The Pope's First Jesus Book—- Sermon on the Mount 4.2

At the beginning of the discussion of the Torah of the Messiah (p. 100) the Pope takes on the difficult saying in Mt. 5.17-19, about Jesus coming to fulfill not abolish the Law and the Prophets.   The first thing I would want to stress about this is that the verb fulfill is the eschatological language meaning come to pass, complete, bring to pass (in the present).  Secondly, Jesus does not just refer to the Law, but to the Law and the Prophets, probably shorthand for the whole Hebrew Scriptures—  Jesus is the fulfillment of it all, the Law included.   The Pope makes the interesting point from the first that to fulfill the Law requires a surplus of righteousness, not a deficit, hence the saying about ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…..’   The dialogue with Neusner’s book begins on p. 103 and is very interesting.  At heart, the essential objection that Neusner has to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is the  ‘I’ that Jesus interjects into the conversation—- ‘come and follow me’  he says, not come and follow Torah.  That is he is objecting to the not so implicit Christology in the Sermon.   Here, Neusner is right, and he says this is further illustrated by Jesus’ approach to three fundamental commandments— to honor one’s parents, to keep the Sabbath,  and the commandment to be holy as God is holy.  In the story of the rich young ruler, Neusner concludes Jesus is trying to persuade the young man to cease obeying these three commandments and follow him and adhere to his teaching.   I think Neusner is basically right here, in which case we cannot take the ‘I came to fulfill the Law….’  Saying in a narrow way as if it meant I came to simply reinscribe, endorse, and reinforce the old covenant commandments.  This Jesus did not do, and this is not what he meant.  Indeed, Jesus is declaring a news covenant with a new law, some of which indeed is a repeat of Mosaic law, but some of which is definitely not a rerun.   And in such cases, fulfill, for instance with the Sabbath commandment must mean complete, and then supercede, or something like that.   One of the most interesting points made by Neusner and reiterated in the Pope’s book  p. 108 comes in dealing with the story about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath and Jesus’ pointing to the precedent of David eating the showbread.  Neusner concludes Jesus is saying that he and his disciples stand in the place of the priests who were allowed to eat such food on the Sabbath  and so the holy place has shifted from the temple to Jesus and his circle of the disciples, and Neusner finds this quite unacceptable.    Neusner connects all the passages in Mt. 11 and concludes  that Jesus teaches “My yoke is easy, I give you rest, the son of man is lord of the Sabbath indeed, because the son of man is now Israel’s Sabbath: how we act like God… Jesus  was not just another reforming rabbi, out to make life ‘easier’ for people…No the issue is not that the burden is light… Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue”  (pp. 86-87 in Neusner cited on p. 112 of the Pope’s book).  If Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is implicitly claiming to be God, according to Neusner, and this is unacceptable to him.

At this point the Pope jumps in and says,  yes, Jesus is in fact claiming to be Torah, that is the Word of God come in person.   So the prologue of John 1 makes the same claim as this material in the Synoptics.  Jesus is not merely the exegesis of the Father, he and the Father are one.   Jesus is not just the presupposition to NT theology, but its heart and center the Gospel about the kingdom is the Gospel about its king.   Jesus claims to be both Temple and Torah,  and thereby to redefine Israel, as those connected to him.   Whereas the Sabbath defined and held together Israel before, now it’s focus is on Jesus, the peace of God.

One of the more interesting insights of Jacob Neusner is that he sees the heart of the social structure of Israel lying in the continuation of the Jewish family beginning with Abraham and continuing until now.  In other words, the family is at the heart of Jewish religion, and says Neusner, Jesus definitely calls that primacy of place of the family into question.  I think Neusner is right about this and he alludes to Mk. 3.31-35 and its parallel in Mt. 12.   This aspect of Jesus’ teaching of course is not just threatening to the social structure of Israel, it is also threatening to the social structure of a Christianity that would make the church the servant of the physical family or all about the physical family, rather than a subset of the family of faith.   The implicit claim of Jesus is that he and his band of disciples are now the new center of Israel or the center of a new Israel (p.  114).   Neusner admits that rabbis did call for students to come and sacrifice family time and study Torah, and Torah became their primary focus a good deal of the time, but this is not what Jesus’ is doing. He is making himself the primary focus, the center around which the community turns.  The disciples must adhere to Jesus and his teaching rather than just Torah, which is one part of Jesus’ teaching.   Neusner then concludes  “I now realize only God can ask of me what Jesus is asking” (p. 68 in Neusner’s book, p. 115 in the Pope’s book).   Only God can handle the Torah with the sovereign freedom Jesus does,  and so of course Neusner concludes he cannot become a disciple of this Jesus.    And there are good hard questions a Jew will raise about this Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels: 1) did he restore the kingdom to Israel when he came—- no he did not;  2) did he bring world peace in any obvious outward sense—- no he did not;  3) did he overcome major world problems like poverty and hunger—- no he did not.    What then did this Jesus accomplish?   The Pope’s answer is that he took on the role of Israel of being a light to the world,  and  “he has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God. He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world.”  (p. 116).

Lest we think the Christology swallows up theology at this point,  the Pope stresses that Jesus does not stand as an isolated ‘I’,  and what he ushers people into is not merely a relationship with himself, but with his Abba, the God of Israel.  With the ‘I’ comes communion with the Father through the Son for all persons, even Gentiles.   I think both the Pope and Neusner are right, that if Jesus was and is not the divine Son, then his teaching does indeed entice us away from some of the fundamentals of the Mosaic Law, including some of the ten commandments.   What Neusner and the Pope have in common is they both rightly recognize how radical Jesus was.   The Pope’s view is that the concerns of the Sabbath law are taken up and incorporated into the Christian Lord’s Day observance.   This I think is a yes, and a no, just as the church’s concern for honoring parents is a yes, unless the family usurps the place of God in one’s life and priorities.

One of the interesting distinctions the Pope wants to make about OT law is the distinction between casuistic statements and apodictic laws.  The difference between the two is the former is more particular and addresses specific situations whereas the latter is more of a meta-norm or an unchanging principle.    The former has more to do with addressing the every changing situation with appropriate practices, the latter more to do with principles.  The OT then has an ongoing dialogue between norms and meta-norms.   Thus the Pope concludes that here is a hermeneutical key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount: “Within the Torah itself….we already see a contrast between changeable casuistic law, which shapes the social structure of a given time, and the essential principles of divine law itself in terms of which practical norms constantly have to be measured, developed, corrected.”  (p. 126).   In the Sermon on the Mount then,  Jesus is neither a rebel nor a lawbreaker nor a liberal rabbi, but rather one who takes the OT principles— God is one,   love God with whole heart and neighbor as self,  and extends them in various directions to enemies,  extends thou shalt not murder, to do no harm of any sort, and so shows which portions of the OT were situation specific, and which were not.     A truth can be either a timely truth, or a timeless truth, and Jesus is saying that the casuistic parts of OT law are timely truths, which can be fulfilled by going beyond them in accordance with the fundamental principles.    What is entirely missing in this discussion, is the issue of covenants, and the relationship of the new covenant to the Mosaic one.

  • Jaymes

    Thanks Professor Witherington for this treatment!

    I wish we could talk about Jesus, the sermon on the Mount & Plain and parables all day. Not that I am some red letter Christian alone, it is just that my love affair with Paul has diminished in light of my growing love for Jesus.

    I have learned more in the two post interacting with the Pope about the Sermon on the Mount then I did with your treatment of it in your Commentary on Matthew. Here you are much more direct and sure of your view, whether controversial or not. I may be assuming too much, but it seemed you were trying to not ruffle feathers in your commentary. Though I do appreciate the commentary immensely for the discussion of Jesus as Wisdom.

    Either way, I love these posts. The interaction with Judaism through Neusner is fantastic. Some of the insights and conclusions really do seem to create such a vivid picture of Christ.

    Loving it!

  • Jarvis
  • crystal

    Professor Witherington,

    Are you planning to review the pope’s second book on Jesus too? I’d be interested in what you think of what he wrote about Pilate. I’d thought that most of the historical sources have Pilate being a pretty bad guy.

  • CJ Tan

    Dear Dr Ben,

    Your treatment of both the Pope and Neusner is remarkable. I agree with Jaymes; reading this post alone is worth many hours shifting through some commentaries.

    One question: How you treat Matt 23:1-3, given your present post?

    I find myself agreeing (and being enlightened) at many points in this post. I would only add that, being influenced by N.T. Wright, for me part of the eschatological fulfillment by Jesus of the Law & Prophets would be the return from exile and covenant renewal.

    What does Deut 30 say about covenant renewal? That the people turn to the LORD and obey His commandments (Deut 30:1-10). Returning to the Law anticipates covenant renewal where the LORD will circumcise the people’s heart. Returning to the LORD through the Torah is the necessary sign of repentance for Israel just preceding the great renewal ushered in by Jesus whereby through His death and resurrection, Jesus puts the New Covenant into effect.

    I believe this might be one way to understand Matt 23:1-3 – Israel at the time of Jesus needed to go back to the heart of the Torah (perhaps the apodictic principles) – and by doing so, will be ready for the New Covenant when it comes, where paradoxically they would find that through Jesus, some of the old laws are superceded, some would be intensified and some added in (for e.g. the primacy of Jesus’ call over the family).

    Well, maybe. :-)

    In any case, thanks for refreshing our imaginations through this series of reviews.

    Blessings,
    CJ Tan


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