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051  The Law: What It Is

Greetings, all.

I've been silent for another spell, this time because Shelly and I have been preparing to move back to Massachusetts so Shelly can be closer to her boys. We'll be moving to Wareham, MA next week. I hope to get back into a regular routine of newsletters after we're unpacked.

I've discovered that an awful lot of Christians don't know what Paul meant by "the Law." 

Some think that "the Law" means the Old Testament, and that when Paul said "You are not under Law but under grace" (Romans 6:14b), what he meant was that you don't have to listen to the Old Testament anymore, only to the New Testament.

That's just...wrong. In his fairly brief set of 13 letters in the New Testament, Paul quoted the Old Testament more than 100 times, always intending for it to be taken as authoritative. When Paul reminded Timothy of the scriptures he had read as a boy that were "able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" and declared furthermore that "All scripture is breathed out by God" (II Timothy 3:15b-16a), it was about Old Testament scriptures that he was speaking. 

If he was saying that the Old Testament was no longer relevant, he would not have said those things nor used the Old Testament so freely. Clearly, Paul thought that the Old Testament is still relevant. And so it is.

Some others think that "the Law" meant the Ten Commandments, and similar to that, still others think that "the Law" meant the Pentateuch (these are actually closer than most, as I'll explain in a bit.) And some think he meant "any type of good works," which is absurd; God wants good works from us (see Ephesians 2:10 if you doubt me). 

So let me try to explain, from my knowledge of first century (and modern) Judaism, what Paul and Jesus would have meant by "the Law."

In the days of the Hebrew monarchy, Solomon built a beautiful temple in Jerusalem for the worship of YHWH. Then the Israelites became unfaithful to YHWH, and after about 800 years of patience, YHWH allowed them to be conquered by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II and the temple was destroyed.

The Hebrews taken captive into Babylon had to develop a form of their religion that did not rely on the temple. What they developed focused on the Law that had been given to Moses, which they had in the form of five scrolls called B'raysheet, Shemot, Vayikrah, Bamidbar, and D'varim. We call them by their Greek names: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The collection of these five books, they called "Torah."

As scholars that they called "Rabbis" studied the Torah, they parsed out more than 600 specific commands, but they found that there was not much detail explaining how to keep those commands. For example, it said that the Israelites were not to carry any burden on the Sabbath, but it did not explain what was meant by "burden." If a man took off his coat on a hot day and draped it over his arm, was he carrying a burden? If he carried three loaves of bread through his house to give them to a beggar at his door, had he carried a burden?

So, the Rabbis developed a long series of discussions around the Torah to explain how to keep the laws. At first these discussions were oral, and Jews to this day speak of them as the "Oral Law" that accompanies the Torah. 

Some of the Hebrews returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, but a lot of them remained in Babylon and then gradually spread around the known world from there. They continued to practice the portable, Torah-based religion wherever they went, meeting in public meeting houses called "synagogues" and being taught by Rabbis.

This Torah-based form of Judaism is what was called, in the days of the New Testament, "Pharisaic Judaism." Those who taught and maintained the Oral Law were called "Pharisees." The major center of their religion, where many of the Rabbis lived and worked, was the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in towns like Tiberias and Capernaum, the same area where Jesus ministered.

In the 100 years after Jesus died and was resurrected, the Jews fought three separate wars of independence against the Romans and lost all three. So many Rabbis were killed in those days that those who were left to maintain the Oral Law were afraid it would be forgotten. So, starting around 200 CE, they wrote down the Oral Law and some of the discussion about it by the Rabbis. The explanation of the Law organized by legal topic, they called "Mishnah," and the Rabbinic discussion surrounding it they called "Gemarah." They collated these two books together and called the result "Talmud." The Talmud was finished around 500 CE. It is still very much in use today, though most American Jews know little of it.

Jewish students in Jesus' day and afterward spent their time learning the Torah and the Talmud from the Rabbis (the Talmud was only oral in Jesus' day). The Rabbis would also tell their students stories to illustrate points of law from the Torah. Some of these come to us slightly modified in the form of Jesus' parables. Others the Jews maintain as illustrative stories called "midrashim."

This entire system of law--the 600-odd commands from the Torah, the Torah narratives, the 63 tracts of the Mishnah, the commentaries in Gemara, and the various midrashim and discussions used by the Rabbis to teach Torah--the Jews call "halakhah." You know how modern Muslims attempt to impose Muslim law wherever they go and call that law "Sharia?"  Halakhah is the Jewish counterpart to Sharia; only, Jews don't impose halakhah on non-Jews, they do whatever they can to accommodate the laws of whatever land they're living in.

Learn that word, "halakhah," and understand all that's involved in it. When a Jew says "the Law," sometimes he's referring in the narrow sense to the five books of Moses, the Torah; but often he's referring in the wider sense to the entire system of laws, halakha. 

You can read more about it at

Halakhah is what Paul meant when he spoke of "the Law." It's also what Jesus meant. Much of Jesus' criticism of the Law was specifically about how halakhah deviated from God's intent; see Mark 7:1-13 for an example of Jesus' reaction.

It is important to notice that at no time did "the Law" refer to any part of the Old Testament other than the first five books. Sometimes "Law" means just the five books, and sometimes it means "all halakhah," but it never includes the prophets, the Psalms, the narratives about Ruth, Esther, Job, or Daniel, the books of the Kings or the Chronicles, or any other Old Testament book.

The arrival of the Messiah signaled that the end times from Jewish eschatology, written about by the Hebrew prophets, were coming to pass. As the Apostles carried the message to non-Jews in obedience to Jesus, there arose an enormous issue of how non-Jews were to become members of the redeemed community. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 decided that they did not have to practice halakhah; they only had to keep a handful of laws that prevented them from worshiping idols.

So when Paul said "You are not under law but under grace," he was saying "You don't have to practice halakhah, you're members of God's redeemed community simply by embracing Jesus, the Messiah."

Now, that is not the only thing they could have meant where the word "Law" appears in the New Testament. Where you see any passage in the New Testament that refers to "the Law and the Prophets" or some variant of that ("Moses and the Prophets," "the Law of Moses and the Prophets," etc.) that's actually a reference to the Jewish canon of scripture, which we would call the Old Testament. I'll explain how that works next time, and how it interacts with halakhah.

For now, though, understand that Paul was not dismissing the Old Testament nor declaring an end to Jewish law. He was just telling non-Jews that they did not have to become Jews in order to be accepted by God.

You'll get more Jewishness once I'm settled in Wareham, MA. See you then.


Phil Weingart


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