was successfully added to your cart.

The Law and the New Testament – Introduction

This is the beginning of a series on the Old Testament Law (of Moses) as it is treated in the New Testament Writings. This issue, of course, cannot be separated from the question of the relationship between the (Christian) believer and the Law. Christians have long struggled with this question—from the very beginning until the present day, it has been a pressing concern, both in terms of doctrine and practical application to daily life and belief. It is deserving of thorough and thoughtful discussion today, particularly as modern society continues to move further and further away from the ancient thought patterns and religious culture in which the Old Testament Law first came to light. This study has, as its primary aim, to present a careful and objective survey (and exegetical Commentary) on many (if not all) of the relevant New Testament passages dealing with this subject. A basic outline of the study will be presented below.

To begin with, it is important to recognize several fundamental difficulties involved with a proper understanding of “the Law”:

1. First is a terminological difficulty. There are three primary words with overlapping ranges of meaning:

  • Law—the English word is from Germanic derivation (Old English lagu), in the basic sense of something laid down, i.e. a “binding custom or practice (of a community)”, as defined by M.-W. It is partially synonymous with the word rule (Lat. regula, regere, “[lead/make] straight”)—i.e., something which leads or guides a person or community.
  • hr*oT—the Hebrew word hr*oT (tôr¹h or tôrâ) is typically translated “law”, but is more properly rendered “instruction”. It is derived from a root word hr*y` (y¹râ) with the fundamental meaning (in the hiphil causative stem) of “direct, instruct, teach”. The related term hr#om (môreh) would be rendered “teacher, instructor”. The word hroT appears (in both the singular and plural) more that 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in the general sense of teaching/instruction (whether human or divine); however, it can also refer to a specific body or collection of (authoritative) teaching. The teaching which was understood to govern the ancient Israelite Community—in both religious (cultic) and social aspects (the two being closely interwined)—is preserved in the books of Exodus and Leviticus (also portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy), forming significant blocks of what is commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), and which, in Israelite/Jewish tradition is itself called “Torah” (hr*oT). The Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that this authoritative Instruction is the product of Divine Revelation, and is frequently referred to as “the Instruction [Torah] of God” (hw`hy+ tr^oT, tôra¾ YHWH)—cf. Exodus 13:9, etc. Several partially synonymous words appear in conjunction with hr*oT, such as: (a) qoj/hQ*j% (µôq/µuqqâ), indicating something inscribed or engraved, often understood in the sense of “statute, decree, ordinance”, etc.; (b) hw`x=m! (miƒwâ), from the root hw`x* (ƒ¹wâ), “direct, order, command”, and usually rendered as “commandment”; (c) fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), “judgment”, often in the technical sense of a specific legal case or decision. These three terms, especially, can be seen as covered under the wider concept of hr*oT.
  • no/mo$ (nómos)—the Greek word usually translated as “law” originally had the basic sense of something assigned for particular use (spec. an allotment of land), and developed a broad range of more abstract meaning, such as a “(proper) custom, order, arrangement, usage,” etc. Within the political-legal sphere, the word took on the sense of a “(binding) custom” or regulation, much akin to the English word “law” (see above). Despite the clear difference in history and primary meaning of the two words, no/mo$ typically was used to translate hr*oT (in the Septuagint, etc). Indeed, within the New Testament itself, no/mo$ is usually understood in this manner—of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish “Law of Moses” (or “Law/Torah of God”), rather than Greco-Roman Law or “law” in a more general/abstract sense. The verb nomi/zw, which we might translate as “regard as proper/customary”, also has a technical legal or religious meaning, the background of which is important to keep in mind when examining certain New Testament passages.

We should be sensitive to the differences and nuances of language and meaning between these words, and be cautious against reducing everything to a specific or generalized concept of “Law”.

2. Second is a further difficulty of definition. At the time of the New Testament, how was the word hr*oT (Torah) understood? There are several aspects which should be considered:

  • As a law code—this stems from the basic definition of hr*oT as an (authoritative) body or collection of instruction (see above). Jewish tradition established the number of Scriptural commandments (twwxm) at 613 (see the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b-24a, and especially the “Book of the Commandments” [Sefer ha-Miƒwôt] by Maimonides)—365 negative, and 248 positive, commandments—compiled ostensibly from the relevant portions of Exodus-Leviticus and Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • As a corpus of religious tradition—this includes not only the written instruction found in the Pentateuch, but two further related aspects: (1) the “Oral Torah/Law”, instruction passed down through the generations (beginning with Moses) and transmitted orally; and (2) authoritative commentary and interpretation of both written and oral Torah. This material is extensive and wide-ranging, having been preserved (and, in a sense, codified) in the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the various Midrashim. Many of the earliest Rabbinic traditions—of the Tannaim—may be contemporary with (or even pre-date) Jesus and the New Testament authors. The extent to which Rabbinic literature can be used to document beliefs and traditions from Jesus’ own time remains a topic of considerable debate.
  • As Scripture—sometimes “Torah” specifically refers to the sacred Writings, whether limited to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, trad.) or the whole of Scripture. This latter sense is often covered by the expression “the Torah/Law and the Prophets”; however, even here the Torah tends to have priority, with the Prophets (probably including both the Historical books [Joshua–Kings] and the Psalms) seen as expounding/interpreting the Torah of God.
  • As a religious way of life—the observance of the Instruction (Torah) of God (as revealed in Scripture and tradition) was (and still is) fundamental to the Israelite/Jewish religious identity. It reflects the terms of the Covenant between God and His people. As we shall see, the idea of Torah observance as “works-righteousness”, by which one obtains salvation, is something of a serious distortion of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. More properly, we should regard Jewish observance of the Torah from the standpoint of a requirement (or obligation) which maintains and preserves the covenant (agreement) with God.

3. Third, and finally, is the difficulty of interpretation. All Jews in Jesus’ time would have agreed on the importance and necessity of observing the Torah; however, various groups differed in two respects: (1) on the precise nature and extent of the Torah, and (2) on what constituted definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Torah. This involved what we might call the perennial question of religious authority—who determines the required rules and customs, and how should they be performed or followed? The New Testament gives us only a narrow window into the debates and discussions which must have taken place in this regard. By all accounts, Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees (or the “scribes and Pharisees”) over points of Torah, but only traces of this survive in the Gospels. There were fundamental differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees on chief points of doctrine. More notably, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts also had serious disagreements with other groups [including Pharisees, it would seem] over the proper interpretation and application of Torah. The centrality of Torah observance for the Qumran Community is especially clear in the so-called “Rule of the Community”:

As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way…” This is the study [vrdm] of the law [hrwth] which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy spirit… (1QS 8.14-16)

The commitment to study (lit. searching, vrd) and observance of the Torah is virtually synonymous with entry into the Community (1QS 1.1-3ff, 5.1, etc), by which a covenant is established (or re-established) between the faithful and God (1QS 1.16-17). A basic premise for the Community was that Israel had abandoned the way of truth and no longer followed the Instruction of God (Torah) properly; furthermore, new revelation and insight regarding the Instruction was being given to the Community (as the faithful end-time Remnant). There are several references to an “Interpreter [lit. searcher] of the Law” (hr*oTh vr@oD, dôr¢š hattôrâ)—an idealized, eschatological figure representing the importance of authoritative instruction (CDMS A 7.18ff [4Q267 ii 15f]; 4Q174 fr. 1 col. 1, 11-12; 4Q177 col. 2, 5). This Interpreter is connected with the coming Davidic Ruler (i.e. Messiah, “Prince of the Congregation”), and may be identified with either the “Prophet like Moses” who is to come or to a Priestly ruler (“Messiah of Aaron”). However, in the history of the Community the role also seems to have been filled by the person known as “the Righteous Teacher” (CDA 6.7)—in such an eschatologically-oriented religious sect, present and future are closely intertwined. This “Righteous Teacher” (qdxh hrwm) or “Teacher of Righteousness” (hqdxh hrwm) served as a title for the leader who would offer divinely-sanctioned interpretation of both the Law and the Prophets; on this figure, see CDA 1.11; 6.11; CDB 20; 4QpPsa col. 3-4, etc; and throughout the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk, e.g., 4QpHab 1.13; 2.2; 5.10, 7.4, 8.3, 9.9, 11.5. In many ways, Jesus filled this same role as authoritative Interpreter, especially in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, as we shall see. The apostles, too, worked long and hard to clarify the relation of the Christian Community (broadly speaking) to the Torah and the Prophets. It was on this very point that the fiercest early battles were fought—most vividly demonstrated in Paul’s harsh polemic (esp. in Galatians) against other Jewish Christians who opposed his approach to Christian identity (in particular, the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring observance of the Torah).

As indicated above, Christians continue to struggle with the question of whether, or to what extent, it is necessary for believers to follow the Old Testament Law (Torah). A number of differing approaches have been taken, the most notable of which may be summarized as follows:

  • Believers are obligated to observe the Torah fully. This was a serious issue in the earliest years of the Church, but today it really only applies to Jewish Christians (or “Messianic Jews”).
  • Believers are entirely free from the Torah, and not required to observe it in any way; religious and moral conduct is now governed by other means (the Holy Spirit, inspired Christian instruction, etc). This view derives primarily from Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans.
  • Believers are still required to observe all things in the Torah which have not been explicitly (or practically) abolished (or rendered unnecessary) according to the teaching of the New Testament.
  • The ritual or ceremonial portion of the Torah no longer applies (nor does most of the political-social legislation and case law); believers are only required to observe the ethical precepts.
  • Believers are only required to observe the Ten Commandments (a narrower version of the two previous approaches).
  • Believers are required to observe only the “Commandments of Christ”, which can be defined various ways, but certainly includes Jesus’ own instruction related to the Torah (such as in the Sermon on the Mount).
  • The entire Torah for believers is reduced to the “Love-Commandment” (love of God and neighbor), according to the example of Christ. This is more of a general principle than a law or commandment as such.
  • Rather than observing the Torah commandments literally, believers should, by a process of interpretation, seek to understand and apply the underlying principles to modern religious and social circumstances.

I will reserve comment on these (and possibly other) approaches until the end of this series of studies. Here is a simple outline of how I will be proceeding:

  • Jesus and the Law—covering the following areas:
    • Evidence for two contrasting approaches by Jesus to the Torah
    • Jesus’ handling of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. in the Antitheses)
    • Jesus’ interaction with Pharisees and religious authorities (esp. the Sabbath controversies)
    • Jesus’ relation to the Temple
    • The Law in the Gospel of John
  • The Law in the book of Acts (drawing also upon the Gospel of Luke)
  • Paul’s view of the Law
    • In Galatians
    • In Romans
    • Key references in the remaining epistles
    • Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Epistles
  • The Law in the Epistle of James
  • The Law in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • The Law in the rest of the New Testament (with key references in the Apostolic Fathers)

Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Qumran texts used in this series are taken from: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8.

Leave a Reply