We can be sure of one thing: Jesus never read the Bible. Not as we know it anyway: the Bible as we know it would only come into existence around 400 years after Jesus. However, he would have studied Torah, and he would have studied from within a Jewish tradition of Torah study. Needless to say, that particular tradition of studying the Scriptures looks very different from our contemporary Western one.
It is likely that Jesus was a scholar, not a carpenter. I think that Geza Vermes, a renowned Jewish scholar, makes a compelling case that the Talmudic texts use the Aramaic word for “carpenter” or “craftsman” – naggar – as a synonym for “teacher, scholar, learned man”. So while most sources note correctly that the Greek word, tekton, which is used to describe Jesus and Joseph, translates roughly as “craftsman” or “artisan”, they fail to consider that the author of the Greek text was most likely working from an Aramaic source, and failed to grasp the subtleties of the use of naggar. Certainly, there is no evidence from gospels that Jesus worked as a carpenter, but the fact that he customarily taught in the synagogues and read from the scrolls, and that people referred to him as Rabbi, would all suggest that he was both a teacher and a learned man. The similarities in Jesus’s teachings to many of the teachings of Hillel the Elder – one of the most influential rabbis of all time, who lived and taught in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s boyhood – would suggest more than a passing familiarity with them. Hillel advocated a way of loving kindness too: in one of his most famous interactions, a would-be convert to Judaism asked Hillel to summarise the entire Torah while the non-Jew stood on one foot. Hillel’s response was: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and study.”
I mention Hillel because the many disputes in Halakhic interpretation (the Halakhah is what Paul referred to in his letters as “The Law”, the rules and practices that define “the path that one walks” – the literal translation of the word Halakhah) between the house of Hillel and the House of Shammai illustrate very handily how Jews understood and studied Torah.
While Jewish scholars do regard the Scriptures as originating with God, they make a critical distinction that Protestants and Evangelicals do not. Modern Christians refuse to acknowledge that they do any sort of interpretive work, insisting – against all logic – that God speaks clearly through the Bible on the question of God’s will and that we approach the Bible neutrally. The Jews harbour no such illusions. By Jesus’s time, it is common practice to regard not only the written Torah (the Pentateuch) as authoritative, but the oral Torah as well. As is the case with any teachings, Jews acknowledge that the teachings of the Torah require interpretation and contextualisation, and so it is acceptable that rabbis interpret the principles contained in the written Torah for applicability in their particular communities. This oral Torah is regarded as received as if from Sinai, and it is entirely possible for two rabbis to interpret the same Scripture differently, to draw opposing conclusions as to the applicability in their two different communities, and for both to be accepted as Torah. The Jews understand that the Scriptures are not always as clear as modern Christians would like to think they are, and the principles may well apply differently in different contexts. Unlike with Christians, Jewish scholars are actively encouraged to question the text, because that is the path to learning.
When Jesus, as is his custom, uses the pattern: “you have heard it said…but I tell you”, he is not overruling Torah, he is providing an alternative rabbinic interpretation in a perfectly culturally appropriate way. So it is completely understandable that he can claim that he is not advocating an abolition of the Law but a fulfilment of it, and that unless a person’s righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20). Bearing in mind that “kingdom of heaven” is not an otherworldly paradise but the inauguration of God’s rule on earth, Jesus is arguing that God’s vision for how we ought to live goes beyond mere observation of the letter of the law, but requires us to live out the spirit of it too. The writer of the gospel of Matthew goes on from this point to describe how Jesus interprets the law in his own way, but it needs to be noted that what makes Jesus unique is not that he reinterprets the Law. That is the everyday practice of a rabbi. Nor does his uniqueness lie in how he interprets them: Hillel has been promoting loving kindness as the essence of the Law already. The uniqueness of Jesus, as I see it, lies in his claim to fulfil it, and in how that fulfilment comes about.
The concept of fulfilment speaks to purpose: why does Torah exist? By claiming to fulfil it, Jesus is essentially making the claim that through him, the purpose of Torah has been met. Torah exists, in the words of Rabbi Jack Abramowitz (https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/49-the-purpose-of-the-torah/), “to help us enter the World that is eternally good. The initial goal, which is a means to this end, is “that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day,” in the context of a well-functioning society.” In other words, by providing a pathway by which we may perfect ourselves, Torah helps us bring about a society that functions as God intended, and which thereby allows us to bring about a perfected world. Torah connects us to God’s great design. Indeed, many rabbis believe that Torah is the blueprint, so to speak, of the universe. That the world was made through Torah.
This is why, I am sure, the writer of the fourth gospel goes to great lengths in his introduction to explain how Jesus (not Torah) is the blueprint for the creation of the universe, and how it was Jesus, not Moses (compare the description of Moses being “face to face” with God in Deuteronomy 5:4 with the gospel writer’s description of “the Word was with God” – the original Greek for this phrase has connotations of being face to face – in John 1) – who received the truth from God and who reveals it to us. Understanding Torah is key to understanding Jesus, which is why the gospel writer states in verses 17 and 18: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” There is a direct contrast between the revelations of God provided alternatively by Moses and Jesus. The writer, in making the bold claim that “nobody has ever seen God”, seems to be inviting us to question the legitimacy of Moses’s “face to face” encounter, and even seems to suggest that “the law” and “grace and truth” are separate, perhaps even contradictory revelations. The writer of the gospel according to Matthew makes similar claims, but in a different way, going to great lengths to convince his Jewish readers that Jesus must surpass Moses (since it was Moses who received the revelation of Torah from God at Sinai) as the connecting point between humanity and God.
But if, as Jesus claims, his intent is to fulfil rather than abolish the Law, then we cannot interpret this text to be invalidating the Law. How ought we to understand Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law then? Paul explains it in Galatians 3: 15-25:
“Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Before the coming of this faith we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Let me sum up Paul’s argument. The Law was never meant to be the connection point between Israel and God, simply because the connection came long before the Law ever existed. God’s covenant with Israel and election of them through Abraham long precedes Sinai. Life and restoration was always promised by God, but it was never intended to come through obedience to the Law. The Law was put in place to look after us until the promise of restoration could be fulfilled through Christ, after which the guardian would no longer be necessary. The Law is good because it helps us understand the parameters for ways of living that lead to healthy community and abundance of life, but the Law is not the source of that life, it merely points to it.
So what does all of this mean for us, as Christians living in the 21st Century? I think my primary reason for writing the last few posts has been this: it’s a noble idea to want to live a Jesus-centred life, but the Jesus of the gospels – the 1st Century Jewish Jesus – is not the same Jesus as the 21st Century Protestant one. And I am not sure that both lead to the life that the gospels promise comes from following Christ. The life that Jesus promises is a corporate promise more than a private one, conceived within a Jewish metanarrative of chosenness, exile and return, rather than a Protestant one of crime and punishment. Indeed, our obsession with purity through obedience to laws – the whole cosmic courtroom drama metaphor we love so much, where Jesus is punished in our place – is missing the point that the promise of God to restore us and free us from sin preceded the Law- the Lamb was slain, as Revelations 13:8 claims, from the foundation of the world (ie. preceding even the Fall) – rendering the crime/punishment motif meaningless. We have let the Bible take the place of Jesus, and would do well to heed the advice Jesus gives to the theologians of his day:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life… “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:39-40)
If Jesus is somehow the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, which in the process ends the necessity for the Law, there are massive implications for how we ought to go about Christian living. A life freed from the “curse of the Law”, as Paul termed it, is an enormous responsibility that promises an abundance of life that we could only ever dream of – a life where in Christ all of the social boundary markers that have divided us: slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, gay and straight, hold no sway, the promise of communities characterised by self-giving love and serving one another, a world where violence is a distant memory. That is perhaps why I am so saddened to see how prevalent the theologies based on the twisted Protestant Jesus, who revels in blood-justice and reciprocal violence, who keeps his followers under the yoke of an oppressive law, are. The world desperately needs the gospel. And we, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, owe it to that world lost in darkness to study our Bibles properly, so that we can see the real Jesus through the fog of our false paradigms, and become the light we were meant to be.