Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part II

In Part I of this series, we saw that Christian tradition has long rejected the need for Christians to follow Old Testament Law. This tradition goes back a long way; indeed, all the way back to the mid-1st century and the Apostle Paul. We looked briefly at what exactly this Law is – called by various names, it was the complete set of legal, cultural, and religious codes outlined in Jewish scriptures, called the Old Testament by Christians.

We also saw, however, that Jesus – as depicted in the Gospel tradition – seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Indeed, most scholars today agree that Jesus is best understood as a 1st century Jewish male living in the Jewish homeland and working and teaching within Judaism and its practices. We looked at several pieces of Gospel text that confirm this portrait, including an eye-raising teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus explicitly denies that his purpose was to “abolish” Jewish Law. In this passage, Jesus instead affirms that his followers are expected to follow Old Testament Law down to the letter, so that their adherence to the Law surpasses even that of the Pharisees, who were famous in Jesus’s day for their commitment to these traditions.


Christian apologists frequently explain that God’s Law from the Old Testament was given to and for God’s chosen people, the Jews. The “Law of Christ,” however, was given for all people, and superseded the earlier, uniquely Jewish, Law. In this understanding, Jewish Law was the original “path of salvation,” but was provided only to Jews. The Law of Christ, however, replaced the old ways, providing a new “path of salvation” and given to all people, not just Jews.

Apologists will additionally argue that while Jesus’s earthly message was directed at Jews, God used Paul to expand Jesus’s “mission field” and bring the message to Gentiles. Paul himself makes this argument, stating that the message was “for the Jew first, but also for the Greek [i.e. ‘non-Jew’]”.

Thus, even though Jesus came only to Jews, his mission was just the beginning. Paul came along next, almost like a “part two,” to continue God’s plan and expand the message to non-Jews. Paul understood Jesus’s death and resurrection as the ultimate atonement for human sin, and thus argued that the Law of Moses was no longer necessary for salvation. It had been replaced by the Law of Christ, a phrase Paul himself uses at least twice in his letters, and which involves faith in the atoning nature of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In Romans, Paul also states categorically that: “Christ is the end of the Law.”

This would work well as an explanation of Christian rejection of Old Testament Law if not for that pesky, absolutist statement of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s look at it again:
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.
As we saw in Part I, Jesus makes it clear in this statement that Jewish laws and customs – the Old Testament Law of Moses – is not simply for Jews. After all, this is a statement recorded in Christian scripture for Christian readers by a Christian evangelist. Nor is the Law only valid for a short period of time, until Paul comes along in a few decades. No, according to Jesus, the Law is forever, and he specifically and explicitly counters the notion that his purpose is to “abolish the Law or the Prophets” (as Paul asserts in Romans). In fact, Jesus says, one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless one not only adheres to the Law, but adheres even better and more stringently and more loyally than the Pharisees, who were famous for their righteousness.


So how are Christians to understand this passage? How can we reconcile Jesus’s words with our own Christian practice in the modern world? To begin with, let me make one thing clear: I don’t believe the historical Jesus made this statement, and there are several reasons I can give to support this.

First, the teaching that Jesus contradicts – that is, the suggestion that he has come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets” – is a post-Easter, early Christian problem. In fact, it was specifically a problem related to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, which occurred, quite obviously, after Jesus’s death. It was not a problem, or an accusation, that would have existed during Jesus’s life. Thus, there would have been no reason for him to address a problem that didn’t exist.

Secondly, in addition to countering the notion that he has come to “abolish” the Law, Jesus also ominously states that any person who breaks the commandments, and teaches others to do the same (think of Paul and his followers), is excluded from the kingdom of heaven. This is clearly a case of the writer of Matthew attacking notions begun by Paul that Jewish laws and customs didn’t have to be followed.

Finally, scholars and theologians have recognized for centuries that Matthew’s Gospel is the most “Jewish” of all the Gospels of the New Testament. There can be no question that the writer of Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing to a Jewish Christian audience. His readers were concerned about the growing tendency among Gentile Christians to throw away Mosaic Law. Thus, this writer put a statement on the lips of Jesus to directly and explicitly address that problem.

In the end, it seems unlikely to me that the historical Jesus ever actually uttered this statement.


Despite my historical conclusion about Matthew’s use of this quote, there may be a nugget of authentic Jesus material in this saying. In particular, I am referring to the second sentence in the statement: “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.” This particular saying comes from the Q Gospel – in other words, it is also present, in a slightly different form, in Luke. From chapter 16: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

If scholars are right about the Q Gospel – and I think they are – then it was a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that was first written down around the year 50 C.E. – contemporary with the letters of Paul. Used by Luke and Matthew when they wrote their Gospels, it predates the Gospel of Mark – the earliest Gospel in the New Testament – by as many as twenty years. If my own theory is correct, this Q Gospel may have originally been known as the Gospel of Matthew (with our own Gospel of Matthew being an extension of it), written in Aramaic, and composed by the disciple of Jesus known to history as Matthew or Levi.

Regardless of my own pet theory, if the mainstream ideas about the Q Gospel are correct, then this saying may have historical reliability, simply by virtue of being among the earliest written material attributed to Jesus.

Thus, if Jesus did make this statement – that not the least “stroke of a pen” will ever disappear from the Law – then there is something there to be considered for the modern follower of Jesus. What might Jesus have meant with such a statement? It’s clear that Matthew took it to mean that the Law was for all Christians for all time. But Luke had a different perspective and placed it in a different narrative context. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says:
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
Luke’s own perspective on this quote seems to be a negative one. The Law was valid until John the Baptizer – Jesus’s mentor. Since then, the kingdom of God has been preached. Presumably for Luke, as it was for Paul, the “kingdom of God” is an alternative to the Law and the Prophets. Indeed, it is replacing the Law and the Prophets. Thus, Jesus laments how difficult and slow this change has been – it is easier for the universe to disappear than for people to give up their adherence to the old ways. In this regard, the statement is reminiscent of another famous quip by Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

So which way was it? Did Jesus mean this statement positively, as asserted by Matthew, or did Jesus make this statement as a lament about how long it takes people to break old habits? My feeling is that Matthew’s perspective is closer to the truth. Luke’s perspective reflects Christianity of the late 1st century – Christians were breaking away from Judaism, but most Jews refused to give up the old ways and turn to God’s new way. Thus, I think Matthew probably retains the original spirit of the Q material, whereas Luke redacted it towards the negative. Instead of “heaven and earth” disappearing before the Law is abolished (as in Matthew), it is now “easier for heaven and earth to disappear” than it is for the old ideas to give way to the new. This is a distinct reflection of late 1st century Gentile Christianity, and not the early 1st century Jewish Jesus.


So we’re left with the same problem. It is historically probable that Jesus said something akin to the quote recorded by Matthew. If we accept this as true, how does this impact our own Christian lives? Should we be following Jewish customs and traditions? Should we not be planting two different seeds in the same field? Should we not be blending cotton and linen? Should we be eating only kosher foods? Should we, in short, be Jewish Christians?

I wish I could provide some valuable and profound theological insight here. I really wish I could. But I honestly don’t have any very good answers. Jesus was a Jew, living in the Jewish homeland, preaching and teaching within the bounds of 1st century Judaism. He taught his followers that Jewish laws and customs were part of God’s eternal plan for humanity. His earliest followers believed ardently that Christianity and Judaism could not and should not be separated.

For those of us who aim to follow Jesus on the Way of personal and spiritual transformation of ourselves and our world, this is a perspective worth pondering.


webulite.com said...

found you via a twitter or blog search RSS in my google reader on "historical jesus". Just turning your part 2 article into a mp3 to listen to it. Noticed you have a menu item about "the synoptic problem"... all stuff that interests me. Adding your RSS to my google reader subscriptions, thought I would say hello.

I am interested in the formative years of christianity. perhaps as far back as the revolt of the maccabees up till about 325CE and the council of nicea. Especially of interest to me, is the question of a historical/mythical jesus, and how and who wrote the texts we now have. Recently I have begun to spend most of my energy on Patristics feeling lots of keys to the kingdom (so to speak) lay there.

In the old days, they called if "being pen pals", today, i think they call it "social networking". but I am happy to talk with others that are interested in this kind of stuff. For me, email is the best way.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, webulite. The era you mention (160's B.C.E. up through late antiquity) is one of my favorites as well, particularly as it relates to the rise of Christianity.

As you can see from the blog, I've written quite a bit about this stuff.

As for Patristics, most of my studies in that regard have been second hand - that is, reading modern scholars talking about the Church fathers. Other than St. Augustine, I haven't read much first hand work of these folks. I will say, however, that my "second hand" experience with the Church fathers is pretty deep, I believe.

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