Jesus the law breaker

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.


6 Responses to Jesus the law breaker

  1. RuediG says:

    A detail: “You have heard that it was said, “…” When Jesus uses that phrase, he does not necessarily imply that it was “written” (i.e., God who said it.) Quite often, the phrase would imply that it was human traditions who said it, and who in saying it were in fact distorting God’s stated intent.
    As for the story of the woman caught in adultery, hey, that has got to be my favorite extra-biblical story. But, as the Italians say, Se non e vero, e ben trovato. If it’s not true, it was well-invented. In any case, the issue is not the law (which both Jesus and the accusers and the accused know perfectly well) that is at stake, but the hypocrisy of the self-righteous (and chauvinist – where was the adulterer?!) accusers who took it upon themselves to humiliate a defenseless woman just so they could tie Jesus into knots. I think he got out of this one quite elegantly, and tellingly.
    I don’t think you can blame Jesus for not mentioning the old covenant(s). He was, after all, the one who was supposed to initiate the new covenant.

  2. kpharri says:

    Thanks Ruedi

    I agree that the adultery debacle is clearly an attempt by the Pharisees to trap Jesus – this is made explicit in the scripture. But what is the nature of this trap? Why would it be considered a trap to ask Jesus about something they knew he was familiar with?

    The only solution I can see is that the Pharisees knew very well that Jesus didn’t approve of stoning adulterers, and they wanted him to come right out and say so. They wanted him to publicly denounce the law of Moses.

    What Jesus did instead was provide a condition under which the stoning penalty should be carried out: it should only be carried out if the stone throwers themselves are free of sin. I think it is pretty obvious to everyone involved in the story that this is a condition that was never likely to be met by any real human being. Jesus is therefore denouncing the law regarding the punishment of adultery by making it contingent on something that is practically impossible. The fact that he does it in this rather clever way, rather than coming right out and denouncing it, doesn’t change his basic stance namely that, contrary to what the law says, the stoning of adulterers is wrong.

    • RuediG says:

      Maybe Jesus thought that the stoning of adulterers is wrong, but why did he think so? Was it because adulterers don’t deserve the death penalty? If so, he sure didn’t say that. This story sounds more like an attempt to show that pointing out somebody else’s sin (and demanding appropriate punishment) is a bad way to polish our own self-righteous self-image. “Compared to that person, I’m perfect!” And Jesus simply says, “If you think you are so good, let me remind you that there is plenty sin in you for you to deserve the death penalty yourself, especially since lusting after a woman isn’t that different from committing physical adultery.” (I couldn’t help making that connection…) In that vein, this story does not abrogate the law, but extend its full force to all. That is, fulfill it.

  3. kpharri says:


    That seems like a valid point, but if it is true, then we cannot conclude that Jesus eschewed stoning as an appropriate punishment of adultery. Instead, what Jesus is eschewing is the selfish motive someone might have for reporting adulterous behavior.

    This means that if someone is *not* driven by selfish motives, but by an honest desire to see the proper law applied, then we cannot assume that Jesus would continue to condemn the stoning.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith, I would agree with this. The “stoning” issue apart, this passage also says nothing about Jesus’ attitude toward the death penalty, or his thoughts about what might / might not warrant it.

      More broadly, I think it would be hard to make a hard and fast case for/against the death penalty based on the bible, though I find it interesting that recent research shows that the more people read the bible, the less they are for the death penalty. (link recommended on my FB profile)

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