Christ as Definitive of Torah and Judaism – Not Their Dissolution

There is a time and space bending aspect to the gospel which is no mere metaphor. The time, space, and place Jesus occupies, according to the writers of the New Testament, is the beginning of all things (John 1:1), the place of Israel, and the Temple and, as Jesus says, before Abraham he is (John 8:58). This present tense presence of Jesus in the ancient past is an interpretive key deployed throughout the New Testament. The 7th day of rest is, according to the writer of Hebrews, an ongoing reality encompassing all of human history (Heb. 4:6). Paul identifies Christ with the rock in the wilderness of Sin: “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10-2-4). Matthew identifies Christ with Israel, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). Jesus, in the middle of history, is the beginning, the door to the seventh day, the one present now before Abraham. The early church fathers will continue to identify Christ directly with Adam, Moses, and Joshua, so that Jesus is the subject of the Hebrew Scriptures. Our tendency may be to dismiss this as allegory or metaphor, and in doing so we may cling to a flat consecutive ordering of time and history, and thus miss how it is that the events surrounding Christ fold back to the alpha and forward to the omega of all of history (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).

Maximus formula captures the time and space bending nature of the incarnation: “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[1] As Maximus explains it: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings.”[2]

It is of doctrinal significance that the division which develops between Judaism and Christianity is gradual, in that Christianity was originally understood to occupy the same time and space, share the same scriptures, and even accord Torah the same primacy, such that Christians met in synagogues and were probably considered a sect of Jews. Magnus Zetterholm argues that the name, “Christian,” arises in Antioch because there may have been up to twenty to thirty synagogues in the city, and the designation may have come from the Christians or from their fellow Jews as a way of distinguishing their particular synagogue. As Zetterholm writes, “That Christianity eventually became a non-Jewish, separate religion does not mean that this separation must already have taken place by the first time we hear the term ‘Christian.’ The sources actually indicate the opposite.”[3]

But even to describe “Jews” in this fashion may already be anachronistic, if “Jew” is thought to specify a particular religion. Daniel Boyarin raises the question whether Jewish or Christian are categories which existed during the Second Temple period. The Greek term Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) simply means Judean or Jew, and meant something like the ways of the Judeans/Jews as a people. To imagine Jewish designates a religion with a singular and agreed upon essence is anachronistic and mistaken at several levels.

The same sort of development is seen in more recent history with terms like Hinduism (a British designation), which simply refers to the practices of the people on the subcontinent of India and until the British designated the category, did not exist as a singular religion or even a particular set of practices. The same thing is true in Japan. The religion known as Shintoism is a late development (of the Meiji Restoration) imposing the notion that the animistic practices of the various clans fit under a singular umbrella unified by State Shinto. The Meiji government debated whether to designate Shinto a religion or a national identity, and created laws that reflect contradictory conclusions at different points. The central government eventually sent out State Shinto missionaries to enforce unified practices on the variety of animistic “religions” practiced on the Islands of Japan.

 So too “Judaism” is an open-ended term, according to Boyarin, “talking about the complex of rituals and other practices, beliefs and values, history and political loyalties that constituted allegiance to the People of Israel, not a religion called Judaism.”[4] In turn, “Most (if not all) of the ideas and practices of the Jesus movement of the first century and the beginning of the second century—and even later—can be safely understood as part of the ideas and practices that we understand to be ‘Judaism.’”[5] But Judaism, is not a closed set of ideas or a unified understanding, as Jews were broken into ever dividing factions, arguing over what constituted the essence of their religion.

Gregory Knight maintains, “The Pharisees were a kind of reform movement within the Jewish people that was centered on Jerusalem and Judaea. The Pharisees sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and Torah, a way of thinking that incorporated seeming changes in the written Torah’s practices that were mandated by what the Pharisees called ‘the tradition of the Elders.’” Knight refines the usual understanding of Pharisees and Sadducees: “Traditionally, scholars have portrayed the Sadducees as strict interpretationalists who accepted nothing as binding except the literal language of the Torah. At the other extreme, the Pharisees have been portrayed as the more progressive sect which accepted the whole corpus of traditional law-the ‘Oral Torah’-that had developed around the written Torah.”[6] Knight notes that this is a generalization that will not hold in that “the Sadducees were not completely averse to the traditional law nor were the Pharisees always the more lenient, tradition-bound group.”[7] Sorting out this difference though, will not begin to settle the issue of what is essential to being Jewish. As Boyarin writes, “It is quite plausible, therefore, that other Jews, such as the Galilean Jesus, would reject angrily such ideas as an affront to the Torah and as sacrilege.”[8] The Zealots would, in turn, reject all forms of Judaism but their own.

The Apostle Paul describes Judaism as lacking an essence in the understanding of the Jews. He describes it, in Hegelian fashion, in that the mystery of the Jews is a mystery to the Jews. The essence of Judaism escapes Jews (2 Cor. 3:15).  “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14). Christ, in Matthew, describes a hollow emptiness (that of a tomb) in the Judaism of the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27). Where Christ is the “filling up” or fulness of the law (pleroma), the scribes and Pharisees are “full” (ἀνοµία) of emptiness. Their problem is not legalism but an active negation of the law. Jesus has no problem with law but with its emptying out, which is the mystery around which their Judaism revolves. Their focus on the letter takes the law as its own end but leaves out the doing: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them” (Matt. 23:2–3). Instead of “doing” the law the scribes and Pharisees are caught up in an outward adherence which misses the heart of the law. This absent center though, is the prototypical and universal human problem – culture, religion, or the individual subject revolves around a reified absence. This is the very definition of sin.

On the other hand, Christ is understood not as a disjunction or discontinuation of the law and the Hebrew scriptures, but as the point of mutual illumination. Matthew (chapter 1) depicts Jesus in two origin stories, which duplicate the book of Genesis (but here is the true origin or true Genesis). The word genesis (γένεσις) is used some ten times in the Septuagint version of Genesis and it is probable that by the time of Matthew’s writing “Genesis” had been adopted within Greek-speaking Jewish communities as the formal title of the book. The echo of Genesis is evident in the specific phrase “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah” – which literally reads, “the book of the genesis of Jesus.” (This phrase occurs in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1.)

The birth narrative (Matt. 1:22-23) contains the formula Matthew uses throughout his Gospel to describe Jesus’ relationship to Judaism. “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord.” “Fulfilled” can be read as, “to bring to its designed end” or “to bring to its fulness” (pleroma). Jesus is not depicted as challenging Judaism, but as standing within it – fulfilling it and even defining it. That is Judaism is not brought to its designed end apart from Christ.

The point of Matthew’s formula is too simplistically described as prophecy and fulfillment, as many of the passages he sights are not prophecy, but Jesus fills out the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew would say “fulfilled,” as Jesus, the substance, fills up the scriptures of Israel in a substantially new and unexpected way. Jesus is not moving beyond Torah, but embodies Torah. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Jesus is upholding, bringing to life, or bringing Torah to its designed end.

As Richard Hays writes: “Matthew’s language and imagery are from start to finish soaked in Scripture; he constantly presupposes the social and symbolic world rendered by the stories, songs, prophecies, laws, and wisdom teachings of Israel’s sacred texts.”[9] The world of the Hebrew scriptures is precisely the world occupied by Christ. As Roy Fisher describes, “Matthew is envisioned as incorporating Torah into his work, such that we now envision Matthew’s composition to be taking form within a Torah-formed space.”[10] As Zetterholm writes, “A Jew who came to embrace belief in Jesus as the Messiah could not be said to change one symbolic universe for another. To become a Messiah-believing Jew would rather represent a new orientation within the same symbolic universe.”[11]

Jesus is pictured as filling up the righteousness of the law (e.g., as in his baptism). When John objects to baptizing Jesus, he answers, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness (πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην)” (Matt. 3:15). Baptism marks the form, the relinquishing, the self-giving, which accomplishes the fulness of righteousness.  As Fisher notes, “baptism is the form righteousness takes. It is the proper doing necessary to inhabit the shape of δικαιοσύνην” (righteousness).[12] Of course, baptism is a work, or something Jesus does (and in Christian baptism, which all his followers do) but this doing is not over and against the law but is the laws completion. Jesus continually demonstrates his authority through his doing (e.g., baptism, teaching, healing, forgiving, and dying and rising). “This notion of πληρόω neither goes beyond Torah nor does it replace Torah. On the contrary, Matthew’s concept of fulfillment is the inhabiting of Torah through word and deed. This is how Jesus makes Torah complete.”[13]

 The Gospel of Matthew is a case in point of the time bending sense of Christ as the fulfillment (pleroma) and true subject of the Hebrew scriptures and the law, assigning them the definition (the authority and settled meaning) they always were to have. As with the other writers of the New Testament and the church fathers, it is not that Christ is beginning a new epoch in history (from old to new or from Jew to Christian) but Christ occupies and has always occupied the subject position of the Hebrew scriptures.  


[1] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[2] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties In Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios; Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 60.3.

[3] Magnus Zetterholm, The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation of Judaism and Christianity (London: Routledge, 2003), 96. Cited in Roy Allan Fisher, “Locating Matthew in Israel” (Unpublished dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2018) 92.

[4] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012) 2. Cited in Fisher, 18.

[5] Boyarin, viii.

[6] Gregory Knight, “The Pharisees and the Sadducees: Rethinking their Respective Outlooks on Jewish Law” 1993 BYU L. Rev. 925 (1993).

[7][7] Ibid, Knight.

[8] Boyarin, xiv.

[9] Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 109. Cited in Fisher, 56-57.

[10] Fisher, 57.

[11]Zetterholm, 6. Cited in Fisher, 91.

[12] Fisher, 84.

[13] Fisher, 87.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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