Sandmel responding the 19-20th century portrayals of 1st Century Judaism quips, “it is always called ‘arid and dry’ never one or the other, always both ‘arid and dry’. Bible scholarship has tended to lean on the words of Jesus and the words of Paul to develop a picture of 1st Century Judaism. The resulting portrayal has generally comprised of a religious movement that was legalistic, prideful, injust, and uncompassionate. The problem is that we have used and circulated the critiques of mispractice and descriptions of what could go wrong with a religious system as though these were the founding articles of that faith. What is further wrong, is that we read those perceptions back into the founding texts. Thus if a text in the Torah may be interpreted as either an expression of compassion, or an expression of exploitation, we often choose the second without consideration of the first.
Once we are firmly determined to oppose the Law, we place Jesus and Paul on our side and downplay their positive comments about the Law. Perhaps we should consider that even within their negative descriptions of what has gone wrong are clues to what the Law looks like when the Law goes right. Further, we should consider that the prophetic description of the New Covenant is entirely a presentation of the Law going right.
So when Jesus says to those Pharisees that “strain the gnat and swallow the camel” by focusing on tithe tiniest produce from the herb gardens, Jesus is also telling them that they should have also “done the weightier provisions of the Law like justice and mercy, and faithfulness.” They were right by the Law in doing the first, they were wrong by the Law in not doing the second. It is not that first century Judaism did not produce mercy and justice. If that were the case, there would be not Jewish basis on the failure to keep them. Rather, when the study and keeping of Torah failed to produce just and merciful people, it was Jesus, along with the Torah that judge them. What we often fail to consider is that when Jesus or Paul called Jewish people out on a failure of being in line with the Torah those people knew Jesus and Paul were right, and except for their stake in thing, might have well said so. Seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Scribes and Pharisees “Hypocrites.” The easiest way to escape all charges of hypocrisy is to not have a standard. People with standards will almost always be open to charges of hypocrisy, and will often be guilty as charged. Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of His day was not that they were without a standard, not that they were pursuing the wrong standard. Their issue was more serious. They were failing to keep the standard they knew to be right. The charges cannot be monolithic, not can they be uniform, they need only be widely distributed. All this is to say, Torah practices were meant to train the heart and mind, they were meant to produce right affections, and they did not have the same effectiveness in every person at all times. Reading Jesus words through John to the Seven Churches of Asia, we might think the Christianity of the late first and early second century was both dry and arid. The critiques of each church and Jesus’ warning to repent lest He remove each ones lamp from the lampstand indicate that while the Gospel was meant to train the heart and mind, and produce right affections, and yet it did not have the same effectiveness in every person at all times. If we believe, as many have suggested, that the Law was the LORD working upon us from the outside in, while the Gospel works on us from inside outward, then the issues of the Pharisees should be easy for use to understand, and Jesus’ words to the seven churches much more difficult to excuse or explain.