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Jesus and Judaism

Yeshua the Anointed – Part 1: Introduction

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For Easter season this year, I will be presenting a series entitled “Yeshua the Anointed” (in conventional rendering, “Jesus the Messiah”) – focusing specifically on Jesus as the Anointed One, or Messiah. Within a generation (less than 30 years) after his death and resurrection, the term Xristo/$ (Christos, “Anointed [One]”) was being applied to Jesus virtually as a second name. Through the generations, right up to the present day, believers have been so accustomed to referring to him as “Jesus Christ” or “Christ”, that much of the original meaning of the title has been lost or forgotten. This began to change, to some extent, in the 20th century, largely as a result of more thorough critical study of the Jewish background of the New Testament (aided considerably by the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and we are now able to gain a clearer sense of what the term might have meant or signified for Jews and early Christians in the 1st century A.D.

The word “Messiah” is simply an Anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ), a substantive noun derived from the root jv^m* (m¹šaµ), which has the basic meaning to wipe, rub or otherwise apply a substance (such as paint or oil). It came to be used in the technical or ceremonial sense of the application of oil to persons or objects, as a means of consecration. More generally, in ancient Near Eastern culture, anointing with oil was often a way of bestowing honor or dignity upon a person (the use of oil typically being a sign and symbol of wealth), e.g. Psalm 23:5; Amos 6:6; Mic 6:15; Luke 7:46. Anointing with oil was also thought to be a means and medium for healing, i.e. of illness or disease (James 5:14; cf. Isa 1:6, etc); in addition, there was the ceremonial practice of anointing (or “embalming”) associated with burial ritual (cf. especially regarding Jesus’ burial in Mark 16:1; Matt 26:12; Luke 23:56; John 19:39).

Hebrew jv^m* is typically rendered in Greek by the corresponding verb a)lei/fw (aleíphœ), which likewise has the meaning “rub, wipe, smear” (used 8 times in the NT—Matt 6:17; Mk 6:13; 16:1; Lk 7:38, 46 [twice]; Jn 11:2; 12:3; Jas 5:14). However, when referring to the ritual/ceremonial practice of anointing rulers, priests, sacred objects, and the like, the verb xri/w (chríœ) is more common (LXX Exod 30:26; 40:10; Lev 8:11ff, et al); xri/w occurs 5 times in the NT (Lk 4:18 [quoting Isa 61:1]; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Cor 1:21; and Heb 1:9 [quoting Ps 45:7]), with the compound forms e)pixri/w and e)gxri/w in Jn 9:6, 11 and Rev 3:18. The derived noun xristo/$ (christós) corresponds to j^yv!m*—both mean literally “anointed (one or thing)” (i.e. person or object). The related noun xri=sma (chrísma) refers to the application or anointing itself (LXX Ex 29:7; 30:25, etc), and is used in the NT (of believers) only in a symbolic, spiritual sense (1 Jn 2:20, 27, cf. 2 Cor 1:21).

Use of the noun j^yv!m*

The substantive noun j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ) occurs 39 times in the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 76-77), and always in the ritual/ceremonial sense of a consecrated person (or object):

  • Most commonly it refers to the reigning/ruling King generally—1 Sam 2:10, 35; 16:6; Psalm 2:2; 20:7; 84:10 (and Psalm 28:8; Hab 3:13 ?), or to a specific ruler, such as:
    • Saul—1 Sam 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam 1:14, 16, 21 (?), and cf. also 1 Sam 12:3, 5
    • David—2 Sam 19:22; 22:51; 23:1; Psalm 18:51; 89:39, 52; 132:10, 17 (and/or the Davidic line)
    • Solomon—2 Chron 6:42
    • Zedekiah—Lam 4:20 (cf. 2 Kings 25:4-5)
  • It may also be used of an ordained/officiating Priest (or High Priest)—Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15
  • References to anointed Prophets in the OT are rare or uncertain, but note 1 Chron 16:22, Psalm 105:5, and cf. also 1 Kings 19:16
  • Only twice does the term clearly refer to a future, expected figure:
    • Isaiah 45:1 (the Persian ruler Cyrus)
    • Daniel 9:25-26 (of a military commander or “prince” [dyg]n`])—this famous passage will be discussed in due course

There are, of course, many references to the anointing of kings and rulers, priests, and sacred objects (i.e. of the Tabernacle), not all of which necessarily use the verb jv^m*: e.g., Gen 31:13; Ex 28:41; 29:7, 21, 29, 36; 30:25ff; 40:9-11ff; Lev 6:20, 22; 7:36; 8:10-12; 10:7; 16:32; 21:10, 12; Num 3:3; 7:1, 10, 84, 88; Judg 9:8, 15; 1 Sam 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12-13; 2 Sam 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3, 17; 12:7; 19:10; 1 Kings 1:34, 39, 45; 5:1; 19:15f; 2 Kings 9:3, 6, 12; 11:12; 23:30; 1 Chron 11:3; 14:8; 29:22; 2 Chron 22:7; Psalm 45:7; 89:20; Dan 9:24; and cf. also Zech 4:14.

The concept of anointing and anointed persons need not be limited to the use of the noun j^yv!m* (or the verb jv^m*), but it is helpful indeed to begin with these terms (and/or their Greek equivalents) when analyzing the idea of a “Messiah” in Jewish and early Christian thought.

Definition of Basic Terms

  • “Messiah”—As a basic concept, I define the term as: a ruler or leader, specially appointed by God, and through whom God will bring about the restoration of Israel, in a political and/or religious sense. To this definition, several additional or qualifying points should be made:
    • (1) The distinctive concept of a “Messiah” is primarily a product of the historical circumstances of the Exile, with the end of the old Israelite/Judean kingdoms, the conquest of the territory (and people), and the destruction of the Temple. Only in the Exilic and Post-exilic periods does the idea of the restoration of Israel come into view, and with it the hope of a divinely-appointed figure who will bring it about.
    • (2) This future hope gradually came to be understood in an eschatological context—that is, the appearance of a “Messiah” (or the “Messiah”) will precede, or coincide with, the end-time Judgment of God, and will usher in the Age to Come.
    • (3) While a “Messiah” may correspond to a number of different images or ideas (cf. below), the primary figure which developed in Israelite/Jewish thought was that of a Davidic ruler (i.e. from the dynasty or line of David) who will arise at some point (in the future) and restore the kingdom of Israel, subjugating the nations, and inaugurating a (worldwide) reign of peace.
    • (4) It is worth noting the virtually all of the traditions associated with the idea of a “Messiah” in Jewish and early Christian thought are derived from a relatively small set of Old Testament passages. Apart from the verses where the specific word j^yv!m* is used (cf. above), these include Gen 49:10; Num 24:15-19; 2 Sam 7:11-17; 22:44-51 (= Ps 18:44-51); 23:1-3, 5; Isa 11:1-9; Amos 9:11; Jer 22:4-5; 23:5-6; 30:9, 21; 33:14-22; Ezek 17:3-4, 22-23; 34:23-24; 37:24-25; Zech 3:8; 4:11-14; 6:12-13; Dan 7:13ff, and perhaps a few others. These will all be discussed at various points in this series. Extra-Scriptural influence on the Messiah concept would seem to be slight indeed.
  • “Messianic”: any belief, teaching, image, or motif which relates to, or is characteristic of, the idea of a “Messiah” as defined above.
  • “Messianism”: a distinct set of “Messianic” beliefs or concepts which is relatively consistent, and may be expressed as such (with some degree of clarity) in tradition or writing. I do not find the term to be particularly helpful, and it really ought to be used sparingly, as little as possible.

Some authors and scholars, on occasion, will apply the terms “Messianic” and “Messianism” to similar religious-cultural phenomena outside of Judaism—i.e. ancient Persian, Egyptian (in the Roman period), Hindu, Islamic, etc. While one may legitimately consider “Messianism” or “Messiah” concepts under the larger umbrella of the Phenomenology of Religion—and, admittedly, there are any number of parallels in other cultures—it is best to reserve “Messiah” and “Messianic” specifically for Jewish (and early Christian) thought. The only (partial) exception is that I would, without hesitation, include Samaritan beliefs (associated with a future/coming Taheb [bht]) as “Messianic”.

Sources for Messianic thought (in the 1st century A.D.)

I would group these into four categories:

  • The Old Testament Scriptures—for a list of the most relevant passages, see above.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls (from Qumran)—These texts span the period roughly 150 B.C. to 50 A.D., with the majority to be dated somewhere in the 1st century B.C. It is generally assumed that the scrolls found in the various caves belonged to a Community which resided at the site of Khirbet Qumrân. The corpus represented by the scrolls comprises a wide range of writings: documents related to the organization of the Community, copies of Scripture, commentaries, pseudepigrapha and other interpretive treatments of Scripture, and much more. A number of texts contain definite eschatological and/or Messianic passages, which will be introduced and discussed throughout this series.
  • Other Jewish writings c. 250 B.C.–100 A.D.—These include:
    • Pseudepigraphic works with an apocalyptic and/or eschatological emphasis, especially—
      • The Psalms of Solomon (mid-late 1st century B.C. [sometime after 63 B.C.]), esp. the 17th and 18th psalms
      • The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which appears to be a Christian expansion (or adaptation) of earlier Jewish source material (mid-2nd century B.C.?). The presumed Christian additions likely date from the early/mid-2nd century A.D. The Qumran text 4QTLevi is related in some way to the Testament of Levi.
      • The Sibylline Oracles (esp. portions of Books 3 and 5), which contain much Jewish material (variously dated from the mid-2nd century B.C. to the late 1st century A.D.), along with Christian additions and adaptation.
      • The Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), date uncertain, probably early-mid 1st century A.D.
      • The Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), late 1st century A.D.
      • The deutero-canonical 2/4 Esdras (or “4 Ezra”), late 1st century A.D.
    • Several passages in the books of Jubilees and Sirach (both typically dated early/mid-2nd century B.C.)
    • Philo of Alexandria shows little interest in eschatology or Messianic ideas (but cf. On Rewards and Punishments §§165-9). As for Josephus, his pro-Roman viewpoint made him averse to popular Messianic expectation, but he does bear witness to several would-be “Messiah”-type figures who appeared and had some influence (Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-172; War 7.437ff). That Messianic expectation was relatively widespread is indicated by Josephus’ report of a prophecy that a world-ruler would come out of Judea (War 6.312ff, and cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.13.2; Suetonius, Vespasian 4.5).
    • We might also include texts and inscriptions associated with the Bar-Kokhba rebellion (132-135 A.D.)
  • Later Jewish Literature, from the 2nd century A.D. on into the middle ages—these writings may contain earlier traditions, but one must be extremely cautious about trying to read them back into the time of Jesus. There is a wide range of material, including:
    • Later Pseudepigrapha, such as so-called “Hebrew Enoch” (3 Enoch)
    • The Targums, Aramaic translations of Scripture which are often highly interpretative and expansive
    • Traditions contained in the Midrash and Talmuds
    • Collections of Midrashim (such as the Midrash Rabbah) and other Rabbinic writings

j^yv!m* in Jewish writings 1st-century B.C./A.D.

It is instructive to list the relevant passages where the noun j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ), or the corresponding Greek xristo/$ (christós) etc., is used in Jewish writings of the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. (including the New Testament). For Old Testament passages using j^yv!m, cf. above.

The Dead Sea (Qumran) Texts (cf. “Qumran-Messianism”, pp. 191-4), including the so-called “Damascus Document” which, in addition to the fragments from Qumran (QD), is attested also in later versions or copies found previously in Cairo [CD]:

  • It is often used of a political/military leader (presumably, if not explicitly, Davidic):
    • Anointed (One) of Israel
      CD 12:23-13:1; 14:19 (= 4Q266 10 i 12); 19:10-11; 20:1
      1QS 9:11 (passage apparently missing from 4Q259 1 iii 6)
      1QSa 2:14-15, 20-21; and also 4Q382 16 2
    • Anointed (One)
      1QSa 2:11-12; 4Q252 5:3-4; 4Q381 15 7; 4Q458 2 ii 6
  • It is used similarly of a priestly leader (Priest/High-priest):
    • Anointed (One) of Aaron
      CD 12:23-13:1; 14:9; 19:10-11; 20:1; 1QS 9:11 (all parallel to “Anointed [One] of Israel”)
    • Anointed Priest
      4Q375 1 i 9; 4Q376 1 i 1
  • It frequently refers to the (historical) Prophets, always in the plural (“Anointed Ones”):
    • CD 2:12; 5:21-6:1 (= 4Q267 2 6 / 6Q15 3 4); 1QM 11:7-8; 4Q270 2 ii 13-14; 4Q287 10 13; 4Q521 8 9
    • And similarly of Moses: 4Q377 2 ii 4-5, and cf. CD 5:21f
  • It is used of an Elijah-like Prophet figure in 4Q521 1 ii 1, 7 3 (drawing upon Isa 61:1ff and Ps 146)
  • It is used of an Anointed “herald” (r?bm) in 11QMelch 2:18, referring specifically to Daniel 9:25

Pseudepigrapha (cf. “Qumran-Messianism”, pp. 29-43)—the key passages are:

  • Psalms of Solomon 17:32[36]; 18:5, 7 (and cf. the context of 17:21-33)
  • The Similitudes of Enoch—1 Enoch 48:10; 52:4 [Ethiopic]
  • The Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch) 29:3; 30:1; 39:7; 40:1; 70:9; 72:2 [Syriac]; and note esp. the context of chs. 72-74.
  • 2/4 Esdras (4 Ezra) 7:28-29ff (throughout ch. 7); 11:37-12:34; and see also 13:3-14:9

New Testament—here I list out only those verses where xristo/$ is clearly used in the general sense of an expected (future or end-time) figure; square brackets indicate references which are slightly less certain, or which may be colored more by early Christian belief about Jesus. Naturally enough, nearly all of these come from the Gospels and Acts.

  • Mark 8:29; 12:35; 13:21; 14:61; 15:32 (and parallels in Matt/Luke)
  • Luke 3:15; 4:41; 23:39; [24:26, 46]
  • Matthew 2:4; [11:2; 24:5]
  • John 1:20, 25; 3:28; 4:29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 10:24; 11:27; 12:34; [20:31]
  • Acts [2:31]; 3:20; 5:42; [8:5]; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; [26:23]
  • [Romans 9:5]
  • 1 John 2:22; 5:1

In John 1:41; 4:25, j^yv!m* is transliterated (as Messi/a$), rather than translated by Xristo/$.

Messianic Figures or Types

I would highlight five distinct figures or types associated with the Messiah-concept in Jewish and early Christian tradition:

  1. The Davidic King—a political/military ruler, usually understood to be a ‘descendent’ of David, though this does not necessarily mean biological descent.
  2. The True or Ideal Priest—a priestly ‘descendent’ of Levi/Aaron who will oversee the religious restoration of Israel; this figure is associated especially with the Messianic beliefs and expectations of the Qumran Community.
  3. The Coming Prophet—an end-time miracle-working and/or teaching prophet whose appearance will precede the Judgment of God; there are two strands of tradition which developed:
    (a) A Moses-figure (from Deut 18:15-19)
    (b) An Elijah-figure (from Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6)
  4. A Teacher of Righteousness/Holiness—who will bring divine revelation and instruction, especially with regard to a proper understanding of the Law (Torah); a distinctive feature of the Qumran texts.
  5. A Heavenly/Angelic Deliverer—associated as well with the end-time Judgment of God; best known in terms of the “Son of Man” concept, as developed (it would seem) from the brief reference in Daniel 7:13f.

These are best understood as specific types or roles—it may be possible for a single person or figure to fulfill more than one role. As we shall see, all five of these can be seen as being fulfilled by Jesus in various ways, and this as been expressed at different points throughout the history of Christian belief and tradition.

Outline for this Series

Here is the outline I will be following for this series:

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: The Coming Prophet
  • Part 3: The Coming Prophet: Moses and Elijah
  • Part 4: The Teacher of Righteousness
  • Part 5: The Kingdom of God
  • Part 6: The Davidic King: Overview and Background
  • Part 7: The Davidic King: Detailed Analysis
  • Part 8: The Son of David
  • Part 9: The True Priest
  • Part 10: The Son of Man
  • Part 11: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
  • Part 12: Messiah and the Son of God

In each article I will attempt to examine: (a) the Old Testament background, (b) Jewish believers or traditions which are likely to have been in existence during the 1st century A.D., (c) how it relates or applies to Jesus at the historical level and in Gospel tradition, and (d) how it further was understood in early Christian thought.

Bibliographic Note: There are many books and articles which survey Messianic beliefs in the Qumran Texts (Dead Sea Scrolls); I found three to be especially useful, which I will be citing frequently during this series:
* John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] 1995)—referenced as “Collins”.
* Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins ([Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature], Eerdmans: 2000), esp. pp. 73-110—referenced as “Fitzmyer”.
* James H. Charlesworth, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Gerbern S. Oegema, editors, Qumran Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Mohr Siebeck: 1998)—referenced as “Qumran-Messianism”.

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

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

The Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:
The legal-religious aspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The theological-christological aspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Law, Part 4: The Sabbath Controversies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Miracle(s) performed on the Sabbath

This takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition. The main episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, which takes place in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11). The common elements (using the Markan account) are as follows:

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

There are several key differences in the Matthean version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Law, Part 3: The Antitheses and the Sermon on the Mount

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Matthew 5:21-48 represents the first major section of the collection of Jesus’ teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount” (chapters 5-7). These verses are typically referred to as the Antitheses, since they represent a series of six contrasting sayings. Before proceeding with a exposition of the Antitheses, it is recommended that you read and study carefully the preceding verses 17-20; I have previously discussed these in a daily note. Verses 17-20 present four statements by Jesus regarding his view of the Law (Torah)—principles which should be kept in mind when attempting to analyze and interpret what follows. Also important are the Beatitudes (5:3-12) which serve as an introduction (exordium) to the ‘Sermon’ as a whole; I have also discussed the Beatitudes in some detail in a separate exegetical study series.

The Antitheses each begin with the phrase h)kou/sate o%ti e)rre/qh (“you heard that it has been uttered/said…”), and once simply “it has been uttered/said” (e)rre/qh). In several instances this phrase is qualified with the expression toi=$ a)rxai/oi$ (“to the chief/leading ones”). The adjective a)rxai=o$ can be understood in the qualitative sense of leading or prominent people (i.e., elders, rulers, authorities), or temporally, those “at the beginning”, i.e. a long time ago. In other words, these are well-established sayings (or teachings) with some measure of authority and tradition behind them. The “leading men (of old)” (oi( a)rxai=oi) include venerable authorities on Scripture and the Law, extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets—cf. Luke 9:8, 19; Philo Who Is the Heir §181, 283; On Abraham §1-6ff; On the Special Laws I.8; On the Sacrifices of Abel & Cain §79 (Betz, p. 215, 216).

In each instance, Jesus contrasts the customary/traditional saying with his own teaching—e)gw\ de\ le/gw u(mi=n (“but I say to you…”). As we shall see, Jesus’ argument differs in each Antithesis; the customary saying may reflect a distortion of the original meaning and intent of the Law, or he may argue that simply following the letter of the Law is insufficient. The six Antitheses may be divided as follows:

  1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)
  2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)
  3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)
  4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)
  5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)
  6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

At first glance, there may seem to be no obvious pattern here; however, it is possible to view these as three (logical) pairs (see the concluding summary below).

1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)

Customary saying[s]:

  • “you shall not slay (a person) [i.e. murder]” and
    “who(ever) should slay (a person) will be held in (custody) for the judgment”

Jesus’ saying[s]:

  • “every one that (is) angered by his brother will be held in (custody) for the Judgment”
    “who(ever) should say to his brother ‘Rêqa!’ {‘Empty-[head]!’} will be held in (custody) for the Council [lit. {place of} sitting-together]”
    “who(ever) should say (to him) ‘Dullard! [i.e. Fool/Stupid]’ will be held in (custody) unto the Ge-hinnom of Fire”

Relation to the Law:

The first of the customary sayings comes from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:15 [LXX]); the second saying does not come from Scripture, rather it is a basic formulation of how the law would be applied—one who commits murder/manslaughter will be charged and held for judgment (and punishment).

Jesus’ Exposition:

The validity of the law concerning murder/manslaughter is not questioned; rather, Jesus’ extends the principle to any angry outburst against another person (one’s “brother”, i.e. neighbor). While the customary saying refers to normal judgment in a human court, it would seem that Jesus moves this into the Divine/Heavenly realm, in sequence:

  • the Judgment (kri/si$)—that is, the (end-time) judgment before God
  • the Council (sune/drion)—by a similar wordplay, this presumably is not a human judicial (or ruling) council, but the (heavenly) Council of God
  • the ‘Ge-hinnom’ of Fire (ge/enna tou= puro/$)—the “valley of Hinnom” came to be a proverbial symbol of the end-time judgment, where the wicked/worthless ones will be punished (with fire, burned as refuse)

Example/Application:

This warning against anger is followed by two examples illustrating the importance and (practical) value of reconciliation:

  • Vv. 23-24: reconciliation with one’s neighbor takes precedence over fulfilling religious/ritual obligations
  • Vv. 25-26: if you do not try to reconcile you may end up facing the harsh judgment of the court (to say nothing of God’s Judgment!)

2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)

Customary saying: “you shall not commit adultery”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looks (on) a woman toward setting (his) heart/desire/passion upon her already has committed adultery (with) her in his heart”

Relation to the Law: as with the first Antithesis, we have a simple citation from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:13 [LXX]).

Jesus’ Exposition:

His reply follows that of the first Antithesis: he does not deny the validity of the Law, but rather extends it to any lustful/passionate gazing upon a woman (naturally enough the reverse also applies—a woman gazing upon a man). Marriage (and at a very young age) was more widespread in the ancient Near East than in modern (Western) society—looking a woman typically meant looking at a married (or betrothed) woman; however, certainly the basic principle Jesus states is relevant even for unmarried men and women. The Greek word qumo/$ is somewhat difficult to translate in English; fundamentally it refers to a passionate/violent movement (as of wind or breath), which I prefer to render “impulse”, but (with human beings) can be understood in the general sense of “will”, “soul”, “mind”, “anger”, and the like. The verb e)piqume/w means to set one’s qumo/$ upon something (or someone); in English idiom we might say “set one’s heart (or desire)” upon someone/something, or simply to “desire”. Sometimes, as here, the verb is translated “lust (after)”—not a very literal rendering, but it does get the idea across.

Example/Application:

Verses 29-30 repeat a set of sayings by Jesus found elsewhere in Synoptic tradition (cf. Mark 9:43-48), told in provocative language—a crude (and graphic) warning to his followers to “cut off” any source of sin. As with the first Antithesis, the warning points to the end-time Judgment and punishment in “Gehenna”.

3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)

Customary saying: “who(ever) would loose his woman [i.e. wife] from (him), let (him) give her a (document of) separation [lit. standing away] from (him)”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looses his woman/wife from (him)—besides an account of porneia—makes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries (a woman) loosed from (her husband) commits adultery”

Relation to the Law: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 offers a provision for divorce—that is, for a man to divorce his wife (it is not clear that the woman is understood to have the same right). The acceptable justification for divorce is stated in vague terms, which Jesus clarifies: divorce is allowed only in the case of pornei/a (porneía). This Greek word is somewhat difficult to translate; originally it referred to sex for hire (i.e. prostitution), but eventually came to be used for any illicit sexual intercourse, and even to sexual immorality in general. Here it is generally synonymous with (but not strictly limited to) “adultery” (moixei/a).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 10:1-12 par) Jesus discusses the question of divorce (and Deut 24:1-4) more extensively—the only instance in the Gospels where he addresses a specific Torah regulation at any length. There he explains that the provision in Deut 24:1-4 was written as (a necessary) accommodation to the people’s “hardness of heart”. He further cites Genesis 2:24 to affirm the sacred and binding nature of marriage. In the Markan account (vv. 11-12) he makes a statement nearly identical to Matt 5:32 here—but without the porneia-exception. Scholars have long debated whether or not the historical Jesus forbid divorce outright, as indicated in Mark 10:1-12; this would certainly be the more radical approach. The teaching in Matt 5:32 differs only moderately from the Torah regulation.

4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)

Customary saying[s]:

  • “you shall not give a (false) oath” but (rather)
    “you shall give forth [i.e. give back, repay] your oaths to the Lord”

Jesus’ saying:

  • “wholly not to affirm (by oath)”—i.e. “do not affirm/swear (by an oath) at all”

Relation to the Law:

The first customary saying generally relates to the commandments in Exod 20:16 / Deut 5:20 (also Lev 19:12)—that is, against committing perjury (false witness which is taken on oath). For the expression in Greek, see LXX Zech 5:3-4; Wis 14:25; 1 Esdras 1:46, in Philo On the Special Laws I.235, etc., and esp. the Sentences of Ps.-Phocylides §16 (cf. Betz, p. 263). The second saying would seem to emphasize the binding, religious character of an oath (like a vow made to God)—see Deuteronomy 23:21ff for similar language. It should be pointed out that the Torah does not require oaths (or vows), but simply gives instruction concerning them.

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus’ teaching on the matter requires a clear sense of the ancient concept of the oath and is easily misunderstood today. The Greek word here translated as “oath” is o%rko$ (hórkos); its etymology is uncertain, but it seems to have the fundamental meaning of something which encloses or limits, or otherwise binds a person. The verb e)piorke/w (with the related noun e)piorki/a) also has an obscure origin, but the particle e)pi (“upon”) may indicate an action or gesture made “in addition to” the statement; however, the word (or expression) came to mean (giving) a “false oath” (i.e. committing perjury). For early use of these terms, see esp. Hesiod Theogony 231-32, Works and Days 193-94, 282-83 (cf. Betz, p. 264). In the ancient world, the oath had a religious-magical quality—it was intended to guarantee reliability of speech and behavior by calling upon the divine powers (i.e. specified gods, including [commonly] heaven and earth, sun, moon, stars, etc). The “gods” or divine forces were witness to the oath and would thus punish any violation or transgression. Even in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, we still see this usage of calling upon heaven and earth, etc. as witnesses (Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:40; Isa 1:2, etc). Of course, the monotheism of ancient Israel meant that oaths and vows were primarily made unto YHWH, or by His Name (Gen 24:3; Jos 2:12; 9:18-29; Judg 21:2; 1 Sam 20:12; 24:21, etc); and, according to the ancient religious mindset, the name of the Deity represented its very power and presence. It is this quasi-magical thinking that underlies the commandment in Exod 20:7—against using the name of YHWH for a false or evil purpose. However, by the time of the New Testament, oaths by God (or his name) were to be avoided altogether, as expressed clearly by Philo in On the Special Laws II.1-38 (commenting on Exod 20:7). Philo urges that oaths be kept as simple as possible (beyond “yes” or “no”), but suggests that one may (in addition) call upon the earth, sun, stars, etc. It is such a view that Jesus speaks against in Matt 5:34-36.

Example/Application:

Though not the only teacher who argued against the value of oaths (for examples from the Delphic oracle, Sophocles, Plutarch, Quintilian, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Diogenes Laertius, etc., see Betz, p. 267), Jesus’ blunt declaration in v. 34 that one should not affirm anything (by using an oath) at all is perhaps the most absolute and striking. As he states in the concluding verse 37, an emphatic “yes” (nai\ nai/) or “no” (ou* ou&) should be sufficient—anything beyond/exceeding [perisso\n] this is “from the Evil (One) [e)k tou= ponhrou=]”. This would seem to be an especially strict teaching, forbidding any sort of oath, with, as I see it, two principles at work: (1) Jesus objects to the quasi-magical character of the oath, and (2) he wishes to emphasize that trustworthiness should stem (internally) from a person’s own heart and moral character, requiring no practical or external prop. Many commentators argue that Jesus’ teaching here does not relate to the modern practice of taking oaths (in a court of law, etc). I thoroughly disagree with such an interpretation—even though our modern oaths are largely routine and but a faint vestige of the ancient usage, the underlying principle is the same, as defined by Philo (Spec. leg. II.10: “an oath is… to call God to bear witness in a disputed matter”) and Cicero (De officiis 3.104: “an oath is an assurance backed by religious sanctity”) [cf. Betz, p. 261]. It is up to each believer to follow his or her conscience in such matters, but the teaching of Jesus here should not be carelessly set aside or neglected out of practical concern.

5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)

Customary saying: “eye against eye and tooth against tooth”

Jesus’ saying: “not to stand [i.e. do not stand] against the (one doing) evil”

Relation to the Law:

The customary saying is taken from Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21 [LXX]. The Greek preposition a)nti (“against, opposite, over”) here has the meaning “in exchange, in place of”; the maxim is usually rendered in English “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. It is actually an ancient legal principle—the talio principle or lex talionis (ius talionis)—which extends back even earlier than the Law of Moses (cf. §196ff of the Code of Hammurabi). Its fundamental purpose was to regulate the administration of justice and ensure that punishment was commensurate with the crime or the injury inflicted. It was also meant to curb the seeking of personal revenge, which can easily become excessive and devolve into blood vengeance. Over the millennia legal experts and philosophers have debated whether the principle should be taken and applied literally—many have thought so, but from the earliest time we also find the practice of providing monetary compensation to the injured person (proportionate to the injury). Jesus here apparently takes the maxim literally (for such a contemporary view, cf. Philo On the Special Laws III.181-204).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus treats the underlying principle broadly, beyond the literal wording of the maxim itself; instead of specifically relating to a physical injury, he refers to any one who does evil. This is the best way to understand o( ponhro/$ (“the evil [one])” in verse 39—earlier in v. 37 it seems to refer to the Devil/Satan (“the Evil One”), but here the context requires “the one [doing] evil”. The verb a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”, “set [oneself] against”) can be understood several different ways: (1) to oppose someone (generally), (2) to resist someone, (3) to retaliate against someone. While the first two senses may still relate to Christian ethics, it is the third which seems to be in view here—Jesus is telling his followers not to retaliate (strike back) when struck by another.

Example/Application:

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Jesus goes beyond even this basic ethical principle with the examples which follow in vv. 39b-41:

  1. Verse 39b: if someone slaps/strikes you on the right cheek (perhaps with the back of the hand, as an insult), turn your (left) cheek (inviting him to strike you there as well).
  2. Verse 40: if someone seeks your shirt/tunic in a legal judgment (i.e. lawsuit) against you, give your opponent even more than he is asking (give him your coat as well).
  3. Verse 41: if a soldier (or other authority figure) commandeers you and forces you to walk a mile, do even more than he asks (go with him two miles).

The principle of non-retaliation is thus extended—to willingly accept greater hardship and suffering rather than to resist or strike back. While ancient philosophers and wisdom writings often counseled showing kindness and fair treatment to one’s enemies, it is hard to find a similar example of such bold and radical teaching in this regard (cf. further on the sixth Antithesis below). Jesus also acted out the principle (in striking fashion), according to Gospel tradition—Matt 26:50-54 par; Mark 14:60-65 par; cf. also 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9-12.

Verse 42 provides a maxim parallel to that in v. 39a: “give to the one asking of you, and do not turn away the one wishing to borrow from you”—the negative command has turned into a positive one.

6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

Customary saying:

  • “you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]”

Jesus’ saying:

  • “love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you”

Relation to the Law:

The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.

Example/Application:

As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:

  • makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
  • sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike

In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis is here on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.

Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.

Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:

“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”

This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.

By way of conclusion, we must consider the following:

  1. The relationship of the Antitheses to Jesus’ statements regarding the Law in verse 17ff
  2. How the Antitheses are summarized by Jesus in verse 48

Each of these will be addressed in a supplementary note.

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 2: Survey of Passages

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As indicated in the previous article, I recognize three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah) which seem to be reflected in sayings and actions of Jesus preserved in the Gospel traditions. I will be using these as a framework for outlining the various relevant passages. However, to begin with, it is helpful to survey the Gospel passages according to specific aspects of the Law and Torah observance:

First, it is important to note that Jesus only rarely mentions the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, such as the sacrificial offerings and other cultic duties involving the Temple; indeed, I find only two (or three) passages where he directs someone to observe specific laws (or related practices):

  • Mark 1:40-44 (par Lk 5:12-14; Matt 8:1-4)—upon cleansing a man of “leprosy” (a severe skin disease), Jesus instructs him to offer “what Moses commanded” (cf. Leviticus 14:1-32); there is a similar directive in the Lukan account of the cleansing of the “ten lepers” (Lk 17:11-19, v. 14).
  • Matthew 17:24-27—on the question of whether Jesus and his disciples (should) pay the half-shekel “Temple tax” (cf. Exod 30:13; 38:26), Jesus ultimately instructs Peter to pay it (v. 27); however, the discussion in vv. 25-26 is much more ambiguous regarding the Law (see below).

Similarly, Jesus discusses (or mentions) specific laws only on rare occasions in the Gospels:

  • Most notable, is the question posed to him regarding divorce in Mark 10:2-12 (par Matt 19:3-9); from the so-called “Q” tradition (in Matthew/Luke), we find similar teaching (Matt 5:31-32; Lk 16:18); the specific Mosaic law is in Deut 24:1-4.
  • Interestingly, apart from Jn 7:22-23, Jesus never mentions circumcision.
  • Other laws, such as the Sabbath observance, are touched upon, but they are better dealt with under the category of Jesus’ discussion/disputes with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”, cf. below).

Mention should also be made of the so-called “greatest commandment”, whereby Jesus cites (or affirms) Deut 6:4-5 (love toward God) and Lev 19:18 (love toward one’s neighbor) together, in Mark 12:28-34 (par Matt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28).

On a number of occasions Jesus cites the Torah (as Scripture) or otherwise emphasizes the authoritative character of the Law:

  • Matthew 5:17-20 (see below)—this is Jesus’ most direct and specific teaching regarding the Law.
  • Most notable are the citations in the Temptation episode (Matt 4:1-11 / Lk 4:1-13), where he quotes Deut 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13—while being commands, these verses represent religious precepts rather than laws involving socio-political or ritual matters.
  • In several places, Jesus interprets (or is said to interpret) the Law (and Prophets), clearly implying its authoritative character—e.g., the ‘Antitheses’ of Matt 5:21-48 (also through chs. 6-7); the references in Luke 24:27, 44-45ff.

In numerous passages, Jesus is shown in debate with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”) over issues related to the Law. The “scribes” were the scholars and legal experts, many of whom were also Pharisees. Though frequently depicted as Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees would have had a fair amount in common with him; in general, their religious devotion was much to be admired, and Jesus must have engaged in lively discussion and debate with them (only a small portion of which is preserved in the Gospels). The noteworthy passages are:

  • Mark 2:16-17 (par Lk 5:30-32; Matt 9:11-13)—on Jesus’ eating with “sinners” and toll-collectors (with citation from Hos 6:6); cf. also Lk 15:1-2 and the parables which follow
  • Mark 2:18ff (par Lk 5:33ff; Matt 9:14ff)—on why Jesus and his disciples do not fast (with a parable)
  • Mark 7:1-5ff (par Matt 15:1-3ff)—on why Jesus’ disciples do not wash hands when they eat (note the discussion in vv. 6-13, with citation from Isa 29:13); and note the specific mention of the Pharisees in Matt 15:12ff
  • Mark 8:11-13 (par Matt 16:1-4)—on their testing Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven
  • Mark 10:1-12 (par Matt 19:1-12)—the question regarding divorce (dealing with Deut 24:1-4; Jesus also cites Gen 2:24)
  • Mark 12:13-17 (par Lk 20:20-26; Matt 22:15-22)—on whether it is right to pay tax/tribute to Caesar (i.e. the Roman government), a legal-religious question
  • Mark 12:28-34 (par Matt 22:34-40, also Lk 10:25-28)—on which commandment is the most important (citing Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18); in Lk the parable of the Good Samaritan follows
  • [John 8:1-11]—question to Jesus regarding application of the Law for a woman caught in adultery
  • Cf. also the role of the Scribes/Pharisees in the Sabbath controversies (below)

Note also:

  • Matt 5:20—Jesus’ saying/warning to his disciples (rel. to the Pharisees); in this context, note also Mark 11:27-33 par, and the parable in Matt 21:28-32ff (cf. the Pharisees’ reaction in vv. 45-46)
  • Luke 7:30, 31-34—Jesus’ response to the criticism by the religious leaders (mention of the Pharisees in v. 30); cf. also Lk 16:14-15
  • Luke 7:36-50—the episode of Jesus being anointed by the “sinful woman” in the house of (Simon) the Pharisee
  • Mark 8:14-15ff (par Matt 16:5-6ff)—Jesus’ teaching warning against the “leaven of the Pharisees”
  • Luke 17:20-21ff—question to Jesus regarding the coming of the Kingdom of God
  • Luke 18:9-14—the parables of the Pharisee and the toll-collector
  • Mark 10:33 (par Matt 20:18)—the “scribes” are specifically mentioned (with the “chief priests”) in Jesus’ (third) Passion prediction
  • Luke 19:39-40—the Pharisees rebuke of Jesus’ disciples hailing him (at the ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem), with Jesus’ reply
  • Mark 12:35-37 (par Matt 22:41-46; Lk 20:41-44)—Jesus’ question regarding the interpretation of Psalm 110:1
  • Mark 12:38-40 (par Lk 20:45-47, and in Matt 23)—Jesus warns his disciples against (behaving like) the Scribes
  • Mark 14:1-2 (par Lk 22:1-2, and cf. Matt 26:1-5)—the role of the Scribes in plotting Jesus’ death; and their role in the “trial” itself (Mark 14:53-65 par), also Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15

An important source of controversy in the Gospel tradition involves Jesus’ observance of the Sabbath. There are certain critical (and interpretive) questions regarding these passages, and I will be dealing with them in more detail in a separate article in this series. First, it should be pointed out here that Jesus is shown in the Synagogue in religious observance of the Sabbath, as in Luke 4:16-20ff; and Mark 1:21ff (par Lk 4:31ff)—this latter passage involves a healing miracle, but with no mention of any controversy. The Sabbath controversy traditions involve two episodes:

  • Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5), with the associated Son of Man saying(s) in vv. 27-28
  • A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition:
    Mark 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11): the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (as in Mark 1:21ff par)
    Luke 13:10-17: the healing of a crippled/hunchbacked woman (again in a Synagogue); this is almost a doublet of 6:6-11 par
    John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)—the Sabbath question continues into the discourse of vv. 18-29ff
    The question of healing on the Sabbath also appears in John 7:21-25 (note the connection to the Law in vv. 16-19) and 9:14-17; and Jesus deals with the question directly (responding to scribes and Pharisees) in Luke 14:1-6

In addition to the Sabbath, we should mention passages which refer to Jesus observing the other holy days (or ‘feasts’) prescribed in the Law—namely, Passover, which Jesus is shown observing on at least one occasion (Mark 14:12-25; par Matt 26:17-29; Lk 22:7-23; and cf. John 13:1-30). In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears in Jerusalem during the feasts on other occasions—Passover (Jn 2:13-25; and cf. also 6:4ff), Booths/Tabernacles (Jn 7-8), Dedication/Hanukkah (Jn 10:22-42), and an unspecified feast (Jn 5). On these occasions, at the historical level, Jesus presumably would have participated in the ceremonial/ritual aspects; however, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis is on his teaching and the fulfillment (in his own person) of the various religious and ritual elements.

Finally, notice should be taken of the interesting relationship between Jesus and the Temple. Apart from the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-19 (par Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48) and John 2:13-22, Jesus is mentioned subsequently teaching in the Temple (presumably over some days, see esp. Lk 19:47; 20:1; 21:5, 37-38), but otherwise is never seen there (as an adult, at least). His few sayings regarding the Temple—Mark 13:1-2 par; Matt 12:5-6; 23:16-21; John 2:19 (and cf. Mk 14:58 par); including the citation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 in Mk 11:17 par—are either critical of the Temple (and its establishment) or highly ambivalent. I will be discussing this entire question in a separate article in this series as well.

Now here is an outline of some key passages according to the three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah), mentioned above:

1. Traditions where Jesus advocates Torah observance, but where following him may involve going beyond it:

  • Matthew 5:17-20, which I have discussed in a previous note. Each of the four sayings in these verses would seem to imply that the commands and precepts of the Law (Torah) remain in force for Jesus’ followers; this is especially true if one understands the “commandments” in verse 19 as those of the Torah rather than Jesus himself, though I tend to think the latter is more likely. Much of the same thought pervades the entire “Sermon on the Mount” (chs. 5-7), and especially the so-called ‘Antitheses’ of 5:21-48; these, in particular, will be discussed in the next part of this series. The principle here understood is made explicit in 5:20: Jesus’ followers are expected to match (and surpass) the Pharisees in terms of justice/righteousness, which in context seems to include observance of the Torah (and/or Jesus’ own commands and interpretation concerning it).
  • In Matthew 23, the “Woes” delivered by Jesus in rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders (Scribes and Pharisees), we find the same mindset as in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly emphasizing that inward purity and devotion should match the outward observance; note especially verse 24, which suggests that the outward observance is still required (or at least is still important).
  • In the episode of the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22ff par), Jesus’ reply to the man’s question, citing the Ten Commandments, would imply that these fundamental commands (the ethical side, at least, i.e. Exod 20:12-17) are required to be observed strictly; however, it is also clear that following Jesus requires more than this (v. 21).
  • Consider also the Matthean version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matt 3:13-17); in verse 15, Jesus responds to John’s objection (toward baptizing Jesus) by stating “it is fit/proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. This principle expressed in this statement can be understood along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. above), that following Jesus involves fulfilling (i.e. observing) the Law (Matt 5:17)

2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance:

a) By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
b) By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations

There are a number of passages which can be understood especially according to (b); among the most notable are:

  • The saying in Mark 2:27-28 par, associated with the Sabbath controversy (plucking grain on the Sabbath), where Jesus declares two (related) principles:
    (a) the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (v. 27) and
    (b) the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) is Lord even of the Sabbath (v. 28)
    The second statement, especially, suggests that Jesus’ authority (in his own person) supersedes that of the Sabbath regulation (and, by extension, any other [lesser] law as well)
  • In the context of the Matthean version of the Sabbath controversy (mentioned above), three sayings are strung together:
    (i) “(something/someone) greater than the Temple is here” (Matt 12:6)
    (ii) “I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]” (12:7, citing Hos 6:6 [cf. also Matt 9:13 par])
    (iii) “for the Son of Man is Lord (even) of the Sabbath” (12:8)
    The second saying devalues (or relativizes) the important of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, while the first and third clearly indicate that Jesus himself supersedes both the Law and the Temple.
  • Similarly, the emphasis on Jesus’ authority, especially to declare forgiveness/pardon for sin, proved highly controversial for religious leaders. Though the objections are framed in terms of Jesus elevating himself to Divine status, the main religious issue would seem to be that, in declaring forgiveness, Jesus was essentially circumventing the sacrificial/ritual means for dealing with sin (as prescribed in the Law). For passages reflecting this, see esp. Mark 2:9-10 par; Luke 7:47-49ff; and see also Mark 2:15-17 par. For the related idea that belief/trust in Jesus removes any condemnation (according to the Law), cf. Luke 23:40-43; John 3:18; 8:10-11.
  • The saying in Matt 8:22 / Lk 9:60 is particularly striking: a man requests to bury his father before proceeding to follow Jesus, to which Jesus responds: “leave the dead to bury their own dead”. If taken at face value, Jesus is directing the man to disregard his filial obligation toward his father—effectively a violation of the commandment to “honor one’s father and mother” (Exod 20:12). Many attempts have been made to soften or mitigate Jesus’ difficult (and harsh-sounding) statement, none of which are especially convincing. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is declaring, in rather provocative language, that following him must (ultimately) supersede all family ties, including customary and/or legal-religious obligations related to them.

Passages according to (a) above may require a bit more speculative interpretation, however I would suggest at least the following:

  • The pericope of Mark 7:1-23 par clearly contrasts external observance of purity regulations or customs with the internal condition of a person’s heart/soul (vv. 20-23). While this passage does not specifically address the dietary laws, the principle stated in v. 15 certainly points toward their abolishment subsequently in Christianity (cf. Acts 10:9-16).
  • Similarly, one may interpret the ‘Antitheses’ of Matthew 5:21-48, and especially the teaching regarding prayer/alms/fasting in 6:1-18, as a contrast between outward religious observance and the inward purpose and intent. While this does not abrogate the law or ritual per se, it again leads in the direction of an emphasis on the ethical and spiritual aspect of religion.
  • Though a similar dynamic can be found elsewhere in Judaism, the manner in which Jesus distills the Law (and the Prophets) down to basic precepts—such as the twin “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34 par) or the “Golden Rule” (Matt 7:12 par)—effectively serves to devalue the many specific regulations found in the Torah. The end result can be seen in the way that the Torah commandments are summarized (and even ‘replaced’) in much of early Christianity by the “Love command”, most notably in the Gospel and First Epistle of John.
  • Jesus’ enigmatic saying in Luke 17:20-21 prefigures (or reflects) a tendency in early Christianity to “spiritualize” the Kingdom of God. This latter is a many-faceted concept within Judaism of the period, but it should be understood along two main lines: (i) an ethical-religious aspect, i.e. the righteous living according to the will and rule of God (expressed principally in the Law [and Prophets]), and (ii) an eschatological aspect, whereby God (and/or his representative) will appear and judge the world, establishing his rule finally and absolutely. Jesus uses the term in both aspects, though here in Lk 17:20-21 it is the eschatological aspect which is in focus. His twin declaration that the Kingdom will not come “with careful observation” and that the Kingdom “is in(side) of you [pl.]”, though difficult to interpret, I understand essentially as: (a) the Kingdom is manifest in Jesus’ own person (which is [already] in/among the people, though they do not realize it), and (b) the Kingdom is recognized (and realized) by believers at the spiritual level.

3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope:

In many ways this aspect cannot be separated from #2 above; certainly, in early Christian thought, the person and work of Jesus inaugurated an (eschatological) “new age”, in which the old religious forms and patterns either passed away or were given new meaning. We must be cautious about reading subsequent Christian thinking back into the teachings of the historical Jesus; however, there are certain passages (including sayings of Jesus) which certainly seem to follow this line:

  • The pair of sayings in Mark 2:21-22 par, especially the second (v. 22) involving “new” and “old” wine, suggests very much the idea of something new replacing the old. The sayings contain an implicit warning that attempting to hold onto the old (religious forms) along with the new (revelation) risks ruining them both. While the context relates to the general religious custom of fasting, rather than specific commandments in the Torah, the implication for Torah observance cannot be avoided.
  • Jesus’ sayings in Matt 11:11 (par Lk 7:28) and 11:12-13 (par Lk 16:16) indicate a clear division between the period up until the time of John the Baptist and the period after. The Law and Prophets belong to the period prior to (and including) John, but what place do they hold in the period after John? The implication (implied, but not stated) is that the Law and Prophets are now fulfilled in the person of Jesus (cf. John 1:17). Subsequently, a “replacement theology” (that is, Jesus replaces the older religious forms, including the law [esp. in its ceremonial/ritual aspects]) would develop in early Christianity (cf. in the Gospel of John and Hebrews), but in the Synoptic tradition this is not so clear.
  • In the curious episode regarding the Temple tax in Matt 17:24-27 (discussed above), even though Jesus ultimately directs his disciples to pay the tax (v. 27), the exchange in vv. 25-26 suggests that the “sons” (that is, Jesus and his disciples) are free (from the requirement to pay the tax). The tax is only to be paid so that they do not “trip up” (i.e. offend) other people.
  • In the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus’ action could be understood as striking against the entire machinery of sacrificial offerings. If so, then his saying (quoting Isa 56:7) emphasizes the proper role of the Temple as a place for prayer to God (rather than sacrifices). The eschatological orientation of the Isaian passage could mean that Jesus was declaring a new purpose for the Temple (as the house of God). Since the sacrificial offerings, along with the Temple cultus as a whole, are a fundamental part of the Old Testament Law, their abolishment puts the entire legal-religious establishment into question. At the very least, sayings such as Matt 9:13; 12:6-7 (citing Hos 6:6), devalue the significance of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

No doubt other verses and sayings of Jesus could be added to the various categories above, but I believe that what I have provided is representative and reasonably exhaustive. I will refrain from making any conclusions regarding Jesus’ view of the Law until evidence from the rest of the New Testament has been examined (throughout this series). This portion of “Jesus and the Law” will continue with a study of the so-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).

 

 

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 1: Introduction

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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.