Critically assess Jesus’ overall approach to the Jewish Law.
The position of Jesus before the ordinances of the Law, is linked to the fact that he was raised in the Jewish environment, in which the Hebrew Scriptures gain prominence for the questions of life. And the truth is that his words cannot be understood in any way without the knowledge of the Old Testament. There is, in Jesus’ posture, a loyalty to the Law, and his desire that his followers are also loyal to it. Far from being a rebel against the Jewish religion, Jesus had in the Hebrew Scriptures the support for his message and ministry (Filson,1967, p.83).
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Jesus’ teaching on the Law does not contradict what Moses taught, but it is an opposition to the ordinary interpretations of these teachings. The position of Jesus in relation to the Law is directed to the salvation of man. The conceptions of the law that are in contradiction with this are rejected by him as not corresponding to the dignity of men. For Jesus there was, of course, the peculiar problem of his relation to the Law and its precepts, but so does every believing Jew who takes Judaism seriously. There is in Jesus’ posture, however, in a practical way, a tendency, also present in the first-century rabbis, to “inquire into the central tenets of the Torah, and even its essence”(Vermes,1992, p.42). With this, two factors arise: Jesus’ relationship with oral tradition, perhaps the main reason for questioning; and his search for the essential which, practiced, would fulfill all justice and bring redemption, therefore, salvation.
Jesus did not come to annul the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill it. There are certain terminologies in the new testament that, if analyzed directly from the source, offer a different reading about the Bible, not that the meaning is totally changed, but they offer new perspectives of studies for a better conclusion about certain subjects. For example, the terms καταλῦσαι and πληρόω must be well analysed for full understanding in Mt 5: 17-20 in which Jesus does not think himself greater than the law but warns of religious leaders of that time and the masters of the law. The etymology of καταλῦσαι is used in a variety of senses in connection with the institutions of Judaism. In classical Greek, and according to usage in the New Testament, in the active sense, it can either have the sense of “destroying,” “demolishing,” “breaking up,” “ending,” or “abolishing”. Considering the influence of the Greek dialects exercised in the new testament, these latter meanings are closer to the legal context of v. 17, since this verb is considered a key term for discussions around the constitution and laws. The term “destroy” is more appropriate for the sense of ending with something concrete, such as the temple in Mt 24: 2. In pre-Christian passages where the term Law explicitly appears, the meaning for καταλύω is “to abolish” or “annul” (2 Mac 2,22; 4 Mac 5,33). The verb does not designate a theoretical refutation about the Law, but an activity of its own that liberates or sustains men beyond their authority. When Jesus says that he did not come to annul the law, it could be either an answer to the Jews, who accused him of destroying the Law, or even himself opposing this accusation, against the scribes and interpreters of the Law (Mt 7: 29). Another explanation would be said as a transition to begin the part of the sermon that deals with the most appropriate interpretation of the Law, and so Jesus wanted to make it clear that he was not destroying the Law but perfecting it(πληρόω/Fulfil) not by eradicating it but rather to sustain it (Notley&Garcia,2016, p.35). Again, using the book of Matthew, this statement had a very important meaning. Matthew believes that both Jesus and his community, which acts according to the teachings of Jesus, are indeed law-abiding. The best way to understand the sense of fulfil in this same segment is to search for its Aramaic counterpart from related Talmud texts. Even though the text is later than the time of Jesus (3rd century AD), it helps to realize which words may have been used with a similar sense, bearing in mind that it also refers to earlier rabbinical traditions. The Tb Shabbat 116b states (Lacks,1987, p86-89):
I did not come to take anything away of the law of Moses.
Before, I came to add to the law of Moses.
From the theoretical point of view, the “fulfillment of the law” is presented essentially in three senses: as a return to the will of God (Mt 19: 1-9; 15,4), as a concentration on the commandment of love (23,39), and as a practical realization by means of perfect accentuation. The broad concept of “compliance” involves this multiple application. From an eschatological point of view, the decisive element of “fulfillment” is in the concentration on the commandment of love. The foundation for Jesus to take is love, which Jesus demonstrated from the beginning when he declared that he was fulfilling all righteousness (Mt 3:15). Compliance takes place not from the practice of norms strictly, but from its essence, through which the fulfillment of one precept covers the others. It is also a question of summarizing the Law in a quest for its broader ethical sense.
Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2: 21), which already indicates that his natural environment was of a Jew observant of the Law. Within the tradition transmitted by the evangelists, it transpires in several moments this respect to the Law. Undoubtedly, these are the ones that Jesus deals with most, and to which he gives stronger interpretations. Both the antitheses (5: 21-48) and other orientations or responses of Jesus concerning aspects of the moral law (the family question in Matthew 12: 50, 10, 37, 8, 21-22, as well as divorce in 19, 3-12) seem directly or indirectly to relate to the decalogue, the pronouncements associated with Moses on Mount Sinai. The antitheses have, for the most part, this connection with the Old Testament such as subjects such as love and caring for the neighbor (Luke 5: 43-48 / Lev 19: 18-34) or even revenge (Luke 5: 38-42 / Ex 21: 24, Lev. 24:20).
In view of a proper interpretation of the Law, Jesus summarized it in situations of debate and teaching. The summaries represent the search for a synthesis that facilitates and encompasses the whole Law, considered as God’s will, in a single great commandment. Thus, in the interpretation and attitudes of Jesus, the desire for total observance of the Law is revealed, starting from a search for the commandments that will define the whole ethical stance. In general, the ethics of Christ is between Wisdom and Eschatology. On the one hand, Jesus has good reasons. On the other hand, we see eschatological motives in Jesus because of the concept of reward and punishment in the new world or the coming Kingdom of God. The moral principles contained in the Ten Commandments, which reflect the true nature of an unchanging God, are no longer relevant to believers today. Christians today are no longer under the Ten Commandments as given by Moses, just as they are not under the Mosaic Law’s requirement to be circumcised or to take a lamb to the temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed. The fact that we are bound by similar moral laws against adultery, against lying, against robbery, and against murder does not prove that we are still under the Ten Commandments. In fact, each of the principles contained in the Ten Commandments is reinstated in another context in the New Testament. In this sense, it is not a question of using the Old Testament as the basis for passing a new message, but rather this is a new message (Jesus’s approach to the law), bringing a new set of principles to those who believe.
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Jesus referred to the term “justice” as a vital principle to man. By linking his conception to several other virtues, He showed that in the life of the human being it is necessary to enjoy good feelings as a cause of self-realization. It is of paramount importance to emphasize the value of justice as the fullness of Christ’s work. Justice is a term that designates in the Old Testament a connective relationship between the legal and the salvific, between God and men. Matthew uses the term “righteous” for those who live and act according to the will of God and pleases him. This is related to the Old Testament righteous and prophets (in 13:17 and 23:29, 35), as well as to people contemporary with Jesus (such as Joseph, 1:19), and to the eschatological faithful who followed Jesus and will present themselves to him at the end (25,37,46). The ethics demanded of justice is entirely viewed from the perspective of judgment. When human justice is bound to the divine will, it sanctions the judgment of God. In the latter sense this is the importance of “justice”, for to enter the kingdom of Heaven, one must have “higher justice”, which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is where the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates a thematic center, the practice of a justice that surpasses any other that is not based on the teaching of Jesus. The requirement of God becomes simple and Jesus aims at obedience until the end: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice …”. Thus v.20 deepens the call for total obedience. But in a polemical way, because the required justice is total obedience to the Law, as demonstrated in v.17-19. The originality of Matthew is in behavior according to the will of God that opens the doors of salvation. It is not a mere accumulation of isolated acts of righteousness that will give this result, which is the reason for failure of the Pharisees according to the New Testament. In it, customs of personal interest intertwined with religious traces, the so-called Pharisees gave themselves legal permission to do as they pleased which generated much dispute in the early Judaism (Banks,1975, p.90). Therefore, the importance of Jesus’ warnings regarding the Law and its preachers and how justice surpass any other requirement (apart from Love) of the Law in terms of mastering the Christian way of living, considering that it englobes almost every aspect of life. It is no wonder that teaching on higher justice has an eschatological idea. That is, the reward for fidelity to the teachings of Jesus will not be in this world, but in the kingdom of Heaven. There is a direct relationship between acting according to the will of God and entering the kingdom of Heaven. Unlike certain Pharisees, Jesus did not think that what really mattered before God was the scrupulous observance of the laws in all their details. Going out of one’s way to avoid doing anything questionable on the Sabbath or to tithe all produce,
whether bought or sold, was of very little importance to him. Unlike some Sadducees, Jesus did not think that it was of the utmost importance to adhere strictly to the rules for worship in the Temple through the divinely ordained sacrifices. Unlike some Essenes, he did not think that people should seek to maintain their own ritual purity in isolation
from others in order to find God’s ultimate approval. For Jesus—as for some other Jews from his time about whom we are less well informed (e.g., Mark 12:32-34) what really mattered were the commandments of God that formed, in his opinion, the very heart of the Law, the commandments to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor
as oneself (Ehrman,1999, p.166).
- Banks, R (1975). Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition. (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Biblehubcom. 2019. Biblehubcom. [Online]. [7 May 2019]. Available from: https://biblehub.com/greek/2647.htm
- Biblehubcom. 2019. Biblehubcom. [Online]. [7 May 2019]. Available from: https://biblehub.com/ greek/4137.htm
- Ehrman, B (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. (1st ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
- Filson, F (1967). A COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW. London: Adam & Charles Black.
- Lachs, S.T (1987). A rabbinic commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (1st ed.). New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
- Notley, S & Garcia, J (2013). The Gospels in First-Century Judaea. (1st ed.). Boston: Brill.
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