Did Jesus try to start a new religion?

Did Jesus try to start a new religion? October 23, 2014

Sometimes it is asserted that Jesus’ emphasis on the “weightier things of the Torah” (Matt 23.23) meant indifference to the rest of Torah. But this appeal to higher principles within the Torah was not uncommon in the rabbinic tradition. First-century Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai, for example, used Hos. 6.6, just as Jesus did, to argue that deeds of kindness are more important than Temple sacrifices.[1]

Jesus continued to appeal to Torah purity laws, such as when he warned of walking over unmarked graves (Lk 11.44) and giving dogs what is holy (Matt 7.6), not to mention his bidding unclean spirits to enter pigs that would rush off a cliff into the sea (Mk 5.1-13). As we have already seen, he approved of the need for priestly purification after leprosy. He regarded camels and gnats as unclean (Matt 23.24), and, as Marcus Bockmuehl puts it, was “not entirely at ease with Gentiles and Samaritans (Matt 10.5; 18.17; Mk 7.26-27), even if these boundaries [were] on occasion signally transcended.”[2] Therefore he did not abolish the distinction between clean and unclean or the purity laws generally. He denounced what he saw as a discrepancy between the words and actions of Pharisees, but not their attention to ritual observance per se. In an oft-missed aside, Jesus commands his disciples to “practice and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you” (Matt 23.3a).

Jesus affirmed the sanctity of the Sabbath by arguing about its purpose (Mk 3.4), not its validity. He said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The oral rabbinic tradition, later written down in the Mishna, said something very similar: since the purpose of the Sabbath was life, it was permissible for midwives to work on the Sabbath, and to light a fire and boil water. As the Mishna put it, “Whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath.”[3] Interestingly, Matthew’s version of the story says the disciples epeínasan (were hungry 12.1), and were perhaps fainting. Furthermore, Jesus appealed to David’s example in the broader Torah, Tanach, to justify this practice on the Sabbath. If he did not believe in the sanctity of the Sabbath, why did he tell his disciples to pray that the days of tribulation would not cause them to flee on the Sabbath (Matt 24.20)?

Daniel Boyarin, the Talmud scholar at Berkeley, agrees with this interpretation of Jesus and Sabbath. He has recently argued that Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath violated not Torah restrictions but rigorist innovations made by certain (not all) Pharisees. It was “an ancient halakhic principle that the Sabbath may be violated for human welfare,” and later traditions of the Rabbis used arguments similar to those made by Jesus. For example, in the Mekhilta tractate of the Mishna, Rabbi Natan says, “Profane one Sabbath for [the sick person] in order that he may keep many Sabbaths!”[4]

Boyarin says that when Jesus defended his disciples by appealing to the example of David eating the showbread in the house of God, this was “not an attack on the Law or on alleged pharasic legalism but an apocalyptic declaration of a new moment in history in which a new Lord, the Son of Man, has been appointed over the Law.” This is what Jews would expect of a redeemer king in the end times—that he would be Lord of the Sabbath, just as Jesus said. Rather than starting a new religion, Jesus’ use of Son of Man language and treatment of the Sabbath to serve human need were “common coin—which . . . does not mean universal or uncontested—of Judaism already before Jesus.”[5]

For more evidence that Jesus did not set aside Torah or repudiate rabbinic traditions based on Torah, consider the following. He approved of tithing (Matt 23.23b) and wore tassels on his garments. The same Greek root– kraspedon—-is used for the “fringe” of Jesus’ garment which was touched by the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years and the sick in Gennesaret, the fringes which the Pharisees wore long, and the tassels (kraspeda) God commanded his people to wear in the Septuagint (Matt 9.20; 14.36; 23.5; Num 15.37-39).

Perhaps the most allegedly “law-free” statement of Jesus is the response he gave to a disciple whose father had died: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt 8.22). Bockmuehl has argued at length that this cannot be used to illustrate a casual attitude to the Law. While the Torah commands children to bury their parents, it excepts High Priests and Nazirites (Lev 21.11-12 and Num 6.6). Jesus’ vow not to “drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” has parallels with Nazirite vows in the Mishnah, and Nazirite vows were “extremely popular in first-century Palestine” where “obligation to purity before God was [regarded as ] greater even than . . . duty to parents.”[6] The implication is that this statement about the burial of one’s father cannot be the linchpin for a position that Jesus felt free to dispense with Mosaic law. It is also possible that this talmid’s father was not dead yet, and the son wanted to go home first, collect his inheritance at his father’s death, and then become a disciple. Jesus’ response then would have meant that the spiritually dead would bury their own.   Neither this story nor any other clearly shows that Jesus failed to uphold the moral or ceremonial law—a distinction, by the way, that is foreign to Judaism in early Second Temple Judaism. Law was law, every bit normative, though not every bit equally important.

Skeptics might still object, But what about Mark’s claim that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7.19)? Doesn’t this prove that Jesus rejected Mosaic distinctions between foods that are kosher and foods that are not?

Boyarin insists that Jesus was defending Torah in Mark 7 when he said all foods are clean. “According to the Torah, only that which comes out of the body (fluxes of various types) can contaminate, not foods that go in.” When the Pharisees insisted that food itself contaminates, they were changing the law. They were confusing kosher rules (where some foods are “permitted” and others “not permitted”) with rules for purity and impurity, which were kept separate by Torah. According to Boyarin, Jesus’ dispute here with certain Pharisees had “absolutely nothing to do with abrogating the Law; it is just putting it in its place. The interpretation that Jesus gives is to interpret the deeper meaning of the Torah’s rules, not to set them aside.” Jesus, according to Boyarin, was defending written Torah against certain Pharisaic innovations which Jesus and other Galilean Jews considered radical.[7]

Boyarin goes even further. He says when the first Jesus movement claimed their messiah was divine and human at the same time, this was not a radical departure from the diverse Jewish streams of the first century. Before Jesus’ time, he shows, many Jews reasoned from Daniel 7 that the “one like a son of man” was a divine messiah because he sat on his own throne and would rule the whole world. “Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about in the Gospels of Mark and John.”[8] For example, we have evidence from the Similitudes of Enoch and Fourth Ezra that Jews in various circles were expecting a divine messiah “by at least the first century AD and probably earlier.”[9]

Finally, Boyarin rejects the commonly held view that the Jewish messiah was never expected to suffer vicariously. “The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following—indeed, well into the early modern period.”[10] Boyarin says that rabbis of the Talmud and midrash taught the vicarious sufferings of the messiah in Isaiah 53.

So there is plenty of evidence that Jesus regarded Torah as binding on him and his disciples—and that the early Jesus movement was making claims that were plausible within some streams of Jewish thought, if not all of them.

In other words, Jesus was not trying to start a new religion–but claiming to show the inner meaning of the Jewish tradition.


[1] Bockmuehl refers to the rabbinic kelal gadol ba-Torah, e.g. Rabbi Aquiba in y. Ned. 9.4, 41c36-7; Sifra Qedoshim 4 on Lev. 19.18, §200.3.7; Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 6, 8n. See also Shmuel Safrai,, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” Immanuel 24/25 (1990) ,147-86.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] M. Yoma 8.6; cited in Bockmuehl, 7.

[4] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012), 61, 63.

[5] Ibid., 67, 70.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid., 124-25.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 95.


[10] Ibid., 132.

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