– Was Jesus at odds with the rabbis?
Gabriel A. Goldberg, M.A.
Too often, the Sermon on the Mount has been interpreted by Christian commentators as a lesson on the superiority of Jesus’ teachings over those of the rabbis, of the Law of Christ over the Law of Moses. Or, more bluntly, of Christianity over Judaism.
Views today are more nuanced, but the prevailing one is that Jesus deviated from the conventional wisdom of that time. He even diverged from principles of the Torah or Law by providing substitutes.
That seems reasonable considering the six times Jesus made contrasting statements that begin with “you have heard it said” and end with “but I say to you.” For example: “You have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’; but I say to you that you resist not evil; but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:38-39).
To the average listener, unaware of the Jewish context, this and the other five similar statements suggest an older standard is inferior, incorrect, invalid or even untrue, and has been replaced by something better.
Is that necessarily so?
To uphold or to upend?
One problem for this traditional interpretation occurs early in the Sermon. Jesus prefaces the contrasts with the following: “Think not that I have come to destroy the Law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (5:17). He came to uphold the Law and the prophets, to behave accordingly.
Some Christian commentators, though, focus on the word “fulfill.” He fulfilled, they say, the intent of the Law through the crucifixion, becoming the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, doing away with the technicalities of the Temple sacrificial system and, by extension, the whole Law. The word “fulfill” is changed from meaning conduct that conforms to the Law, thereby sustaining it, to a singular action that achieves a goal and eliminates any further need of the Law.
While many Christians would say “amen” to that, it has the very opposite connotation of the preceding words, “think not that I have come to destroy the Law.” This yields a nonsensical contradiction: “I have not come to end the Law, but to end the Law.” And the point, as introduced by Jesus, was not to abolish the Law.
The earliest practice
Another difficulty: The early community of Jewish followers of Jesus were “all zealous of the Law” long after the crucifixion. When Paul was rumored to teach Jews not to observe the Law (a rumor still believed by many today), the elders in Jerusalem asked him to silence the accusers by publicly confirming that he too walked orderly and kept the Law, and he readily complied (Acts 21:20-26). It is obvious that those who were closest to Jesus’ teaching had a very different view than later generations of gentile expounders of the New Testament.
Jesus said: “For truly I say to you, ‘Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’” (v. 18). “Jot” refers to the smallest Hebrew letter, the yod, which resembles an apostrophe. “Tittle” refers to a scribe’s decorative extension or small stroke atop specific Hebrew letters in the Scriptures.
He said, in other words, not the minutest detail of the Law (and the prophets), not even a letter or part of a letter, will pass until the End of Days. That is certainly explicit. Here, Jesus champions specificity and precision with regard to the Law and the prophets, quite the opposite methodology of supersessionist (replacement) theologians.
There is no doubt that Jesus, born a Jew, was in favor of observing the Law of Moses as a way of life commanded by God. He said: “Whoever, therefore, shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 5:19). Later, the elders in Jerusalem understood that gentile followers of Jesus should be exempted from the bulk of the commandments (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25).
The forgotten Jewish context
Jesus spoke to a Jewish audience. His words in verse 18 would have sounded very familiar to them. Perhaps to the surprise (even shock) of many Christian readers, Jesus was quoting a known saying from a recurring midrash, a rabbinic homily, in this case, akin to a “preacher’s story.”
Here, the gist of this fanciful midrash: The letter yod from the Hebrew word “yarbeh,” meaning “multiply” (from Deut. 17:17) went to heaven to protest to God that Solomon was dismantling the Torah letter by letter. His disregard for the precepts of the king, for example, against “multiplying wives,” threatened the whole of the Law. God responded to the yod: “Solomon and a thousand as he will pass away, but the smallest tittle will not be erased from [the Torah]” (Shemot Rabbah 6:2). The moral of the midrash is clear: The smallest detail of the Law will last. Those who act against it, be they as great or wise as Solomon, will pass away.
By quoting the story of the yod (jot) and tittle, Jesus was emphatically stating that the Law will last, at least until heaven and earth pass away. And as anyone reading this can attest, heaven and earth have not yet passed into oblivion. For Jesus, this permanence, as expressed in the rabbinic homilies, was an absolute truth. Consider: He said, “For truly I say to you,” and then proceeded to quote the midrash.
Let us raise again the issue of Jesus’ intent. Was it to change the Law of Moses from “an eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek”? In view of the Jewish context, I believe one needs to answer with a resounding “no.” How can one then understand the contrasting statements, “you have heard it said” and “but I say to you” that suggest substitution? That answer will be upcoming in Part II and will also, in its Jewish context, be surprising.