Jesus Restored the Original Purpose 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 restoring the Law to its original understanding.
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.
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 never to adjudicate justice.2Bernard Jackson, Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law (JSOTSup 314; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 114–43. Hebrew judges enforced unwritten norms, not written laws. When some of those unwritten norms were written down (as in the Mosaic law writings), they were written for public edification not for judicial enforcement. Thus the written law faithfully reflects Israel’s judicial norms, but it was not itself the basis for verdicts.
In fact, as far as we know, law books were 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 a people’s faith and faithfulness, 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 faith and to teach faithfulness.
Psalm 1 introduces the Torah in that vital, faith 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 standard of righteousness. No law book could fill that role. A law collection, with its smattering of examples, could cast a vision. But no ancient nation expected a book to be its constitution; only a godlike king (a “son of God”) could truly constitute the community.
As noted earlier, it was the Greeks who first replaced rulers with law books as the standard of justice. They were frustrated with corrupt 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 (legalism). 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, Jerusalem elites also had lawyers and legalistic ways of reading the Hebrew law writings. Following the ideals learned from the Greeks, late Second Temple Judaism approached the Law as a regulatory document and interpreted it legalistically.
Then Jesus appeared.
The Messiah and Law in the New Testament
Jesus preached the Law in the New Testament differently from how other teachers did (Matt. 7:28–29). For example, the Law commands to “love your neighbor” (Lev 19:18). Most rabbis, like lawyers, sought to define the term “neighbor” to ascertain whom one is obligated to love. But Jesus interpreted that law in the New Testament as a picture of love that even treats enemies like neighbors (Matt. 5:43-48; Lk 10:25-37).
Others studied the law “you shall not kill” to determine what kinds of bloodshed were restricted and what was permissible. But Jesus read that law as a paradigm rather than a prescription6On 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.—as did the Torah—thus having relevance even for the anger in one’s heart (Matt 5:21–26).
Other scribes debated whether laws on tithing applied only to seasonal harvests or to daily pickings from ones herb garden as well. But Jesus viewed such debates as a distraction from the tithing law’s true purpose: to promote “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23–25).
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jesus actually read Scripture in a “Hebraic,” Torah-sensitive way. His approach wasn’t novel—it was a retrieval. The Jerusalem elite had adopted new ways of interpreting law writings learned from the Greeks. Jesus reasserted the Law’s ancient function. The Torah nurtured hope in the righteousness 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).
The Torah was never the meant to bring about righteousness by its “prescriptions.” It was always “weak” in itself, having too many gaps and lacking in power to change people. The Law was like a billboard, teaching the ways of the promised kingdom and pointing to the king who brings it about (Heb 7:11–18). The Law was never intended to be a how-to manual for making oneself righteous, as mistaken by Greek-influenced rabbis of the late Second Temple era. In contrast to them, Jesus took his stand on the Law in the New Testament as understood in its original context.
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 Law. First century Jews who read the Torah as Greek-style legislation became “People of the Book,” placing faith in “the works of the Law.” Meanwhile Jews (and Gentiles) who rediscovered the Torah as paradigms of a promised kingdom to be brought about by a godlike king became “People of the Christ” (or “Christians”).
To recover 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 Law in the person of Jesus (Matt 22:37–40). And when we understand the Law in its original 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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