Did Jesus break Old
Testament law? Looking at the Gospels it is clear that Jesus would say
"no" while the Pharisees would say "yes." We read
repeatedly in all four Gospel accounts that Jesus was accused by the
Jewish religious leaders and biblical scholars of his day of being a
lawbreaker and sinner.
So did Jesus actually break Old
Testament laws? A common conservative response to this is to claim
that Jesus did not break any actual biblical laws, and instead only
broke "traditions of men" that had been added on top of the
Torah. The implication therefore is that there is nothing wrong with
the Bible, God's law, but only with the extra "man-made"
traditions added on top of it.
The phrase "traditions of men" comes from something Jesus
says in Mark regarding the practice of ceremonial washing of hands.
As the Gospel writer explains,
The Pharisees and all the Jews
do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding
to the tradition of the elders. So the Pharisees and
teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don’t your disciples live
according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their
food with defiled hands?" (Mark 7:3,5).
Jesus answers in
response, "You have let go of the commands of God and are
holding on to human traditions" (v. 9), or more literally, "traditions of
men." Jesus then calls the crowds to himself and declares,
"Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside
a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes
out of a person that defiles them... Don’t you see that
nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For
it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out
of the body." In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.
Note the conclusion made here by Mark: "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean." Jesus was not simply rejecting the traditions of the
elders in regards to hand washing, he was rejecting the biblical
teaching of uncleanliness altogether. This is clearly an example of
breaking with the Old Testament law. The Old Testament
forbids eating certain foods. Jesus rejects these laws, declaring all
foods clean. However, Jesus would not agree that this makes him a
lawbreaker. Jesus continues,
"What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is
from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts
come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,
greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and
folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a
person." (Mark 7:20-23)
Jesus is here re-defining the
definition of what makes a person unclean or defiled. As always, his
focus is on a person's faithfulness not being defined by outward
signs (diet, circumcision, dress, Sabbath) but on acts of love and
goodness. Jesus consistently taught that the purpose of the law is to
lead people to love, and consequently he is willing to break Old
Testament laws in order to prioritize love.
Let's take a look at another example of
this, Jesus healing on the Sabbath. We read in John 5 of an encounter
between Jesus and man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight
years. Jesus says to him "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk”
(John 5:8). The Jewish leaders see the man and say to him “It
is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (v 10).
Again, here it is typical of
conservative commentators to claim that Jesus was not breaking the
Sabbath, but was merely breaking the "traditions of men." Indeed, when the Jewish leaders say "the law forbids you to carry your mat" they are referring to the Oral Torah.
A little background may be helpful here: Jews at the time of Jesus believed that both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were transmitted
directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
This belief is still today a central tenant of faith for Orthodox Jews, while
Conservative Jews, and to a greater extent, Reform Jews today see
themselves as empowered to formulate their own interpretations --
much in the same way as Jesus did.
The Oral Law was put into
writing between 200-220 AD and is known as the Mishnah. The Mishnah, in the tractate Shabbat
, defines how the Sabbath is to be observed, and specifically forbids carrying things on the Sabbath -- like, for example, mats. The Mishnah also contains the instructions on ceremonial hand washing that we discussed earlier. While these are additional ceremonial practices
added on top of biblical cleanliness laws (and as we have seen, Jesus
breaks with both this added tradition and with the cleanliness laws), the Sabbath regulations found in the Mishnah are, in contrast, an example of how Judaism understood and interpreted the Sabbath
We might compare this to how the Supreme
Court interprets the Constitution. We do not simply look at the
Constitution alone, but at how it has been interpreted in these
Supreme Court rulings. This dictates how our laws are practiced.
In the same way the Oral Law or Mishnah defined how the Sabbath was to be
practiced, and Jesus would have been well aware that telling this man
to carry his mat was clearly a violation of this. Jesus does not do this
because he was unaware or even indifferent to the Oral Law. He does this to provoke.
That is why he healed on the Sabbath in the first place. He could
have easily waited one day to heal the man. In response to this, the Jewish
religious leaders then confront Jesus.
In his defense Jesus said to
them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am
working." For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not
only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own
Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:17-18)
Note here that Jesus does not even
attempt to make the argument that he was not doing work on the
Sabbath. He instead argues that God is always working, and that in
faithfulness to God, he is working, too. It's quite provocative to use
the word "work" here, as the reaction of the religious
leaders being so outraged that they wanted to kill him makes clear.
Further, John does not frame this as a misunderstanding, nor does he
differentiate between the Written and Oral Law. Rather John flatly
declares that Jesus was "breaking the Sabbath" (v18).
Again, we have another example of how Jesus prioritized caring
for people over observance of law, and even went out of his way to be
seen as breaking biblical laws in the eyes of the religious leaders
of his day in order to make this point.
On another occasion Jesus pointedly asked the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" (Luke 14:3). Luke reports that they did not answer. However, we know from the Mishnah what their answer would have been. As Strack and Billerbeck state,
"The unanimous answer
of the Pharisees would have been that healing on the Sabbath is allowed
in the case of an immanent life-threatening illness, but is otherwise
strictly forbidden." (Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch
, vol I, p 622, my translation from the German).
In other words, you must keep the Sabbath unless this
will kill you. So while Jesus believed it was a duty to heal on the
Sabbath -- because it was God's will to do good -- the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' day would have
clearly seen Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath who had been paralyzed for 38
years as a sinful act. As Eduard Lohse writes,
"While the rabbis could
at most allow that the Sabbath could be desecrated as an exception in
order to save a person's life, Jesus reversed this thinking: No
longer was Sabbath and following the law seen as primary, rather
people and their needs were placed above the Sabbath commandment." (Lohse, "Jesu Worte über
den Sabbath" in Die Einheit des Neuen Testaments
, p 63. My translation from the German)
Again we see that the priority of Jesus is always on people's needs and on acts of love. These supersede biblical laws and commands. If Jesus sees a person in need, he heals them, and he does not give a flip if that is a violation of the biblical law because the whole point of the law as Jesus saw it is to lead us to loving action. Jesus is not willing to wait one single day, and does not care that doing this makes people mad enough to kill him. In fact, he repeatedly seeks out this confrontation.
So the answer to the question of whether Jesus broke with concrete biblical commands is clearly, "Yes, he did so repeatedly." In addition to those mentioned here, Jesus also declined to participate in the execution of a woman caught in adultery (which the law commands), and instead forgives her. Note that there is no possibility for forgiveness for intentional sins in the Torah and its sacrificial system.
However, as noted earlier, Jesus would have adamantly insisted that in all of this breaking of laws, he was keeping Torah. Here it comes down to our approach to Scripture. Jesus is by no means a legalist, and therefore sees no problem with breaking particular commands so long as people's needs and love are being promoted. Doing this is how Jesus understood the fulfillment of Torah. The Pharisees in contrast had an approach to Scripture that assumed that the law should be kept, and that even if people seem to be hurt by this, Scripture should still be put first. Their view is basically, "The Bible says it, so that settles it."
In a great many ways, the way many of us have learned to read the Bible is a lot more reflective of the approach of the Pharisees than it is of Jesus (and somewhat ironically, Reform Judaism has an approach to Scripture that is quite reflective of the approach of Jesus, and not of the Pharisees). The reason I object to the argument that Jesus was only breaking with "traditions of men" and not with the Bible itself is because this strongly implies that all we need to do is find the right source -- the Bible -- and then we can just blindly trust it. That is categorically not what we see Jesus doing. We instead see him continually questioning and challenging Scripture and how it was interpreted and practiced, always doing so in the name of love.
We need to learn from Jesus how to do this ourselves. This is of course not easy. Making moral deliberations, deciding right from wrong, is hard work -- especially if you have been taught in church that you are incapable of doing so, as many of us have been. Fleshing out how to do this well is of course far beyond the scope of a single blog post. That's why I wrote Disarming Scripture
, to help walk people through how to do that well.
What I will say however is that we must learn to approach Scripture in the way that Jesus did. We need to learn to appreciate how radical that is. It's right there, quite plainly in the Gospels. We just need to have eyes to see it. So when we see Jesus doing or saying something that is scandalous (which he does quite often), instead of attempting to argue why this is in fact not scandalous at all, ask yourself why Jesus might be doing this, and what we might be able to learn from it.