Tag Archives: Mosaic law

To What Extent do Christians and Jews Share a Common Foundation in the Bible?

Christians often mistakenly conclude that the primary basis of Judaism is the “law and the prophets.” Actually, Orthodox Judaism puts surprisingly little emphasis on Scriptural authority.

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Jewish orthodoxy is not based as much on the Hebrew Bible as it is on “oral law.” It believes that when Moses wrote the law, he also inaugurated an “oral law” to be passed to each successive generation of Jewish leaders. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees considered themselves the recipients and guardians of this oral law. They believed that because they were the only people trained in the tradition of the oral law, they were the only people qualified to interpret the written law. For the Pharisees, the “oral law” had precedence over the written law.

Jesus accepted neither the “oral law” nor the Pharisees’ claim of privileged knowledge and authority. He considered the “oral law” merely the “tradition of the elders” and “commandments of men,” declaring it a man-made invention that “nullified” the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13; Matthew 15:1-20).

Jesus taught that it is the disposition of the heart not mere obedience to tradition that leads to true understanding of the law. Like Elijah (Mark 8:22-29), Jesus had supernatural power and authority (John 5:36; 14:7-11; Matthew 7:29). He knew that if the Pharisees truly honored the law and the prophets, they would see that He fulfilled them (John 5:46-47; Luke 6:6-11). Instead, the Pharisees chose to honor their traditions (John 5:43-44) while paying little heed to the great spiritual leaders and prophets of Israel’s past (Matthew 23:23-39). In spite of Jesus’ moral purity (John 8:45-47), they claimed He did His miracles through the power of Satan (Matthew 9:34; 12:24).

Although individual Pharisees were friendly to him (John 3:1-10; 7:50-52; 19:38-42), Jesus’ refusal to endorse the oral law generally resulted in their animosity both to Him (Matthew 21:23-46) and the apostolic church (Matthew 10:16-28; Acts 6:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

When Titus destroyed Jerusalem in ad 70, the surviving form of Jewish religion was that practiced by the Pharisees.2 During the next four centuries, the “traditions of the elders” were systematized, codified, and amplified in the Talmud.3In some ways, this emphasis upon the oral law continues to distort and contradict the plain meaning of the “law and prophets.” Israel Shahak, a survivor of German concentration camps and an Israeli citizen, scientist, scholar, and defender of human rights, made these striking observations about the Orthodox Jewish view of the Jewish Bible:

There is yet another misconception about Judaism which is particularly common among Christians or people heavily influenced by Christian tradition and culture. This is the misleading idea that Judaism is a “biblical religion”; that the Old Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority which the Bible has for Protestant or even Catholic Christianity.

Again, this is connected with the question of interpretation. We have seen that in matters of belief there is great latitude. Exactly the opposite holds with respect to the legal interpretation of sacred texts. Here the interpretation is rigidly fixed—but by the Talmud rather than by the Bible itself. Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing religious acts and obligations are “understood” by classical Judaism, and by present day Orthodoxy, in a sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament, who only see the plain text. The same division exists at present in Israel between those educated in Jewish religious schools and those educated in “secular” Hebrew schools, where on the whole the plain meaning of the Old Testament is taught (Jewish History, Jewish Religion, p.36).

Thoughtful Christians realize that Judaism is not unique in its emphasis on tradition. Christian leaders have also often elevated tradition to a higher level of authority than Scripture, with very destructive results. Christians have often nullified the clear meaning of Scripture on the basis of privileged interpretations by elites. In spite of human ambition that seeks to twist the meaning of Scripture to serve personal and institutional power, there have always been those, both in the Jewish and the Christian tradition, who have resisted the idolatry of tradition and institution. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and his apostles, these Jews and Christians have honored not only the letter of the law but its spirit as well. Like the saints of the Old Testament, these “are sure of what [they] hope for, and certain of what [they] do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 niv).

  1. Orthodox Jews do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not believe that every word in the Bible is a divine revelation. They consider only the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses, to be divinely inspired. The rest of the Bible is considered to be the product of human minds and hands (Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins, pp.142-45). Back To Article
  2. A leader of the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, Johanan Ben Zakkai, officially broke ranks with the Jews in rebellion with Rome and signed an agreement whereby he accepted Roman political authority in return for the right to continue his religious tradition. He established a center for Pharisaic teaching in Jamnia, which soon after the destruction of Jerusalem became the center of Judaism. Back To Article
  3. Modern Jewish orthodoxy interprets Scripture almost exclusively by means of the oral tradition embodied in the Talmud. In fact, when Orthodox Jews refer to “Torah,” they are referring as much to the Talmud as they are to the Old Testament. Back To Article
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Should Christians Keep the Old Testament Law?

The Mosaic law was not given to the Gentiles (Romans 2:1-16) but to the people of Israel (Exodus 20:1-17). It was intended to reveal the goodness and wisdom of God, bring awareness of sin and guilt, and show the need for divine redemption (Leviticus 17:11; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 1 Timothy 1:7-11). The law, however, was not given as a performance-based means of salvation. Abraham was saved by faith long before the law was given through Moses (Hebrews 11 ).

Because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law (Romans 5:5-8; 8:1-4), we are no longer under the external law of Moses. When we are obedient to the Holy Spirit, we manifest God’s love and exhibit righteousness, which fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). The New Testament contains numerous passages that clarify the Christian believer’s distinctly altered relationship to the Mosaic law (Galatians 3-5; Philippians 3; Colossians 2).

The Lord’s declaration in Matthew 5:17 that He had come not “to abolish the law but to fulfill it” should be understood in its context. He said this just before explaining the spiritual meaning of the system of laws given to Israel by Moses. By contrast, the Pharisees of His day missed the spirit and intent of the law while overemphasizing conformity to external legal and ritual elements. Jesus emphasized the thoughts, motives, and attitudes behind the deeds. The contrast He set forth in verses Matthew 21-47 is not between the law and His own teaching but between the ideas of the Pharisees and the real meaning of the law. Christ had so much respect for the law that He would not cancel even one small demand until after He had fulfilled it.

However, Jesus Christ did fulfill the law both in His life and in His death. He obeyed it perfectly. He never broke even one of its commands. Of the entire human race, only He never sinned (see 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). He also laid down His life to pay the penalty for sin demanded by the law (see John 3:16; 10:11-l8; 11:50-52; Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). In all of this He became the reality of whom all the Old Testament sacrifices and rituals were only symbols.

When the life of God’s perfect Lamb was given as the ultimate sacrifice for sinners, the Mosaic law, as a national, legally binding system came to an end. Second Corinthians 3:2-18 makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments were part of a “dispensation/ministry” that has passed away. If we read the law with the mindset of the old covenant between God and Israel, a veil covers our hearts (v. 18).

“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).

The part of the Bible that contains all these rules and regulations still instructs us. But it is no longer binding on us because Jesus Christ fulfilled it.

While Christians are not bound to follow the ceremonial laws and regulations of the old covenant with Israel, they are obligated to live by the great moral principles it contains. The Old Testament law was itself based on unwritten moral principles that God had revealed to the human race throughout the ages (Romans 2:14-15). The works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit listed by the apostle Paul (Galatians 5:13-26) illustrate the impossibility of living a Spirit-filled life while violating the moral principles contained in the law given at Sinai. Rather than being governed by a law whose letter brought rebellion, awareness of sin, and death, those in Christ are governed by the living Spirit of God who instructs them in how to live in freedom and gratitude.

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