Understanding Alfred Edersheim’s “The Law in Messianic Times”

 What will happen to the Law of Moses in the time of the Messiah?  This was an open question in Jesus’ day.  And it still generates strong opinions today.  Does the Law of Moses have any legitimate place in the Christian Church?  What about for Messianic believers in Jesus?  And what about in the Messianic age to come?  You may think your church or Christian organization is exempt from such controversies.  But if your church teaches that Jesus did away with the Law of Moses, how does it explain continued obedience to the Ten Commandments?  This “moral law” as some call it is still nevertheless a part of the Law of Moses.  So is the Law of Moses in force today or not?

The famous Messianic scholar Alfred Edersheim laid out some important insights into these questions in the 14th appendix of his classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.  Unfortunately, his style of writing and the difficulty of tracking down his references cause many skip over this little gem.  So to make it more accessible, I’ve written a brief summary with explanatory comments, complete with internet links to his rabbinical references in English.  His original writing is also linked below.  (A few of the links require you to sign-in to archive.org and to “borrow” the book in order to read it.  The references that I can’t find at the indicated location are marked with a “?”.)

Edersheim may not answer all our questions.  But he helps us understand the background to this discussion among the Jewish people.  Hopefully, this short summary will make it easier to grasp his main points and to find many of his references.



In ancient Israel, there were many different views about what would happen to the Law of Moses in the time of the Messiah.  There were also different ideas about how or if this Law would be imposed on the Gentiles.  Many were expecting a new law that would either replace or revise the Law of Moses.  This idea is mentioned in the gospel of John, where a delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem asked John the Baptist if he was “the Prophet” (John 1:21).  This is a reference to the Prophet like Moses mentioned in Deut. 18:15,18: 

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [like Moses] from among you, from your brothers; you will listen to him.... I will raise up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you [like you, Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.

This prophet “like Moses” was expected to have the ability to make changes and/or make additions to the Mosaic Law. 

This idea was connected with the “new covenant” mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31 and following:

Look, days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant—not like the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I laid hold of their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt...

Some changes of this kind were also associated with Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah (Malachi 3:22, Eduyot 8:7).  Though here again, there were many different opinions.

Echoes of the many different views held in Jesus’ day can be found among the rabbis.  The strictest of these denied any possibility of future changes in the Law.  They held that even the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans (in AD 70), which made animal sacrifices impossible, was only a temporary gap in their observance.  Once the Temple was rebuilt, all the laws would be observed again without change.  In the same way, any exile of the Jewish people from Israel only freed them from laws directly attached to the land itself and only for the duration of their exile.  All other commandments stayed in force.  Today, while the Temple remains in ruins, the offering of sacrifices has been replaced, according to the rabbis, by reading about them in the Law of Moses, together with prayer and study of the details of the Law (Megillah 31b, Bereishit (Genesis) Rabbah 44 [?], Berakhot 2b, Menachot 110a).  But this is only temporary.  As for the most sacred day of the year, the Day of Atonement, it’s now explained that the day itself rather than its sacrifices is what brings reconciliation with God (Sifra, Acharei Mot, 8.1). 

This strict view held that not only Biblical but also rabbinical rulings, even those that had been intended for a limited time and purpose, were to be kept forever (Beitzah 5b).  Its adherents even went so far as to claim in Bereishit (Genesis) Rabbah 98:9:

Israel will not need the teaching of King Messiah in the future, for it says, “The nations will seek him” [Isa. 11:10]. The “nations” will seek Messiah, that is, but not Israel.  If so, for what purpose will King Messiah come, and what will he do?  He will come only to assemble the dispersed of Israel and to give the Gentiles thirty commandments [that is, the laws of Noah].

However, as mentioned in this same passage, even strict defenders of the Law understood that the Gentiles would be given laws in the Messianic era.  Some held that this meant the Gentiles would be brought under the same laws as Israel.  Others held that only the thirty commandments, that is, the laws of Noah, supposedly listed in Leviticus 19, would be required (Chullin 92a).  [These thirty commandments are an amplification of the original seven laws of Noah taught by the rabbis and others.]  Others held that only three commands would be binding on the Gentiles:  two connected with the Feast of Tabernacles and a third with the phylacteries (Midrash on Psalm 31.1 [?]).

But the strict view was a minority opinion.  Overall, the prevailing understanding among the rabbis was that a new law would be given by the Messiah.  This new law is mentioned in a passage in Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, Remez 429 [English not available] which mentions “a new law that God will give by the Messiah” in the age to come.  It also appears in the Midrash on Song of Songs (Shir Ha-Shirim) 2:13 [?] which, applying Jeremiah 31:31, says that the Messiah will give a new law to Israel. Similarly, the Targum on Isaiah 12:3 speaks of a “new instruction”:

Behold, in the Word of God is my salvation; I am trusting, and will not be moved, because my strength and my praise is the fear of the Lord:  He has spoken by his Word, and he is become my Savior.  And you will receive a new instruction with joy from the chosen of the righteous. (Targum Jonathan on Isa. 12:2-3)

A new “Law” in the “world to come” is also mentioned in Yayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah 13.3. 

But the Talmud goes even further, stating that in the “age to come,” the whole ceremonial Law and all the feasts will cease (Midrash on Psalm 146.3).  All that had formerly been “bound” or forbidden will be “loosed” or allowed, including the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Only the thank offering and the Day of Atonement, or perhaps the Feast of Esther, will continue. 

This variety of rabbinic views helps us understand the attempt by the Pharisees at the Council of Jerusalem to force Gentile believers to observe the entire Law of Moses (Acts 15:5).  It also helps us understand Paul’s distinctly different point of view and its similarity to Peter’s views, as well as the way Peter handled the new converts at the house of Cornelius at Caesarea (Acts 10-11, 15:6-11).  It also explains the overall proceedings of the Council of Jerusalem itself (in Acts 15).  Paul, in his opposition to the Pharisaic party among the believers, was actually maintaining a fully orthodox Jewish position.  But when he asserted not only a “new law of liberty” [a phrase from James 1:25 and 2:12 referring to the Law of the Messiah] but also the typical and preparatory nature of the Law of Moses and its fulfillment in Jesus, he went beyond the Jewish standpoint (Gal. 3:19-29, Rom. 10:4). 

The views surveyed above also show that the scholarly theory that Paul and Peter had opposing views on this topic has no basis in the Jewish opinions circulating at the time, unless it’s supposed that Peter held the strict view, which doesn’t match with what we know about his life.

They also help us understand how Peter’s vision of the unclean animals descending from heaven may have been based on contemporary Jewish expectations (Acts 10:9-16). 

They also explain why the Council of Jerusalem settled the question of the Gentiles by turning to the laws of Noah.  [These included the three requirements that the Council did require of Gentiles: no idolatry, no immorality, and nothing strangled, i.e. with blood in it (Acts 15:20,29).] 

Finally, they cast light on the authorship of John’s gospel.  Uniquely among the gospels, his mention of “the Prophet,” which implies that changes to the Law would be made by the Messiah, shows close familiarity with Jewish ideas.  This would have been impossible if this gospel had been composed in the second century, as claimed by the “Ephesian Gospel” theory. 


So to review what Edersheim says here:  The idea that the Messiah would bring changes to the Law of Moses had deep roots in Israel, going back even to Moses himself and the prophets of Israel.  Some thought these changes would be minimal, affecting primarily the Gentiles.  But others were anticipating a whole new law and even the complete replacement of the Law of Moses.  This helps us understand the diversity of views mentioned in the New Testament and especially at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. 

But what about Jesus himself?  How did he understand the effect of his earthly ministry on the Law of Moses?

Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but rather to fulfill them.  For ‘amen’ I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single letter or a single stroke [of a letter] will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass (Matt. 5:17-18).

Not even the smallest section of the Law can be done away with until the coming of the New Heavens and the New Earth.  But that didn’t stop Jesus from making authoritative rulings on disputed points of law.  Nor did it stop him from adding new commands of his own to be followed by his disciples.  These new commands are what the apostles called the Law of the Messiah (Rom. 8:2, 1 Cor. 9:21, Gal. 6:2).  And unlike the old Law, they would apply both to his Jewish and his Gentile followers (Matt. 28:19-20).

Read Edersheim’s original Appendix here

(For more on this topic, see our book The Jewish Roots of Christianity and our new book Jesus of Nazareth.)

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