Jewish Law and the New Testament

by Larry Brandt | January 01 1988

Christian scholars, ministers and laity have known for a long time that a knowledge of Jewish customs is not only helpful but necessary for a proper understanding of the New Testament. To meet this need, countless books and articles have been written about the Jewish background of the New Testament. These works cover the festivals, the Sabbath, Jewish lifestyles, methods of teaching and Jewish beliefs.

One of the better known books on this subject is Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, by George Foot Moore, a British scholar in the field of New Testament and Judaism. Moore’s masterful treatment of this subject has earned him a place in many a Christian library. Yet one crucial topic is conspicuously absent from Moore’s treatise—Law. Writing about Judaism in the early Christian era without discussing Law is like writing about Christianity without discussing Jesus!

Jesus came on the scene at a critical turning point in Jewish history. His earthly contemporaries were the last generation before the destruction of the Temple. During this time the forces that were to shape Judaism for the next two millennia were already in full play. Since Ezra’s time, the Law of Moses was becoming part of the life of the “Jew on the street” in ways that it never had before. Corruption among the priests and rulers and the rising tide of Hellenism gave birth to various popular movements whose primary concern was living faithfully according to the Torah (law or teaching of Moses). Because the laws of the Torah affected such practical matters as food preparation and the fixing of the calendar, people began to form guilds and societies in which the customs were standardized according to the teaching of recognized masters. History notes the existence of dozens of sects in first-century Judaism. Probably the best known among these were the Pharisees and the Essenes.

By the time Jesus began his public ministry, synagogues had formed all over the land of Israel and academies had been established in Jerusalem to train rabbis who could teach and judge throughout the nation. Those learned men taught doctrine, parables, Jewish beliefs and folklore, but their main function was to insure the proper observance of Jewish law. This included general law, as well as “religious law.”

Many Christians believe that Jesus rejected rabbinic law, but that is not exactly true. Jesus did often find himself at odds with the rabbis of his day and with their interpretations of the Law. Nevertheless, it was in the context of Jewish law and culture that God chose to reveal the Gospel. That is precisely the reason we find Jesus disputing with the Jewish rabbis and not with the Greek philosophers! First century Judaism was the arena in which God played out his plan of salvation.

Jewish law is derived mainly from the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, but it also includes some Jewish common law, as well as Middle Eastern common law. As Jewish history evolved, economic and social changes necessitated some expansion or modification of the original law. At first, these new regulations and interpretations were not allowed to be written down, but eventually because of their increasing volume they had to be written down. In order to differentiate between them and the written Law of Moses, they were still called the “oral law.” These oral discussions and instructions relating to holy writ make up the Talmud, which consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara. They are the dissertations of Jewish scholars who resided in Babylonia approximately 300 years before and 500 years after the Roman conquest of the land of Israel. The Mishnah came first, then came the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah.

Although Jewish law as we know it today did not develop fully until the second century, we can see clearly throughout the New Testament how Jesus and his disciples interacted with the popular legal issues of their generation.

Below shows the six major categories of Jewish law as they are now found in the Mishnah, that great second century code of Jewish traditional law, and how they surface in the New Testament. (For a further study of the subject of law in the life and teaching of Jesus, read The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century Jewish believer and scholar. This is a well-written and very useful resource.)


Hebrew Word: Zeraim. Literally “Seeds.” This section deals with the fruits of the field and with appropriate blessings to recite over crops and other matters.

In the Mishnah: Berakhot, the first tractate, begins with the question of when one should recite the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…”) as if to say that the other commandments teach us how to love the Lord.The rules for conducting a fellowship meal for a rabbi and his disciples are given in detail: first a cup of wine, then washing the hands, breaking of bread, discussing the Scripture while eating, then the cup of blessing, over which grace is said.

In the New Testament: Jesus cited the Shema as the first and greatest commandment, one of the two upon which all the others pivot (Mark 12:29-30).Jesus and his disciples must have had many such meals, but their last one on the night he was betrayed became the basis for our Holy Communion (“fellowship”) service. (See Luke 22:14-20 and 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.)

Appointed Times

Hebrew Word: Moed. Literally “Season”

In the Mishnah: One of the tractates in Moed centers around the Sabbath. Exactly what kind of activity was permitted and what was forbidden on the Sabbath was a hotly debated issue in the first century.Another tractate describes the Passover: The Passover Lamb was set aside on the 10th day of the first month and was sacrificed on the afternoon of the 14th as a memorial of Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt.

In the New Testament: Jesus did not break the biblical Sabbath laws, but by selectively doing disputed works like healing, he showed himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11). Jesus our Passover Lamb entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the first month, and the rulers began their plans to kill him. He was crucified at Passover time for our redemption from sin (Matthew 21, 26, 27).

Laws of Marriage and Divorce

Hebrew Word: Nashim. Literally “Women”

In the Mishnah: On divorce: The school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife even if he merely didn’t like her cooking. The school of Shammai said a man could only divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery.On marriage: The bride was officially betrothed when she received an item of value from the groom to seal their relationship. When the groom was ready, he was to come and take his bride to the wedding feast and into their marriage chamber.

In the New Testament: Jesus taught the stricter position of the school of Shammai, that divorce was permitted only in cases of adultery (Matthew 19:9).Jesus appears as the bridegroom of the church. Betrothed to the believers by giving us the Holy Spirit, he will return to take us, his bride, into the place he is preparing for us in his Father’s house (Matthew 25:1-13, Ephesians 1:13-14, John 14:2-3, Revelation 19:7-9).

Civil and Criminal Law

Hebrew Word: Nezikin. Literally “Damages”

In the Mishnah: This section concerns itself with the operation of the Sanhedrin, the district courts and local courts. Cases involving injuries, damage to property, money, and crimes involving penalties of fines, punishment or death are to be heard before 3, 23, or 71 judges. Facts of the cases are established by the testimonies of 2 or 3 witnesses. Advocates or attorneys plead the cases of all parties in the disputes.

In the New Testament: Jesus himself gave instructions on how the church should judge itself (Matthew 18:15-20). Paul gave judicial instruction to the Corinthian church on a variety of matters (I Corinthians chapters 6-10). Much of James, chapters 4 and 5, speaks of judicial matters.The New Testament teaching is that God is our Judge (Revelation 20:11-15), and the Holy Spirit is our Advocate (John 16:7-8). We are Jesus’ witnesses (John 15:27).

Laws of Sacrifices and Sacred Things

Hebrew Word: Kodashim. Literally “Holy Things”

In the Mishnah: This section concerned itself with laws relating to sacrifices of all kinds—acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices, the manner of offering the sacrifices, lawful and unlawful use of the meat, fat and other parts of the sacrifices.The Jewish dietary laws also fall into this category. These are the laws regarding meat that is not sacrificed but merely prepared for common use.

In the New Testament: Jesus is our sin offering (Hebrews 9:28). We are to present ourselves as a holy and acceptable offering to God (Romans 12:1). We are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Peter 2:5).Jesus speaks to the issue of kosher and non-kosher, of clean and unclean food (Mark 7:1-23). Peter (Acts, chapters 10-11) and Paul (Romans 14) deal with the question of food and eating for the church. (See also Acts 15.)

Matters of Ritual Purity: Hebrew Tohorot Literally “Purities”

Hebrew Word: Tohorot. Literally “Purities”

In the Mishnah: The disciples of Hillel held that one could use a cup as long as it was clean on the inside, while the disciples of Shammai said that the outside must be clean as well.The rabbis held that one would become unclean by touching a leper, a person with a hemorrhage, or a dead body.

In the New Testament: Jesus told those who were too concerned with cleaning the outsides of their cups that they must first clean the inside before a clean outside would matter (Matthew 23:25-26).Jesus touched lepers, people with all kinds of diseases and even dead bodies and healed them, thereby showing that his touch gives victory over uncleanness (Matthew 8:3, 9:20, 9:25).