Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17–20 is preemptive. He is engaged in radical interpretation and application of scripture which his antagonist may perceive as disregard for the authority of scripture. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill….”
Jesus and the Apostles’ view of scriptures was not different from those who antagonized them, but their antagonists perceived it as such. Why? Because Jesus and the Apostles approach the scriptures from the standpoint of true liberation, rather than institutional control and preservation. The church began in the synagogue, but separation evolved as its interpretation of scripture, specifically its interpretation of Messiah, continued to clash with the orthodox interpretation. Thus, the primitive church which began in the synagogue began meeting in homes, separating gradually from its Judaic identity, then evolving from an intimate house church into a public hierarchical structure. At this stage of development, the Roman empire was able to appropriate the no longer primitive church towards its own purposes of institutional and political control. This latter is the fundamental legacy of Christendom. We are called now to decide whether our view of scriptures is going to be that of Jesus and the apostles, or our own as we seek to exploit the religious/cultural power of the sacred texts towards egoistic ends.
Viewing Scriptures: Torah and Bible
It is important at this point to clearly define what we are talking about when we talk about the “Bible.” (A review of my commentary for last week may be also helpful). “Bible,” notwithstanding the etymology of the word, is the specific name of the Christian scriptures. As such, “Bible” and “scriptures” are not necessarily synonymous terms. Scriptures are the sacred texts of a religious tradition. As the Christian scriptures is the Bible, the Islamic scriptures is the Qur’an, the Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, and the Judaic scriptures is Torah (literally meaning Law). Jesus and the apostles belonged to the Judaic tradition, and Torah was their scriptures. Jesus refers to the Judaic scriptures as the “Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17, 7:12; 22:40). This is because in his time some Jews only recognized the Law (Pentateuch [first five books]) as inspired, while his own brand of Judaism (Pharisaic Judaism) regarded the prophets as also authoritative. Canonization of the writings was not completed until more than a century later.
Whether Jesus and the apostles viewed Torah as authoritative is hardly a necessary point to debate. Jesus and Paul, for example, functioned as Jewish Rabbis and as such they were reared in the knowledge of all the Judaic sacred texts which formed the basis of their teachings. In the New Testament, we witness them wrestling with opponents over the application of the scriptures as they seek to articulate a kerygma of the Kingdom of God. The real question here is, how did they approach the scriptures and how did they apply and interpret it? This is a very important question for us today. It is important because this was a central point of contention as Jesus and Paul brought fresh perspective to the Scriptures. It is important because this remains a central point of contention in many Christian communities today. Religious superstructures tend to perceive as threat to their self-identity and survival, interpretation, or approaches to the sacred text that call a community into an awareness of how God is acting in the present. It is for this reason that Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, and the apostles such as Stephen, Peter, and Paul were stoned, beaten up, and imprisoned—martyred. Their Spirit-filled interpretive approach challenged the self-identity and survival of their own religious tradition. It is largely from this Spirit-filled interpretation of scriptures that the New Testament emerged, combining with the Torah to form the Bible. (Again a review of last week’s commentary provides a glimpse of the process of formation.)
There is a view of scripture that only affirms life and then there is one that may lead to violence and death (Matthew 12:1–8; 9–14). This is because sacred texts (scriptures) hold the most powerful sway over a community. This power is often exploited to re-enforce a community’s self-identity and ensure its survival within and over against other communities. But it is not the power of the sacred text itself that becomes problematic; it is the use of the religious/cultural power of the text itself to advance particular beliefs, cultural mindsets, and ideologies in the interest of self-preservation. When the latter occurs, the text loses its real power—the power of the Spirit. From what we read in the Gospels, this appears to be the case in Judaism in the first century, in the Promised Land besieged by foreign forces throughout many centuries, with the chosen people hoping for a Messiah to liberate them and re-establish their sovereignty. The Law (Torah) became essential to their survival, and the leaders (re)enforced it with a mighty hand so that Jesus’ attempt to apply the Spirit of the scriptures was perceived as disruptive and led to several (finally successful) plots to kill him (Mark 3:6; Matthew 12:14; John 11:45–54). We see the clearest indication of the political motivation for the execution of Jesus in John’s account of the Christ event (John 11:50–52).
Jesus and the Spirit of Torah (Matthew 5:17–20)
Through the writings of Matthew, the early church makes it clear that because interpretation of scripture may go against established norms of a religious community, it does not necessarily mean that the scripture has lost its authority. Rather, it may mean that we have discovered its Spirit. In Matthew 5–7 we find the most famous body of teachings by Jesus of Nazareth—the Sermon on the Mount. It is famous because it is a radical in its call to righteous living. It captures the essence and Spirit of the scriptures and of what religion should be about: “You have heard it said (scripture), but I say….”(Spirit of scripture) “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you for this is the law and the prophets” (7:12). Such teachings went against the grain of the view of scripture in his time, but Matthew makes it clear that Torah is the authority here—the Spirit of Torah: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfil.” And then Matthew ends this pericope with Jesus saying, “For unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were the watchdogs and gatekeepers of Torah, and Matthew 5:17–20 is a pre-emptive literary device. It registers Jesus’ awareness that those religious leaders who listen to the liberating interpretation of scripture would view such an approach as a resistance to the authority of the scriptures. What it resists, rather, is the authority of those who use the scriptures abusively to maintain control: “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).
The Apostles and The Spirit of Torah
When we speak of the teachings of the apostles, we are speaking of the primitive church which began in the synagogue, and its (re)interpretation of Messiah. The mainstream traditional interpretation of “Messiah” (same word as “Christ”) in the first century was largely political. The Christ they imagined, coming from the Davidic line, would re-establish the Davidic kingdom and thus fulfill the Abrahamic covenant which stands unfulfilled as long as the promised land is occupied by foreign forces.
The early church’s interpretation of Messiah was radical. Messiah (meaning anointed one) is not a religious or political event, but a coming of the Spirit (as we see with the dove at the baptism and the tongues of fire at Pentecost). Messiah overcomes not through social, political, or ecclesiological power, but through the powerlessness of the cross.
As we see in the New Testament, especially the Epistles of Paul, every issue that the church confronts it addresses not by legalism or scriptural literalism. It uses the formula “in Messiah” (“in Christ”). This means that when the Spirit infuses a community, that community seeks only what is just and life affirming. For example, circumcision of the flesh is, according to Torah, for every Jewish male a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. But, in the Spirit of Torah, circumcision of the heart is the covenant of life between God and all people of whatever religion, gender, class, or race (Galatians). This covenant of life brings together all of creation groaning to be free. It is in this context that Paul acknowledges the Gentile who does what Torah requires though not having access to Torah. For it is not the letter that gives life, but the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:1–6).
What has become a religion called Christianity bears little resemblance to the early church. The early church’s approach to Torah rendered it religion-less. It called itself the “Way” (Acts 9:2). It embraced practicing Jews and non-practicing Jews, kosher Gentiles and non-kosher Gentiles, women, men, slaves, renegades, and dissenters in a movement that labored for liberation in an oppressive Roman culture of domination (Romans 14–15). They were embracing the “new commandment” which is the Spirit of Torah (John 13:24), exhorting anyone who would listen to owe no one anything but to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8; 1 Corinthians 13). Apostle Paul describes this as being in Spirit (which is exactly how he says it—not in the spirit as most translations have) Being “in Spirit” is the same as being “in Christ.” This way of being transcends religion, gender, race, class, religious rituals, and cultural norms. Paul calls all that flesh (Galatians 3:4), and even “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). The apostles, unlike their antagonists, embrace the prophesied Christ event as cosmic liberation, not tribal religious/political triumphalism upheld by the exploitation of scriptures.
Today, many walk away from Christianity because they see no Christ in it. For many dogma-centered communities, the call to focus on Christ is a distraction away from the doctrines. And the quest for spiritual awareness for some, threatens the stability of a corporate ecclesiastical structure. May we never be tempted to resort to such a spirit in the interest of survival, even more so in this time of crisis. May God give us the wisdom and the confidence to view the Bible not as an accessory for egoistic interests. May the Spirit of the Bible take hold of our consciousness as we surrender our anxiety for survival, and trust in God who calls us into a covenant of life—love your neighbor as yourself. It seems simple, but it is difficult because humanity has for millennia honed the fleshly egoistic identity—religion, culture, class, race, gender, etc. The Spirit of the Bible to which we are called is that delivering love by which we nurture the image of God buried beneath the ego.
In summary, the “word of God” for Jesus and the apostles was not a literalistic or institutionally branded interpretation of scripture. Rather the word of God for them was the liberating light of the Spirit, infusing scripture to speak to community progressively toward a full grasp of God’s will on earth.
Notes & References:
James H. Charlesworth, et. al., “Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two,” Biblical Archaeology Society (2014). See also, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/legitimization.html, retrieved April 13, 2020.
 Formally called Tanakh (comprising The Law [Pentateuch], The Prophets, and The Writings) which Christians call the Old Testament.
 Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah. Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi.
 Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.
 Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah regarding Sabbath allows for healing of the infirm and feeding of the hungry, but the religious authorities’ interpretation led them to plot to kill him.
 The drama of the trial in the Fourth Gospel indicates that Jesus’ teaching not only disrupts the structure of an entire religious system, but it threatens the authority of its leader, Caiaphas. Jesus’ teaching was a disclosure of divine love that sets a people free—unearthed from layers of religious dogma, ritualistic obsession, and hierarchical power structure that hinder the flow of divine love. The crowd follows Jesus and listens to his condemnation of a corrupt religious system, and witnesses his life-giving power in the signs (miracles). This being the time of the biggest Jewish festival, the Passover, with millions of Jews in Jerusalem, Caiaphas must not lose control or lose face. He fears an uprising, and this uprising could be the end of the Jewish nation in a Roman Empire that brutally crushes any kind of uprising (John 11:45–51). It is because of this that Caiaphas “advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” (11:40; 18:14). And Pontius Pilate yields to the untruth (John 19:1–16) because he is ultimately responsible for keeping the peace in his province, short of which Rome would depose or executed him.
 According to V. M. Fletcher, if the founding of the church is defined as the first body of Christian leaders who could determine accurate Christian belief and establish with sound authority their definition of Christianity across the Mediterranean world, then the single man most responsible for that achievement was Constantine I, the emperor of Rome. Although the creation and organization of the church was clearly a process that took place over several decades, the founding event was the Council of Nicea in 325.” See, https://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2015/02/uw-religion-today-how-constantine-created-the-christian-church.html, retrieved April 13, 2020.
Olive Hemmings is professor of religion at Washington Adventist University.
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