The MOST Theological Collection: Outline of Christology

"XIX. Jesus and the Law"


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a) His conflict with Jewish authorities: Jesus said (Mt 5. 17): "Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. Amen I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is fulfilled."

Yet He was infrequent conflict with Scribes and Pharisees on the charge He was breaking the law. Mark 7. 9-11 provides the key. The Pharisees had just rebuked His followers for eating with unwashed hands. The Gospel reports that the Pharisees and all Jews frequently washed hands, and observed baptisms of various utensils. Jesus answered them with the words of Isaiah 29. 13: "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching the doctrines and precepts of men. ' You leave behind the command of God and hold to the tradition of men... You make void the precept of God to keep your own tradition. For Moses said: Honor your Father and your Mother... but you say: If a man says to his Father or Mother Corban, what you would have obtained from me is Corban (that is, given to God) then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother." A major Jewish scholar of today, Jacob Neusner (Torah, Fortress, 1985 ) reports that the Mishnah, which was considered a codification of oral traditions said that part of the law given to Moses was written, part was transmitted orally (p. 75). There were 613 precepts in the written law, many more in the oral law. He cites (p. 75) the Talmud saying that the oral part is greater than the written part, and "the ones which are handed on orally are the more precious." The tradition was considered as "a fence for the Torah". It would keep people at a distance from violating it. (p. 44). Neusner also says (Invitation to the Talmud Harper & Row, NY, 2d ed. , 1989, p. 23 that the Pharisees extended the levitical purity rules even to their own homes, beyond the Temple. And after 70, they extended these rules to all Jews.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11. 3, we read: "It is a worse thing to go against the words of the Scribes than the words of the [written] law]."

There was no unanimity among the Jewish teachers on many things, especially since they had no central teaching authority. But there was a powerful tendency to self-righteousness based on merits. Extensive testimonies are gathered in A, Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature(KTAV, NY 1968). On p. 24 Marmorstein tells us there were two schools: one said God does everything for His Name's sake; the other said that merits are needed for everything. On p. 43 (cf. p. 172-73), is cited the view that the world exists for the merits of the righteous. Joseph Bonsirven in Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Christ, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1965, tr. William Wolf) on p. 45 we find that God found no nation capable of receiving the Law. He gave the covenant in view of the future merits of Israel. Also, just as the world was created for the sake of Israel, so it continues to exist because of the merits of Israel (Marmorstein, pp. 128-29. A. Büchler, in Studies in Sin and Atonement, (KTAV, NY, 1967, p. 187. n. ) cites an arrogant statement by Simeon b. Yohai saying that he could free the whole world from punishment from the day of his birth until then, and with the help of his son Eleazar he could cover all times from creation to his day, and with the help of Yotham son of Uzziyyah their merits would suffice from creation to eternity. Marmorstein notes he knows of no other case of such pride.

Their esteem of the law was so great, and so distorted, that they thought God Himself spends three hours per day in studying the Law: Palestinian Targum on Dt 32. 4, and Babylonian Talmud, Aboda Zara, 3. b.

The things the Jewish teachers disputed were often pitiful. Studying law meant largely solving cases. Thus the Babylonian Talmud (Beza 1. 1) reports that the schools of Shammai and Hillel, at the time of Jesus, debated whether it was permissible to eat an egg laid by a hen on a feast day coming after the Sabbath. The hen had been working illegally! The school of Shammai said it was permissible; Hillel said no. (The reverse of the usual tendencies of these schools).

The Babylonian Talmud in Sabbath VI. 65-66 reports that Rabbi Meir permitted a cripple with a wooden leg to walk on the Sabbath, but Rabbi Jose forbade it!

Yigal Yadin, the chief researcher of the Temple Scroll (In Biblical Archaeology Review, Sept. -Oct. 1984, on p. 45 reports that since Dt 23. 12-14 ordered the latrine to be put outside the camp in the period of wandering, the Essenes took this to apply literally to all of Jerusalem. So they made a latrine outside the city at a distance of 3000 cubits - which was too far for anyone to be permitted to walk there on the Sabbath!.

Numerous additional examples could be given, but these are enough to show why Jesus rebuked the Pharisees. At the same time, we can admit that there were some fine highly moral ideals also to be found, along with these foolish things. Cf. Bonsirven, pp. 21-32.

Some today say that the conflicts of Jesus with the Pharisees did not take place in His time. Later the Christians came into conflict, and then retrojected these things to the time of Jesus. But such a view implies falsification in Scripture. It would be permitted to retroject a saying of Jesus after Easter to before Easter, provided He really said it, but not to just make things up, as this view proposes.

L. H. Schiffman, in "New Light on the Pharisees - Insights from the Dead Sea Scrolls" in Bible Review, June 1992, pp. 30-33, 54, says that new finds from the Dead Sea scrolls show that "the reports of the religious laws... attrributed to the Pharisees in the later talmudic texts are basically accurate."

b) Jesus on fulfillment compared to St. Paul on the law: Since the Holy Spirit is the Chief Author of all of Scripture, we know there can be no conflict between Jesus and Paul,

Actually, Paul was in a running fight with the Judaizers who said: Christ is not enough. We must have the law too. Naturally Paul worded his response to say: We are free from the law. What did he mean? He meant: (1)Jesus is enough; (2)Keeping the law does not merit salvation: Paul, like Jesus, taught that God is our Father, and that we get our salvation as His children, we inherit. (Cf. Galatians 3. 15-18; 4. 5-7;Rom 8. 16-17; 6. 23. It is true that Greek kleronomein can mean merely get, and need not mean inherit. But the contexts just cited show Paul does mean inherit. (3)Paul did say that just as children can earn to lose their inheritance, so we can earn to lose ours, and earn punishment instead: 1 Cor 6. 9-10; Eph 5. 5; Gal 5. 16-25.

c) Jesus goes beyond the law: Since He had come to fulfill, He perfected the law, calling for love for neighbors and even enemies. Leviticus 19. 18 had called for love of neighbor, but the Jews took it narrowly, and it did not include outsiders. Jesus extended it.

Jesus clearly distinguished what is required for salvation from what is needed for perfection. Thus in Mt 19. 21: "If you would be perfect, go sell all you have... ." He proposed celibacy/virginity for those who could take it: Mt 19. 12. He also presented added ideals in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5-7. But St. Thomas explained (II. II. 40. 1 ad 2): " These precepts are always to be observed in attitude of mind, namely, that a man should always be prepared not to resist... . But at times one must act otherwise because of the common good [referring chiefly to public authority]... . Hence Augustine says... nothing is more unhappy than the happiness of sinners, in that impunity is nourished and an evil will is strengthened." (Cf. St. Augustine, De sermone in monte 1. 19; Epist. 138. 2. 1 4). Jesus Himself, when slapped on the face by a guard at his trial, did not turn the other cheek, but rebuked them: John 18. 23.

Incidentally, only 4 of the Fathers of the Church were absolute pacifists: Marcion, Tatian, Tertullian, and Lactantius. But each passage involves heresy, and so the testimony is voided.

Especially, Jesus goes far beyond the law in saying (Mt. 5. 48): "Be you perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." And He adds (Mt 18. 3): "Unless you change and become like little children you will not get into the kingdom of God." Children know that they do not earn the love and care of their parents: they get it because the parents are good, not because they, the children are good. Hence St. Paul speaks many times of "inheriting" the kingdom (cf. Rom 8. 14-17;Gal 4. 6-7). This does not mean we are free to violate the law: he who does so will not inherit: 1 Cor 6. 9-10; Eph 5. 5; Gal 5. 16-24. (Justification by faith cannot excuse disobedience, as Luther thought: obedience is part of faith:Cf. Rom 1:5) This teaching implies the true answer on predestination. The positive, predestination is not earned, though the negative, rejection can be earned. Cf. Wm. G. Most, Our Father's Plan, Chapter 12.