This is a question which, although it is asked many times in traditional translations of the New Testament, may actually have been invented by translators who had a Pharisaical obsession with lists of required or forbidden behaviors as a means of sorting others into categories of “in” and “out”. The word which they have rendered “Is it lawful?” has no etymological connection whatever with “law”, whether Jewish (religious) or Roman (civil).
L/S offers for exesti simply “it is allowed” or “it is possible”. Bauer explains that this is “an impersonal verb, which occurs only in the third person singular. Its verb of origin, exeimi, does not occur at all.” The reference is to a thing or action that is culturally permissible or acceptable, and has nothing to do with legality.
Concepts relating to civil or religious law use either nomos, or a compound word containing it, as in I Tim.1:8. The only two occurrences of exesti in the LXX, Ezra 4:14 and Esther 4:2, reference customs of foreign royal courts. It is never used of the Jewish Law, which is uniformly represented by nomos. Please also see studies #37 and 38 dealing with “the Law”.
There is also a host of words used for asking or granting permission of some sort, of which only epitrepo has any overlap with exesti.
Nevertheless, out of 31 New Testament appearances of exesti, all but three – Ac.2:29, 8:37, 21:37, referring only to permission – are traditionally rendered “Is it lawful?” or “It is lawful”, whether the speakers are scribes and Pharisees trying to impose or strengthen restrictions, or Jesus and his followers rising above them.
The incidents about which Jesus’ critics raise questions with exesti do not involve things specifically required or forbidden in the Old Testament Law. The plucking of grain (Mt.12:2, Mk.2:24, Lk.6:2), healing (Mt.12:10, Lk.14:3), the incident with David’s army and the “sacred” temple bread (Mt.12:4, Mk.2:6, Lk.6:4), carrying one’s bedroll (Jn.5:10), or putting “blood money” into the temple treasury (Mt.27:6) were among the thousands of “clarifying” regulations which had accumulated over the centuries, and which purists deemed equally binding.
The question of divorce (Mk.10:2) was mentioned in the Law, but here, it is Jesus who advocates a higher standard.
Similarly, John the Baptist, in his challenge of Herod’s profligacy, does not quote the law, but appeals to human decency!
Roman law is referenced in Jn.18:31, in that the Jewish authorities were not permitted to impose capital punishment, but the protest in Philippi (Ac.16:21) was not legal, but mercenary! Although Paul repeatedly used Roman law, and his Roman citizenship, to his advantage, he only employed exesti once, in Ac.22:25.
The issue of paying tribute to Caesar (Mt.22:17, Mk.12:14, Lk.20:22) created an interesting scene. Clearly, the conflict centered on the principle of tax resistance. The tax in question was the “tribute” which Rome required of all conquered nations. Please see the treatment of that encounter in #15. Jesus’ reply indicates that they are asking the wrong question, and focusing on the wrong issue, making the point that “image”, in this case, implies ownership.
A similar message is intended in Jesus’ parable of the man who hired vineyard workers. Jesus is all about re-defining what is appropriate / permissible.
Exesti appears in Paul’s letters only five times (three references). In II Cor.12:4, he declines to describe (brag about) a supernatural revelation. The others, I Cor.6:12 and 10:23, where he uses the term twice in each, are nearly the same. In both cases, he is addressing the “lawful” dietary requirements advocated by those who were insisting upon the observance of traditional Jewish practice. But notice that he does NOT do this by throwing out either the observance or the people to whom it is important! In chapter 6, he includes it in a discussion of the deliberate renunciation of all forms of physical debauchery as an integral part of one’s transformed life. The reference to food is secondary. It is necessary to include the whole passage (vv.9-19) for accurate understanding. The point is not to pick and choose from a list of forbidden activity, but to shun any behavior that degrades.
Chapter 10 is more specifically focused upon the problem of the availability, in a pagan culture, of any food that has not been a part of idolatrous sacrifice (vv.14-33). Planting, harvesting, and butchering would all have been accompanied by pagan ritual. Here, Paul teaches that one need make an issue of the food’s source only if it threatens or damages the welfare of a brother.
In both instances, the question is not whether behavior is permissible, but whether it is positively helpful (v.23).
For far too long, earnest would-be “believers” have asked (and been encouraged to ask), “Do I have to ….. to be a Christian?” or “will I be lost if I …..?” (fill in the blank with your choice of no-no’s.) Every group, whether it calls itself “conservative” or “liberal”, has had its own defining list, to which, either overtly or implicitly, it requires members to subscribe.
Far better is Jesus’ response in Mk.3:4 and Lk.6:9, when confronted with the ubiquitous “healing on the Sabbath” question. (The same event is less pointedly reported in Mt.12:10-12). He counters with an expanded version of the same question: “Is it permissible on the Sabbath to do good – or to do evil? To save a life, or to destroy [kill]?”
This, in the final analysis, is the real question: because by Kingdom definitions, to neglect or refuse to do good IS to do evil, and to neglect or refuse to save life IS to destroy it.
“Is it lawful?” [acceptable in the ambient society] is no longer a pertinent question – on the Sabbath or any other day.
Is it helpful? Is it life-giving? Is it pleasing to the King?
If so, then in the Kingdom, exesti – it is appropriate.