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Reform Magazine | May 27, 2024

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Jesus and... Torah - Reform Magazine

Jesus and… Torah

A series about what we have to learn from Jesus on a range of subjects. This month, Meg Warner grapples with Jesus’ attitude to the law

Towards the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the reader encounters a major conundrum. Jesus talks about the law. At first it seems nicely straightforward; Jesus is safely conservative when it comes to the Torah. What stands out immediately is Jesus’ insistence that the law must not change – not even ‘a jot or a tittle’ (that is, the smallest Greek characters):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)

So far so good. The problem arises just a few verses later, when Jesus embarks on the so-called ‘antitheses’. Six times Jesus reminds his listeners of core provisions of Torah before saying ‘but I say to you…’ and going on to describe some altogether different requirement. For example, Jesus cites the commandment not to murder, before going on to say that even the person who harbours anger in their heart will be liable to judgment, while someone so rash as to say, ‘You fool!’ out loud risks hellfire. (Our politicians should take note.) The overriding impression from all six antitheses is that Jesus’ model of Torah obedience is radically faithful. Jesus appears to indicate that Torah is merely a starting point, and that one should follow all of the necessary and possible implications of a legal provision and behave not just legally, but perfectly. In fact, the final verse of the ‘antitheses’ says so in as many words: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ In doing so, Jesus could be seen to be faithfully practicing the Jewish principle of ‘building a fence around the Torah’ (that is, going further than Torah requires for the purpose of building a buffer around the zone of non-compliance)…

Meg Warner is Tutor for Old Testament at Northern College, Manchester

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This is an extract from an article published in the June 2023 edition of Reform

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