Jesus and the Law: The Synoptics and Acts 

Professor Susan Docherty explores Jesus’ attitude towards the Law, and to Jewish religious thought and practice more broadly. How can this provide a model for today’s church?

Man brushing his hands through a wheatfield
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This article was adapted from a talk given by Professor Susan Docherty at the Catholic Theological Association Annual Conference at St Andrews University, August 2023.


The debate about the attitude of Jesus to the Law – and to Jewish religious thought and practice more broadly – has always been hotly contested. The first difficulty in resolving this question lies in the apparent contradictions within and between the Synoptic Gospels, which present Jesus proclaiming, on the one hand, “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…” (Matthew 5:18-19). Yet, on the other hand, he is said to declare all foods clean, and thus undermine the entire kosher framework (Mark 7:19; cf. Matthew 15:1-20).

The second problem is our lack of certainty about how much of the teaching recorded in the Gospels actually goes back to the historical Jesus himself, since his words have been so extensively reshaped within early church tradition and by the evangelists to meet their later concerns. The quest to identify his authentic sayings may not have been officially called off by the academy, but it has certainly run out of steam. Finally, we have all become increasingly aware of the extent to which biblical commentary throughout the centuries has been marred by deeply anti-Semitic and supersessionist bias. The simplistic but all too familiar claims made for the superiority of a Christian ‘love’ ethic over the onerous and empty demands of the Jewish ‘Law’, for example, conveniently ignore the fact that the reason the followers of Jesus are encouraged to love their neighbour is that this is a commandment of the Torah placed upon all Jews:

“One of the scribes… asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher…’” Mark 12:28-32.

I cannot hope to do justice to all these controversies let alone definitively explain how Jesus or his early followers understood the meaning and significance of the Jewish Law. My much more modest aim is to share with you something of how two recent trends in New Testament scholarship might illuminate this issue, and, in passing, to highlight the potential value of these approaches for us as Christians, as we wrestle with our contemporary ethical and pastoral dilemmas.

The Early Jewish Context of Jesus and the New Testament

The first of these key developments is the renewed recognition of the thoroughly Jewish context of the New Testament. Where earlier generations of commentators may have been able to present Jesus more or less as a proto-Christian who happened to be born in Israel, it is now absolutely axiomatic for scholars to approach him as a real Jew, and to situate his life and teaching within what we know of Jewish religious practice and legal interpretation in the late Second Temple period. This paradigm shift owes much to the ground-breaking work of Ed Sanders.[1] While not all of Sanders’ conclusions have gained universal acceptance, his underpinning insights about the diversity and dynamism of first-century Judaism, and the acceptability of Jesus’ teaching within its broad parameters, have stood the test of time. Jesus operated, then, within a social and religious environment in which the Torah was fundamental to all aspects of life, so that engagement with the ongoing vigorous debates about its meaning and application was a sine qua non for any teacher or prophetic figure.

The accounts of Jesus’ ministry provided by the synoptic evangelists support this conclusion. They depict him being asked repeatedly for his opinion on legal matters and replying readily to his interlocutors on their own terms. In Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, he is shown appealing to scriptural warrant in order to defend his attitude to sabbath observance:

“At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here… He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’”
Matthew 12:1-14

The entire corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls had not been published when Sanders began his work, but their discovery has also, of course, impacted profoundly on New Testament scholarship, and yielded further evidence about both the centrality of the Law within first-century Judaism, and the plurality of its interpretation. Many of the Qumran texts raise the very legal issues which are at stake in the Gospels, including divorce, sabbath observance, purity rules, and the place of the temple. They confirm that the first followers of Jesus were, as Sanders always insisted, not unique in their understanding of the Law: thus, the members of the Dead Sea community, like the evangelists, appealed to the principle of creation
(“… male and female he created them…” Genesis 1:27) to support the prohibition on taking a second wife (CD IV, 20-21; cf. Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12) and employed the same combination of scriptural texts (Leviticus 26:12 and Ezekiel 37:27) as Paul to ground their injunctions against idolatry in the identity of believers as God’s holy people (11Q19 XXIX, 7-8; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1).

Here are the relevant Qumran texts:
“… [they] are caught twice in fornication: by taking two wives in their lives, even though the principle of creation is male and female he created them…” (CD IV, 20-21).

“They shall be for me a people and I will be for them for ever; and I shall dwell with them for ever and always. I shall sanctify my temple with my glory…” (11Q19 XXIX, 7-8).

These specific instances of shared thinking between the Scrolls and the New Testament are very illuminating, but equally interesting for us as contemporary Christians. I suggest, is the general approach to the Law and its interpretation which seems to lie behind all the surviving literature from the Second Temple and early rabbinic periods. We can see from these sources that Jesus’ contemporaries debated the correct meaning of the law in public, communal settings, such as ‘schools’ and worship-gatherings. The members of the Qumran community did not study the Law individually, for example, but gathered together every night to read it aloud and discuss it in community:

“And in the place in which the Ten assemble there should not be missing a man to interpret the law day and night, always, one relieving another. And the Many shall be on watch together for a third of each night of the year in order to read the book, explain the regulation, and bless together.” (1QS VI, 7-8).

They also appear to have engaged in conscious dialogue with their intra-Jewish opponents, setting out their position on matters of dispute in the so-called Halakhic Letter 4QMMT (= 4Q394-399). This kind of practice is presented by the synoptic evangelists as the norm for Jews more generally, when they tell of how the boy Jesus questioned the religious leaders as he listened to them in the temple (Luke 2:46-47), for instance, and when they set the controversy stories in a public arena like the village cornfields (Mark 2:23-27), a full synagogue (e.g. Mark 3:1-6), or the Jerusalem temple (Mark 11:27-33).

The advantage of this interpretative culture is that the discussion of live legal issues does not take place behind closed doors, but can be heard by a wide audience. It allows for the open expression of differences of opinion between religious teachers and parties, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. In the later rabbinic commentaries, too, disagreements between named rabbis are often surfaced, and not always definitively resolved. This decision to retain within the tradition reference to minority opinions enables their recovery in a different context or in the light of new knowledge. Now, I don’t wish to exaggerate the extent of this acceptance of diversity in legal or theological matters, or to labour unduly the potential comparison with the situation in today’s churches. The Qumran sectaries and the followers of various rabbis were absolutely convinced that their interpretations of the Torah were the correct ones which others should adopt. Nevertheless, there is surely some value in our reflecting on an approach which acknowledges so openly that there is often more than one view on a point of Law and which does not necessarily seek to close down the debate too soon.

The Rise of Narrative Criticism

This renewed emphasis on the thoroughly Jewish context of the New Testament affects all areas of its study, and especially with Paul’s letters. Let me turn now, though, to a second major recent development which is pertinent to my focus on the Gospels and Acts: that is the increasing application to these texts of literary critical methods. As I alluded to earlier, the twentieth-century quest for the authentic sayings of Jesus has rather stalled, but narrative criticism enables commentators to move beyond a narrow focus on Jesus’ words to a consideration of their wider setting within both an individual literary unit and a Gospel as a whole. This approach foregrounds the actions of Jesus in relation to issues of Jewish Law, which may actually speak louder than his words, and it also reduces the risk of taking a dominical saying out of context and so misunderstanding it.

Let me illustrate what this means for that Markan statement that Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), which is often used as a test-case in determining Jesus’ attitude to the Law. This saying comes at the conclusion of a dispute about the practice of handwashing before eating, prompted by criticism of the laxity in this regard of Jesus and his disciples (Mark 7:1-15). The consensus view among commentators is that it is not to be attributed to Jesus himself. There is no secure multiple attestation for it, since the Matthean Jesus does not go quite as far in his claims about pure food, although he does reject the need for excessive handwashing (Matthew 15:20), and it is not appealed to in Acts or Paul’s letters at points where it might be relevant. The saying does, however, fit the post-resurrection period well, when the relationship of new Gentile believers to Jewish tradition and the establishment of table-fellowship within the Christian communities were pressing issues. Mark’s claim that the historical Jesus repudiated all the Mosaic food laws seems highly improbable, then, especially given all that has been said so far about his genuine Jewishness. Could a first-century Jew really have thought that eating pork, for instance, was acceptable and undefiling? This has led some commentators to regard the entire handwashing dispute as equally suspect, and to see it as a wholly fictional account created to frame this pronouncement.

More recently, scholars such as Thomas Kazen and Bill Loader have applied narrative criticism to put forward a different reading of this controversy story.[2] The evangelist places it immediately after one of his general summaries of Jesus’ healing activity, in which he is presented as freely allowing himself to be touched by all manner of people considered impure, such as those with skin diseases or discharges (Mark 6:53-56). This kind of contact with the sick and people deemed ‘sinners’ is characteristic of Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospel. Furthermore, this summary follows on immediately from the account of the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:30-52). Nothing is said there about handwashing before the bread and fish are shared, but it is hard to imagine that the crowds would have brought with them to this lonely place the vessels or water required for this, or would have asked too many questions about the provenance and preparation of the food given to them. Jesus’ alleged de-prioritising of purity regulations in chapter 7 hardly comes as a surprise to the careful reader of Mark, then, but rather, it follows on from his consistent behaviour. The dispute provides the opportunity for the evangelist to crystallise Jesus’ attitude to these rules, but it is by no means an isolated incident; rather, it is part of a coherent narrative strategy.

Still we do not know how accurately Mark’s presentation of Jesus as generally unconcerned about ritual purity reflects the reality of his life, or the wider social memory of his ministry. We can, however, combine a narrative critical reading of this pericope with information drawn from our knowledge of first century Judaism. Thus Kazen uses both literary sources, including the Qumran scrolls, and archaeological evidence, such as the number of ritual baths or mikvaot discovered in Galilee and Judaea dating from the turn of the era, to argue that there was a growing movement at this time towards the expansion to the wider population of purity laws which had previously applied only to particular groups like the Jerusalem priests, or to areas considered especially holy, such as the temple environs.[3] This greater emphasis on avoiding defilement would necessarily have involved more regular handwashing. There was apparently some support for this move across all sections of society, but it presented considerable practical difficulties, especially for those with limited resources of time and possibility for social interaction. On Kazen’s reading of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ actions show him resisting this trend, not opposing the purity rules of the Torah in principle, but, rather, rejecting this stricter and broader application of them as incompatible with the realities of daily living for the majority of those subsisting in the towns and villages of Galilee.

Practical Outworkings: Acts 15:1-29

I’d like to illustrate the practical value of these two scholarly approaches by bringing them briefly to bear on the reading of one further New Testament passage. Acts chapter 15 offers us some clues about how the first Christians dealt with contentious legal issues, specifically those arising from the inclusion of Gentiles into an originally Jewish movement. It seems from several places in the New Testament that the early church faced a huge challenge in agreeing on how far Gentile believers were expected to follow the prescriptions of the Jewish Law. This is a historical rather than a contemporary concern, but I suggest that it still holds some resonance for Christians today as we seek to incorporate within our communities new members coming from unchurched backgrounds who may hold very different moral values from those reflected in official Church teaching. My own involvement in parish RCIA programmes, for example, has certainly caused me to think long and hard about what can realistically be required of all of our enthusiastic enquirers who are living in what are technically termed “irregular unions”. According to the author of Acts, this problem was definitively resolved at a meeting of the apostles and leading disciples in Jerusalem early in the post-resurrection period. That this was not, in fact, the case is obvious from the ongoing arguments about these issues reflected in Paul’s letters, and the so-called Council of Jerusalem is now widely held to be a completely Lukan fiction. This account of this gathering does, however, cohere with the overall narrative of Acts, which has led up to it with numerous reports of the successful spread of the gospel beyond Israel (e.g. Acts 8:1-40; 11:19-26; 12:24; 13:44-51) and recounted at length and repeatedly Peter’s vision of God declaring all foods clean (Acts 10:1-11:18).

Even without engaging in a detailed analysis of the passage, we can see emerging within it some of the typically Jewish features of legal interpretation that I highlighted earlier. Intensive discussions take place between those representing different viewpoints, for instance: “… Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them [certain individuals who had come down from Judea]…” (Acts 15:2; cf. 15:7). These conversations are held in public, as is the formal meeting to debate the issue: “The whole assembly kept silence and listened to Barnabas and Paul…” (Acts 15:12, cf. 15:22, “…with the consent of the whole church…”). Significantly, the ultimate conclusion that Gentile believers need only accept a small number of laws (abstinence from idolatry, from fornication and from eating animals inappropriately slaughtered, Acts 15:20) itself derives from the Torah, since it is precisely these acts that are explicitly forbidden in Leviticus for so-called ‘resident aliens’ as well as ethnic Israelites (Lev 17:10-18:30). Note also that this judgement will mean that not everyone within the fold of Jesus-followers will abide by the same set of regulations, since those Jewish believers who wish to retain the custom of circumcision and keep the whole of the Mosaic Law can continue to do so. For the authors of both Mark and Acts, then, inclusiveness trumps uniformity. This openness to divergent practice in some areas of ethics might provide a useful model for today’s church, then; certainly RCIA groups might be a bit larger if we were still able to say that “… we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…” (Acts 15:19) with unnecessary demands.  

Susan Docherty is Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, and Head of Theology and Philosophy at Newman University, Birmingham.

[1] See e.g. Sanders, E.P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1983); Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985); Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (London: SCM, 1990); Judaism: Practice and Belief (London: SCM, 1992).

[2] See e.g. Kazen, T., Jesus and Purity Halakah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Purity? (repr. edn. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010); Impurity and Purification in Early Judaism and the Jesus Tradition (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2021); Loader, W., Jesus’ Attitude Towards the Law: A Study of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

[3] See especially Kazen, T., Scripture, Interpretation, or Authority? Motives and Arguments in Jesus’ Halakic Conflicts (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013).