You have heard that it was said… But I say to you – Part 1

Torah Scroll

Over the last few posts, I have been dealing with topics addressed in Oskar Skarsaune’s book, In The Shadow of the Temple. In this post I would like to address another such topic. In order to do so we must first look at the teachings of Jesus which are relevant to this discussion. They are as follows:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28, ESV)

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39, ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-45, ESV)

In each of these teachings from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes a contrast between what was said previously (or “to those of old”) and his “new” instruction. There are different thoughts as to what he means by these contrasts, but I should like to address one in particular which has been offered by Skarsaune. He begins by commenting,

Jesus, obviously, never authenticated his teaching the way the rabbis did. He never said “I have received as a tradition”. “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). Nor did he speak like a prophet. He never made himself a representative of God by using the prophetic messenger formula.

He spoke God’s word, he said God’s Law, in his own name. “You have heard that it was said [by God] to those of ancient times [at Sinai], … but I say to you” (Mt 5:21–22, 27, 31, 33, 38, etc.). For Jewish ears, this must have been shocking. They must have asked, “who are you, to set your own authority above that of the Law?” 1

In Skarsaune’s first statement, he is correct in his observation that Jesus did not validate his teachings as other rabbis. He had no previous authority from which he received his teaching, other than God alone. He taught by his own authority, not in the authority of another.

In Skarsaune’s next observation, however, we hear him speaking aloud the subconscious heart of modern Christian theology. Skarsaune interprets the phrase, “You have heard…” to mean, “You have heard that it was said [by God] to those of ancient times [at Sinai].” Here Jesus states what was spoken in the Law of Moses, and begins to change and to correct these antiquated laws which have become burdensome to the Jewish nation. According to Skarsaune, Jesus is said to set his “own authority above that of the Law.”  He later notes that, Jesus “…can deepen, radicalize, even correct the Torah2

With these statements, Skarsaune reveals an unconscious bias towards the supposed deficiency of the Torah, the Word of God previously given to His people. He sees it as needing correction, change, alteration in order to adapt God’s commandments to a new, Christian era. He doesn’t see the Word of the God being as immutable as God Himself. He assumes that the Torah can somehow be modified.

Theology Today

When asked if Jesus abrogated, repealed, overturned, or annulled the Law, most Christians will chime in with an emphatic, “No!” However, in our teaching, preaching and our daily lives, we state just the opposite. We play word games to try to uphold the Scriptures, while at the same time negating them. Skarsaune does this very thing. He attempts to justify his statements by saying Jesus can “correct the Torah; not by abrogating it, not by doing it away, but by making it complete” (p. 333). But this, along with all other similar attempts, is just a word game.

Although there is no malicious intent, this is the same theology that our pulpits and theological seminaries are producing. Through both our bias and our misunderstanding of the Jewish nature of our Master’s teaching we have unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) interpreted the words of Jesus in a way which contradicts the words of his Father. We translate Jesus’s “fulfill” of Matthew 5:17 to really mean “abolish,” even though we deny such a definition. Yet, when we reduce the meaning down to the practical, it has the same result. Our “fulfilling” really means “abolishing.”

More to come…

  1. In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (331). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid. (p. 333).

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5 thoughts on “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you – Part 1”

  1. When Yeshua says “You have heard it said” He is referring to the “Oral Torah” (Not Gods Torah)The “Oral Law” is the rulings of the Rabbis know in the Talmud (Which can be based on the Torah but it is not prfect like the Torah). When Yeshua is referring to the TORAH He says “It has been written” as in…

    Mat_21:13 He said to them, “It has been written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it into a den of robbers!”

    Luk_21:22 For these are the days of vengeance, when everything that has been written in the Tanakh will come true.

    Act_7:42 So God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the stars — as has been written in the book of the prophets, ‘People of Isra’el, it was not to me that you offered slaughtered animals and sacrifices for forty years in the wilderness!

  2. Jesse – Thanks for your comment.

    While I agree with you that Yeshua was making a distinction between the actual Torah says, and what had been previously taught, I have to disagree with you that it was the Oral Torah (Mishnah). First, because it was not codified at this time, and second, because the Mishnah actually agrees with Yeshua on almost all of these points, rather than contradicting him.

    What Yeshua is addressing is the hypocritical interpretations of his day (whether Pharisaic or Sadducean) which caused the application of Torah to be weakened or diluted and allowing people to uphold the literal commandment of Torah, while completely missing the intended spirit of the commandment, and thus actually breaking the commandment anyway. Because all of the commandments are based on love, not technicalities.

    Thanks again for chiming in.


    Jesse Reply:


    There are rabbinical commentaries in the Mishna that agree with Yeshua, and at times state it almost exactly like the Master did. But there are many times Yeshua came against the “Oral traditions” (and yes they were not written down at that time yet)That’s why Yeshua says “you have heard it said” If not this then what tradition of the elders is He referencing?

    Shalom – Jesse

  3. Shalom, Jesse – Good to hear back from you. Thank you for taking the time to discuss this. I believe many people wrestle with this. I pray that I can help bring a little clarity to this.

    From my perspective, I believe we can hear Yeshua’s voice in the teachings of the rabbis. No, not all rabbinical teachings are in agreement with Yeshua. However, the overwhelming majority of them are. I believe this is because Yeshua called the Jewish leadership to accountability during his life ministry and it has been a lasting influence within Judaism since.

    Oral traditions are not the problem. We all have oral traditions. We pass them on from one generation to the next. Paul did so himself. He commended the Corinthians for remembering the (oral) traditions he passed on to them:

    “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” 1 Corinthians 11:2.

    Without getting into a lengthy discussion, let me try to tie it together. If you’re familiar with Mishna, Talmud & Tosefta, you’re most likely familiar with baraitot (baraisos). Baraitot are frequently used to affirm rabbinic teachings and halacha. And although the extant baraitot are now “external” voices of affirmation within Judaism, there were many other “voices” that are no longer remembered because of their lack of value, in that they did not support the final halacha. We can hear some of the stronger, lasting voices of opposition within the Mishna, etc., but there are most assuredly voices of dissension that have been lost in the pages of history. Yeshua’s arguments with some of the religious leaders of his day preserve some of these opposing voices, that even the Mishna would oppose today. Yeshua never goes toe to toe with the prevailing, authoritative halacha, but only the escalating voices of hypocrisy which would ultimately bring about the destruction of the Holy Temple, and lead to the longest exile in Jewish history.

    Yeshua’s battle with the traditions of his day was not because they were traditions, or that they were accepted oral traditions. It was because they were an increasingly popular means by which hypocrisy began to mushroom uncontrollably. Let’s remember that the Mishna is to Judaism what the Jerusalem council and the teachings of the apostles SHOULD BE for us as believers – a binding, practical approach to living out our religious convictions before the Almighty.


  4. Hi, my proplem is not with the oral law, but with the written, Exodus 21:1-11.
    Jesus plainly taught God’s view of marriage — yet here we see terrible ordinances that allow violations against helpless women. A law that permits a master to separate a man and his wife and children!!!! A law that allows a man to sell his daughter as a sex-slave!!!!Her owner can take on another woman as long as the first slave gets her food, clothing and CONJUGAL rights; otherwise sex-slave #1 gets her freedom without having to pay for it. Now I ask you what possibilites does that poor woman have on the outside? There is something very wrong here that does not agree with the teachings of Jesus.
    Please tell me how I can resolve this. And please don’t say “progressive revelation”

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