). There is an idealistic sectarian orientation to this instruction, with the focus on the participants being males twenty years and older (cf. Exod 30:14), who are instructed to eat the meal in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 16-17).

There would seem to be a number of points of contact between the book of Jubilees and the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. below). Indeed, Jubilees appears to have been quite popular with the Community, having the status of something like authoritative Scripture. There are at least 15 copies of the work among the surviving Qumran texts, more than for many books of the canonical Old Testament.

We find a similar interpretive reworking of the Old Testament Passover tradition in several other Jewish writings of the period. The author of the book of Wisdom makes extensive use of the Exodus traditions in the closing chapters 16-19, part of a longer treatment (chaps. 10-19) of the role of God’s Wisdom throughout Israelite history. Chapter 18 (vv. 5-19) gives a powerful and moving account of the Passover night, when the Israelites were saved from death (and delivered from their bondage), while the firstborn children of their Egyptian enemies were destroyed. The Passover sacrifice(s), alluded to in verse 9, reflect the faith and unity of all righteous Israelites, being in agreement to live according to God’s law. Wisdom is identified with “the imperishable light of the law” that is given to the world (v. 4).

The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (1st century A.D.) present a similarly imaginative retelling of Israelite history. The command to observe the festivals is introduced at 13:4-7 (paraphrasing Leviticus 23, cf. above). This work also evinces an interesting tendency to identify certain unspecified festal occasions mentioned in Scripture (Judg 21:17-19; 1 Sam 1:3-4ff) with Passover (48:3; 50:2). For another example of a creative retelling of the Exodus/Passover narrative, cf. the Exagoge of Ezekiel (the Tragedian), spec. lines 149-192.

The Qumran Texts

References and allusions to Passover in the surviving Qumran texts are rather slight. Based on the various liturgical and calendric texts, we can be fairly certain that the major festivals played an important role in the life of the Community (and/or those who copied and used the texts). Documents 4Q320-30 give evidence for the use of a (six-year) 364 day solar calendar, tied to performance of ritual priestly duties and used for establishing regular dates for the various festivals. Texts 4Q320-321 and 329a specifically mention Passover. The book of Jubilees (cf. above) followed a similar solar calendar (cf. also 2 Enoch 1:1). Aristobulus also discusses the issue of determining the date for Passover (section preserved in Eusebius’ Church History 7.32.16-18), an indication that such calendrical questions were pertinent among Jews in the 2nd century B.C.

Several surviving documents—1Q34 (and 1Q34bis), and 4Q505/507-509—contain prayers to be recited during the festivals. The specific context cannot always be determined from the fragmentary remains, but several of these prayers may be intended for Passover (e.g., 4Q505 125, 127, 131 [+ 132i]). For a convenient treatment of these texts, with translation and notes, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works (2000) in the Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls series, pp. 15-40.

The Temple Scroll (11Q19) also refers to the sacrificial offerings to be performed in connection with Passover and the seven day toXm^ festival (col. 17), as part of the overall Temple ritual (cp. Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple in chaps. 40-48).

Philo and Josephus

Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria are first-century Jewish contemporaries of the early Christians, writing in Greek, and their treatments of Scriptural tradition (and related matters of religion) are most relevant for a study of the New Testament. In his Antiquities, Josephus retells the Old Testament narratives, often adding imaginative details and other bits of Jewish tradition. The relevant portions of the Exodus narrative, where the Passover (pa/sxa) festival is mentioned, are given in 2.313 and 3.248-9 (cf. also 3.294). References corresponding to other Old Testament passages are: 5.20-21f [Josh 5:10-12]; 9.260-72 [2 Chron 30]; 10.70-71ff [2 Kings 23:21-23 par]. Notices of later celebrations of the Passover are given in 11.110; 14.21, 25ff; 17.213f; 18.29, 90; 20.106-108ff; and in Wars 2.10.

The most notable mention of the Passover by Josephus is in Wars 6.420-8, where he explains how a vast multitude of people, having come to Jerusalem for the festival, found themselves trapped in the city by the Roman siege.

It is typical of Philo that he gives an allegorical interpretation to the Passover tradition. He interprets the Pesaµ (Greek Fasek = Pa/sxa) in the ascetic-philosophical sense of “passing over” from the passions, using a bit of wordplay between pa/sxa and the verb pa/sxw (“suffer,” participle paqw/n), just we might between “passover” and “passion”. The main reference is in On the Special Laws 2.145-9:

“…the passover figuratively represents the purification of the soul; for they say that the lover of wisdom is never practising anything else except a passing over from the body and the passions. And each house is at that time invested with the character and dignity of a temple, the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who has provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions. And those who are to share in the feast come together not as they do to other entertainments, to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfil their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise. And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honour may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything.” (Yonge translation)

Philo specifically explains the girding of the loins (Exod 12:11) in terms of restraining one’s appetites. By moving away from the passions, and offering the Passover sacrifice (12:4), one makes the ‘advance toward perfection’, with the unblemished lamb symbolizing a moderate spirit. The passage away from the passions should be done promptly and willingly, i.e., “in haste”. Cf. On Allegorical Interpretation 3.94, 154, 165; On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain §63; On the Migration of Abraham §25; Who Is the Heir…? §192f, 255. On the Preliminary Studies §106. The Passover is also mentioned in On the Decalogue §159; and cf. his discussion in On the Life of Moses 2.221-7.

Perhaps the most direct and full exposition of the Passover by Philo is found in Questions and Answers on Exodus (1.4), which I quote here in full (from the LOEB translation by Ralph Marcus):

“They make the Passover sacrifice while changing their dwelling-place in accordance with the commands of the Logos, in return for three beneficent acts (of God), which are the beginning and the middle of the freedom to which they now attain. And the beginning was that they were able to conquer the harsh and insupportable masters of whom they had had experience and who had brought all kinds of evil upon them, and this (came about) in two ways, by having their force and their numbers increase. And the middle was that they saw the divinely sent punishments and disasters which overtook their enemies, (for) it was not the nations which fought against them but the regions of the world and the four elements which came against them with the harmfulness and violence of beasts. That is the literal meaning. But the deeper meaning is this. Not only do men make the Passover sacrifice when they change their places but so also and more properly do souls when they begin to give up the pursuits of youth and their terrible disorder and they change to a better and older state. And so our mind should change from ignorance and stupidity to education and wisdom, and from intemperance and dissoluteness to patience and moderation, and from fear and cowardice to courage and confidence, and from avarice and injustice to justice and equality. And there is still another Passover of the soul beside this, which is its making the sacrifice of passing over from the body; and there is one of the mind, (namely, its passing over) from the senses; and as for thoughts, (their passing over consists) in one’s not being taken with oneself but in willingly thinking further of desiring and emulating prophetic souls.”

Important in relation to the early Christian application of the Passover festival is Philo’s exposition (in On the Special Laws 2.150-61) of the seasonal symbolism, emphasizing the rebirth of new life in the springtime, and the dominance of light over darkness:

“The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Accordingly, every year, God reminds men of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and bloom…. For it is necessary that the most beautiful and desirable phenomena belong to those things which are first and have received the position of leadership, those phenomena through which the reproduction and growth of animals and fruit and crops take place, but not the ominous destructive forces. And this feast is begun on the fifteenth day of the month, in the middle of the month, on the day on which the moon is full of light, in consequence of the providence of God taking care that there shall be no darkness on that day.” (vv. 151-5, Yonge translation)

In Part 3, we will begin examining how the Israelite/Jewish Passover tradition influenced early Christian thought. Our initial focus will be on the Gospel of John.

Saturday Series: Galatians 6:11-18

These recent Saturday Series studies have focused on New Testament Rhetorical Criticism, using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a framework for the rhetorical analysis. Classic rhetorical techniques were utilized in a particular way within the context of letters and epistles, and are related to the specific conventions of the epistolary form. Paul adopted these rhetorical techniques in very distinctive ways, in order to convince his audience—in this case, the believers and congregations in Galatia—regarding the issues he was addressing. In this regard, Paul’s letters (Galatians, in particular) are closer to Greco-Roman philosophical writings, in the form of letters, such as the Moral Letters of Seneca.

We have gone through Galatians, from a rhetorical-critical standpoint, section by section, and have now reached the final section of the letter. Galatians 6:11-18 represents the conclusion of the letter (the Epistolary Postscript), originally in Paul’s own handwriting (v. 11).

Postscript (Galatians 6:11-18)

The Epistolary Postscript may be divided as follows:

In classical rhetoric the peroratio is used primarily to sum up the essential arguments and points presented during the speech (or, in this case, the letter), referred to as the enumeratio or recapitulatio (see Betz, Galatians, pp. 312-3). Since Paul recapitulates much of what he has already stated—and which has already been discussed in the previous studies in this series—I will treat the relevant statements in vv. 12-17 rather briefly, before proceeding to several concluding points regarding Paul’s arguments.

Verses 12-13—Here Paul engages in a sharp polemic (indignatio) against his opponents, putting them in a bad light for the Galatians. He returns to the causa of the letter (i.e. his reason for writing): that these Jewish Christians are attempting to compel (or at least influence) the Gentile Galatians to become circumcised (and to observe the Torah). The claims Paul makes here may be summarized thus:

    • Their motivation in urging/demanding circumcision is deceptive and not honorable (v. 12, 13b):
      • They wish to have a nice appearance (i.e. look good in people’s eyes) “in the flesh” [en sarkí]
      • They want to avoid being persecuted for the true Gospel (“for the cross of Christ”)
      • They want to be able to “boast” [kaucháomai] “in the flesh” [en t¢¡ sarkí] of the Galatians
    • They (“the ones circumcized”) do not actually keep the Law themselves (v. 13a)

Note the two-fold use of the expression “in the flesh”, in light of Paul’s use of “flesh” (sárx) throughout Galatians and in the rest of his letters. There is a bit of wordplay involved—they want to be accepted and admired in a fleshly (that is, carnal/worldly), rather than spiritual, manner, according to:

    1. Their own flesh—in their external, superficial (and self-centered) approach to religion
    2. In the Galatians‘ flesh—by the adoption of the Jewish law and ritual, without properly understanding the significance and consequences of doing so

Some critical commentators have seriously questioned whether Paul is fairly (and accurately) representing the position and motivation of his opponents. While some polemical distortion may be involved, there is also, on objective grounds, a believable kernel of historical truth, especially with regard to the idea that fear of persecution (from fellow Jews) was a motivating factor. That Paul, and other early missionaries, at times, endured severe hostility and persecution is indicated throughout his letters, as well as the narratives in the book of Acts. Consider also how, according to Paul, social and religious pressure from the presence of prominent representatives of the Jerusalem Church was enough to influence even stalwart apostles such as Peter and Barnabas (Gal 2:11-14). The claim in v. 13—that his (Jewish Christian) opponents advocating Torah observance do not actually keep the Law themselves—is more difficult to judge.

Verse 14—The centrality of Christ—and, in particular, of his death (the “cross of Christ”)—is expressed in this verse in a manner similar to other passages in Galatians (Gal 1:4; 3:1, 13; 5:11, 24), and especially Gal 2:19ff. For other references in Paul’s letters, see 1 Cor 1:17-18, 23; 2:2, and also 1 Cor 1:13; 2 Cor 13:4; Rom 6:6; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 1:20; 2:14; Eph 2:16. Paul contrasts his boasting (in the cross of Christ) with that of his opponents (above). His statement that “the world has been put to the stake [i.e. crucified] to me, and I to the world” closely echoes those earlier in Gal 2:19; 5:24, and is, naturally enough, governed by the prepositional phrase “through Christ Jesus”.

Verse 15—Paul comes one last time to the cause, or reason for his writing to the Galatians—the question of whether believers in Christ ought to be circumcised (and observe the Torah). It is also the last major doctrinal statement of the letters. I have discussed it—along with the parallel formulations in Gal 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19—in some detail, in an earlier note.

Verse 16—Here Paul offers a conditional blessing; there are two phrases which should be examined:

    • hósoi tœ kanóni toútœ stoich¢¡sousin, “as (many) as walk in line by this (measuring) rod” —Paul uses the same verb (stoichéœ) as in Gal 5:25 (“walk in line in/by the Spirit”); the noun kanœ¡n (used only by Paul in the New Testament, here and in 2 Cor 10:13-16), indicates a (straight) measuring line or rod (“reed”), or, more abstractly, a boundary, rule, and the like. The “rule” he refers to is the statement in verse 15, though doubtless Paul would apply it to the entire teaching and line of argument in the letter as well.
    • epí ton Isra¢¡l tou Theoú, “upon the Yisrael {Israel} of God” —this expression has proven most difficult for commentators, representing a crux interpretum, especially with regard to the relationship between Christian and Jewish identity in Paul’s writings. For more on the expression, see my earlier note.

Verse 17—In this last verse of the section, Paul makes a final appeal to his own experience (his suffering) as a missionary for Christ. This may be referred to under the rhetorical category of conquestio, a statement intended to arouse pity in the audience (see Betz, Galatians, p. 313). The key phrase here is Paul’s declaration, which he gives as the reason why no one should be trying to oppose or disturb his work: “for I bear in my (own) body the stigmata of Yeshua”. A stígma (plural stigmáta) was a visible mark, here probably with the connotation of the piercing or branding done to a slave or prisoner. Paul is likely referring, in a concrete sense, to the scars on his body as a result of being whipped; but, no doubt, he means it in the overall context of his labors and sufferings as a missionary for Christ—see especially 2 Cor 11:23-33 and the narratives in Acts. It is also a subtle way of emphasizing again his personal (apostolic) authority, concluding, as he began in 1:1, with a motif that runs through the entire letter.

Concluding Notes

Having concluded this rhetorical-critical study of Galatians, it may be helpful to summarize the key points of emphasis and arguments made in the letter, related to Paul’s central proposition regarding the Torah, and the relation of the Old Testament Law to believers:

    • Paul’s status as an apostle, along with the (Gospel) message he proclaims, comes directly from God and Christ by way of revelation—this is contrasted with the authority of the prominent Jewish Christians of the Jerusalem Church (including Peter), and, especially, with the “false” Gospel of his (Jewish-Christian) opponents.
    • Already at the ‘Jerusalem Council’, Paul’s missionary approach to the Gentiles was accepted and affirmed by other Jewish Christian believers (and leaders in the Church)—a fundamental tenet of this approach for Paul was that (Gentile) believers should not be required to be circumcised or to observe all the commands of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah).
    • Observance of the Law was not required in order for believers to be accepted (made/declared just, or righteous) by God and saved from the coming Judgment; quite the opposite!—justification comes through trust/faith in Christ, and not by observing the Law (“works of Law”).
    • Beyond this, believers in Christ are entirely free from the Old Testament/Jewish Law—this is understood by Paul primarily by way of identification with (and participation in) the death (crucifixion) of Christ. Understood spiritually, and realized symbolically through the (initiatory) rite of Baptism, believers die to the old, and live in the new.
    • By various arguments, Paul establishes that the Law was only temporary, and in force only until the coming of Christ (see the six lines of argument in the probatio of chapters 3-4, discussed in prior studies).
    • The purpose of the Law during this time was to hold people in a kind of bondage, or slavery, primarily by making manifest the power of sin. Freedom from the Law is closely connected to freedom from the enslaving power of sin (a dynamic described more extensively in Romans).
    • The freedom of believers is defined fundamentally in terms of sonship—of being sons (children) of God and heirs of the promise and blessing of God. This promise (using the example of Abraham/Isaac from Scripture) is prior to, and separate from, the Law. The promise relates both to justification (by faith/trust) and receiving the (Holy) Spirit.
    • The old covenant and promise to Israel is fulfilled decisively in believers—a new identity (“in Christ”) is established, separate from the old Israelite/Jewish identity tied to circumcision and observance of the Torah.
    • The marks of this new identity—as distinct from circumcision and the Torah—are three: trust/faith, the Spirit, and love.
    • Love—understood primarily in terms of sacrificial, mutual love between believers—is the only “Law” which Christians must observe (the “love-command” being the fulfillment of the entire Law); it may be referred to as “the Law of Christ”.
    • Proper religious and moral/ethical behavior is established by the work and guidance of the Spirit, and not by observing the commands, etc. of the Torah. These two guiding principles: (1) walking in/by the Spirit, and (2) the “love command”, take the place of the Torah for believers.
    • The fundamental principle of Christian freedom (from the Law) in Christ applies to both Jewish and Gentile believers alike. However, it should be noted that Paul does not deal much in the letter with how this plays out for Jewish Christians.

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

Saturday Series: Galatians 4:1-11

Probatio (Galatians 3:1-4:31)  

In our study on Galatians, looking at Paul’s letter from the standpoint of Rhetorical Criticism, we are proceeding through the probatio (chaps. 3-4), looking at each of the six main lines of argument in turn.  We have reached the fourth argument:

    1. An appeal to the Galatians’ experience (3:1-6) [study]
    2. Scriptural argument: the blessing of Abraham comes by faith (3:7-14) [study]
      —contrasted with the curse of the Law (vv. 10-13)
    3. Scriptural argument: the promise to Abraham comes through Christ (3:15-29) [study]
      Illustration: the nature of a testament/covenant, with a contrast between the Law and the promise (vv. 15-18)
      Statement(s) on the purpose of the Law (vv. 19-25)
      Statement on the promise that comes through Christ (vv. 23-25)
    4. Illustration: Slavery vs. Sonship (4:1-11)

Section 4: Galatians 4:1-11

The fourth argument of the probatio (chaps 3-4) in Galatians is an illustration of slavery vs. sonship. It picks up where the third argument leaves off (3:29), identifying believers in Christ as heirs (“ones receiving the lot”, kl¢ronómoi)—the offspring (“seed”) of Abraham, inheriting the promise(s) God made to him.

Galatians 4:1-2—In these verses Paul establishes the basic illustration regarding the son (and heir):

“And I relate (to you that) upon as (much) time as the one receiving the lot [i.e. heir] is an infant [n¢¡pios], he carries through [i.e. differs] nothing (from) a slave, (despite) being lord of all (thing)s…”

The origin of the Greek word n¢¡pios is not entirely clear, with various derivations fundamentally indicating “without speech” = infant, infans [i.e. unable to speak], “without sense/understanding”, and “weak, without power”. The basic connotation would seem to be “young and/or immature”, and can specifically refer to a young child (here, a minor). The principal idea is that, until the child (a son) reaches the age of maturity, his status is practically (and functionally) similar to that of a slave, as explained in verse 2. Paul draws on the example of a son in a well-to-do family, a modification of the example given already in 3:23-25 (see my earlier note on these verses). The final qualifying phrase of 4:1 is interesting—the point Paul makes is that the heir legally is (or will be) the lord of the household, but, even so, until becoming an adult, he is very much like a slave. This could be understood in a “gnostic” sense—i.e., believers in Christ, even before coming to faith, are, by nature, already sons of God (cf. v. 6a), just without realizing it. The same construct could, however, just as easily be read in an ‘orthodox’ sense, according to the doctrine of Election (or something akin to it). Paul clarifies the point in verse 2:

“…but is under managers and house-administrators until the (time) set before(hand) by the father”

In 3:24-25, the image is of the child who is led out of the house (to school and back), being guarded, instructed and disciplined. Here a different household picture is offered, that of basic government within the house. An epítropos is essentially a person to whom someone/something has been “turned over” —in this domestic context, a legal trustee or guardian, someone to whom the child is given over for care and tutelage (a tutor). An oikonómos indicates a “household-administrator” and general supervisor. The child is “under” (hypó) these servants just as he is “under” (hypó) the paidagogos (3:24-25), both parallel, and largely synonymous, with being “under the Law” [hypó  nómon] and “under sin” [hypó hamartían]. The central point Paul makes is that this term of ‘enslavement’ (guardianship) lasts only until the time of the child’s maturity, indicated as being set by the father. This detail does not accord with general Roman practice, but it very much is appropriate to Paul’s illustration, whereby God (the Father) has established the time when enslavement under the Law (and sin) comes to an end.

Galatians 4:3-5—Here Paul applies the illustration to human beings (believers) on the religious-spiritual level. In verse 3, the term of infancy/immaturity (hóte ¢¡men n¢¡pioi, “when we were infants/children”) is specifically identified with slavery (¢¡metha dedoulœménoi, “we were ones enslaved”). The metaphor, previously relevant only to Israelites/Jews (those of/under the Torah), is here extended to Gentiles as well, with the expression “the stoicheia of the world” (to be discussed with verse 8, below). Jews and Gentiles are both “under” (hypó) the stoicheia (parallel to being “under the Law”).

The term of infancy/enslavement ends with the coming of Christ (v. 4): “but when the fullness of time came, God set out from him his son…” —which he qualifies with two participial phrases:

    • “coming to be [gegómenon] out of a woman”
    • “coming to be [gegómenon] under the Law”

The first phrase summarizes the human birth of Jesus (I discussed this in an earlier Christmas season note); the second summarizes the human condition of Jesus. While a sensitive matter, perhaps, with regard to orthodox Christology, Paul clearly places Jesus in the same situation as the rest of humanity, in several respects:

    • As a Jew, Jesus was obligated to observe the Torah (cf. Lk 2:22-24, 39; Matt 5:17-20)
    • With the rest of humanity, he came to be under the “curse” of the Law (Gal 3:10-14)
    • As such, he also came to be “under sin” (Rom 8:3, but note the careful phrasing)

For a similar statement regarding the incarnation of Christ, see Philippians 2:7f.

Paul concludes his sentence here in verse 5, with a pair of hína/purpose-clauses:

    • “(so) that [hína] he might purchase out [exagorás¢] the (one)s under the Law”
    • “(so) that [hína] we might receive from [apolábœmen] (the Father) placement as sons [huiothesían]”

The word huiothesía is typically translated as “adoption” in conventional English parlance, but it literally refers to being placed as a son (huios), and it is important to preserve this etymological connection. Jesus first is (and becomes) a son (cf. 1:16; 2:20), even as he becomes the “curse” in 3:13. A comparison with Gal 3:13ff is most useful:

Gal 3:10-14
  • “of/from the Law” and “under a curse” [hypó katáran], v. 10
  • Jesus “comes to be” [genómenos] a curse (under the Law), v. 13
  • he “purchases out” [ex¢górasen] those who are under the curse of the Law, v. 13
  • so that [hína] the blessing might come to those who trust in Christ, v. 14
Gal 4:1-5
    • “enslaved, serving as slaves” [dedoulœménoi] (under the Law), v. 3-4
    • Jesus (the Son) “comes to be” [genómenon] under the Law, v. 4
    • that he might “purchase out” [exagorás¢] those under the Law, v. 5a
    • so that [hína] we might receive sonship from God, v. 5b

Galatians 4:6-7—Verse 6 describes the adoption (being placed as sons)—note that there are two aspects to this:

    • What we (already) are, in God’s eyes— “but (in) that [i.e. since/because] you are [este] sons…”
    • What we become, through the Spirit— “…God set forth out of him the Spirit of his Son into our hearts…”

Though not specified here, Paul certainly would say that it is through trust/faith in Christ that we truly are God’s sons (or children), as he states clearly in 3:26. There is a subtle, but definite Christ/Spirit parallel presented in these verses:

    • “God set forth out of (him) [exapésteilen] his Son” (v. 4)
      • “so that we might receive from (him) placement as sons” (v. 5b)
    • “God set forth out of (him) [exapésteilen] the Spirit of his Son” (v. 6a)
      • “into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'” (v. 6b) {we are sons [v. 6a]}

It may not be entirely clear in context, but certainly “the Spirit of his Son” is synonymous with “the (Holy) Spirit”, especially as representing the abiding presence of Christ in (and with) the believer. We do not find precise Trinitarian terminology in Paul’s letters (nor in the New Testament as a whole); there is a good deal of ambiguity which later theologians and commentators sought to clarify.

Verse 7 reaffirms the distinction between son/heir and slave:

“So then [hœ¡ste] no longer [oukéti] are you a slave, but (rather) a son; and if a son, (then) also one receiving the lot [i.e. an heir] through God”

This declaration effectively combines two prior summarizing statements, in 3:24-25 and 29. In Gal 3:24-25 Paul uses a similar hœ¡steoukéti (“so then… no longer”) construction to state decisively that, with trust/faith in Christ, we are no longer under a paidagogos (that is, no longer under the Law); a declaration follows in v. 26: “for you all are sons of God through trust…” (cp. 4:6a). Gal 3:29 extends this essential statement:

    • No longer under a slave-guide (paidagogos, the Law)
    • Sons (of God) through trust in Christ
    • If of Christ, then heirs according to (God’s) promise (to Abraham)

This is almost precisely what we find in 4:7:

    • No longer a slave
    • A son (of God)
    • An heir through God (i.e. by and according to His promise)

A connection based on the theme of promise is certain, if somewhat subtle—in Gal 3:14, Paul uses the expression “the promise [epangelía] of the Spirit”; for other references to the Spirit as the promise of God, cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33, also Acts 2:39; 7:17; 13:32.

Galatians 4:8-11—Paul proceeds, in these verses, to offer a description of the nature of the slavery which believers were under (along with the rest of humanity) prior to faith in Christ. Whereas throughout most of Galatians, he has been focusing on the Jewish side (those under the Torah), here Paul moves to include non-Jews (Gentiles) within a larger viewpoint. This switch was already indicated in verse 3 with the introduction of the expression “under the stoicheia of the world”, which is clearly parallel to “under the Law”. One might be inclined to take these as indicating Gentiles and Jews, respectively; however, I believe it is more accurate to see the “stoicheia of the world” as the larger expression, encompassing both Jews and Gentiles.

I would divide this section into two portions:

    • Vv. 8-9—a men…de construction (i.e. “on the one hand… on the other…”), contrasting the believers’ condition before faith in Christ with that after faith (in terms of “not knowing / knowing”)
    • Vv. 10-11—a statement of concern/disappointment by Paul concerning the Galatians current behavior (or choice)

These two pieces are joined together by the question (real and rhetorical) Paul asks in v. 9b: “again as above [i.e. as before] do you wish to be slaves?”

Each of these sentences (vv. 8-9 and 10-11), with the joining question, have been discussed in more detail in earlier notes.

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

Saturday Series: Galatians 3:7-14

Probatio (Galatians 3:1-4:31)

In this series of studies, looking at Paul’s letter to the Galatians from the standpoint of Rhetorical Criticism, we are now proceeding through the probatio—that is, Paul’s demonstration, exposition, and proof of the central proposition in 2:15-21 (on which, see the earlier study and notes). His proposition given there, regarding the Torah, is so striking, running so contrary to the traditional religious view of Jews at the time (including many Jewish Christians), that it was necessary for him to offer a thorough and detailed treatment. In the probatio section (chapters 3-4), Paul makes use of a wide range of arguments and rhetorical devices. I divide the probatio according to six main lines of argument. The first of these (in 3:1-6) was discussed last week, and may be summarized as: an appeal to the Galatians’ experience—in particular, their experience of receiving the Holy Spirit.

This week, we turn to the second line of argument (3:7-14), which is an argument from Scripture. The substance of the argument may be summarized as follows:

    • the blessing of Abraham comes by faith
      —contrasted with the curse of the Law (vv. 10-13)

Section 2: Galatians 3:7-14

The second argument (Gal 3:7-14) of the probatio (chapters 3-4) builds on the first, the transition being the example of Abraham (citing Genesis 15:6) in 3:6— “Abraham trusted in God and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness”. In verses 1-5 the emphasis is on the transformation/conversion which occurs for the believer through the work of God (giving the Spirit); here, the emphasis switches to the idea of justification, of a person being made (or declared) just by God. Sometimes this is understood as an initial stage in the process (or order) of salvation, but “justification” is more properly regarded as eschatological—the righteous person appears before the heavenly/divine tribunal at the end (or after death) and is admitted into the heavenly/eternal realm of God. In such a judicial process, a person is declared righteous, usually on the basis of his/her behavior and attitude, conforming, in a religious and ethical sense, to the justice/righteousness of God. For a good example of this in the New Testament, see the beatitudes and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7; Lk 6:20-49). An important aspect of early Christian thought—and one which was shared in part by the ancient mystery religions—is that this end-time justification is applied in the present for the believer (or initiate), with the blessing and holiness of God understood as active and real in the life and soul/spirit of the individual (and, by extension, to the religious community). This is often referred to under the specialized term “realized eschatology”, but it was actually a fundamental aspect of early Christian identity. This realized justification/salvation not only offered hope for the future, it served as a point of exhortation and encouragement for believers to live and act in a manner corresponding to their real condition (cf. Gal 5:16, 25).

In tandem with the idea of justification (Abraham being declared just/righteous), this section emphasizes the blessing which God gave to Abraham. The blessing was part of the promise to Abraham; however, the theme of promise is not developed by Paul until the next section (3:15-29). Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 record this promised blessing (cf. also Gen 18:18), and Paul refers to this specifically in Gal 3:8-9. However, Paul blends together Genesis 12:3/22:18 with 15:6 (Gal 3:6), so that the blessing which will come to “all nations” through Abraham is identified being “counted just/righteous” by God (as Abraham was)—and this justification comes by faith/trust (ek písteœs). This is an extraordinary way of interpreting the blessing of Abraham to the nations, which traditionally would have been understood as a product of Israel’s faithfulness to God and obedience to the Torah, and by which various benefits (material, intellectual and religious-spiritual) would be spread, either directly or indirectly, to the Gentiles. Jewish tradition even held out the hope and expectation, based largely on the writings of the later Prophets (esp. so-called deutero/trito-Isaiah, Is 40-66), that at the end-time all nations would be drawn to Israel (to Judah and Jerusalem) and would come to know and serve faithfully the true God. This came to provide part of the background for the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. Paul has introduced an entirely different approach here by identifying this blessing directly with “justification by faith” —it effectively eliminates the mediating role of Israel and the Torah, making it depend entirely on a person’s trust in Christ. It is this thinking which underlies his shorthand declaration in Gal 3:7:

“Know, then, that the ones (who are) of trust/faith [ek písteœs]—these are (the) sons of Abraham”

There is here a slightly different nuance to the preposition ek (“out of”) in this expression than used earlier in the letter (2:16, also 3:2, 5). Previously, “out of” indicated “as a result of” or “through, because of”; here it means “from” in the more concrete sense “coming out of”, as according to the biological/genealogical metaphor—believers come “out of” Abraham as off-spring, but only to the extent that they specifically come out of his faith/trust (in this respect ek can also denote “belonging to”). In other words, they are not physical/biological but spiritual descendants; Paul clarifies this further throughout the remainder of chapters 3 and 4.

It is not just that the (positive) mediating role of the Law (Torah) is removed from the equation, for Paul actually attributes to the Law an entirely different purpose—one which is decidedly negative, though ultimately it has a positive effect. His remarkable (and original) view of the Law is expounded rather clearly in vv. 19-25; here in vv. 10-13 he focuses on just one aspect—the Law as curse, in contrast to the blessing which comes by faith. He begins in verse 10 with the statement:

“For as (many) as are out of [i.e from, ek] works of (the) Law, (these) are under a curse [katára]…”

The expression ex érgœn nómou (“out of works of Law”) is precisely parallel to ek písteœs (“out of trust/faith”) in verse 9, and the preposition ek has the same force. The roughness of Paul’s expression has caused translators to fill it out, glossing it as “those who depend/rely on works of Law”, and so forth. However, this is a highly interpretive rendering, and not necessarily accurate; it very much softens the expression, shifting the emphasis from the Law itself to a person’s attitude toward it. In my view, this is a basic (though well-intentioned) distortion of Paul’s meaning. It is important to maintain the juxtaposition of the literal expressions, while attempting to interpret them accordingly:

hoi ek písteœs
“the ones out of trust/faith”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, trust/faith
hoi ex érgœn nómou
“the ones out of works of Law”
—those persons who come from, and belong to, works of Law

In other words, two groups of people are described—Christian believers (those “of faith”) and all others (those “of [works of] Law”). The expression “works of Law” might lead one to conclude that Paul limits this distinction to observant Jews, but it is clear that Paul would include all human beings (all non-believers) in this category, there being a similar legal-religious dynamic at work for pagan Gentiles, parallel to that of Israelites and Jews. It is, therefore, not so much a question of how one regards the Law (“relying” on it, i.e. for salvation), but of a more fundamental religious identity—whether one belongs to faith (in Christ) or to works of Law.

The people who are (or who remain) “of the Law” are under a curse (hypó katáran). The word katára literally means a “wish (or prayer) against (someone/something)”, in other words, a “curse”, though the term imprecation is perhaps more appropriate. In modern society, the magical-dynamic force and significance of imprecatory language has been almost entirely lost, “cursing” having been reduced to empty profanity, so it can be difficult for us today to appreciate exactly what Paul is describing. He turns to the books of the Law (Pentateuch), and draws two examples of “curses”:

    • Deut 27:26: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) who does not remain in the (thing)s written in the book [lit. paper-scroll] of the Law, to do them”—this version Paul cites (in v. 10b) differs slightly from the LXX (“…who does not remain in all the words of this Law…”) which is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
    • Deut 21:23: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) hanging upon (a piece of) wood [i.e. a tree]”—Paul’s citation (v. 13b) is modified to match the formula in Deut 27:26.

Deuteronomy 27 records a ceremony in which the people of Israel publicly accept the agreement (covenant) YHWH has established with them, the statutes and commands of the Law (Torah) serving as the basic terms of the covenant which Israel agrees to follow. In verses 15-26 the people together announce a curse on all who violate the commands—vv. 15-25 specify specific kinds of violation, while v. 26 is a general declaration related to the Torah as a whole. The actual curses themselves are stated in 28:15-68, parallel to the (much shorter) statement of blessings (28:1-14). Deuteronomy 21:23 is not a curse as such, but rather a statement that a person executed by hanging is the “curse [q®l¹lâ] of God”. The verb qll has the basic meaning “to make small, weak, of no account”, etc, and refers to the uttering of the curse (that is, the words). In the Deuteronomic injunction, the corpse of the hanged person must not be left on the tree (and unburied) through the night, or it will defile the land—i.e., the dead body serves as the curse-vehicle, the means by which the effect of the curse comes upon the land. “Cursed” in Deut 27 translates a different verb (°rr), which, based on the cognate (arâru) in Akkadian, appears to have had an original meaning “to bind” —i.e., to bind a person by a magic formula, the words being efficacious to produce what they describe. In the context of Israelite monotheism, it is God who brings it about, according to the words of the curse-formula. A person cursed is thus bound—the punishments or detrimental consequences laid out in the curse-formula will surely come to pass upon him (or her).

Paul use of these two passages is interesting. First, the application of Deut 21:23 to Jesus’ death is relatively straightforward, especially since the punishment of crucifixion (being “put to the stake”) may be referred to as hanging “upon a tree” (cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39). His use of Deut 27:26 is more difficult. Gal 3:10 is often understood in the sense that no one is able to obey and fulfill the Law completely, the transgression of a single command or regulation being enough to violate the entire covenant. However, Paul never quite says this; it could, perhaps, be inferred from Gal 5:3, but otherwise has to be understood on the basis of statements regarding the general sinfulness of all human beings, etc. I will discuss this question in more detail in a separate note, but I would say that the immediate context of Galatians 3-4 is a better guide to what Paul intends here; and, in 3:19-25, he clearly states that a primary purpose of the Law was to bring about (and increase) transgression. By a profound paradox, which Paul never entirely explains (either here or in Romans), even the person who appears blameless according to the Law (cf. Phil 3:6) ultimately ends up violating the very thing that he/she wishes to uphold. The underlying argument is somewhat complex, but the line of reasoning here in Gal 3:10-13 would seem to be as follows:

    • The one who is (or feels) bound and obligated to the “works of Law” ends up violating the Law/Torah
      • and is thus under the curse of God (acc. to Deut 27:26)
        • Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse (slavery metaphor)
      • becoming the curse of God by his death (acc. to Deut 21:23)
    • Jesus, in his own person (and by his death), fulfills/completes the Law (cf. Rom 10:4)

In a technical sense, one might find problems with Paul’s reasoning here, but it has a definite logic, and believers will recognize the theological (and Christological) truth of it. The logical framework relates primarily to verses 10 and 13, but in vv. 11-12 we find embedded a smaller core argument which likewise draws upon two Scripture passages:

    • “No one is made right [dikaioútai] in [i.e. by] the Law alongside [i.e. before] God” (v. 11a)
      • The just (person) will live out of trust [ek písteœs]” {Hab 2:4} (v. 11b)
    • “The Law is not of trust/faith [ek písteœs]” (v. 12a)
      • The (one) doing [poi¢¡sas] them will live in [i.e. by] them” {Lev 18:5} (v. 12b)

The two Scripture references are set to confirm the pair of statements regarding the Law, which affirms that a person is declared just by God according to faith/trust (and not by observing the Law). Vv. 11-12 are intimately connected with the central proposition of vv. 10-13that Jesus frees (redeems) us from the curse—and can be regarded as virtually synonymous with it.

The association with the Torah as a curse is striking, and certainly a very un-Jewish thing to say—it appears to be virtually unique and original to Paul. We ought also to understand precisely what this signifies: the “curse of the Law” refers primarily to the Torah as the vehicle or means by which the binding (enslaving) curse comes upon people. Paul realized that this could easily be misinterpreted, and attempts to clarify his meaning with the exposition in vv. 19-25.

In verse 14, Paul concludes the section by:

    1. Re-iterating that the blessing of Abraham has indeed come to the Gentiles—by faith (in Christ), and
    2. Introducing the wider context of the promise to Abraham—identifying it with the (Holy) Spirit

This promise will be the theme of the next section.

Sola Scriptura: Matthew 5:17-20

Sola Scriptura

The studies this Fall in the “Reformation Fridays” series examine the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). Following our introduction and a short study of the key Scripture-declaration in 2 Tim 3:15-17 (cf. the previous study), we now turn to consider Jesus’ view and treatment of the Scriptures.

The term “(sacred) Writing(s)” (grafh/, plur. grafai/) occurs 14 times in the Gospel sayings of Jesus, almost always in a context that points to the fulfillment of Scripture (prophecy) in the person of Jesus. This is also the specific emphasis where the word is used elsewhere by the Gospel writer (Luke 4:27, 32, 45; John 19:24, 28, 36-37; 20:9). Jesus’ use of the term “Writing” (i.e. Scripture), as for nearly all Jews of the period, was more or less synonymous with the expression “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13 [par Lk 16:16]; 22:40; Luke 24:44)—meaning the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) and the Prophetic books (Isaiah–Malachi), including the Psalms. It is not entirely certain, based purely on the Gospel evidence, to what extent the other Old Testament books were similarly included under the label of Scripture.

Indeed, our study on Jesus’ view of the (Old Testament) Scriptures can be divided between the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (including the Psalms).

The Law of Moses (Torah/Pentateuch)

A summary of Jesus’ recorded sayings and teachings clearly shows that he considered the Torah regulations (recorded in the Pentateuch) as authoritative for Israelites and Jews—and for his disciples as well. And yet, Jesus’ view of the Law, according to the Gospel evidence, is rather more complicated and nuanced. A proper study of it goes far beyond the scope of this article, but I have earlier provided and extensive treatment of the subject in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (articles on “Jesus and the Law”). In Part 2 of that series, I present a detailed survey of the Gospel passages, divided into three main categories:

    1. Traditions where Jesus advocates Torah observance, but where following him may involve going beyond it
    2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance:
      1. By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
      2. By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations
    3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope. In many ways this aspect cannot be separated from #2; 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.

Jesus addresses the authority of the Law in a number of key traditions (sayings and episodes) in the Gospels, but perhaps the most important collection of teaching is to be found in the so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, par Luke 6:20-49). A careful study of this Sermon-collection demonstrates that it is Jesus’ interpretation (and application) of the Torah regulations that is most important for his disciples (and for us as believers). For an exegesis of key sections of the Sermon, cf. Part 3 of the aforementioned series “Jesus and the Law”.

While the teaching and example of Jesus may take priority over (and surpass) the written text of the Torah, the written Torah (that is, the Scripture) certainly was considered authoritative by Jesus himself. We can see this, for example, by the way that the written text (of Deuteronomy, 6:13, 16; 8:3) is quoted in the famous Temptation episode (Matt 4:4, 7, 10 par).

Matthew 5:17-20    

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

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

1. Matthew 5:17

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

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

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

For a more detailed study on v. 17, see my earlier note.

2. Matthew 5:18

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

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

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

The first and last phrases are both temporal expressions: the first in concrete terms, according to the ancient worldview (“heaven and earth” represents the universe as understood at the time); the second more abstractly, as the coming-to-be of all things. In between these two expressions is a statement regarding the (relative) permanence of the Law. The “yod” is traditionally the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and of the Greek as well); it is not as clear precisely what kerai/a (lit. “horn”, or possibly “hook”) signifies here, but presumably it indicates a small ornamental mark in the script. The force of the expression is rhetorical rather than literal, i.e. “not even the smallest letter or mark will pass away from the Law”.

Noteworthy is the fact that the reference is specifically to a written text. It is not certain to what extent there was a distinction between written and oral Torah in Jesus’ time; but overall Jesus appears to have had a negative view of traditions added to the primary sense of the written text. Indeed, it can be argued that a fundamental purpose of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere) was to restore the true meaning and significance of the original (written) Torah. In any event, it is clear enough that here Torah means primarily sacred Writing (Scripture, as in v. 17); but it probably also refers to the Torah as (written) Law-code—i.e., the collection of commandments, statutes, etc., contained in the Pentateuch.

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

3. Matthew 5:19

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

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

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

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

4. Matthew 5:20

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

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

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

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

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

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 2)

James 2:14-26

This is the famous treatise of James on “faith and works”, which I have discussed at length in a recent study (on the Reformation-principle of justification by faith). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between James’ view on “faith and works” and that of Paul. As was discussed in the aforementioned study, Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, consistently uses the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou; for the corresponding expression in Hebrew, cf. the Qumran text 4QMMT). By this is expression is meant the dutiful performance or observance of the regulations laid out in the Torah. In the James treatise, however, it is clear that the author does not use the term e&rga in this Pauline sense.

The context of 2:14-26 demonstrates that “works” refer primarily to charitable acts on behalf of God’s people (believers) in their time of need (vv. 15-16, 25). Thus e&rga here does not refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), except insofar as such acts of care and compassion represent a fulfillment of the “love command”. While it is not certain that the treatise depends on the previous section (vv. 1-13), there is reason to think that the reference to the “love command” in verse 8 informs the discussion in vv. 14-26 as well.

In other words, by acting with love toward believers (“brothers” and “sisters”) in need, we are fulfilling the Law, as it is embodied in the (single) “love command”. James does seem to share—with Paul and the Johannine writings—the understanding that the Law, for believers, is effectively summarized (and embodied) by the command to love. For more on this, cf. the special note on the expression “the royal law” in 2:8.

James 3:13-17

Following the instruction on ‘taming the tongue’ in 3:1-12, the author turns from the tongue (speech) to the heart—that is, the underlying intention (and impulse) that leads to the things we say and do. In this regard, it is worth considering how James views the means by which one controls the tongue (i.e., how one speaks). The motifs of the bit/bridle used to control a horse, or the rudder that steers a ship, are traditional, and can be found in a wide range of Greco-Roman philosophical and wisdom texts. It is especially common in Stoic authors, and is perhaps best exemplified by Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish contemporary of James); see, for example, his lengthy statement in On the Special Laws III.223ff (for other references, cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 186-190).

According to this line of philosophical argument, it is the mind, or reason, the highest part of the soul, that is able to curb the lower passions and base impulses. For James, and from the early Christian standpoint, it is the soul (and mind) that is conformed to the Divine Wisdom, as represented especially by the teaching and example of Jesus. In verses 13ff, the author contrasts the Wisdom “from above” (a&nwqen) with the ‘wisdom’ that is earthly (“upon the earth,” e)pi/geio$). The heavenly, spiritual Wisdom is characterized by gentleness and humility (prau+/th$, etc), and the speech and conduct of believers should demonstrate such Wisdom. A person’s “works” (actions) will come naturally out of a habitual behavior that is imbued with the Wisdom of God. The term for this ‘habitual behavior’ is a)nastrofh/, which literally means “turn up,” i.e., turn/move about. The true believer will live and move in accordance with God’s wisdom.

The main point, in terms of our study here, is that the guidance is internal (coming from within the person), rather than governed through external means (i.e., laws/regulations that are imposed from without). Though the Spirit is not specifically mentioned in this context, there are general parallels with the contrast, between heavenly and earthly wisdom in vv. 13-17, and Paul’s famous treatment of the “fruit of the Spirit” (vs. the “works of the flesh”) in Gal 5:16-24. For James, the locus of this ethical conflict is in the heart (v. 14), though there is certainly still a place for external teaching (especially that which reflects Jesus’ teaching) in helping Christians develop a pattern habitual thought and behavior that is guided by Wisdom.

James 4:7-10

The author’s ethical instruction continues, along much the same lines, in the next section (4:1-12). The righteous (believers) are contrasted with those who remain rooted in the world and follow the worldly passions. The key verb is e)piqume/w, which means to have one’s impulse (qu/mo$) upon (e)pi/) something; in English idiom, we would say, ‘have one’s heart set upon’ something. The worldly (= ‘earthly,’ cf. above) impulses are directed toward various kinds of sensual pleasure (h(donh/), which, when unchecked, ultimately leads to sinful and violent behavior.

Again, the source of this conflict is within the person. Here, instead of the term “heart” (kardi/a), the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) is used (v. 5). This is not a specific reference to the Holy Spirit, but to the traditional philosophical idea of the ‘higher part’ of the soul; or, framed in more dualistic terms, it is the good part (the “good spirit”) that is in conflict with the “evil spirit”. It was instilled by God as pure and good, but is attacked, and can be corrupted, by the impulse toward sin and evil.

James goes no further than this traditional idiom, and no systematic treatment of the soul, the effect of sin, and what is changed for believers in Christ, is offered here. Even the exhortation that follows in verses 7-10 is traditional in orientation, and is framed in general religious terms that would be accepted by Jews and Christians alike. Two verbal imperatives introduce the instruction in verse 7: u(pota/ssw (“be under order”) and a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”). The first verb indicates the believer’s relationship to God: to be (or put onself) under order to God—which may be explained as the order of things as God has arranged it. The second verb refers to the opposite: the believer’s relationship to the Devil. This exhortation to “stand against” the Devil is also found in 1 Peter 5:5.

For Israelites and Jews, the primary way that one puts himself/herself under order to God (vb u(pota/ssw) is by faithfully observing all that God commanded in the regulations, etc, of the Torah. James, like many early Christians, has clearly generalized and internalized (or spiritualized) this dynamic. One is to “come near” to God, and thereby cleanse (vb kaqari/zw) and make oneself holy (i.e. pure, vb a(gni/zw). The wording in verse 8b likely alludes to Psalm 24:4, combining the idea of clean hands (action/behavior) and a pure heart (intention/thought/desire).

The adjective “two-souled” (di/yuxo$) is parallel with “sinner” (a(martw/lo$), and characterizes the wicked worldly ones as those whose own (good) spirit is influenced (and corrupted by) the evil spirit. This also suggests a person who is of “two minds”, with a tendency to upright, but also to sinful, thought and behavior. In the Testament of Asher (3:1) this is described as “having the face of goodness and the face of wickedness”; the terminology is part of a traditional Jewish ethical instruction that was inherited by early Christians (cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 226-7).

James 4:11-12

The answer for Christians, with regard to how they/we are to respond in the face of such ethical conflict, again has an inward focus. This begins in verse 9 with the exhortation to mourn and weep, suggesting an attitude of repentance. The wording is similar to Jesus’ Woe in the Lukan Beatitudes (6:21, 25), in which case it derives from an original message of judgment (against the wicked). But this simply reflects the ‘reversal of fortune’ motif in such ethical instruction: i.e., the one who mourns now will rejoice in the end (and vice versa). In other words, the righteous person who mourns for his/her sin and suffering now will not come to mourn in the final Judgment.

Along with this attitude of repentance, the believer should have a spirit (and mind) of lowness (tapeino/$) and humility “in the sight of the Lord”. The teaching in verse 10 is proverbial, and may reflect the saying of Jesus in Matt 23:12 par.

A more direct command is given in verses 11-12, along with a shift back to the theme of the tongue (i.e., our speech/speaking). Clearly, the tendency to speak evil reflects a conflict (and corruption) in the heart. The specific verb used here is katalale/w, “speak against,” or “speak down (on)”. While the proper meaning is general—that is, speaking evil against someone (in any manner)—it can also have the more technical sense of slandering someone. It is typically included as part of traditional sin/vice lists (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-2, 12), and is especially significant as being representative of the (non-violent) evil that can be directed against another person.

It is this representative character of “speaking evil” that explains the author’s comments that follow in vv. 11-12. James treats this sin as a particularly egregious attack against the Law itself. Let us see how he phrases the matter:

“You must not speak against one another, brothers. The (one) speaking against a brother, and (thus) judging his brother, speaks against (the) Law and judges (the) Law; but if you judge (the) Law, you are not a doer of (the) Law, but a judge.” (verse 11)

By speaking against another person, one speaks against the Law, which essentially means that such a person brings judgment against the Law, putting himself/herself in the role of a judge. But since God is the source of the Law, such a person essentially puts himself/herself as judge in place of God—which would be the height of wickedness. While this certainly involves a bit of rhetorical hyperbole by the author, the basic point is clear enough, and generally follows the early Christian tendency to epitomize the entire Law in the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). We see a similar general principle expressed in the Testament of Gad 4:1f, where sin against another person (summarized as “hatred”) is especially egregious, since

“…it works lawlessness even against the Lord Himself. For it will not hear the words of His commandments concerning the loving of one’s neighbour, and it sins against God.” (Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 228-9; transl. Charles)

The fact that this situation described by James involves speaking evil against another believer (“brother”) strongly indicates that the term “law” (no/mo$) here refers specifically (and especially) to the “love command” —that is, the Law as it now applies to believers in Christ (cf. the earlier note on 2:8). The final warning in verse 12 reinforces how serious a matter such “evil speaking” is.

James 4:17

One final verse should be considered, at least briefly, in our study. It is the maxim given by the author in 4:17:

“Therefore (the one) having seen (what is) fine [i.e. good] to do, and (yet) does not do (it), it is sin for him.”

It ties the idea of sin to the failure to perform certain actions. This could well be seen as reflecting a traditional Jewish understanding of the Torah regulations as binding (obligatory) requirements. A failure to perform (or observe) any of these requirements represented a fundamental sin, and a violation of the covenant that had to be rectified (through ritual means). As we have seen, such a view of the Torah does not appear to be in view for the James (and the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing). However, is it possible that he still has in mind a certain set of obligatory commands, involving things that must be done?

Most of the ‘commands’ and exhortations provided by the author are framed as negative prohibitions (“do not…,” “you must not…”), and these tend to relate in some way to teachings of Jesus, such as those recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (on the parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, cf. the list in Part 1). A good example of this is the prohibition against swearing oaths in 5:12, which almost certainly represents a version of Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:34ff, also recorded separately in other early Christian writings (e.g., Justin, First Apology 16.5).

As far as positive actions are concerned, these are more or less subsumed under the “love command”, called the “royal law” in 2:8, and properly represents the Law of Christ, the perfect “law of freedom” (1:25). As I have noted, the letter of James shares with other early Christians the emphasis on the “love command” as an embodiment (for believers) of the entire Old Testament Law. While this effectively reduces the Torah regulations to a single command, it involves a principle that relates to virtually every area of the believer’s life.

Where James differs from other New Testament authors, is in his tendency to preserve the context of the love-principle, within the teaching of Jesus—which he frequently quotes or makes allusion to (without necessarily stating that it comes from Jesus), in a manner that Paul, for example, does not. He essentially treats these as authoritative teachings, but as part of a wider ethical and religious instruction that is to be internalized, until it becomes an integral and habitual part of one’s thought and action. While James (and his audience) may have possessed an authoritative collection of sayings, similar to the Sermon on the Mount (of which there are numerous parallels and allusions in the letter), there is no indication that these were thought of as anything like a law-code that would take the place of the Torah. The work known as the “Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]” (Didache), in its early chapters, comes closer to that kind of treatment of Jesus’ teachings, but I do not find it present in the letter of James.

References marked “Dibelius-Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, revised by Heinrich Greeven, translated by Michael A. Williams. Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1975).

Supplemental Note on James 2:8 (“The Royal Law”)

The previous note examined the expression “the Law of freedom” in James 1:25; 2:12; today I will be looking at a second key expression involving the Law— “the royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) in James 2:8.

2. “The royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$)—James 2:8

In the recent article (on the Law in the letter of James), I outlined the basic context of this passage (2:1-13); it may be divided into two parts—(a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). The expression under examination here comes from the opening statement of the second section:

“If indeed you complete (the) royal Law according to the Writing— ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ —you do well…”

Verses 8-9 together form a me/n…de/ construction (here me/ntoide/), i.e., “on the one hand… but on the other hand…”:

    • if, indeed (on the one hand [me/ntoi]), you fulfill the royal Law…you do well
    • but if (on the other hand [de/]) you take/receive the face [i.e. show partiality], (then) you work sin

Showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and powerful is declared to be a violation of the “royal Law”, and those who so transgress are “(themselves) being condemned under the Law [u(po\ no/mon] as (one)s stepping alongside [i.e. over the bounds of the Law and the right path]”. How should we understand the Law (no/mo$) here? In discussing the use of the word in James 1:25 (cf. the previous note), I argued that it carries a comprehensive meaning involving: (a) the Gospel message, (b) the teachings of Jesus, and (c) authoritative Christian instruction as a whole. Here in 2:8ff, however, specific commands seem to be intended—in particular, Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”). Of course, this command, along with Deut 6:4-5, makes up the twin “greatest commandment” in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:28-34 par), and came to represent for early Christians a virtual epitome of the Law and of essential ethical instruction for believers (cf. Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10). Elsewhere in early tradition, the “love command” is nearly synonymous with the command(s) of God and Christ (Gal 6:2; John 13:34-35; 14:15ff; 15:9-17; 1 John 3:10ff; 4:7-20; 5:2-3; also 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Cor 13; 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; 1 Tim 1:5; Jude 21).

What of the specific designation basiliko/$ (“of the king, kingly, royal”). There are several ways this might be interpreted:

    • As the chief, ruling (or leading) Law—i.e., the “great commandment” of Lev 19:18
    • As an honorific adjective emphasizing the nobility/greatness of the Law as a whole (the Torah and/or the teaching of Jesus)
    • Indicating that the Law (whether Lev 19:18 or the “Law” as a whole) has been given specifically by the King—God as King and/or Jesus Christ as Lord
    • It is the Law that the King (and those of the Kingdom) follow
    • It pertains generally to the King and the Kingdom (of God)

Before attempting a more definite interpretation, it is important to note the line of logic that stems from the expression “the royal Law”:

    • It is first identified with a specific commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) (v. 8)
    • The one who violates this command (by showing favoritism to the rich) is condemned under the Law as a transgressor (v. 9)
    • One who fails to keep the Law at just one point (i.e. a single command) is guilty of violating the entire Law (v. 10-11, cf. Gal 5:2)—more precisely, in its original (ancient) context, this means that the agreement (the covenant) between God and his people is broken, as the Law represents the effective terms of the covenant (see esp. Deut 27-28, and Paul’s reference to the curse that results from violating the covenant in Gal 3:10ff).
    • Believers must speak and act in a similar manner (v. 12a)—cf. the exhortation in James 1:21ff, where believers are called to be people who do the Word (lo/go$), just as Israelites and Jews were obligated to do the Law
    • Just as Israelites and Jews are judged under the Law (the Torah), so believers are, in a sense, judged under “the Law of freedom” (v. 12b)

From this we may conclude that “the royal Law” has a two-fold denotation in this passage:

    1. It is identified with a specific command—Jesus’ “great command” (Lev 19:18), as taught and exemplified by him
    2. It is also parallel with the expression “the Law of freedom”, representing the entire Law for believers—the Gospel and teaching of Jesus, and the Christian (ethical) instruction which derives from it, i.e. the Word/Logos of 1:21-25

This Law is described as kingly/royal (basiliko/$) likewise in a two-fold sense:

    • It expresses the will of God (as King) and of Christ (as Lord)
    • It is the Law followed by the King and those of the Kingdom

In the previous note, I explored the way that the expression “the Law of freedom” and the use of lo/go$ (in 1:21ff) may draw in part from Greek philosophical language, as preserved and transmitted in Judaism. This appears to be confirmed by the parallel use here of “the royal Law”. For example, note several key references in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, such as On the Life of Moses II.4: “(on the one hand) the king is an ensouled [i.e. living] Law, and (on the other hand) the Law is (also) a just king”. Reason (lo/go$) is the “royal road” which the wise and just person follows (On the Special Laws IV.168, On the Posterity and Exile of Cain §101, On the Giants §64). One should also consider 4 Maccabees 14:2, where reason (lo/go$) is associated with both royalty and freedom, as here in James. This sort of language and imagery continued on in the writings of early Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, who were likewise influenced by Greek philosophical expression (cf. Stromateis 6.162.2, 7.73.5). [On these and other references, see esp. M. Dibelius’ commentary on James in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press (1975), pp. 142-144.]

One should also note here the profound identification of the Law (“the royal Law”) with mercy (e&leo$), as the concluding statement in verse 13 makes clear. Actually this emphasis on mercy runs throughout the passage—the warning against showing favoritism to the rich and powerful in the world derives fundamentally from the concern and care one ought to show toward the poor and lowly. James emphasizes this at several points, especially in 1:27 where care for orphans and widows is defined as an essential component of true religious behavior and worship before God. It is also an important theme throughout Jesus’ teaching. In the Christmas season (soon approaching this year), which, at its finest moments, beautifully reflects this same exhortation to show love and care for the poor, and to be at peace with our neighbors, careful study and reflection on James 2:1-13 is altogether appropriate and worthwhile.

Supplemental Note on James 1:25 (“The Law of Freedom”)

This note is supplemental to the article on the Law in the letter of James (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). There are two primary references to the Law (o( no/mo$) in James, involving two particular expressions, which will be discussed in turn.

1. “The Law of freedom” (no/mo$ [th=$] e)leuqeri/a$)—James 1:25; 2:12

In James 1:25, the expression is actually “the complete Law of freedom”, including the adjective te/leio$ (“complete, finished”):

“but the (one) bending alongside (to look) into the complete Law th(at is) of freedom and remaining alongside…this (one) will be happy/blessed in his doing”

As discussed in the recent article, the context of verse 25 identifies the Law with the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (e&mfuto$) believers. I take lo/go$ (lógos) here in a comprehensive sense, as the Gospel message and the teachings of Jesus, as well as (authoritative) Christian instruction generally. However, the author may also be drawing upon Hellenistic Jewish language and imagery (influenced by Greek philosophy) in the use of lo/go$ (cf. below). For the idea of Jesus’ word(s) as a seed, or involving other planting images, see the previous article. There are a number of references in Scripture to God’s word being within a person (i.e. in the heart), cf. Deut 30:14; Psalm 119:11, and especially in the New Testament (Matt 13:19 par; John 5:38; 8:37; 1 Thess 2:13; Col 3:16; 1 John 1:10; 2:14, etc), where the “word of God” is virtually interchangeable with the “word(s) of Christ”.

In what sense is this Law the “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ th=$ e)leuqeri/a$)? There are three possibilities:

    • Following the Law leads to freedom—This is attested for the Torah in Jewish tradition (e.g., m. Abot 3:5; 6:2; Baba Kamma 8:6; b. Baba Metzia 85b, cf. Davids, p. 99*); in other words, the Law gives freedom to those who faithfully observe its commands. Paul, of course, says virtually the opposite, often declaring that in Christ believers are freed from bondage under the Law (Gal 2:16; 3:10-14, 19-26; 4:4-5, 21-31; 5:1-6; Rom 3:20; 5:20-21; 7:1-6, 7ff; 8:2ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; note also Acts 13:38-39). Jesus in the Gospel of John promises freedom to his followers, those who hear (and keep) his word (Jn 8:32-36).
    • We follow the Law freely, not out of obligation or compulsion—As I have discussed previously, Paul appears to have held such a view for Jewish believers (himself included) with regard to the Torah: they may continue to observe its commands and regulations voluntarily, on the basis of the freedom they now have in Christ, no longer as a binding requirement. With regard to the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, the so-called letter of Barnabas (2:6) expresses the point clearly: “the new Law of our Lord Jesus Christ, being without the yoke of necessity [a&neu zugou= a)na/gkh$]”. Jesus himself refers to the “yoke” of his teaching (and example) as easy and light (Matt 11:29-30), while criticizing the ‘burdensome’ teaching and tradition of the Pharisees (Matt 23:2ff). The Old Testament Law is described as a burdensome yoke in Acts 15:10, and by Paul as a “yoke of slavery” in Gal 5:1.
    • The Law is a product of the freedom we have in Christ—According to Paul, believers are guided principally by the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ (and God) and represents the freedom we have in him (2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13ff; Rom 8:2ff, 21); by way of this guidance, we naturally fulfill the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), which is no longer the commands of the Torah per se. Note the general similarity between James 2:8-12 and Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10.

The first interpretation best characterizes the expression here in James, especially when one considers the additional adjective te/leio$ (“the complete Law of freedom”). In Jewish tradition, the Law would have been regarded, generally speaking, as “perfect” and complete (Psalm 19:7, cf. also the Epistle of Aristeas §31, etc). In the New Testament, however, the adjective te/leio$ is used more precisely of the will (and character) of God, and of believers who conform themselves to it (Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 14:20; Col 4:12). In Matt 19:21 it is specifically tied to following Jesus—his teaching and example—as also in Phil 3:15 (and Eph 4:13); while in Col 1:28 believers are complete in terms of their union with Christ. All of this reinforces the view, expressed above, that the Law (no/mo$) here is not simply the Old Testament Law (Torah), but the Gospel and teaching of Jesus as transmitted to believers through Christian instruction and tradition. That this teaching still relates to the fundamental ethical commands of the Torah, is clear from the second use of the expression “Law of freedom” in James 2:12 (to be discussed further in the next note).

Even though the letter of James says nothing directly about the Spirit, it is possible that the “implanted word” (o( e&mfuto$ lo/go$) indicates something deeper and more abiding than simply the content of the Gospel message and teaching of Jesus which believers have received and assimilated. Within Hellenistic Judaism, under the influence of Greek (especially Stoic) philosophical terminology and concepts, the lo/go$ (logos) was used in reference to the indwelling reason, which the wise and just person followed, as a guiding principle or Law. Following the “law” of reason—the same Reason/Lo/go$ which orders and governs the universe—brings both freedom and completion/perfection to the wise person (cf. Epictetus Diss. 4.1; M. Aurelius 7.9; 10.33, etc). Seneca (On the blessed life 15.7) even states this principle in theological terms that nearly echo Judeo-Christian teaching (deo parere libertas est, “to obey God is freedom”). Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are roughly contemporary with the letter of James, brings Stoic teaching into line with Old Testament/Jewish tradition—of many references, cf. On the Creation of the World §3, The Life of Moses II.48-52, On the Decalogue §1ff [throughout], and, especially the treatise Every Good Man Is Free (e.g. §45) [cf. Dibelius/Greeven, pp. 116-118*].

In this regard, it may be instructive to look at the other places where lo/go$ is used in the letter:

    • James 1:18, where the expression is “the account/word of truth” (lo/go$ a)lhqei/a$)—here it is stated that “willing (it), he [i.e. God] was swollen with us [i.e. was pregnant/gave birth to us] in/by the word of truth“. The lo/go$ then is the power (or means) by which believers are given birth as the offspring of God. The word a)parxh/ (“beginning from [i.e. of the harvest]”, often rendered “first fruits”), is used by Paul in a similar sense, both of believers (Rom 8:23; 11:16; 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15; 2 Thess 2:13) and of Christ himself (1 Cor 15:20, 23).
    • James 1:21-22, part of the current passage (rel. to the reference in v. 25)—the author makes a distinction between simply hearing the word and doing the word as well. The lo/go$ then clearly represents something which a person does, similar to the way in which one does (that is observes/fulfills) the Law.
    • James 3:2—here lo/go$ is used in the simple, conventional sense of the word[s] a person says or speaks; interestingly, James also uses the adjective te/leio$ (“complete”) together with lo/go$ in this verse:
      “If any (person) does not trip/fall in (giving) account [i.e. in word/speech], this (person) is a complete man…”

The second expression involving the Law (“the royal Law” no/mo$ basiliko/$, James 2:8) will be discussed in the next note.

* References marked “Dibelius/Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Hermeneia, rev. Heinrich Greeven, transl. Michael A. Williams; Fortress Press [1975]); those marked “Davids” are to Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Eerdmans / Paternoster Press [1982]).