This is an expanded version of my article that was published in “Academia Letters” in July 2021, which can be found here. The New Testament passages that are referenced in the original article are quoted here in full for easier reference.
Jesus’ attitude towards the Mosaic law has been much debated. Historically, Christian scholarship maintained that Jesus spoke against the law of Moses and deliberately broke it. Indeed, the Gospels report a long list of complaints that the Pharisees had about Jesus, accusing him of repeatedly failing to follow the law. They objected to him and/or his disciples doing the following:
i) Eating without washing their hands first (also Matt. 15:1-20):
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (Mar 7:1-9 NRSV)
ii) Eating with the sinners and tax collectors:
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mar 2:13-17 NRSV)
iii) Not fasting with the Pharisees and other Jews:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. (Mar 2:18-20 NRSV)
iv) Not observing the Sabbath (also, Matt. 12:1-8; Luke 6:6-11, 3:11-17; John 5:5-18, 9:13-18)
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mar 2:23-28 NRSV)
v) Casting out devils by what they considered to be evil power:
Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Mat 12:22-28 NRSV)
The view that Jesus disregarded the law, which is particularly associated with the “second quest”, is also aligned with Paul’s emphasis that salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus, not the law:
Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Gal 2:16 NRSV)
More recently, however, other scholars have argued that a careful and more encompassing reading of the Gospels does not necessarily indicate that Jesus broke any laws or encouraged his followers to do so. In fact, he stressed that he did not come to abolish the law:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:17-19 NRSV)
What the Gospels instead show, many maintain, is that Jesus had his own interpretations of the law. This interpretation reflects his focus on the spirit more than the letter of the law. In the past, Jesus used to be presented in opposition to Judaism, whereas now he is often placed within it as a reformer.
Jesus’ attitude to the law in the Qur’an has rarely been a subject of interest. This is mainly due to the little value afforded to history in the Qur’an in general, including Jesus’ history. Treating Qur’anic verses on Judaism and Christianity as largely borrowed and adapted from Jewish and Christian sources by the Prophet Muhammad has dominated Western studies of the Qur’an, with few contesting this consensus. Even the explicit denial of the crucifixion in the Qur’an has been said to be influenced by Christian and Jewish sources, which, of course, confirm it. One very early promoter of the view that the Qur’an has heavily relied on and distorted Christian and Jewish scriptures was John of Damascus, who had this to say about the genesis of the Qur’an:
This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven.
Writing around a century after the Prophet Muhammad, this monk also has one of the earliest reports of misunderstanding what the Qur’an says about Jesus’ relationship with the law. He wrongly claimed that the Qur’an indicates that “the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law”. So what does the Qur’an really say about Jesus’ attitude to the law?
Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an shows very limited interest in history per se. Furthermore, the details of a historical narrative may be scattered in more than one chapter. Naturally, this is the case with Jesus’ history too. When studying Jesus’ relationship with the law, therefore, we have to be satisfied with separate short statements in different chapters. There are three distinct statements in the Qur’an that elucidate how Jesus treated the Mosaic law. We will cover them in as much detail as space allows us.
1 Recognising and Confirming the Law
The Qur’an repeatedly states that one aspect of Jesus’ mission was to confirm the authenticity of the Torah, and accordingly the Mosaic law, and its continued applicability in his time (also 3.50, 61.6):
We sent, following in their (the prophets’) footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Injīl, in which there is guidance and light, and as a confirmation of that which preceded it of the Torah, and as guidance and admonition for the god-fearing. (Qur’an 5.46)
The Qur’an is clear that the divine book it calls the “Injīl”, which was revealed to Jesus, complemented the Torah rather than replaced it.
2 Observing the Law
The Qur’an also stresses that Jesus was a devout and strict observer of the law. This is seen in Jesus’ miracle of speaking in the cradle, which is not found in the Gospels but is mentioned in the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel, albeit with significant differences. When the unmarried Mary was questioned by her people about the newborn she was carrying and they accused her of serious violation of the law of chastity, the baby Jesus leapt to his mother’s defence, replying on her behalf:
I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. (30) He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined on me prayer and acts of purification as long as I remain alive (31) and to be dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. (Qur’an 19.32)
This statement reflects an uncompromising lifelong commitment to observing the law in full. Honouring the first table of the law, which governs the relations between humans and God, is seen in Jesus’ acts of worship of God in 19.30-31. The Qur’an also repeatedly confirms the oneness of God and rejects the Trinity and the deification of Jesus or anyone else (also 3.59, 5.73-76, 19.34-35):
When Allah said, “O Jesus son of Mary! Did you say to people: ‘Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah?”‘ He said, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that which I have no right to say. If I have said it, then You know it. You know what is within myself but I do not know what is within Yours. You know the unseen. (116) I did not say to them other than that which You commanded me, ‘Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord’. I was a witness over them as long as I was among them; but when You took me, You were the observer over them. You are witness over everything. (Qur’an 5.116-117)
O People of the Book, do not commit excesses in your religion or say about Allah anything except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist, it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (Qur’an 4.171)
Jesus’ observance of the second table of the law, which regulates the relationships between humans, is also evidenced in 19.32 in the form of his commitment to discharging his duties towards his mother and people in general.
3 Relaxing the Law
The third statement about Jesus’ relationship with the law is that he was charged with legalising some of the prohibitions of the law:
And [I have come] confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah and obey me. (Qur’an 3.50)
This unambiguously refers to the abrogation of previous legal prohibitions, not new interpretations of them. Being changes to the Mosaic law in the Torah, the Qur’an probably implies that the new relaxations were revealed in the Injīl rather than as verbal instructions by Jesus. The thirteenth-century exegete Razi attributes to Wahb Ibn Munabbih (AH 114 / 732 CE) the claim that the abrogated laws had been introduced by late rabbis and falsely attributed to Moses, but the Qur’an does not support this view.
Mentioning the new allowances after restating that Jesus’s mission included confirming the Torah seems to indicate the limited scope of these allowances. Many exegetes, as early as the tenth-century Tabari, have suggested that these were dietary, which does not seem unlikely. But their speculations about the details of those diets are not supported in the Qur’an, which is silent on the details.
The Qur’an clearly shows that Jesus had a firm commitment to the Mosiac law and urged his followers to do the same. It disagrees with the historical view of many Christian theologians that Jesus intentionally and repeatedly broke the law and even abolished it altogether. It is close to the position of other scholars who read the Gospels as indicating that Jesus had his own interpretations of legal matters and remained faithful to the spirit of the law. Nevertheless, the Qur’an’s express statement that, while honouring the law, Jesus was also charged with legalising some prohibitions makes its portrayal of his relationship with the Mosaic law distinct from other views.
 Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960), 99-100.
 E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 245-69, 72-81; E. P. Sanders, “Jesus and the First Table of the Jewish Law,” in The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, ed. James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (London: Eisenbrauns, 2005); Géza Vermes, Jesus in His Jewish Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 40-43.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 166.
 Cecilia Wassen, “The Jewishness of Jesus and Ritual Purity,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 27 (2016).
 Samir Khalil Samir, “The Theological Christian Influence on the Qur’an: A Reflection,” in The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (Oxon: Routledge, 2008); Przemysław Turek, “Crucifixion of Jesus – Historical Fact, Christian Faith and Islamic Denial,” Orientalia Christiana Cracoviensia 3 (2011).
 Michael E Pregill, “The Hebrew Bible and the Quran: The Problem of the Jewish ‘Influence’ on Islam,” Religion Compass 1, no. 6 (2007); Marilyn R. Waldman, “New Approaches to “Biblical” Materials in the Qur’ān,” The Muslim World LXXV, no. 1 (1985).
 Louay Fatoohi, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Faithful History or Historical Faith? (Birmingham: Safis Publishing, 2020).
 John of Damascus, Fountain of Knowledge. trans. Frederic H. Chase, The Fathers of the Church: Saint John of Damascus Writings 37 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 153-54.
 Fakhr Al-Dīn Al-Rāzī, Al-Tafsīr Al-Kabīr (Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb), 32 vols., vol. 8 (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr lil-Tibaʿa wal-Nashr wal-Tawziʿ, 1981), vol. 8, 65.
 Muḥammad Ibn Jarīr Al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān ʿan Ta’wīl Āy al-Qur’an, ed. ʿAbd Allāh al-Turkī, 24 vols. (Al-Ihsa: Dār Ḥajr, 2001), vol. 5, 432.
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