Jesus the subversive

August 27th, 2011 in Bible. Tags: , , ,

Not only did Jesus re-interpret many Old Testament passages (see Interpreting the Old Testament), but he sometimes undermined the authority of the Old Testament. This has some interesting implications.

A faithful Jew?

Over the past few decades, New Testament scholars have helped us better understand Jesus as a first century Jew. They generally conclude that, while he challenged the interpretations of the religious leaders on some matter, he nevertheless remained a “good Jew”. But this seems to miss some of the evidence as New Testament scholar Craig Evans outlines in his paper “Have You Not Read …?” Jesus’ Subversive Interpretation of Scripture (in Jesus Research: An International Perspective).

Jesus’ Subversive Interpretation of Scripture

Evans notes that in many places Jesus endorses the current understanding of the Jewish scriptures (more or less our Old Testament), but points out that there are a number of places where Jesus challenges or “subverts” the prevailing interpretation.


Daniel 2:20-23 thanks God for giving wisdom, discernment and revelation to the wise, and the learned jews of his time saw themselves as being in this category. But Jesus prays a prayer very similar to Daniel’s, in Matthew 11:25-27, except he thanks God for keeping his revelation hidden to the so-called learned religious authorities and revealing them to “babes” – his disciples.


The Sabbath, deriving from the Ten Commandments and the Law generally (which were given by God himself – Exodus 20:10-11), and reinforced by the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 56:2) was very holy to the Jews, and they built many rules to ensure the Sabbath would be kept holy. Yet Jesus on several occasions claimed to have authority to re-define what had been given by God (e.g. Mark 2:27-28).

Likewise, Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sins (e.g. Mark 2:5-12), something only possible in Judaism through the God-instituted sacrificial system. Evans comments that Jesus saw himself as the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7:13-14 who was given this authority by God.

Service and mission

However Jesus also subverts, or contradicts one aspect of the Daniel 7 picture of the Son of Man. Daniel says that all people will serve the Son of Man, yet in Mark 10:45 Jesus says he didn’t come to be served, but to serve, even to give his life. (In a similar way, Jesus subverted the prevailing view of the Messiah as a conqueror, saying he was a Messiah who came to suffer.) These were shocking ideas to the Jews of his day.

Divine wrath

In Zechariah 13:7, the prophet pronounces God’s judgment against a “shepherd” and his “flock”. It isn’t clear who is meant, but it is clear God is opposed to this person. But surprisingly, Jesus quotes this passage during the last supper (Mark 14:27), when he predicts that his followers will desert him when he is arrested, thus turning the meaning of the original prophecy completely around.

Then in Mark 12:1-9 Jesus tells a parable of a vineyard, an image that was recognised to refer to the Israelite people (see e.g. Isaiah 5:1-7). In the OT, the judgment falls on the nation, but in Jesus’ version of the parable the judgment is on the owners – presumably the High Priest and the religious establishment. Again, this would have been shocking and unexpected to Jews of his day.

Law and obligation

The Law was the centre of the Jewish religion, and sacred. Yet time and time again Jesus contradicted the Law, for example:

  • The Law commanded respect for parents and the death penalty for those who cursed them (Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9), yet Jesus commanded that his followers must “hate” their parents (Luke 14:26). Doubtless this was poetic exaggeration, but still shocking to Jews of his day, and even to us today.
  • A particular aspect of respect parents is the importance of proper burial (e.g. Genesis 50:5-14), yet Jesus said that following him in the work of the kingdom of God was more important (Luke (:60).
  • Keeping ritually pure and addressing defilement was a significant strand in the OT Law (e.g. Leviticus 18:24), yet Jesus taught the opposite of this in Mark 7:15.
  • Some particular examples of being defiled included touching a dead body, a leper or a woman experiencing menstrual bleeding, yet Jesus did all three. According to Jewish law, he should have been defiled by these actions, and remain ritually unclean until he went through the purification process, yet Jesus turned this on its head by insisting that his touch made the unclean clean again not the other way round (e.g. Luke 7:11-15, Mark 1:40-44, Mark 5:25-34).

What does this tell us?

Christians generally accept that Jesus had authority to reinterpret the OT because of his divine status. These examples provide further evidence of the divine authority Jesus claimed.

But they also raise questions about the status of the OT scriptures. If Jesus chose to teach and act contrary to some of the OT, surely we have to be very careful before we apply them to situations today. This is further evidence that the OT Law doesn’t apply to those of us in the new covenant, as I suggested in The Old Testament Law and Christians.

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