Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jesus and the Paradox of the Law

At Jesus' trial before he faced Pontius Pilate, as reported in ch. 14 of the Gospel of Mark, Caiaphas and the other Jewish elders charged Jesus with violating the law against blasphemy (see Leviticus 24:10-16):
60 The cohen hagadol stood up in the front and asked Yeshua, “Have you nothing to say to the accusations these men are making?” 61 But he remained silent and made no reply. Again the cohen hagadol questioned him: “Are you the Mashiach, Ben-HaM’vorakh?” 62 “I AM,” answered Yeshua. “Moreover, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of HaG’vurah and coming on the clouds of heaven.63 At this, the cohen hagadol tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You heard him blaspheme! What is your decision?” And they all declared him guilty and subject to the death penalty. 
(Because of its faithfulness to Jewish tradition, I have quoted this passage from Mark ch. 14 using the text of the Complete Jewish Bible. "Cohen hagadol" means "the high priest"; "Mashiach" is "the Messiah"; "Ben-HaM'vorakh" translates as "Son of the Blessed" i.e., "Son of God"; and "HaG'vurah" is Hebrew for "the Power" -- a euphemism for the Divine Name which Jews were forbidden to pronounce. And notice how Jesus' answer to the High Priest's query echoes what God told Moses to say to the people of Israel when they asked who had sent him to them [Exodus 3:14].)

As a human and a Jew, Jesus was subject to Jewish law. At the same time, Jesus as the Son of God was himself the very end-point and object of Jewish law ("I came not to change the law, but to fulfill it" - Mt 5:17). Thus we come to the ultimate paradox of Jewish law: it was blasphemy for a man to claim to be the Son of God, but at the same time, only Jesus could truthfully make that claim -- and when asked directly, he could not truthfully deny it.

Jewish law, therefore, uniquely condemned to death the man who was the only Son of God. While it would put to death any true blasphemers who falsely claimed divinity, it also inescapably trapped God's Son in its mesh.

Jesus must have known this from the days when he first began to study the Torah as a youth. He was indeed destined to "fulfill the law", as the only one who could.

And God, of course, must have (fore)known this when he gave the law to Moses.

Had the high priest recognized Jesus as the Messiah in Jerusalem, he could not have imposed the penalty of the law, because it was naturally intended to punish only those who falsely claimed to be divine. But then the law would not have been fulfilled by Jesus' unique sacrifice.

So we have a true paradox to ponder: God gave the law to the Jews, so that in abiding by it they would keep His covenant, and avoid sin; but also so that in abiding by it (literally, but mistakenly) they would see to the deliverance of all of mankind from its sins -- while condemning to death, for "violating" the law, His only Son.


  1. I believe that Jesus' fate had been sealed long before his few minutes with Caiaphas, and was foretold in Original Sin:

    Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
    Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
    'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
    I crucified thee.

  2. Your post reminds me of something that has just happened to me, which I think is related to it.

    Yesterday (Sunday, 17 August) I visited a church, when the Pastor preached about Jesus' interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-28). The Pastor was trying to make a point about the necessity of growing in discipleship for all Christians.

    You will remember that the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to plead a deliverance for her son, who is demon-possessed. Instead of immediately granting her request, Jesus makes two cryptical (in light of the situation) remarks: (1) "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel"; (2) "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

    In his sermon, the Pastor suggested that, at that stage of his ministry, Jesus had a limited vision of what his Messianic mission actually was. At that time, Jesus thought his ministry was strictly limited to the Jews, and that he could not extend it to Gentiles. This caused him to make a remark (#2) which was downright rude to the woman, i.e., he implied she was a "dog" (a derogative Jewish term of the time for a Gentile) which (at least from a modern viewpoint) is certainly highly offensive.

    However, the Pastor said, the point of the passage is that by the woman's clever reply, i.e., "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table," Jesus had his mind changed by the woman. He learned a lesson, which then caused his vision of his ministry to grow. The Pastor subsequently went on to draw parallels with other biblical characters, e.g., Peter, Jonah, Thomas, etc., who also had limited understandings, and learned and grew as a result of their mistakes.

    As you can imagine, I listened to this sermon with profound disquiet. While this biblical passage is certainly a difficult one to understand (afterwards, I read several commentary discussions of the text), I would hesitate for a very long time before using it to suggest that Jesus had such blinkered vision that it lead him to commit a major blunder. I suspect, rather, that he already knew what he was going to do (i.e., grant the request), and that his remarks were directed not at the woman, but at his disciples, as an indirect way of challenging them to face their prejudices about ministering outside of their own religious culture, to the Gentiles.

    I think this raises an interesting point with respect to your post. When the High Priest directly questions Jesus: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus is clearly in no doubt about his mission when he replies: And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” [I am using the ESV]. The issue raised is about the development of this conviction within Jesus' life. In Luke Ch. 2, at the end of the section which describes his remaining behind in the Temple, it says (Luke 2:52): And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

    Jesus clearly grew in understanding throughout his life. But when did the conviction of his being the Messiah become so strong, that he was prepared to give an answer which he knew would lead to him being executed?

  3. Topper, thank you for your comment. I agree with the commentaries that note (from the similar Greek verbs) that Jesus intended to meet the Canaanite woman, just as she was bent on meeting him, so that their meeting was not haphazard, and that Jesus was testing the strength of her faith, first by his silence, and next by his taunt to her. At the same time, he knew that his mission at that time was primarily to the Jews, and that the Great Commission to the gentiles would not take effect until after his atoning sacrifice and resurrection.

  4. Topper,

    The "Jesus was taught a lesson by the Canaanite woman" line must be something that is either an easy trap for a preacher to fall into, or it is being taught in the seminaries because it is heard all too often from the pulpit these days. Your disquiet is a good sign that your "Sunday ears" were turned on.

  5. I managed to locate a very engaging reference, which I thought I had misplaced, about Matthew 15:21-28. It's in an extended comment on the passage by Don Richardson in an article called "A Man for All Peoples" in the "Perspectives on the World Christian Movement" missionary text book. He sees this passage as an acted-out object lesson for the disciples, which is intended to reinforce Jesus' teaching in the passage immediately preceding it, on the difference between real versus figurative uncleanness. Initially, Jesus feigns indifference to the claims of the woman. (It must have been feigned, since he had already healed many Gentiles, and to refuse this one would be inconsistent.) Then, following his apparent lead, when the disciples ask him to "send her away," he deliberately makes the two provocative statements deliberately to set them up.

    It is worthwhile quoting Richardson's exact words here: " No doubt his disciples thought his [i.e., Jesus'] reference quite appropriate for the occasion. But just when their chests were swollen to the full with pride of race, the Canaanite woman must have caught the a twinkle in Jesus' eye and realized the truth! "Yes Lord," she replied ever so humbly, not to mention subtly, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table!" Of course, Richardson, as a missionary and missiologist, would tend to place a mission-oriented interpretation on this account.

  6. Richardson is reflecting a view of the dog parable that is developed in a short but illuminating book, The Humor of Christ, by Elton Trueblood, 1964. In that book, at page 123, a couple of other scholars are cited as taking the view that witty and humorous dialogue is the simplest and best explanation for Christ's comments. I have a scanned copy of The Humor of Christ, and if you want a copy write to me at

  7. The posture of the Nazarene rings solidly with the Texian way of giving back-handed complements, or of testing mettle of a person ....almost in the same words....while smiling and allowing the eye to twinkle with a glint of humour...Jesus would be quite at home. I also think that the Canaanite woman was probably used to the philosophical projection of a famous, if itinerant, preacher. When the tete-a-tete is over between the Nazarene and the Canaanite all objectives had been accomplished.
    It is hard for people to believe, perhaps, that since Texians are such boors, throwbacks, and "ingert hicks" that we perform on this theatrical and literary level as a daily matter of course.

    It is recognised that connecting mannerisms of very disparate ethnic types separated by two millennium borders well past the improbable. I feel and believe very strongly, however, that the Jew was "tickling the issue". The Canaanite woman was probably attractive...a condition of their group...and was probably used to much rougher, coarser, suggestive, and even insulting barbs thrown her way by caravan drivers, traders, and men far from home. Plus Jesus called up the Samaritan as an example of the proper way to deal with "foreigners", and "others" and "them over there".

    In any regard, that is how I have resolved this matter from a long time ago. Thanks for having endured my ramble. It is good to see action at the front again, although we are leaving back to our Quinta in Mexico on Friday...for a fairly long stay.
    El Gringo Viejo