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Jesus Tradition

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

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We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next daily note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Ministry Period

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This is a good moment to stop and re-set the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series has been devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. This was chosen because it provides an ideal case study (using extensive evidence from all four canonical Gospels) for analyzing how the early (historical) traditions came to be developed and adapted over time, leading to the composition of the Gospel narratives as we have them. It was demonstrated rather clearly, I think, in these notes, how the account of Jesus’ baptism (and his relation to John the Baptist) were preserved (independently) in multiple strands of tradition. Each Gospel writer gave his own interpretation and treatment of the material, but was essentially obligated to hold to a basic narrative, and to the preservation of certain fundamental traditions.

The remaining two parts, or divisions, of this series will be focusing on: (1) the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (Pt  II) and (2) the Passion Narrative (Pt III). These are also useful as divisions since they reflect the basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). The other Synoptics have more complex structures; indeed, Luke rather clearly has a three (or four) part division:

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

However, it is easy enough to see how the core Synoptic narrative has been adapted and expanded. In the case of Luke, the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) has been added and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10) has been filled out by including a wide range of sayings/teachings of Jesus, and other episodes, most of which do not occur in the Gospel of Mark (i.e., so-called “Q” and “L” material).

Here is a preliminary list of some of the areas and topics I will be addressing in the next set of notes (for the remainder of February and into March), dealing with the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, traditions and passages related to:

  • The call of the Disciples
  • Jesus’ relatives and family
  • The Sabbath Controversies
  • Collection/joining of sayings, parables, and miracle stories
  • The Feeding miracle(s)
  • The Son of Man sayings

The next several notes will deal with the first topic—the Call of the (first) Disciples of Jesus.

It is worth mentioning, that these Galilean ministry passages and traditions are, for the most part, exclusive to the three Synoptic Gospels. The main reason for this is that a large percentage of scenes and dialogues in the Fourth Gospel are set in and around Jerusalem, so there is less material with which we can definitely work. However, it may be surprising how many parallels we will find between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions, and that the latter may well have included (and reworked) numerous episodes and traditions which are set in the “Galilean” section of the Synoptic narrative.

It may also be helpful to remind readers of the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

This order of study is roughly chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. The Gospel of John certainly contains (separate) early/authentic historical traditions which are not found in the Synoptics. However, more often than not, the Fourth Gospel also shows the most evidence of extensive development, adaptation, and interpretation, of Gospel tradition. Indeed, this is a primary reason why it is usually regarded as the latest of the canonical Gospels—often dated around 90 A.D., in the form it has come down to us.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition

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This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site, running throughout the winter and spring up through the Lent/Easter season of 2019. A number of upcoming articles and daily notes will be devoted to this subject, which, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:

  • Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
  • Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.

When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:

  1. The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  2. Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
  3. Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
  4. The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
  5. The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.

Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.

If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:

  • Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
  • Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
  • Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
  • Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
  • Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.

Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scriptures, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.

I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.

When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.

As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:

  • The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
  • The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
  • Details unique to Matthew
  • Details unique to Luke
  • Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John

In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—

  1. The ministry of John
  2. The relationship between John and Jesus
  3. Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John

and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.

The daily notes for this next week will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).

 

 

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.

“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

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The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.