The highest ambition of Jesus is to fulfil the Torah. Jesus stands completely within the tradition of Israel. God still requires the fulfilment of the Torah.
Is the deeply rooted presumption made by commentators, that Jesus broke radically with Judaism and its relationship with the Torah, correct? I immediately give the strongest possible negative answer to this question, and there has of course been much research made during the last decennia, which proves that Jesus cannot be understood without His roots in Israel and Judaism. Nevertheless, presumptions go very deep, apparently. The spirit of Christian pride with regard to Israel, against which Paul warns so much (Rom. 11!) appears to be stubborn; it manifests itself time and again in stereotypes as legalistic in the sense of legalistic and formal Judaism compared with Christianity’s message of grace, among other things: the oppressive burden of the law in Judaism, the Gospel of liberating grace in the church. In any case I never cease to be struck by how Christians treat Judaism with self-evident superiority. The question of Jesus’ relationship with the Torah remains topical therefore.
The Sermon on the Mount[i]
The question is brought to a head when we study the Sermon on the Mount. Is it true that Jesus’ break with Torah-Judaism becomes very pregnant in this ‘Magna Charta’ of His preaching and teaching? Pinchas Lapide tells of an invitation he received from a Catholic academy for a conference on the Sermon on the Mount, in which it was stated, as an encouragement to attend, that Jesus ‘put the legalistic religion of Judaism out of joint. This constitutes the prompting for the liberating message of the New Testament, which has nothing more in common with the terrors and constraints of legalistic and formal religion’[ii]. According to many commentators, Jesus did not only break with Judaism, but even with the Torah as well, at least with the Torah as it functions in the tradition of Israel. All that belongs to the ‘Old Covenant’; we are now living in the ‘New Covenant’ situation, the old one is finished, including the law. When Paul claims Jesus to be the ‘end of the law’ (Rom. 10 : 4), or, in more recent translations, the ‘purpose’ of the law, according to current thinking this must therefore mean that the goal was achieved and that the end had thus come when Jesus completed His work. All intensive occupation with the Torah – as Jewish tradition so impressively shows – must therefore at least be regression, if not hostility against, and opposition to God’s true purposes. Torah-Judaism is a fossil that has outlived itself long after Jesus Christ.
Dissolution or fulfilment
It may be surprising that Jesus’ own word, which is so clear, has apparently had so little effect. I refer to His statement in Matth. 5:17: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” This leaves nothing to the imagination: Jesus does not break with the Torah. On the contrary, His highest ambition, as a Jew who is faithful to the law, standing in the tradition of His people, is to fulfil the Torah – even its smallest details: the jot and the tittle; the smallest punctuation mark and the smallest letter. The whole composition of the Torah must remain intact, as it were; every letter and every punctuation mark are of significance. The Torah is significant as long as creation stands: every jot and every tittle in the law remain in force as long as heaven and earth exist, until everything has been fulfilled (verse 18).
Flusser points to rabbinical conviction in this respect, i.e. that the Torah is considered to be a cosmic force. Rabbi Elazar said: “Heaven and earth would not exist without the Torah.” “Similarly, there are rabbinical parallels for the importance of the little hooks (tittles) and the jot (Jod), the smallest letter of the alphabet, which cannot be removed from the Torah of Moses without danger.”[iii] So Jesus did not have the slightest intention to render the Torah powerless or to regard it as obsolete. On the contrary: He fulfils and completes it and sheds light on the true and deep meaning of the Torah. Flusser renders ‘fulfil’ as ‘establish’: Jesus establishes the Torah; thereby – interestingly enough – with reference to current rabbinical language when explaining the Torah: whoever interprets the Torah wrongly ‘unravels’ the word of the Torah; whoever gives the correct interpretation ‘fulfils’ the word or ‘establishes’ it’.[iv] Jesus can only intend not only to take the Torah absolutely seriously therefore, but also to seek intensively for the correct interpretation of the Torah in such a way as to fulfil and to establish it!
The five antitheses
It is this interpretation that is important. For, according to almost unanimous Christian exegesis, this interpretation in particular proves how much Jesus breaks through and transcends Jewish tradition. In the meantime, that Jewish tradition is set out as negatively as possible. For example: Lapide quotes Romano Guardini, who characterises Judaism as ‘outwardly conscientious and scrupulous to a high degree; inwardly full of hardness of heart; outwardly faithful to the law, inwardly sinful’. [v] But Jesus comes sovereignly with a new explanation of the Torah, in which He not only outstrips the rabbinical traditions in all the discussions about the verbal Torah, but He even outstrips Moses, and thus the Torah itself. He does this with the unique authority of the Son of man, i.e. the Son of God.
Within the tradition of this explanation the Sermon on the Mount is the evidence that Jesus shuts down the Torah with full authority, showing Judaism a better way, which will later find its platform in the church. Evidence for this was (is) found in the five so-called antitheses, i.e. those words in which (at least according to the traditional interpretation) Jesus explicitly sets Himself up against the Torah and Judaism: you have heard that it is said … but I say to you (verses 21, 27, 31, 38 and 43). The use of the term antithesis is significant of course; whoever uses this word does not need to say much more: this is a fundamental contradistinction. “The antitheses prove the great authority and the unique empowerment with which Jesus unequivocally took to the pulpit. His messianic self-assurance is likewise revealed in these words. He was able to set Himself up ‘antithetically’ against Jewish tradition and even against the Old Testament because He was the Messiah of Israel sent by God.”[vi] This characterizes the traditional, anti-Jewish explanation of the Sermon on the Mount.
But is all this indeed the case? Jewish exegetes who read the Scriptures (including the New Testament!) with ‘Jewish eyes through Jewish glasses’ (an expression used by Lapide) emphasise that Jesus is speaking completely within the confines of the arguments of the Judaism of His time. Hearing a sharp antithesis between the Jewish Torah and Christian ethics from Jesus’ lips is only possible if it is accepted (even unconsciously, possibly) that the presumption already mentioned more than once – that Christian doctrine is superior to Jewish doctrine – stretches the expression ‘you have heard that it is said … I say to you’ to the absurd. This is, in fact, customary terminology in rabbinical discussion. The opinion of previous Torah exegetes is given first; thereafter the speaker gives his own interpretation as a contribution to the correct understanding (the ‘establishment’) of the Torah. It is remarkable that Christian translations always choose a contrasting translation for the Greek ‘egoo de legoo humin’: but I say to you – if possible translated even more strongly by ‘I even say’, whereas the Greek ‘de’ in the Gospels does not usually indicate an antithesis, but rather a connection. The translation should therefore simply read: ‘and I say to you’, and this corresponds with the usual rabbinical way of saying: ‘wa ani omeer lachem’, which is not an introduction to a contradiction of the Torah, but, on the contrary, an elucidation thereof. “Far from being ‘unique‘, this is a basic tenet of the ‘verbal Torah’ and accordingly it has many parallels in the Talmudic writings. ‘You have heard’ or ‘It is said’ followed by ‘And I say to you’ actually constitute a pair of fixed expressions in the basic vocabulary of rabbinical rhetoric.”[vii] So we see that Jesus uses the common way of speaking to give His Torah explanation, and that He in no way intends to express Himself ‘antithetically’ about Torah and tradition, and that He intends the radically break with it even less. That is a Christian construction that came afterwards.
The heart of the Torah
What is the truth in this case? Does Jesus not express fierce criticism of His contemporaries and does the Sermon on the Mount not go further than ‘normal rabbinical Judaism’? The answer to the first half of the question can simply be ‘yes’. It would take too much space to comment further on this now; it must always be remembered that Jesus, with His pronunciations and criticisms, is also taking part in the internal Jewish discussions of His day about Torah and Halacha, and that He is therefore not attempting to create ‘hostile images’ in this respect (Jesus against Pharisees and Scribes). The answer to the second half of the question must be “no” however, in my opinion, because both Jesus and rabbinical tradition are passionately seeking what I should like to call the heart of the Torah, the true, deepest intention of God’s revealed will. Jesus lays bare the ‘heart meaning’ of God’s Torah in the so-called ‘antitheses’. With a clever play on words Lapide speaks of ‘supertheses’ which Jesus teaches and which ‘deepen, sharpen and, in the literal meaning of the word, radicalise the biblical commands, i.e. reducing them to their roots and original meanings”.[viii]
This is how Jesus establishes the Torah by revealing the deepest meaning. It is striking, of course, that, in this respect, this has to do with conviction, with what are the origin and the driving force behind human action. I cannot put it into words better than Buber’s fine quotation, referred to by Lapide: “He (Jesus) is not satisfied with Sinai. He wants to penetrate the cloud above the mountain, from where the voice resounds. He wants to penetrate God’s original intention, in order to fulfil the Torah, i.e. to fulfil the requirements of the highest court and to completely achieve all its goals. In this heavenly striving, ardent desire for perfection, Jesus calls for more than a fulfilment of the commandments and the prohibitions, thereby subscribing to the tenth commandment, which goes further than all the others inasmuch as it, for the first time, contains a warning against incorrect convictions, before they are able to grow into crimes: you shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his servant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s.”[ix] This reference to the tenth commandment appears to me to be extremely relevant; do we not find the very call to our heart, the reason for our very being and for the intentions of our actions in the tenth and last commandment? Furthermore, in his review of the five so-called antitheses, Lapide points extensively to the rabbis’ pronouncements which correspond with the words of Jesus as far as this deepening of the Torah is concerned, as further evidence for the fact that Jesus stands completely within the tradition of Israel.
Plan for the future
I find what Lapide says about an early rabbinical discussion about the literal text of the commandment to love our neighbour particularly interesting.[x] He supposes that this discussion moved Jesus to give His radical Torah interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount, where it is written: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. But is it possible to love on command? Of course not, but let us read accurately. The rabbis said: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. This is not meant to be read as an imperative, but as a futurism. It is a plan for the future. When shall we love our neighbour as ourselves? When what God promises in Jeremiah 31:33 becomes a reality – i.e. that He will put His law within us and write it upon our hearts, as well as in Ezekiel 36:26, when he removes the heart of stone from our body and gives us a heart of flesh. In other words: this refers to the situation of the New Covenant, which God will enter into with Israel in accordance with His prophetic Word. In that New Covenant the Holy Spirit is given in ample measure, and He puts the Torah in the heart, so that there will be an almost automatic obedience to the Torah’s deepest intentions. “It will not be an external compulsion that will impel towards love, but an inner compulsion – a compulsion to give ourselves to the person whom God has given us as a brother.”[xi] Is that not also the ‘righteousness exceeding that of the Scribes and the Pharisees’ about which Jesus speaks in verse 19? In the New Covenant the Holy Spirit leads on the way of the Torah in a whole new manner. As Christians we believe that Covenant to be sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ, and that the Spirit of Pentecost us fully poured out. But we are still talking about the same Torah, as the expression of the will of God. And God still requires the fulfilment of the Torah.
[i] The amount of literature is almost limitless. Important to this article are Dr. Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount, Utopia or program for action? and Dr. David Flusser, Die Torah in der Bergpredigt, in H. Kremers, red., Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel, Duisburg 1973, p. 102-114.
[ii] Lapide, the work referred to above page 45; pages 43-45 give a number of amazing quotations that show evidence of this attitude of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.
[iii] Flusser, in the work referred to above
[iv] Flusser, in the work referred to above
[v] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 43
[vi] Dr. C.J. den Heyer, the Messiaanse weg 2, Kampen 1986, page 177
[vii] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 46
[viii] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 48
[ix] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 48
[x] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 30
[xi] Lapide, in the work referred to above, page 30