Abolished or Fulfilled?

The Mosaic Law in Relation to the New Covenant of Christ According to the Fathers of the Church

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Foundations of Patristic Thought

Before delving into the depths of patristic belief, one must briefly examine the foundation of the fathers’ thought, that is, Christ and the first Christians. The later fathers were to defend their own beliefs about the Mosaic Law from the practice and beliefs of Jesus and the first Christian community. Thus, it is necessary to first present an overview of them before discussing the patristics.


As is recorded in the Gospels, Jesus himself does not formally renounce the practice of the Mosaic Law. In fact, he states quite clearly, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). Clearly, he is more concerned with the interior attitude of the Jew than with the actual, external practices of the Law. He strongly condemns those who practice the minute parts of the Law while disregarding the "weightier things" (cf. Matt. 23:23-24). This focus of his condemnations on the hypocrisy of those who followed the external regulations while disregarding the internal precepts for which the Law was made is much like that of many of the Old Testament prophets. However, Jesus himself frequented the temple and participated in the ritual life of first century Judaism, which does not seem to suggest that he called for an absolute abolishment of the external practices. It is because of this ambiguity as to Jesus’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law that debate among the Christians would later surface.

The Early Church(1)

The relation of Jesus to the Mosaic Law is continued by his first apostles. It is clear from Acts that the first Christian community participated in daily attendance at the Temple (Acts 2:46). However, this newly-founded community also immediately began to distinguish itself from the rest of Judaism. This included, for example, meeting together in their homes for the "breaking of the bread". Also, the story of Stephen shows that the conflict that was to engulf the early church - whether Christians had to follow the Mosaic Law - was already developing very early in the life of the Church. Apparently Stephen was part of a group with strong Hellenist ties who denounced the practices of the temple and renounced the Jews as a "stiff-necked people" (Acts 7:51). Although the controversy seems to have died down somewhat after his stoning (at least as the author of Acts tells it), this issue was to become the most divisive one for the Christians in the first century. The conversion of Gentiles, especially in Antioch, and the preaching of the Apostle Paul led to the question of the extent to which the new Gentile converts would have to follow the rituals of the Mosaic Law. The result, as decided in the Council of Jerusalem (c. 49 A.D.), was that although the Gentiles would have to "abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:19), they would not have to follow the ritual prescription of the Law, most notably circumcision. Thus was the door permanently opened for Christianity to become a universal religion.

The most prominent figure in all these deliberations was Paul (d. c.64), a Jew by birth, who was to become the "Apostle to the Gentiles". Even after his conversion he personally kept the Law (Acts 21:26), but he was most adamant about not binding the new Gentile converts to the restrictions it contained. Two of his epistles, to the Romans and to the Galatians, clearly put forth his belief in the relationship between the old Law and the Gospel of Christ. As he states in his letter to the Galatians, "the law was our custodian (paidagwgoV) until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith." (3:24) According to Paul, the Law had existed to educate the people in preparation for the Gospel, and therefore the ritual aspects of it were no longer necessary for the Gentile converts, since "a man is not reckoned righteous by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16). This interpretation of his was to form the foundation upon which the later Church Fathers would build in their own writings.

After Paul, one of the major documents that discussed the relationship that Christians should have with the Jewish Law was the Epistle to the Hebrews (c. 67). This letter is written to Jewish Christians, who had been possibly feeling a temptation to return to Jewish practices, especially in a time of high nationalistic feelings directed against the Roman Empire(2). Here the author clearly states the fulfillment of the Law by Christ, and thus the elimination of the need to follow its prescriptions. "In Hebrews...the system (of sacrificial law) was not condemned but shown to be wanting; ultimately only the death of Christ truly fulfilled the purpose of the law."(3) This can be seen clearly in Chapter 10 of this epistle:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshippers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins...But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (10:1-4;12-14)

As one can observe then, the author of this letter does not discuss a punitive or pedagogical reason for the sacrificial parts of the Mosaic Law, but instead simply emphasizes their fulfillment in the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

Apostolic Fathers

Shortly after the writing of Hebrews, the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple permanently altered Jewish-Christian relations, and therefore also affected was the way in which the Christians interpreted the practicing of the Law. Following this decisive split, the strength of the Judaizer movement in the Church began to diminish significantly. This is not to say that there were not still groups calling for practicing the Law. This Jewish Christian movement consisted of two divisions. One group felt that all converts should follow the precepts of the Law, while the other only viewed the Mosaic Law as applying to Jewish, not Gentile, Christians. The first group eventually became heretical from ‘orthodox’ Christianity. The second could have remained part of the church; however, with the destruction of Jerusalem, the exodus to Pella, and the martyrdom of James the Apostle, this group eventually disappeared.(4) The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c.110) and the Epistle of (Pseudo) Barnabas (c. 130) show the battle between the church and those elements in the church that wanted to force all Christians to practice the ritual aspects of the Law. In Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians, he states very clearly, "Do not be led astray by wrong views or by outmoded tales that count for nothing. For if we still go on observing Judaism, we admit we never received grace."(5) And then a little later, he definitively states the relationship between Christianity and Judaism: "It is monstrous to talk Jesus Christ and to live like a Jew. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity."(6) So it can be seen that Ignatius had to address those who professed Christ yet still perceived a need to follow the ritual prescriptions of the Law. However, he states clearly that the time of "Judaism" is over: now is the time for faith in Jesus. The Epistle of Barnabas shows that a few decades later the problem is still plaguing the Church. This strongly anti-Jewish letter proclaims definitively that all Christians should forsake the ritual laws of the Jews. The author defends his argument by quoting the Old Testament passages that emphasize the internal requirements of the Law.(7) Following the example of Paul, he also shows the spiritual significance of the Law, and the ways in which different elements of the Old Covenant are types of Christ and the New.(8) This type of interpretation would become very popular with the Fathers. From both Ignatius and Pseudo-Barnabas it is evident that although the Judaizing elements within the church had not yet been eradicated, the Christians had become much more confident in proclaiming the absolute abolishment of the ritual prescriptions of the Mosaic Law.

Written at approximately the same time as Pseudo-Barnabas, the Letter to Diognetus (c. 130) exhibits a different approach to the question of the Jewish Law, particularly with respect to the sacrifices. The author is concerned with apologetics and answering the charges of both the pagans and the Jews. First he ridicules the pagans for the "stupidity of offering sacrifices to idols", but then he chides the Jews for offering sacrifices to God "as if he needed them".(9) Further, he equates the sacrifices of the Jews with the sacrifices of the pagans. He then ridicules the Jews for boasting of their "mutilation of the flesh as a sign of their choice by God"(10), an obvious reference to circumcision. This highly anti-Jewish and even anti-Old Testament interpretation was not to be continued later by any of the Fathers, who, after the attacks of Marcion, felt the need to distinguish the sacrifices of the Jews commanded by the God of Jesus from the sacrifices of the pagans.


Following somewhat along the lines drawn out by Pseudo-Barnabas and the author of "Diognetus", a major figure emerges in the 2nd Century with a radical interpretation of the relationship between the Old and New Covenants. Marcion (active c. 140-160) introduced a complete separation between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Claiming fidelity to Paul, Marcion laid stress on Paul’s critique of the Mosaic law and concluded (1) that the revelation that came in Jesus Christ is opposed to the teaching of the Jewish Scriptures, (2) that the God of the New Testament is entirely other than the God of Judaism, and (3) that therefore Christians must repudiate everything associated with the Jewish law and everyone ‘too close kindred with Judaism’.(11)

Thus, the growing rejection of the practices of the Jews in the Christian community came to a radical apex with Marcion: the god who ordered sacrifices and ordained the Mosaic Law is actually a completely different god than the God of Jesus Christ. This dualism, which was so prevalent in the Gnosticism of Marcion’s day, was to be instrumental as the impetus for the church to set forth clearly the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the New Covenant of Christ. Marcion’s beliefs and others like his "struck at the very roots of the fundamental Christian conviction as to the continuity of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth with God’s earlier revelations and actions as recorded in the Jewish Scriptures."(12) This challenge was not to be unanswered.

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