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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Law (2)

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LAW.—The question of Christ’s relation to the Jewish law is one of fundamental importance for the origin of Christianity, but at the same time one of peculiar difficulty. The difficulty arises, to some extent, from the fact that His own teaching marks a period of transition, when the old was already antiquated, while the new was still unborn. A further difficulty is created by the relation in which the actual conduct of Jesus stood to the principles which He laid down. Moreover, the question arises whether His attitude remained the same through the whole course of His ministry, or whether He came to realize that His fundamental principles carried Him further than He had at first anticipated. Lastly, when we remember how bitter was the strife which this very question aroused in the primitive Church, the misgiving is certainly not unreasonable, that this may have been reflected back into the life of the Founder, and sayings placed in His mouth endorsing one of the later partisan views. Our present subject is that of the Ceremonial Law.

It must be clearly recognized that the distinction between moral and ceremonial law is not one sanctioned in the Law itself. All its parts alike were the command of God. The distinction has maintained its vitality in virtue of a praiseworthy ethical interest. The antinomianism of St. Paul seemed to endanger morality, and those who could not rise to his point of view, that it was precisely in this way that morality was secured, turned Christianity into a new legalism, and explained his doctrine that the Law was abolished to mean that Christians were no longer compelled to practise Jewish ceremonies. This was, of course, to reduce much that he said to the unmeaning. It is precisely the moral law that St. Paul had chiefly in mind. The Decalogue is described as ‘the ministration of death written and engraven on stones’ (2 Corinthians 3:7 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ); and, to illustrate the sin-producing effects of the Law, St. Paul quotes one of the Ten Commandments (Romans 7:7). His doctrine was unquestionably that the Law as a whole was done away for all who were in Christ, inasmuch as they had crucified the flesh, which was the home of sin, and thus had lost everything to which the Law could appeal as provocation to sin, while they had escaped into the freedom of the Spirit, and could therefore no longer be under the constraint of the Law. But even St. Paul was forced to recognize that his magnificent idealism was not milk for babes, hence moral exhortation found a large place in his Epistles, side by side with the loftiest assertions of a Christian’s freedom from sin, flesh, and the Law. But St. Paul is quite explicit that this freedom is to be strenuously maintained in the sphere of Jewish ceremonies, especially circumcision, and sacred days and seasons. On the other hand, a party in the Early Church insisted passionately on the permanent validity of the Law, and especially of circumcision, as essential to salvation. It lies beyond our limits to trace the history of this controversy, but a reference to it is necessary for the reason already indicated.

Jesus was Himself born into a Jewish home, and the rites prescribed by the Jewish law were scrupulously fulfilled in His case. His parents did not belong to the ranks of the Pharisees, hence His early training was healthier than that of St. Paul; but He, like His great Apostle, was born under the Law (Galatians 4:4), and initiated by circumcision into the Covenant on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). His mother presented Him as her firstborn male child to the Lord in the Temple, and offered the sacrifice of purification prescribed in the Law (Luke 2:22-24), and thus ‘accomplished all things that were according to the law of the Lord’ (Luke 2:39). Joseph and Mary went up each year to the feast of the Passover at Jerusalem (Luke 2:41). So far as we can see, Jesus Himself was a strict observer of the Law. Whatever His attitude towards it during His ministry, we may assume without question that, till He was conscious of His Messianic vocation, His obedience to the Law was scrupulously and heartily rendered. It lay in the nature of the case, however, that the old bottles of Judaism should be unfit to receive the new wine of the Kingdom with which He knew Himself to be intrusted. The question whether this was clear to Him from the first, or whether it became clear only in the course of His controversy with the scribes, cannot be answered with certainty, in view of the doubt which hangs over the chronology of the ministry. And His conduct here was regulated by much the same need for reserve as He practised in reference to His self-revelation as Messiah. A premature declaration would have created an extremely difficult situation. All He could do was to utter His principles and leave the practical inferences to be drawn, when the time was ripe, by those who shared His spirit.

On one great branch of this question, however, Jesus expressed Himself clearly and without compromise. The morbid anxiety of the scribes to make a hedge about the Law so that all possible approaches to its violation might be blocked, added to the hair-splitting casuistry in which moralists of their type delighted, and the lawyer’s instinct for precise and exhaustive definition, had led to the elaboration of the precepts in the Law into a vast system of tradition. Moreover, the heavier the burden grew, the greater grew the temptation to find a literal fulfilment which should be an escape from the spirit. All this apparatus of piety demanded leisure to master and perform, such leisure as no man with his daily bread to earn could command; hence arose a morality unfitted for the normal human life. Against all this tradition Jesus entered an emphatic protest. His attitude towards it was wholly different from that which He assumed towards the written Law. The scribes made void by their tradition the word of God, and every plant which His heavenly Father had not planted He said should be rooted up. Nevertheless, in vindicating the Law against the tradition, He enunciated principles which pointed forward to the abolition of both. The points on which He came into conflict with Jewish ceremonialism were Fasting, the law of Uncleanness, the Temple service, and the cancelling of primary human duties by feigned respect for duties to God.

1. If the order of incidents in the Gospel of St. Mark could be accepted as chronological, the first collision of Jesus with the representatives of the tradition was occasioned by His eating with publicans and sinners at the house of Levi (Mark 2:15 ff.). Although stress cannot be laid on the order in which the incidents are narrated, this furnishes us with an excellent illustration of the way in which the fundamental ideas of Jesus brought Him into conflict with the religious prejudices of His time. His doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and of the incomparable value of the human soul were fundamental convictions. To this was added the consciousness of His own mission to restore the lost children to their Father. Hence He met the criticism of His conduct in associating with the degraded by the explanation that He was a physician, and where was the physician’s place but in the midst of the sick? There is indeed a terrible irony in the words, for there were none whose moral and religious health was, to the eyes of Jesus, in a more desperate condition than that of His critics. But scandalized as they might be by conduct so unprofessional on the part of a teacher, there was an obvious conclusiveness in the reply of Jesus which could have been evaded only by the assertion that the salvation of such people was not desirable. The two types of holiness emerge in clear contradiction—the type which seeks to avoid all contact with the contaminating in order that personal purity may not be compromised, and the type that is entirely forgetful of self in its zeal for the regeneration of others. It is in connexion with a similar accusation that St. Luke relates the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Drachma, and the Lost Son (Luke 15). Similarly Christ’s lodging with Zacehaeus the publican gave rise to criticism; and here again Jesus explained His action by His mission: ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10).

2. The second point in which the new type displayed a contrast with the old was in the matter of Fasting. Wonder was excited that, while the Pharisees and the disciples of the Baptist fasted, the disciples of Jesus neglected this religious exercise. The Pharisees fasted twice in the week, on Monday and Thursday. What fasts were observed by the disciples of John we do not know. But the distinction was not one simply between disciples, it went back to the leaders. The Baptist was an ascetic, clothed in camel’s hair and a leathern girdle, with locusts and wild honey for his food; his congenial home was the desert, his message one of judgment to come, the axe already lying at the root of the tree. He came neither eating nor drinking, and this unsociable disposition called forth the charge that he had a devil. Jesus, on the other hand, was no aseetic; so little of an ascetic, in fact, that His enemies taxed Him with over-indulgence: ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19). Jesus defends His disciples against the criticism implied in the question, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?’ (Mark 2:18) by the answer, ‘Can the sons of the bride-chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.’ The principle underlying this is that the external practice must be a spontaneous expression of the inward feeling. Fasting is out of place in their present circumstances, they have the bridegroom with them, therefore all is joy and festivity. It would be a piece of unreality to introduce into their present religious life an element so incongruous. But He proceeds: ‘The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast in that day.’ The reference is to His own death; and possibly the foreboding expressed should lead us to assign this incident to His later ministry, after the declaration of Messiahship had been made and the prediction of death had been uttered. On the other hand, the veiled allusion makes it possible that those who heard it would not catch His meaning, and we can, in that case, assign it to a late date only if we are clear that Jesus Himself became conscious at a comparatively late period in His ministry of the death that awaited Him. The incident itself rather makes the impression that it belongs to the earlier period of Christ’s activity. This was one of the respects in which failure to conform to conventional piety would early attract attention.

Wellhausen regards the incident as unauthentic. He points to the curious fact that the question is one between the disciples of the Baptist and of Jesus, and draws the inference that it is a justification for the deviation of the later practice of Christ’s followers from that of Jesus Himself, who in practice conformed strictly to the Judaism of His time. He confirms this by pointing out that as a matter of fact the bridegroom is not taken away from wedding festivities, and here therefore the choice of expression has been determined by the actual fact of Christ’s removal by death. However plausible this suggestion may be, the sayings bear rather the stamp of Jesus than of the early Apostolic Church. The criticism of the disciples rather than of Jesus has its parallel in the incident of the plucking of the ears of corn on the Sabbath and the disciples eating with unwashed hands, and the temper of the Master was much freer than that of the timidly legalistic disciples.

In the Sermon on the Mount fasting is recognized as a fitting religious exercise; but, as in the case of prayer and almsgiving, it is essential, for its true religious quality to be preserved, that it should be practised without ostentation. The religious self-advertisement which characterized the Pharisees eviscerated these exercises of all their value. They were to be a secret between a man and his God. In the most rigorous fasts washing and anointing were forbidden (Taanith, i. 6), while they were allowed in the less severe (ib. i. 4 f.). Jesus bids His followers anoint the head and wash the face when they fast, that no one may be able to detect that they are fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). See Fasting.

Immediately following the defence of the disciples for not fasting, we have in all the Synopties (Matthew 9:16 f., Mark 2:21 f., Luke 5:36 f.) the sayings about the undressed cloth and the new wine in the old wineskins. The parables are difficult; the lesson taught is clearly the incompatibility of the new with the old, and the disaster that will inevitably follow any attempt to combine them. But it is by no means clear with what ‘old’ and ‘new’ should be identified, nor again can we assume that both parables express the same truth. It is possible, though improbable, that Jesus may intend by ‘the old’ the ancient piety of the Old Testament, and by ‘the new’ the new-fangled regulations of the scribes, His sense being that the old Divinely-given mode of life is being ruined by the tradition of men. But it is more likely that the usual view is right, according to which ‘the old’ is Judaism and ‘the new’ is the gospel. Even so, however, various interpretations are possible. Usually it has been thought that in both sayings Jesus is defending the attitude of His disciples: you cannot expect the new spirit of the gospel to be cast in the old moulds or Judaism; the new spirit must create new forms for itself. Weiss, however, considers that both parables constitute a defence of the attitude of John’s disciples, they cannot be expected to combine the spirit of the Gospel with their legalist and ascetic habit of life (Bibl. Theol. of NT, i. 112). It is possible, however, that Beysehlag is correct in thinking that the parable of the undressed cloth on the old garment is a justification of John’s disciples in fasting, while the parable of the new wine in the old bottles is a justification of the disciples of Jesus for refusing to follow their example (NT Theol. i. 114). The two sayings are connected by ‘and,’ it is true, but this conjunction has in the Synoptics a wider range of meaning than in English. Wellhausen finds the sayings difficult. He is not disposed to question their authenticity, though, as already mentioned, he strikes out the sayings immediately preceding.

3. Another point in which Jesus came into confliet with the tradition was that of Ablutions (Mark 7:1 ff. ||). To secure that nothing ceremonially unclean should be eaten, the Jews were very scrupulous in washing the hands before meals. The laws of cleanness and uncleanness touch life so much more closely than any others, that the casuistry of the scribes naturally finds in this matter a large field of exercise. The largest of the six books of the Mishna is given up to this topic. The purification of vessels alone occupies thirty chapters of this book. The Pentateuch itself exhibits more than the usual tendency to casuistry in this matter, but the tradition left the Law out of sight in the elaborateness of its regulations. In the time of Jesus tradition had become very strict with reference to the washing of the hands. The practice originated with the Pharisees, but was adopted by almost all the Jews. Even when the hands were ceremonially clean it was necessary to wash them, no doubt to guard against the possibility of unconscious defilement. If they were known to be unclean, they had to be washed twice before a meal; they were also washed after food; and some Pharisees washed even between the courses. The hands were held with the lingers up, so that the uncleanness might be washed down from them; and for the ceremony to be effectual it was necessary that the water should run down to the wrist (though we should probably not translate πυγμῇ, Mark 7:3, ‘to the wrist’; see Swete, ad loc.). In John 2:6 we read of the six stone water-pots for the water of purification at the marriage in Cana; and the same Gospel tells us how the Jews purified themselves for the Passover (John 11:55), or took precautions against defilement which would disqualify them from eating it (John 18:28).

It was therefore natural that the neglect of some of the disciples should evoke criticism; and this criticism was uttered by officials from Jerusalem who had come down to watch the new movement (Mark 7:1). No mention is made here of any violation of the tradition on the part of Jesus Himself; though in Luke 11:38 we are told that the Pharisee, at whose house Jesus was eating, was surprised that He neglected this ceremony. Jesus defended His disciples by a complete repudiation of the tradition. He pointed out that its effect was to nullify the Law rather than to establish it; and He illustrated this from the practice of dedicating to God that which ought to have been used by a man for the support of his parents. To this point it will be necessary to return. But in connexion with the question of hand-washing Jesus enunciated a principle of far-reaching importance which not only set aside the tradition, but even abrogated a large section of the Law. He asserted that not that which is without a man can, by going into him, defile him, but the things which proceed out of the man. The heart is the essential thing, food cannot come into contact with that; but it is in it that evil thoughts, words, or actions have their rise, and it is these that make a man unclean. Not what a man eats, but what he is, determines the question of his purity. Thus Jesus lifted the whole conception of cleanness and uncleanness out of the ceremonial into the ethical domain. But it is plain that this carried with it revolutionary conclusions, not only as to the tradition, but as to the Law; for much of the Law was occupied precisely with the uncleanness created by external things, and it is not improbable that St. Mark has definitely drawn this inference in his Gospel.

It is possible that the usual view taken of the passage, according to which the words ‘making all meats clean’ (Mark 7:19) are the concluding words of Jesus, should be accepted. This involves, however, a grammatical irregularity, and we ought perhaps to adopt the view taken by Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Chrysostom, ably defended by Field (Notes on the Translation of the NT, pp. 31, 32) and adopted by Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 , Weizsäcker, Swete, Gould, Salmond, that they are the comment of the Evangelist, and that we should translate ‘this he said, making all meats clean.’ On the other hand, the notes of Menzies and Wellhausen on the passage may be consulted.

The evasion of the Law by the Tradition here asserted by Jesus has been affirmed by some Jewish scholars not to have existed. (The reader may consult an appendix on ‘Legal Evasions of the Law,’ by Dr. Schechter in Montefiore’s Hibbert Lectures, pp. 557–563; an article by Monteflore on ‘Jewish Scholarship and Christian Silence’ in the Hibbert Journal for Jan. 1903; the rejoinder to this by Menzies in July 1903, with a further rejoinder by Monteflore in Oct. 1903.) It is urged that the reference in the Jewish treatise Nedarim does not confirm the statement in St. Mark about Corban. Dr. Menzies accepts this; but when that is said, the matter is by no means ended. To the present writer it seems that the evidence of St. Mark is quite good evidence for the contemporary Judaism. If the assertion about Corban is untrue, of course it cannot be ascribed to Jesus, who could not have quoted, as a conclusive proof that the Jews cancelled the Law by their tradition, an example which His hearers would know to have no existence. Accordingly, if the statement is mistaken, it would have to be put down to the account of the Evangelist, though how he should have hit upon it unless such a custom was actually in vogue would be difficult to understand. In forming our judgment on a question of this kind certain leading principles must be kept in mind. The contemporary Judaism is most imperfectly known to us, and the documents which we have to use as our sources of information are, in many instances, centuries later than the rise of Christianity. Further, the stereotyping of Judaism must not be blindly accepted as if it guaranteed that doctrines or practices for which we have only late literary attestation were already developed in the time of Christ. We must remember that Judaism did not live in an intellectual vacuum, but in an atmosphere saturated with Christian germs. Especially, we cannot forget that controversy went on between Jews and Christians; and under its pressure it is by no means unreasonable to believe that Judaism may have undergone a considerable modification, above all, in the elimination of matter which proved susceptible to criticism. In the light of these principles the present writer has no hesitation in regarding the statement in St. Mark as good evidence for the existence of the practice of Corban in the time of Christ.

4. The next question touches Christ’s relation to the Temple. His personal attitude towards it was that of a loyal Jew. Not only did He as a boy of twelve years recognize it as His Father’s house (Luke 2:49), but, after He had entered on His ministry, He cleansed it by driving out the money-changers, and overturning the stalls of the traders (Matthew 21:12 ff. ||). According to the Fourth Gospel, His visits to Jerusalem were largely connected with the feasts. In His Sermon on the Mount He assumes that His disciples will offer sacrifice, and only requires that, before he offers, a man shall be reconciled to his brother (Matthew 5:23 f.). In His great indictment of the scribes and Pharisees He rebukes them for their ruling that an oath by the temple or by the altar counts for nothing, while an oath by the gold of the temple, or a gift at the altar, is binding. The temple is greater than its gold, and makes it holy; and similarly it is by the altar that the gift is sanctified. To swear by the altar is to swear not only by it, but by the offering placed upon it; while to swear by the temple is to swear not only by it and all that it contains, but by Him who dwells therein (Matthew 23:16 ff. ||). But all this loyal recognition of the place filled by the temple and the honour due to it was combined with an inward detachment from it, which was a presage of the ultimate deliverance of Christianity from its connexion with it. This comes out very clearly in the story of the stater in the fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:24 ff.). The very doubt which was implied in the question whether Jesus paid the half-shekel which was levied as a temple-tax is most significant as to the drift towards freedom, which was already detected in His teaching. That He had not repudiated the toll, Peter is aware; but the reason for His obedience comes out plainly in the conversation He has with Peter on the subject. Taxes are taken by monarchs not from their sons, but from strangers. Therefore, since Jesus knows that He and His disciples are not aliens to God, but His children, the inference is that no payment of the tax can be legitimately expected from the children of the Kingdom. Jesus, however, bids Peter pay the tax for both, to avoid giving offence. In other words, Jesus regarded Himself and members of His Kingdom as released from every obligation to pay the half-shekel for the service of the temple, even if, in tender concession to the feelings of others, they did not avail themselves of their liberty. The temple-due in question was not definitely commanded in the Law, though it was a not unnatural deduction from Exodus 30:13, which was itself a development of the rule of Nehemiah that there should be an annual payment of a third of a shekel for the temple service (Nehemiah 10:32-33). The temple itself, Christ predicted, would be destroyed. However we may explain the saying, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will build it up in three days’ (John 2:19), He certainly foretold in His eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:2) the overthrow of the literal temple, and therewith naturally the cessation of the Jewish cultus.

It is not improbable that the saying, ‘Destroy this temple,’ should be similarly interpreted. The authenticity of the utterance is guaranteed by the use made of it in the trial of Jesus (Mark 14:58), and the similar accusation at the trial of Stephen (Acts 6:14), as well as the taunt addressed to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:29). It is true that the author of the Fourth Gospel interprets the saying as a reference to the body of Christ, fulfilled in the death and the resurrection. But this interpretation did not at the time occur either to the Jews or to the disciples. The retort of the former showed that they understood the reference to be to the literal temple, while the Evangelist expressly says that the interpretation he adopts occurred to the disciples only after the resurrection. It is, in fact, very difficult to believe that the saying referred to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In its connexion with the desecration and cleansing of the actual temple the allusion could naturally be nothing less than to its destruction, unless Jesus made His meaning clear by pointing to His body. But in that case the misunderstanding on the part of the Jews and the disciples would have been impossible, even if we leave aside the objection that so unveiled an allusion to His death and resurrection at this early period is most unlikely. Moreover, the contrast with the temple made with hands (Mark 14:58) does not at all suit the human body. A difficulty, however, is raised by the Johannine version of the saying. We may, perhaps, assume that the latter is to be preferred to the version of the witnesses at the trial, in that it refers the work of destruction not to Jesus Himself, but to the Jews. Their present course of desecration, if they persist in it, will lead to the destruction of the temple. But it is not easy to believe that Jesus can have said that He would rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. Here the version of the witnesses is intrinsically the more credible, that He would build another temple in its place. And the contrast between the temple made with hands and the temple made without hands bears also the stamp of authenticity; the new is not simply to be a reproduction of the old, it is to be not a material, but a spiritual, structure. We may therefore conclude with some confidence that Jesus definitely anticipated the destruction of the centre of Jewish worship and the substitution of a spiritual temple in its place.

In the conversation with the woman of Samaria (John 4), Jesus is represented as dealing specifically with the question of the legitimate sanctuary as against the Samaritan temple (John 4:20-24). He gives His verdict in favour of the temple at Jerusalem, but He asserts that the hour has already come for both sanctuaries to lose whatever exclusive legitimacy they may possess. The true worship of God transcends all local limitations; for God is spirit, and as such cannot be localized; and the worship He desires is a worship in spirit and in truth. There is no reason whatever for supposing that here the Evangelist is putting his own doctrine into the mouth of Jesus. The pregnant aphoristic form and penetrating insight of the saying stamp it as authentic. Moreover, it is quite in the line of the other teachings of Jesus with reference to the temple. He recognizes that the temple is His Father’s house, and yet looks forward to its destruction; and similarly here He asserts the legitimacy of the Jewish as against the Samaritan temple, and yet looks forward to the speedy termination of worship in it.

5. It is certainly a very striking fact, in view of the immense importance attached in Judaism to the rite, that Jesus nowhere raises the question of the permanence of Circumcision. Had He pronounced upon it, the bitter controversy excited by the question in the primitive Church could hardly have arisen. But, naturally, occasion for discussing it did not so readily arise, and it was part of the method of Jesus to leave questions of practice to be settled by His disciples under the guidance of the Spirit and in the light of principles with which He had imbued them. There can be no reasonable doubt that St. Paul drew the true Christian inference. The great principle, that the external was unimportant in comparison with the inward, expressed in the abolition by Jesus of the Levitical laws as to unclean food, and in His doctrine that for worship in the material temple there was to be substituted worship in spirit and in truth, carried with it the conclusion that as a purely external rite circumcision could have no place in the religion of the spirit. Moreover, it was the sign of the Old Covenant; but Jesus knew that His blood consecrated a New Covenant. This implied the abolition of the Old Covenant, and naturally the abolition of circumcision, which was its sign. Indeed, the Old Testament itself was on the way to this, not simply in Jeremiah’s prediction (Jeremiah 31:31 ff.) of the New Covenant, but in the prophetic demand for a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:26; cf. Ezekiel 44:7, Leviticus 26:41). Here, as elsewhere, the attitude of Jesus linked itself closely to that previously taken by the prophets. Nor must we forget that Jesus contemplated that His religion would become universal. This in itself suggested the abolition of a rite which possessed no spiritual value, and was at the same time an almost insuperable barrier to the wide acceptance among the cultured of a religion that required it for full membership. See, further, art. Circumcision.

6. We have left till the last the much-debated passage Matthew 5:17-20, since it is helpful in our interpretation of it to have before us the application of the principle in detail. The opening words of the passage, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets,’ show clearly that Jesus was conscious that His teaching might not unjustifiably seem to carry this implication with it. There was an element which suggested a revolutionary attitude, but it was a mistaken inference that He meant to destroy the Law or the Prophets; it was His intention to fulfil them. It is important to observe here and elsewhere the way in which Jesus combines the Prophets with the Law. Unlike the current theology of His time, His teaching brought the Prophets into equal prominence with the Law; and it is of the OT system as a whole that He is thinking, and not simply of the legal enactments which constituted for the Rabbis almost the whole of religion. Yet it would be a mistake to infer that the Levitical requirements are here left out of sight. It is true that both the Rabbis and Jesus recognized degrees of importance among the laws, though their emphasis was very differently placed. Yet the Levitical laws were equally with others regarded by Jesus as laws of God, so that, in a comprehensive statement of the relation of His teaching to the religion of the OT, He could not leave them out of account. Now, we have already seen that the teaching of Jesus came into conflict not simply with the Tradition of the Elders, but with the Levitical laws of purity; that He explicitly abolished the laws of clean and unclean food, and looked forward to the cessation of the temple worship. Accordingly, we must give such a sense to His words as will harmonize the explanation of His intention not to destroy the Law with the fact that He did abolish some of its precepts, and contemplate the impossibility, through the destruction of the temple, of a large part of its injunctions. The unifying conception is contained in the word ‘fulfil’ (πληρῶσαι). Jesus does not mean that He came to render a perfect obedience to the Law and the Prophets in His own life. The fulfilment forms an antithesis to the destruction. The destruction was such as would be accomplished by His teaching, not by His action, and similarly the fulfilment is something effected by His teaching. Besides, it is very difficult to believe that with the freedom of His principles, Jesus should have attached any importance to the perfect carrying out in action of the Law and the Prophets. What is meant is that, to use a familiar illustration, the gospel fulfils the Law as the flower fulfils the bud. Jesus sees in the Law a Divinely ordained system, but He is conscious that it is stamped with immaturity and defect. His function is to bring out its intrinsic significance by disengaging and carrying to perfection the principles entangled in it. Thus He does not abrogate the Law, but He transcends it, and, in doing so, antiquates it. In Beyschlag’s words, it is ‘confirmed and transformed in one breath.’ What this means is admirably explained by Stevens in the following words: ‘Jesus fulfils the OT system by rounding out into entire completeness what is incomplete in that system. In this process of fulfilment all that is imperfect, provisional, temporary, or, for any reason, needless to the perfect religion, falls away of its own accord, and all that is essential and permanent is conserved and embodied in Christianity’ (The Theology of the New Testament, p. 19).

The two following verses (Matthew 5:18-19) create much difficulty. They seem to assert a permanence of the Law and its minutest details, and to affirm the insignificant place assigned in the Kingdom to any who should set aside one of the minor commandments. In view of the attitude adopted by Jesus towards the law of uncleanness, the Sabbath, and divorce, it is not surprising that doubts have been expressed as to the genuineness of the saying. It is out of the question to argue with Wendt that ‘the law’ is not a written law but an ideal law, for the reference to the jot and tittle implies a written law, and there is nothing to indicate that ‘the law’ is used here in two different senses. Beyschlag argues for the genuineness of the saying, which is also attested by Luke 16:17 ‘It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tittle of the law to fail.’ If it is genuine, the best explanation is that given by Beyschlag, that we must explain here of spiritual fulfilments. No commandment, even the most trifling, is a mere empty husk; each has a Divine thought which must come to its rights before the husk of the letter is allowed to perish (NT Theol. i. 110 f.). It is, however, very difficult to believe that this interpretation is correct, inasmuch as it would be hard to understand what Divine idea Jesus could think was latent in innumerable trifling details of the Law. The immediate impression made by the words is surely that the Law, to its minutest details, was to be regarded as permanent. When we remember how bitter was the controversy created by the question of the Law in the Early Church, it is not easy to avoid the conclusion that here we have an expression from a Jewish-Christian point of view, according to which Jesus is made explicitly to disavow the movement led by St. Paul, not indeed that St. Paul is regarded as outside the Kingdom, but as one of the least in it. It would, however, be perhaps too far-fetched to connect the words ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’ with St. Paul’s designation of himself as the ‘least of the apostles.’

Literature.—The subject is discussed in the New Testament Theologies, the treatises on the Teaching of Jesus, and in the Lives of Christ and the commentaries. A very able monograph by R. Mackintosh, Christ and the Jewish Law, is devoted to the subject. Other works that may be mentioned are: Schürer, Die Predigt Jesu in ihrem Verhältniss zum alten Testament und zum Judenthum (1882); Bousset, Jesu Predigt in ihrem Gegensatz zum Judenthum (1892); Jacob, Jesu Stellung zum mosaischen Gesetz (1893); also the section ‘Christus und das mosaische Gesetz’ in Ritschl’s Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (1857); cf. also Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 73–76, and Extra Vol. p. 22 ff.

See also following article (Law of God).

A. S. Peake.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Law (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/law-2.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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