Jesus as interpreter of the Law

The subject of Christ’s teaching was the word of God. He met questioners with a plain, “It is written,” “What saith the Scripture?” “How readest thou?” At every opportunity when an interest was awakened by either friend or foe, He presented the word. With clearness and power He proclaimed the gospel message. His words shed a flood of light on the teachings of patriarchs and prophets, and the Scriptures came to men as a new revelation. Never before had His hearers perceived in the word of God such depth of meaning.

Ellen G. White: The Ministry of Healing, 1905, Chapter 1.

We often find an opposition to the Pharisees in the New Testament, where Jesus shows discontent with them. They were adherents of Rabbinical Judaism in the Second Temple period, and we have to be aware, that the gospels were not written by Jesus, but much later, so it does not necessary reflect the real attitude of the historical Jesus towards the Pharisees. His teachings seemingly show certain similarities to both, the Pharisees and Essenes, because Jesus himself clarifies in the Sermon of the Mount, which in my point of view is a quite authentically teaching, that He came to fulfill and not to destroy and undermines his arguments with what was written in the Jewish Scriptures. As such, Jesus did not deny the Scripture at all, but he backs them. On the other hand, we find out that he had close ties to John the Baptist, whose ascetic practices reminds of the Essenes, and also Jesus himself was said to be a wanderer, a preacher who addressed the simple ones, those who were at the edge of society. The criticism against the Pharisees given in the New Testament is that they have a very strict understanding of the law, but due to their assumed ‘narrow’ understanding, they would not really understand the actual sense. A second criticism is that of understanding themselves as elite, and thus, placing themselves above others. As the authors of the New Testament were mostly Hellenized Jews and newly converts, while Rabbinical Judaism was rather understood as more ‘purist’ and against foreign influences, the cleavage should not be a surprise to us.

So the way in which the Pharisees are depicted in the New Testament is a clear political positioning of the authors, not of Jesus. Especially since many doctrines of Jesus are in accordance with that of the Pharisees, such as loving thy neighbor, as well as the resurrection of the dead. The idea of such a resurrection is very prominent in Second Temple Judaism, and can also be found in apocryphal works, such as the Book of Enoch, which was compiled around 200 BC, and thus 200-300 years after the final compilation of Genesis. (However, the roots of the Book of Enoch clearly go back to the First Temple period, though the Book of Enoch includes many ideas which are clearly rejected in the First Temple period including a final judgment, while key ideas of the Mosaic Law which played a prominent role at that time are completely absent or irrelevant in 1 Enoch.) In Matthew 4:17, it is written in Greek “Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” The Christian understanding, therefore, is highly apocalyptic, the author’s view is that the dawn of a new age has risen. This view was perfectly fine with Judaism, Jesus did not come to change the law, but to fulfill it, as he says himself. At least it is said that he said it. To fulfill the law, he had to have a profound knowledge of the law, so he must have been a rabbinic scholar himself, as otherwise, he could not pursue the people that he wants to fulfill the law. As Bart Ehrman asked “Well, the question is, how it is that a Jewish preacher who was predicting the imminent end of the age as he knew it, and ended being crucified for his messages, how is it that we went from a crucified peasant to the second member of the Trinity?” [Bart Ehrman, in: Terry Gross (Host): Fresh Air Episode: If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?. NPR, 7 April 2014. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/300246095, retrieved on 24 October 2022.] And Ehrman gives an intriguing and convincing reply to this very fundamental issue: “And the reason is that if Jesus had not been declared God by his followers, his followers would have remained a sect within Judaism – a small, Jewish sect. And if that was the case, it would not have attracted a large number of gentiles. If they hadn’t attracted a large number of gentiles, there wouldn’t have been the steady rate of conversion over the first three centuries to Christianity. It would’ve been a small, Jewish sect. If Christianity had not become a sizable minority in the empire, the Roman Emperor Constantine almost certainly would not have converted.” [ibid.] So the new revelational character is not due to Jesus, but his followers and admirers made something big out of him. We find plenty of anecdotes in the gospel of how he healed people and how he performed plenty of miracles. There is one simile after another in Matthew, and yet, we see that the content and context is quite loose. Anyways, through building a profound theology around these reports, anecdotes, and similes, the myth of Jesus was created, narrated and much later, elaborated. (Myth here does not mean a lie or falsehood by the way, but rather as Frankfort & Frankfort or Weinreb grasped it.)

Anyways, it is true that the spiritual quality which is connected to Jesus is that of spiritual healing, we deepen our faith, and are ready to open our heart for cleansing. We are ready to purify our soul as we realize that as human-beings we are always imperfect and as such, everyone of us is a sinner. So we shall not point the finger to others, but realize that we made plenty of mistakes in our lives as well, and show love and compassion of others, for they are only human, just as you and me.

Timo Schmitz, 21 November 2022

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