When Torah Become Law: From the Hebrew Bible to Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament’s Window

Some type of legal obligation is part and parcel of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. Examples abound: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be prolonged” (Exo 20:12); Jesus’ command to tithe (Mat 23:23); or, Paul’s declaration: “every man who becomes circumcised is obliged to obey the whole law” (Gal 5:3).

But when did the shift occur from torah as divine instruction and legal obligation in general, to an obligation to the rule of law – to a law book, rather than to the divine lawgiver? A shift occurred in early Judaism that eventually would develop into rabbinic Judaism, and tendencies of this shift can also be seen in the Maccabean and New Testament eras.

This paper will show evidence of the rise of Torah practice in the late Perisan period, the Hellenistic and Maccabean period and through the New Testament era. It will not only look at when Torah in ancient Israel/early Judaism came to be viewed as legally binding, but also look at the ancient sources to better understand what it means for law to be binding (cf. Vroom, 2018: 202). The paper will engage views of the Law that have been termed “Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” (Walter Kaiser, 1993) and others such as Christopher Wright 2004, Joe Sprinke 2006, Roy Gane 2017, and Richard Averbeck 2022. Vroom’s 2018 work, “The Authority of Law in the Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism” provides a foil for this paper and helps to suggest understanding the Torah to be more authoritative than legally binding.

A test case for this will be taken from the most common image for the spiritual life in the Bible, both OT and NT: “walking” and “way” metaphors. Just as דרך (derekh) is the most common noun in the Hebrew Bible to be used “as a metaphor for life, so הלך (halakh) is the verb most frequently employed to describe the act or process of living” (NIDOTTE, 989); to be exact הלך is used 285 times (out of 1549) to convey a metaphorical use related to behavior or the moral life.

This paper will argue that the semantic range of the root הלך (halakh), when used with certain constituents, conveyed a sense of ‘walking’ (as opposed to its primary sense of ‘going,’ not unlike the relationship between περιπατέω and πορεύομαι in the LXX and NT), but without necessarily implying a destination; and that this sense of the verb, when applied to an understanding of life according to God’s law and holiness, intimates that what was important was the nature and relational aspect of the walking, more than the arrival at a destination, and supports the broader thesis that the Torah was to be understood as more authoritative than legally binding.

6 thoughts on “When Torah Become Law: From the Hebrew Bible to Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament’s Window”

  1. An OT Theological paper
    Since this concerns the development of the function of OT Law it does concern OT Theology. The list of scholars in the first half of the paper shows its engagement with this key issue which I sought to highlight at IBR when I invited John Walton. I’d like to hear about this because it addresses the issue that most of us face when teaching on Law. I found it interesting at that that IBR session the one’s who were most upset with Walton’s approach (Law as Wisdom) were NT scholars who needed their OT Law as per Reformation approach to keep lecturing and writing (just kidding). I would see this as helpful in an OT Theology session since for me OT Theology is related not only to articulating the message of the OT in its own idiom but also connecting the message of the OT to our contemporary contexts.

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