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052  The Law and the Prophets

Today I get to delve into linguistics for a bit.

In normal usage we use the same words to mean different things and we expect other people to follow by the context. If I said to you, "I live in Allegheny County," you would know that I was talking about an area on a political map. If I then said, "Allegheny County votes for the Democrats in national elections," you would know that I was no longer talking just about lines on a map but rather about the registered voters who live inside those lines. And then if I said, "The county maintains the roads outside the Pittsburgh city limits," you would know that I was talking about the road crews that work for the county government.

Three different but related meanings for the word "county," but you would have followed right along without me having to explain because we share knowledge of the language and the culture.

In the same way, Paul used the word "law" for a lot of things, but did not feel as though he had to explain. Read Romans 7:22-23 for a sample. Paul used the word "law" (Greek, "nomos") to refer to four different things in a single sentence.

However, like most Jews, when he spoke of the thing that made Judaism distinctive, calling it "the Law," he meant one of two things: either

(1) the Torah, the five books of Moses, which are the heart of the Law; or

(2) halakhah, the entire system of Jewish Law, including the Torah, the legal explanations in the Mishnah, the Rabbis' comments in the Gemarra, the various stories and illustrations that illuminated the laws, the system by which Jews learned and lived within the laws--the whole thing. (I explained what all those things are in the last RfMemo. If you want to review, here's the link.)

This was the Law in which Paul had been trained, and to which he had given his life before he encountered Messiah. Following the pattern of Jewish boys of his day, Paul had likely memorized the Torah by the time he was 12, and memorized much of the rest of the scriptures by the time he was 20. He had become the talmid (disciple) of some authoritative Rabbi who had taught him his manner of interpreting the Torah; likely it was the great Rabbi Gamaliel, grandson of the even greater Rabbi Hillel, as Paul mentioned in Acts 22:3. These are names known to Jews who have studied the Talmud.

Paul would not have had to explain which way he meant "the Law." To those from his culture, what he meant would have been evident from the context, just like my meaning for "county" was evident from the context in my opening paragraphs.

I want to focus now on a particular use of the word "Law" that occurs about a dozen times in the New Testament, not just from Paul but also from Luke, Matthew, and Jesus. I'm talking about those instances where somebody combines "the Law" with "the Prophets" in a single phrase. Some variant of this phrase occurs in Matthew 5:17, Matthew 7:12, Matthew 11:13, Matthew 22:40, Luke 16:16, Luke 16:29 and 31, Luke 24:25-27, Luke 24:44-47, John 1:45, Acts 24:14, Acts 26:22, Acts 28:23, and Romans 3:21, and there are probably others that I didn't catch. (Notice that sometimes they refer to the Torah by saying, simply, "Moses.")

In order to understand what they meant by "the Law and the Prophets," I will have to explain how the Jews organize their Bible.

If you were to pick up a Bible printed by the Jewish Publication Society and look in the table of contents, you might be confused for a little while. It would start out looking familiar, but then it would skip Ruth and Job, Isaiah would show up where you would have expected the Psalms to be, the 12 minor prophets would be in the middle somewhere, the Psalms and Proverbs would be towards the back, and the last book in the volume would be Chronicles. All the books in the Protestant Old Testament would be there in the Jewish Bible, but in a different order.

The Jewish canon is organized into three sections:

1) Torah ("Instruction", also called "the Law"): the five books of Moses, the Hebrew names of which are B'raysheet, Shemot, Vayikrah, Bamidbar, and D'varim. We know them by their Greek/Latin names, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy;

2) Nevi'im ("Prophets"): the prophesies of the three major and twelve minor prophets plus those narrative works that tradition says were prophetic: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings;

3) Ketuvim ("Writings"): other narrative works, plus songs and poems.

It is interesting that while Samuel and Kings are in the Prophets, Chronicles is not; it's at the end of the Writings, Ketuvim. That's because in Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the books of Samuel and Kings as prophetic declaration to Israel, but Ezra wrote the Chronicles to instruct the Jews about their heritage after the captivity. Jeremiah was a prophet, Ezra was not. Similarly, Daniel does not appear in Nevi'im (Prophets) because sages in the Talmud considered Daniel a great man but not a prophet. And Lamentations appears in the Writings as well, apparently because the Rabbis don't think Jeremiah was writing prophetically when he wrote it.

The Jews call their Bible "Tanakh." If you look at the names of the sections, you can see why: "Tanakh" is an acronym. "T" is for Torah, "N" for Nevi'im, "K" for Ketuvim. T + N + K = "Tanakh."

As in most languages, we English-speakers sometimes refer to a thing by mentioning only part of that thing, or by mentioning something related. For instance, I could be talking to you about football and say, "Philly won by two touchdowns." You would know that "Philly" is short for Philadelphia, and from the context you would know that I'm not talking about the city, Philadelphia, but about the American football team, the Eagles, that calls Philadelphia its base of operations.

Or I might be going to the closing when I sell my house and say to somebody, "Let's get the suits in here with us." Everybody would know that I wasn't talking about fetching clothes, but rather fetching the lawyers (who all wear suits) to get the closing underway. I would have been referring to the lawyers by the clothes that they wear.

The formal terms describing these patterns of speech are "metonymy" (meh TAWN uh mee) and "synecdoche" (sin EK doh key): "metonymy" when the word being used is related to the thing being referenced, as when I called the Eagles "Philly;" "synecdoche" when the word being used is actually part of the thing being referenced, as when I referred to lawyers by their clothes, "suits."

In the same way, the people of Jesus' and Paul's culture would refer to parts of their Bible when they wanted to refer to the entire collection of books in the Bible. They would say "the Law and the Prophets" as a shorthand for saying "the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings." 

Knowing this makes a number of passages clearer. For instance, in Romans 3, Paul had just finished explaining that nobody will be justified (declared righteous in a legal sense) by keeping halakhah. But then he said this:

"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets…" (Romans 3:21, NASB).

The first use of "the Law" refers to halakhah, which Paul had been discussing for a couple of chapters. He had explained that Jews were not automatically acceptable to God just because they practiced halakhah.

The second use of "the Law," though, refers to Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures. We know this because Paul used that common synecdoche, "the Law and the Prophets." Paul was saying "Halakhah can't justify anybody, but in the scriptures God revealed a way for us to be justified."

Or consider Matthew 5:17. Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

Most interpreters think that Jesus was endorsing the Jewish Law, but they're mistaken. Because He mentioned "Law" and "Prophets" together, we know that He was referring to Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures. And when He went on to discuss those who keep "the Law" and teach others to do so, He was still talking about the scriptures, using "the Law" as synecdoche for His already-identified topic. The place where Jesus actually brought up the Jewish Law, halakhah, was verse 20: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Halakhah was how the scribes and Pharisees worked to obtain righteousness, and Jesus was saying "That sort of righteousness will never get you into the kingdom of heaven."

So many interpreters think that Jesus and Paul were contradicting each other, but in fact they were saying almost precisely the same thing: "Halakhah cannot get you into God's kingdom, but practicing what the scriptures reveal about pleasing God can."

I've given you some Jewish background with which to better understand the language that the Rabbis used who wrote the New Testament. Knowing what the words meant is a huge step toward understanding what they were trying to get across.

So, read the scriptures, both old and new. They'll make you wise and reveal God's plans to you. And after I've settled into my new place in Massachusetts, I'll be back to you. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer.

Phil Weingart


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