Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition

Written by R. J. Banks Reviewed By Dick France

The place of law, and of the Old Testament law in particular, in the Christian life is one of the most fundamental issues in Christian ethics, and one to which continuing attention is rightly given. Crucial to this question is the attitude of Jesus himself to the Jewish law. It is therefore remarkable that this book can claim, rightly, to be the first full-scale treatment of its subject in English for over forty years. For this reason alone it is assured of a warm welcome. As a revision of a PhD thesis written at Tyndale House, Cambridge, it will be of extra interest to readers of Themelios.

The thesis was completed in 1969, but the book has taken account of more recent literature. Klaus Berger’s important Die Gesetzesauslegung Jesu, I (1972) is referred to in the notes, though it appeared too late to be noticed in the text. Banks’ book is therefore independent of Berger’s.

The book is in two unequal parts. Part 1, ‘Law in the Old Testament, Inter-Testamentary and Later Jewish Literature’, is relatively brief, though heavily documented. It discusses three questions: was the law regarded as a means of achieving favour or a response to God’s prior grace; as rigid and all-embracing or flexible and of limited application; as eternal or of temporary validity, to be superseded in the messianic age? It becomes clear that no single ‘Jewish view’ can be isolated, though in general a progression is seen from a freer attitude in the Old Testament to a stricter legalism in at least some circles of later Judaism. Inevitably, the brevity creates the suspicion that the treatment is unduly selective, particularly when only five passages (all prophetic) are examined to give ‘the Old Testament view’ on whether the law is eternal. But it would be churlish to complain that the author has not written a book which he did not set out to write!

Part 2, ‘Law in the Synoptic Tradition’, consists of a painstaking exegesis of all the synoptic passages relevant to the question of Jesus’ (and the evangelists’) attitude to the law. It will be convenient first to set out the conclusions, and then to comment on some of the exegetical bases for them.

Banks totally rejects Branscomb’s conclusion that Jesus respected the oral law; he rejected its authority, and hence found himself in serious conflict with the Pharisees. Where Jesus is recorded as having observed Jewish customs and traditions, Banks argues that in each case the deciding factor was not any respect for the tradition as such, but the demands of his own ministry. Such traditions as could be used to provide teaching material about himself, or whose observance would avoid unnecessary offence, were followed and put to the service of his mission, while others were simply ignored. Jesus took no strong line for or against the traditions as such; his overriding concern was his own ministry.

A similar conclusion is reached with regard to the Old Testament law itself. Jesus did not ‘expound’ the law, nor did he ‘abrogate’ it, or even ‘radicalize’ it. The law was not, as such, any more the object of his attention than the traditions. His own new teaching moves on a plane above and beyond the law. The question is not Jesus’ attitude to the law, but the law’s relevance to him. It points forward to him, and in that sense it is fulfilled in his coming, and particularly in his teaching. ‘It is only in so far as it has been taken up into that teaching and completely transformed that it lives on’ (p. 242). Even the decalogue does not remain in force as ‘eternal moral law’. Only the teaching of Jesus has that status. On the other hand, the love commandment must not be elevated to a dominant position. What Jesus provided was neither a new casuistry nor a single all-embracing commandment, but ethical principles of wide-ranging but flexible application. But in all this the focus is not legal, or even ethical, but christological: Jesus himself stands at the centre of his teaching, and it is relationship to him which is the deciding factor.

I hope this bald summary of a carefully argued book will make clear the crucial importance of its thesis for current ethical debate, no less than for biblical studies. It offers no encouragement either to ‘biblical’ casuistry or to ‘situationalism’, at least in the prevailing understanding of that term to refer to what used to be called (and still is by Banks and his blurb) the New Morality. But the contemporary application is left for the reader to make for himself; apart from a few suggestive comments Banks stays coyly within his synoptic field of reference.

Many will want to take issue with these conclusions. A good place to start would be pages 242–245, where they are carefully and quite concisely set out. But behind this summary lies a wealth of meticulous study which an opponent must in all fairness take into consideration. And here he has a problem, for while the occasional summary statement shines out like a ray of light, the detailed argumentation is veiled in the obscurity sadly expected of a PhD. It is not so much that the sentences are hard to understand, but that it is difficult to keep track of the way the argument is developing until the summary at the end of the section leaves you wondering just how he got there. If this means that the book will be little read outside the haunts of those lovers of verbal obscurity, the professional academics, it is a pity. The author would do us all a great service if he would one day produce a less detailed and more readable version of his findings.

Debatable points of detail include the rather too easy dismissal of the non-appearance of the striking saying of Mark 2:27 in Matthew and Luke (p. 120); the assumption without argument that in Mark 2:28 ‘Son of Man’ is a misunderstanding of bar-nasha meaning simply ‘man’ (p. 122); the understanding of the exceptive clause in the Matthean divorce pericopes as a shorthand way of saying ‘Deuteronomy 24 notwithstanding’ (p. 156); and the lack of adequate discussion of the significance of errethē in the antitheses of Matthew 5, a formula found nowhere else in the Gospels (p. 202). More seriously, one may question the over-zealous search for christological implications in each controversy. While the question of authority is clearly focused into a christological affirmation in the corn-plucking pericope, and this may well be implicit elsewhere, it is hard to accept that the primary issue in such controversies as those over defilement and divorce, as the evangelists have recorded them, is not a legal/ethical one.

But the attention will focus particularly on Banks’ treatment of Matthew 5:17–48, rightly given an extended discussion of 54 pages. This potential minefield is carefully dissected into successive discussions of the antitheses, the preface (verses 17–20), the epilogue (verse 48) and the context. The antitheses are interpreted as setting the teaching of Jesus in relation to the Old Testament law itself (not, as in so much conservative exegesis, to scribal perversion of it); even ‘hate your enemy’ is taken to be a summary of the Old Testament position (‘hate’ in the comparative sense of Mt. 6:24; Rom. 9:13). But the relationship is not one of either ‘affirming’ or ‘abrogating’ the Old Testament law, nor even of bringing out its true meaning, but simply transcending it with his own new and original teaching. In each case, ‘Jesus brings a new norm which altogether transcends that embedded in the Law and reiterated, in however qualified a manner, by its interpreters’ (p. 199). The law is, effectively, left behind. ‘He neither moves out from the Law in expounding his demands nor relates these, whether positively or negatively, back to it’ (p. 203).

What then of verses 17–20, the ultimate defence for those who would contend for the eternal validity of the Old Testament law for the Christian? Banks’ interpretation of this key passage has already appeared in JBL 93 (1974), pp. 226–242, and has been quite widely discussed. Its crucial points are that the ‘fulfilment’ of verse 17 is to be seen in terms of the law, like the prophets, pointing forward to Jesus; that ‘all is accomplished’ (verse 18) in the coming of Jesus; and that the entolai of verse 19 are Jesus’ commandments. This adds up to an exegesis in conformity with Banks’ main conclusions (and, one may add, with the attitude to the law elsewhere in the New Testament), and it is backed up by several weighty exegetical arguments. Its undoubted attraction must, however, be set against the improbability that Matthew could have allowed the term entolai to follow so closely on a reference to the Old Testament laws in verse 18 and yet expected it to be understood in a quite different and, in his Gospel, unique sense. The natural flow of thought is strongly against Banks’ argument here, and this leaves the reader who is otherwise drawn to his exegesis with a difficult dilemma. I have not yet resolved it!

The author’s critical stance is a whole-hearted acceptance of redaction-critical method combined with a high view of the authenticity of the tradition. He makes no blanket statement about authenticity, but discusses it in each case, and in practice regularly favours the conservative option. I found no case where a pericope of Jesus’ teaching, or even a significant saying, was regarded as a later creation. But full allowance is made for adaptation of the form of sayings while retaining the authentic content. Thus the antithetical form of the teaching in Matthew 5 is regarded as a later drawing out of the implications of the (authentic) sayings of Jesus, and explanatory additions to Jesus’ teaching are allowed in, for instance, the Matthean exceptive clauses in the divorce pericopes, the Marcan (Gentile) application of the divorce teaching (10:12), Matthew 23:5a and ‘just possibly’ 23:3, and various phrases in Matthew 5:17–20. On this basis he is able to give full attention to the contribution of the evangelists, without falling into the pitfall of most redaction-criticism where Jesus virtually disappears from view. The book remains primarily a study of the teaching of Jesus, and one which will richly repay careful study. It is a book to be noticed.

Unfortunately, there are a surprising number of editorial and printing errors for a volume from such a prestigious press and series. I noticed the following names consistently misspelled: J. M. Baumgarten (confused with W. Baumgartner in the index), Brueggemann, von Dobschütz, Fitzmyer, Fohrer, Herrmann, de Jonge, Linnemann, Ljungman; and the citation of R. Le Déaut as ‘Déau(l)t, R.L.’ could be misleading. Other names misprinted include Reicke (p. 3n.), Westermann (p. 66n.), Rengstorf (p. 95n.), Deissmann (p. 123n.), B. C. Butler (p. 153n.), Jüngel (p. 306). Initials are also a little erratic. On p. 210 Emerton’s article in JTS is attributed to Fitzmyer (a conflated reference intending to include Fitzmyer’s article in CBQ 32, pp. 501–531?). On p. 212 the title of Gundry’s book is wrong. ‘Par(a)enesis’ is regularly spelt ‘paranesis’. Other errors (excluding obvious misprints, of which there are few) include: p. 92 n.1, ‘HTR, 56’; p. 100 line 6, read ‘more’ for ‘less’?; p. 119 n.1, ‘Coniectanea’; p. 127 line 2, ‘12a’; p. 160 line 34, ‘10:18b’; p. 163 n.1, read ‘Israel’ for ‘Matthäus’; p. 163 line 8, read ‘Matt. 19:20’ for ‘Mark 10:21a’; p. 170 n.2, ‘Gad’; p. 186 n.2, capital theta; pp. 196–198, anthistanai is regularly misspelt; p. 201 lines 19–22 appears to label archaiois as ‘passive’ (and read ‘preposition’ for ‘proposition’). Other errors in Greek type are obvious, except perhaps the omission of ean, p. 224 line 2, and the omission of the final S from the title PROPHETES, pp. 76 and 275. Lukas oddly appears as Lucas in notes on pages 99, 105, 129, 164, 179.

The Hebrew type is disastrous, apparently set by a printer who did not know the language, and then not proofread by someone who did. Among the very few Hebrew and Aramaic words printed, I noticed the following wrongly spelt: p. 36, bryt;. p. 39, twrh; p. 65, ‘wlm; p. 69, twrh; p. 78, ṣdq’ (and the m- should have been dropped from bḥyry in context); p. 122, br nš/ br nš’; p. 150, lk lk; p. 169, tlwy; p. 202, w’ny ’wmr; p. 226, šlm; p. 302, lk lk. As the Hebrew type consists largely of well-known words and phrases, it would have been more satisfactory (as well as cheaper) to transliterate.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd