What criticisms did Jesus make of first-century Judaism?


pharisee imageJesus was critical of the Judaism of His day, though His was certainly not destructive criticism. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Do not suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not even a yodh or one horn will disappear from the law until all things have happened. Whoever, therefore, might break one of the least of these commandments and teach others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whoever might do and teach, this one will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Jesus went on to warn His disciples, “Unless your righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you would certainly not enter the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount, he explains what He means.

According to the Mishnah’s tractate Aboth, one primary mission of the rabbi is to “build a fence around the law” (Aboth 1:1). The traditions recorded in the Mishnah and explained and extended in the Talmud are the rabbinic way of preventing the breaking of the actual commands of God by setting up traditional barriers short of those commands. For example, the command of God is to avoid taking God’s name in vain. The rabbinic solution was not to use His name at all. As time went on, these traditional “fences” came to have the authority of the commands themselves. They taught that if anyone “jumped a fence,” he or she was being disobedient to God, whether or not they broke the actual command.

In contrast to such rabbinic traditions, Jesus focused on the condition of the heart. Rather than creating extra-biblical barriers in the way of external actions, Jesus worked on the motives and intents of the inner person. What prompts you to sin? If you will examine your thoughts and intentions, you can prevent sin by turning your heart toward God rather than the Evil One.

This principle becomes evident when we read the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees’ barrier to murder was the threat of punishment. Instead, Jesus challenges His disciples to control the hatred in their hearts. If they stop the hatred, then murder will never happen (Matthew 5:21-26). Similarly, the Pharisees warned people not to commit adultery, but Jesus takes a step back and turns the heart from lust (Matthew 5:27-30). They focused on ensuring the proper divorce procedure; Jesus on the motive for the divorce (Matt. 5:31-32).

This focus on the heart eliminates the danger “fence-building” creates: that a person can conform with their actions yet inwardly remain rebellious or at least resentful toward God. Jesus taught people not only to obey God, but also to love Him with their whole being.

Jesus also criticized some the distinctions rabbis made, probably as a result of their disputes. For example, they forbid the use of God’s name in the making of oaths, but they allowed substitutions for His name, like “heaven” or “the altar.” Jesus denies the validity of these distinctions, teaching that oaths made by things associated with God are just as binding as those made using His actual name. That you avoided the name of God in your oath should not serve as an excuse to break your promise. Instead, He says, when you say “Yes,” mean “Yes,” and when you say “No,” mean “No” (Matt. 5:33-37).

Jesus also criticized the scribes and Pharisees for misplaced priorities, emphasizing trivialities like the tithing of one’s garden herbs but neglecting the most important things, like justice and mercy (read all of Matthew 23).

All of this illustrates what Jesus meant when He said that He did not come to destroy but to fulfill. By His teaching and also by His own law-keeping–for He practiced what He preached–Jesus demonstrated a deep reverence for the law and for its God.

Jesus Himself fulfilled the law and prophets in three ways. He was perfect in His obedience to their commandments (see John 5:19; 8:46; 17:4; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22). He fully met once for all its requirements for a blood-atonement (Hebrews 9:19-22; 10:1-18), and He fulfilled its messianic prophecies (e.g., Matthew 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; etc.). The righteousness He achieved through His loving obedience, is what He offers to all who submit to Him (2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 6:1-18). With His righteousness in place of ours, we too can perfectly fulfill the law (Romans 8:3-4), and so are released from the law to serve in a new way, the way of the Spirit (Romans 6:14; 7:4-6). This new way is no less obedient, but focuses on the personal loyalty we have to the Father and to the Son, a loyalty that demands of us love in attitude and in action (Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 4:7-19; 5:1-5).

Want to go deeper?

Recommended for purchase:

Five Views on Law and Gospel by W. A. VanGemeren, G. L. Bahnsen, W. C. Kaiser Jr., W. Strickland, and D. J. Moo (1996). Consists of a discussion between those holding five viewpoints, with each critiquing the others and being critiqued by them.

Beyond the Law: Living the Sermon on the Mount by Philip K. Clemens. Demonstrates that God’s kingdom is based not on a code of law but on God’s goodness and the bounteous love that God desires for the life of every Christian community.

12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (like me): Finding Grace to Live Unmasked by John Fischer (2000). Argues that we cannot be made right before God by being “better” than anyone else. Instead, by recognizing and laying aside the Pharisee in all of us, we can embrace the grace, gratitude, and joy of the Spirit-filled life.

Online resources:

“Righteousness Exceeding that of the Scribes and Pharisees” by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, chapter 19 in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, first published in 1959-60 and still available today.

Read the rest of the articles on Judaism in “The Shallows.” Then in “Study Links,” take a look at the section on Rabbinic Literature for links to some of the best Judaica on the web for non-Hebrew speakers.