Did Jesus Break Old Testament Law?

Friday, January 27, 2017

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. (Mark 7:14-19).
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 law. 

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.


At 12:42 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Derek, this is Vince from Twitter. Reading your article, it seems we are in total agreement aside from maybe some slight semantics in wording. I am drawing out the disconnect between Jesus and biblical law perhaps a tiny bit more provocatively than you, but we arrive at the same conclusions with the same arguments. My point was that the Pharisees were reading Scripture correctly, and that a correct reading of Scripture killed God. I stand by that statement--they were reading it correctly in the sense of reading what the text actually says and applying it. However, as you would say, they were ETHICALLY reading it incorrectly, because anything that does not result in love is ultimately incorrect. But reading the text ethically sometimes means radically reinterpreting or even just brazenly acknowledging it's evil.

In the same way, if Paul writes that "men are made in the image of God but women are made in the image of man", or if Peter writes that women are "weaker vessel" and should call their husbands "Lord"--a logically correct reading of the text is that women are inferior to men. That is simply what the text says, and I am reading it correctly. However, a correct reading of the text here demeans women and does not result in love, therefore, a correct reading of the text kills God's will. And if the letter kills, we must read by the Spirit--which means acknowledging and perhaps even condemning what the text says, but not applying it by the letter.

I feel we are in total agreement. I think you can just state your case even more provocatively than you did by saying "a correct reading of Scripture killed Jesus". And I think we'd also both agree that Jesus, and consequently us, are all about provocative statements which lead to moral progress.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm also SUPER pumped about the Scripture verses you provide in Disarming Scripture. I think they are remarkable "ammo" for defeating religious, harmful, dogmatism.

I think it an exceedingly interesting exercise to "put Jesus on trial" all over again, simply by using Scripture. And I think there is enough in Scripture to legitimately deem that Jesus must be put to death. If we can show people that they are indeed reading Scripture like the Pharisees, and that their reading would in fact MURDER the very man that they worship--that will be an unbelievably powerful device. That's a wake up call. We see that they "thought they he was stricken by God" because of Scripture itself, and their hardness of heart in ignoring what God was doing in favor of clinging to Scripture, but in fact it was "us who were stricken by God". We need to get people into the minds of the Pharisees, and show them that they too would have killed Jesus if they applied their present day hermeneutic to days of Jesus.

At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Vince,

I think you sum things up well. Yes, my objection to the word "correct" was the implication that it is ethically correct. I do agree that the Pharisees were reading "what the text actually says and applying it" which is why I say that Jesus actually did break the Torah Sabbath law and other laws. It is important to face and name that. otherwise you feel you're taking crazy pills, it feels like gas-lighting.

A big question that comes from the example of Jesus is the question, how would Jesus instruct us to approach Scripture? It seems he feels free to basically say "Yeah that law is dumb, so I'm just not going to follow it." and "this law was maybe a good start, but I know a way that is much better, so I'm changing it." That means he really is not treating it like an instruction manual or rule book at all. More like a chef who feels free to completely change a recipe or a jazz musician who feels free to not follow the sheet music.

Regarding your idea of "putting Jesus on trial" as a way to recognize how the way we learned to read Scripture is deadly, yes that is a very powerful object lesson. I think it's interesting to read Isaiah 53 again with that narrative in mind,

"yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted [as a law breaker]
But he was pierced because of our transgressions
he was crushed because of our iniquities
[the iniquity of reading the law like we did]

At 2:29 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Well, derek, I have to say I definately disagree with you on a littany of political topics (sharply where policing is concerned). That said, you've once again hit the nail on the head scripturally. Just a bit of encouragement from a sometimes detractor and long time fan.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Tola Daniel said...

Great topic and write up.My stand is that Jesus did not break the law. He must have broken some practices and interpretation of Moses and men, but as regarding the law, the giver of the law knows the law than the convener. Remember Jesus said if you obey all the laws but break one, you're guilty of all. So if he did broke the law he would have been guilty of all. If he followed the whole laws of Moses to the letters, He would have broken the law, because the law just saw a shadow but could not communicate it in it accuracy. Hence, he would not be a worthy and perfect lamb of God. I agree He broke the rules of men but that's not the old testament law. He amended it in it right actions. This is not the same as breaking the law. Otherwise, the law and the prophets won't witness Him. The law too try to present the perfect mandate of God but could not. My In conclusion, Jesus broke some laws of Moses yet didn't break the law of moses. This is so because some where by-laws written by Him and most were misinterpreted. Jesus perfected the law by His actions.Men may see it has breaking the law but before God He didn't. JESUS DIDN'T BREAK THE LAW.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Lor said...

'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'

the phrase 'Jesus declared all foods clean' is not in the oldest manuscripts and was probably add much later to bolster the copiests theiology.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Sharktacos said...


If it is something added by a copyist, I think a more charitable interpretation would be to take it as a form of biblical commentary, clarifying the conclusions they were reaching from the text. I personally agree with those conclusions and feel they are sound.


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