John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.4, ch. 31: Jesus and the Law - But what is the Law?,
pp 26-73

(Detailed summary)

What is this Law to which Jesus submitted while discussing it?


The word Law translates the Hebrew word Torah, which means instruction, teaching, guidance, directive, law, whether all in oral or written form. This instruction or directive may come from the wise man or a parent and concern the conduct of life in general, but it may also come from God through the mouth of the priest or prophet. These instructions will be transmitted orally, and in the case of religious instructions, transmitted in the sanctuaries or in the temple of Jerusalem during the festivities. In time, these instructions, which are not only legal guidelines, but also traditional stories with prophetic and sapiential elements, will be written down and collected to form the Law. And since the archetype of these instructions or guidelines was the instruction given to Moses at Sinai, the Law of Yahweh will also be referred to as the Law of Moses. At the time of the exile, this Law will be perceived as the founding element of the people of Israel.

But it is a mistake to consider the content of this Law as cast in stone. For the written Law of Moses could not cover all of life's contingencies, and so it had to be reinterpreted to apply it in new cases. Several groups compete in this reinterpretation, and moreover there were several local customs that determined this reinterpretation. And what may seem surprising to us, this reinterpretation was not hesitated to be traced back to Moses himself, and it had just as much normative value as the written Torah.

At the time of Jesus, the Law refers primarily to the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. But its reinterpretation continues with an activity called the hălākâ, a legal judgment or decision concerning a point of concrete life to determine what is in agreement or not with the will of God. Several teachers would participate in this activity, including Jesus himself. All this presupposes that the Law is not perceived as a burden, but as God's gift that graciously reveals himself to his people Israel, as a covenant of God with his people, as an instrument to preserve their identity and holiness by observing the boundaries clearly established by the rules of purity.

Jesus and the Law - But what is the Law?

  1. Jesus and the Law: Reciprocal Illumination

    Understanding Jesus' position on the Law will help us to understand his perception of himself and his mission. But this is a delicate task, for we are faced with a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: to understand the Law, we need the help of the gospels, Philo, Josephus and the Qumran writings, but at the same time these data are the basis for understanding Jesus.

  2. The Meanings of the Law: the Old Testament and Intertestamental Judaism

    The word Law translates the Hebrew word Torah. According to some biblical scholars, the Hebrew word is said to come from the verb formed by the root yrh meaning: to cast, to throw, to extend, as extending the arm to indicate direction. For others, this root has another meaning, to teach or instruct. In any case, if we look at the word throughout the Old Testament, we note that Torah means instruction, teaching, direction, directive, law, whether all in oral or written form. This instruction or directive may come from the wise man or from a parent and concern the conduct of life in general. But it may also come from God through the mouth of the priest or prophet. Each individual directive is a tôra, but God may issue several directives, and this plural is written tôrôt. This reality of tôrôt precedes the notion of a written body of work, called Torah, which will appear much later.

    Let us not forget that we are in an oral tradition. So these tôrôt are transmitted from generation to generation by parents, clan leaders or judges at the gates of the cities, and as far as religious tôrôt are concerned, by priests in the sanctuaries or at the temple in Jerusalem during various festivities. Under the monarchy, scribes would begin to write them down to preserve them in the archives. These tôrôt are not only about legal guidelines, but also about traditional stories with prophetic and sapiential elements. Gradually they were written down to form various literary collections. Naturally, these collections are said to be the Law of Yahweh. And since the archetype of these instructions or directives was the instruction given to Moses at Sinai, the Law of Yahweh is also referred to as the Law of Moses. The latter term was probably known before the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, but it was not until the return from the exile that this body of instructions and narratives was really seen as the founding element of Judaism.

    With the book of Deuteronomy, whose composition covers the pre-exilic, exilic, and postexilic periods, an important step is reached in calling this set of religious tôrôt (Deut 28:61) the "Book of the Law." It refers to that written document given by God to Israel through Moses, a scroll in which foundational narratives, directives, and laws are interwoven to form a literary whole. In the Persian era, in the 4th century BC, the Torah par excellence, what would later be called the five books of Moses or Pentateuch (Greek, pentateuchos), would begin to be delineated. Subsequently, this Pentateuch would constitute the first and most important part of the canon of Jewish Scripture. Thus, the Book of Ben Sira, written in Palestine around the year -180, will mention three parts in the Jewish Scriptures, the Law (Pentateuch), the prophets and other writings.

    However let us not imagine that the content of this Law or Torah of Moses is immutable, even in the time of Jesus. Four factors account for its fluidity.

    1. Some fragments of the Torah found in the Dead Sea writings, when compared with the Samaritan Bible and the Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint (LXX), show that the Hebrew text, called the Masoretic text, contains variants that are not always the earliest, so that sometimes the Septuagint version is the earliest, as seen for example in the question of divorce (Deut 24:1-4). Thus, a citation from Scripture in the gospels cannot simply be dismissed as unhistorical on the grounds that it reflects the Septuagint more than the Masoretic text.

    2. Many religious groups (see the Book of Jubilees) at the beginning of the modern era did not feel that they were disrespecting the Pentateuch by rewriting certain stories or laws to better reflect the beliefs of the group.

    3. Above all, there is the fact that the written Law of Moses could not cover all of life's contingencies. It was therefore necessary to interpret this Law to apply it to these new cases. And in this work of interpretation, several groups came into conflict, such as the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Sadducees. Above all, there were local traditions and customs that could determine the judgment rendered, much more than scholarly debates from the written Torah.

    4. Finally, there were legal interpretations and practices that went beyond the strict text of the Law and competed for the adherence of the Jews of Palestine. We saw an example of this with the Pharisees who distinguished between the written Torah of Moses and the tradition of the elders, and the latter had just as much normative value as the former, even though it was not part of the written Torah. And one can easily understand the need for these additions to the written Law as history develops and more complex situations emerge.

    We have a good example of this with the question of the Sabbath. The Decalogue given at Sinai simply says to refrain from work (Ex 20:8-11). But there is no exhaustive list of activities that are considered work and that would violate the Sabbath. There is only mention here and there of some activities that should not be done on the Sabbath, such as plowing one's field or reaping (Ex 34:21), lighting a fire in one's home (Ex 35:3), or cooking (Ex 16:22-30). But what about making war? Is it allowed or not? It would seem that in the pre-exilic period, the Israelites were willing to fight on the Sabbath (2 Kings 11). But during the Maccabean revolt (which began in 167 BC), some pious Jews considered battle impermissible on the Sabbath, even as a means of self-defense, so that there was a total massacre (1 Mac 2:27-38). But other rebels, led by the priest Mattathias, would consider defending themselves against the Gentiles on the Sabbath to be perfectly permissible, and their argument was based on common sense, not on any point of the Law. This position would arouse the displeasure of a pious group echoed in the Book of Jubilees, written around 161-152 BC, which details a list of forbidden activities on the Sabbath, including making war, a prohibition decreed by the angel of the Presence from the heavenly tablets. The position of the Book of Jubilees was not widely followed. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century, Mattathias' interpretation seems to be universally accepted. He writes that the Law allows the Jews to defend themselves on the Sabbath against those who initiated the battle, but the Law does not allow them to take the initiative to attack. What is noteworthy here is how a purely practical decision to deal with an emergency situation was elevated over time to the Law of Moses. The same is true of the obligation to study the Torah and to attend synagogue on the Sabbath, which is traced back to Moses, even though the synagogue is a recent institution.

    Another example is provided by the question of divorce. Deut 24:1-4 discusses the case of a woman who has been divorced by her husband after having written a bill of divorce, and who, after marrying another man, is divorced again by the latter; this woman cannot be divorced again by her first husband. Now, when the evangelists Mark (Mk 10:3) and Matthew (Mt 5:31-32), as well as Josephus (Antiquities 4:9, 23 #253), discuss divorce using this passage from Deuteronomy, they all make the astonishing statement that the Law of Moses requires first that a record of divorce be drawn up: yet the record of divorce was mentioned only in passing in Deuteronomy as a matter of course, and the emphasis was rather on the prohibition of returning to the first husband. Here again we have a typical case where a custom is elevated over the years to a specific commandment of the Torah.

  3. The Meanings of the Law: the New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism

    In the Synoptics and many times in the gospel according to John, the Law (Greek: nomos) refers to the Pentateuch, including both the obligatory laws, the stories about the origins of Israel, and the prophecies that announce Jesus. But this Pentateuch is seen through the new interpretation that Jesus himself gives to it. Moreover, the Law is never seen as an oppressive burden, but as a gift of God who graciously reveals himself to his people Israel.

    In English the word "law" has a fairly precise meaning and usually refers to legal realities. On the contrary, the Greek word nomos has several dimensions and covers realities as diverse as religion, civil society and the world of laws, cosmology, philosophy and even royal ideology. These multiple dimensions of the law are also found in the rabbinic literature that will follow the period of Jesus: of course, the Torah refers first of all to the Pentateuch, but it also encompasses the whole of the Jewish Scriptures, and thus also the Psalms, the Proverbs and the Prophets. And even later, it will even be referred to as the two Torah, the written Torah and the oral Torah, both of which originated with Moses. All of this gives an idea how constantly evolving the Torah is.

    Another innovation is the use of the word hălākâ (behavior, conduct) which appeared in the time of the Mishna (ca. 200-220). This word refers to a legal judgment or decision concerning a concrete point of life. Although the word is not attested until the year 70, the reality signified by the verb hălak (to walk, to go, to come) is well known in the Old Testament to denote any behavior in agreement or in contradiction with God's will. Thus, at the turn of the modern era various Jewish teachers, from the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran to the Pharisees, from Hillel to Jesus of Nazareth issued opinions or legal advice concerning the conduct of life.

  4. The Problem of the Historical Jesus and the Historical Law

    We can now measure the difficulty of our undertaking to situate Jesus in relation to the Law. For both Jesus and the Law are fluid realities. On the one hand, Jesus is known to us through the gospels, but each evangelist has his own understanding of the Law and reinterprets Jesus' reinterpretation of the Law in his own way. On the other hand, the body of Jewish Scripture is presented to us through various competing Jewish groups and Jewish traditions will continue to evolve through the rabbinic tradition.

    We must therefore avoid the trap of considering as historical a word of Jesus on the Law because it is found in his mouth in the gospels. An example of this trap that many biblical scholars have fallen into is Mt 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets: I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill (plēroō)." Let's say it right away: this saying is a creation of Matthew and does not go back to the historical Jesus for the following reasons.

    • The use of the verb fulfill (plēroō) reflects a favorite theme of Matthew (12 out of 16 uses of this verb) where he wants to introduce a quote from the Old Testament to demonstrate that Jesus came to fulfill the Scriptures.
    • This phrase fits perfectly with Matthew's Christology of a Jesus who fulfills the Scriptures, whereas never elsewhere do we hear Jesus speak of himself in the first person to say that he fulfills something.
    • The expression "Do not believe" is typical of Matthew and is also found in Mt 10:34.
    • This verse is carefully placed as an introduction and summary at the beginning of a program on the Law which will be explained in six antitheses.

    In short, the evangelist created around the year 85 a small Christian catechism on Jesus and the Law that initiates the major theological structure that is the Sermon on the Mount.

    As we enter into a detailed study of Jesus and the Law, a word of caution is in order. We are accustomed to making a distinction and even an opposition between the ritual, cultic or legal elements of the Law on the one hand, and the ethical or moral elements on the other. And for us, the former are external, public or institutional and are of lesser importance than the latter which concern the intimate, private, personal and spiritual life. However, such a distinction does not exist in Palestinian Judaism. Palestinian Judaism sees itself as a religion born of a covenant between God and not an individual but a people, the people of Israel, and therefore a religion lived by a visible community, a community that preserved its identity and its sanctity by observing the boundaries clearly established by the rules of purity, a religion whose heartfelt commitment was expressed in righteous deeds towards its brethren, a religion that demonstrated its awareness of being people-centered by regularly going to the temple in Jerusalem for communal celebrations.

    A good example of this integration of ethical and cultic rules is the Sabbath. This obligatory rule allowed not only the master of the house to rest, but also the servants and slaves: it was therefore not only a cultic measure, but also a social one. The same was true of the tithe, which supported not only the temple and its officials, but also the poor and the marginalized of society.

Next chapter: What did Jesus really say about divorce?

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