Did Jesus Keep Torah?

Many Jewish people are under the impression that Jesus ignored Torah.

by Stephanie Hamman | March 22 2022

person covered in the desert

Many Jewish people are under the impression that Jesus had no regard for Torah and defied the sages of his time in order to begin a new religion. It is no wonder, then, that most of the Jewish community does not consider him to be a candidate for the Messiah.

If it were true that Jesus did not keep Torah, then he would clash with the description of the Messiah that we receive from the Tanakh and would even contradict his own teaching. It would also invalidate the faith of all of his followers. However, if we examine what he really said and did, a very different picture of Jesus emerges—one that demonstrates not only his potential to be the Messiah, but also the powerful connection between the Torah of God and the renewal of the world.

His Background

Even in his infancy, Jesus—who was known to his family and friends as Yeshua—was part of a Torah-observant family. His parents, Yosef and Miriam, were raised in a Davidic clan in Nazareth known for its zeal for Torah and its anticipation of the Messiah being raised up from its own ranks.1 2 Yeshua had a b’rit milah at eight days old (Luke 2:21), his mother underwent the rites of purification after her delivery, and after 30 days, he was redeemed in a pidyon ha’ben ceremony with the appropriate sacrifices (Luke 2:22–24). Luke’s biography of Yeshua very specifically states that Yeshua’s parents were careful to observe everything according to Torah before they left Jerusalem and returned home. And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord [Torah], they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

From this, we know Yeshua was raised in a Torah-observant family. Luke further records that Yeshua’s parents went up to Jerusalem for Pesach every single year. When he was 12, Yeshua accompanied them and spent most of his time discussing Torah with the scholars in the Temple, astounding the sages with his understanding and interpretation of the text (Luke 2:41–52).

Yeshua’s credibility as a rabbi required his full adherence to and respect for Torah.

Around the time he turned 30, Yeshua began teaching, healing, and encouraging the people to repent in anticipation of the kingdom of heaven. His followers and contemporaries called him “rabbi,” a term that means “teacher” and, in a Jewish religious context, referred to a teacher of Torah. His credibility as a rabbi required his full adherence to and respect for Torah.

Commentary on Torah

(Matthew 5–7)

Contrary to a common misperception, Yeshua was not rewriting the Torah in his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” This is clear from his statement, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. Amen, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or serif shall ever pass away from the Torah until all things come to pass” (Matthew 5:17–18 TLV).

Many have assumed that by using the word “fulfill,” Yeshua meant that he was ending Torah observance. However, the correct interpretation of “fulfill” (plēroō) is to make something effectual or to “fill it full.”3 He was not abolishing Torah. He was amplifying its meaning—which is precisely what the Messiah was meant to do.

As the author of The Damascus Document wrote, “The star [a reference to the Messiah] is the Interpreter of the Law … as it is written, ‘A star has left Jacob, a staff has risen from Israel.’”4 Similar sentiments are also recorded by Philo;5 in the Peshitta, Targums Neofiti, Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan; the Fragmentary Targum; as well as in the testimonies of both Judah and Levi in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.6

Why does Yeshua instruct his followers to keep even the smallest commandment of Torah?

Many have taken “until all things come to pass” to mean until after his death and resurrection. Why then, in the next verses (Matthew 5:19–20), does Yeshua instruct his followers to keep even the smallest commandment of Torah, due to the promise of greatness in the coming kingdom of God?

Instead, Yeshua offers commentary on the Torah that enhances and encourages observance. We were told not to murder, but here Yeshua says even hating our brother is a violation of the commandment, and then he prescribes active reconciliation with those with whom we are in conflict as the way to keep the commandment more fully. We were told not to commit adultery, but Yeshua says that even indulging in lustful thoughts is a violation of the commandment, and he calls us to remove the sources of temptation.

Touching a Leper

(Matthew 8; Mark 1:40–45; Luke 5:12–16)

Torah states that anyone who touches a “man’s uncleanness” will himself become ritually unclean (Leviticus 5:2). Also, lepers are supposed to distance themselves from others and the community (Leviticus 13:45–46). In this case, it is really the leper who is breaking the rules. Yeshua, of course, did not touch the leper for shock value. He healed him of his leprosy and then immediately told him to go and make the appropriate offering for purification at the Temple. Yeshua encouraged him to keep every single aspect of Torah in regard to his purification process. Far from dismissing the Torah’s purity laws, Yeshua endorsed them.7

Plucking Grain and Healing on Shabbat

(Matthew 12; Luke 6:1–11; Luke 14:1–6; John 5:1–18; John 9)

In the first instance cited above, Yeshua’s disciples are accused of violating Shabbat law by plucking and grinding grain between their fingers in order to eat it. The Torah does mention field labor, including plowing and harvesting (Exodus 34:21). It is not clear from the text of the Torah whether or not plucking a few kernels of grain is considered equivalent to the intense labor of plowing and harvesting entire fields. The language implies that one is not to do everyday agricultural work on Shabbat.

Yeshua taught that it is permissible to break Shabbat if one is alleviating human suffering.

While the rabbis of Yeshua’s time agreed that plucking grain was a violation of Shabbat, they also agreed that breaking Shabbat was permissible in order to save a life (pikuach nefesh). Utilizing this principle, Yeshua taught that it is permissible to break Shabbat if one is alleviating human suffering. He and his disciples traveled from place to place, and food was not always readily available. They provided for themselves as they went. Yeshua compared his disciples’ ravenous hunger to that of King David eating the bread of the presence in the Temple when he and his men were hungry. Interestingly, a similar argument may have been in wider use at that time, as the same example shows up later in Yalkut Shimoni, a midrash on the Tanakh.

Since he found there nothing but shew-bread, David said to him: “Give me, so that we not die of hunger,”” for [even] a case of uncertain mortal danger sets aside Shabbat. How much did David eat at that time? Rav Huna said: David ate close to seven se’as to satisfy his hunger, for he was seized by ravenous hunger. (Yalkut Shimoni, I Shmuel 130)8

In Yeshua’s view, the principle of pikuach nefesh also applied to healing a person on Shabbat. Instead of showing disregard for Torah, Yeshua entered the conversation regarding what constituted melacha (work specifically forbidden on Shabbat) and what exceptions should be made to uphold the true intentions of Torah. As part of his interpretive role as Messiah, this was within his authority to do.

Yeshua argued that Torah allows us to show mercy to and care for an animal on Shabbat, and that these actions override the Shabbat prohibition against carrying items. If this is the case, Yeshua argued, we can certainly welcome the alleviation of human suffering on Shabbat.9

Shabbat is a glimpse of the world to come. Thus, healing on Shabbat is entirely appropriate.

By bringing about physical healing, Yeshua was showing the people that he really could bring about the kingdom of heaven, which is a total and complete restoration of heaven and earth, as well as physical and spiritual wholeness for humanity. In Jewish tradition, Shabbat is meant to be a glimpse of the world to come.10 Thus, healing and alleviating suffering on Shabbat is not only permissible, but entirely appropriate.

Washing Hands Before Eating Bread

(Matthew 15; Mark 7)

The ritual of handwashing is not a part of Torah, but rather a tradition of the fathers. However, one phrase in the text describing this event says that Yeshua “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19) and calls into question whether Yeshua was saying dietary laws were no longer applicable. Keeping kosher is certainly a part of Torah.

As regards to the tradition of ritual washing, Yeshua, like the prophets before him, was not interested in the people pursuing ceremonial functions unless their hearts were fully oriented towards God (Hosea 6:6; Joel 2:12–13; Micah 6:8). Yeshua was not speaking against participation; he simply objected to a tradition being imposed as if it were a commandment.

The issue with Torah arises with the phrase “thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). In the original Greek text, the phrase literally translates as “cleansing all of the food” or “purging all of the food.” This being the case, the King James Version reads more literally:

Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats. (Mark 7:19 KJV)

The text is clearly describing how food enters the stomach and is eventually expelled (“purging all food”). Yeshua was not canceling kashrut or defying Torah. Instead, looking at his words in the context of the story, we see he was not talking about dietary laws at all, but explaining that eating with ritually unwashed hands cannot defile a person.11

His Followers

Far from negating Torah, Yeshua filled it full by his interpretation and enhancement of God’s instructions. He also openly supported the words of Torah and the traditions of his people. He set an example for his followers when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and responded only with words of Torah (Matthew 4; Luke 4:1–13). He upheld Temple cleansing laws (Luke 17:11–19). He applied additional restrictions around divorce law (Matthew 19). He upheld all of the commandments (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34).

We can be sure of Yeshua’s dedication to Torah because of the lifestyles of his followers. The first Messianic Jewish community was headed up by four Jewish men: Yeshua’s brother Yakov (better known to history as James); Shimon from Capernaum (Peter); Shaul (Paul), who was a student of Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3); and Yochanan from Bethsaida (John, son of Zebedee). Along with the other Jewish followers of Yeshua, these men prayed three times a day and sacrificed in the Temple, shared ritual meals together, gathered in synagogues on Shabbat, observed Jewish rituals and feasts, and met in the Temple and after Shabbat to hear teaching and encourage each other.12

We can see their commitment to following God’s commandments carried into the life of the community, even as it saw an influx of Gentiles. Consider the words of Polycarp, an early second-century Gentile leader in the church,13 who put it like this:

He who raised him [Yeshua] up from the dead will raise us up also—if we do his will, and walk in his commandments, and love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness.14 (emphasis added)

In teaching this, Polycarp and the other early leaders were directly following the teaching of the original Jewish disciples of Yeshua who had been their mentors.15 They believed that the mercy and love of God they received through Yeshua empowered them to love God and their neighbors in a new and powerful way.

This did not mean that Gentile Christians had to become Jewish in identification or ritual. The early Messianic Jewish community made the difficult decision that Gentiles would not need to be circumcised in order to follow the Messiah (Acts 15:19–21). Over time, that decision grew into a general understanding that informed how Gentile believers observed the commandments. They took the moral instructions of Torah very literally—and took guidance from Israel’s ritual observance and ancient pastoral culture.16 There was no part of Torah that they found inapplicable.17

The Upside-Down World

The Talmud tells the story of Yosef, a son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became so ill that he had a near-death experience. After his recovery, his father asked him what he saw as he was dying. Yosef described “an inverted world.” Those who held high status in this world were humbled in the next, and those of low status in this world held positions of honor in the next. Rabbi Yehoshua stated that his son had seen not an inverted world, but the true world, a clarified world (b. Pesachim 50a).

In a similar vein, Yeshua taught that in the Messianic era, those who mourn will be comforted, those who are merciful will be shown mercy, those who strive for peace despite all odds will be called sons of God, and those who are persecuted will inherit the kingdom (Matthew 5:1–10).

The one exception in Yosef’s vision of the inverted world was that of those who study and apply God’s instruction. They are respected in both worlds. Likewise, Yeshua taught, “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 TLV).

We live in an upside-down world, but Yeshua came to turn it right side up.

From this we see that Yeshua upheld and reinforced the Torah’s principles. His message was relevant and edifying not only for his first followers, but for all who practice a Jewish belief and lifestyle today. We live in an upside-down world, but Yeshua came to turn it right side up. Every time we are obedient to God and treat our fellow human beings with kindness and dignity, we reflect how the Messiah lived and bring the hope of his promises to those around us.

Endnotes

1. D. Thomas Lancaster, interview by Stephanie Hamman, December 21, 2021.

2. Julius Africanus, “The Epistle to Aristides,” New Advent, accessed March 1, 2021.

3. Blue Letter Bible Online, s.v. “plēroō,” accessed March 1, 2021.

4. The Damascus Document, trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, and Edward Cook (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 58.

5. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel Green (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 546.

6. Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 193–194.

7. Given that Yeshua was Torah observant and encouraged those around him to participate in the purity laws, he undoubtedly abstained from ritual until he was ritually clean.

8. Rav Amnon Bazak, “Sefer Shmuel Aleph,” Lesson 41, Torah Har Etzion, January 20, 2016.

9. Matan, “Sabbath Healings of Kingdom Proportion,” First Fruits of Zion, accessed March 1, 2021.

10. Rabbi Theodore Friedman, “Shabbat as Preview of the Perfected World,” My Jewish Learning, accessed March 1, 2021.

11. “All Foods Clean?” First Fruits of Zion, accessed March 1, 2021.

12. Prayer and sacrifice: Acts 3:1; 10:9; 16:13, 16; 24:11, 17–18. Meals: Acts 2:42, 46. Shabbat: Luke 4:16; Acts 13:14; 17:1, 10. Rituals and Feasts: Acts 2:1, 46; 16:1–3; 18:18; 20:6, 15–16; 21:17–26; 26:5; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 5:8; 6:8. Temple meetings: Acts 5:12; Acts 20:7.

13. Polycarp was a disciple of Yochanan from Bethsaida (known to the later church as John the Apostle), one of Yeshua’s twelve followers.

14. Ante Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, p. 33.

15. The Apostle Paul, whose words on this have been the most misunderstood, argued that an important result of the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah was that it empowered the faithful for obedience to God. Paul marveled that even Gentiles, despite all their uncleanness and the shocking wickedness of the prevailing culture of the time, could be brought into obedience to God through faith in the Messiah. This was the one thing he was willing to boast of as an accomplishment of his work: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Messiah has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience … by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:18–19; cf. Isaiah 2:2–3; Zephaniah 3:9; Zechariah 8:23; Ezekiel 36:25–27 TLV, emphasis added).

16. E.g., for Gentile Christians, baptism took the place of circumcision.

17. The early church was, in a way, doing what Jewish tradition had always done, that is, reinterpreting Torah for a new era.

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