In recent discussions in my class on Paul and the Law we have considered whether or not first-century Jews (in part or in whole) thought of the Law as a burden that no one could bear. A passage that is important to this issue has to be Acts 15:1-11, specifically verse 10, which says: "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" This is, of course, from Peter's speech in the so-called "Council at Jerusalem." The "you" refers to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem generally and to those who were formerly Pharisees specifically and the "disciples" refers to Gentiles who were following Jesus.
The first question worth investigating is what exactly is this yoke that is being placed on Gentiles? Is it circumcision only as 15:1 seems to indicate? Or is the more immediate context of Peter's speech to control this term; which would mean that the yoke indicated circumcision and the rest of the Law of Moses as well (15:5). The latter seems most convincing. Thus, Peter claims that the observance of the Law (including circumcision) is a yoke that neither he, his fellow Jewish-Christian brother, nor their ancestors could bear (15:10).
But was this the case in reality? There is other biblical support for the idea. Matthew 23:4 reveals Jesus talking to the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees. He says that they "tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders." In Galatians 5:1 Paul contrasts the freedom believers have in Christ with what the Judaizers are trying to force on them, namely a yoke of slavery. Romans 7:7-25 could also be called upon here, but many say the testimony there "is expressed in terms of his now Christian backward look at his life before Christ" (Fee, Philippians, NICNT, 309n.20), which has sufficiently altered his judgment.
There is also support for the opposite, i.e., that the Law could be fulfilled. In Philippians 3:6 Paul claims that he was blameless when it comes to righteousness which is in the Law. This means that as far as his pre-Christian interpretation of the righteousness with regard to the Law was concerned, Paul had complete legal rectitude. He was (literally) faultless in his completion of the Law. There is a major issue to clear up however. In Romans 7 Paul appears to admit to coveting, which is against the Law. So how could he state in Philippians 3 that he was blameless in accordance to the Law? It should be remembered that the Law not only pointed out sin (as is clear in Romans 7) but that it provided a way for restitution...through sacrifice. So Paul is not claiming in Philippians 3:6 that he was sinless, only that as far as the Law was concerned he had insured that all his ducks were in a row. As Bruce says "To conform with the righteousness required by the law called for infinite painstaking, but (as Paul had proved) it was not impossible" (Philippians, NIBC, 110).
From a reading of the major commentaries, it also appears that except for a few examples (1QS and 4 Ezra, notably) the Jewish literature of the time presupposed the ability to fulfill the requirements of the Law. This is a particular subject that I hope to delve into with more zeal over the next few weeks and months. I will start by finishing a book called Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach by Timo Laato. In the book he basically argues that Judaism's anthropology was quite optimistic and Paul's was pessimistic. Perhaps I will discover some more primary literature there which will shed light on this subject. If I do or if I don't, I will post my findings here!
The Impossible Yoke: Part II
The Impossible Yoke: Part III
The Impossible Yoke: Part IV
The Impossible Yoke: Part V
The Impossible Yoke: Part VI
The Impossible Yoke: Part VII
The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII