Did Jesus instruct his Jewish listeners and disciples that the Torah, or Jewish law – the first five books of modern Bibles, traditionally attributed to Moses – was rendered irrelevant with his coming? There are certainly no unequivocal statements by Jesus in the gospels that say so. Yet many Christians from ages past until today think that he did.
Without even examining the gospels themselves we can tell from later Christian writings that Christians, specifically Gentile Christians, continued to struggle with Torah to try to understand what impact it should have on them (see my post: “Early Christianity’s Uneasy Relationship with the Torah, Jews, and Judaism”). That seems a strange uncertainty if they thought Jesus was clear on the subject.
Some suggest that Paul understood Jesus’s intentions better than his other followers and got it right when he said that the law wouldn’t make anyone righteous (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:11, 5:4) thus nullifying it. But it happens that other Jews understood the law in the same way; the law alone makes no one righteous nor was it singularly intended to do so. In Jewish understanding, one must belong to a divine covenant with God and, within that covenant, obey God’s will in order to be considered righteous.
But getting back to Jesus, let’s take a look at those passages often interpreted to be Jesus’s repudiation of the Torah. Many of these are collected in chapter five of the Gospel of Matthew. Often this group of Jesus’s instructions is called the “antitheses,” that is, the oppositions. But did Jesus really oppose the Torah?
The first of the so-called antitheses shows Jesus speaking about the law against murder “which was said to our fathers” (Matt 5:21; Exod 20:13). In other words, this law had been handed down long ago in the Torah given to Moses; it is one of the ten commandments. Did Jesus overturn this law, making it acceptable to murder? Of course not. But he added to this commandment a further refinement warning against even being angry with a “brother” (i.e., a fellow Jew). Avoiding anger does not oppose the law against murder. What Jesus has done is extend the commandment to go beyond its prima facie intent; he has intensified this Torah law not rescinded it.
Next, Jesus quotes the commandment against adultery (Matt 5:27; Exod 20:14). Did he overturn this commandment and claim that it was now acceptable to commit adultery? Of course not. He refined this commandment adding a warning against even lustfully looking at another (married) woman. Again, what Jesus has done is extend the commandment to go beyond its prima facie intent; he has intensified this Torah law not rescinded it.
In addition to his instructions regarding adultery, Jesus added some prohibitions regarding divorce. Torah provides for divorce. In the first-century, it was generally the man’s prerogative to initiate divorce. (The jury is still out over whether or in what circumstances a first-century Jewish woman might sue for divorce.) The key passage that provokes Jesus’s comment is found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something ervat davar about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.”
In the time of Jesus there was an on-going dispute with Judaism, highlighted by two famous Pharisaic teachers and contemporaries of Jesus: Hillel (fl. 30 BCE to 10 CE) and Shammai (50 BCE to 30 CE), about just how one should understand the Hebrew ervat davar. Literally it means “a thing unseemly.” English translations of the phrase vary including “something obnoxious,” or “unseemly,” “indecent,” “immoral,” “inappropriate,” and “objectionable.” Hillel emphasized the word “thing” in the phrase “a thing unseemly” and essentially taught that any reason was sufficient for a man to divorce his wife, even if she burned the dinner. Shammai emphasized the word “unseemly” and understood this to mean adultery. He took the stricter interpretation and Jesus followed suit. His followers, though dismayed (Matt 19:10), largely acquiesced (1 Cor. 7:10). (Important early Jewish writers and early Judaism in general agreed with Hillel’s position, however.) The bottom line is: Jesus did not absolutely forbid divorce, allowable in Torah, he limited it to situations involving sexual impropriety (interestingly, Mark and Luke do not have Jesus including this exemption).
Next, Jesus offers his interpretation on oath taking. Though there is no Torah commandment that insists one take an oath, the Torah cautions about not fulfilling an oath to the Lord (Lev 19:12). Jesus admonishes his listeners not to take oaths at all, thereby not risking their violation. Again, this is not rejecting a law, it is helping to avoid breaking one.
Following this, Jesus quotes the Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation, a proviso found in the Code of Hammurabi (18th c. BCE) and later included in Torah (Lev 24:19-20). One might argue that, with Jesus counseling “turn the other cheek” rather than insisting on just compensation for a wrong done, that he was indeed overturning this Torah law. But was he? Throughout these so-called antitheses, Jesus warns that those who do wrong will be punished and sent to hell (ge hinnom; Matt 5:22, 29, 30; see also 8:12, 10:28, 13:42, 50, 18:9, 22:13, 23:33, 24:51, 25:30 etc.).
God doesn’t seem to be setting an example of turning the other check for wrongdoing against his laws. It seems that Jesus did not reject the idea of just punishment but has removed such decisions from the unjust sphere of human beings and left instead it to the righteous judgment of God.
We next come to one of Jesus’s most iconic teachings. Jesus begins by quoting Torah: “Love your neighbor” (Lev 19:18). Then Jesus quotes what might sound like another Torah rule: “Hate your enemy” (Matt 5:43). But “hate your enemy” is not found in Torah (though it might be inferred from other passages; e.g., Deut 7:2, 30:7). Who were the enemies of the audience Jesus was speaking to? They are identified in what follows: “the evil (person),” “the unrighteous,” “tax collectors,” and even “Gentiles.” These are the “sinners” frequently referred to in the gospels (e.g., Matt 9:10, 11:19, 18:17, 21:31; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29, 7:29, 34, 15:1; see also Gal 2:15; everyday Jews who sometimes sinned were not referred to as “sinners”). Did the Torah command Jews to hate these people? One example should suffice to answer this question in the negative. Leviticus 19:34 commands the Torah-observant to treat “resident foreigners,” that is Gentiles living within Israel, as if they were a native citizen: “you must love the foreigner as yourself.”
In a related passage (Matt 22:34-40), Jesus was asked by an expert in Jewish law about the greatest commandment. He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and added “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said, “All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” These are the greatest, not the only commandments; the law and prophets depend on them to understand God and God’s will. Jesus did not replace the Torah or even the ten commandments with only these two. But they are sufficient to serve as guides to obeying all the rest. Hillel was asked the same question in a different way. An intrepid inquirer asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot (in other words, he wanted an all-encompassing summary). Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary” (b. Shabb. 31a). Hillel did not tell his inquirer that the Torah had become obsolete and that all the young man had to do was to follow the golden rule. He quoted Torah to explain Torah and that is just what Jesus did.
Christian Gentiles’ early struggle with Torah and with Judaism confirms that the requirements for Gentile membership in Jesus-groups had not been resolved with Jesus or Paul. Matthew’s Jesus taught mostly Jews. Gentiles, on the other hand, wanted to read Jesus’s responses in accord with their own aversion, or ambiguous relationship, to Torah. But by interpreting Jesus this way, they purposefully obscured many of his teachings, taking them out of their first-century Jewish environment. Jesus was not anti-Torah, anti-Jewish, nor anti-Semitic. He was a Torah teacher who tried, on the one hand, to bring back into the family of Israel the marginalized people of Jewish society, and on the other to offer a simple halakhah (“way to behave”) for guiding ordinary folk in proper Torah observance. In the ensuing centuries, he was commandeered by the Gentile Church and turned, in the case of Torah observance, into the opposite of what the gospel authors knew him to be.