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Mark was not a Pauline Gospel: The Law

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Many scholars interpret both Mark and Paul as championing a “Law-free” stance. Traditionally, Paul has been read as treating Sabbath observance as a matter of indifference (e.g., Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:10; cf. Colossians 2:16) and Mark as insisting that Jesus can set aside the Sabbath’s regulations about work because he is lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Likewise, there seems to be a parallel between Paul’s deduction that he reached “in the Lord Jesus” that food is not unclean in itself but only unclean for those who deem it to be and Mark’s parenthetical aside that Jesus was “cleansing all foods” (Mark 7:19).

This approach can be challenged on two grounds. For advocates of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective, Paul’s seeming critique of the “works of the law” ought to only be read in the context of addressing non-Jewish Christ followers and assuring them that they do not have to become Jewish proselytes, which would also entail that they observe the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws and, for males, get circumcised. Paul’s justification for why Gentiles need not observe the Torah like he and other Jewish Christ followers did may be that he believed that the new eschatological age had been inaugurated through the death and resurrection of the Messiah and the nations were now invited to join in the worship of the God of Israel without become Israelites or adopting Israel’s Torah. Alternatively, Paul may have believed that it was impossible for his non-Jewish addressees to become Jewish, but that the Spirit transformed their nature so that they could become adopted into the lineage of Abraham. I think that there are many strengths to this approach including its emphasis on Paul’s eschatological outlook, its contextualization of Paul’s comments on the Law in the context of his “Gentile mission,” and its value for contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue. Yet I still struggle reconciling it to certain passages in Paul’s letters that seem to suggest that he thought that the Torah was a temporary measure until the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham to create a worldwide family guided by the Spirit (e.g., Romans 8:1-17; Galatians 3:23-4:7) and that Paul felt no obligation to continue to obey it. For those who are more interested in this perspective and how its proponents might read these passages, check out the links to resources that I compiled or a YouTube symposium on “Paul within Judaism” that I was grateful to have attended.

The legal discussions in Mark have also been re-examined. I have discussed the incident of Jesus’s disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath here. As for the debate over ritual purity in Mark 7, I will link to the open access article by John van Maaren entitled “Does Mark’s Jesus Abrogate Torah? Jesus’ Purity Logion and its Illustration in Mark 7:15-23” Journal for the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting 4 (2017): 21-41 that offers to my mind a persuasive alternative reading against the traditional one. The gist is that Jesus and his interlocutors presumed the Jewish dietary restrictions, the objection is that Jesus’s disciples do not observe the Pharisees’ oral tradition of washing their hands before they eat, Jesus’s rebuttals focus on how the Pharisees allegedly develop traditions that contradict the biblical commandments, and the conclusion is that unwashed hands do not render kosher food impure but that impurity arises from within a person (both from bodily fluids and impure motivations that lead to certain vices). Thus, he “cleansed” the food that the Pharisees alleged was rendered impure by eating with unwashed hands. In both cases, Jesus was engaging in intra Jewish debates about what constitutes work on the Sabbath and about the Pharisees’ oral traditions about ritual purity. Paul, on the other hand, was insisting that non-Jewish Christ followers should not be compelled to observe the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws at all and, more debatably, there is an open question about whether Paul continued to observe them. For some scholars who have re-evaluated Mark’s approach to the Law of Moses, see the work of James Crossley, Daniel Boyarin, Matthew Theissen, John van Maaren, Logan Williams, and so on (note that some other scholars such as Roger P. Booth, Paula Fredriksen, and Cecilia Wassen who have re-evaluated the traditional view of the historical Jesus’s attitude towards ritual purity while not adopting the reading of Mark’s parenthetical aside suggested here).

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