Jesus’ Concept of the Law in the New Testament
Editor’s note: Some language in this article was revised on 10/28/21 to address concerns that the original version (published 10/20/21) suggested supersessionist views. The author did not intend to imply that he endorses supersessionism.
In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Once the tomb was opened, Carter uncovered piles of breathtaking treasures inside. Among those treasures, he found 130 ornately carved staffs.
Some believed those staffs were symbols of power, like scepters. But in 2010, CT scans of the pharaoh’s mummy revealed that he had a malformed foot. This finding combined with others confirmed that the staffs were walking sticks the pharaoh actually used. They weren’t symbols of power after all, but reminders of frailty.
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Interpreting the artifacts of past cultures requires alertness to their original context—as well as caution against imported assumptions.
One of the most important biblical artifacts to understand in context is the “Torah,” Israel’s law collection found in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). The Hebrew word torah roughly translates to “law” in English. But biblical law is not like modern legislation.1 This article is distilled from Michael LeFebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-conceptualization of Israel’s Written Law (LHBOTS 451; New York: T&T Clark, 2006).
To understand the Torah, we must observe how it was used in its own context in Old Testament Israel—and how law in the New Testament period came to be used differently. In fact, distinguishing the original use of the Law from its reinterpretation in the Greco-Roman era offers important insight into the conflicts between Jesus and the Temple leaders of his day. Many who read how Jesus challenged the scribes and pharisees think that Jesus was introducing new interpretations of the Law in the New Testament. It turns out, Jesus was reaffirming the original understanding of the Law.
Law Books, Now and Then
Today, law books are used for regulation. Modern nations compile law codes to establish social order, and they enforce those law codes by police and courts. But nowhere in the biblical narratives do we find law writings used in this way. Israel’s written law served several purposes, but not as legislation to be used by judges and cited in courts.
One of the scholars working in this field, Bernard Jackson, catalogued references to judges and to law books in the Bible. He found that Israel’s law books were used for archival, didactic, and ritual purposes, but not to adjudicate justice.2Bernard Jackson, Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law (JSOTSup 314; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 114–43. Based on the records in the Bible, Hebrew judges enforced unwritten norms, but there is no indication that they enforced law using written texts. When some of those unwritten norms were written down (as in the Mosaic law writings), they were written for public instruction not for judicial enforcement. Thus the written law faithfully reflects Israel’s judicial norms, even if not itself the basis for rendering verdicts.
In fact, as far as we know, written law was not used in courtrooms anywhere in the ancient world until the fifth century B.C. That was when Greece invented democracy and the rule of law.3Martin Ostwalt, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986). Law collections in Israel and other ancient lands were compiled to inspire the people’s hope and to instruct their obedience to God’s ways, but not for civic regulation.
The Psalms as Guide to the Law’s Use
The Psalms provide a helpful window into Israel’s use of the Torah. In fact, the book of Psalms is structured into five parts as a companion for the five-book Torah.4The correlation of the five-book Torah and the five-book Psalter goes back at least as far as the early rabbinic midrash on the Psalms. William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.5. And the first psalm introduces the Law’s purpose to inspire hope. “Blessed [or happy] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked . . . but his delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psa 1:1–2).
The individual in that psalm is surrounded by injustice. Wickedness, sin, and scoffing are on every side (v. 1). The Law is clearly not regulating that society. Nor is the Law something the person in that psalm appeals to for justice in court. The Law serves another role in that place. It fosters hope for one who follows its guidance while living in a society that doesn’t. The faithful individual thrives like a well-watered tree by meditating daily upon “the law of the Lord” (vv. 2–3).
Imagine a family anticipating construction of a new home. When they visit the building site, all they see is mud and perhaps a few framed walls. But when they look at the concept images provided by the builder, they can survey the mostly barren site and visualize the final result. That illustrates the function of law collections in lands like Israel. A law collection is not a comprehensive code containing everything needed to bring about order. It is not the architectural drawings used by the builders. Rather, it is the concept sketch, offering key glimpses to encourage and teach faithfulness.
Psalm 1 introduces the Torah in that vital, sustaining role.5Michael LeFebvre, “‘On His Law He Meditates’: What is Psalm 1 Introducing?,” JSOT 40.4 (2016), 439–50.. The Book of Proverbs agrees: “Where there is no vision the people lose direction, but joyful is the one who continually considers the Law” (Prov. 29:18, author’s translation).
The Source of Justice: Law Book or King?
In Israel like other ancient lands, it was the king—in his person—who was to be the nation’s source of justice. The role that a legislative society ascribes to a law book belonged, in ancient Near Eastern lands, to the king himself. His nearness to the deity and personal sense of justice was the basis of the kingdom’s righteousness (Prov. 16:10). In Israel, the king studied the Torah like other Hebrews did (Deut. 17:18–20). Israel’s king was certainly expected to judge in a manner consistent with the wisdom of Israel’s first judge, Moses, who had spoken with God on the mountain. But the law book was not itself the source of justice in Israel’s courts. The king, through his appointed judges, was to fill that role.
A law collection, with its smattering of examples, could cast vision and provide instruction. But no ancient nation expected a book to be its constitution; only a godlike king (a “son of God”—a term of kingship used throughout the ancient world) could actually constitute the community.
As noted earlier, it was the Greeks who first used law books to replace rulers as the standard of justice. They were frustrated with the corruption of kings who abused their authority under unwritten norms. So the Greeks decided to write down the whole law and to constrain judges to rule strictly by what was inscribed.
With this new use of law books, a new class of professionals emerged (lawyers) with new principles for interpreting law (a new legal hermeneutic called “legalism,” not to be confused with the colloquial term). By the time Alexander the Great marched east, Greece had a well developed legal profession. And Greek cultural ideals (Hellenism) spread throughout the lands Alexander conquered, including the new Hellenistic legal ideals.
By the time of the New Testament, some Jerusalem elites had also developed lawyers (note the nomikoi mentioned throughout the Gospels) and new ways of reading the Hebrew law writings. Following the ideals learned from the Greeks, some in late Second Temple Judaism approached the Law as a regulatory document adopting legalistic hermeneutics.
One of those who opposed these trends was a young rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus.
The Messiah and Law in the New Testament
Jesus preached the Law differently than other teachers did (Matt. 7:28–29). For example, the Law commands to “love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). Some rabbis, like lawyers, sought to define the term “neighbor” to ascertain whom one is obligated to love. But Jesus interpreted that law as a picture of love that even treats enemies like neighbors (Matt. 5:43–48; Lk. 10:25–37; cf. Lev. 19:18, 32).
Some studied the law “you shall not kill” to determine what kinds of bloodshed were restricted and what was permissible. But Jesus read that law more expansively, as a paradigm rather than a mere prescription,6On reading laws as “pictures” and “paradigms” (i.e., “wisdom laws”) rather than “prescriptions,” see Bernard S. Jackson, Wisdom-Laws: A Study of the Mishpatim of Exodus 21:1–22:16 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3–39. and thus as having relevance even for the anger in one’s heart (Matt. 5:21–26; cf., Lev. 19:17).
Some scribes debated whether laws on tithing applied only to seasonal harvests or to daily pickings from one’s herb garden as well. But Jesus, while commending their tithes, nonetheless chastened such debates as a distraction from the tithing law’s true purpose: to promote “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23–25).
Jesus had a different legal hermeneutic than many of his contemporaries. But this was not because of anything novel in his approach. It was some Jerusalem elites who had adopted ways of interpreting law writings in ways similar to the Greeks. Jesus reasserted what he saw as the Law’s proper function. The Torah nurtured hope in the righteous kingdom and in the anointed king who would bring it to pass (Matt. 5:17; Lk. 24:27; Rom. 3:21).7Michael LeFebvre, “Jesus, the Law, and the Hermeneutic of Love,” Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology 9.2 (forthcoming 2022). In fact, one could even say that the heritage of Israel divided in the time of Jesus around this question about the proper role of the written Law.
To understand the function of Torah in its Old Testament context is to discover the basis for its New Testament reception by the followers of Jesus. The Apostles saw the person of Jesus in the Law (Matt. 22:37–40). And when Christians understand the Law in its ancient Near Eastern context, it continues to be a source of delight for those who hope in Christ and wait for his Kingdom to be finished.
1. This article is distilled from Michael LeFebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-conceptualization of Israel’s Written Law (LHBOTS 451; New York: T&T Clark, 2006).
2. Bernard Jackson, Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law (JSOTSup 314; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 114–43.
3. Martin Ostwalt, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986).
4. The correlation of the five-book Torah and the five-book Psalter goes back at least as far as the early rabbinic midrash on the Psalms. William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.5.
5. Michael LeFebvre, “‘On His Law He Meditates’: What is Psalm 1 Introducing?,” JSOT 40.4 (2016), 439–50.
6. On reading laws as “pictures” and “paradigms” (i.e., “wisdom laws”) rather than “prescriptions,” see Bernard S. Jackson, Wisdom-Laws: A Study of the Mishpatim of Exodus 21:1–22:16 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3–39.
7. Michael LeFebvre, “Jesus, the Law, and the Hermeneutic of Love,” Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology 9.2 (forthcoming 2022).
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