This entry contains two subentries: HEBREW BIBLE and NEW TESTAMENT.

Hebrew Bible

Law appears to be a prime candidate for studying ethics. Ethics deals with what humans should and should not do and why. It also concerns values. Law prescribes and prohibits based on what humans should and should not do. When violation occurs, it sets forth value-laden resolutions.

In the Hebrew Bible, humans are created good; law would be unnecessary had they remained so. However, having fallen into the “knowledge of good and evil,” humans now must assume responsibility. Law becomes remedy for human waywardness.

The self-conscious study of the ethics of the Bible grew from critical study. After the Wellhausen Source Hypothesis and Gunkel’s study of forms of speech and writing became established, scholars became aware of the need for a concerted reconstruction of Old Testament ethics as a complement to biblical theology. Johannes Hempel published the first full-scale works on biblical ethics: Gott und Mensch im Alten Testament (1936) and Das Ethos des Alten Testaments (1938).

Hempel constructed an ethical system meant to cover the whole Old Testament, using an evolutionary scheme to integrate different norms from different sociological groups. Hempel assumed deontological grounding of norms—that is, for Israelites, whatever Yahweh willed was right and obligatory.

In late twentieth century, Eckart Otto analyzed Israelite law and wisdom in Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments (1994). To avoid confusing ethics with theology or history of Israelite religion, he treated only explicit statements of norms (law and wisdom sayings) and eschewed direct application of biblical norms to the modern world.

Otto breaks Old Testament legal texts into “layers” deposited at various dates in Israelite history, beginning with the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22—23:19), tracing its evolution from judgments designed to keep peace in society to moral preachments, identifying moral admonitions and motivating clauses as the ethical (1994, pp. 18–116). Later legal codes ground law and ethics in Israelite history. They develop a sacrificial system to atone for sin as they become more conscious of the propensity to sin. Thus, Otto detects growing pessimism about Israelites fulfilling God’s requirements and greater reliance upon God to atone for human failure, so that ethics becomes human response to God’s grace (pp. 175–263).

Though analysis of the law according to sources and dates seems natural to historical critics, it actually undercuts the narrative framing of the legal text. My method will attend to the framing narrative and the rhetorical presentation of the law. The actual dating of each legal corpus will be discussed during the exposition.

Locating Biblical Law.

Where do we find biblical law? Despite David Daube’s identification of legal teaching in narrative texts (1969, pp. 1–73), it is feasible to restrict our study to statements of law collected in series and codes. Commandments and various kinds of paradigmatic formulations require interpretive procedures all their own.

Biblical codes are embedded in narratives. It is possible that each code once stood alone and served some social function different from its function in the narrative setting. For example, many scholars believe that the law of Deuteronomy (chs. 12 to 26) was found in the Jerusalem temple during the reign of King Josiah and made the basis of a reform (see 2 Kgs 22:3—23:27). Now, however, the code is embedded in the account of Moses’s farewell address before his death. Historical context has been supplanted by narrative setting.

Within the world of Israelite belief, the law was revealed to Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17) and two legal codes (Exod 20:22–23:33, Lev 17:1—27:34) were delivered in first person by Yahweh. All the people heard the Decalogue; the codes were dictated to Moses and read to Israel.

Deuteronomy is different. In it, Moses speaks with the Lord’s authority, but in his own first-person voice, interpreting revealed law for application in the Promised Land. Moses sums up the divine law revealed at Horeb and prepares the people for the next half-millennium.

The revelation of law at Sinai is not the beginning of the narrative. Genesis 3 tells how humans lost their innocence once and for all, and chapter 4 recounts the first crime, murder. Because no law has yet been given, the Lord must devise jurisprudence on the spot. The first explicit law (Gen 9:5–6) is part of God’s covenant with Noah. God promises never again to destroy the earth in judgment and institutes practices that allow for discriminate judgments. Humans must execute manslayers (Gen 9:5–6); lex talionis is applied literally to murder because each and every human bears the image of God.

Other, lesser crimes are not explicitly covered in the covenant with Noah, but the remainder of Genesis assumes a law covering such things as marriage and property common among peoples.

Why then divine law? God’s law will set Israel apart as the people called into being in their history and forged into a people at Sinai, who must acknowledge the deity who accomplished these things and accept divine authority. They will be called to a distinctive set of values and rights.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17).

The Sinai narrative begins with the greatest icon of deontological ethics. In this short series, the Lord summarizes all he expects in eight prohibitions and two prescriptions. The authority of these precepts is that of their speaker, the Creator of the world and Redeemer of Israel, the highest authority within the biblical worldview.

Although the Decalogue is a monument of deontological ethics, it is not an arbitrary exercise of authority. Before spelling out divine expectations, the deity offers to make the people the Lord’s own special possession and kingdom if they will obey (Exod 19:5–6). The people respond, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exod 19:8). In Exodus 19:4 and 20:2, the deity making the offer is identified by what the Lord has done in Egypt and the wilderness, assuring hearers that what the Lord requires in the commandments is for their benefit. The commandments contain ethical justifications, for example, the Lord is a jealous god (Exod 20:5), that is, one who demands exclusive loyalty. While undoubtedly the sabbath is to be honored for its intrinsic holiness, it also establishes the equality of all Israelites once a week.

Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments do embody the idea of deontological ethics. The first two commandments (Exod 20:3–6) protect the authority of the lawgiver. The commandments that follow protect the covenant relationship.

Traditionally the Decalogue has been divided into two tables, the first concerning God and the sacred (Exod 20:3–11), the second with human interaction (20:12–17). Many interpreters would limit ethics to the second table, where each Israelite has the duty to respect life (20:13), property (20:15), marriage and family (20:12, 14), and the judicial process (20:16). The last commandment (20:17) concerns the will of each person as well as overt actions.

The first table deals with issues of loyalty, obedience, and proper honor to Yahweh. Does religion belong to ethics? While ancient Greeks certainly regarded honoring the gods to be ethically required, the unique requirement of exclusive loyalty to one deity is essential to biblical ethics.

There is no account besides the Sinai narrative with which to locate the original public use of this digest of divine law. Such summaries begin to appear in the classical prophets (e.g., Hos 4:1–2; JER 7:9).

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22—23:19).

Moses immediately ascends the mountain to receive a much more extensive and diversely formulated set of laws. Returning, he recites the laws to the people, and once they repeat their oath to obey, writes a document called the Book of the Covenant (24:7). The ratification ceremony continues with sacrifices, a unique blood ritual, and a third oath of obedience.

The first set of laws in the Book of the Covenant recalls the Ten Commandments in style and content. The Lord prefaces proclamation of law with a demonstration formula, “You have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven” (Exod 20:22, echoing 19:4). A version of the first (and second) commandment, “You shall not make for yourselves gods of silver to be with me…” (20:23) follows, covering both apostasy and idolatry. The very next verse juxtaposes altars to be built wherever the Lord reveals himself (20:24), suggesting that the prohibition of images “with me” means “at my altars.”

Both substance and style change abruptly in 21. The section begins with a commission of Moses to set forth “judgments.” Most formulations describe a judiciable event in the protasis and the action of a judicial body in the apodosis. Some are not for court action, but specify the rights and duties of various parties in a legal relationship. Exodus 21:2–11 governs male and female slavery. Exodus 21:12–17 has a distinctive formulation for a series of capital crimes. The rest of Exodus 21 and the first 17 verses of chapter 22 are judgments on crimes against persons (21:18–32) and property (21:33—22:15), concluding with an isolated case on marriage (22:16–17).

How can ethical teaching be found in the judgments? Remedial judgment abstracts from an event just enough of its features to make a decision. In each ruling, what is just is articulated: for example, Exodus 22:6: “When fire breaks out…so that…the field is consumed, he that kindled the fire shall make full restitution.” Restitution is owed regardless of intent. The ethical element is that one should not have to suffer loss caused by another.

While the one who causes a loss pays no penalty beyond replacement, when someone deliberately confiscates another’s property, a moral wrong has occurred and requires punishment. Paying double is typical (e.g., 22:7, 9).

Crimes against persons are quite different. While crimes against property are resolved by payment, crimes against persons never put a monetary value on a person. When one person kills another, malice aforethought distinguishes homicide, punished by death, from accidental killing (21:12–14). Judicial deliberation must determine whether the killing was deliberate. In 21:18–19, there is a case of injury in a fight; the uninjured party must pay expenses.

While slave owners have the right to force a slave to work, the slave has a right to life; hence, killing a slave entails punishment of the owner (21:20). The slave owner who does not respect slaves’ right to bodily integrity, causing the loss of eye or tooth in a beating, loses ownership (21:26–27).

The judgment on the goring ox (21:28–32) has spawned a good deal of discussion because of the severity of the penalty. The principle is: human life cannot be given a monetary value; the only value the ox-owner has equal to the value of the dead person is his own life (21:29). The alternative of a ransom (v. 30) requires the owner to decide how much his own life is worth.

It is noteworthy that the case of an ox goring another ox is located later in the code (21:35–36). The dead ox is property, and property belongs to a different order than persons.

The personally addressed portions of the code are ethical. Exodus 22:21–27 contains general prohibitions against harming the vulnerable (vv. 21–24) and a few examples (21:25–27). Divine sanctions are threatened as a gracious answer to the cries of victims. The lawgiver seeks to motivate the audience with the recollection of the Exodus (22:21), a motivation also attached to protecting sojourners (23:9).

Biblical law requires assistance to the neighbor in need (23:4–5). The lawgiver expands the recipients to whom duties of assistance are owed to include “enemies.”

While religious rituals fall outside the ethical, biblical law draws out ethical motives for performing them. In Exodus 23:10–19, rules for observance are supplemented with explanations and motive clauses that mention social goods.

From beginning to end, the Book of the Covenant applies religious and ethical precepts and values to matters of the common life. Very few offices and institutions are referred to in it—judges, chieftains, but not priests, kings, or prophets. This picture fits the period of Judges and can be associated with the growth of a law book recounted in Joshua 24:25–27.

The presence of many parallels to the Code of Hammurabi has attracted some scholars to date the book during the Divided Monarchy, when Assyria dominated Israel and Judah (ca. 800–640 B.C.E.).

The reader would expect a departure from the holy mountain after the covenant has been ratified and the law accepted, but the expected progression is interrupted. Moses ascends the mountain to receive further revelation, and during his absence the people rebel, making and worshipping a golden calf. This narrative interprets the most important provisions of the law. We discover just how seriously Yahweh takes apostasy and idolatry: the Lord threatens to destroy the people until Moses persuades Yahweh to forbear; the upshot of the incident is that forgiveness, both for individuals and the people, mitigates the enforcement of the law. This allows Yahweh to accompany the people on their journey; at the end of Exodus, Yahweh enters the inner sanctum of the tabernacle.

Law for the Holy People (Leviticus).

Leviticus concerns life in proximity to the tabernacle, where the Lord dwells among the people. The first 16 chapters set forth sacrifices, sanctuary personnel, and camp “cleanness.” At least some of this “ritual law” has ethical import. Two sacrifices are required for moral and ritual violations of divine law, “sin” offering (Lev 4:1—5:13) and “guilt” offering (Lev 5:14—6:7). Sin offerings are to make amends for the utterance of rash oaths and failure to offer potentially relevant testimony; one can only perform the sacrifice and be forgiven if one publicly confesses the wrong. Guilt offering entails restoring goods taken in dishonest dealings or theft and making an offering to wipe away guilt. The genius of the system is that the moral and ritual life of Israelites is united. Lesser wrongs are resolved without recourse to the criminal justice system.

Leviticus 17–27, named the Holiness Code for the motive clause, “you shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2 and often), contain some chapters for priests alone, but most address the whole people. Why isn’t the Book of the Covenant enough? Answer: communities change over time. All of Leviticus reflects a sanctuary-centered community under the governance of a high priest and members of his family. It reflects the social order of postexilic Judah. We have explicit reference to a book of Mosaic law brought back from Babylon by Ezra and introduced to the temple community in ceremony (Neh 7:73—8:18, cf. Ezra 7:6, 25). The people celebrate the festival of Sukkoth (Booths) according to the specifications of Leviticus 23:39–43. The date of this publication of the law book would fall between 404 and 358 B.C.E.

Leviticus 18 and 20 can be paired: chapter 18 has addressed prohibitions against incest, supplemented by a few other forbidden unions, and chapter 20 specifies the death penalty for some of these and lesser consequences for others. Practically the only reason given for these prohibitions and sentences is that they are “abominations” to Yahweh, reasoning that fits a deontological understanding of ethics. Concluding hortatory addresses say that the Canaanites who are being expelled to make room for Israel had incurred God’s wrath for doing these abominations, implying Canaanites knew “naturally” what Israel knew by commandment.

Leviticus 19, the richest chapter in the Holiness Code for ethical teaching, is specifically directed to all Israelites. The chapter begins with a general command to be “holy” in imitation of the Lord (v.2), echoing the language of election. Pairs of commandments are punctuated by declarations, “I am the LORD (your God)” (vv. 3, 4, 36, 37), exemplifying a deontological model of ethical authority.

Deontological ethics does not mandate mindless obedience; in this chapter, the commandments are often woven together to illuminate a concept. Leviticus 19:11–12 begins with stealing, followed by dealing falsely and lying; the reader is made to realize that covert actions to take advantage of others constitute a form of stealing. Oaths may hide the intent to defraud or mislead.

One of the most famous pairings brings together hating fellow Israelites, seeking revenge and bearing grudges, ending with the exhortation: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18). Loving is the antidote to a hostile attitude toward members of one’s own people, exemplified in vengefulness and bearing grudges. Sojourners are included in the circle in verse 34.

Another chapter has interested those concerned with economic and social issues, namely the institution of the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8–55. The principle is: God intends each Israelite family to maintain land inherited from distribution at conquest. The festival is designed to reverse economic failure, restoring everyone’s original position every fifty years.

Biblical ethics matches collective consequences to behaviors of individuals and institutions. The Holiness Code ends with blessings for obedience (Lev 26:3–13) and prediction of a downward spiral of disobedience and degradation (26:14–45).

Numbers 35:9–34 supplements the Holiness Code, which treats homicide in only two verses (Lev 24:17, 21), instructing Israelites on cities of refuge, where killers avoid revenge, subordinating vengeance to a judicial process allowing accidental killers to take refuge until the death of the high priest.

Moses’s Interpretation of the Law (Deuteronomy 12—26).

Deuteronomy is one great farewell speech in which Moses rehearses much of the Pentateuchal narrative, particularly the events between Horeb/Sinai and the present. Reflecting not only on what has happened but on what is about to happen—conquest of the Promised Land and exile from the land they are to conquer—Deuteronomy is the “hinge” connecting Pentateuch to Former Prophets.

While much is hortatory, there is a “corpus” of law in chapters 12–26. Its literary style differs from the codes in Exodus and Leviticus. First, Moses speaks in first person, whereas all other legal documents have Yahweh speaking in first person. Second, the laws are pervasively hortatory in character; motive clauses surround and penetrate legal formulations. Finally, the content is distinctive despite the claim to be passing on revealed law.

Deuteronomy 5 provides the rationale for Moses to speak in the first person. After the Ten Commandments addressed the people directly, the people asked Moses to mediate. The mediator’s interpretation is an extension of revelation: what Moses commands “today” bears the Lord’s authority. Yet it differs: law is now formulated as address of one human to another. This makes all the motive clauses and other paraenesis natural. Moses is human like the rest of us, having to discover the truth of the law and to master the recalcitrance of his will.

The text does not acknowledge any change in the laws received at Sinai. However, it omits many judgments of the Book of the Covenant (Exod 21:18—22:15) and adds judgments on sexual matters (Deut 22:13–30). Many more laws cover offices and institutions. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:18—19:21 and 23:2–8 contains the rudiments of a constitution.

Most significant of all, Deuteronomy 12 reinterprets the law specifying multiple altars devoted to Yahweh alone (Exod 20:23–24), requiring instead one and only one altar; the very words of the Exodus passage are “remolded” in Deuteronomy. Many provisions in Deuteronomy 14–16 are reformulated for the single sanctuary.

What of these changes has ethical import? Centralization of the sanctuary seems motivated by the prohibition of acknowledging other gods (Deuteronomy 13) or appropriating Canaanite religious practices (Deut 12:29–31). Intolerance of deviant religious convictions is essential in a polity ascribing ultimate authority to one and only one God. Steadfast love, or loyalty, is also fundamental among humans. Thus, any form of adultery is worthy of death (see Deut 22:13–30).

Offices and institutions all serve the Lord and receive limited authority to do their tasks. Very little authority is assigned the king (17:14–20). Priests have authority over sanctuaries while prophets carry on the role of Moses.

The judges in each town are the authorities most within the lawgiver’s purview (Deut 16:18–20). It is their task to maintain justice in the people. Scholars debate whether judges are a professional class or distinguished laymen; the latter would be more consistent with the rhetoric of the corpus. Cities of refuge (Deut 19) are under their jurisdiction, and they perform the rite to absolve Israel of guilt for unsolved murder (Deut 21:1–9). Whenever a serious crime is committed, the judges must execute the guilty and protect the innocent (Deut 17:2–7, 19:4–6, 11–13, 21:21, 22–23, etc.). There is a collective dimension to crime: execution of the offender will “purge the evil from the midst of you” (Deut 24:7 and often).

The private individual also has responsibility for the fate of the nation. The code has numerous welfare laws that persons with wealth and power are responsible for. For example, Israelite law sought to govern the institution of slavery (see Exod 21:2–11, 20–21, 26–27, 32; Lev 25:39–55). Deuteronomy 15:12–18 treats both men and women as indentured; each is to be given a gift to ensure survival upon release. One of the most startling alterations of the law is the provision that runaway slaves shall not be returned to masters, but allowed to live where they choose (23:15–16). In effect, slavery has become a system of indenture.

Welfare laws are seldom supported by warnings for disobedience in Deuteronomy; rather, there are conditional promises of prosperity and longevity.

We have good reason to believe that some portion of the Deuteronomic laws is the book of Mosaic law found in the temple in the eighteenth year of King Josiah (621 B.C.E.) and made the basis of a religious and legal reform (2 Kgs 22:3—23:25). Central to his reform was the elimination of all altars and sanctuaries but the temple in Jerusalem; that corresponds to Deuteronomy 12. The final form of the book was not completed until after 586 B.C.E., the exile of Judah to Babylon.

A Hermeneutic for Biblical Law.

Analysis of the ethics of biblical law is complete, since all the laws of the Old Testament are found in the Pentateuch, given by the Lord and mediated by Moses. Tracing references to and applications of biblical law in the history books, prophetic books, Psalms, wisdom literature, and Apocrypha would overburden this entry. Moreover, it would no longer expound the ethics of legal formulations.

The author of Deuteronomy was quite aware of the need for the legal traditions to be kept contemporary with the religious community. “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us alive this day” (Deut 5:2–3). In the covenant ceremony at the end of the book, subsequent generations are included: “Nor is it with you only that I make this sworn covenant, but with (those) who (are) not here with us this day…” (Deut 29:14–15).

This contemporizing of the covenant included the law. Deuteronomy revised the wording and sometimes the substance of the laws of the Book of the Covenant. The most radical example of this revision is the command to build an altar wherever the Lord has revealed himself (Exod 20:23), which Deuteronomy changes to “the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there” (Deut 12:11). God’s law is called upon to address new exigencies and conform to new ethical attitudes.

Yet, at the end of the very chapter in which the Deuteronomic Moses alters the altar law, he warns readers not to change anything: “Everything that I command you you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it” (12:32). By definition God’s law participates in the eternity of the lawgiver. Moses has been given authority to formulate it in the first person, but what he says has the Lord’s approval and hence the Lord’s timelessness.

How are these compatible? The cynic may say that the unchangeableness of the law is a fiction to mask the constant changes of the so-called divine law. However, the authors of the Pentateuch preserved the older legal corpora so the reader can compare and assess the continuity; if they wanted to strengthen the impression of only one timeless law, the evidence would have been suppressed. The reader can see exactly how the later documents added to and took away from what was received. It becomes the responsibility of the faithful interpreter to recognize the continuity underlying the changes.

This is of fundamental hermeneutical significance. Just as the faithful interpreter must accept the unchangeableness of God’s law, he or she will seek the contemporary application of the law’s provisions in the same spirit. Levinas has articulated the stance of the faith interpreter as one of “obedient reason” (1994, pp. 145–150). The essential factor is the a priori acceptance of the claim of the commandment of God and the employment of reasoning to apply it responsibly to life situations. This will include the internalization of the long interpretive tradition as well as an appreciation of contemporary moral perception.

We can find a good analogy in the practice of a judge in the Common Law tradition. As Dworkin has persuasively argued, a judge must accept the legitimacy and relevance of all the decisions made by judges over the 1,000 years of Common Law tradition (1986, pp. 225–312). Out of this array of divers and conflicting rulings the judge must construct the one best ruling regarding the case at hand. Cynics say that the judge is creating law, but the legal community only accords him or her the authority to find the rights and duties belonging to various parties to a particular situation. The interpreter of biblical law is called upon to discover the best contemporary interpretation of the commandments and judgments of the Pentateuch.




  • Barton, John. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations. Louisville, Ky., and London: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Birch, Bruce C. Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1991.
  • Crüsemann, Frank. The Torah: Theology and Social History of the Old Testament. Translated by Allan W. Mahnke. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  • Daube, David. Studies in Biblical Law. New York: KTAV, 1969.
  • Dworkin, Ronald. Law’s Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1986.
  • Finkelstein, Jacob J. The Ox That Gored. Transactions of The American Philosophical Society, Vol. 71, pt. 2. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981.
  • Janzen, Waldemar. Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
  • Knight, Douglas A. and Carol Meyers, eds. Ethics and Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Semeia 66. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary D. Mole. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Levinson, Bernard M. “The Right Chorale”: Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentance. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 18. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1976.
  • Otto, Eckart. Theologische Ethik des Alten Testament. Kohlhammer Theologische Wissenschaft. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994.
  • Patrick, Dale. “Law in the O.T.” In The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3, pp. 602–614. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2008.
  • Patrick, Dale. Old Testament Law: An Introduction. Reprint. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2012. First published 1984.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Dale Patrick

New Testament

“Law” (nomos) normally refers to instruction believed to have been given by God to Moses on Sinai and preserved in the Pentateuch, but is sometimes used more broadly (John 10:34; cf. Ps 82:6). This article focuses on the former meaning. Until the mid-twentieth century stereotypical views of Jewish Law, often linked to conflict between Protestants and Catholics, characterized much research, at worst depicting Judaism as a religion about earning merit by meticulous Law observance, into which Jesus and his movement brought forgiving grace. Since the 1970s, greater exposure to Jewish literature through pseudepigraphic writings and the Dead Sea Scrolls has been dispelling such notions and drawn greater attention to the Jewishness of Jesus and his movement and to revised understandings of their attitudes toward the Law (Sanders, 1977, 1985).

Key aspects in the revised understanding are recognition (1) that Judaism of the period was diverse; (2) that there was a range of interpretation among those who saw themselves as Law-observant, some enhancing its strictness by setting aside its more lenient provisions, some doing the opposite; (3) that Temple or ritual and ethical law were seen not as separate entities but aspects of Law as a whole, so that challenging one part challenged the whole; and (4) that within the Law concepts of purity, uncleanness, pollution, and sin need to be carefully distinguished. Much engagement by New Testament writers with the Law reflects conflict within the Christian movement over the extent to which the Law (as scripture) remained authoritative, especially in relation to Gentiles and to Christian Jews responding to them—including whether and to what extent new situations called for some aspects of the Law to be overridden (temporarily or even permanently) or set aside, or even whether faith in Jesus supplanted the Law except as testimony to its own intended replacement. Diverse views exist both among New Testament writers and among scholars in their assessment of them.


The earliest gospel, Mark, reflects a differentiating stance on the part of Jesus toward the Law. Jesus instructs the leper to follow the Law’s provisions (1:40–45) and engages in conflict over the legitimacy of declaring God’s forgiveness to a paralyzed man (2:1–12), mixing in dubious moral company (2:13–17), healing and other activity on the sabbath (2:23–28; 3:1–6), and asserting his authority as Son of Man in contrast to the scribes (1:22) to determine appropriate action (2:10, 28). None of his interpretations need be seen as setting Law aside rather than applying it in a way that prioritized human need. The situation is different in 7:1–23, where in response to controversy over his disciples’ eating food without first ritually washing their hands, not a provision of the written law, but considered by the critics as an additional requirement that it implied, Jesus declares that nothing entering a person can render them unclean but only moral attitudes that come from within (7:14–15, 21–23). Mark concludes parenthetically that Jesus thereby declared all foods clean (7:19C). This goes far beyond the issue of washing hands, as both this summary comment and its context shows, where Mark has Jesus explain that food cannot make a person unclean because it simply enters the stomach and then exits into the toilet (7:17–20). The effect is not simply to declare clean foods still clean (Crossley, 2010), but to declare all foods clean and to reject the basis for seeing them otherwise, effectively dismissing much biblical law, not only the additional requirements of some. Mark employs this dismissal within the context of a symbolic use of narrative to celebrate the gospel reaching out to both Jews, in feeding the 5,000 (6:30–44), and Gentiles, in feeding the 4,000 (8:1–10), and has Jesus reinforce the symbolism by drawing attention to the number of baskets of leftovers after each, 12 and 7 (8:14–21). Thus Mark’s Jesus sets aside food laws, deemed to be a barrier between Jews and Gentiles, not just as no longer in force, but as never having made sense. Yet Mark has Jesus also enhance the Law’s strictness by forbidding divorce, arguing that the order of creation should override what he describes as a concession to weakness (10:2–12). Similarly, in response to the rich man’s question about inheriting eternal life, Jesus’s answer points him to the Ten Commandments and then insists that he must follow Jesus’s reading of them, which included giving to the poor (10:17–31). Mark also shows Jesus affirming the two greatest commandments, love for God and neighbor (12:28–34).


Matthew revises Mark, incorporating the Q material shared with Luke, as well as independent sources. He expands the account of John the Baptist’s preaching with Q material that predicts one coming to judge by fire (3:7–12) and so defines Jesus’s role with strong emphases on Law. He who will come to judge with fire has first come to declare the basis of that judgment, namely the keeping of the Law. The Baptist and Jesus share this same focus, even to the extent of using identical sayings (3:10B; 7:19; 3:2; 4:17). Moses typology, already present in the infancy narrative, is background for the Sermon on the Mount (5:1), derived from combining the mountain motif from Mark 3:13 with an expanded Q collection of sayings, attested also in Luke 6:20–49. Accordingly Matthew’s Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (5:17). “Fulfill” could mean fulfillits intent or prediction (appropriate to prophecy) and so replace with something greater. But the saying from Q (cf. Luke 16:17), which Matthew brings in 5:18, asserts the Law’s permanence: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” The first clause could mean permanence only until the end and the last clause permanence until what the Law predicted is fulfilled, such as at Jesus’s death and resurrection or even during his ministry, but this would turn 5:17 to its opposite: he has abolished and replaced the Law. The next verse reinforces the more natural reading, affirming the Law’s permanent validity, when it warns against those who dismiss even the least commandment (5:19), which would be applicable to what Mark does in 7:1–23 and certainly to what Paul does. Matthew has Jesus then demand a higher level of righteousness (obedience to the Law) than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20).

Six contrasts, partly drawn from Q, follow, which illustrate this greater righteousness, expounding what Matthew would have seen as key aspects of the Law, notably related to ethical concerns. Not just murder but hateful anger (5:21–26); not just adultery but adulterous attitudes (5:27–30); not divorce as Deuteronomy 24:1 was heard to allow, but no divorce except for adultery, which all acknowledged as mandating it (5:31–32); abandoning use of oaths altogether in the interests of true speech (5:33–37); no retaliation (5:38–42); and love for enemies (5:43–48). Some read these contrasts as indicating that Matthew’s Jesus (and the historical Jesus) was thereby replacing the Law, pointing especially to the prohibition of divorce and oaths (Meier, 2009). Most now recognize that such enhancement of the Law’s strictness fitted well within the broad framework of Judaism, evident, for instance, in legal extrapolations in the Temple Scroll, and so coheres with 5:17–20. Matthew’s focus on the higher ethical values of love in 5:21–48 match his statement of the so-called golden rule of doing to others what you would want then to do to you, of which he declares: “for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7:12) forming an inclusio within 5:17.

Matthew’s stance on Law is positive and central to his view of Jesus as judge and authoritative interpreter of the Law. He thus affirms Mark’s positive statements about the Law: on the two greatest commandments (22:34–40) and the prohibition of divorce (with the exception that was probably always implicitly present) (19:3–12); and enhances the encounter with the rich man by making him young, so needing to mature in his approach to the Law to recognize the priority of social justice (19:16–30). He enhances Mark’s controversy stories about forgiveness for the paralytic (9:2–8), bad company (9:9–13), and sabbath activity and behavior (12:1–14), by supplementing the halakhic argument, twice pointing to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7).

Matthew revised Mark 7:1–23, omitting Mark’s radical conclusion about the setting aside even of biblical Law, against which he had already warned in 5:19, and reducing the dispute to one only about ritual hand washing (15:1–20). He will have understood his revised version of Jesus’s saying (which focuses only on what enters and exits the mouth) like Hosea 6:6, as a relative and not an absolute contrast, along the lines: not so much what enters the mouth makes a person unclean as what exits it (15:10–11). He dismantled Mark’s symbolic use of the narrative to celebrate inclusion of Jews and Gentiles. Now both feedings are of Jews. The insistence in 5:18 on complete observance comes to expression in the Q saying about tithing, where having confronted the Pharisees about their meticulousness but neglect of justice and mercy and faith, Jesus insists: “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (23:23; cf. Luke11:42). That insistence could imply that Matthew required circumcision of Gentiles, but that might not be realistic so late in the century. While Matthew’s approach to the Law can be seen as defensible within the Judaism of his day, his identification of Jesus with divine Wisdom/Law personified (11:28–30; cf. Sir 51:23–26; Matt 23:34–35; cf. Luke 11:49–51) would have made such belonging difficult to sustain.


Luke similarly follows the lead of Q rather than Mark in affirming the Law’s validity, bringing the saying about its permanence (16:17) immediately after identifying the rejection of Jesus with the rejection of the Law and the Prophets (which remain in effect, a fact obscured in some translations) (16:16) and before the saying prohibiting divorce (16:18). He, too, affirms the saying about tithes (11:42) and brings Mark’s accounts of controversy showing Jesus’s legitimate interpretation of the Law as prioritizing human need (5:17—6:11). He reworked the encounter with the rich man (18:18–34) and the question of the greatest commandments (10:25–29), connecting the latter with the question of the former about how to inherit eternal life (10:25; 18:18; Mark 10:17). Thus both stories reinforce the notion that the answer lies in keeping the Law as expounded by Jesus, most famously illustrated in the latter by the parable of the good Samaritan (10:30–37). Like Matthew, uncomfortable with Mark’s symbolic narrative and dismissal of biblical law, Luke omits most of the narrative. In Acts he brings a related tradition, which has God declare in a vision that all animals can be eaten and none is unclean (10:9–16), but then applies it not to food laws but to Gentiles and eating with Gentiles as not defiling (10:28). The divine intervention then warrants an exception to total Law adherence; entering Gentile houses is now allowed (cf. Luke 7:1–11). The resultant blessing of Gentiles with the Spirit then justifies dropping the demand for their circumcision (15:1–21). These are the exceptions that prove the rule that the Law must still be observed by Jews, from the infancy narrative where it is especially emphasized (2:22–24, 27) to Paul, depicted as Law-observant to the end (21:20–26), and by Gentiles as it applied to them, which Luke sees summarized in the so-called Apostolic decree (15:20).


John’s gospel embodies a Christology that has appropriated images used of divine Wisdom/Law, such as bread, light, life, water, and Word, so that Jesus claims them for himself. One could read the words, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17), as implying that Jesus is and always was the Word, who came in the Law and now has come embodied in flesh. More likely the two are not to be identified, but rather what was claimed of the Law is true only of Christ. Thus John’s Jesus declares to his critics: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (5:39) and “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). As Jesus replaces the Temple (2:18–22; 4:21–24), an integral aspect of the Law, so Jesus replaces the Law. John’s stance, unlike Mark’s, is not critical of aspects of the Law. He mentions stone jars for purification without disparagement (2:6). God gave the Law to Moses (1:17), but, now that the one has come toward whom it pointed as its replacement, to continue to keep the Law is to reject God’s new initiative. Even when John has Jesus engage in halakhic defense of his healing on the sabbath (7:19–24; 10:31–38), the overriding argument is not correct interpretation, but who Jesus is. As Son of the Father, he is above the Law (5:17–19). The Law’s ethical values continue to inform Johannine ethics in a broad sense, but fundamentally their new basis, “the new commandment,” is the relationship of love between Father and Son and Son and the believers (13:34–35). Accordingly, 1 John, rich in ethical exhortation, barely refers to the Law at all (cf. 3:12), unlike the gospel where the scripture has a significant continuing role, but reduced to being testimony for Jesus and a source of imagery to press his claims.


The evidence of Q and of much of Mark suggests that the historical Jesus engaged in dispute over interpretation of the Law, often in defense of his own stance based on human need rather than protection of the sacred, but was Law-observant. One detects a traditionally conservative stance in the response to the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30) and the leper (Mark 1:40–45); the healing Gentiles only at a distance (Mark 7:24–30; Matt 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–11); the reaction against divorce practice (Mark 10:2–12; Matt 5:32; Luke 16:18); and solidarity with the Baptist’s critique of Antipas (Mark 6:18). Thus the issue of Law observance is absent at his trial except for blasphemy, which reflects later Christological disputes. When the church had to grapple with issues thrown up by the Gentile mission, it had apparently no instruction from Jesus beside the tradition of a human-need focused hermeneutic. This helped some, like Paul and Mark, to go beyond the relative contrasts that prioritized some commands over others, such as we see in Q and Matthew’s rereading of Mark 7:15.


Both Luke in Acts and Paul enable us to see that moving beyond priorities to actually setting aside parts of the Law, such as circumcision, caused major controversy, with some continuing to require it, like the missionaries who entered Galatia, and others, embracing the exception, but then falling into further conflict about just how much more must be set aside to accommodate Gentiles. Paul gives a first-hand account of the dispute he faced at Antioch over table fellowship with Gentiles, which saw the withdrawal of Peter and even his colleague Barnabas at the instigation of people from James (Gal 2:11–14). While some read Paul’s solution as entailing the setting aside primarily of those boundary markers that caused offense (Dunn, 2008), his explanations, especially in Galatians and Romans, indicate that he meant more than that when he declared that believers, both Jews and Gentiles, were no longer under the Law (Gal 2:19; 5:16; Rom 7:1–4), except Christ’s—Law observance reduced to missional strategy (1 Cor 9:19–23; Gal 6:2). This makes sense of the various rationales that he provides. They include that Abraham was credited with a right relationship with God without Law observance and long before the Law was given (Gal 3:15–18; Rom 4:1–12), that (as in Acts) Gentiles received the blessing of the Spirit not as a result of Law observance, but simply because they believed the gospel (Gal 3:2–5), that, while the Law had a valid role to point to sin (Gal 3:21–25; Rom 4:15; 5:20), its effect was in fact deleterious of ethical development creating guilt and moral paralysis (Rom 7:7–24), and that the gift of the Spirit brought about fruit in believers that more than met the Law’s demands (Rom 8:1–4). Thus Paul claims to uphold the Law (Rom 3:31), though this is true only selectively. Paul cites ethical commandments in relation to the life of believers, not as a basis for exhortation, but as confirmation that the new life of the Spirit produces ethical behavior (Rom 13:9–10; similarly Gal 5:13–15). Thus his Law-free gospel does not, as his critics insist, promote lawlessness (Rom 3:8; 6:1–23). Paul opposes discrimination against Gentiles, depicted as boasting, which he saw observance promoting (Rom 3:27). He also attacked boasting of one’s status before God (Rom 3:19–20; cf. also Eph 2:8–9) (Westerholm, 2004), an aspect of his thought that so inspired later thought that it marginalized what was Paul’s primary concern.

The later Paulinist writing, Ephesians, preserves that concern in depicting the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile (2:14–15). Colossians confronts Law adherence authorized by angels with Christ’s lordship (2:20–23). Pauline language about faith and works serves the exhortation to Law observance in James, with strongly ethical content, against confession without praxis (2:8–26). Like John, but with Platonist concepts, Hebrews portrays the Law, especially its ritual, as an earthly copy of the heavenly realities, now accessible in Christ, whose new covenant thus supersedes the old, which by its nature could not achieve salvation.




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William Loader