Jesus and the Jewish Law

Motivation

One of the most tricky subjects amongst Christians and one that always causes quite a stir when debated, is whether or not Christian are to follow the Jewish Law. But why is that such a big deal? It’s because the Bible has evidence for both points of view. The Gospel of Matthew expresses the view that Christians are to follow the Jewish Law and the apostle Paul says quite the contrary. Messianic Jews, for instance, think Christians should follow the Law, Roman Catholics, for instance, don’t. So what’s the deal? Should Christians follow the Jewish Law, yes or no?


The Bible as Scripture

Christians often see the Bible as the infallible and perfect Word of God, hence there can be no contradictions in the text. This view, of course, presents problems when trying to resolve a problem like following the Jewish Law or not. When the Bible is seen as the infallible Word of God, only one answer can be right, how can God give two answers to the same question? That would undermine the infallible status of the Bible.

Perhaps theologically the Bible is infallible, but when you look at the Bible from a historical-critical view point, a different view emerges. Contradictions pop up all over the place. Including whether or not Christians should follow the Jewish Law. From a historical-critical viewpoint we learn that none of the authors of any of the books in the Bible wrote their book with the idea it would end up in a canon of some sort. The authors of, for instance, the Gospels were simply writing down what they thought was the story about Jesus, they never thought their writing would end up in something called “the New Testament”. Hence the countless contradictions. So we should not pretend Matthew, for instance, is telling the same story as Luke or that Matthew is portraying the same theological points of view as, for instance, Paul.


Jews and the Jewish Law

Christians often think it was an absolute dreadful and nearly impossible task for the Jews to live under the the Law. Nothing could be further from the truth as professor Bart Ehrman tells us in the following quote:

“Christians in the modern period frequently misunderstand the intent and the purpose of this Jewish Law. It is not the case that the ancient Jews generally thought that they had to keep all of the laws in order to earn God’s favour. This was not a religion of works in the sense that one had to follow a long list of do’s and don’ts in order to find salvation. Quite the contrary, as recent scholars have increasingly realised, ancient Jews were committed to following the Law because they had already been shown favour by God. The Jews had been chosen to be God’s special people, and the Law had been given to them to show them how to live up to this calling. For this reason. keeping the Law was not a dreaded task that everyone hated; Jews typically considered the law a great joy to uphold” Bart Ehrman – The New Testament (p. 66)


Matthew and the Jewish Law

When it comes to following the Jewish Law or not, Matthew always gets dragged in. Let’s see what Matthew has to say about the Jewish Law, or at least, what Matthew says Jesus has to say about the Jewish Law.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:17/20

What should be evident is that Matthew nowhere says that the Jewish law should be abolished. Fulfilling is not the same as abolishing. The Gospel of Matthew, perhaps the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels, goes out of his way to prove that Jesus was the expected Jewish messiah. Matthew’s story about Jesus shows important parallels with Moses’ and he leaves no stone unturned to portray Jesus as a new sort of Moses. Some would even go so far as to say that the five sermons given by Jesus in Matthew resemble the five books of the Pentateuch. So it would be totally against the intent of Matthew to have Jesus say that people no longer need to follow the Jewish law.

This is something modern scholars have been saying for quite a while now:

“In Matthew, Jesus is not opposed to the Law of Moses. He himself fulfils it, as seen in the important events of his birth, life, and death, events that are said to be fulfillments of the prophecies of Scripture. Moreover, Jesus in Matthew also requires his followers to fulfil the Law, in fact to fulfil it even better than the Jewish leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees.” – Bart Ehrman – The New Testament (p. 139)

Dale Martin from Yale University agrees:

“Most Christians have been taught, traditionally and at one time or another that Christianity represents the supersession of Judaism. The thing that makes Christians and Jews alike is their worship of the same God. What separates them is that Christians need not follow Jewish law. IT surprises people when they come to realise, as modern scholars have done, that this is not at all the attitude to the law in Matthew. Jesus, in fact, is portrayed in Matthew as explicit condemning any notion that he is rejecting the law or teaching his followers no to obey it.”

“Matthew believes that Jesus insisted that all members of his community, which by this time certainly included gentile converts, were expected to obey the law of Moses strictly. Christians have been taught that the “fulfilment” of the “law and prophets” mentioned in the first sentence took place once and for all in Jesus himself. Christians need not obey the Mosaic law because it has been “fulfilled” by Jesus’ obedience. But that is certainly an interpretation that the author of Matthew would have heatedly repudiated. Matthew believes that Jesus taught the continued necessity of the law “until heaven and earth pass away”. This can be borne out by a more careful look at those passages known to scholars as the Matthew “antithesis”.”

“Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does the opposite of what many christians have thought he was doing: rather than abrogating the Jewish law and replacing it with something more “loving” or “merciful”, he teaches that people should not only kee the Mosaic law but even go beyond it, go the second mile, internalize the intent of the law, obey the law and more.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 99/101)

When we look at the “Beatitudes” to which Martin refers, you will see why it is clear that Jesus did not abolish the Jewish law in Matthew but told his followers to even fulfil it better than the Jewish leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” – Matthew 5:21/22

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27/28

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31/32

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” – Matthew 5:38/39

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:43/44

A common objection to this all is Matthew 15:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” – Matthew 15:1/2

In Mark’s Gospel a similar story can be found in Mark 7. In this story Mark says that Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). But when you read Matthew 15, you will notice that Jesus says no such thing. And notice that the passage from Matthew 15 above is mentioning a tradition and not a command.


The Jewish Law in Luke, Acts and John

Views as found in Matthew regarding the Jewish Law can also be found in other Gospels, for instance in Luke: 

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” Luke 16:16/17

Or in John:

“Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside.”John 10:34/35

The Law being part of Scripture can thus not be set aside.

A very different view about the Jewish Law can be found in Acts, a book written most probably by the same author as Luke:

“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”Acts 7:52/53


Paul and the Jewish Law

Paul has a completely different take on the Jewish Law.

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”Romans 5:20/21

And:

“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator.”Galatians 3:16/19

Also:

“But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”Romans 7:6

So according to Paul the Law no longer applies. Paul says that God made a covenant with Abraham that predated the Jewish Law. Followers of Jesus were to follow that covenant as that was the original covenant. The Law was only given so that sin would increase and that would mean an increase of grace. Notice how Paul thinks the Law was given by angels (a view also found in Acts 7:52/53). This would make the Law of less importance since it’s not given by God but by “inferior” beings, namely angels.

Bart Ehrman explains:

“In reading the scriptures, Paul recognised that God had made more than one covenant with the Jewish Patriarchs. The first covenant was not with Moses (see Exodus 19-20), but with the father of the Jews, Abraham (see Genesis 17). God promised Abraham that we would be a blessing for all nations, not just Israel (Genesis 12:3). Abraham believed God’s promise and was rewarded with a right standing before God, or, as Paul calls it, “righteousness”. In Paul’s view, this promise was fulfilled in Jesus, not only for the Jew who later inherited the convenant given to Moses but also for the Gentile who trusted that God has fulfilled his promise in the person of Jesus. In other words, the original covenant was for all people, not just the Jews. Gentiles, therefore, did not have to follow this Law in order to be heirs of the original covenant.” – Bart Ehrman – The New Testament (p. 347)


Conclusion

As is often with subjects found in the Bible, the Bible doesn’t speak with one mouth. It has different views regarding the same subject because the books were written by different authors in different time periods with different theological ideas and points they wanted to get across to their readers (or listeners). So it’s up to Christians to decide what version of Christianity they want to follow. The one of Paul? The one of Matthew? Or maybe some other version perhaps.

 

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