Law in the New Testament

Matthew V. Novenson

This article explores the theme of law in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Law is almost ubiquitous in the twenty-seven books comprising the New Testament, being a main theme in the letters of Paul and several Gospels, as well as parts of Acts and the Catholic letters. In these sources, ‘law’ almost always signifies the law of Moses, that is, the Torah or Pentateuch, which is to be expected because most of the books comprising the New Testament were written by ancient Jews, for most of whom the law of Moses was holy scripture par excellence. But the apostolic message of the death and resurrection of Christ had, and still has, an ambiguous relation to the law of Moses. Christ is usually reckoned to be, in some sense, the fulfilment or end of the law, but whether it follows that the law is therefore abolished, superseded, or otherwise set aside is a point of dispute within the New Testament itself and, relatedly, in the long tradition of Christian theology and ethics. This article surveys all the New Testament texts that expressly discuss law: Paul first and foremost, then Hebrews, James, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John. The article concludes by considering the challenge of law in Christian theology. The non-Marcionite church’s decision in favour of a two-testament Christian Bible built this problematic into the canon itself. Christ may be ‘the end of the law’, but this has certainly not prevented Christian theologians – any more than it did the apostles themselves – from using the law to think with.

1 Law as a presupposition of the New Testament

The small corpus of twenty-seven texts to which the North African theologian Tertullian gave the name novum testamentum, New Testament, contains nearly 200 mentions of the Greek word nomos (‘law’ or ‘custom’), most of which intend by that Greek word the same thing the Septuagint translators intended by it: the Torah of Moses, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in particular the 613 commandments contained therein. These almost 200 mentions of the law are not evenly distributed across the New Testament. Revelation does not mention the law at all, nor do any of the catholic epistles with the exception of James. Neither does the Gospel of Mark, though Matthew, Luke (with Acts), and John do very extensively. Additionally, the letters of Paul – a few of them, in particular – take the law as a primary theme. The upshot is that an extremely influential canon-within-the-canon – the Gospels plus Paul – have made the law a topic of enormous importance in Christian history and theology.

In one sense, this is unsurprising, given the time and place in which these twenty-seven texts were written. By the early Roman period, the Torah, the Prophets, and (less so) the Writings were widely recognized as holy books among many, perhaps most Jews for whom we have evidence, and the Torah (in Greek: nomos) enjoyed undisputed pride of place (Lim 2013). Samaritans recognized only the Torah, no other scriptures. Most Jews, in whatever part of the Mediterranean basin, recognized at least the Torah (albeit in different ways; see Collins 2017). When Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah, a century or so later than the New Testament) says, ‘Moses received the law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great synagogue’ (m. Avot 1:1), it nods to the remarkable authority accorded to the law in this period (and later; see Hayes 2017). All twenty-seven texts comprising the New Testament are, whatever else they may be, Jewish texts from the early Roman Empire. That is, all twenty-seven indisputably are about Jewish people, places, and things, and most of them probably were written by Jewish authors. It is no surprise, then, that they should have so much to say about the law of Moses.

But it is not just that the texts comprising the New Testament are Jewish. It is also that most of them – like some other contemporary Jewish texts, unlike some others – are concerned with announcing the coming of the messiah (in Greek: ‘Christ’) and the end of the current world order. They are, in other words, specifically eschatological or apocalyptic. And while neither eschatology nor apocalypse necessarily implies any change in the law (contrary to Schweitzer 1968: 189–193), it does at least raise the question of a possible change in the law. This, arguably, is the foremost reason why the question is posed so often and so sharply in the New Testament. The problem became even more acute beginning with Marcion in the mid-second century, once the New Testament as a literary canon came to be widely regarded by Christians as a body of divine revelation, comparable in canonical shape (though not in size) to the so-called vetus testamentum, Old Testament. Once this happened, as in the later case of the Qur’an in Islam, the question of the status of earlier bodies of divine revelation became as urgent as it was difficult. This complicated reception history will be considered in the final section of this article. First and most importantly, however, we will canvass in rough chronological order how the several component parts of the New Testament (Paul, other epistles, Gospels, Acts) parsed the question of the law in their respective first- and early second-century contexts.

2 ‘Christ the end of the law’: law in the letters of Paul

The authentic letters of Paul, of which there are (at least) seven – 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon – are earlier than any other New Testament or early Christian texts. What is more, they are the only such texts that certainly come from the period before 70 CE, when Titus’ Roman army razed the city of Jerusalem and, with it, the temple of God on Mount Zion. As such, Paul’s letters give us a rare window into this crucial forty-year period between the death of Jesus and the destruction of the holy city. In his busy apostolic career during this period, Paul wrote a great deal about the law, much of it animated and even polemical, in ways that would have enormous consequences in the later history of interpretation (see the widely varying accounts of Paul and the law in Räisänen 1983; Sanders 1983; Wright 1991; and Fredriksen 2017: 94–130, to cite just a handful of the most important).

2.1 Galatians and Romans

If any one New Testament text has pride of place in the history of Christian accounts of law, it is surely Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which was, among its other distinctions, Martin Luther’s favourite book in the Bible. Luther loved it because it seemed to him to give voice to his frustration with late medieval piety (confession, penance, indulgences, etc.). But the letter itself is a polemic about Jewish proselyte circumcision, which sometimes frames its quarrel as being with ‘works of the law’ as such (hence, in part, the scholarly debates over whether Paul opposes only one commandment or all of them, only for Gentiles or for all people, only pragmatically or out of principle, and so on; see Bird 2012). As Paul puts it in one famous passage (NRSVA here and throughout, unless stated otherwise):

All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law’ [Deut 27:26]. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’ [Hab 2:4]. But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them’ [Lev 18:5]. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ [Deut 21:23]—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:10–14)

‘The curse of the law’ in this passage is death itself, the maximum sentence to which transgressors of the law were liable (McCaulley 2019: 115–142), but also, alas, the inexorable fate of all human beings – until Christ, that is. Paul reasons that Christ ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law’, namely death, by undergoing that curse himself (i.e. dying), and then emerging into undying life. The resurrection of the dead; that is the ‘promise of the spirit’ referred to in the final clause above. The law did not effect resurrection, but the messiah does; that is Paul’s argument (Boakye 2017).

Paul arrives at this idea by reading one part of the Torah against another (Watson 2004). He reasons that God promised messiah, spirit, and resurrection through trust (pistis, often translated as ‘faith’) to father Abraham, hundreds of years before Moses. Whatever the law of Moses does, then, it cannot infringe God’s promise to Abraham:

The law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made. (Gal 3:17–19)

The ‘offspring’ here (sperma, literally ‘seed’) Paul says is the Messiah, Christ (Gal 3:16). What God promised to Abraham, God gave to Abraham’s seed, Christ (Hewitt 2019). In between Abraham and Christ was the epoch of the law, which God put in place ‘because of transgressions’, that is, as a moral safeguard for Israel. Or, as Paul describes it a few verses later, as a paidagogos, a ‘childminder’ or ‘disciplinarian’:

Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian. (Gal 3:23–25)

If, with the death and resurrection of Christ, the eschaton has come, then the age of Israel’s ‘childhood’ under the law is over; they have come into their inheritance as morally perfected pneumatic beings.

In his Letter to the Romans, probably written a few years later, Paul calls this eschatological turn of events ‘the end of the law’ (Rom 10:4). (Paul’s Greek word telos, like the English equivalency ‘end’, can mean either goal or cessation, which is yet another bone of contention among interpreters of Paul.) The rhetoric of Romans is rather more moderate than that of Galatians (Novenson 2022). In this letter, Paul writes to commend himself to a group of Christ-believers who he hopes will offer him hospitality on his journey westward to Spain (Rom 15:24–28). To them he presents his view that the Christ announcement is both apart from but also attested by the law. He writes:

For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ [Ps 143:2] by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom 3:20–22)

Paul is able to have it both ways; he insists that the law is on the side of his Christ announcement (gospel), as a witness to it, but also that the Christ announcement transcends the law.

This is consistent with what he says later in the letter: that one gets delivered from the law of sin and death by none other than the law of the spirit of life. In a famous rhetorical speech-in-character in Romans 7, Paul writes:

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 7:22–8:4)

Interpreters have long debated, and continue to debate, who the ‘I’ is who experiences all these things: Paul himself, Adam, Eve, Israel, every human, every Gentile? The closest thing to an answer that Paul gives is Rom 7:1: ‘I speak for those who know the law’. The speech in Romans 7 is a highly rhetorical demonstration of the point that, although the law itself is certainly not sinful (Rom 7:7), it belongs to the age of human sinfulness (Meyer 2004). The law exercises benevolent jurisdiction over that age, but it cannot put an end to it. Only the Messiah can do that.

Further on in the letter, Paul wrestles with (what he sees as) the demographic problem that most of his fellow Jews do not agree with his conviction that the eschaton has arrived with the death and resurrection of the messiah. Most are content simply to carry on with the law of Moses, as they and their ancestors have done for many generations. But as Paul sees it, this means that his co-ethnics have so far failed to recognize the appearing of the eschatological righteousness of God:

I can testify that they [Israel] have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom 10:2–4)

Paul’s point here about Israel ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness’ is not – contrary to some later Christian polemical interpretations – an objection to supposed legalism or moral self-reliance. It is, rather, Paul’s explanation for how it is that many good, pious Jews can go right on following the ancestral traditions as if the end of the ages had not arrived (as, so far as they could tell, it had not). This passage is, in other words, precisely about the awkward fit between law and eschatology (Schweitzer 1968: 189–193).

2.2 Other Pauline letters

The other authentic letters of Paul have much less to say about the law (indeed, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Corinthians, and Philemon do not mention it at all!). Paul’s Letter to the Philippians includes one text – a rhetorical quarrel with certain rival teachers, reminiscent of Galatians – that replays some key notes from Galatians and Romans:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil 3:4–9)

There is such a thing, Paul says, as ‘righteousness in the law’, at which he likes to think he excels (‘blameless’!). But the maximal, eschatological righteousness of God (‘the righteousness from Christ-faith’) is something more than this, something trans-legal, beyond law.

This idea likewise lies behind a curious text in 1 Corinthians in which Paul proclaims his own supposedly boundless adaptability to people of all kinds:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. (1 Cor 9:19–20)

The key thing for our purposes is that Paul here reckons that he is not himself ‘under the law’, not subject to the human limitations for which it legislates, although he can condescend to make himself like such people. This recalls what he says about himself and other people-in-Christ elsewhere: ‘You are not under the law but under the gift’ (Rom 6:14, present author’s translation); ‘[i]f you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law’ (Gal 5:18, present author’s translation).

Near the end of 1 Corinthians, in a passage all about the physics of resurrection bodies and not otherwise concerned with issues of law, Paul writes this very telling sentence:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory [Isa 25:8]. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? [Hos 13:14] The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Cor 15:54–56)

The resurrection of the dead, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and – in Paul’s view – will very soon be complete, means an end to sin, death, and the law. The point is not, Paul insists, that the law is inherently bad; quite the contrary. But the law does legislate for people who sin and die, and in that respect, Paul reckons, it belongs to the cosmic past. From now on, people-in-Christ live a new, immortal kind of life (1 Cor 7:29).

2.3 Deutero-Pauline letters

Beyond the seven letters more or less from Paul’s own hand, there are a number of other letters, both within and outside the canonical New Testament, attributed to Paul but probably not written by him. (Within: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Outside: 3 Corinthians, Laodiceans, Letters of Paul to Seneca.) These deutero-Pauline letters tend not to say nearly as much about the law as the authentic letters of Paul do, but they do make several interesting claims.

The Epistle to the Ephesians once discusses the law of Moses in regard to the relation between Jews and Gentiles, in a way that suggests it is glossing Paul’s own comments in Galatians and Romans. The author writes:

For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. (Eph 2:14–15)

As the author of Ephesians sees it, Christ had to abolish (katargeo) the law in order to reconcile Jews and Gentiles. This goes beyond anything Paul says in the authentic letters – where the righteous are discharged (katargeo) from the law (Rom 7:6), but the law itself is not abolished (Rom 3:31) – and is, arguably, evidence of a different author at work. But it is also recognizable as an interpretation of what Paul says about Jews, Gentiles, and the law (Thiessen 2019).

The First Epistle to Timothy, which is written later and by a different author from the Epistle to the Ephesians, is further away from the idiom of the authentic letters in its lone discourse on the law. The author worries that some people in his circles want to be nomodidaskaloi, law-teachers, but they do not understand (what he thinks is) the purpose of the law. He writes:

Some people have deviated from these [virtues] and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately [lit. ‘lawfully’]. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient. (1 Tim 1:6–9)

There are perhaps some hints of Pauline ideas here (e.g. that the righteous person lives beyond the law; Ehrensperger 2019), but for the most part this passage reflects its own, quite different context of disputes over law and law-teaching in early Christian assemblies. Ironically, 1 Timothy sounds the most non-Pauline precisely when it tries to speak on that classically Pauline topic, the law.

3 ‘A change in the law’: law in the Epistle to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews owes its place in the canonical New Testament to its association with the apostle Paul, though it was almost certainly not written by him. Many early Christians took it to be Pauline, and there is at least the possibility that its author meant it to be perceived as Pauline (Rothschild 2009), but technically it is anonymous, giving no express indication of its author. Its theology is Pauline-adjacent, we might say: focused on the problem of the relation between the old covenant at Mount Sinai and the new covenant in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 3:4–18).

Unlike Paul, however, Hebrews is overwhelmingly concerned with the priestly sacrificial code in Leviticus; the rest of the Torah of Moses the author largely leaves aside. Hebrews figures Christ, in his death and resurrection, as both high priest and sacrificial victim (Moffitt 2011). Hence, he has to explain to himself and his audience what was ostensibly deficient in the priestly legislation, if indeed – as the author proposes – Christ did the same job better.

He finds the core of his solution in ‘new covenant’ prophecy of Jeremiah 31, in particular verse 33, which Hebrews quotes twice (Heb 8:10; 10:16): ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jer 31:33). Jeremiah’s prophecy was not actually about the priestly legislation, but it does include the idea that something about the covenant at Mount Sinai was insufficient, and Hebrews is happy to fill in what this something is.

The something in question, Hebrews says, is that the law of Moses did not make things perfect (teleios), whereas Christ’s offering in the heavenly temple does. On the subject of Christ being a priest like the immortal Melchizedek, not the mortal Aaron, Hebrews reasons, ‘[t]here is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God’ (Heb 7:18–19).

Elsewhere Hebrews maps this perfection/imperfection distinction onto another distinction, that between the (heavenly) thing itself and the (earthly) shadow or copy of it (this sounds a lot like Plato’s famous theory of the forms, though scholars continue to debate how far Hebrews should be characterized as Platonist [Adams 2009]). The author writes:

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb 10:1–4)

The law, in other words, legislates for the shadow cultus, where bulls and goats are offered, not the real, heavenly cultus, where God’s son himself is offered. That real, heavenly cultus lies beyond the law.

And yet Hebrews acknowledges that God himself gave the law, so he needs an account of why God would do so at all, if God knew (as of course God would know) that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins. The answer: it was not yet time for the Son of God to be appointed as heavenly high priest.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Heb 7:11–12)

As regards our question, this lattermost clause is a perfect summary of the epistle’s view: ‘When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well’ (Heb 7:12). Christ’s accession to the heavenly high priesthood is our author’s axiom; he reasons from that to the inference that there has been a corresponding change in the law. This change certainly pertains to the priestly sacrificial code; as for the rest of the law, it is hard to see how, or indeed whether, Hebrews thinks it has changed.

4 ‘The perfect law of liberty’: law in the Epistle of James

The Epistle of James stands out among the so-called catholic or general epistles for its particular interest in law. The letter is ostensibly written by a certain Iakobos or James (Jas 1:1) whose identity is otherwise not specified, but by whom the author may mean James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. In part because the authorial voice is relatively muted (contrast 2 Peter, for instance), many critics still argue that this is an authentic, mid-first-century letter of James the Just. Some conspicuous parallels with Romans, 1 Peter, Didache, and 2 Baruch, however, make it more likely that the letter comes from the turn of the second century (Allison 2013).

In any case, the most striking feature of the letter, for our purposes, is its affirmation of the law of Moses as the crown of divine revelation and the definitive rule for the ethical life (Jackson-McCabe 2000). In James there is not the slightest hint that the law of Moses is in any way abrogated, superseded, or otherwise toppled from its pedestal by ‘the faith of our lord Jesus Christ’ (Jas 2:1). So much so, in fact, that readers have long balked at this aspect of the letter. Martin Luther famously judged it to be sub-Christian and moved it to an appendix in his New Testament. A number of modern critics have hypothesized that James is actually a non-Christian Jewish text, only lightly interpolated with ill-fitting mentions of Jesus in Jas 1:1 and 2:1.

But these are desperate measures, warranted only by certain unfounded assumptions about what an ancient Christian writer would or would not say. What James shows us, in fact, is an important variety of early Christ devotion, in which piety is ordered around Jewish law and wisdom. James writes to the twelve tribes of Israel in the diaspora (1:1), urging them to listen to and obey God’s law: ‘Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing’ (Jas 1:25). That this ‘perfect law of liberty’ is the law of Moses, not some other hypothetical thing, becomes crystal clear when James cites particular commandments of the Torah as excerpts from it:

You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ [Lev 19:18]. But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ [Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18] also said, ‘You shall not murder’ [Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17]. Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. (Jas 2:8–12)

Here James calls it not only, again, ‘the law of liberty’ (2:12) but also ‘the royal or kingly law’ (2:8). This perfect, royal, liberating law is the law that contains the commandments: ‘You shall not murder’; ‘you shall not commit adultery’; and ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. James here appeals to the idea of the unity of the law: all the commandments are one, so that to break any of them is to break the whole law. And that law is the standard according to which God the king (hence ‘kingly law’ in 2:8) judges human beings (2:12). James returns to this theme again near the end of the letter, reasoning that, because human beings are judged by the law, they ought not judge one another:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour? (Jas 4:11–12)

One ought not judge one’s neighbour because to do so is to usurp the rightful place of the law and, to just that extent, to sit in judgment over the law itself, which is absurd, to James’ mind. Even here, where his ethic is not an exposition of particular commandments of the law, it nevertheless grounds its appeal in the inviolable status of the law. If this is not what we normally think of as a Christian view of the law, we should perhaps reassess our assumptions.

5 ‘I have not come to abolish the law’: law in the Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Mark – the earliest written of the four canonical Gospels – everywhere assumes the law of Moses as a religious context for the career of Jesus (e.g. ‘Offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded’ [Mark 1:44]; ‘Have you not read in the book of Moses?’ [Mark 12:26]), but it does not take up law as a theme of its discourse (for excellent recent discussions of legal reasoning in Mark, see Furstenberg 2008 and Williams Forthcoming). By contrast, the Gospel of Matthew – which uses and expands upon Mark – certainly does foreground the topic of law. If the Epistle of James (discussed above) assumes the abiding validity of the law of Moses, the Gospel of Matthew argues strenuously for it (Oliver 2013). As Jesus says in one famous passage attested only in the Gospel of Matthew:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17–20)

This passage seems to know and to reject the notion that Jesus did in fact come to abolish the law. Against any such idea, Matthew’s Jesus insists that he does not abolish but fulfils, that not a letter can pass away from the law, that keeping all the commandments is a virtue, and breaking any of them a vice. But where has Matthew heard the (hypothetical) suggestion that Jesus came to abolish the law?

He does not say where, but a number of interpreters have thought they heard echoes of Paul in the view that Matthew opposes (e.g. Sim 1998). If Paul insists that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ and that ‘those who are led by the spirit are not under the law’, then perhaps – so the theory goes – Matthew has heard these ideas from some of his coreligionists and rises in defence of the law of Moses, over against these Pauline Christ-believers (though not against Paul himself, who died approximately two decades before Matthew writes his Gospel). Such a scenario is indeed possible, although, as we have seen, Paul does not actually say that the law is abolished, so Matthew’s objection might seem not quite to the point. It is therefore possible that Matthew was objecting not to Paul but to some other rival idea otherwise unknown to us.

In any case, also unique to Matthew are a series of sayings of Jesus – conventionally called ‘the antitheses’ – in which Jesus cites commandments of Moses, then gives his own rulings on the same legal questions:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ [Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17]; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (Matt 5:21–22)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ [Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18]. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27–28)
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’ [Deut 24:1]. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery. (Matt 5:31–32)
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely [Lev 19:12], but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord’. But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. (Matt 5:33–35)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21]. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (Matt 5:38–39)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour [Lev 19:18] and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt 5:43–44)

In all of these sayings, Jesus contrasts his own legal rulings with those given by Moses (although he does not name Moses as the source). One might at first think that Jesus was simply replacing Moses’ law with his own, different one. But a close reading reveals that, in each saying, Matthew’s Jesus confirms and then raises the bar for keeping the commandment. His position is not anti-Mosaic but supra-Mosaic (Allison 1993): Do not commit adultery, or even lust after a woman! Do not swear falsely, or indeed at all! Love your neighbour, and even your enemy! And so on. This, perhaps, is what Matthew’s Jesus means by saying to his disciples that ‘your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees’ (Matt 5:20).

One final example of this motif: In Matthew 19, Jesus argues with some Pharisees about the permissibility of divorce in relation to the law of Moses. The text reads:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female” [Gen 1:27; 5:2], and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” [Gen 2:24]? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her [Deut 24:1]?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matt 19:3–9)

Here Jesus simultaneously concedes the validity of Moses’ ruling on divorce (permissible, as long as it is legally documented) and issues his own, more stringent ruling (no divorce at all, except in case of unchastity). He does so, ingeniously, by claiming that Moses’ ruling was a concession to the Israelites’ moral inability: an allowance for human hard-heartedness, but not the primeval or the eschatological ideal. Matthew’s Jesus, however, holds his disciples to (what he says is) the primeval and the eschatological ideal. He asserts his authority over against Moses, not in order to relax the commandments, but in order to intensify them. Some Christian readers, worried by the prospect of ‘legalism’ here, have thought that Matthew must implicitly assume the impossibility of such law observance – his exacting demands are meant to drive the reader to despair and then to Christ for forgiveness – but nothing in the Gospel itself suggests that idea. As Matthew tells it, Jesus evidently means what he says (on this aspect of Jesus’ teaching and the attendant hermeneutical problem for Christian readers, see especially Levine 2006).

6 ‘Everything according to the custom of the law’: law in Luke-Acts

The Gospel of Luke also knows and uses Mark (and perhaps uses Matthew, too, though this is much contested) and adds a great deal of new material to his life of Jesus. What is more, uniquely among all Gospel writers, canonical and non-canonical, Luke also writes a second volume about the work of the spirit amongst Jesus’ disciples. This latter we call the Acts of the Apostles, and the two volumes together we call Luke-Acts. Luke stresses the enduring authority of the law of Moses, not in a polemical way as Matthew does, but rather in an apologetic way: to plead for the continuity of the Christ movement with Jewish ancestral tradition (Oliver 2013).

Crucially, Luke’s two-volume work is bookended by narrative claims that Jesus and the apostles conducted themselves scrupulously in accordance with the law of Moses. Luke (and only Luke) tells a story about the newborn Jesus’ parents presenting him for dedication and circumcision at the Jerusalem temple:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’ [Exod 13:2, 12, 15]), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’ [Lev 5:11; 12:8]. (Luke 2:22–24; emphasis added)

Luke (and only Luke) also tells a story about the apostle Paul undertaking a vow at the Jerusalem temple (Acts 21:17–26), being wrongfully accused and arrested (Acts 21:27–36), then protesting to the end his innocence in relation to the law and the temple for which it legislates: ‘I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets’ (Acts 24:14). And again, ‘I have in no way committed an offence against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor’ (Acts 25:8; Marguerat 2009).

Luke’s insistence to this effect hints that he is familiar with suggestions to the contrary: that Jesus, or Paul, or the Christ movement undermined the Jewish law. Indeed, Luke several times quotes accusations of this sort, precisely in order to refute them (Jervell 1971). For instance, Luke has some diaspora Jews from Asia and North Africa conspire against the pious Stephen by saying, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God’ (Acts 6:11); but Stephen’s subsequent speech vindicates him of this charge. Elsewhere, Luke has James explain to Paul, ‘[The Jews of Jerusalem] have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or obey the customs’ (Acts 21:21); but James and Paul then undertake to prove this rumour false.

One reason for this difference of understanding is Luke’s idea (reminiscent of Paul’s, discussed above, and perhaps dependent on it) that the law of Moses itself actually testifies to Jesus. Luke has the risen Jesus say as much: ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Luke 24:44). And Paul is still making the same point even at the very end of Acts: ‘From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets’ (Acts 28:23). The tricky thing, of course, is that not all readers of the law of Moses find Jesus there, as Luke does.

A second reason for this difference of understanding is that Luke-Acts is largely preoccupied with the spread of the Christ movement among the Gentiles, and the law of Moses does not apply to Gentiles as it does to Jews. On this point of legal reasoning, Luke is actually very well informed (Wilson 1983). In one crux passage in Acts 15, he narrates the apostles ruling on which commandments are incumbent upon Gentiles-in-Christ. James declares: ‘I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood’ (Acts 15:19–20). The striking thing here is that this ‘apostolic decree’ generally agrees with what we know of ancient Jewish opinion about the commandments incumbent upon Gentiles. It overlaps to a great extent with what later rabbinic sources discuss under the rubric of Noahide commandments (Zellentin 2022). In this respect, our author ‘Luke’, whoever he was, knew what he was talking about. Ironically, modern scholarship has often committed the very error that Luke’s narrative expressly corrects: mistakenly thinking that, because the apostles do not obligate the Gentiles to all 613 commandments, they therefore annul the law of Moses completely.

7 ‘The law through Moses, grace and truth through Jesus Christ’: law in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John was likely written after the three Synoptic Gospels. It seems to know at least Mark, and perhaps the others, as well. But it does not follow them nearly as closely as Matthew and Luke do Mark; John is much happier to go his own way. Regarding the law, though, John agrees with Luke that the law testifies to Jesus. Thus, in an early scene where the first disciples meet Jesus: ‘Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”’ (John 1:45). Later on, Jesus, arguing with a group of Jews, says about himself, ‘Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’ (John 5:45–47). In short, for John, as for Luke, Moses confirms the truth about Jesus. (Interestingly, John often speaks of ‘Moses’ the person rather than ‘law’ the text; see Harstine 2002.)

As this lattermost passage suggests, however, John’s discourse about the law also implies some bad blood between him and the characters he calls ‘the Jews’: ‘Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope’. John both claims Moses for his side as a witness to Jesus and acknowledges that there may be a certain rivalry between Moses and Jesus (Pancaro 1975). In one very telling story, John has a group of agitated Pharisees scold another Jewish man whom Jesus has just healed: ‘Then they [the Pharisees] reviled him [the man born blind], saying, “You are his [Jesus’s] disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from”’ (John 9:27–28). As these Pharisees see it, you can be a disciple of Jesus or a disciple of Moses, but not both.

One might think that John would reject this dichotomy, if indeed he thinks that the law of Moses bears witness to Jesus (Cirafesi 2022). But John nowhere explicitly rejects it, and he sometimes gives the impression of confirming it, or at least being resigned to it. At numerous points John refers to the law of Moses as ‘their’ or ‘your’ law, that is, the law of ‘the Jews’, as if it were not also the law of Jesus and his disciples. Thus John has Jesus reason with ‘the Jews’: ‘In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid’ (John 8:17). And elsewhere, in another argument with ‘the Jews’: ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods” [Ps 82:6]?’ (John 10:34). And elsewhere, speaking to his own disciples: ‘It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, “They hated me without a cause” [Ps 35:19; 69:4]’ (John 15:25). From these passages one might well get the impression that, for John, the law belongs to the hostile ‘Jews’, not to the disciples of Jesus. Moses for the one group, Jesus for the other, just as those Pharisees said (John 9:28).

But John himself never actually says as much, nor does he put this claim in the mouth of Jesus. The closest the authorial voice ever gets to this is the programmatic statement in the prologue to the Gospel: ‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). This Johannine watchword does not cast aspersions on the law of Moses, but it does imply that Jesus is the only fount of ‘grace and truth’. Moreover, it constructs a contrast between Moses and Jesus, which was a choice on the author’s part, a choice explained, perhaps, by some of the other passages noted above: ‘your law’, ‘disciples of Moses vs disciples of Jesus’, and so on. The social and religious context for this rhetoric remains a topic of dispute. According to one influential view, the Gospel of John reflects the late first-century experience of Jewish Christ-believers being forced out of their synagogues; hence the note of conflict between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ (note the neologism aposynagogos, ‘expelled from synagogue’ in John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2; see Martyn 2003). More recently, however, a formidable case has been made that, viewed historically, the Gospel of John is a supersessionist and even anti-Jewish text: the Gospel’s clash between Moses and Jesus represents a clash between Judaism and Christianity (Reinhartz 2018). If so, then it becomes all the more urgent for Christian readers to make humane theological and ethical sense of these passages (e.g. Bauckham and Mosser 2008), to give no quarter to Christian anti-Judaism.

8 Law as a challenge for Christian theology

Law poses a challenge for Christian theology and practice in a way that it does not do for other religious traditions, even closely related ones such as Judaism and Islam. Whereas these other religious traditions have little or no difficulty seeing divine law as a straightforward good, the Christian tradition has a history of ambivalence. On the one hand, Christianity has the same practical occasion for religious law as other traditions do (in regard to marriage and divorce, especially, as well as childbirth, property inheritance, holy days, food scruples, qualification for religious office, and more). Hence the venerable tradition of Christian theories of natural law (e.g. Porter 1999; and cf. Hayes 2015 on Jewish counterparts). On the other hand, however, integral to Christianity’s historical origins and authoritative texts is a theological quarrel with law, which has clashed in myriad ways down the centuries with the practical need for law.

8.1 The two-Testament Christian Bible

A large part of the theological problem here relates not to law specifically but to the more general phenomenon of successive corpora of divine revelation, whatever their specific content. As soon as a tradition admits this phenomenon, it straightaway raises the question of the relation of the newer revelation to the older. Can they be understood as being of two quite different kinds, having different jurisdictions, having different audiences, etc.? More often than not, to the extent that the newer and older revelations are understood as being, in some crucial sense, alike (especially in their coming from the same deity), the relation becomes a problem, and some variation on the idea of supersession suggests itself. Thus, for instance, did Samaritans reject the addition of the prophets and writings to the Torah, or Muslims theorize the corruption (tahrif) of the text of the Torah and the Gospel, or Latter-Day Saints give the Book of Mormon hermeneutical priority over the Old and New Testaments (Novenson 2021).

The majority Christian tradition took, and still takes, this lattermost route with the New Testament vis-à-vis the law of Moses. In mid second-century Rome, however, there was a moment when this might have gone differently. The Christian theologian Marcion of Sinope proposed a quite different account which was, for a time and in certain circles, extraordinarily influential (Bauer 1971; Lieu 2015). On Marcion’s account, the god revealed in the Gospel and the letters of Paul is an altogether different deity from the god who gave the law to Moses. Moses’ god is the demiurge and lawgiver, but Jesus’ god is a higher deity who had never revealed himself to humankind until he sent his son Jesus as saviour. For Marcion, then, there is no problem of supersession, because the one god is not the other. Two revelations, two gods, two audiences (Jews and Christians, respectively). It is an elegant solution, but it comes at the cost of monotheism.

It was in reaction against Marcion’s account that Tertullian formulated his rubric of the Old and New Testaments – one god, two successive corpora of divine revelation – which has been the official position of virtually all the Christian churches from late antiquity to the present. The theological challenge here, however, is to prevent the hermeneutical priority of the New Testament from overwhelming the canonical status of the Old Testament. And – an ethical corollary to this – to prevent Christian contempt toward Jews, who recognize the Hebrew Bible (or ‘Old Testament’, in Christian terms) but not the New Testament as scripture (Levine and Brettler 2020). If the history of Christian biblical interpretation has taught us anything, it has taught us how frighteningly easily Christians can, and still do, weaponize biblical texts to do harm to Jews and Judaism. (On this phenomenon, and the parade example of Protestant denigration of law, see Bakker et al. 2022.) Marcionism aside, though, there is no option for the churches but to continue struggling ethically to understand an irreducibly two-testament Christian Bible (Childs 1993).

8.2 The diverse views within the New Testament

As we have seen above, the New Testament itself does not speak with one voice about the law of Moses (let alone about the prophets and writings; Derrett 1970; Lindars 1988; Jackson 2008). On the one hand, this fact further complicates the Christian struggle to understand the Bible. On the other hand, however, it also provides Christian readers with multiple tools to use in the struggle. Depending on the particular problem at hand, Christian theologies of law might sometimes have good reason to draw upon, say, Paul’s vision of a kind of transhuman existence beyond law, or James’ pragmatic embrace of the guidance afforded by Moses, or Matthew’s uncompromising moral rigorism. The diverse New Testament perspectives explored in this article do not admit of easy harmonization. But perhaps they do not need harmonizing. Perhaps Christian theology and ethics are better off leaving all hermeneutical options on the table (Hays 1996).

8.3 The diverse paths taken by Christian theology

In historical fact, these various hermeneutical options have certainly served the churches very productively. Examples are myriad. The Roman Catholic principle of celibacy for people in religious orders follows, in a sense, the idea (attested in both Paul and the Gospels) of a pneumatic existence beyond sex, while the Church’s allowance for marriage among laypeople is an acknowledgment that the circumstances for which Moses legislated still obtain. Likewise, the prohibition of divorce in many churches follows Jesus’ rigorist position in Matthew 19, but the legal innovation of annulment (defined as not divorce) and expansive interpretations of the ‘unchastity’ exception clause give aggrieved spouses a range of options of which Moses might have approved.

Or consider the fascinating case of Pauline theologies of law in the Protestant churches (Linebaugh 2018). Luther gets the most credit (or blame), and deservedly so, for championing Paul’s radical idea of a pneumatic freedom beyond law. But Luther the realist had to admit that this idea resulted in the Christian being ‘simultaneously righteous and sinner’. By contrast, John Wesley’s perfectionist ideal, ‘entire sanctification’, is closer to what Paul – who was not the realist Luther was – actually says about moral possibility for people-in-Christ. Then again, also Pauline, in its own way, is the Calvinist and Reformed insistence on a tertius usus legis, a third use of the law of Moses, for ordering the Christian moral life. This is, in a way, even more realist than the Lutheran position, since it recognizes that Christians, being mortal, have the same practical need of religious law that Jews, Muslims, and other human beings do. Like the Epistle of James, this Reformed position sees no reason to make Moses the enemy of Jesus; it takes maximum advantage of the two-testament Christian Bible. Each of these very different Protestant accounts is in fact very Pauline, in its own way, and one cannot adjudicate between them simply by measuring them against scripture.

8.4 The diverse paths taken by Christian practice

A good deal of the diversity of Christian practice in regard to law maps onto the theological diversity just described (though not all of it, because none of us lives perfectly consistently with our theory). Most of the churches have in place some kind of system of religious law, but these vary widely in breadth and depth. Roman Catholic canon law is probably the most robust example, the canon laws of the several Eastern Orthodox churches rather less so. The Protestant churches, unsurprisingly, tend to have relatively less developed systems of religious law, although arguably none do without them entirely, even if they lack the nomenclature and infrastructure that ‘canon law’ implies. The Anglican churches fall at the more developed end of this spectrum, while the Reformed, for example, fall at the less developed end. Even the Reformed churches, however, have their ‘books of order’ for rendering judgments on ecclesiastical matters. Sometimes, too, Protestants of a biblicist persuasion have found biblical law rushing in to fill the vacuum left by Christian canon law, as among the Reformed advocates of ‘theonomy’, that is, the idea that the law of Moses should be the law of modern nation states.

The ongoing struggle to make sense of the law of Moses as Christian scripture is a factor, firstly, of canon: the New Testament texts themselves regard the law as scripture, and when the non-Marcionite churches chose to follow suit, they bought themselves not only a remarkably generative holy book but also a theological conundrum. And it is a factor, secondly, of empirical experience: although the churches confess that something eschatological happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus, they also know that Christians still experience sin and mortality. And there is perhaps nothing more human than having a religious law to help people cope with these realities. After all, even the apostle Paul thought that, for people who sin and die, the law of Moses is as good a custodian as one could hope for.


Copyright Matthew V. Novenson (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bockmuehl, Markus. 2000. Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
    • Crossley, James G. 2010. The New Testament and Jewish Law: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark.
    • Hayes, Christine. 2015. What’s Divine About Divine Law? Early Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    • Ralston, Joshua. 2020. Law and the Rule of God: A Christian Engagement with Sharia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Tomson, Peter J. 1990. Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Minneapolis: Fortress.
    • Zellentin, Holger M. 2022. Law Beyond Israel: From the Bible to the Quran. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Works cited

    • Adams, Edward. 2009. ‘The Cosmology of Hebrews’, in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. Edited by Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 122–139.
    • Allison, Dale C., Jr. 1993. The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Minneapolis: Fortress.
    • Allison, Dale C., Jr. 2013. James. International Critical Commentary. London: T&T Clark.
    • Bakker, Arjen F., René Bloch, Yael Fisch, Paula Fredriksen, and Hindy Najman (eds). 2022. Protestant Bible Scholarship: Antisemitism, Philosemitism, and Anti-Judaism. Leiden: Brill.
    • Bauckham, Richard, and Carl Mosser (eds). 2008. The Gospel of John and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Bauer, Walter. 1971. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Translated by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Kroedel. Philadelphia: Fortress.
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