05 January 2008

The Gospel & the Torah

One of my priest-brothers, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, has recently written a provocative and insight piece concerning the relationship between the Gospel and the Torah. Perhaps you will agree as you read this except. (Regrettably the remainder of this essay, which I received by email, is not yet available online.)

Among the problems through which the apostolic congregations had to find their way, few were as difficult as the connection between the Gospel and the Torah. This question required not only a theological answer, but also practical guidance of a pastoral kind. That is to say, early Christians needed to know, not only how Jesus related to the Law, but also how, in practice, they themselves were related to Judaism. In considerable measure the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul were devoted to this double question.

The same twofold problem was addressed in the Gospel of Matthew. For Matthew the question of how the Gospel and the Torah were related was inseparable from the problem of how the Christians were related to Jews. Matthew did not answer this question by simply distinguishing between the Gospel and the Law. He did not say that Christians have the Gospel, while Jews are stuck with the Law.

This rather simple answer, in Matthew's eyes, would have implied a radical discontinuity in the history of salvation. Instead of "fulfilling" the Law and the Prophets, Jesus would simply have abrogated them. There would be no necessary, theological connection between the New Testament and the Old, and Christians would be rootless with respect to history.

Beginning his treatment of this question, Matthew cited the saying of Jesus, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (5:17). And in what sense did Jesus "fulfill" the Law and the Prophets? According to Matthew this "fulfillment" had to do with the teaching of Jesus--the Gospel--as it related to the Torah. And how was the Gospel related to the Torah? By a kind of radical "excess": "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).

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