Abolishing the Laws and the Prophets: A Discussion of the Moral Dilemma of reading Matthew 5

I always was curious about the way people argue clear cut concepts away.  The example that came to mind recently involves the law of the Old Testament–I was reading through James McGrath’s recent blog post and saw the reference to Deuteronomy there, where the law commands that 10% of everything be given to the poor every third year.  But many Christians might say, “Well that is the Old Testament and we don’t need to follow that.”  This argument however fails to take into account Jesus’ own words (as portrayed by the evangelists).

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5.17-18)

Some might say, well that passage (or some variant from another Gospel, e.g. ) was fulfilled with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that doesn’t quite add up.  I recognize that this might be the standard apologetic argument.  But consider a few things first:

(1) The Gospel authors are not writing as witnesses (certainly not as independent witnesses) to a historical Jesus.  They were writing some decades later, having gone through a war with the Romans, seeing the Temple looted and destroyed, watching their people die.  The evangelists were probably not writing through a mindset that the Old Law had been fulfilled.  As apocalypticists, the writers of the Gospels saw the end as coming–in the future–which is why they predict Jesus will return.

(2) If Jesus existed, these are probably not Jesus’ real words.  As authors removed by some distance (both time and location) from the 30’s CE, they are portraying events which they understood through a tradition contemporary to their own time (at least that is the hope, since this is the best case scenario).  So why would the evangelists portray Jesus as saying this?  It seems out of place; if Jesus fulfilled these things at his resurrection, why does he not mention it then?  Why in the middle of the narrative after a conversation about the law? And why does the abolishing happen at the world’s end?  Again, a very apocalyptic statement–the world ends (along with the destruction of the old covenant) and a new one (with the new law established by the return of Jesus) takes it place.  But until that happens, the old laws remain in place.

(3) It is worth mentioning also that Jesus did not fulfill the law.  He did not complete the role of messiah.  There were things he needed to accomplish that he had not yet done–one of which, perhaps the most important, was to bring about the end of the world with his subsequent return.  Clearly the end had not happened yet, though it seemed like it was due to both the Gospel writers who, when they wrote this line, also wrote that he would return within the lifetimes of those who were reading their good news, and to Paul who believed Jesus would come quickly.  So the function of this passage in Matthew, and subsequent passages like it, is to reenforce the political and theological position that despite all the tragedy, nothing would change–not yet–until Jesus returned.

(4) The concept behind the denouncement of the old laws really stems from Paul, not Jesus.

But for the modern man, removed by 2000 years, I can understand why there is an aversion to the old laws.  After all, we don’t really want people going about stoning disobedient children (proving once more that even in antiquity, people had trouble tolerating crying babies at the theater, at markets, other public venues) or killing someone for working on the Sabbath, right?  At least most of us don’t want that.  And so it has become, for fundamentalists most of all, a bit of a hard decision.  Do they manipulate Jesus’ words and his actions in order to ignore the command to obey the old laws or do they follow them and lose face with the public?

And this is the moral dilemma.  For many people, they believe Jesus will be coming back, so does that mean they should start looking to the Old Testament and the 613 mitzvot for answers?  But I don’t believe we can simply accept this verse in Matthew as something that can be dismissed or ignored.  It is there.  It means what it means.  But that is partly why I believe that we need to look at the Bible for what it is (that is to say, not a book about laws relevant for our current age) rather what we want it to be (a book of laws relevant for our current age).  In other words, we can continue to appreciate the Bible, but recognize that it stands at a place and time different than our own.  The Bible cannot help us sort through our modern day problems–at least not in the way many evangelicals or fundamentalists would like us to believe.  We may look to it, as well as other ancient texts, for some engagement of the morality–not all of it is bunk (though what is left has been said better by others throughout the history of writing, both prior to and after the canonization of the texts).  But we must look inside ourselves, at our problems now, with a clear eye towards the future.





4 Responses

  1. I think you’re interpreting that passage with some problematic assumptions, even while I agree with much of your conclusion. So, I don’t want to seem picky or bullish, but I don’t know how you’d respond to some of these concerns.

    Leaving aside the question of the sayings of the historical Jesus and how the Gospels witness to that, there are some issues:

    First, consider, on the contrary, the way in which the apostles treated the question as to whether the Gentiles were held to the Mosaic ordinances in Acts 15:23-29; instead of binding them to complete observance of the code, they were only held to moral precepts (possibly the Noahide code). That alone significantly undermines you Pauline thesis or the thesis that the early community should have been bound to all Mosaic observances.

    Second, I’m also not convinced that Paul was the originator of that doctrine. Surely, he was a major advocate, but we have implicit in his denunciation of St. Peter an acknowledgement that St. Peter held the same position (Gal. 2:11-14). One can also see hints of this position being held in the early Christian church because of the fact that Paul has support from various communities which are Gentile or at least mixed populations. The behavior of Philip and the eunuch points, again, to the same position. As many of these are from a Lukan source, we can argue that the sources will reinforce a Pauline position, but the bare fact of the matter is that Paul was an advocate for a theological *party* that pre-existed, not the originator of the position.

    Third, Jesus did not bring about the eschaton, when the whole of prophecy would be fulfilled, but the early Church recognized the Resurrection and Pentecost as the “immanence” of the reign of God that would be completed at the eventual eschaton. This fact led to the early Church clearly modifying the observance in some important respects, such as the observance of Sunday. This apostolic witness is attested to by Ignatius and other early writers as a kind of special apostolic inspiration. I don’t think Christ meant, of course, that His passion/resurrection was when all would be fulfilled, which seems to indicate the end of the world, but that the Resurrection was “the beginning of the end.” This was the mindset of the early Church.

    Fourth, Mosaic observance does not entail all of the civil precepts. Stoning children is a civil precept for Israel, and Jews of the second century, to my knowledge, did not feel themselves beholden to all of these laws. They were considered to have meaning for illustrating certain moral regulations that were binding, but “the Law” pertained mostly to ceremonial precepts (such as the dietary laws and holiness code).

    Fifth, even Paul did not advocate full abeyance of the Law, but that a new law had come in the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:3-6). The moral precepts, for example, were still fully binding. The observance of the new law thus fulfilled the old Law.

    Finally, I agree with your last point generally speaking. The way Christians should use those laws in the Old Testament is not slavish as if we had to structure society around the literal laws present there (nor did the Church Fathers follow that method). However, the Law is retained in Scripture as a continuous witness to God’s act of salvation which culminated in Christ. The Mosaic judicial laws, such as tithing or stoning for adultery, are not in themselves bad although made for a different place/circumstance. They often illustrate moral principles – tithing being an indication, for example, that support of the Church is a matter of moral obligation, or the stoning law indicating that adultery is a significant evil. If we believe God inspired or at least sanctioned some particular laws, they should be indicative of the moral law – and this is Christian reasoning in using them. Of course, those moral laws are present to each of us, but Scripture makes their nature clearer than we might discover on our own (Rom. 2:14).

  2. Michael,

    I’ll have to get to these later but from what I gathered skimming your response, I think you’ve completely missed my point. As I said in the beginning of the post, this all started with the conversation on James McGrath’s blog about taxation and the poor and how conservatives who are arguing for a greater respect for the Bible and its laws over secular laws have completely disregarded the most important Biblical laws governing the treatment of the poor (like the one saying we need to give 10% to the poor every third year).

    So this post should be read through that lens; as both an engagement of the verses in Matthew as if through the lens of a dialogue between myself and a fundamentalist. Obviously the issue is much more complex than what I’ve laid out here, but a literalist Christian will have to face the dilemma I have laid out above. Someone who is not a literalist will find the conclusion I have presented common sense.

  3. […] Verenna offers this insightful post on Matthew 5:17-18 – Did Jesus abolish the Law?  Thomas thinks that “it is worth mentioning also that […]

  4. Sorry for commenting on an older post, but I thought you might like an alternative answer to this dilemma.

    The fact is, the Hebrew writings did not pass away, they are still included in the Christian Bible canon are they not? These Hebrew writings are vital to a proper understanding of Christianity. The real question is, are Christian under obligation to follow the Mosaic Law code, which is incorporated into these Hebrew writings? The simple answer is no, because non-Jewish Christians did not agree to enter into the first covenant mediated by Moses with its specific laws and sacrifices. However, Christian are under the obligation to follow the spirit of the law code. That is why it is important for Christian to have the Hebrew writings and to understand why God included these certain laws and how they can be applied in a Christian setting. So yes, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

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