Fascinating new lecture by Professor Bart D. Ehrman.
Professor Bart Ehrman was the Keynote speaker at the Department of Near Eastern Studies presented a Mendenhall Symposium at the University of Michigan – Law, Society, and Religion on October 6, 2016, with the subject title: Jesus, the Law, and a “New” Covenant.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Torah-observant Jewish teacher whose followers, after his death, came to adopt a variety of attitudes toward the Law of Moses. Some of them insisted on strict observance; others argued that only parts of the Law needed to be observed; and yet others claimed that Law had never been part of God’s plan. These early Christian groups did, however, agree on one point: Jesus’ own words were to form the basis for his followers’ ethical and communal lives.
Professor Ehrman discuss the terms (covenant and law) and indicate why they are so important. He explains a couple of aspects that made Judaism distinct in the Roman world, as, in fact, both these terms figure prominently in their distinctiveness.
In the time of Jesus, when the vast majority of everyone in the Roman Empire was “pagan” – that is “polytheist” – Jews stood out, obviously, as different. Everyone else understood that there were lots of gods, lots and lots of gods, thousands of gods. These gods deserved to be worshiped. Jews, on the other hand, maintained that for them, at least, there was only one God. Probably most Jews (it’s hard to know for sure) thought the pagan gods simply didn’t exist but were the figment of popular imagination. There was in fact just one, the Creator of all things. Some Jews, though, thought the other gods existed. They simply were not to be worshiped by Jews.
The first position, that there is in fact only one God, no others, is what I would call monotheism. The other position, that only one of the many gods is to be worshiped, could be called monolatry (the worship of only one God). Closely connected to this latter view is the concept of henotheism: that’s the view that there are numerous gods, but only one of them is supreme and worthy of complete devotion.
So some Jews in Jesus’ day were monotheists; some were henotheists; and almost all were monolatrists.
In addition to thinking/believing there is only one God to be worshiped – their own God, the one who created the world and made Israel his people – Jews in Jesus’ time maintained that when God made them his people, back in the times described in the Torah (the five books of Moses that begin the Hebrew Bible), he made a “covenant” with them. A covenant is a kind of official agreement, a pact, a peace treaty, often between a more powerful nation and a weaker subdued one.
Covenants were common features of the political landscape in antiquity. The powerful nation would protect and defend the weaker one in exchange for absolute devotion (and possibly tribute). Jews believed that God had made a covenant with Israel. He would be their God to protect and defend them, if they would be completely committed to him, doing what he commanded of them. It was a good arrangement on both sides.
What God commanded of his people could be found in the law. The “law” was what was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, as embodied, now, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The law of Moses in its broadest terms involves two kinds of instructions: some are about how to worship God and others are about how to live together in community. Included in the Law, of course, are the Ten Commandments. But that is just the beginning. There are, as it turns out, 613 commandments altogether.
These according to Ehrman, as a rule, are not particularly onerous laws – not nearly as detailed, complex, and difficult as, say, the laws for those living in America. The Law of Moses was given by God to provide guidance for his people about how they were to conduct themselves in their worship of him and in their social lives together. The law was almost never seen as a huge burden. It was a great good, given by the God over all, helping his people know how to worship and live.
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude.