In 1994, a previously unpublished document from the Dead Sea Scrolls saw the light of day. The Halakhic Scroll (4QMMT) discussed many points of the Law, including the purity of liquid streams, a rather esoteric subject, to say the least. However, this scroll forced many Christian scholars to reassess their view of Palestinian culture in the time of Jesus. Up to this point, that view was informed by Josephus, the Jewish historian to the Roman world in the first century AD. Josephus described Jewish life before the fall of Jerusalem in terms the Greco-Roman culture could understand. But, the minutia found in this Scroll and how that minutia divided the Essences from the Pharisees and the Sadducees forced many scholars to see different schools of thought in Palestine, not in the philosophic terms Josephus presented, but in terms of how the Torah was applied to everyday life. This shift to Torah application (Halakhic study) marked a new page in Gospel studies. The early Jesus movement (especially seen in Matthew’s gospel) marked their differences from Pharisee and Sadducee not only in a devotion to Jesus from Nazareth, but also in how the Law was applied to the community. Jesus was not only Lord and Savior, he was also the Teacher of the Law.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exclaimed he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. As the note above stated, such fulfillment could be seen as either an example or as a scribe/interpreter. In the context of 5:19, Jesus meant both. He was the primary example of a moral life AND he was the primary teacher of the Law. He expected the leadership of the Christian community to follow in his footsteps as examples and teachers of the Law.
The example-teacher who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets was part of the cultural landscape in the time of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls identified a “Teacher of Righteousness,” one who would give the populace a true interpretation of the Law, as opposed to the “Wicked Priest” who directed illegitimate Temple worship. Much ink has been spilt over the identity of this figure, with much dispute among modern scholars over its identity. All we need to note is: 1) the notion of this figure who existed outside the ruling elite in Jerusalem (i.e., not a Sadducee) and 2) an alternate interpretation of the Law that had legitimacy (i.e, not from the Pharisees). It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see the early Jewish-Christian community assume Jesus stood in the cultural shadow of this “Teacher of Righteousness.”
As this Teacher figure, Jesus would be the touchstone for interpretation the Christian community would follow. Those who were faithful to his interpretation would be “great in the Kingdom,” while those who gave a loose interpretation would be “least in the Kingdom.” It is interesting to note that both the faithful and loose teacher were saved, while the Pharisees were implicitly not saved (“unless you have a righteousness greater than that of Pharisees…”) In other words, not only were the Jewish Christian to live by a higher moral standard than the Pharisees (i.e., example), he must have a better interpretation of the Law than the Pharisees (scribe/interpreter). Jesus implied that the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law was illegitimate.
So, how did Jesus interpret the Law? We can only answer that question in light of competing interpretations (as noted) and the context of interpretation at the time of Jesus. As noted in the introduction, past scholars read early Christianity through literary sources; these sources were culturally dependent. In other words, these sources were filtered through the philosophic world view of Greco-Roman culture. With the interest of Jewish scholars in the New Testament that has occurred in the past twenty years, there has been a reassessment of the world view Jesus lived in. Jesus’ world was affected by Greco-Roman culture, but was steeped in a real concern for the Torah and its purity. So, Jesus in Matthew’s gospel was concerned with following the Law, but a higher concern was interpreting the Law in its purest sense.
Jesus is not asking us to be perfect; he is asking us to pay attention to how we deal with one another and strive for a righteousness that surpasses what we need to do to get along with one another.
The righteousness that Jesus asks of us is not concerned with minimums but is concerned with caring for others as he did. It means loving as he did. Jesus lives the supreme act of love giving self totally. To follow Jesus daily, we must develop a daily habit of giving self to others. For a life habit of self-giving love is the only way we enter the kingdom of heaven.