By the time Roman influence had encompassed Judaea, Galilee, Idumaea and the Trans-Jordan (Peraea), Jewish society was one that was saturated with religious ritual. From mezuzot to tefillin, from mikva’ot to the Shema, reminders of the ordinances in the Torah were ever present in the every day life of a Jew. It was against this backdrop that Jesus began his ministry.
Today, it is commonly taught by Christians that Jesus’ polemical attacks upon some of the Pharisees of his day were directed at their overly zealous devotion to their rituals. Yet it is often paired with a second teaching, seeped in misunderstanding, which asserts that Jesus abolished these rituals as needless and potentially damaging. This could not be further from the truth. For example, Jesus is reported to have said the following:
‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfil. 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.’ (Matt. 5.17-19)
In fact, one is hard pressed to find contradictions on this matter within the gospel accounts. The following teachings Jesus gives in this section of Matthew (vv. 21-48) cannot be considered to override the Torah. Anyone familiar with the painstaking care the author tends to take over the arrangement of his material would think twice before taking this line. Rather, these are a call to go beyond the expectations of the law, which can hardly be considered breaking it.
The only other candidate is a passage in Mark’s gospel, which begins by Jesus defending his disciples who have ignored the tradition of washing their hands before they eat (it is not made clear whether Jesus ignored this tradition himself) (Mark 7.1-23). Jesus argues that it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’, rather than what enters a man. The author concludes that Jesus’ meaning was that all food was ‘clean’ (v. 19), yet this appears to be an insertion by way of explanation on the part of the author, presumably with an awareness of the direction the early church was taking on this issue. It is notable that the corresponding passage in Matthew does not contain this addition (Matt. 15.1-20), and that the whole discourse was over the ritual of hand washing, which had no obvious Biblical justification, not the Jewish dietary laws (Lev. 11.1-47). It would have been inconceivable for Jesus or his disciples to break these laws anyway, since such food would have been inaccessible given that the whole society strictly adhered to them (unless they wanted to deliberately break them by expending more effort!).
It would appear that Jesus happily upheld the Torah’s 613 mitvot. His two main topics of debate with his contemporary teachers were the Sabbath regulations and purity rituals like the hand washing mentioned above. The Sabbath had remarkably few details given in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was clear that collecting wood was definite no-no (Num. 15.32-6), but it had left a lot of unanswered questions about what was permissible. Jesus observed the Sabbath fully, but in a period when debate still raged over its regulations, his main argument was encapsulated by the rhetorical question, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (Mark 3.4; Luke 6.9), and the maxim, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).
The Sabbath may be technically termed as a moral commandment; the same must not be asserted regarding the purity laws. With the possible exception of the dietary laws, all mitzvoth may divided into two categories: moral and ritual law. Similar language was used to describe both, leading to considerable confusion, but it is worth noting that it was not a sin to contract ritual impurity and in fact at times it was obligatory (Gen 1.28; 9.7; Lev. 16.28; 21.10-15; Num. 19.8). Never the less, the original meaning behind the ritual laws had long been lost by the time of Jesus. Like many other Jewish groups, Jesus held to the view that there was some relationship between the two types of laws. To return to the example of hand washing above, it was only natural for it to lead on to a discussion on the moral sin, in this case the evil in ones heart and its effect on ones speech (Matt. 15.10-20; Mark 7.14-23). Yet the Pharisees, like their rabbinic successors, maintained that both sets of laws were to be upheld without any bearing on each other.
Jesus’ objections were twofold: moral laws like the Sabbath had been expanded upon to the point that they were rituals without real benefit and that ritual laws were upheld without any use at all, rather than as reminders of moral injunctions. In fact, a ritual is designed to habitually remind someone of something. In Jesus’ day, Jewish life was saturated with ritual. They were not insufferable for him, but rather they were a positive aspect of Jewish identity. They reminded the community of their covenant with God. But he felt they had been distorted so that one was burdened by upholding them. He never broke tradition for the sake of it and it is unlikely he ever broke Mosaic Law at all, but he believed that the rules dictating everyday life had to help uphold and recall the more important issues in the eyes of God. Take the almost laughable custom of tithing ones herbs and spices. Jesus approves of this, saying one ought to do so, but not at the expense of ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith’ (Matt. 23.23). The tradition was acceptable, provided it did not detract from the focal point of the whole system of laws of which it was a component. Ritual can remind but it can also make one forget. It can be useful or it can be damaging.