Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part I

One of the oldest traditions in Christianity is the belief that Jewish laws and customs are not binding upon followers of Christ. When Jesus died, the argument goes, he rendered Mosaic Law irrelevant. Salvation, then, comes from belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, and not from following the rules and regulations of the Old Testament.

This tradition goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and the basic formulation was developed by Paul and taught amongst the congregations he founded throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Today, not only are Paul’s letters used to support this notion, but even words attributed to Jesus can be called upon to undergird the tradition.

What exactly are these commandments, and why don’t Christians follow them?


First, it is necessary to clear the air on what is meant by common phrases such as “Jewish Law,” “Mosaic Law,” “The Law and the Prophets,” or sometimes just “the Law.” All of these phrases mean the same thing, but there seems to be a lot of confusion in many circles about exactly what they refer to.

Jewish Law came in two parts, and it included far more than simply legal codes dictating criminal and civil offenses. To be sure, Jewish Law included these things, but it also included rules and regulations dictating daily behavior and customs of the Jewish people. It included things such as how to make clothes, how to plant fields and how to raise cattle, how to treat others in relationships, how to prepare food, how to structure family life, and so on. Of course, it also detailed the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism. In short, it was a complete system of legal, religious, and cultural codes for living as a Jew in the ancient world.

The first aspect of this Jewish Law consisted of written laws and customs. Most came from the Torah – that is, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch, and believed by the ancient Jews to have been given by Moses. By the time of Jesus, Jewish scripture included a lot more than just these five books. There were also texts detailing Jewish history, books of poetry, proverbs, and literature, and books of prophecy. Some Jewish sects, both then and know, followed only the Torah. Mainstream Judaism, however, regarded these other traditional Jewish texts as scripture, and this is where familiar New Testament phrases such as “the Law and the Prophets” come from. The Law was the Torah; the Prophets were the books of prophecy such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a dozen others.

In addition to this written aspect of Jewish Law – those codes and customs outlined in Jewish scripture – there was also an oral aspect that consisted of the interpretation of these codes and customs. This interpretive aspect of Jewish Law was well established in oral form by the time of Jesus, but did not achieve codification in written form until several centuries after the time of Jesus. Collectively called the Talmud, these interpretative traditions were the hallmark of the Pharisees, an influential group of 1st century Jews whose practices and traditions became the basis of Rabbinical Judaism, which has been the most common form of Judaism for nearly two millennia.

These two aspects of Jewish religious and cultural customs – Torah and Talmud, the instructions of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of those instructions – constitute what is meant by phrases such as “Jewish Law.”


For most of Christian history, Christians have disregarded Jewish Law, both the written Law of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of that Law. It is perhaps easy to see why Christians have never given much thought to the interpretative side of Jewish Law. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is frequently depicted at odds with the Pharisees – the experts of interpretation – and consistently insults and degrades them, even as he disagrees with them in their interpretations. While much of the antagonism in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees is a reflection of the antagonism between Christians and Jews of the late 1st century, there is little doubt that Jesus had run-ins during his life with the Pharisees, whom he saw as collaborators with Roman imperial domination. As a rural Galilean, the Pharisees would have seen Jesus as a rabble-rouser and fiery revolutionary, while Jesus, for his part, would have seen the Pharisees as pretentious, so-called “experts” who were more concerned with their scholarship than with real people in real life. One might compare this situation to a Pentecostal preacher from rural Alabama meeting a group of Reformed theologians from Oxford.

But in addition to dismissing the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees and their later rabbinical successors, Christians have also long rejected the written Law of the Old Testament – the set of laws and customs ostensibly given by God to his chosen people.

As we saw above, this rejection of written Mosaic Law comes largely from the influence of the apostle Paul.

Paul was one of the earliest and certainly most influential Christians. Though he never followed or even knew of Jesus during Jesus’ life, he was converted to Christianity within a few years of Jesus’ death, after a vision of the resurrected Christ.

The Apostle Paul

Very early on, he seems to have begun to jettison his old ways within Judaism, and by about 50 C.E., a major conflict arose between Paul and the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

To put it briefly, the Jerusalem community in the time of Paul was the center of Christendom. It was to Paul’s era what Rome is today to Catholics. This community was supported by many of Jesus’ disciples (such as Peter and John), and led by Jesus’ brother, James. To these Christian leaders, Christianity was essentially a sect within Judaism. It was not a different religion from Judaism, but was instead a new form of Jewish practice. These Jewish Christians believed very strongly that Christianity should remain part of Judaism – in other words, Jewish traditions and customs were still very much a part of their religious practice.

Paul, on the other hand, believed that Jesus’s resurrection had effectively done away with these traditions, and following Jewish Law was no longer necessary. If pressed on the matter, I’m sure Paul would have agreed that if someone wanted to follow Jewish customs, they were certainly entitled to do so, but his argument was that these customs were no longer necessary for salvation. Instead, salvation came through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Paul saw as the ultimate and final atonement for human sin. Since Jesus made himself the ultimate sacrifice, humans could now be forgiven and thus saved, with or without adherence to the Law of Moses.

Needless to say, the Church in Jerusalem did not take Paul’s ideas very well. As described in the book of Acts, and also discussed by Paul himself in Galatians, things came to a head when Paul visited Jerusalem in about 50 C.E. The Jerusalem leaders attempted to reach a compromise with Paul, and agreed that while Paul’s converts did not need to become circumcised (which, in the ancient world, was the “official” way that someone became Jewish), they did need to follow Jewish dietary customs. Specifically, according to Acts, they were to refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols, food from strangled animals, and any food with blood in it.

Paul seems to have accepted this compromise, then immediately gone back to the missionary field and ignored it. Time and again in his letters, Paul insists that “all food is clean,” and even goes so far as to suggest that eating food sacrificed to idols is permissible, because idols are not real, they are simply inanimate objects. The only exception to this rule, for Paul, is when someone’s dietary habits may cause problems for someone else. In other words, if a Christian is eating with another Christian, and the second Christian believes strongly in the difference between “clean” and “unclean” food, then the first Christian should respect that belief and only eat “clean” food when they are eating with that person. Otherwise, “all food is clean” and permissible to eat.

In time, after Paul’s death and the deaths of James, Peter, and the other early Christian leaders, Christianity slowly became more and more of a non-Jewish religion. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, there was no longer a Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, and the center of Christendom shifted first to Alexandria in Egypt, and later, of course, to Rome. This led, during the last few decades of the 1st century, to a painful separation between Christianity and Judaism, a separation that is reflected in the Gospels, which were written around this time. By the start of the 2nd century, Christianity was essentially a non-Jewish religion, and Paul’s viewpoint won the day.

One example of this is reflected in the letter of 1 Timothy, a letter forged in Paul’s name in the late 1st century. The writer is discussing false Christian teachers, which he calls “hypocritical liars,” and he states that they teach people to “abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving.” The writer goes on to say: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So much for the views of James and Peter that some foods are unclean.

Christians from that time to now have left Jewish Law and Jewish customs behind them.


We have looked at what Jewish Law was, and we have also seen why Christians don’t follow Jewish Law. Even though the earliest Christians – the followers of Jesus and their converts – seem to have adhered strongly to Jewish norms and customs, and seem to have believed, at least early on, that one needed to become Jewish in order to be Christian, Paul challenged all that and spread the gospel of Jesus to non-Jews, leading Christianity to an eventual separation from Judaism all together. It became, by the end of the 1st century, a non-Jewish religion that did not adhere to Jewish laws and customs.

But since Jesus is the heart and soul of Christianity, one might wonder what Jesus himself had to say on this matter. For many Christians (and for institutional Christianity in general) Jesus was not just a prophet, but the Son of God, even God himself in human form. For Christians, then, one would expect Jesus’s words to carry significant weight.

Many folks may be surprised to discover that Jesus seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Consider, for instance, Matthew 23, where Jesus states: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat. You must obey them and do everything they tell you.” He goes on to encourage his listeners not to be hypocritical like the Pharisees, but he affirms that their teaching of the Law is sound and his listeners should follow it. For Jesus in this passage, the problem with the Pharisees is not their reliance on Jewish Law, but on the fact that they are hypocrites who don’t really follow it.

Consider also a story repeated in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy. Afterwards, he instructs the man to go to the temple to be ritually purified and to “offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded.” Clearly he found these customs to be necessary.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, provided by Luke, Jesus tells of a beggar named Lazarus who always had to eat the scraps from the table of a rich man.

The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Leandro Bassano

The rich man lived the high life and consistently ignored the plight of Lazarus. In time, both men died, with the rich man going to hell, and Lazarus going “to the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man begs Abraham to let Lazarus return to earth to warn his brothers about the dangers of luxurious living. Abraham responds that the rich man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets” and that they should “listen to them.” Abraham goes on to say that if the rich man’s brothers won’t listen to Moses, then neither will they listen to someone who is raised from the dead (i.e. Lazarus). Jesus, through this parable, is affirming the salvific nature of Mosaic Law.

In a story related in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is approached by a Gentile who wants him to heal her daughter. Jesus flatly refuses to do so, stating that he has come only “to the lost sheep of Israel” and that it is not right to take “the children’s bread” (that is, Jesus’s teachings) and “toss it to the dogs” (that is, unclean Gentiles). The woman persists, however, and Jesus finally agrees to heal her daughter. But he does it from a distance; he does not go to the woman’s unclean, Gentile house.

A similar story is found in both Matthew and Luke. Here, the Gentile is a Roman centurion, and the sick person is his servant. Jesus agrees to heal the servant, but, as with the story from Matthew, he does not go to the centurion’s house, and instead heals the servant from afar.

It is noteworthy to point out that these are the only two healings attributed to Jesus from afar. They are also the only two healings of Gentiles attributed to Jesus. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus keeps away from Gentiles, because he viewed them as unclean, which was consistent with a Jewish worldview.

Finally, there is a passage from Matthew where Jesus explicitly talks about adherence to Jewish Law and customs:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is hard to imagine how Jesus could be more explicit. “Until heaven and earth disappear” – that is, until the end of time – the Law of Moses is valid. Unless your righteousness – that is, your adherence to God’s commandments – exceeds even the righteousness of the Pharisees, who are famous for their strict adherence to the Law, you will not see God’s kingdom.


This final passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is a difficult one to reconcile in light of traditional Christian practice. As we saw above, from the time of Paul, Christians began rejecting Jewish laws and customs, and by the beginning of the 2nd century, virtually no Christian followed any of the laws of Moses, except those that they found particularly important. This is true even today, as many Christians revere the Ten Commandments, but handily reject countless other mandates from the Old Testament.

As we have seen, Jesus was a Jewish man, living in the Jewish homeland, and teaching and preaching within the worldview of 1st century Judaism. In the Gospel of Matthew in particular, Jesus is fiercely loyal to Jewish laws and customs, and explicitly states that these commandments are valid for all time – indeed, “until heaven and earth disappear.”

In Part II of this series, we will look much more closely at this passage from Matthew and consider how we might reconcile it with modern Christian practice.


Anonymous said...

It was finished at the cross, Jesus said so as his last words. Everything was finished at the cross. Jesus also warns us not put new wine into old skins and to not patch new cloth onto old garments. If you live under the law and negate the blood of the cross you will judged under the law. If we live under the law rather than under grace you make the sacrifice of Jesus as nothing. The law was for the flesh but we are new creations in the spirit.

Scott said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Anon. You have provided a traditional view of New Testament theology. It's not one I agree with, but I appreciate you adding your perspective.

Gloryfier said...

I am just wondering why the context of Jesus words is not taken into accoun? He was a Jew living under the law, preaching to Jewish people under the law. There had been as yet no cross, no resurrection, no ascension. He could not have spoken outside the context of the law at that time, so he preached the Kingdom while acknowledging that his hearers were still under the law. He preached forward to the cross,while living under the law. After the cross, the things he said would make sense. And he demonstrated the goodness of God by healing and miracles.

I really appreciated this article and the history provided by it. Thanks.

Scott said...

Thanks for your comment, Gloryfier. I agree with you that Jesus was a Jew under the Jewish Law and teaching other Jews under the Jewish Law.

But I don't see how it follows that suddenly everything he taught in life was invalidated by the Cross. Nothing he taught says "Until I rise from the dead, do this." Instead, his teachings are clearly talking about how to live in the world - a world which, quite obviously, is still in existence.

In the passage I quoted near the end of the post, Jesus says that "until heaven and earth pass away," the Jewish Law will be supreme. Heaven and earth didn't pass away at the cross. They are still here in 2012.