This is the third part of my essay on the Christian law.
Unfortunately, the straightforward picture of Jesus’ support for the law is thrown into doubt in other parts of the gospels. Even within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ resolute defense of the law gives way to suggested modifications and even plain rejection. For instance, he rejects the concept of proportionate punishment:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” [Leviticus 24:19] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42.)
Jesus also commands his followers to love their enemies:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
It must be noted that “love your neighbor” is found in Leviticus 19:18, but “hate your enemy” is not. Although I cannot find an explicit command in the old law to “hate your enemy”, the generally violent, merciless attitude toward enemies in the Old Testament (usually commanded or condoned by God) seems to support this sentiment.
In Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus indicates that sacrifice is no longer important. However, this latter stance makes sense given that Jesus himself is going to be the only necessary sacrifice under the new covenant.
Jesus famously flaunts the law when the Pharisees bring before him a woman accused of adultery:
They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. (John 8:3-8.)
My view is that Jesus is contradicting the law in this passage, not in a direct way, but by offering a near-impossible condition (sinlessness) that must be in place in order for the law to be applied.
An alternative interpretation, suggested by the commenter below, is that Jesus is objecting not to the law itself, but to the motives of the teachers. Jesus does not want people to point fingers at sinners in order to make themselves look better. Rather, all people should recognize their own sin. If this is the case, then we cannot conclude that Jesus is against the stoning of adulterers per se, he is simply against one particular motivation behind that action.
Finally, let us see what Jesus has to say about covenants, which we distinguish from the law. Jesus never mentions the old covenants, and he only mentions the new covenant once, at the last supper:
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29. The same scene is described in Mark and Luke.)
Notably, some manuscripts have “This is my blood of the new covenant …”.
Taking the gospels at face value, then, we can assume that Jesus saw himself as the special servant described in Isaiah. It is intriguing, though, that he did not mention the issue of covenants more often, especially considering how regularly the Apostles refer to it, as we shall see.
The next part of this essay.
The previous part of this essay.
The introduction to this essay.