by Tim Hegg

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The Issue at Hand

The current debate over the Law in the NT has advanced the discussion along familiar lines. Continuity/Discontinuity continues to set the extremes of the continuum, with scholars placing themselves toward one pole or the other. Evangelical scholars have also renewed the discussion of the Law in the NT, as evidenced by the number of current articles and publications on the subject.1

Within the ETS, the Dispensational Study Group (which convenes annually at the national meeting) has focused attention on the issue. At the 1993 annual meeting, the topic for the Dispensational Study Group was “The Law and Christ”. Such a topic requires definition of terms at the outset, something which the subsequent dialog proved was lacking. The discussion began on the unspoken assumption that the meaning of “Law” was the written code of Moses, leaving the impression that current trends in scholarship, which have established the multifaceted nature of the 1st Century Judaisms, were either unknown or regarded as unacceptable for the present debate. One would have thought that the work of scholars such as E. P. Sanders, W. D. Davies, and Jacob Neusner (to name only a few) regarding the whole scope of “Law” in the early Judaisms would have given the dialog a much needed breadth. All the more since it seems quite clear the 1st Century debates and divisions among the sects of Jews related not to the presence or lack of “law” but to the application of it to everyday life. These dividing interpretations of the Law were the issue at hand, and existed as oral halakha.

It was over the validity of this growing oral law that the Pharisees and Sadducees were divided. . . . .It was in their attitude toward the law that other sects also differed. And it is over against a background of intense discussion on the relative claims of the written law and the oral, and of the meaning of the latter, that the ministry of Jesus is to be placed.2

To put it another way, questions of how to keep the written Law formed the debate between the 1st Century Judaisms, not the question of whether to keep it. In the same way, we would expect issues of halakha to underlay the disputes between Jesus and His opponents as narrated in the Gospels. If so, one would think that the words of Christ regarding the Law and the subsequent commentary on His words by the Apostles must be located within the dialog encompassing both written and oral Torah. The purpose of this paper is to investigate just such a claim.

“Oral Torah” and Its Relationship to “Written Torah”

The simplest definition of oral law or Torah is “. . . laws which are not found in the Bible.”3 Herr understands oral Torah to be interpretation of the written law, that is, the manner in which the written Torah was to be understood and followed as laid down by the Sages.4

Traditionally, the oral Torah, or Torah Sha’baal Pe, has been understood to comprise the Mishnah and subsequent Rabbinic comments and commentaries on the Mishnah (Talmud, and, in some measure, the Midrashim). It is made up of the accepted interpretations and applications of the “Written Torah” produced by the Sages of the Jewish communities throughout the history of the nation.

For example, the injunction to wear tzitzit on the corners of one’s garment5 gives no instructions at all as to what tzitzit are, nor how looking upon them will remind one of the commandments of the Lord. The text does not indicate whether this commandment is for all, regardless of age or sex, nor if it applies to all garments one wears, or only to the outer one. Since, as the Sages reasoned, one loves the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul and might by obeying the commandments of the Lord, it is imperative that one know exactly how God intends His commandments to be kept. The Rabbis taught that God gave all the instructions to Moses on Sinai6, some written,7 and others to be passed on orally from generation to generation.8


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  1. See, for instance, Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker, 1993); “Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 10:4-5”, WTJ 55 (1993), 13-135; David K. Lowery, “Christ, the End of the Law in Romans 10:4”, in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. C. A. Blaising and D. L. Bock (Zondervan, 1992); David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise” JETS 34.3 (Sept, 1991), 321-334; Meredith G. Kline, “Gospel until the Law: Rom 5:13-14 and the Old Covenant” JETS 34.4 (Dec, 1991), 433-446; Walter Kaiser, “God’s Promise Plan and His Gracious Law” JETS 33.3 (Sept, 1990), 289-302; John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Crossway, 1988); Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Eerdmans, 1988); D. P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Eerdmans, 1980); R. H. Gundry, “Grace, Works, and Staying Saved in Paul”, in Biblica 66 (1985), 1-38; Thomas R. Schreiner, “Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Possible?” JETS 27.2 (June, 1984), 151-160; D. J. Moo, “Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law”, JSNT 20 (1984); “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul”, WTJ 45 (1983), 73- 100; Brice L. Martin, “Paul on Christ and the Law” JETS 26.3 (Sept, 1983), 271-282; Kenneth L. Barker, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments”, JETS 25 (Mar, 1982), 3-16; Mark W. Karlberg, “Legitimate Discontinuities Between the Testaments”, JETS 28 (Mar, 1985), 9-20; Greg Chirichigno, “A Theological Investigation of Motivation in Old Testament Law” JETS 24.4 (Dec, 1981), 303-314. Obviously, there are a ‘truckload’ more which could be cited. In general, there has been much contributed by the scholarly community, and works such as those by E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism [Fortress, 1977]; Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People [Fortress, 1983]); Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (TPI, 1990), Roger Brooks, The Spirit of the Ten Commandments (Harper & Row, 1990), Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letter of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Fortress / Van Gorcum, 1990), Räisänen (Paul and the Law [Fortress, 1986]), F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (NovTSup 61; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989), J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), and N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), to cite a few, have had a widespread impact upon the general discussion of the Law in the NT. Note the article “Law” in David N. Freedman, ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary 6 vols. (Doubleday,1992), 4:242-265 in which Samuel Greengus, Rifat Sonsino, and E. P. Sanders contribute.
  2. W. D. Davies, Jewish and Pauline Studies (Fortress, 1984), pp. 16-17. (This material is essentially the same as Davies’ article “Law in First-Century Judaism” in IDB.)
  3. E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Trinity Press International, 1990), p. 99.
  4. M. D. Herr, ‘Oral Law’ in Enc. Judaica, 12:1439
  5. Num. 15:37-41; Deut. 22:12.
  6. Three times in the Mishnah a rule is said to go back to Moses on Mt. Sinai: m. Peah 2.6; m. Eduyot 8.7; m. Yadaim 4:3 (which is parallel to Tosefta Yadaim 2.16). For a discussion of these, see Sanders, Jewish Law From Jesus to the Mishnah, p. 122. The Talmud also attributes some halakot to Moses, see b. Menahot 35a; y. Megillah 75c (4.9); b. Shabbat 108a; 79b. Davies, Jewish and Pauline Studies, p. 16, notes that oral laws were attributed to Moses during the period when halakha was being formed, and when such laws could not be substantiated by the written record. In such cases, the laws were dubbed “Mosaic rules from Sinai”.
  7. The Sages themselves debated the issue of the writing of the Mishnah. “Saadiah Gaon, R. Samuel b. Hophni, Rabbenu Nissim, and Maimonides held that each Sage committed the oral Law to writing for himself, as did Rabbi, too, in the case of the Mishnah. However, Rashi and those who followed his view maintained that nothing was written down in earlier times, and even the Mishnah and the Talmud were not committed to writing until the days of the savoraim (Sages who lived between the times of the amoraim and geonim, whose history is best preserved in Iggeret Sherira Ga’on, ed. B. M. Lewin, 1921). In the literature of the Sages the prohibition against committing it to writing is explicitly mentioned (Tanh., Va-Yera 5; ibid., Tissa 34; b. Tem. 14a-b). Nonetheless, evidence is not lacking that practical halakhic decisions were written down (y. Git. 5:3, 46b; b. Ket. 49a; b. BM 114a; b. Chul. 95b; b. Men. 70a)”, Encyc. Jud. 12:105.
  8. The redaction of the Mishnah at the hands of Rabbi is also an issue of scholarly inquiry. It seems clear that very early on the Sages agreed that Rabbi had done more than merely compile existing mishnayot. See, for instance, the statements of the Talmud that such and such is “an individual opinion”, apparently meaning that it should not have been given the status of an accepted teaching (b. Suk. 19b; b. Chul. 55b). In y. Git. 8:5, a statement is made that “all this chapter is the teaching of R. Meir except that the name of its author has been changed.” Such statements would indicate an early redaction of the teachings of the Sages.