Website

I did not come to Abolish the Law

March 24, 2020

by Barry Fike

          For Jesus the Kingdom of God is not some spacious grandiose way of talking about how God is ruling the entire world, controlling kings and empires and allowing, or preventing, national and international disasters, It is strictly a term to designate those who are in his movement.   That is why Jesus can later use the term "edah" (witnessing community) as something that is synonymous with the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:18, 19).  (Matthew 16 is the first time that the Hebrew word edah was used since the United Hebrew Monarchy one thousand years earlier.  The Qumran community used this word to refer to themselves.  Jesus used it to refer to those that are a part of his movement.)  This is why Jesus will later tell the authorities of the Temple, “...the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”)  (Matthew 21:43)  By this he does not mean that the Sadducian priests in the Temple have some kind of authority to rule in the name of God or his Kingdom and are about to lose it; he means that his own followers, as “the Kingdom of God”, will be moved out of the milieu, which was Israel before 70 A.D., and sent to be his “witnesses in all the world” (cf. Acts 1:8). 

          It is probable that the Hebrew word for kingdom, when translated to our western languages, makes it hard for Christians to grasp what the Hebrew-speaking Jews of the first century understood so easily.  Malchut Shammayim is often “God’s ruling” and, secondarily, “the area God is ruling.”  This latter meaning is why we are able to speak of the malchut as a movement or “camp”.  We western people, however, think of a kingdom as a territorial and political entity ruled by an army or a police force fully equipped to defend one’s “national” rights.  For this reason all kinds of liberal, as well as fundamentalist Christian interpreters of the Bible, have easily supposed that Jesus looked forward to becoming a king ruling over all the Jews of ancient Israel in a quite literal, physical way and why many evangelicals today expect the Temple to be literally rebuilt when Jesus returns so that he can rule the world from Jerusalem.

          If Christians could once grasp what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, being a “people bringing forth the fruits thereof,” or a voluntary movement which he later called the Edah (witnessing congregation or church where God was in charge empowering and working his miracles), they would be able to overcome a great deal of misunderstanding and be able to give up many false expectations.[1] 

         

Do not think that I have come to do away with or undo the law and the prophets-

          There is something exasperating about trying to understand a verse like this.  What the verse seems to say contradicts what we know from other verses in the New Testament.  For instance, in Matt. 5:17, Jesus claims he has no intention of abolishing or suspending the Mosaic Law.  For most Christians, this comes as quite a shock.  After all, didn’t the apostle Paul say, “Christ is the end of the law.”  (Rom. 10:4)? 

          When one realizes that Jesus is talking about Mosaic Law and Paul is using the term law in its’ rabbinic sense, meaning the sum total of the commandments, both oral and written, by which a man, through adherence to them, could be counted righteous in God’s sight, the apparent contradiction fades away.[2] 

          It is needful to notice that Jesus’ audience is Jewish and his reference to the law is a reply to a charge against him and his means of interpreting it.  As a matter of fact this is a direct quote from the Talmud, Shabb. 116b, “I have come not to diminish from the Law of Moses, not yet have I come to add to the Law of Moses.”[3]  Such a quote this Jewish audience had not only heard before but had been addressed with various meanings of the text.  Here Jesus adds his own.

           On the other hand Paul's reference is to predominantly Gentile congregations in which the Mosaic law, though the foundation of their faith, was not the means of their being in a right relationship with God.

          According to our author, Matthew, Jesus wanted Jewish Christian (and all the Jews) to observe the Mosaic Law together with his addition: viz. Jesus’ own law... Gentiles only had to observe the law of Jesus, his own teaching, and not the Mosaic Law.[4] 

          The position of the Jerusalem Church, as expressed by the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:29) was identical with the general Jewish attitude: in order to be saved, there is no need for Gentiles to live according the Law (Mosaic).   When the Gentile branch of Christianity came into existence, the question naturally arose, whether Gentile Christians should be regarded merely as God-fearing Gentiles, or, being considered full-fledged members of the church and enjoying equal rights with their Jewish-Christian brethren, whether they were on a higher level than other God-fearing Gentiles.  Those Jewish Christians who adopted the second attitude, tended naturally to draw their pagan brethren nearer to themselves so as to make them more Jewish.  But finally, evidently for practical reasons, and for the conversion of the Gentile Christians, it was decided that they will have the same obligations as other God-fearing Gentiles, and no more.

          This was also the opinion of our author (Matthew).  His point of departure was the Jewish Christian idea that Jesus made his own additions on to the law of the Hebrews.  His opinions about Gentile Christians was the same as the decision of the Mother Church: Gentiles were exempt from the yoke of the Law.  There was, however, a link between Jewish and Gentile Christians: both were obliged to observe what Jesus added to the Torah, namely Jesus’ own law.  This is, according to his interpretation, what Jesus said to the Apostles when he sent them to the Gentiles. 

 

“Teach them all that I have commanded you.”

 

          In other words: the author applied the Jewish Christian interpretation of Matthew 5:17 to Jesus’ sending forth of his disciples to the Gentiles.  Gentile Christians are united with their Jewish brethren by Jesus’ own law, but separated from them, by the fact that as Gentiles they need not observe the Mosaic Law.[5]    

          The idea of Jesus’ new, additional, law helped our author to justify the expansion of Christianity in the world of Gentiles.[6] 

          It’s obvious that Jesus’ reference is to the law as a book by his usage in verse 18 concerning a jot and tittle, or as we shall see, a yod and kotz, referring to a letter and a decorative spur on the lathers.[7] 

          His mission was not to annul but rather to fulfill it or correctly interpret it so that, like the Prophets of old, the religion of his fellow Hebrews would be purified.  If he had started out a program as radical as many Christians assume not only would he not have had twelve apostles follow him but the multitudes as well would have never listened to him.  He is arguing against the great sin of official religion, which is the sin of disproportionate emphasis.[8] 

          The truth is that we cannot know the true meaning from our English text.  Neither does the Greek text help. As usual, the only solution is to put the Greek back into Hebrew and then it does make sense.

 

I have come-  denotes intent or purpose

 

Destroy....fulfill- If Jesus fulfilled the law, then is it abolished?  The word Torah (law) did not convey a negative sense for Jesus.  The Torah reveals God's will.  It is good and holy.  The Hebrew Bible taught Gods love for all people and provided a guide for daily life. Hence, the major issue was the proper understanding of Torah, which would lead to the right conduct in everyday living.  The Hebrew background of Matthew 5:17 clarifies its deeper meaning.  In the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, the Greek words from the Gospel, “abolish” and “fulfill” possess dynamic equivalents.  The word “abolish” meant to interpret incorrectly.  In Greek, the word catalo means “abolish,” and its dynamic Hebrew equivalent, batel, also means “cancel, abolish, destroy”.  It is often used in a context that deals with the interpretation of scripture.  One cancels Torah when it’s misunderstood.  The word fulfill, moreover, means to interpret accurately.  In Greek, the word pleroo means “fulfill,” but its Hebrew equivalent, kiyem, is derived from a root which means “cause to stand,” and possesses the sense, “to uphold, to observe, to fulfill or to place on a firmer footing.”  It too refers to proper interpretation.  If one misunderstands the proper meaning of Torah, he or she will not obey the will of the Lord.  Someone may abolish the Law by misunderstanding the divine revelation.  Each person may fulfill the Torah when the individual upholds it by proper interpretation and corresponding obedience.   

          ‘Abolish’ and ‘destroy’ are technical terms used in rabbinic argumentation.  When a rabbi felt that a colleague had misinterpreted a passage of scriptures, he would say, “You are destroying the law!”  Needless to say, in most cases his colleague strongly disagreed.  What was “destroying the Law” for one rabbi, was “fulfilling the Law” (correctly interpreting the scriptures) for another.  So in essence what we see in Matthew 5:17ff is a rabbinic discussion.  It would seem that someone has accused Jesus of ‘destroying’ (misinterpreting) the law.  Of course, neither Jesus, nor his accuser, would ever think of literally of destroying (misinterpreting) the Law.  Furthermore, it would never enter the accusers’ mind to charge Jesus with intent to abolish part or all of the Mosaic Law.  What is being called into question is Jesus’ system of interpretation, the way he interprets scriptures!! 

          When accused, Jesus strongly denies that his method of interpreting scriptures “destroys” or weakens its meaning.  He claims, on the contrary, to be more orthodox than his accuser.[9] 

          He did not come to undermine the meaning of the Torah by his exegesis, on the contrary, he came to establish the true significance of the Torah and place it on firmer ground. (Matthew 5:17; Rom. 3:31)   He will achieve this aim by using the common Jewish, especially rabbinic views, in his interpretation of the Biblical words, according to which a light commandment is as important as a weighty one.[10]

          For Jesus, a “light” commandment (do not bear hatred in your heart) is as important as a “heavy” commandment (do not murder).  From the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” it follows that one should not be angry with others, since anger may lead to killing.  From the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it follows that even he who glances at a married woman with desire is like someone who has committed adultery in his heart.  Jesus seems to repeat the view of the Jewish Sages, that the word “commit adultery” has four letters in Hebrew, since a man commits adultery with his eyes, hands, heart and feet.[11]

          “Never imagine for a moment,” says Jesus, “that I intend to abrogate the law by misinterpreting it.  My intent is not to weaken or negate the Law, but by properly interpreting God’s written word I aim to establish it, that is, make it even more lasting.  I would never invalidate the Law by effectively removing something from it through misinterpretation.  Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Law.”[12]  

         

Not a jot or a tittle will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished-  To translate this in English makes it worthless for what is a jot or a tittle?  But when put back into the original Hebrew text it reads, “not one yod or one kotz!”

 

          Yod is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  Jewish tradition mentions this very letter yod is irremovable, adding, that if all men in the world were gathered together to abolish the least letter in the Law, they would not succeed.  Not a letter would be removed from the Law - a saying illustrated by this curious conceit, that the Yod which was taken by God out of the name of Sarah (Sarai), was added to that of Hoshea, making him Joshua (Jehoshua).[13]  Kotz is a decorative spur found on the letters that meant nothing more than decoration.  The scribes had a practice of decorating some of the letters with little decorative marks and sometimes on the yod they would put a little mark that looked like a chicken track.  They did this to a number of the letters.  It has absolutely no meaning. It wasn’t there for any reason other than they liked to do it.  It was artistic.  It didn’t change the meaning.  Jesus says that his regard for the law was so high that not one of the tiniest letters, or even the decorative marks that were on top of the letters, was going to pass until it has all been established. 

          Here Jesus speaks of keeping the Torah without transgressing against a jot or tittle.  Anyone transgressing against the least commandments will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and anyone who keeps the ‘minor’ commandments and teaches others to keep them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.[14] 

           

Till all shall have come to pass- these words do not seem to be words spoken by Jesus.  I personally am sure that the natural place for these words is in Matthew 24:34b.  Matthew also cited them in Matthew 5:18 because of the external similarity between that verse and Matthew 24:34-35.[15] 

 

          Actually, in the Greek text it’s, “he causes it to stand upright, or to be established by standing erect or upright.” 

 

          If you transgress a light precept, you will commit a grave sin. Or, in other words, a transgression of a minor precept leads to a transgression of a major one.  Therefore,

 

“Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches

men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:19


              [1] Lindsey, Robert.  Jesus Rabbi and Lord, pp. 58-60.

              [2] Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 152. 

              [3] Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 537.

              [4] Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, p. 177.

              [5]Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity.  pp. 383-384.

              [6]Flusser, 177.

              [7]Flusser, 172.

              [8]Trattner, Ernest. As a Jew sees Jesus, pp. 51,52.

              [9] Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult words of Jesus, pp. 154,155.

              [10]Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, p. 495.   

              [11] Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, pp. 24, 25.

              [12] Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult words of Jesus, pp... 154, 155.

              [13] Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, pp. 537, 538.

              [14] Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, p. 24.

              [15] Flusser, Jesus, pp. 74,75.