Historic Jesus
The Law of Moses

The Law of Moses is the guiding force of Jewish life. The Hebrew word "Torah," normally translated as "law," also includes the concept of "instruction." This instruction is believed to have been given by God through such human agents as Moses and the prophets.

By New Testament times, "the Law of Moses," or often just "the Law," had several related meanings, depending on the context. The Law could mean the Ten Commandments, which were given directly by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, or it could refer to the short summary of those commandments that called for loving God and your neighbor. The Law could also mean the entire body of rules and commands that Moses compiled, which is found throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books consist of ethical, religious, ritual, and social rules and principles, all focusing on the characteristics of the relationship between God and his special, covenanted people, which sets them apart from all other nations.

The Law could also mean the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, known as "the books of Moses." The Pentateuch described the origins and ancestry of the people and the early covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis); the creation of the nation in the Exodus from Egypt and the renewal of the covenant at the time of law-giving (Exodus); the ritual laws (Leviticus); the discipline of the people as a social unit and the laws governing human relationships (Numbers); and the future of the people as God's elect among the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy). Specific rules and regulations were always considered to be an intimate part of God's election of the people and of his acts in history to deliver them or to punish them.

For centuries the focus of the religious life of Israel was in the rituals of the tabernacle and later the temple. When the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 B.C. and took the people into exile, the focus shifted to the Law. Scribes copied the Law, studied it, expounded it, and built "hedges" of detailed interpretations and applications around it. The synagogue replaced the temple. Even when the people returned to the land after the Exile and rebuilt the temple, they did not abandon the synagogue. For four centuries, synagogue, scribe, and law lived side by side with temple, priest, and ritual, from the time of the return from exile to the final destruction of Herod's temple in A.D. 70.

As the scribes expanded the Law with both written and oral traditions, " the Law of Moses" came to include these traditions as well as all the other meanings of the term. The Law was celebrated as God's greatest gift to his people and was seen as the way of wisdom, happiness, and blessing. The Pharisees and the scribes regarded themselves as the custodians of this great treasure for the sake of the people. They also tried to exemplify the Law in their lives. Their approach to it was susceptible to rigid legalisms that often resulted in violating the spirit of the Law by strict adherence to the letter of the Law.

Jesus honored the Law and said he was the fulfillment of it (Luke 24.27). He contended that the Pharisees and scribes had perverted the Law by making. the traditions of men more important than the commandments of God (Matt. 15.19).