All of the first followers of Jesus were Jews. They characterized Jesus in a number of Jewish ways: as Messiah, God’s son, a prophet. The latter designation, prophet, seems an obvious and even insufficient understanding of who Jesus was when compared with the other titles. Nevertheless, this characterization of Jesus is likely based on a prophecy from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy a future prophet like Moses is promised to God’s people (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18; see also 34:10).
Some first-century Jews expected that this prophet would arrive to herald the End Times just before God reclaimed his rule over the earth and the people inhabiting it. Some saw Jesus as this very prophet, a Moses-like figure who would, incidentally, perfectly fulfill the Torah that Moses left behind. How best to follow Torah was and continues to be a matter of utmost importance for Jews. But once God’s kingship was established on earth there would be no need for such laws. People would live in perfect righteousness and the earth would return to its original perfect state. In a world like that, laws would no longer be necessary.
According to Jesus’s followers, the herald of the New Age did come. It was Jesus. But the transformation of the earth did not occur as a result. The evil kingdoms of the world were not overthrown nor did the earth become another Garden of Eden. Thus, for Christian Jews, the Torah remained in effect and the debate continued on how best to follow it. Evidence of these concerns can be found decades after the crucifixion as written in the Gospel of Matthew.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew understands that Jesus was the new Moses. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four New Testament gospels and is very concerned with halakhah, how best to live and follow the Law. The gospel is most favorable toward the Law but most critical of those who make something of themselves by claiming to follow it better than others. In chapter five, Matthew lays out a series of pronouncements by Jesus, called “antitheses” by scholars, in which Jesus cites certain examples of laws given by Moses in the Torah. In each case Jesus re-states or re-interprets the law in the form of “Moses said…but I say…”. I believe that these antitheses are actually addressed to those whom Jesus calls hypocrites with regard to obeying Torah.
In the first of these antitheses, Jesus recalls one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not kill.” He explains that refraining from murder is not enough to perfectly satisfy this Torah requirement. Even anger towards one’s neighbor violates this law. Next, Jesus recalls another commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, Jesus extends the legal definition, this time including lustful thoughts as part of the adultery prohibition. Third, Jesus cites a provision in Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1-3ff) by which a man may divorce his wife. However, Jesus says there should be no divorce at all. And while swearing an oath in the name of God, as long as one does not do so falsely, is acceptable according to Torah (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; etc.), Jesus goes further and says people should avoid making oaths altogether. Finally, Jesus recalls the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” law of retaliation found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Most historians believe that this provision was instituted to restrict vengeful retaliation not demand it. Nevertheless, Jesus, in one of his most famous and controversial pronouncements, goes beyond this restrictive policy of equivalence and directs his hearers rather to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” At the end of the lesson, according to Matthew (5:48), Jesus instructs his intended audience to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is Jesus serious? How can anyone be perfect?
Biblical scholars suggest that some of the antitheses may not go back to the historical Jesus. It is true that most cannot be found in our earliest textual sources about the life of Jesus such as the Gospel of Mark, the Sayings Source Q, and the letters of Paul. But a couple of the antitheses can be found among these sources. Jesus’s prohibition against divorce is given in Mark (10:9) and was known to Paul (1 Cor. 7:10). Loving one’s enemies is a teaching found in Q. Nevertheless, I am willing to grant that Jesus taught most or all of these antitheses or something very much like them. They fit not only within the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’s other pronouncements but they exemplify his concern for hypocrisy with regard to obeying the Law.
So what might have been Jesus’s point with these antitheses? Some scholars suggest that Jesus was overturning Moses and Torah setting himself up as the replacement for both. It is an attractive notion to Christians who would rather not be bothered with Torah. Others suggest that, while maintaining the validity of Torah, Jesus actually intensified its provisions calling on his followers to be more righteous then even Moses expected. Would that, then, make people perfect?
To answer this it must be remembered that throughout the gospels, Jesus is shown to be in controversy with some of the Jewish teachers of his day. These teachers are often referred to as “scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus both praises and rebukes them. For example, Jesus, according to Matthew 23:2, acknowledges that “the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.” He then warns, however, that they do not practice what they teach. And, in Matthew 5:20, Jesus advises that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In what way can one exceed their righteousness? In Matthew Jesus attacks the ostentatiousness, and ultimately the hypocrisy, of some “scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets” (Q 20:46). Quite plainly, Jesus warns others to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy” (Q 12:1). What is this hypocrisy?
According to the gospels, Jesus is rarely lauded by the Jewish religious leaders and teachers of his day. But never mind; Jesus directs his ministry toward the “sick” not those who are “well” (Q 5:31 – the “well” must be those who are doing a better job at obeying Torah). In fact, Jesus directs much of his efforts toward reclaiming for God the socially and religiously marginalized, characterized by Matthew as “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31-32) whose righteousness was severely compromised. (The “sinners” Jesus reaches out to are not ordinary Jews who sometimes err; they are those who have largely abandoned their claim to being numbered among God’s chosen people by ignoring or abdicating their obligations as Jews via Torah.) Jesus’s beef with some of the scribes and Pharisees was their disdain and feelings of superiority toward these members of Jesus’ audience. These particular teachers claimed to have superior righteousness and, practically speaking, they did. They are among the “well,” but not well enough, according to Jesus, to condemn others.
In the antitheses Jesus does not overturn Moses or the Torah. He does not denigrate Torah. In Matthew, Jesus clarifies that he has not come to abolish the Law or the prophets: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law (Torah) until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:1). We can debate what it means to have “all accomplished.” I think Jesus was referring to that future point in history when the present age will come to an end and God’s rule will be established on earth as discussed above. Then the Torah will no longer be needed. Regardless, the behavior which Jesus describes: no anger, no lustful thoughts, no divorce, no oaths, no vengeance, and love for everybody are only possible if one could follow the Law perfectly.
Thus, Jesus warns those who rigorously follow Torah that while they may think they are following the Law as intended they still have much farther to go before they can follow it perfectly. Jesus sets out the impossible goal of perfect obedience, a goal no one can actually attain but one he believes must be pursued. Obeying the letter of the Law is a necessary step. But grasping the spirit that infuses the Law and living according to its full implications should be the real objective. The scribes and Pharisees Jesus criticizes have stopped short of acknowledging Torah’s full implications. Therefore, since they continue to fall short in their obedience they have no room to judge (i.e. condemn) others (the “sick”) who likewise fail to meet all of Torah’s requirements. Jesus calls on his fellow Jews to recognize that all of the requirements of Torah are actually based on one basic underlying principal: love. It is the love of God for his people, the love of people for their God, and the love of each toward one another. Once one begins to follow the Torah in the spirit of love, hypocrisy disappears and the nature of true perfection comes into view.
Unlike later mischaracterizations of Jesus’s intentions, inflamed by a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings, Jesus is not attempting to replace a flawed, legalistic Judaism with a more universal, spirit-filled religion like Christianity. He is simply acknowledging the full depth of Torah’s meaning, a depth not reached by mere surface obedience. Note that Jesus does not teach that the Jewish teachers he rebukes will not enter the coming kingdom. He teaches, rather, that those who are (or think they are) first now (in terms of their obedience to Torah) will be the last to enter it and possibly even have a lower status within it. Those who are last now (or appear to be lacking in sufficient righteousness) will be among the first to enter it and perhaps occupy a higher status. Why? Presumably this is because the marginalized Jews in Jesus’ target audience have come to recognize in Jesus’s teaching the love embodied in Torah as expressed by God through forgiveness while certain self-righteous Jewish teachers have not seen this.
Jesus’s call to perfection is probably only a symbolic reminder that no one can ever achieve perfect obedience to Torah but one must not stop trying, and not by adding more legal definitions and requirements (“Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them – Q 11:46) but by recognizing (and teaching about) the love that undergirds all of it. “Be perfect as God is perfect”? Who could do it? Matthew thinks Jesus could do it – he “fulfilled” Torah perfectly. Everyone else, he believes, should be humble enough to admit that they cannot do so. Jesus has shown why. The spirit of love behind the Torah cannot be fully realized by merely trying to follow a set of written codes. Perfection, according to Jesus, requires full embodiment of Torah’s spirit of love as well. It will only be in the coming kingdom, when God’s rule is spread out over the earth, that everything and everyone will be perfect as God originally intended. For now all one can do is try to approximate it as best one can and pray for the day it will truly happen – “Your will be done.”