Not One Iota
We are accustomed to refer to the Ten Commandments as the basic moral foundation of Christian behavior. There is some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story. There are in fact 613 Commandments in the Law of Moses, contained in the first five Books of the Bible, known in Hebrew as the Torah.
248 of those commandments are dos and 365 of them are don’ts.
In today’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus says that not one “jot” or “tittle” will pass away. He says this to emphasize that he is an observant Jew and does not intend to do away with the Law of Moses.
In Hebrew, and more importantly in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, a “jot” or “tittle” is a tiny dot and small ink mark designating vowels. In the written Greek of that time, all letters were capitalized, except for the tiny letter “iota” which is connected to a capital letter. In modern English we use the expression “not one iota” which means not even the smallest matter in discussion. “I will not tolerate one iota of misbehavior” is a definitive statement.
There is a problem, however, and that is there are many of the Commandments that no longer apply in modern times. Many of those laws have to do with the Temple in Jerusalem and the behavior of the priests in the Temple rituals. There is no Temple in Jerusalem anymore and there hasn’t been one for 1,946 years.
Today, of the original 613 laws, only 270 still apply that every Jew is required to observe. 48 are positive, and 222 are negative.
It should be noted that there are very few observant Jews in the world. Most are secular and do not pay attention to the minutiae of the ancient Jewish law.
The question is that since not even observant Jews are able to keep all the commandments, how many are Christians required to keep? Obviously the 10 Commandments, but what about the other 603? And was Jesus correct when he said that not one stroke of the pen shall pass away until all things are accomplished?
From the logical point of view, we might propose three interpretations: the end of the world is at hand, or all requirements of the Law are accomplished, or the Messiah has returned.
In one sense or another, all three imply very different understandings of how absolute Mosaic Law is for Christians in our times. This is an ancient debate, restricted to very conscientious scholars. Most people, even practicing Jews or Christians, simply ignore the more esoteric legal debates.
There are a lot of people who all too casually speak of a “Judaeo – Christian” heritage even in our own secular Republic. This legal debate over the Law – basic to Judaeo heritage – is but one example of the incorrectness of that casual assumption. We are neither a Jewish nor a Christian nation. We are a secular Republic which does not favor one religion over another.
We are reduced to only one commandment as Christians: love God with your entire heart and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s actually two commandments. But it is considerably less than 613 and is also the two (or one) commandment to be in compliance with our moral responsibilities: love one another. Do that and the Law is fulfilled.