Freedom, the “Letter” and the “Spirit”: Interpreting scripture with the “Mind of Christ”
As has been the case throughout the church’s history, Christians today are called, both collectively and individually, to speak to a number of issues concerning faith and life inside and outside of the church. Faithful to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura, Protestant Christians have looked to the Holy Scriptures as the ultimate authority for addressing such issues. Those Scriptures seem to speak directly to many of these issues, such as certain questions concerning marriage, divorce, sexuality, homosexuality, and the role of women in the church; other contemporary issues, however, such as euthanasia, abortion, birth control and human cloning, for example, are not specifically discussed or contemplated in the Bible. Yet even in the case of those issues that are dealt with in Scripture, many churches and their members have adopted practices which seem to contradict clear Scriptural mandates; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for instance, allows for divorce and remarriage among both its members and its clergy, and ordains women into the pastoral ministry, in spite of the fact that in the Gospels Jesus is presented as declaring divorce and remarriage sinful (Mt. 5:31; 19:3-9; Mk. 10:2-9), and in several of the epistles attributed to Paul, it is said that women are to remain silent in the church, be subject to their husbands, and not teach or have authority over men (1 Cor. 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:11-12).
Obviously, in order to argue that one is being faithful to the norm of Holy Scripture in going against what appear to be clear biblical mandates on points such as these, it must be shown that there is some hermeneutical principle which justifies the interpretations given to the Scriptural passages that speak to the issues under discussion. Yet in order to maintain the principle of sola Scriptura, placing no human authority or opinion above the Scriptures, it must also be shown that the hermeneutical principle involved is itself derived from Scripture. This involves letting “Scripture interpret Scripture,” in accordance with another of the central tenets of the Protestant Reformation.
As Christians and the churches of which they form part debate issues such as these today, therefore, questions having to do with the principles underlying our biblical interpretation must of necessity be addressed. This is required, not only because many of the issues on which guidance is necessary are not specifically discussed or contemplated in Scripture, but also because it is questionable to what extent it is proper merely to apply directly to our contemporary situation passages from Scripture that appear to lend themselves to such direct application.
The law in Jewish thought
The difficulties inherent in interpreting the biblical mandates regarding ethical questions are apparent once we examine the Mosaic law or Torah. There we find commandments such as the one establishing a day of rest, the sabbath, for families, servants, sojourners and even animals (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Deut. 5:12-14). In order to fulfill this commandment, however, it is necessary to define precisely what constitutes work and what does not. For example, is making oneself a cup of hot tea on the sabbath to be regarded as work? What about making one for one’s spouse as well, or for other family members and relatives present, particularly if the extended family is quite numerous? And if it is acceptable to make tea, can one also cook or bake, particularly if that involves hours of labor in the kitchen? If making a cup of tea or cooking and baking is not allowed, is it all right to prepare the tea or food a day ahead of time and merely heat it up on the sabbath? What about the fire? Is it work to cut wood for a fire? To carry indoors wood that is already cut so as to make the fire? To light the wood? To fan the fire to keep it burning? Is it permissible to wash the cups and dishes when one is done, especially if they need to be reused the same day? And if one wants to visit family and relatives on the sabbath, or even go to the synagogue, how far is it permissible to walk? Can one walk 10 miles, which might take some 4 hours? Or only 5 miles, or 1 mile, or not even that? In all these cases, lines had to be drawn somewhere. What are the limits? And who is to determine them?
Examples such as these make it obvious that it is by no means easy to define how a commandment such as the one regarding the sabbath should be kept. The same difficulties arise in relation to almost all of the other commandments in the Mosaic law which all faithful Jews strove to obey: Who or what defines when one is honoring one’s parents or not (Ex. 20:12)? If landowners were not to reap their fields and vineyards completely bare so that something might be left for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22), precisely how much were they to leave unharvested? And how badly off did one have to be in order to be counted among the “poor” who were allowed to eat from the field or vineyard, or who had other rights and privileges according to the Mosaic legislation? The interpretation of some commandments might change over time: What was understood as men’s or women’s clothing, which the opposite sex was not to wear (Deut. 22:5), no doubt varied over the centuries; and as the Jews settled in different contexts all around the world and adopted local customs regarding dress, the interpretation of that commandment unquestionably became even more complex. One rabbinic prescription, for example, prohibited women from wearing white garments and men from wearing colored garments; obviously, this responded to a very specific historical context.
When the Torah is viewed in this light, it is clear why there were so many different interpretations of it by Jesus’ time, and why teachers of the law and scribes abounded; interpreting the law was a difficult task for which much expertise was required. Over time, certain interpretations of many of the commandments became fairly well-established, resulting in an oral tradition; many of these interpretations were eventually put in writing in the Mishnah and Talmud (completed in about 200 CE and 400 CE respectively), although in these writings different interpretations of certain commandments often appear side-by-side, so as to leave somewhat open questions regarding the precise manner in which many of them were to be observed.
One of the important points to observe about the Jewish understanding of the Torah is that it has generally been regarded as something permanent and unchangeable, and not as a legal code prescribed only for a specific historical context, and thus remaining open to revisions and alterations; in fact, the Mosaic law itself prohibits adding anything to or subtracting anything from it (Deut. 4:2; 12:32) and speaks of certain commandments as being for all generations for all time (Ex. 12:14; Lev. 16:34; 23:31 et al). A number of ancient Jewish writings went so far as to claim that the Torah is eternal, existing even before creation. It was also said that human beings and the world itself had been created so that the Torah might be observed: “The world and the fullness thereof were created only for the sake of the Torah.” In his study on the subject, Werner Förster summarizes the ancient Jewish teaching on the law thus:
The unanimous conviction of Judaism is that the Torah is from all eternity and for all eternity the valid will of God. . . Towards the end of the first century A.D. the rabbis were already calling the Torah “the instrument with which this world and the world to come were created”. . . The creation of the world is intended to provide a sphere in which God’s will (= Torah) will be done. . . Thus world-history is orientated in its decisive nodal points upon the Torah. Only because God foresaw in his mind’s eye that men [sic] would exist who would perform the Torah, and only because he conceived the goal of world-history as being the absolute fulfilment of his will, could he create the world.
Such an understanding of the law not only implies that it transcends all of history, making the commandments universally valid in all times and places rather than contextual; it also seems to give it priority over human beings, who were created for the law, rather than the law being created for them (although this latter idea was also maintained).
According to this view of the Torah, then, what mattered was observing the commandments literally. While no doubt they still needed to be interpreted so as to be applied in different contexts, which was no easy task, and questions regarding the intention or reasoning behind certain commandments were taken into account, it was not acceptable to ignore, abolish or do away with any part of the law, since it had been given by God in its entirety, and thus was to be obeyed.
Jesus’ interpretation of the law
According to the Synoptic Gospels, the manner in which Jesus interpreted the law was in important regards distinct from that of most of his Jewish contemporaries, and generated conflicts with the religious authorities among whom he found himself. While not all scholars are entirely agreed as to precisely what these differences consisted of and what all the reasons for the conflicts were, there does seem to be a general consensus concerning several points with regard to Jesus’ interpretation of the law that are important for us here.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Jesus’ teaching on the law is that Jesus stressed that there were certain principles underlying the commandments, and thus that true fulfillment of the commandments of necessity involved fulfilling those underlying principles. In examining Jesus’ interpretation of the law, scholars have pointed out that what was ultimately important for Jesus were principles such as compassion, justice, righteousness, the concern for human need and human wholeness, and of course, love for God and one’s neighbor. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that this does not involve reducing the entire law to the commandment to love God and others (Mt. 22:37-40), as if literal fulfillment of the commandments no longer mattered. The idea is “not that the commandment to love is the one that counts while others do not, but rather that love of God and love of neighbor is the expressed will of God that lies at the root of every commandment.” Nor does this involve abolishing or ignoring the law; as Marcus Borg (among others) has observed, Jesus “never set aside the written Torah. Consistently, his disputes with his opponents concerned the interpretation of the Torah, not the validity of the Torah itself.” Thus, in several passages, Jesus continues to insist on the need to fulfill the commandments literally (Mt. 5:17-20; 19:17; 23:23; Lk. 11:42). However, for Jesus this literal fulfillment is not enough: what is required is that one do what is beneficial to one’s neighbors, and avoid what harms others. While this certainly involves loving others, the concepts of justice and well-being are also central: what is called for is not some abstract sentiment of love, nor some vague notion of being kind or “nice” to people, but doing what contributes concretely to justice, wholeness and well-being for all, both on an individual as well as a collective level.
This interpretation of the law is evident in a number of places in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, after insisting that he has come to fulfill the law and prophets rather than abolish them, Jesus intensifies certain commandments, including those from the Decalogue prohibiting killing, adultery and swearing falsely, and reinterprets others to insist that one must do good to others, including one’s enemies, desire others well in one’s heart, avoid what might hurt them, not regard them merely as objects, and be concerned about what is just, right and merciful (Mt. 5:17-48). Later on, in Chapter 23 of the same Gospel, Jesus is presented as criticizing harshly the manner in which many of the Pharisees and scribes interpreted and observed the law, primarily because they used the law to bind heavy burdens on others, serve their own interests, and do what is dishonest and unjust (vv. 4-7, 25, 28). Above all, he tells them: “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23).
Similar criticisms appear in the other two Synoptics: in Mark, for example, Jesus accuses his opponents of using the law regarding what is given as an offering to God in order to justify not caring for their parents (Mk. 7:9-13), as well as of devouring the houses of widows, something which they no doubt believed they did without violating the law (Mk. 12:39-40). In Luke’s Gospel, the woes against the Pharisees found in Matthew are repeated on the basis that they practice extortion and wickedness, and “neglect justice and the love of God” (Lk. 11:39-42). The parable of the Good Samaritan in Lk. 10:25-37 is also a critique of the manner in which many of the religious authorities regarded the law: the priest and Levite who passed by the wounded man were more concerned about not contaminating themselves by coming into contact with a corpse than by offering help to someone in dire need. The main reason they did not want to examine the man to see if he was alive or not was that, if he were dead, as it appeared, they would be defiled because of their contact with a corpse, and thus would not be allowed to fulfill their service in the temple according to the law.
The basic issue at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and his opponents over the law is particularly evident in the two pericopes in Mk. 2:23-3:6, and the parallel passages in Mt. 12:1-14 and Lk. 6:1-11. In the first of these (Mk. 2:23-28 and parallels), the Pharisees become upset when Jesus’ disciples pluck grain to eat on the sabbath, obviously because according to their understanding of the law, the disciples were violating the sabbath commandment. Jesus responds by recalling the fact that David himself and his companions broke the commandment regarding eating of the bread of the Presence reserved for the priests when David was in need and hungry; in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also points to the fact that the priests serving in the temple break the sabbath. In Mark’s version, Jesus then adds that “the sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath.” This phrase appears to be a reaction to the viewpoint mentioned above, according to which human beings were made for the sake of the Torah, rather than the Torah being given for their sake.
In the next pericope (Mk. 3:1-6 and parallels), a man with a paralyzed hand enters the synagogue, and Jesus’ opponents are concerned to see whether he will heal on the sabbath, which apparently for them would involve a violation of the sabbath law. At the very least, since it was not a medical emergency, Jesus could have waited until the next day to heal the man out of respect for the sabbath, as the ruler of the synagogue in a similar passage in Lk. 13:10-17 tells Jesus after he heals a woman on the sabbath. According to the passage in Mark, after calling the man to himself, Jesus asks his opponents whether it is lawful on the sabbath “to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?,” and then proceeds to heal him. Here the fundamental difference between Jesus and his opponents appears most clearly: they believe that they are defending observance of the sabbath commandment, while Jesus is violating that commandment. According to Jesus, however, they are the ones violating the commandment by opposing his healing activity, while he is the one keeping it, evidently because what the law really demands is to “do good” and “save life.” We might say that, while they defend the “letter” of the law in this case without apparent regard for its purpose or the principle behind the sabbath commandment, Jesus looks to the “spirit” of the law, insisting once more that the principle of saving life and doing good is what must be fulfilled in order to observe the sabbath law properly. Thus the idea is not that Jesus is making an exception to what the law prescribes, but rather that he is fulfilling the law, since what it really commands is that human needs be met.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus is presented as asking a different question, namely, whether his opponents would pull out from a pit a sheep that had fallen in; he then argues that a man is of more value than a sheep, and that what is lawful is to do good on the sabbath (Mt. 12:11-14). Thus we see here the same basic point: what ultimately matters is human well-being, and this is what the law really prescribes.
This way of interpreting the law, focusing on the spirit of the law or the principles behind it, led Jesus’ opponents to consider that he was teaching others to break the law and sin. While in general Jesus does appear to uphold the need to fulfill the commandments literally, in at least one instance he is presented as abolishing one of the most basic parts of the law in Jewish thought, namely, the dietary restrictions. In Mk. 7:14-23 and parallels, he tells others that what defiles people is not what goes into them (i.e., what they eat), but that which comes out from them, that is, sinful actions. The Evangelist Mark then adds that in this way Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19); although this is almost certainly a conclusion drawn by the Evangelist years after this event rather than something Jesus explicitly declared, in drawing such a conclusion the Evangelist believed he was interpreting faithfully Jesus’ teaching on the subject for his own context. In either case, once again we see Jesus here insisting that what really matters is avoiding actions and words that do harm to oneself and others, thus pointing once more to the principles underlying the commandments.
In these passages and others, Jesus is presented as placing himself and his word above the law. He claims that “the Son of man is lord of the sabbath” (Mt. 12:8), and that heaven and earth will pass away, but not his words (Mt. 24:35). He also gives authority to his disciples to “bind and to loose,” that is, to determine which actions are acceptable and which are not (Mt. 16:19; 18:18): “the authority to bind and to loose refers to interpretation and application of the law and the prophets in light of the confession that Jesus is the Messiah.” In John’s Gospel, the authority to forgive and retain sins, which essentially constitutes the same idea, is tied to the gift of the Holy Spirit that he bestows on them (20:22-23). The idea appears to be that Jesus’ disciples are given the freedom necessary to define right and wrong on the basis of his words and authority, as well as their possession of the Spirit, who guides and instructs them (Jn. 8:31-32; 14:26; 16:13). Behind this idea of being guided and instructed by the Holy Spirit may be a comparison with the Torah, which literally means “guidance” or “instruction”; rather than being guided and instructed by the Torah alone, they are now to be guided by what Jesus has taught them, and by the Spirit he has poured out on them. In any case, while Jesus continues to uphold and interpret the law, he also seems to go beyond it, apparently calling into question its adequacy, as E.P. Sanders has argued. His disciples are also to go beyond the law, practicing a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20), which evidently comes from following Jesus’ teaching regarding the law.
Nevertheless, in interpreting the law as he does, it appears that Jesus did not simply appeal to his own authority as Son of man or the Son of God, but to the law itself. When Jesus summarizes the law in terms of loving God and one’s neighbor, he is in fact citing passages found in the Mosaic law (Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18), rather than employing his own words. In effect, this involves affirming that the law itself provides the principles necessary to interpret it. If we look at the Mosaic law, the rationale behind many of the commandments is evident: they were given to establish justice, equity, and human wholeness and well-being. A number of the commandments have as their purpose defending the family structure, ensuring that the weakest and most disadvantaged are taken care of and not abused, protecting against the spread of illness, countering violence and avoiding various types of injustice and oppression to the extent possible. This is true of the Talion law (“an eye for an eye,” etc.), which originally had nothing to do with something such as revenge, but rather had the purpose of making sure that penalties were neither excessively harsh (as are often meted out to those having little or no power in a society) nor excessively lenient (as are often given to the rich and powerful). In fact, the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself in Lev. 19:18 sought to ensure that “help for the weak and oppressed that could not be defined in legal terms was also included”; in other words, the law itself maintained that the well-being of all could only be attained through concrete acts of love and compassion for those in need which went beyond legal obligations. Even the laws regarding worship and sacrifice can be seen as having the purpose of promoting justice, wholeness and well-being for all: by demanding that none but Yahweh was to be revered and acknowledged as the sovereign God to whom all belongs, the law stressed the need for all to submit to his commandments rather than following their own judgments or those of other gods. For this reason, the two great sins of idolatry and social injustice denounced by the prophets were intimately related, since serving other gods meant disregarding the commandments of the Torah which were given for the good of all (e.g., Am. 2:4-8).
Jesus’ focus on observing the principles behind the law, such as justice and human wel-being, is therefore derived from the law itself. It is also, however, taken from the prophets, who continually insisted on the need to practice justice, avoid oppression in all its forms, and take care of those in need. It is interesting, therefore, that Jesus speaks not only of upholding the law, but of upholding the law and the prophets, thus regarding the message of the prophets as equally binding on human beings as the law, and interpreting the law on the basis of the same concern for justice, equity, mercy and human wholeness that runs throughout the prophets.
While undoubtedly the Mosaic law was important for Jesus, when we look at the Gospels we can see that it is nevertheless not central. In this, Jesus differs from the mainstream Judaism of his day, where everything revolved around the study and observance of the law. As E.P. Sanders has pointed out, Jesus “did not say to potential followers, ‘Study with me six hours each week, and within six years I shall teach you the true interpretation of the law.’” Nor was he a “Midrashist,” as he “did not develop his own statements as exegetical comments on the Torah.” Similarly, Geza Vermes observes that “the core of Jesus’ religion is not Torah observance as such,” and William Loader points out that the Gospels “do not portray Jesus as a formal interpreter of the Law.” Unlike many others who were called “teachers” or “rabbis,” Jesus did not set up a school to study the law. In fact, in the Gospels, it is usually Jesus’ opponents rather than Jesus himself who bring up questions regarding the law, asking whether something is allowed or not; a relatively small portion of Jesus’ teaching and healing activity is related there to questions having to do with the law. Jesus’ message instead is presented as revolving around the reign of God, and his ministry is dedicated to reaching out to people in their needs to make them whole in body and spirit. In the Gospels we see Jesus traveling from one place to the other, entering into the various contexts in which people found themselves, and seeking to serve them in those contexts. He did not withdraw with his disciples behind the closed doors of a school to study and interpret the law there, in isolation from the common people who might be shunned or avoided as impure or “sinners” since they did not observe the law properly. Rather, Jesus was out and about in his ministry, in homes and villages where people found themselves in their everyday life, and sent his disciples out into the same places; his interpretation of the law was carried out in those contexts, in close contact with those in need. It seems clear that for Jesus, therefore, the law was not central, since in itself it could not give people the wholeness and life they needed and longed for. In fact, Jesus often set aside concerns regarding purity by reaching out to touch and have contact with those whom the law declared unclean, thereby being inclusive towards those whom the law excluded from the community of Israel.
In summary, then, it is clear from Jesus’ ministry and teaching that his ultimate concern was with human well-being and wholeness. This concern lay not only behind his interpretation of the law, but the other activities he carried out during his ministry. According to Jesus, what God really wants is not simply obedience to the commandments given by Moses, but that people practice justice, mercy and love towards all. The law was given for this purpose, and whenever it was interpreted in a way that he considered oppressive, he opposed such interpretations.
The law in Paul’s epistles
Discussions regarding the Mosaic law occasioned conflict, not only in Jesus’ ministry, but that of Paul. Undoubtedly, Paul goes beyond Jesus’ teaching regarding the law; this can be attributed primarily to the fact that Paul, unlike Jesus, dealt extensively with communities outside of Palestine composed not only of Jews but Gentiles. This meant he had to deal with questions that Jesus never did. Like Jesus, however, whose stance in relation to the law might lead to the conclusion that he was a “minister of sin” in that he seemed to teach others to disregard the law (Gal. 2:17), Paul faced accusations that he taught against the law, and responded by insisting that he did not “overthrow” the law but “upheld” it (Rom. 3:31; cf. Acts 21:20-21, 28).
The idea that the law or the commandments must still be kept is found in a number of passages from Paul’s epistles. Paul consistently continued to maintain the prevailing Jewish view that people will be judged as to whether they have kept the law or not, doing the works God commands.  His strongest statements in this regard are found in the second chapter of Romans. There he writes that all will be judged according to their works (2:6); those who “do good” who will be saved, while those who “do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness” and “do evil” will face God’s wrath and fury (Rom. 2:7-10). He then adds: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13). Similarly, in 1 Cor. 7:19, he claims that “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
Yet while Paul stresses the need for obedience and says that all people will be judged by their works, he also teaches that believers are no longer under the law but are free from it and have died to it (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4-6; Gal. 2:19; 5:18). Although it might appear that Paul contradicts himself, in reality the key to understanding Paul’s teaching regarding the law seems to be his distinction between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law. This distinction appears explicitly in three passages: Rom. 2:29, where Paul affirms that “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, in spirit and not in letter”; Rom. 7:6, where he writes: “we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the newness of the [S]pirit and not the oldness of the letter”; and 2 Cor. 3:6, where Paul speaks of himself and others as “ministers of a new covenant, not with regard to the letter but with regard to the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” The fact that Paul does not understand fulfilling the law in terms of merely observing its commandments literally is clear especially from 1 Cor.7:19, just cited, and Rom. 2:26-27, where he speaks of an uncircumcised person who “keeps the precepts of the law” and claims that “those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the letter and circumcision but break the law.” In Jewish thought, of course, to speak of keeping the law or Torah but not being circumcised would be a contradiction in terms, since the law commands circumcision, together with many other things that non-Jews did not observe, such as abstention from certain foods; thus no uncircumcised person could keep the law. Paul must therefore understand fulfillment of the law in other terms, apparently as keeping its “spirit.”
This is evident in several passages where he speaks of fulfilling the law. In Rom. 13:8-10, Paul clearly seems to be drawing on the teaching of Jesus when he maintains that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law,” and then adds that the commandments of the decalogue and others “are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Basically the same idea appears in Gal. 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” A few verses later he adds: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Here it is not clear whether the allusion is to a new law given by Christ, or to Christ’s interpretation of the Mosaic law; in reality, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive, since the commandment to love one’s neighbor can be seen both as a new commandment and a summary of the Mosaic law. A similar phrase appears in 1 Cor. 9:20b-21: “To those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law.” Here Paul considers himself to be, not under the law of Moses, but under the law of Christ.
It is important to observe, however, why believers are not under the Mosaic law. For Paul, the primary reason is that they are under Jesus’ lordship and have received the Holy Spirit. Paul does not merely say that believers are no longer under the law, but rather: “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). Thus the Spirit’s guidance enables them to fulfill the law’s spirit: the “just requirement of the law” is fulfilled in those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). They now “serve not under the oldness of the letter but under the newness of the [S]pirit” (Rom. 7:6). Because they are led by God’s Spirit and have become God’s children, they are no longer in slavery (Rom. 8:14-16). There are primarily two reasons why those who have received the Holy Spirit are no longer under the law: first, because the Spirit gives them the strength and capacity to do God’s will, pouring God’s love into their hearts (Rom. 5:5), filling them with power (Rom. 15:13; 1 Cor. 2:4-5), and enabling them to overcome the flesh so that they may produce fruits pleasing to God (Gal. 5:22-23; Rom. 7:4-6). Secondly, however, the Spirit also gives them the wisdom and understanding necessary to understand what God’s will is, and to have the “mind of Christ” so that they can “judge all things” (1 Cor. 2:10-16). In 2 Cor. 3:1-18, Paul further implies that the Spirit enables one to understand the law of Moses, removing the “veil” that remains over the eyes of those who do not know Christ and continue to live under the “letter” of the old covenant rather than in the “freedom” of the new. Thus, because the Spirit enables believers to live according to God’s will and fulfill the law’s spirit, they need not simply submit to the letter of the law in order to conform to God’s will and practice what the law commands.
Paul’s language concerning the freedom which believers have should be understood against this same background (2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 2:4; 5:1,13). This freedom is not so much from the law itself, which must still be fulfilled, as we have seen above; much less is it freedom from doing the righteousness which the law commands. On the contrary, while believers are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14-15), they remain “slaves of God” and “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:16-22), which means that they are still obligated to practice righteousness and obedience, and avoid sin; in this sense, the “new life of the [S]pirit” still involves serving as a “slave” (douleuin, Rom. 7:6). The “just requirement of the law” must still be fulfilled in them (Rom. 8:4). The freedom of which Paul speaks should therefore be understood more in terms of freedom from the letter of the law in order to fulfill the law’s spirit. As Paul stresses in Gal. 5 and 6, believers who have God’s Spirit are free in relation to commandments such as circumcision and others (5:1-4), but are still required to use that freedom to love one another, thereby fulfilling the whole law (5:13-14), and also must fulfill the law of Christ by bearing each other’s burdens (6:2). Thus, although they are free from the requirement to keep all the commandments of the Mosaic law, they are nevertheless still expected to live in the way that God commands through that law.
What is particularly important for us here is that, throughout his epistles, when Paul considers questions regarding ethics and conduct, he consistently returns to these principles. For example, when dealing with questions regarding food, which were particularly problematic and divisive in communities composed of Jews and Gentiles because of the Jewish kosher laws, Paul does not lay down strict rules, but allows for a variety of different practices: some eat anything, while others do not, and that is fine; there is no reason to pass judgment on one another for this (Rom. 14:2, 6, 10-14, 20). One has freedom in regard to these questions (1 Col. 8:7-13; 10:23-33). What does matter, however, is that one not do anything that would harm the faith or conscience of others; instead, in everything one must seek to build others up and seek their good rather than one’s own (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Whatever makes another stumble is sinful (Rom. 14:13-21). In these passages, we see clearly the idea that for Paul there is freedom with regard to the literal commandments regarding food, yet believers are obligated to keep the spirit of the law by doing whatever contributes to the well-being and strengthening of others, and avoiding whatever might do them spiritual harm.
The same principles are applied by Paul to other questions. In the same context of Rom. 14, Paul insists that believers have freedom with regard to observing certain days, no doubt referring to the holy days in the Jewish calendar (v. 5; cf. Col. 2:16-17). When discussing in 1 Cor. 14 the gifts of prophecy and tongues that some have have received, Paul once again allows for a variety of practices, but again and again insists that the criterion for judging everything is love and mutual edification (vv. 1, 3-5, 12, 17-19, 26, 31). In affirming this, at the same time Paul gives concrete instructions, even claiming that what he is writing is “a command of the Lord” (v. 37); yet his language often implies that they are free to decide for themselves, as long as they continue to edify one another. When discussing the collection for the saints, Paul also avoids laying down a specific rule regarding what the Corinthians should give, and instead tells them that all should give whatever they consider correct, but calls on them to do so out of love for others, thus fulfilling the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 8:8; 9:7-13). In fact, Paul insists on his own freedom to live under the law in certain contexts and not in others, all for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23), as we have noted.
Particularly important for our study are the passages in 1 Cor. 7 and 9 where Paul alludes to Jesus’ teaching. In the first of these, he discusses questions relating to marriage, giving certain commands both from himself and from Christ, yet also allows for freedom on the part of believers to decide what is best for them, recognizing that each one has different gifts (7:7) and that the Lord has assigned something different to each (7:17). In this case and others, Paul goes beyond what Jesus taught, adding his own counsel and “opinions” (7:25, 40), simply because he was dealing with contexts that Jesus had never dealt with and thus never addressed; he had to apply the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to those new contexts. Scholars have often noted the freedom with which Paul treats Jesus’ teaching in this chapter, and even have claimed that in 7:12-13 Paul modifies and departs from what Jesus taught. The same is true of 1 Cor. 9:7-15, where Paul “certainly also departs from the Lord’s ‘instructions’ regarding provision for missionaries” in justifying his own situation. From this we see that Paul dealt with the Jesus tradition in the same way he dealt with the Mosaic law, looking to the “spirit” of Jesus’ teaching and not merely to its “letter”; and in dealing with Jesus’ teaching in that way, Paul employs the same principles taught by Jesus, and therefore must be seen as being faithful to that tradition rather than departing from it, even when it would appear that he is doing the latter.
From all of this, it is clear that Paul is in basic continuity with Jesus. He teaches that for believers there is freedom with regard to the literal commandments of the law, and that what ultimately matters are the principles underlying the law, such as mutual edification and the well-being of all; for Paul, those who are faithful to these principles fulfill both the Old Testament law and the law of Christ, and reflect the same mind of Christ (Phil. 2:1-8; 1 Cor. 2:16). Thus, as was the case for Jesus, for Paul human well-being and mutual edification come first; people and the community come before rules and commandments, or rather, the rules and commandments are to contribute to the welfare and strengthening of people and the community. The law must not be used as an instrument to oppress others and exclude them from the community, as some believing Jews wished to use it in order to exclude Gentiles, but instead must be interpreted on the basis of Jesus’ same concern for all people.
Applying the biblical teaching today
What does all this have to do with the contemporary questions we face today? There are a number of specific conclusions that can be drawn from the above. The most important of these is that we cannot simply apply directly to our own reality the commandments of the Mosaic law or of the New Testament to resolve contemporary ethical questions. As Christians, in order to be faithful to the Bible, we cannot simply say that it “prohibits” things such as divorce, homosexuality, or the instruction of men by women, as if the correct interpretation involved merely applying literally what is commanded in the Old and New Testaments. Rather, a process of interpretation is necessary.
There are several reasons for this. Among the most important of these is that we do not look at the Bible in the way that the Torah has often been considered in Judaism, as a universal law given to God’s people of all times and places to be applied literally in all contexts. With regard to the Torah, as Christians we look at the Torah in the way Jesus taught, attempting to identify the reason or spirit behind the commandments. This does not mean, however, that we simply abolish the letter of the law and reduce everything to some abstract “love commandment”; it must always be remembered that just about any action can be justified in the name of “love” in some way. Jesus, like Paul, continues to teach that the Old Testament commandments are to be read, studied and obeyed, but in spirit as well as in letter; this involves discerning the purpose behind them, and judging everything on the basis of what contributes to justice, mutual edification and well-being for all involved. In other words, according to the Christian faith, an interpretation of the law that merely applies the letter without discerning the spirit of the commandment is unacceptable; equally so, however, is an interpretation that only takes into account the spirit of the law and ignores its letter.
When attempting to interpret the biblical commandments, therefore, before we can apply them to our present contexts, we must look at them in their original contexts, seeking to understand their meaning and purpose. For example, the commandment regarding the sabbath stresses the importance of rest for human beings, as well as the importance of satisfying other human needs to enable people to be well and whole. The commandments concerning the Jubilee year, when all property was returned to its original owner, slaves were freed and debts were cancelled, had the purpose of maintaining equity, so that the rich did not increasingly grow richer, and the poor poorer (Lev. 25:1-55). Likewise, the commandments regarding returning the cloak given as a pledge at night to the poor person who had had to borrow money, not charging interest, and not harvesting one’s fields completely (Lev. 19:9-10; 25:35-37; Deut. 23:19-20; 24:12-13), among others, clearly had the purpose of attempting to ensure that the basic needs of the most impoverished in society were taken care of, and that they might not be taken advantage of.
Today, of course, Christians do not apply any of these particular Old Testament commandments literally; obviously, the contexts in which we live have changed dramatically. This does not mean, however, that these commandments are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today, and that therefore we can dispense with them and simply worry about “loving our neighbor.” Rather, by examining and analyzing commandments such as these in their original contexts, thus learning how God sought to establish justice, equity and wholeness in the contexts in which those commandments were originally given, we can address the question of how we can keep the same principles today. In our “24/7” society, where people are being more and more drained, abused and taken advantage of, it is important to return to the notion of having a “sabbath rest” and establishing other measures to ensure health and wholeness for all. This involves, not only making sure that each of us as individuals obtain the needed rest, but doing what is needed so that those who do not currently enjoy this right be enabled to do so. Likewise, in a world where a small minority is getting richer, while the vast majority grow poorer, there need to be laws that ensure greater equity; the various “Jubilee” campaigns around the world advocating debt cancellation for poor, indebted countries are an example of attempting to apply the basic principles behind the Jubilee laws to the present reality. Similarly, there need to be laws aimed at ensuring that all people without exception are able to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and health and education services, among others. None of these things are commanded explicitly “in letter” in the Scriptures, but a proper understanding of the Old Testament laws leads us to interpret their “spirit” in this fashion. Of course, in order to keep the spirit of numerous laws that seek to ensure justice and wholeness for all, at times it is necessary to adhere strictly to the “letter” of the law and not be flexible or make exceptions; at other times, however, justice requires flexibility and forgiveness. This can only be determined by the context.
It is important to stress that the same observations must be made regarding the commandments given by Jesus in the Gospels, by Paul in his epistles, and by the rest of the New Testament writers. These writings were not written directly for us today; they were written for specific first-century communities and persons living in contexts that were in many ways very different from ours, just as the Mosaic law was given to the people of Israel long before Jesus’ day. Thus we cannot simply apply directly what Jesus or Paul said to our contexts; instead, we must also look to the spirit and not just the letter of their teachings, attempting to understand the principles behind their teaching on certain questions. For example, when Jesus spoke about divorce, he was speaking to a context in which men could simply put away their wives, thus essentially treating women as “property” rather than being concerned about their welfare; what was involved was a question of oppression and injustice. Similarly, the exhortations concerning husbands and wives in Colossians and Ephesians were addressed to specific social contexts characterized by certain tensions and problems both inside the communities themselves and in their relationships with outsiders. What Paul says concerning sexual activity between persons of the same sex must also be considered in its original context. Paul’s condemnations were directed at specific behavior which he considered sinful. Today, we must ask why Paul considered that behavior sinful: was it the homosexual behavior itself, or the way in which the human beings engaging in that behavior were treating and abusing other human beings for their own ends and satisfaction? Furthermore, we cannot assume that when Paul condemns certain behavior, he is referring to the same type of behavior or lifestyle followed today by many homosexual persons, particularly those committed to a single life-partner; the social and cultural contexts today are very different from those of Paul’s day. Even when Paul speaks of certain relationships being contrary to nature (Rom. 1:26), it must be remembered that the understanding of what is natural and unnatural differs from one historical context to another; few in our culture today, for example, would agree with Paul’s claim in 1 Cor. 11:14-15 that it is unnatural for men to wear their hair long and women to wear it short. Thus, in general, instead of saying that something is sinful or “bad” because it is prohibited in the Scriptures, we must maintain the opposite: certain behaviors were prohibited because they were “bad” for human beings and their communities; and then we must seek to determine why they were considered “bad,” unjust or oppressive in those contexts.
Only when we have made efforts to understand the original context of prescriptions such as these can we begin to apply them to the present contexts, which like the original contexts must also be studied and analyzed. It is necessary to address questions regarding what contributes to justice, human wholeness and well-being today, not only on an individual level, but at the level of couples, families, communities, societies and the world as a whole; all those who are affected by the issues under consideration must be taken into account. In our present contexts, for example, many Christians have been led to the conclusion that, while divorce is undoubtedly tragic and very painful for all those involved, under certain circumstances it is better for persons whose marriage has failed to separate and divorce, and even have the chance to remarry; it may also be better for their children and others affected by their decision. In this case, it is no longer a question of a man putting away his wife in oppressive fashion, as it was in Jesus’ day, but rather a mutual recognition that the relationship has already in fact been broken. Our adhesion to the spirit of God’s law and Jesus’ teaching on the subject, together with our concern for the wholeness and well-being of all involved, may lead us to this conclusion, in spite of the fact that to many it might appear that we are going against the letter of that law and of Jesus’ teaching. We may come to similar conclusions regarding persons who are homosexual, being convinced that in certain situations and under certain conditions, both their own wholeness and that of others require that the church bless their relationships openly rather than condemning them or excluding them from the church’s fellowship, or even from serving in the pastoral ministry. In fact, we might even be led to the conclusion that, in our present contexts, to prohibit divorce or exclude homosexual persons from the church and its ministry under certain circumstances is sinful and unjust, since it does harm to many people and destroys human wholeness and well-being for them and others rather than contributing to it, thus in reality going against the teaching of Jesus, Paul and the Scriptures in general.
The same principles must be applied to questions not directly addressed by Scripture. The criteria for considering questions regarding things such as abortion, euthanasia and other contemporary concerns must once again be principles such as human wholeness, well-being, justice and equity. Unfortunately, these criteria are often overlooked in an attempt to extract from Scripture “rules” establishing what is right and wrong, which can then simply be “applied” to all the different contexts. These universal “rules” are then given priority over concrete individuals. Once more, this stands in contrast to Jesus’ ministry, in which people constantly came first. To attempt to prescribe what is right and wrong for others without listening to their voices and stories is contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching as well as his ministry; Christians are called and sent by Jesus, not to dictate rules for others, but to reach out to them in ministry, serving their needs and seeking wholeness and justice for all, as Jesus himself did. So often, in attempting to define what is right and wrong regarding questions such as homosexuality or abortion, Christians have limited their consideration to what they read in certain passages from Scripture without ever stopping to listen closely to homosexual persons or attempting to understand fully the contexts of poverty, injustice and abuse in which many women choose to have abortions. For Christians who have never really been immersed in contexts like these to make decisions about what is right and wrong for others is to adopt a stance similar to that of Jesus’ opponents, who simply condemned and avoided those whom they defined as “sinners” on the basis of their interpretations of certain passages from their Scripture and law, without ever listening to those people or understanding their reality; in contrast, Jesus taught his disciples by word and example to become immersed in the experience of others, especially those who are rejected, condemned, and excluded by others, sharing the Gospel of grace in those contexts and looking to God’s mercy, love and compassion as the basis for determining what is right and wrong.
At the same time, of course, we are called to listen, not only to the voices of others, but to the voice of God’s Spirit who speaks to us through the Scriptures. Often Christians have rightly stressed the doctrine that the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but have overlooked the equally important biblical teaching according to which the Holy Spirit remains active guiding Christians as they interpret those Scriptures and apply them to their present contexts. As we noted above, when Paul stresses the freedom that believers have in relation to the law and the commandments, he mentions the fact that they are guided by the Holy Spirit; thus the reason for their freedom with regard to the letter of the law is the fact that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to them and enable them to discern God’s will in the present, on the basis of the spirit of that law (as well as its letter). The Fourth Gospel stresses the same point: there, in his farewell discourse, Jesus is presented not only as telling his disciples that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide them, but that he has not finished speaking to them: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:12-13). The idea is that Jesus did not finish speaking to his followers and instructing them during his earthly life; he continues to do so now. As was observed previously, he also gives them the authority to forgive sins, to “bind and loose,” that is, to define what is acceptable and not acceptable, on the basis of their having received the Holy Spirit. While they no doubt do so by looking to the words he spoke in the past, they must also do so by seeking to discern Jesus’ voice and God’s will as Jesus continues to speak to them today by that Spirit. This means that the Spirit can reveal new things and guide us in new ways; while we constantly look to the words of Scripture which were inspired by the Holy Spirit in the ancient contexts in which they originally arose, as we do so we attempt to listen to the voice of that same Spirit as it continues to come to us today.
Finally, it should be noted that in interpreting Holy Scripture in this way, we are letting Scripture interpret Scripture, extracting the principles underlying our interpretation of Scripture from Scripture itself. As was the case with both Jesus and Paul, who were accused of denying and undermining the Scriptures, to many Christians it might seem that to interpret the Scriptures in the way being proposed here, on the basis of their spirit and not just their letter, is to deny the authority of those Scriptures, to contradict them rather than being faithful to them. However, just as both Jesus and Paul argued that in fact they, and not their opponents, were being faithful to those Scriptures and upholding them by interpreting them as they did, so today we must insist that merely to look to the letter of those Scriptures by applying certain passages directly to the present contexts is in reality to interpret them in a way that Jesus and Paul not only rejected, but firmly opposed and fought against. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must constantly look to the “new commandment” given by him, as well as the way in which Jesus summarizes the Old Testament law (followed by Paul), to interpret not only the teaching of the Old Testament, but the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as that of Paul and the other New Testament writers. We do not convert their teaching into a new set of universal laws replacing or complementing the “letter” of the law found in the Old Testament, but instead interpret their teaching by looking to its spirit rather than its letter alone, applying to the words of Jesus and Paul themselves the very same principles they taught and fought for.
Undoubtedly, this is a difficult process. At first glance, the literal interpretation of Scriptures seems to be simple, clear-cut and straightforward. In contrast, the manner of interpretation presented here appears to be ambiguous and to lead to all sorts of conflicting results; it might even be concluded that we can justify almost anything we want by interpreting Scripture in this way. To object to such a manner of interpreting and applying Scripture on those grounds, however, involves returning once more to the same type of Pharisaism rejected by both Jesus and Paul. The ultimate concern of both was not establishing and defending clear-cut laws, regulations or rules to apply to the situation of others, but sharing the gospel of God’s love and grace with others in order to bring wholeness, justice, peace and well-being into their lives; according to them, this is what is truly important. And in order to carry out that same mission today, we cannot come with pre-determined, clear-cut and inflexible answers to the questions and problems we and others face, just as neither Jesus nor Paul did. Instead, it is imperative that we practice the same freedom with regard to the “letter” of Scripture that Jesus and Paul practiced and defended, so as to be able to define what is right and wrong in each context on the basis of the same principles taught by Jesus; the spirit and ultimate purpose of God’s law can only be fulfilled when we listen to one another and meet others where they are at, placing ourselves together with them under the gospel so as to define God’s will jointly through dialogue, led by the Spirit and the mind of Christ which we share. This inevitably involves leaving many difficult questions open to some degree; but they must remain open if we are to have the freedom necessary to reach out effectively to others with God’s love, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. In fact, when we take the time to immerse ourselves in the contexts of others, listening to them and dialoguing with them, what we often discover is that it is not so difficult after all to determine what is right and wrong in those contexts together with them, and that the Spirit’s voice and will can be discerned quite clearly.
David A. Brondos
Comunidad Teológica de México
Av. San Jerónimo 137
01000 México, D.F. MEXICO
July 14, 2003
. Obviously, as W.D. Davies reminds us, the Torah or Law does not consist only of the commandments, but includes much more, including the accounts of Israel’s history; thus those commandments must be seen in the context of that story and not in isolation from it (“Paul and the Law: Reflections on Pitfalls in Interpretation,” in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C.K. Barrett, London: SPCK, 1982, pp. 4-5).
. See Ex. 23:11; Lev. 14:21-22; 27:8; Deut. 15:7-8, 11; 24:14-16.
. E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63BCE-66CE (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 467; cf. pp. 123-124.
. On this point and the following one, see W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 1965), pp. 168-174, as well as Jacob Neusner, Torah: From Scroll to Symbol in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), pp. 118-119.
. Gen. R. 1:4; 8:2, quoted in Neusner, p. 119.
. Werner Förster, Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964), pp. 184-186.
. E.P. Sanders notes that in the Tannaitic literature, for example, the question of whether specific commandents are permanently valid “for all generations (ledorot)” is often discussed, as well as the purpose or function of certain commandments: “each commandment was regarded as having a purpose” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 77). Similarly, Robert Banks notes that “the rabbinic writings clearly presuppose the eternal validity of the Law throughout,” including even “the words, the very jots and tittles, that make it up” (Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 68; see pp. 65-72).
. While virtually all of the most recent critical studies on the subject agree on these points, different scholars have proposed a variety of central concepts around which Jesus’ teaching revolved: for example, Marcus Borg sees compassion as the core of Jesus’ teaching and activity (Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998, pp. 136-146), David Holwerda the practice of righteousness or justice (Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1995, pp. 131-132, 142-145), and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza the concern for human wholeness (In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York: Crossroad, 1983, pp. 118-130). For a general overview on these questions, see especially William R.G. Loader, Jesus’ Attitude towards the Law: A Study of the Gospels (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1997).
. Holwerda, p. 123. Of course, the Johannine writings also place love at the center of Jesus’ teaching by alluding repeatedly to Jesus’ commandment to love one another (Jn. 13:34; 15:12, 17; 1 Jn. 3:11, 23; 2 Jn. 5-6), which is regarded as a “new commandment” and yet the “old commandment” (1 Jn. 2:7), evidently because it is ultimately the same commandment given through Moses.
. Borg, p. 150; cf. J. Andrew Overmann, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), pp. 85-90.
. This point is stressed by a number of scholars, including especially Jewish scholars who have examined Jesus’ teaching such as Geza Vermes (The Religion of Jesus the Jew, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, pp. 11-45) and Irving M. Zeitlin (Jesus and the Judaism of His Time, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988; see especially pp. 73-84, 104-110). Nevertheless, there are important differences among the Evangelists in the way they present Jesus’ attitude to the commandments, as studies such as that of Loader show: Matthew in particular stresses that Jesus continued to teach that literal fulfillment of the law was necessary, while Mark and Luke are not as clear on this point.
. According to Overmann, Matthew maintains “the enduring validity of the law,” and claims that Jesus and his followers “do not break the law, but understand it and fulfill it completely (Matt. 5:19, 48). What is essential is that the fulfilling of the law is determined by one’s interpretation of the law. . . Love and mutuality, as seen in the antitheses, guide the interpretation of the valid and enduring law” (pp. 87, 89).
. Regarding Luke’s presentation of the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents over the Torah, see especially Joseph B. Tyson, “Scripture, Torah and Sabbath in Luke-Acts,” in E.P. Sanders, ed., Jesus, the Gospels and the Church (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), pp. 95-104; Tyson argues that Scripture and the Torah are still considered authoritative in Luke’s writings and are viewed positively, but that Jesus is presented as having a greater authority.
. See Borg, pp. 116-119.
. See James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (London: SPCK, 1990), p. 18; Dunn stresses that in this pericope Jesus is not presented as arguing that exceptions must be made regarding the sabbath law in cases involving human need, but that acting as Jesus did “is the way the sabbath should be observed” (p. 22). For this reason, Jesus may have consciously chosen to heal on the sabbath rather than some other day, as Borg and others have argued (p. 159).
. In the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of the conflict over observance of the sabbath, the violation of the sabbath is more explicit, since Jesus tells the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda to carry his mat, which is “not lawful,” and it is specifically said that Jesus “broke the sabbath” (Jn. 5:2-18; see vv. 10, 18); on this conflict as it appears in the Fourth Gospel, see Severino Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), especially pp. 9-52, 158-168.
. See Borg, pp. 110-112; Vermes, pp. 24-26.
. Holwerda, p. 136.
. E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1985), pp. 250, 255.
. These types of commandments are found particularly in passages such as the following: Ex. 20:1-23:13; Lev. 18:1-20:22; 25:1-55; Deut. 1:16-17; 15:1-18; 20:5-7; 23:9-25:16; 27:16-26.
. “The purpose of the talion — like that of all law in general — is to maintain a proper balance in human relationships. . . The intention of the talion was not, therefore, to inflict injury — as it might sound to us today — but to limit injury… The application of the talion was designed to prevent this spiraling of revenge, so vividly described in the song [found in Gen. 4:23-24]. We can therefore paraphrase the talion formula as follows: only one life for a life, only one eye for an eye, only one tooth for a tooth etc.” (Hans Jochen Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East, London: SPCK, 1980, pp. 173-175).
. George Fohrer, History of Israelite Religion (London: SPCK, 1972), p. 315; cf. p. 281.
. On this point, see especially Banks, pp. 46-47, 256-257. In Matthew’s Gospel, on two occasions (including the plucking of grain by the disciples) Jesus is presented as quoting Hos. 6:6 in the context of conflicts with his opponents (Mt. 9:13; 12:7; cf. 23:23; Mk. 12:33).
. E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 238.
. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 247.
. Vermes, p. 204.
. Loader, p. 521.
. See Borg, pp. 147-149.
. For an extensive discussion of the passages in which Paul sustains a final judgment on the basis of works, see Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment according to Deeds (Society for New Testament Studies 105; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 143-291.
. It is probable that Paul has in mind Gentile Christians in this passage; on this point and the discussion of Rom. 2:26-27 below, see N.T. Wright, “The Law in Romans 2,” in James D.G. Dunn, ed., Paul and the Mosaic Law: The Third Durham Tübingen Research Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1996), pp. 132-138.
. On this phrase, see especially Peter J. Tomson, “Paul’s Jewish Background in View of His Law Teaching in 1 Cor 7,” in Dunn, ed., pp. 251-270.
. See Michael B. Thompson, Clothed with Christ: The Example and Teaching of Jesus in Romans 12.1-15.13 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), pp. 121-140.
. On this question, see especially John Barclay, Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul’s Ethics in Galatians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), pp. 125-145; James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 654-658.
. The reference here must be to the Mosaic law or Torah; see Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1983), pp. 65-67.
. Regarding the context and particular problems to which Paul addressed his words in 1 Cor. 8 and 10, see Gerd Thiessen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Philadelfia: Fortress, 1982), pp. 121-143.
. See Nikolaus Walter, “Paul and the Early Christian Jesus-Tradition,” in Alexander J.M. Wedderburn, ed., Paul and Jesus: Collected Essays (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), pp. 68-74; Tomson, p. 264.
. Walter, p. 70.
. See Yairah Amit, “The Jubilee Law—An Attempt at Instituting Social Justice,” in Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman, Justice and Righteousness: Biblical Themes and their Influence (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), pp. 47-59.
. Rudolf Schnackenburg observes regarding Mt. 5:31-32, for example: “In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s concern is to clarify the responsibility of the husband for the continuation of the marriage: the husband may not drive his wife to enter into a new — and for Jesus illegitimate — marriage” (Jesus in the Gospels: A Biblical Christology, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 121).
. Regarding the household code in Col. 3:18-4:1, E. Elizabeth Johnson notes on the basis of 4:5 that the concern of the epistle is evidently the relationships with outsiders: “If non-Christians are already watching the church with suspicion about its confession of faith, the reasoning goes, then believers ought not to provoke further hostility toward themselves by disrupting traditional social structures. They will already encounter sufficient trouble on account of their Christian faith (as seen in the reference to Paul’s imprisonment, 4:3) without further incurring the culture’s wrath on account of nontraditional household relationships” (“Colossians,” in Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., Women’s Bible Commentary, Expanded edition, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 438). The ultimate concern here, therefore, was the existence and well-being of that community in its original context.
. See Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), pp. 192-194.