Jesus' Legal Theory - A Rabbinic Interpretation

35 Pages Posted: 10 Jun 2007

See all articles by Chaim N. Saiman

Chaim N. Saiman

Villanova University School of Law

Date Written: June 2007


This article locates the ancient debates between Jesus and the Talmudic rabbis within the discourse of contemporary legal theory. By engaging in a comparative reading of both Gospel and rabbinic texts, I show how Jesus and his rabbinic interlocutors sparred over questions we now conceptualize as the central concerns of jurisprudence. Whereas the rabbis approach theological, ethical and moral issues through an analytical, lawyerly interpretation of a dense network of legal rules, Jesus openly questions whether law is the appropriate medium to structure social relationships and resolve interpersonal conflicts. Through an examination of Talmudic sources, this paper argues the controversies between early Christianity and the nascent rabbinic Judaism (summarized by Paul in terms of Letter vs. Spirit) have the same argumentative architecture as the ongoing debates over law vs. equity, procedural vs. substantive justice, rules vs. standards, formalism vs. instrumentalism, and textualsim vs. contextualism. Moreover, the contrast between the Gospels and the emerging rabbinic discourse brings Jesus' bold claims about the role, rule and domain of the law to the fore. Thus while the mainstream representation of Christian legal theory tends towards rules, procedural justice, formalism and textualism, this analysis of primary sources shows that Jesus argued for exactly the opposite.

Keywords: Jewish Law, Christian legal theory, Jesus, Talmud, legal theory, jurisprudence, law and religion

Suggested Citation

Saiman, Chaim N., Jesus' Legal Theory - A Rabbinic Interpretation (June 2007). Villanova Law/Public Policy Research Paper No. 2007-15, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 23, pp. 97, 2007-2008, Available at SSRN:

Chaim N. Saiman (Contact Author)

Villanova University School of Law ( email )

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