In an attempt to understand Jesus’ approach to the Law of Moses and the Judaistic religion that he was immersed within throughout his lifetime, I have accepted (as far as reason can and must allow me) various elements of the traditional accounts of His life recorded in the canonical gospels as evidence to draw a conclusion from. I would say that Jesus had the almost insurmountable task of establishing a radical philosophy and movement of universal implications, and to do this, he had to work with his fellows and the scriptural context that they all grew up under together. It was this reason that he made appeal to these traditional sources of religion, knowing that this was what could be relatable to his audience, but at the same time, I believe that he took it into a whole different realm than the otherwise exclusive and tribalistic outlook of the Jewish religion.
THE EXCLUSIVE AND TRIBALIST PERSPECTIVE OF JUDAISM
In many ways the religion that was established upon the Old Testament scriptures was essentially a racial ideology of exclusion. It called for the extermination of various peoples who held to a lifestyle that was in conflict with what was promoted by the Law. It called for a segregationist society in which people were not permitted to marry outside of their tribes, as well as laying out economic policies which, if followed, would favour dealings with their own people and be to the detriment of those outside the in-group that they dealt with. Although there were laws regarding usury (for example), the Law clearly called for lending without interest towards the in-group, but demanded that interest be exacted from those outside.
Although the Old Testament contains such words as “Love your neighbour as yourself,” which could sound so universal and compassionate, reading deeper into the context of Leviticus 19:18 actually implies that these neighbours are their own “brothers” and that such love was not expected to be shown to those outside. Much more could be said, but I think this is enough for my reader to get the picture.
JESUS’ VIEW OF THE LAW OF MOSES AS PRESENTED IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
So now to turn to Jesus’ perspective towards the Law of Moses, I will begin with what is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. What is presented within Matthew, Mark and Luke seems to be a more ambiguous approach towards the Law, so I will start with this, before presenting what I believe to be more clear and more radical statements made within the Gospel of John.
The first clear statement found in the Gospels with relation to the Law and other Old Testament Scriptures is in what has been traditionally called the “Sermon on the Mount.” He first says that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mat 5:17-19), in particular noting that those worthy of the Kingdom that he was proclaiming would have to live by a righteousness that far surpassed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (traditional teachers) (Mat 5:20). But as he goes on to expound upon particular commandments, Jesus brings out a greater ethical context beyond the mere letter of the Law.
Before concluding the Sermon, Jesus put forth a profound statement of which many other universal religions and ethical philosophies reflect – “Do unto others what you would have them do to you,” before saying “for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Rather than outright rejecting these traditional sources, it seemed that he was happy to use what ethical teaching they did contain and draw it in the direction of a more universal application.
This can further be seen through the numerous occasions recorded where he speaks of the greatest commandments which are to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (such as Mat 22:38-40), with special note on the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10) where using the example of a people who were despised traditionally by the Jews, he showed a more universal understanding of neighbourliness than the more tribalistic and exclusive application of traditional Judaism.
Jesus was not afraid of using examples from their own Scriptures to prove his point, while people could see that what set Him apart from other teachers was that he taught on his own authority and didn’t rely on appeal to previous traditional authorities (Mat 7). He also was not afraid to scold traditional teachers for their lack of obedience to the Law that they claimed that God had given to them (Mat 15:3; Mark 7:9-10)
JESUS’ MORE RADICAL PERSPECTIVE OF THE LAW EXPRESSED IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
So now let’s look at what the Gospel of John has to say. Firstly, there is the statement in John 7:19 – “Did not Moses give YOU the Law, and yet none of YOU keep the Law?… Moses, therefore, gave YOU circumcision. … If a man on the Sabbath day receive circumcision, that the Law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with me because I made a man entirely well on the Sabbath day? Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgement.”
Here he clearly addresses them as the traditional receivers of the Law, and he scolds them for not keeping the Law that they claim to have received from God through Moses. He also goes further in scolding them for their lack of ability to make ethical judgements, being blinded by their tradition.
Two times Jesus appeals to the Scriptures, and in just a small turn of phrase shows that He ultimately does not regard their law in the same way that they do. “It is also written in YOUR Law that the testimony of two men is true.” (John 8:17) “Is it not written in YOUR Law, “I said, ‘You are Gods'”? You could almost not catch it, but he doesn’t say OUR Law for a reason. Although he makes appeal to their Law, he does not own it as His own, but he follows the higher law of conscience whose source is His Father alone.
Now this may not seem like much evidence to go on, and definitely I could do a more thorough investigation, but I believe that John (a much more “gnostic” gospel in tone) presents a more genuine picture of Jesus’ relation to the Law of Moses and to the Judaic religion. The Synoptic Gospels present possibly how Jesus related to the Scriptures by way of using them for his own purpose of presenting a universalist religion. I do believe that Christ came as a radical, not looking to merely reform Judaism into a more ethical form, but to actually lay the foundation of a new and radical paradigm, which similarly had been done before by other historic religious figures such as Buddha (in opposition to Brahmanism and to the Vedic tradition as a whole, which actually held similar racially exclusive tones to Judaism).