[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 fulfil them. … You have heard that it was said to people long ago … But I tell you … Matthew 5 (The Sermon on the Mount)
One of the oldest books in the Old Testament, Leviticus, lays down rules about many aspects of everyday life. For instance: ‘You shall not put on a garment woven with two kinds of yarn.’ (Lev ). Or ‘You shall not shave the edge of your beards.’ (Lev ). Or ‘You shall not eat … the pig, because it has a parted foot and a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud; you shall regard it as unclean.’ (Lev 11:7) These ancient laws, and many more equally unfamiliar, are still accepted as binding by truly orthodox Jews. Other Jews, and Christians of course, do not feel bound by them. So why do I quote these strange laws, laws which we find bizarre or even unacceptable? It’s certainly not to pour scorn on the people who wrote them. They and their contemporaries were struggling to find their place and manage their affairs in a changing world which they barely understood. Many of the laws are about how to make distinctions between things, and the ability to classify is basic to our understanding of the world. When Leviticus was written, people were just beginning to do this; it’s not surprising they got the classifications wrong and were over-keen to give classification and therefore separation a pre-eminence we would deny them. The roughly simultaneous change from nomadic, pastoral living to settled, agricultural society was enormous; the story of Cain and Abel illustrates how fraught it was. Settled, agricultural society brought with it surplus wealth and therefore the emergence of a ruling class and life in large villages and towns. In this new situation, accepted customs and the decisions of a headman were no longer enough; a new means of keeping order was needed: clear, easy-to-enforce Law.
Perhaps it was because he instinctively sensed the reasons behind the old laws that Jesus could confidently say that many of them had been superseded. It wasn’t that they had been wrong; it was simply that their time had passed; humanity had moved, or at any rate could move, beyond them. Some people still struggle with this idea. They want to say either that the old rules were wrong all the time and should never have been made, or that if they were right once, they must be right now. What we cannot know is whether we could have reached our modern understandings without having passed through stages of over-zealous classification and over-reliance on strict liability law – or, to use the language of journeying, whether we could have arrived where we are today via a different route. Perhaps we could have, but we didn’t; the Leviticus route was the one our predecessors took, and we’re not really in a position to say whether they were right or wrong to do so. This thought might make us extra-careful about the rules and conventions by which we live or which we seek to develop, both because we will be judged by them and more importantly because they will bring our successors to where they will find themselves. You’ll have your own ideas as to which of our current rules and conventions are likely to go the way of Leviticus’s ban on weaving mixed-fibre cloth; my prime candidates would be those about drugs and assisted suicide.
It’s important to remember that Jesus’s attack was not simply on the old rules themselves but on the approach they enshrined. He saw that trying to regulate and improve life principally by making and enforcing rules was an approach that had had its day, and that something different could be just as effective, less constricting and more enriching. It was necessary to get behind the behavioural rules to see whether underlying them were admirable dispositions that were to be encouraged. If there weren’t, the rule could be abandoned, at least as a moral rule as distinct from a civil law; if there were, it would be the disposition not the rule that needed to be nurtured. It’s clear from the earliest accounts of the post-Jesus church that its members quickly agreed to abandon circumcision and the kosher food rules, no doubt acting on the logic of Jesus’s teaching. By contrast, they would not have had any problem with a Leviticus rule such as ‘You shall not treat the deaf with contempt, nor put an obstruction in the way of the blind.’ (Lev ), though they would probably have realised that it is the loving impulse behind such a rule that matters, not the rule itself.
Jesus was boldly clear that some of the old laws and the approach they enshrined had to be abandoned, and with them, by implication, a particular conception of what it was to be a Jew. That the clearest statement of this view appears repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount in the deeply Jewish gospel of Matthew is surprising and therefore reliable. Less reliable, because not so unexpected, is Matthew’s attribution to Jesus of the statement that no detail of the old law could be changed, and the claim the he had come to ‘fulfil’ the Law and the Prophets. No doubt this is Matthew trying to reassure himself and his fellow Jews, because it clearly does not reflect the thrust of the Jesus teaching – at least, not unless ‘fulfil’ is taken to mean ‘continue to develop and where appropriate abandon’. The Jewish authorities would have had no interest in executing a Jesus who had demonstrated a deep loyalty and reverence for the ancient texts that kept Jewish identity intact; they wanted him dead precisely because he did not show such unquestioning loyalty and reverence.
One of the lessons we might draw from Jesus’s attack on the tyranny of the old rules of Leviticus is that it’s important to beware of the human tendency to imagine that the latest invention for helping us deal with life is a panacea. Maybe we can’t help this; it’s certainly a recurrent feature of human history. Perhaps we just have to live through these periods of over-enthusiasm, hoping that a Jesus figure will emerge to courageously suggest that the time has come to move on – and that enough of us will have the sense to listen.