Monday, January 9, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (I), Week 2: Jesus on the Mosaic Law (Mt 5:1-7:29)



As mentioned last week, the first major section of Jesus’ teachings are focused upon the Mosaic Law. In the next five weeks, we will explore each section of these teachings. First, though, a few comments on the contextual background before we explore Jesus’ teachings on the Mosaic Law.

The Law at the time of Jesus

In general, Jesus’ sermon can be taken in five parts: first, an introductory statement (beatitudes, salt and light, etc.); then He teaches on the Mosaic Law’s statements of treating others; He then talks of one’s relationship to God; and then wraps up with final comments and a statement of His authority to say such things.

It is important as we embark upon the coming weeks’ study to have a slight introduction to the Mosaic Law, and how it was seen in Judaism at the time of Jesus.

The Law of Moses was first given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, with God delivering the Ten Commandments and the teachings throughout the book of Exodus and Leviticus. It is most clearly formulated in Deuteronomy (which literally means the “second telling” of the Law).

By the time of Jesus, the laws of Moses had been divided into 613 individual commandments, or mitzvah. Of these, 365 were negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) and 248 positive commandments (“thou shalt”).

The Law was seen as extremely important by the Jews. The Jews were set apart by God based their selection into holiness by God. However, the relational aspect of holiness was insufficient; to go into God’s presence, to participate in holy rituals, and to ensure God’s blessings on your life, you also needed to be in a place of ritual purity. If you could not adhere to the 613 commandments (as most Jews did not, being strongly Hellenized by the time of Christ), then significant purity rituals (such as baptisms) were required to bring one back into a state of purity before God.

To understand everything that Jesus said in this passage, though, you must understand not just what the Law is, but a bit about the philosophical parties in Judea at the time that He taught. There were three groups of note that we should be introduced to before starting our investigation: Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes


The most obvious and frequent opponent of Jesus were the Pharisees. The term “Pharisee” means ‘separatist’ or ‘set apart’. The Pharisees saw the merging of Jewish culture with Hellenized Rome, and feared the end of what it meant to be Jewish. Thus they emphasized an ethic of Jews setting themselves apart from society completely—they emphasized that Jews should be keeping all of these ritual purity laws, all of the time, even outside of the Temple (whereas most Jews only attempted to do so on holy days and in preparation to approach the Temple). Thus the Pharisees were extremely pious, extremely legalistic, and extremely knowledgeable about the Scripture and the 613 commandments of their faith.

In that regard, perhaps the best modern analogy I can draw is to say that the Pharisees had a similar approach to cultural engagement as the fundamentalist Christians do today—the Pharisees believed, as do the fundamentalists today, that the best approach to win the “culture war” is to maintain a strict purity and strict separation from the prevailing culture of the day.

It would be wrong, however, to assume (as we often do) that the Pharisees were unpopular: in fact, they were by far the most popular of the Jewish philosophical classes. They were generous, wise, and extremely active in social justice—they truly did try to follow the 613 commandments. But because of this, they were also quite rigid, xenophobic to the extreme, and quite holier-than-thou. They invested a great deal in the Law, and as we shall see, Jesus’ yoke of freedom was not among their favorite things to hear.

The Sadducees are the second major philosophical branch of first-century Judaism. The Sadducees were, essentially, a religious-political party of Jews who were exceptionally influential. If the Pharisees were the fundamentalist revivalists appealing to the common man, then the Sadducees were the elites scribes and learned scholars, dictating from their ivory towers.

The Sadducees were mostly comprised of the priestly classes and Jewish aristocrats and royalty; not all priests were Sadducees, but they dominated the priestly ranks. Sadducees typical representated Judea in matters of state, collected taxes for the Romans, led the army, served as leaders of the synagogues, and presided over the sacrifices on feast days.

It is also likely that the Sadducees held a majority of the Jewish Council, or Sanhedrin (though the Pharisees were a strong minority).

The Sadducees are most noteworthy for being what Christians would call completely Arminian—that is, they believed in complete free will of man, and that God does not predestine any for good or evil. They also denied that there was an afterlife, choosing to interpret passages about 'heaven' as literally referring to the skies and planets above us.

Much less powerful than each of these, though still important, are the Essenes. The Essenes was a minor sect, who saw themselves as the remnant of true Israel. They lived in various cities but routinely congregated together. They lived a monastic life, imposing voluntary poverty on themselves; likewise, they underwent daily baptisms as a mikvah for remission of their sins against the Law. It is believed by many that John the Baptist was an Essenes, and the description of him in Matthew fits perfectly with this group. The Essenes were also responsible for preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the oldest copies of the Bible and other writings from the time that have ever been discovered.

It is interesting how easily these three fit into modern theological parameters of Christianity. The Sadducees were like Arminians to an extreme—they believed that God could never preordain evil and that thus all men were completely of free will; they also interpreted the Hebrew Bible quite literally, and saw references to the “heavens” as meaning the sky and stars above us, rejecting any concept of an afterlife. On the other hand, the Essenes were like Calvinists to an extreme—they believed that God preordained every event, that there was an afterlife with the chosen ones already chosen, and they lived ascetic and morally pure lifestyles. In the middle were the Pharisees, who believed (like most modern Baptists) that we did have some measure of freedom to act, but that God already knows what we will choose; and, like modern fundamentalists, they believed that the Jewish culture should be strictly separated from the modern Hellenistic culture in order to retain its ritual purity.

So, without further ado, I believe we are ready to hear Jesus’ first teachings to the assembled crowd of Jews on the Mosaic Law.

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