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The Founder of Christianity by C. H. Dodd

C.H. Dodd is recognized as one of the great New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. Dr. Dodd was for many years Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University. Published by the MacMillan Company, New York, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: The Teacher

In the Jewish society of his time Jesus found his place, to begin with, as a teacher of religion and morals. He was addressed as "Rabbi" (Master), and not only by his immediate followers, but also by strangers, including some who would themselves have claimed the same title. It is true that the title had not yet become (as it did by the end of the century) something rather like the equivalent of a university degree, conferring license to teach, but even as a courtesy title it implied public, if informal, acceptance as a teacher. It was as such that Jesus was at first regarded. It was as such that he attached "disciples" -- the word used was a technical term for those who attended upon a rabbi and formed his "school." What did Jesus teach?

It is clear that there was a wide ground which he shared with other rabbis of his time. He accepted, as they did, the Old Testament as containing a divine revelation. He could assume its teaching as something well known to his audience: God is one; he is "Lord of heaven and earth"; 1 he is supremely good ("No one is good except God alone." 2), and supremely powerful ("To God everything is possible." 3). Because he is both good and powerful, he is to be trusted. Because he is Lord and King, he is to be obeyed. He is stern in judgment, but also "plenteous in mercy," as the Old Testament constantly declares. So far there is nothing which would be unfamiliar or unacceptable to any well taught Jew of the time. Similarly, in his ethical teaching he started on common ground. He could assume all that was best in the Old Testament, and in the teaching of contemporary rabbis. He offered interpretations of the Law of Moses as other rabbis did, as well as some criticisms of it on which they would not have ventured. Jewish scholars have shown that there is a considerable amount of rabbinic teaching which is markedly similar to that of Jesus in the gospels, which after all is what we should have expected. Indeed, we must suppose that a good deal of the current ethics of Judaism is silently taken for granted.

And yet, the teaching is oriented in a direction which differentiates it from rabbinic Judaism; the angle at which it touches life is different. This can perhaps best be appreciated if we start again with the parables, which, as we have seen, are the most characteristic part of the record of the teaching of Jesus. If we survey the whole body of parables we cannot but observe that a large proportion of them have a common theme, which we might describe as the arrival of "zero hour," the climax of a process, bringing a crisis in which decisive action is called for. A farmer has patiently watched the growth of his crop: "first the blade, then the ear, then full grown corn in the ear." 4 For the moment there is nothing he can do about it; the forces of nature are in charge. "But as soon as the crop is ripe, he plies the sickle, because harvest time has come," and if he lets the moment pass, the crop is lost. A trader in gems who is offered a pearl of outstanding value -- the prize of a lifetime -- must buy there and then, or someone else will get it, even if it means gambling his entire capital.5 A defendant on his way to court had better settle in a hurry.6 A servant under notice of dismissal must devise means of avoiding beggary without delay.7 One picture after another drives home the same idea: a crisis calling for decision.

What was this "zero hour" he was speaking about? The gospels leave us in little doubt. It was the hour with which Jesus and his hearers were faced at the time of speaking. As harvest is the culminating point of the agricultural year, so this is the climax of centuries of growth. "Look round on the fields; they are already white, ripe for harvest. The reaper is drawing his pay and gathering a crop." 8 It is the time when the history of Israel, with all its unfulfilled promise, reaches fulfillment. "Happy the eyes that see what you are now seeing! I tell you, many prophets and kings wished to see what you now see, yet never saw it; to hear what you hear, yet never heard it." 9 More nearly explicit is a saying which Luke has rendered with almost telegraphic brevity: "Until John, it was the law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the kingdom of God." 10 That is to say, with the work of John the Baptist (who had recently been put to death) an old order was wound up, and a new order was inaugurated. It is characterized by "good news" about the "kingdom of God."

In Hebrew idiom this phrase means something more like "the reign of God," or even "the reigning of God," that is, God himself exercising his royal power. Jesus came into Galilee, says Mark, announcing this "good news," which the writer has formulated in a kind of slogan: "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you!" 11 That meant, Here is God in all his power and majesty, confronting you where you live! What are you going to do about it? The Galilean public rightly divined that Jesus was here stepping outside the province of a rabbi. "He is a prophet," they said, "like one of the old prophets."12

Jesus did indeed stand in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel, whose message is preserved in the Old Testament. The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God has a hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal ("hearing the word of the Lord." as they expressed it). Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long. In the wider world remarkable things were happening to the minds of men, and Jewish life could not be insulated from it. Things were happening; but what was happening? Then, as always, there were many possible secular answers to the question. What answer should be given by one who believed in God? The prophets had answered for their time in terms of "the counsel of the Most High." And so Jesus answered the question posed by the crisis he discerned in the words, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you." This is "zero hour," the hour of decision. God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.

The statement needs some examination. God, the eternal, the omnipresent, can hardly be said to be nearer or farther off at this time than at that. If he is king at all, he is king always and everywhere. In what sense his kingdom does not come; it is. But human experience takes place within a framework of time and space. It has varying degrees of intensity. There are particular moments in the lives of men and in the history of mankind when what is permanently true (if largely unrecognized) becomes manifestly and effectively true. Such a moment in history is reflected in the gospels. The presence of God with men, a truth for all times and places, became an effective truth. It became such (we must conclude) because of the impact that Jesus made; because in his words and actions it was presented with exceptional clarity and operative with exceptional power. Jesus himself pointed to the effects of his work as signs of the coming of the kingdom: "If by the finger of God I chive Out the devils, then be sure the kingdom of God has come upon you." 13 The saying is obviously figurative. To speak literally, God has no fingers, and there may or may not be such things as evil spirits; what the gospels call casting out devils we might describe, rightly or wrongly, in other terms. But the essential meaning is not obscure. In the presence of Jesus the dark forces within, which ravage the souls and bodies of men, were overcome and their victims made new. That it was so, is a fact so deeply imprinted on the records that it cannot reasonably be doubted. And this, Jesus said, was a sign that God was coming in his kingdom. It would not be accurate to say that Jesus brought in, or set up, the kingdom of God. That was the work of God himself, whose perpetual providence, active in every part of his creation, had brought about this significant moment, and the most significant feature in it was the appearance of Jesus himself. In his words and actions he made men aware of it and challenged them to respond. It was "good news in the sense that it meant opportunity for a new start and an unprecedented enrichment of experience. But when a person (or a society) has been presented with such a challenge and declines it, he is not just where he was before. His position is the worse for the encounter. It is this that gives point to the tremendous warnings that Jesus is reported to have uttered about the consequences of rejection. That is why John, looking back on the career of Jesus as a complete episode, saw it as a day of judgment. "Now is the hour of judgment for this world," 14 he writes. "The light came into tile world and men preferred darkness to light." 15 Light is a good thing; to encounter the reality which is God’s presence in his world is in itself good. Whatever possibility of disaster may lurk within the choice which is offered, the facing of the choice, in the freedom which the Creator allows to his creatures, in itself raises life to greater intensity. The coming of the kingdom meant the open possibility of enhancement of life; it also meant the heightening of moral responsibility.

What response to the challenge did Jesus expect from his hearers? "The kingdom of God is upon you; repent!" So Mark’s slogan runs. The word "repent" in English suggests being "sorry for your sins." That is not what the Greek word means. It means, quite simply, to think again, to have second thoughts, to change your mind. "Repentance," as the gospels mean it, is a readjustment of ideas and emotions, from which a new pattern of life and behavior will grow (as the "fruit of repentance").

The readjustment turns upon acceptance of "good news of God" The news was, in the first place, that God was here, now. If once that was grasped, then everything that could be said about God had a new immediacy. What Jesus had to say about God, as we have seen, was expressed in language imaginative and emotive, which suggests rather than defines. We have noted how he dwelt upon the beauty and wonder of nature, and linked man with nature in one order where each level could be illuminated from another, and God was to be traced in all. At every level man meets his Creator, the Lord of heaven and earth, supreme in goodness and power, whose goodness is an exuberant generosity directed toward all his creatures without discrimination, and yet focussed on individuals in inconceivable intimacy. "Even the hairs on your head have all been counted." 16

It is instructive to observe how this way of thinking about God gives a new color to images of Deity which Jesus took over from the tradition of his people. The idea of God as the Shepherd of Israel is almost a commonplace in the Old Testament. A true shepherd, Jesus observed, will be deeply concerned over a single sheep that has gone astray: "He goes after the missing one until he finds it." 17 So does God. And the point is sharpened because Jesus was censured for doing that very thing. The parable of the Lost Sheep, in fact (so Luke tells us), was his reply to such censures. The traditional image of the divine Shepherd was revivified in his actions as well as in his words.

Again, God as the Father of his people was a very familiar metaphor, deeply embedded in the religious language of Judaism. And indeed the idea of a Father-god is common to many religions. But what is fatherhood, in its essential meaning, as applied to the Deity? Jesus did not hesitate to compare it directly with ordinary human fatherhood. "If you, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!" 18 The same comparison emerges in the parable which is perhaps the best known of them all, that of the Prodigal Son.19 This is no ideal picture of an imaginary father, of such exceptional saintliness that he can stand for God himself. He is any father worth the name, as the hearers are expected to recognize, and this is how he would behave; and that is what God is like. Once again, the parable, we are told, was by way of a defense of what Jesus was doing against the censures of the pious, who are slyly satirized in the figure of the smug elder brother ("I never once disobeyed your orders!"). It is, in equal measure, an expression of the attitude of Jesus and an image of Deity.

All through, the teaching of Jesus about God is distinguished by the directness, warmth and simplicity with which the language of fatherhood is used. "You have a Father who knows that you need all these things." "It is not the will of your Father that one of these little ones should be lost." 20 The same qualities mark the prayer, used by the church from its earliest days, which was believed to have been taught by Jesus himself. The prayer as it is commonly used, now as for centuries past, in public worship agrees with Matthew’s version of it, cast in a form which no doubt had such use in view. Luke gives a simpler, perhaps a more original version:

Father, thy name be hallowed.
Thy kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we too forgive all who have done us wrong.
And do not bring us to the test.21

The word for "Father," which the earliest Christians learnt from Jesus in their native Aramaic, was "Abba" (the Aramaic word is preserved in some places of the New Testament), and "Abba" was the intimate mode of address from child to father in the Jewish family. "My Father," or "our Father," was felt to be slightly more distant or more respectful, and Matthew’s "our father in heaven" represents the formal language of liturgical prayer. Here again is a slight but not insignificant pointer to the way in which Jesus wanted his followers to think of God. The actual petitions of the prayer agree with this. They are the appeal of children to a father, simple, direct and confident.

This kind of language, they say, is "anthropomorphic." Of course it is; and of course all human language about God falls short of telling what he is -- the language of philosophical abstraction no less than the poetic image. But it is nevertheless intended to be taken seriously. In the first century many devout Jews were shy of such language. We can see this from the way in which they paraphrased passages in the Old Testament which sounded anthropomorphic, and from the circumspect terms in which they spoke of the Deity ("Heaven," "The Name," "The Holy One, blessed be he," and the like). Some of them, especially if they had come under Greek influence, as had many Jews of that period, spoke of "the One who really is," much as some moderns speak of "the ultimate reality," or "the ground of being." In contrast, the gospels are uninhibited in their use of anthropomorphic language. We must suppose that Jesus used it, by choice, because it is the appropriate way of speaking about the personal life with God which was his concern, but, even more, because it was the only possible way of speaking of God as he himself knew him. He was aware that there were sophisticated types who could not take his teaching; he accepted this as a part of the conditions under which he had to work. "I thank thee, Father," he is recorded to have said, in one of the very few echoes of his personal prayers that have come through into the gospels -- "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple." 22 Some people would need to make a considerable effort to put themselves into the attitude in which his teaching would have meaning for them. "Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God"; or, in other words, "Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. 23 This "turning round" is a large part of what is meant by "repentance" in the gospels. It is learning to think of God as your Father and of yourself as his child, quite simply.

How it would work out in daily practice is a question, it would seem, which Jesus was willing to leave very much to the awakened conscience of the individual. To bring about that awakening of conscience was a major object of his work, certainly the major aim of most of the parables. We look in vain in the gospels for any such elaborate scheme of rules for living as were offered by contemporary moralists, Jewish and Greek. This is not to be taken as meaning that there was either any vagueness about the true nature of moral action or any relaxation of the moral imperative. The follower of Jesus is under orders, no less binding because they are not spelled out in detail; he is "the man who hears these words of mine and acts upon them." 24 It is not because he wanted to let people off lightly that Jesus did not dictate a set of bylaws. And in fact the gospels do contain a small but illuminating body of directly ethical instruction. To this we must now turn.

To start from a point where Jesus occupied common ground with his Jewish contemporaries may help us to appreciate both the organic relationship of his teaching to its matrix in Judaism, and the new departure it marks. In the first century, some of the most advanced of Jewish teachers, faced with the growing complexity of the system of ethics contained in the so-called Law of Moses and its constantly proliferating interpretations and supplements, were attempting to bring out its central or overruling intention by giving prominence to one or another "great commandment" upon which the rest might be supposed to hang. Jesus was aware of these attempts, and in sympathy with them. It is recorded that in discussing the question he found himself in friendly agreement with some teachers of the Law that there are two "great commandments": Love God with all your heart; love your neighbor as yourself. According to Matthew and Mark the combination of these two commandments was suggested by Jesus, and his questions cordially agreed. According to Luke it was the "lawyer" (as he calls him) who made the combination, and Jesus assented.25 There is no reason why both reports should not be true. It is likely enough that the question was discussed on more than one occasion.

Love of God; love of neighbor: an important part of the ethical teaching of Jesus can be brought under these twin heads, and this has often been done by Christian moralists. But if we are to trust the three earlier gospels, this was not his way. The objection has often been raised, that love cannot be commanded, and that to say "Thou shalt love" involves a contradiction. The objection may be rebutted in various ways. But in fact Jesus dealt with the theme to which the two commandments refer in a different way, which is not open to any such objection. Singular as it may appear, he seems to have said little (in express terms) about the duty of loving God, and not much more (in express terms) about loving one’s neighbor, except where he was relating himself to current teaching with which his hearers would be familiar. Indeed he seems to have been sparing in his use of the word "love" (noun or verb).

Thus, when he is speaking in language of his own choice he does not say, "Thou shalt love God." He says (in effect) "God is your Father; become what you are, his child" To live as a child of God means, as a matter of course, trust and obedience. All that is in the Old Testament, and what Jesus says about it is only a re-emphasis. But there is a further point: the maxim "Like father, like child" holds good here, and it is in the application of this principle that we can recognize an emphasis which is characteristic of the teaching of Jesus. The child of God will be like his Father, at least to the extent that he will feel himself obliged to try to reproduce in his own behavior towards others the quality of God’s action toward his children, and to pursue the direction in which that action points.

The "imitation of God" was a not uncommon way of expressing the moral ideal; it is found in both Jewish and Greek moralists of the period. They differ among themselves in regard to the divine attributes held up for imitation. For example, there were teachers for whom the characteristic attribute of Deity was the blissful serenity of perfectly self-centered indifference, and it was this that the "philosopher" must imitate. For others it was a transcendent and ineffable "holiness," unrelated to the conditions and values of human life on earth, to be imitated in seclusion from the world, by a contrived and exacting discipline. This appears to have been the view of some Jewish sectaries. But in the best Jewish teaching (going back to the prophets of the Old Testament) the attributes of God which are to be imitated are those which can be conceived on the analogy of human virtues at their highest; such as his even-handed justice, his mercy, his "faithfulness." Jesus agreed: "Justice, mercy, and good faith" he declared to be "the weightier demands of the Law." 26 But he also put the subject in a fresh light by his emphasis on the undiscriminating generosity and sympathy of the heavenly Father, particularly as shown towards those who are unworthy of it. This is the divine quality, above all, in which children of God will be like their Father. He "makes the sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends rain on the honest and the dishonest." 27 This is not, in any workaday sense of the term, justice: it is "goodness beyond justice." And this is the kind of thing his children should be doing. Whether this should be called love to God or love to neighbor is a matter of indifference. To love God is to live as his child; to live as a child of God is to treat your neighbor as God treats you.

But since the goodness of God is undiscriminating, "beyond justice," the term "neighbor" is no longer serviceable unless it is redefined. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, where love to neighbor is, quite simply, doing for him what needs to be done, in the emergency, the good neighbor is both alien and heretic.28 And at this point, perhaps, some hearers who had assented so far might have had misgivings, even if they did not go to the lengths of those fanatical sectaries whose Manual of Discipline (found among the "Dead Sea Scrolls") enjoined them "to love all the children of light -- and to hate all the children of darkness, each according to the measure of his guilt." It may have been with teaching of this kind in view that Jesus said, "You have learned that they were told, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies." He was at pains to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of this challenging revision of the old commandment, "Love your neighbor."

If you love only those who love you,
What credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good only to those who do good to you,
What credit is that to you?
Even sinners do as much.
And if you lend only where you expect to be repaid,
What credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to be repaid in full.
But you must love your enemies and do good,
And lend without expecting any return;
And you will have a rich reward:
You will be sons of the Most High,
Because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.29

It is impossible to miss the stress laid upon breaking out of the narrow circle within which it is natural to confine the love of neighbor, and this is specifically related to the quality of the divine action. It is also instructive to observe how the expression slides from "Love your enemy," modeled on the traditional "Love your neighbor," to "Do good," "Lend," becoming more concrete at each step. At a still further stage the expression becomes fully pictorial and we get what is in effect a parable. "If someone slaps you on the right check, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two." (The reference is to the system of forced labor for the state which was employed under the Roman Empire, especially for the purposes of the imperial postal service.) "Give when you are asked to give, and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow." 30 Considered as regulations for the conduct of daily life these maxims are utopian. They were not intended as such regulations. Yet they are meant to be taken seriously. They are vivid and even startling illustrations, in extreme cases, of the way in which the quality and direction of God’s treatment of his children might be reproduced in human relations. The very extravagance of them shows that Jesus was well aware what a lot he was demanding of human nature when he substituted "Love your enemies" for "Love your neighbor." There is a somewhat similar note of extravagance in an illuminating little dialogue reported by Matthew. Jesus has been urging the duty of forgiveness. Peter is represented as asking, ‘How often am I to go on forgiving my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?" Jesus replies, "I do not say seven times; I say seventy times seven." 31 Four hundred and ninety times -- which is absurd. Peter’s question is one which would occur naturally enough to a well-brought-up Jew of the period. He had been taught that forgiveness was a virtue, and, in the spirit of much contemporary exposition of the Law, be would like to know exactly how far he was expected to go. The reply of Jesus is a reductio ad absurdum of any quantitative treatment of the question. There are no limits.

It might be asked why Jesus gave such prominence to these themes. One answer might be that he saw, as any sensitive observer might have seen, that Jewish society was being corroded by rancorous hatreds, among the parties and factions into which it was divided, and between Jew and Roman. It was the part of any publicist who had insight and foresight, to point this out and to urge a change of temper before it was too late. But there is more to it than that. It is in this field of human relations, where the issues are most acute and the emotions are most strongly aroused, that the absoluteness of God’s requirements can be exposed. This is a part of what is meant by the declaration that his kingdom is here. It is no time for the nicely calculated less and more of "practical" morality. It is a time for total commitment. There is no limit to what is demanded of children of God, nor can his demands be exhaustively fulfilled. "When you have carried out all your orders, you should say, ‘We are servants and deserve no credit; we have only done our duty.’" 32 All that a man can do is to accept full responsibility before God, and to throw himself on his mercy. Forgiveness to "seventy times seven" is a function of the heavenly Father. But "if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father." 33 This is not to be taken as a threat of retributive action on the part of God. It means that the unforgiving person does not stand in the relation of a child to the heavenly Father. He has broken that relation by his own attitude; he has placed himself outside the family of God. "Observe," Paul once wrote, "the kindness and the severity of God." 34 We can observe both here, in a tension which must not be evaded, if the teaching of Jesus is to be understood. A similar combination of kindness and severity is to be observed in his own attitude. His tenderness to men in their need, and his unsparing demands upon them, both arise from a deep concern for the individual as a child of the heavenly Father, and this reflects the attitude of God himself, as Jesus represented it.

We have seen that Jesus started from positions which he largely shared with other Jewish teachers of his time, but that in some respects he went beyond these positions. It is clear that a rift soon appeared, and this became with time an irreconcilable breach. In interpreting what the gospels report upon this subject it is well to bear in mind that, when they came to be written, controversy between the followers of Jesus and official Judaism had gone forward with increasing bitterness for some years before the final separation of church and synagogue. It was almost inevitable that in the course of this controversy the sayings of Jesus should sometimes have been given a sharper edge, certainly that those sayings should be most often repeated which were capable of such a sharp edge. But that he did upon occasion set his teaching in deliberate opposition to that of other rabbis cannot be doubted. Nor, whatever allowance be made for overcoloring in the course of controversy, is it possible to doubt that he did deliberately criticize them, and sometimes in trenchant terms, though we need not assume that all of them were included in such criticism; there were perhaps more teachers of the Law with whom Jesus could find himself in friendly agreement than the two or three who have found their way into the gospels. But a growing opposition is a feature of the record which cannot be set aside. In any study of the beginnings of Christianity it is necessary to take account of this opposition and to try to understand its nature and causes. Moreover, in the attempt we may hope to arrive at a juster appreciation of the distinctive tendencies and emphases of the teaching of Jesus himself.

It is evident from what has already been said that the ethics of Jesus are predominantly concerned with the dignity and responsibility of the human individual face to face with God. In view of this it is not surprising to find a certain impatience with minutiae of religious etiquette with which the most influential school of rabbinic Judaism was much preoccupied. Not that he seems to have set himself deliberately to undermine the cherished customs of his people. A good example is his treatment of the law of tithe, a tax of 10 per cent for religious purposes levied on agricultural produce. It laid a serious burden on those who tried to observe it with scrupulous exactness, for it was, of course, in addition to the imperial taxation. It was no bad test of genuine devotion to the Law. Upon this there is a saying of Jesus, reported (with small verbal differences) by Matthew and Luke: "You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, but you have overlooked the weightier demands of the Law -- justice, mercy and good faith. It is these you should have practiced, without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain off a midge, yet gulp down a camel!" 35 Jesus was not intolerant of these religious practices; there is no harm in having rules of discipline, and if such rules are accepted, certainly no harm in following them conscientiously. But there is a proportion to be kept: if they are allowed to get in the way of those personal relations which are summed up as "justice, mercy and good faith," then the attempt to keep the Law of God is frustrated.

It was on similar grounds that Jesus sat loose to other current rules of discipline; for example, the regulations about Sabbath observance, which had become immensely elaborate and detailed. Here again it does not appear that he planned to undermine the conventions of Jewish society. We are told that he was accustomed to attend the synagogue service on the Sabbath, and we may assume that normally he would conform with the rules generally observed. But when these rules conflicted with elementary human need, they must give way. In principle, indeed, this was conceded. "The Sabbath was given to you, and not you to the Sabbath": the sentiment is attributed to more than one Jewish rabbi. Jesus agreed: "The Sabbath was made for the sake of man, and not man for the Sabbath." 36 But his actions implied a more thorough application of it than others were prepared to allow. He gave serious offense by treating patients, not in immediate danger of death, on the holy day. When challenged, he propounded the question, "Is it permitted to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil?" If the rules prevent you from doing good, that is, from promoting the welfare of any individual person who may be within your reach (your "neighbor"), then the rules must yield to a higher claim. There may also be a hint that to fail to "do good" because it is the Sabbath is to "do evil."

The keeping of the Sabbath may seem to us a comparatively trivial issue, but it was a sensitive point. It was one of the most obviously distinctive of all Jewish customs; it was one which the Gentile observer, however superficial, could not miss, as references in Greek and Roman literature sufficiently prove. Nor was it forgotten that in the first great national revolt, two hundred years earlier, Jewish fugitives had allowed themselves to be massacred rather than fight on the holy day. The Sabbath was specially prized as a mark of the separateness of the chosen people, and to attack it was to blur the national image.

Without going into further detail, we can see how inevitable it was that tension arose between Jesus and the exponents of current religious practice. But the trouble went deeper than the lack of proportion and sheer triviality to which their casuistry sometimes descended. Jesus saw in it the grave danger of such an emphasis on the overt act that the inner disposition was forgotten. He is reported to have put the point by way of an interpretation of two of the Ten Commandments. "You have learned that our forefathers were told, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgment’ But what I tell you is this: anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgment." And again, "You have learned that they were told ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But what I tell you is this: if a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." 37

There is nothing here that need have upset anyone who was acquainted with the Old Testament or with Jewish teaching of the time. There are many rabbinic sayings which condemn the indulgence of anger (against a fellow Jew, bien entendu), and the Ten Commandments themselves not only prohibit adultery but add, "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife." But this constant and emphatic dwelling on the inward disposition rather than the overt act might well excite the suspicion of those who insisted on the deed as the sole visible test of obedience to the Law of God. It is clear that Jesus too attached importance to the concrete act; that is one reason why he cast so much of his ethical teaching in the form of vivid word pictures of action instead of abstract general maxims. But he did so with the proviso that the act is the sincere expression of an inward disposition. "A good man produces good from the store of good within himself, and an evil man from the evil within produces evil. For the words the mouth utters come from the overflowing of the heart." 38 It is a matter of wholeness of character, consistency of thought, word and act.

That is why he expressed such horror of ostentatious display of religion where a true inward devotion was lacking. "Be careful," he is reported to have said, "not to make a show of your religion before men. . . . When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues or at the street corners, for everyone to see them. . . . When you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place." 39 When he was censured for laxity in observing the traditional rules about ceremonial washing before meals, he retorted upon his critics in a biting phrase: "You clean the outside of cup and plate, but inside you there is nothing but greed and wickedness." 40 Again, it was held that certain kinds of food "defile" the eater. According to Mark Jesus pronounced categorically on the matter: "Nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him." Mark adds an explanation: "From the inside, out of a man’s heart, come evil thoughts [and a whole catalogue of violent and criminal practices]. These evil things come from inside, and they defile the man"; and he adds, as his own comment, "thus he declared all foods clean." [he distinction between clean" and "unclean" foods was deeply embedded in the Jewish system and had its basis in the Old Testament itself. It has been doubted whether Jesus can have gone so far, but there seems no reason to question Mark’s report of the basic saying. It was known to Paul, who wrote, several years before Mark’s gospel appeared: "I am absolutely convinced, on the authority of the Lord Jesus, that nothing is impure in itself." 41 If he did say something to this effect, it is no wonder hostility was aroused. In times of persecution, the test of loyalty to the Jewish religion had often been just this refusal of "unclean" food. Was it possible to repudiate a principle which the martyrs had sealed with their blood?

Contemporary rabbis would not have dreamed of denying the importance of inward disposition. But Jesus pressed the principle with such ruthless logic that it seemed in danger of eroding the discipline by which social morals were safeguarded. For him it was a point of cardinal significance: an act is a moral act only so far as it expresses the whole character of the man who acts. His severest strictures are directed against those teachers of religion and morals whose lofty principles were belied by the pretentiousness, superficiality and inhumanity of their behavior. The strictures are severe enough; it is possible, as we have seen, that our reports of them have been colored by subsequent controversy. But that they were not without grounds we may learn from passages in the rabbinic writings themselves which castigate unworthy claimants to the honored name of "Pharisee" in terms no less scathing than those of the gospels. But all this is in a sense a side issue, significant only insofar as it illustrates the moral bias of the teaching of Jesus as a whole. And this bias can equally be felt in his strictures on followers of his own in whom he detected the same lack of moral consistency. "Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ -- and never do what I tell you?" 42 So runs a characteristically pointed saying in Luke. In Matthew it is enforced by a telling piece of imagery, in which Jesus imagines himself confronting these unworthy followers on a day of judgment beyond this world. "When that day comes, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out devils in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them to their faces, ‘I never knew you; out of my sight, you and your wicked ways!’ " It was not only Pharisees who had to feel the lash of his tongue.

But the fact is that his whole approach to morals was different from that which prevailed among Jewish teachers of his time. The formidable structure of tradition with which the Law of Moses had come to be surrounded was designed to bring its demands within the compass of the individual by making every command applicable in a clearly defined way to each situation in which he might find himself. He must know, for example, just how far he might walk on a Sabbath day without infringing the commandment, and exactly what circumstances might justify him in stretching it. (It was to the credit of the Pharisees that they did stretch it -- for example, to save life -- but within strict limits.) Something of the kind, no doubt, is necessary if ethics are to be made practicable; we can hardly dispense with casuistry. But it has its dangers. Beside the obvious danger of giving the outward act an independent value apart from the disposition which makes it a moral act, there is a more subtle danger, that of a quantitative conception of morality. It is as if there were a set of regulations each of which, like the questions in an examination paper, earned a certain number of marks, and the total could be put to a man’s credit. The implication would be that it is possible to score full marks, and to say with a good conscience (as someone says in the gospels), "I have kept all these." 43 Jesus had severe things to say about "those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else." 44 That, of course, is the trouble. The yardstick by which one measures one’s own (real or supposed) excellence also measures the other man’s defects, to one’s own great comfort. In the teaching of Jesus, goodness is not measurable by any yardstick. It is qualitative and not quantitative at all. It is the effort to reproduce the quality of the divine action. The effort may be present at lowly levels of achievement; the quality itself is never fully present at the highest, since "no one is good [in the absolute sense] except God alone." There is therefore no ground either for complacency or harsh judgment on the part of the "virtuous," or for self-despair on the part of the "sinner." It is surprising how often the sayings of Jesus recur to this theme, of the folly and evil of self-righteousness and censoriousness. His heaviest count against the prevailing teaching of his time is precisely this: that, starting with the best intentions, it had come to encourage this folly and evil, as if it were inseparable from a high moral standard.

It is clear that there breathes through all this a lively sympathy with those whose weakness, or whose lack of opportunity, placed them at a disadvantage. But it would be misleading to regard it as nothing more than the protest of a warm-hearted, liberal-minded humanitarian. It arose out of the conviction that with the coining of the kingdom of God a new era in relations between God and man had set in. Morality might now draw directly from fresh springs. The whole apparatus of traditional regulations lost its importance. Jesus never intended a campaign against the Law. It might still serve a useful purpose in its way; it might be understood as bearing witness to the two "great commandments." But it was no longer central, and no longer constituted the whole structure of moral obligation.

The differences, therefore, which produced first a rift and then an irreconcilable opposition between Jesus and the dominant school of Jewish teachers in his time were not in the end (though they might appear at first sight to be) a matter of divergent interpretations of this or that point in the Law. After all, there was considerable latitude of interpretation among accredited rabbis -- more latitude at that period than in the reformed Judaism which emerged after the debacle of AD. 70. But his critics rightly divined that his teaching threatened the integrity of Judaism as a system in which religion and national solidarity were inseparable.

This was the secret of the fatal breach, as it is pinpointed by a modern Jewish writer, and one who is by no means insensitive to the many noble ideas which he finds in the teaching of Jesus.45 he writes:

The Judaism of that time, however, had no other arm than to save the tiny nation, the guardian of great ideals, from sinking into the broad sea of heathen culture and enable it, slowly and gradually, to realize the moral teaching of the Prophets In civil life and in the present world of the Jewish state and nation. Hence the nation as a whole could only see in such public ideals as those of Jesus an abnormal and dangerous fantasy; the majority, who followed the Scribes and Pharisees (The Tannaim). the leaders of the popular party, could on no account accept Jesus’ teaching. This teaching Jesus had absorbed from the breast of prophetic, and, to a certain extent, Pharisaic Judaism; yet it became, on the one hand, the negation of everything that had vitalized Judaism; and, on the other hand, it brought Judaism to such an extreme that it became, in a sense, non-Judaism.

This, a judgment from within the rabbinic tradition, may probably be accepted as being, up to a point, a fair assessment of the grounds of the opposition which Jesus encountered from a party with which in some respects he had much in common. If this seems hardly sufficient to account for a hostility which could be satisfied with nothing short of his death, we may recall that the time was one in which resentment of pagan domination was mounting high, and hot passions were stirred in defense of the cherished values of "the Jewish way of life." Yet there is something about the antagonism. as it is reflected in the gospels, which seems to draw from an even deeper spring than apprehension of a threat to the national heritage. Jesus was charged with "blasphemy" The term is a heavily loaded one, and the charge suggests an affront to powerful sentiments of religious reverence and awe, evoking both hatred and fear. The charge of blasphemy expresses not so much a rational judgment as a passionate, almost instinctive, revulsion of feeling against what seems to be a violation of sanctities. There must have been something about the way in which Jesus spoke and acted which provoked this kind of revulsion in minds conditioned by background, training and habit. It was this, over and above reasoned objections to certain features of his teaching, that drove the Pharisees into an unnatural (and strictly temporary) alliance with the worldly hierarchy, whose motives for pursuing Jesus to death were quite other. But of this more later.


1Matt. 11.25, Luke 10.21.

2Mark 10.18.

3Mark 10.27.

4Mark 4.28.29.

5 Matt. 13. 45-46.

6 Matt. 5. 25-26, Luke 12. 57.59.

7 Luke 16. 3-4.

8 John 4.35.

9 Luke 10. 23-24.

10 Luke 16.16. Matthew’s version of this saying is more enigmatic, 11. 12-14.

11 Mark 1.15.

12 Mark 6.15.

13 Luke 11.20; Matt. 12.28 has the more conventional. "by the Spirit of Cod."

14 John 12.31.

l5 John 3.19.

16 Matt. 10.30, Luke 12.7.

17 Luke 15.4.

18 Matt. 7.11, Luke 11.13.

19 Luke 15.11-32.

20 Luke 12.29, Matt. 6.32.

21 Luke 11. 2-4; Matthew’s longer version, 6, 9-13.

22 Matt. 11.25, Luke 10.21.

23 Matt. 18.3, Mark 10.15.

24 Matt. 7.24, Luke 6.47.

25 Matt. 22. 34-40, Mark 12. 28-34, Luke 10. 25-28.

26 Matt. 23.23.

27 Matt. 5.45.

28 Luke 10. 29-37.

29 Matt. 5. 43-48, Luke 6. 27-36.

30 Matt. 5. 39-42.

31 Matt. 18. 21-22,

32 Luke 17.10.

33 Matt. 6.15.

34 Romans 11.22.

35 Matt. 23.23, Luke 11.42.

36 Mark 2.27, 3.4.

37 Matt. 5. 21-22, 27-28.

38 Matt. 32.35, Luke 6.45.

39 Matt. 6. u-6.

40 Matt. 23.25. Luke 11.39, Mark 7. 15-23.

41 Romans 14.14. Such is probably the meaning of the expression which is literally translated, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus."

42 Luke 6.46, Matt. 7. 21.23.

43 Mark 10.20, Matt. 19.20, Luke 18.21.

44 Luke 18.9.

45 Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (English translation, 1925). p. 376.

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