The Mysterious Disappearance of Moses

Somehow the Jewish sect that claimed to follow the Messiah Jesus very quickly ceased to follow the Law.

Todd Brewer / 6.9.22

Investigators from the missing persons unit of Christian Theology are seeking the public’s assistance in locating Moses ben Amran, who has gone missing. His last known whereabouts appear to be some time in the first century. His last known associate was Saul of Tarsus, last seen traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a secretive business trip. While some witnesses are claiming that Moses has been heard from recently, his public appearances have mysteriously dwindled and investigators remain baffled as to the cause.

Where did Moses go?

At the heart of Christian origins stands the mysterious case of Moses’ disappearance. Somehow the Jewish sect that claimed to follow the Messiah Jesus very quickly ceased to follow the Law, i.e. the covenant of Moses given on Mount Sinai.

To be clear, many ancient and modern Christians have argued positively for the continued usefulness of the Law, of ways it can remain helpful for Christians. But these are what I might call reclamation projects more than full-throated endorsements. Caveats have been made, parsing between commands of the Sinai covenant in light of what is affirmed in the New Testament. Others have found some central themes within the various prohibitions and requirements that cohere with Christian theology. Still others reinterpret even the most difficult demands of the Law to find a broader significance.

While the five books of Moses are scripture, Christian readings of them can tend to reflect a kind of canonical bias that fails to recognize just how radical the New Testament writers were. They miss the overwhelming and obvious fact that no canonical author systematically argues for the following of the Law in its entirety.[1] Nowhere in the New Testament even approaches a scene from the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus, which portrays the risen Jesus reciting the Ten Commandments immediately after his resurrection. There is no Psalm 119 of the New Testament, praising the eternal wisdom of the Law and its benevolent, righteous order.

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When Jesus taught about the Law, he largely did so episodically as issues arose, offering his own authoritative interpretation of the Law. In these, what might appear to be an affirmation of the Law actually usurps it of its authority. For example, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew exceeds that of Moses (Mt 5:21-49), displacing him altogether (Mt 28:20). Luke takes a different tact. While the Law and the prophets testify to Jesus, his Acts of the Apostles describes law-free Christian communities (Acts 15:1-11). John, for his part, routinely contrasts law-abiding Jews with those who receive the preaching of Jesus (Jn 1:19, also 7:19, 8:34, 10:34). The broader picture that emerges from the canonical Gospels places Moses firmly in the background, standing at a distance beyond even John the Baptist.

For the earliest Christians, pitting Moses against Jesus was apostasy, but the reverse — contrasting Jesus with Moses — was commonplace. Nowhere is this truer than in the letters of Paul, who repeatedly juxtaposed the Law and faith as mutually exclusive, separated in time by the advent of Christ. There was the Law of Moses, and then there was Christ: the end of the Law. The Christian is not under the Law, but under grace (Rom 6:4). Paul believed that the time under the Law was nothing short of horrific. That which promised life incited rebellion and death (Rom 7:8-11) and “works wrath” (Rom 4:15) and imprisons everyone under its thumb (Gal 3:22). The difference between law and faith is that of death and life.

While Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, his views on the Law did not derive from political expediency, as if he were seeking the easiest way to attract new (male) converts by lowering the entry requirements (namely, circumcision). Instead, Paul looked back on Israel’s history and his own life under the Law and saw a shipwreck from which he’d been saved: the Law is an instrument of sin and not a path to righteousness. Why go back to the slavery of Egypt when the freedom of the Promised Land has already been given?

It’s not that Paul advocated for some lawless ethic of self-fulfillment. He follows the law of Christ (Gal 6:4) — not Moses — walking in accordance with the truth of the gospel (2:14). The life of faith is “Christ formed in you” (4:19). For Paul, the life and death of Jesus was the only fixed, guiding star in the swirling night sky, outshining the lesser luminosity of the Law entirely.

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The letters of Paul were composed prior to almost every other New Testament writing, exerting an influence on early Christianity that cannot be understated. Paul’s writings, in the words of Margaret Mitchell, “created and maintained a captivating, living, portable, memorable, flexible, and endlessly contestable trans-local and trans-temporal body of knowledge for the fledgling Gentile Christ-believing communities.”[2] Soon after their composition, Paul’s letters spread across the Mediterranean from Asia Minor to Macedonia, Achaia, and Italy, addressing new contexts well beyond his death. He was without peer in early Christianity,[3] casting a shadow so long that the rest of the New Testament (and beyond) had to at least reckon with the turncoat Pharisee from Tarsus.

The widespread popularity of Paul helps to explain why next to no extant writings from early Christianity reflect the many controversies that arose during much of Paul’s ministry. No author could spar with Paul and live to tell the tale.[4] The non-Pauline writings that persisted beyond the first century could readily be viewed as complementary to Paul, perhaps even written with this intention. Paul, in other words, is not a solitary renegade within the New Testament. If other writers do not echo his precise formulations or views, this absence could, somewhat paradoxically, demonstrate the presumptive authoritative status of Paul.

After Paul’s arguments against the Law, there was no possibility of putting the toothpaste back into the tube. Some Christians, known as the Ebionites in second and third century reports,[5] denied Paul’s letters and followed the Jewish Law. But they are notable precisely because of their difference from most other Christians, for whom Paul’s views on the Law were the norm (to varying degrees). Moses was no longer a lawgiver, but the first of many prophets.[6] Righteousness is by faith in Christ. The Law was but a shadow, transient and temporal, its glory surpassed by that of grace.[7]

When Moses went missing, few went looking for him. Most were glad he was gone.

I like to imagine that Moses knew when his time was up and unceremoniously exited stage left. As he took a bow and Jesus stepped into the spotlight the Father said, “This is my son. Listen to him.” Moses all but whispered his final line, “He must increase, I must decrease,” before joining the chorus in a new song.

COMMENTS


One response to “The Mysterious Disappearance of Moses”

  1. M Chapman says:

    Have never heard it put like this, masterful
    and food for thought for all Christians!

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