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Jesus and the Torah

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One commonly hears, especially in church, that Jesus routinely transgressed the Torah, the law of Israel. Indeed, at least one New Testament writer agreed, saying that Jesus "abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15). So what about Jesus? Did he observe the Torah like most other Jews of his day, or did he transgress it?

Most historians and biblical scholars agree: Jesus lived his life as a Torah-observant Jew. Jesus was Jewish. His parents were Jewish. His followers, including James and Mary and Peter and Paul, were Jewish. And, so far as we can tell, the movement of his followers remained both Jewish and Torah-observant for some time.

Some might object. What about healing on the Sabbath- - didn't Jesus transgress the Law then? Didn't Jesus touch lepers and bleeding women? What about eating with unwashed hands? Do not all these examples show that Jesus occasionally but intentionally violated the Torah?

In a word, no. These examples come in two kinds. The first kind involves debates concerning Jesus' behavior. Jesus' opponents, usually identified as scribes and Pharisees, do accuse Jesus of violating the law. But in every case Jesus defends himself. He does not say, "The Torah is no longer valid." Instead, he offers his own interpretation of the law that conflicts with the interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. Thus, Jesus says, it's okay to save life on the Sabbath, it's okay to glean grain when one is hungry and away from home, it's okay to eat with unwashed hands.

This first set of debates portrays Jesus very much as a law-observant Jew. No rigid orthodoxy characterized Jewish practice and belief in Jesus' day. Like other Jews, he debates the Torah's proper interpretation. But he does not transgress it.

The second set of examples involves touching people who are considered to be unclean. We'll leave aside our questions concerning the specific malady that afflicts the woman with a flow of blood (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 9:20-22). And we can set aside technicalities the Torah's teaching on lepers. For the Gospels, the point is that Jesus cleanses people of their defilements. Notice that in none of those stories do any of Jesus' opponents complain about his contact with people who are unclean as they complain in other cases. Like bleach, Jesus cleanses other people; he does not become contaminated by them.

We also note Jesus' conflicts with the Jerusalem temple and the folks who run it. Jesus clearly has some harsh words for the temple: does that not represent a violation of the law? Well, not exactly. Other observant Jews harshly criticized the temple authorities and awaited the temple's judgment. Our most prominent example would be the Qumran community that produced and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. No scholar would accuse these people of neglecting the Torah even though their conflict with the Jerusalem priest was extremely harsh. Indeed, some of the biblical prophets also weigh in against the temple. Critiquing the temple and its priests does not amount to violating the Torah. Remarkably, Acts insists that Jesus' followers continued to worship in the temple after his death -- and never suggests that they ceased doing so.

Only once does a Gospel author directly suggest that Jesus violates the law. In the debate concerning hand washing, Jesus asserts that what goes into a person cannot defile that person; instead, one is defiled by the speech and behavior that comes forth from within. When Jesus finishes speaking, the author of Mark says he was "cleansing all foods" (7:19). (Many translations render this, "Thus he declared all foods clean.")

One can scarcely imagine how an observant Jew of Jesus' day would "cleanse all foods." If Jesus really did declare all foods clean, then he would have violated one of the distinguishing markers for ancient Jewish identity -- and open himself to the charge that he had violated the law.

However, only Mark includes this comment. Matthew's Gospel tells precisely the same story, often word for word, but Matthew omits entirely the bit about cleansing all foods (Matthew 15:1-20).

It seems we have a conflict. Matthew, by all accounts, speaks on behalf of Torah-observant Jewish Christianity. Many Christians are unaware that such Christianity existed, but Matthew likely stands with the epistle of James, Hebrews and Revelation as examples of this stream of ancient Jesus devotion. And Matthew's Jesus is decidedly Torah-observant: "Don't even think that I've come to abolish the law and the prophets -- I have come not to abolish but to fulfill," pronounces Matthew's Jesus (5:17). Indeed, Matthew's Jesus instructs his disciples to do just as the scribes and Pharisees teach -- but not to emulate their behavior (23:2-3).

Meanwhile, Mark seems to emerge from Christian circles that included Gentiles as well as Jews -- a movement that welcomed Gentiles without requiring them to circumcise their men, observe Jewish dietary practices, or keep the Sabbath.

On the matter of Jesus and the Torah, it appears that Matthew -- and not Mark -- got Jesus right. And scholars have firm reasons for their confidence in this judgment. Not long after Jesus' death non-Jews -- or "Gentiles" -- joined the movement. Paul and other evangelists insisted that Gentiles who had received the Holy Spirit should be allowed into the movement without converting to Judaism or observing the Torah.

Eventually Paul and his colleagues won out. However, the debate reveals how things stood. Had Jesus habitually violated the Torah, or had Jesus instructed his disciples that it was okay to do so, no one would have objected to the Gentiles' Torah-free conversion. But Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. So were Peter, James and Mary Magdalene -- so were all his followers. The books of Acts and Galatians agree that Peter and his colleagues needed some firm convincing to welcome Gentiles without requiring their conversion to Judaism (Acts 10:1-48; 15:1-21; Galatians 2:1-14). The need for debate and deliberation concerning the Gentiles' conversion reveals that Jesus had not prepared his followers for that question. Jesus almost certainly observed the law, as did his earliest followers.

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