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Jesus and the Law, Part 1: Introduction

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

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

“Jesus ist nicht der letzte Jude, sondern der Schöpfer einer neuen, wurzelechten Religion; er ist der erste Christ”
(“Jesus is not the last Jew, but [rather] the Creator of a new, genuinely-rooted Religion; he is the first Christian”)
—Heinrici, Bergpredigt [Sermon on the Mount] (1905), p. 98.

“Jesus war kein Christ, sondern Jude”
(“Jesus was not a Christian, but [rather] a Jew”)
—Wellhausen, Enleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien [Introduction to the first three Gospels] 2nd ed. (1911), p. 102.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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