Monday, April 7, 2014

Passiontide Pitfalls 2: Law vs. Love—or Law the Means of Love?

I really shouldn’t have been surprised (see yesterday’s blog) to hear the age-old bromide about the contrast between Judaism’s alleged “oppressive legalism” and Jesus’ gospel of love and freedom rolling off the lips of the “progressive” preacher this past Lent.

As unfair as it is to Judaism, both ancient and modern, getting that impression from the New Testament isn’t all that hard. Paul’s contrast of law and Spirit seems, on the face of it, clear enough, though recent scholarship raises some serious questions about such a simplistic reading. (1) Christians, especially Protestants, have often read the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  

Jesus and his halakah

The Jesus of the Gospels (2) makes fairly clear that following him involves his own version of what Jews call halakah, religious law, or, if you prefer, mitzvot, commandments. He bids disciples to forgive generously, give graciously to “those who ask,” follow the Ten Commandments, refrain from oath-taking, purify the heart from indulgence in lust or anger, settle disputes amicably, and much more. Such instructions are not “suggestions” but the requirements of “a house built on solid ground” rather than “on sand.” (3) As the Fourth Gospel states it: “If you love me, keep my commandments,” one of which (in that same Gospel) is “Love one another.”

Such statements fit hand-in-glove into Jewish categories typical of Jesus’ own time. Various teachers and groups vied in the late Second Temple period with each other to define what “normative” practice would be. Jesus’ disputations with “scribes and Pharisees” about the exact details of Sabbath law also sound rather typical of Jewish disagreements about how to apply Torah commandments in any age. In fact, virtually every aspect of Jesus’ moral and ethical commandments appears in rabbinical teachings codified in the next few centuries in what became the Talmud. (4)

None of this quite fits the “love vs. law” stereotype. Both the Pharisees and Jesus offer halakah designed to help us know how to love God and neighbor. Such commandments can be practiced in a legalistic or a life-giving spirit in either Christianity or Judaism. 

Jesus does define the “greatest commandment” as love, but so did Hillel the Elder before him. (5) So what distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from theirs?

The real disagreements

First and foremost, Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees about the expansion of Temple purity laws into everyday life. Matthew’s gospel hears him saying that these extensions bind an unnecessary “burden” on people. His famed clashes over touching lepers and the woman with an “issue of blood” are illustrations of this stance pushed even further.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the clashes are about Jesus himself. The Gospels report claims to be, at the least, a prophet and more than a prophet. He doesn't appeal to the chain of teaching by the Sages from the Great Assembly on, but speaks “with authority, and not as the scribes and the Pharisees” (6), apparently claiming direct inspiration from God. Jesus heals non-life-threatening conditions on the Sabbath, and declares direct forgiveness of sin, for example, all on his own authority, or, as the Fourth Gospel puts in, because he is following the immediate internal directions of God.

Whatever else this is, it is not “love vs. law.” Our historic disagreement with rabbinical Judaism is about the person and status of Jesus, not the content of his teaching.

Christians who accept Jesus as a divinely inspired “prophet and more than a prophet” readily accept his authority to say and do such things. But the Gospels give us no valid grounds on which the historic denigration of Judaism as a “legalistic” religion can be based.

The law of love, one might say, demands better of us. 

Next: Those Palm Sunday Crowds

1.  See N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul and Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays

2.  I deal here with Jesus as presented in the Gospels, not the various re-imagined "real" Jesuses who might, or might not, lurk behind the texts. The scriptural Jesus is the Man presented to the world by the first and second generations of his followers, and the Figure who lives in Christian imagination, teaching, and dialogue with historic Judaism.

3.  See Matthew 7:24-27

4.  See the classic A Rabbinic Anthology by H. Loewe and C. G. Montefiore, which gives rabbinical comments on many subjects, including forgiveness, love of the enemy, and sensible applications of the commandments.

5.  "Love of one's fellow man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching" in the New World Encyclopedia at

6.  Matthew 7:9



  1. "Christians, especially Protestants, have often read the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than Paul through the lens of the Gospels." That's a great articulation of what seems like (a questionable) reliance on Paul to interpret who Jesus was / is.

  2. Yes, it's questionable, especially now that we know that Paul, radical that he may be, fits more into his Jewish context than we knew.