By Thom Hennen
The New Testament says that we don’t have to follow the Jewish law but there are many references to “the law.” Are these referring to the Ten Commandments? Please explain.
It can be difficult to know what law is being referred to in the many passages about the “the law” in the New Testament. For this reason, knowing the context and background of the passage is important. A good study Bible or commentary can be helpful with this. Often when St. Paul is referring to “the law” he is in fact referencing the Jewish law, more specifically the hundreds of laws found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in addition to the Ten Commandments. Many of these had to do with ritual or dietary laws and, indeed, are no longer binding from a Christian perspective.
Paul would have been very familiar with Jewish law. In the letter to the Philippians he offers his Jewish “credentials” and mentions that he was a Pharisee “in observance of the law” (Phil 3:5), and yet he becomes the great “Apostle to the Gentiles.” In the early dispute within the Church about continued observance of Jewish customs and practices (especially circumcision), Paul clearly comes down on the side of letting those pass. Paul never says that the many laws of the Torah are bad but that they are no longer necessary. This law has served its purpose, is fulfilled in Christ, and summed up in the supreme law of love of God and neighbor.
Jesus’ own approach to “the law” can be confusing at times. For example, early in the Sermon on the Mount he seems to have a very high regard for the law (Mt 5:17-19) and in his life and ministry he is an observant Jew, keeping the various feasts and following Jewish practice. Yet, Jesus also challenged what he saw as a merely external or superficial observance of the law by some, specifically the scribes and Pharisees. He says of them, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Mt 23:3). It is clear that Jesus’ main issue with “the law” is not the law itself but hypocrisy. He often chides those who have forgotten the purpose of the law, namely, to draw God’s people into covenant relationship and to serve as sign of that covenant. Jesus is not a “rules guy” exactly (as in rules for their own sake) but neither is he some kind of anarchist who came to dismantle the law in favor of just being nice, as he is popularly presented.
Some things in “the law” do change with Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel we find the justification for the undoing of Jewish dietary restrictions when Jesus says, “Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine.” Then, interestingly, Mark offers his own parenthetical commentary within the passage by noting, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mk 7:18-19). This idea is picked up again in St. Peter’s vision in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:9-16) and I for one am grateful, especially for bacon.
We can definitely say that neither Jesus nor Paul advocate for any kind of abandonment of the Ten Commandments, that core of the law given to God’s people on Sinai. If anything, we would have to argue that Jesus intensifies the requirements of commandments, as we see also in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:21-48).
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org)