If you were almost any English translation of the New Testament, you would find a particular word repeated throughout the pages: law. Once you happen upon Paul’s letters like Romans and Galatians, you will see a high recurrence of the word. There are understandable reasons for this: the Greek word used is νόμος has in many instances a legislative connotation of the pronouncements of a ruling figure. For instance, James 2:8 talks about the “royal law.” However, the Greek lexicons give the primary definition as a matter of “a procedure or practice that has taken hold”1 or “that which is in habitual practice.”2 This is closer to our concept of culture rather than it is legal rules. However, since at least the Latin Vulgate, where νόμος was translated as lēx, which is Latin legislative language for a legislative bill or passed regulation, the words and commandments of God from the mouth of Moses, that is the Torah, has been given a distinctive legislative and legal sense.
This legal language isn’t without merit on the surface of it. After all, God’s commandments were given for the people of Israel to obey and some commandments had prescribed punishments for failure to uphold the Torah.
But, this legal picture can also be quite misleading. For us, laws are considered something compulsory, something we are bound to apart from our own conscience. You may not like the laws, but you are obliged to obey them or you will be punished. In our experience, laws do not reach into the
So Torah wasn’t obeyed as a system of legal principles, but as a way of life as a people before this God who had redeemed their ancestors from Egypt. Your love for God and your love of your own Jewish people was the under-riding motivation for obedience to Torah. This is part of the reason that sinners are often talked about in the same breath as tax-collectors, who as agents of Roman power were considered traitors to their people; sinners who failed to obey Torah were regarded not simply disobeying God but disregarding their own people.
This is where I suggest that the problem of the Pharisees and scribes in the Gospels exists. The standard portrayal of Pharisees and scribes and
They saw something important, if not even potentially powerful, in Torah obedience. In the
Meanwhile, as teachers of Israel, they were not simply focused on their own self-preservation, but they took on a role of leadership and concern to guide their own people. They would bear upon themselves the task of leading their people.
So, where does it all go wrong? How is it that people who had such noble intentions and tasks can go so wrong? Or, are the Gospels simply an unjust and anti-semitic aspersion?
Allow me to suggest it is begins with the combination of devotion with legal principles. The Pharisees had no mere bureacratic mentality, but they were zealously devoted to their task. And that is where the danger lies. Bureaucrats, who can have their own dangers, are not necessarily out to apply the rules and procedures to every aspect and zone of life: they tend to not want to rock the boat. But being zealous for rules has its own danger of judgment of those who do not share the same zeal and same degree of proficiency that they have. Highly passionate people rarely tolerate apathy, laziness, and ignorance from others.
So, when people fail to adhere to their degree of holiness, they either speak derision masked as informative questions as they did as Jesus disciple’s for not washing their hands before eating, or they go further to the entire disregarding of those who they deemed sinners of breaches of even Torah itself. Furthermore, as highly passionate people can have a certain charisma, they would have gotten immersed into their role of their appearances before the people and the rewards that came from such celebrity and status. Then, when someone like Jesus enters the scene, doesn’t engage in their brand of holiness, and steals some of their thunder, that only stokes the fires of their passion even more. So, they engage in the conflict with Jesus with the one skill they highly esteem, their understanding and obedience to Torah. It is what differentiates themselves from others in their mind and it is how they will try to win against Jesus.
Meanwhile, Jesus doesn’t criticize their adherence to Torah, despite the modern mythical Jesus that has been constructed. There is not a hint of the mentality “we need to just get rid of the rules and live.” He certainly criticizes how they use the tradition of the elders to cast aspersion of his disciples, while they through the traditions fail to uphold the more important concerns of the Torah. Rather, Jesus’ criticism is their very understanding of the Torah. They see in the words of the Torah a source of power that they should adhere to, particularly for their own self-aggrandizement and their resurrection/eternal life. Jesus, instead, sees the Torah more like a light into the heart of people. One’s experience of
For Jesus, and for the Old Testament, the Torah is not so much legislation as it is instruction for the people to obey out of love for God. Certainly, as mentioned, it did regulate the common life of Israel with systems of punishment. And no doubt it was a common experience in Israel to experience the Torah as more a social instrument of regulation than an inner, personal striving. Hence, the story of Israel is the story of a people who do not remain faithful to God and His instructions. Hence, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant where God’s instruction would be in people’s hearts. But, the place where the godly passion for God’s instruction will come from isn’t merely by a self-induced passion or a passion merely stoked by the forces of social modeling and contagion, but a passion granted from God. It rests not within the socio-political and personal forces of passion, but the force and power that comes from God’s Spirit. Meanwhile, the Psalms recognize the role of the Torah as a light that comes from God. But when the emphasis is placed on the power of Torah itself rather than on the power of God who instructs and guides through Torah, then one’s heart is not open to the God who directs but on the human heart to appropriate and extend for oneself. Hence, Jesus says in John 6:45 that those who have heard, learned from and have been taught by God. They were not looking to the Torah itself as the source, but they were looking and attentively seeking God’s will and they used the Torah as an instructive guide.
This mentality informs Jesus understanding of the Torah. When the adulterer was brought before Jesus, he saw no need to condemn her to death. He saw himself as the one without sin and so thus qualified to make a
So why do I tell this story? Because we have Godwin’s