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Steve Heil

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Note of the Day – July 26

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The previous two daily notes treated Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17, as a supplement to my article on the Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47) [part of a series on “Jesus and the Law”]. Today’s note will look briefly at the saying in verse 19, while tomorrow’s note will examine the saying in verse 48 which concludes the Antitheses (and chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount). By way of review, here are the four sayings in Matt 5:17-20:

Verse 17—”Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

Verse 18—”For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.”

Verse 19—”Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”

Verse 20—”For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”

I have also discussed these verses together in an earlier note.

Matthew 5:19

o^$ e)a\n ou@n lu/sh| mi/an tw=n e)ntolw=n tou/twn e)laxi/stwn kai\ dida/ch| ou%tw$ tou\$ a)nqrw/pou$, e)la/xisto$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n: o^$ d’ a*n poih/sh| kai\ dida/ch|, ou!to$ me/ga$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”
[in more conventional translation:] “Therefore, whoever looses (a single) one of these littlest commandments and teaches men (to do) thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the Kingdom of Heaven; but (the one) who does and teaches (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the Kingdom of Heaven”

The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. The verb lu/w is a simple form related to the compound katalu/w in verse 17. The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”. The main interpretive question in the verse regards the nature of the commandments; there are three possibilities:

  1. They are the commands and regulations of the (written) Torah
  2. They are the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere)
  3. They are Jesus’ own commands (in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere)

The immediate context of verse 17 and 18 would suggest the first view—that he is referring to the written Torah. It must be kept in mind, however, that the Sermon on the Mount likely represents a collection of Jesus’ teaching—the sayings themselves were not necessarily all uttered on the same occasion (and in the same order) as we have them preserved in the Gospel. More to the point, it is difficult to find another (similar) saying in the Gospels which indicates that the written Law remains fully binding for Jesus’ followers; what few sayings are preserved relating directly to the Law could be taken to suggest the opposite; in any case, the evidence is ambiguous. If Jesus had made such an apparently decisive statement regarding the Jewish Law, one might expect even greater controversy and opposition toward Paul’s teaching that Gentiles should be accepted as Christian believers without requiring specific observance/performance of the Law.

For these reasons (and others), many commentators hold that Jesus’ own commands are what is meant here. Certainly Jesus’ teaching, from the very beginning, would have had an authoritative character and quality, and regarded as such by his devoted followers. Jesus gives many commands and precepts throughout the Gospels, but, as far as I am aware, in the early Church no clear attempt was made to collect them into a definitive corpus—perhaps the closest we have is in the Sermon on the Mount itself (and the Lukan parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’). The early Christian usage of the phrase and concept of the “command[s] of Christ” will be discussed in some detail at a later point in the series on “The Law and the New Testament”. Where the idea of the commandments required for a Christian is spelled out most clearly (as in the “Two Ways” section of the Didache chs. 1-6), it goes little beyond the Sermon on the Mount, adding to it specifically the dual “Great Commandment” and the Ten Commandments themselves (in a manner similar to that summarized by Jesus in Mk 10:18-19 par). See the Epistle of James (esp. 2:8-13) for a similar epitome and exposition of early Christian “commandments” in the New Testament itself.

If Jesus is referring to his own commands, which ones precisely? And how would this relate to the distinction of the “least/littlest” of these commandments? This particular distinction perhaps makes more sense in relation to the written Torah, and could be seen as an argument in favor of view #1 above. There are several possibilities:

(a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
(b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
(c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
(d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).

In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.

View #2—that it is the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus that are meant—perhaps best fits the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Antitheses which follow in Matt 5:21-47. As previously discussed, in the Antitheses, Jesus deals with specific Torah regulations (and how they are customarily understood), providing his own (authoritative) instruction and interpretation for his followers. In many ways, the collection of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is truly formative for Christian instruction—the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets), and especially the Torah, provide the baseline and foundation upon which Jesus builds. As mentioned in the previous discussion on verse 17, Jesus “fulfills” the Law by completing it—giving to it a new (and deeper) revelatory and religious-ethical dimension. In this sense, Jesus’ own commands cannot entirely be separated from the commands of the written Law, even if the Torah commands themselves come to apply less and less to the new Christian situation and spiritual ethic.

What of the juxtaposition between “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven in verse 19b—how should this be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here. In any event, Jesus clearly speaks against those who relax (or disregard) the commandments (and teach others to do so). It must be admitted that this is truly a difficult statement (for Christians) if Jesus is referring to the Torah regulations; however, let us consider for a moment how this may apply to the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 (as well as the religious instruction which follows in 6:1-18):

  • A person may fulfill and observe a command while being mistaken or ignorant regarding its true meaning and intent. This is partly what Jesus’ teaching addresses—pointing the way to the true precepts underlying the Torah regulations, along with the mind and character of the God who revealed them.
  • Similarly, Jesus emphasizes the heart and intention of the person, rather than the validity of the Law as such.
  • As I argued in the prior note, the practical result of following Jesus’ teachings will be that much of the Law effectively becomes obsolete. For example, by dealing properly with the root of anger and lust, the commands against murder and adultery are made irrelevant, and so forth. This is quite a different matter than flagrantly violating or transgressing the Law.
  • If one may summarize: going beyond what the Law requires (from an ethical standpoint), and emphasizing the inward dimension of it, does not result in “loosing” the commandment—far from it! In every meaningful sense, it reflects a more stringent standard of religious and ethical behavior.

There would come a time, of course in early Christianity when the validity of specific laws and ordinances—such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, the dietary regulations, and so forth—would have to be addressed; however, this goes beyond the scope and purpose of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is perhaps better dealt with under the heading of New Testament Theology, along with the doctrine of progressive revelation. I will also be discussing these matters at the appropriate junctures in my series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

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Note of the Day – July 25

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This note follows up on that of the previous day (on Matthew 5:17), and also serves as a supplement to my survey and discussion of the Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-47) of the Sermon on the Mount in the series on “Jesus and the Law”.

As previously discussed, the two key terms in Matt 5:17 are the verbs katalu/w (katalu¡œ, “loose down, dissolve”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”); Jesus’ declaration is “I have not come to loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] (the Law or the Prophets), but to fill up [i.e. fulfill]”. In the prior note, I looked at other (similar) instances of katalu/w in the New Testament, including references related to the destruction of the Temple; here, before proceeding, it is worth looking at other occurrences of the verb plhro/w.

  • In the Gospels especially, it is frequently used in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy (i.e. that which was uttered by the Prophets, etc)—that is, the words and message came to be realized in the person and work of Jesus (Matt 1:22; 2:15, et al). Similarly, it was used for predictions made by Jesus (Jn 18:9, 32).
  • Drawing upon the literal sense of “filling up” (a vessel, etc, cf. Matt 13:48; Jn 12:3), it is often used figuratively (in a religious-ethical sense)—for a person being “filled” in a negative (with wickedness, etc, Matt 23:32; Acts 5:3) or positive sense (with joy, peace, etc., Lk 2:40; John 3:29; 15:11; Rom 15:13). It can also be used in reference to the Spirit (Eph 5:18), though the related verb plh/qw is more common (Lk 1:41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, etc). Similarly God (or Christ) can be said to “fill” all things (Eph 1:23; 4:10).
  • It can be used in the temporal-figurative sense of time being (ful)filled—i.e., the appointed day (or time) has come, or the allotted time has passed (Mk 1:15; Lk 1:20; 21:24; Acts 7:23; 9:23, etc); the verb plh/qw can also be used in this sense (Lk 2:21-22, etc).
  • It is also used in the sense of: (a) completing a purpose or intended course of action—cf. Lk 9:31; Acts 12:25; 13:25; 14:26; Rom 15:19; Col 4:17; 2 Thess 1:11; also Rev 3:2; or (b) similarly in reference to making a condition, situation, or goal complete—Matt 23:32; Lk 22:16; John 16:24; Rom 15:14; 2 Cor 10:16; Phil 2:2; Col 1:25; also Rev 6:11.

There are four references which seem to be close in context to Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:17:

  • Matt 3:15—”for thus it is proper/fitting for us to fulfill [plhrw=sai] all justice/righteousness” (response to John’ objection regarding baptizing Jesus)
  • Rom 8:4—”that the justice/righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled [plhrwqh=|] in us, the (ones who) walk about not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”
  • Rom 13:8—”for the (one) loving the other (person) has fulfilled [peplh/rwken] the Law”
  • Gal 5:14—”for all the Law is fulfilled [peplh/rwtai] in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself'”

The last three reference involve “fulfilling” the Law, primarily in the sense of 4a above (completing a purpose or intended course of action)—that is, believers, by walking according to the Spirit and loving one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18), effectively observe and complete the demands and requirements of the Law (without necessarily completing the specific commandments). This could also be understood in the sense of 4b (making a condition, situation, or goal complete), though this latter sense perhaps better fits the reference in Matthew 3:15 to “fulfilling all justice/righteousness”. Jesus’ use of dikaiosu/nh (“justice, just-ness, righteousness”) very much follows the traditional Jewish usage—i.e., observing and obeying the will of God as revealed in the Law (and Prophets); though he evidently extends the usage to baptism by John (toward repentance and forgiveness of sin) and his own teaching (in the Sermon on the Mount, etc).

Now it is time to look at how the Antitheses in Matt 5:21-47 (see the previous discussion) relate to Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:17. The Antitheses follow the pattern in v. 17 of a customary (but incorrect or insufficient) saying which is ‘corrected’ by Jesus’ teaching; in v. 17, as previously noted, it is:

  • Customary/incorrect saying: “I have come to dissolve the Law and/or the Prophets”
    Correct saying by Jesus: “I have not come to dissolve (the Law or the Prophets), but to fulfill (them)”

Similarly, in each of the Antitheses, there is a customary saying (“you have heard it uttered…”), followed by Jesus’ own saying/teaching (“but I say to you…”). Each customary saying relates in some way to the commands or regulations in the Torah; the nature of the command/regulation, and Jesus’ interpretive argument, proceeds along three distinct lines or patterns, which can be seen by grouping the six Antitheses into three pairs:

Antitheses 1 & 2 (on murder/anger and adultery/lust), 5:21-30—Jesus in no way opposes the commandments against murder/manslaughter and adultery (Exod 20:13-14), which, in any case, are fundamental socio-ethical commands accepted, even taken for granted, by nearly every culture. Rather, Jesus extends the command to the underlying human tendency or inclination which provides the seed for transgression: just as anger directed toward another person may lead to murder/manslaughter, looking with desire upon another person may lead to adultery/fornication. The standard of moral behavior for Jesus’ followers goes beyond the written Law (cf. verse 20).

Antitheses 3 & 4 (on divorce the the swearing of oaths), 5:31-37—Here the situation is different; instead of fundamental commands, we are dealing with instruction regulating certain social and legal-religious aspects of society—for divorce cf. Deut 24:1-4, for the swearing of oaths, cf. Exod 20:16; Deut 5:20; Lev 19:12; Deut 23:21-23. Divorce and the use of oaths are practical realities (if not a practical necessity) in most societies; so, too, the Torah provides instruction regarding them: (i) circumstances (not clearly spelled out) where divorce may be permitted, and (ii) commands against false/vain oaths and emphasizing the importance of fulfilling oaths/vows made to God (or by his Name). With regard to oaths (vv. 33-37), Jesus’ teaching to his followers is simply to speak and behave in an honest and trustworthy manner, without the use of any oath. His teaching on divorce here (vv. 31-32) specifies the only circumstance (adultery or other illicit sexual behavior) where divorce should be considered. Very likely, vv. 31-32 serves as a shorthand for his longer discussion on divorce in Matt 19:3-9; in the parallel Markan account (Mk 10:1-12), Jesus appears to forbid divorce outright, but in Matthew there is the porneia-exception. It can be said that divorce and the use of oaths are accommodations to human weakness and wickedness—if people were all faithful to the marriage bond, a provision for divorce would not be necessary; similarly, if people were all true to their word and faithful in social and religious matters, there would be no need for oaths. Jesus’ followers should be honest and faithful (“pure of heart”) and render unnecessary these parts of the Law.

Anitheses 5 & 6 (on retaliation and love/hate for one’s enemies), 5:38-47—Again, Jesus’ approach here is different: in each of these Antitheses, he is dealing with an incorrect or flawed interpretation of the Torah. The first is the talio-principle (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, cf. Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21), meant to provide just compensation and regulate punishment for a crime resulting in personal injury, but which can easily be distorted and used as justification for retaliation and personal vengeance. The second is the command to love one’s neighbor (as oneself, Lev. 19:18); one might naturally assume the opposite to be true—one should hate one’s enemies. Jesus’ teaching corrects (and turns on its head) these mistaken interpretations: not only should Jesus’ followers not retaliate (when facing injury or oppression), but actually must show love to their opponents and enemies, even praying to God on behalf of their enemies (and persecutors).

Does Jesus actually invalidate or oppose the Torah outright in any of these Antitheses, as v. 17a might suggest? Perhaps the closest he comes is in Antitheses #4 and 5. With regard to oaths (#4) the emphasis in the Torah is on the command forbidding false oaths (perjury), but overall oaths and vows made to God (by his Name) are viewed in a positive light, and are nowhere prohibited. Yet, for his followers (at least), Jesus’ rejects the use of oaths outright. The situation regarding Antithesis #5 is more ambiguous, as the lex talionis is not so much a command as a legal principle; however, it is a principle that Jesus appears to oppose (again, at least for his followers).

It is, I think, better to view Jesus’ teaching in the Antitheses as going beyond the written Law itself (but not opposing it as such). If we return to the saying in verse 17, it may be possible to formulate a more accurate interpretation regarding the use of the verbs katalu/w (“loose/dissolve/destroy”) and plhro/w (“fill up/fulfill”):

  • “I have not come to loose/dissolve (the Law or the Prophets)”—I take this to mean that Jesus’ purpose (in his teaching, work and personal example) is not to abolish or invalidate the Torah (or Scripture) as a whole. To be fair, there is little in the Sermon on the Mount (or elsewhere in his teaching) which indicates that he is expressly invalidating the Law (or transgressing specific regulations). However, in at least two respects his teaching can be seen as (ultimately) pointing in this direction: (a) by pointing to a ‘deeper’ meaning to the Torah commands (centered on a person’s heart/intention), and (b) by emphasizing the authority of his own person and teaching. The accusation of abolishing/invalidating the Law better fits Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, his protestation to the contrary in Rom 3:31 notwithstanding (this will be discussed in its proper place).
  • “(I have come) to fill/fulfill (the Law and the Prophets)”—I do not take this to mean observance of the specific Torah regulations, though most likely Jesus and his disciples were observant; rather, the use of plhro/w should be understood principally according to sense 4b above (making a condition, situation, or goal complete). In other words, Jesus is completing the Law (and Prophets) through his own teaching and work (and in his own person). In the main Gospel tradition, this does not (yet) take on the idea of Jesus replacing the Torah, though eventually in early Christianity it will reach that point. Rather, here we should understand Jesus as giving a new (and deeper) meaning to the Torah regulations.

It must be admitted, however, that there is a sense in which, by following Jesus’ teachings, much of the Law does become obsolete. As suggested above, this is clear enough by a careful study of the Antitheses. If one deals properly with the roots of anger and lust, the commands against murder and adultery become irrelevant. Similarly, if one is faithful to the bond of marriage, and completely trustworthy in speech and action, the regulations regarding divorce and oaths are totally unnecessary. And finally, if a person loves even his/her enemies, it should be a small matter indeed to show proper love to one’s neighbors. As for the talio-principle, if one never retaliates or seeks compensation for injury, then the principle becomes entirely meaningless. If we were to extend this logic, for the “pure/clean of heart” there is no need for the Law, much as Paul teaches for those who walk and live “according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16-24)—ultimately this is the goal (and ideal) to be realized for Jesus’ followers (see the Beatitudes).

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Jesus and the Law, Part 3: The Antitheses and the Sermon on the Mount

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Matthew 5:21-48 represents the first major section of the collection of Jesus’ teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount” (chapters 5-7). These verses are typically referred to as the Antitheses, since they represent a series of six contrasting sayings. Before proceeding with a exposition of the Antitheses, it is recommended that you read and study carefully the preceding verses 17-20; I have previously discussed these in a daily note. Verses 17-20 present four statements by Jesus regarding his view of the Law (Torah)—principles which should be kept in mind when attempting to analyze and interpret what follows. Also important are the Beatitudes (5:3-12) which serve as an introduction (exordium) to the ‘Sermon’ as a whole; I have also discussed the Beatitudes in some detail in a separate exegetical study series.

The Antitheses each begin with the phrase h)kou/sate o%ti e)rre/qh (“you heard that it has been uttered/said…”), and once simply “it has been uttered/said” (e)rre/qh). In several instances this phrase is qualified with the expression toi=$ a)rxai/oi$ (“to the chief/leading ones”). The adjective a)rxai=o$ can be understood in the qualitative sense of leading or prominent people (i.e., elders, rulers, authorities), or temporally, those “at the beginning”, i.e. a long time ago. In other words, these are well-established sayings (or teachings) with some measure of authority and tradition behind them. The “leading men (of old)” (oi( a)rxai=oi) include venerable authorities on Scripture and the Law, extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets—cf. Luke 9:8, 19; Philo Who Is the Heir §181, 283; On Abraham §1-6ff; On the Special Laws I.8; On the Sacrifices of Abel & Cain §79 (Betz, p. 215, 216).

In each instance, Jesus contrasts the customary/traditional saying with his own teaching—e)gw\ de\ le/gw u(mi=n (“but I say to you…”). As we shall see, Jesus’ argument differs in each Antithesis; the customary saying may reflect a distortion of the original meaning and intent of the Law, or he may argue that simply following the letter of the Law is insufficient. The six Antitheses may be divided as follows:

  1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)
  2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)
  3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)
  4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)
  5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)
  6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

At first glance, there may seem to be no obvious pattern here; however, it is possible to view these as three (logical) pairs (see the concluding summary below).

1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)

Customary saying[s]:

  • “you shall not slay (a person) [i.e. murder]” and
    “who(ever) should slay (a person) will be held in (custody) for the judgment”

Jesus’ saying[s]:

  • “every one that (is) angered by his brother will be held in (custody) for the Judgment”
    “who(ever) should say to his brother ‘Rêqa!’ {‘Empty-[head]!’} will be held in (custody) for the Council [lit. {place of} sitting-together]”
    “who(ever) should say (to him) ‘Dullard! [i.e. Fool/Stupid]’ will be held in (custody) unto the Ge-hinnom of Fire”

Relation to the Law:

The first of the customary sayings comes from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:15 [LXX]); the second saying does not come from Scripture, rather it is a basic formulation of how the law would be applied—one who commits murder/manslaughter will be charged and held for judgment (and punishment).

Jesus’ Exposition:

The validity of the law concerning murder/manslaughter is not questioned; rather, Jesus’ extends the principle to any angry outburst against another person (one’s “brother”, i.e. neighbor). While the customary saying refers to normal judgment in a human court, it would seem that Jesus moves this into the Divine/Heavenly realm, in sequence:

  • the Judgment (kri/si$)—that is, the (end-time) judgment before God
  • the Council (sune/drion)—by a similar wordplay, this presumably is not a human judicial (or ruling) council, but the (heavenly) Council of God
  • the ‘Ge-hinnom’ of Fire (ge/enna tou= puro/$)—the “valley of Hinnom” came to be a proverbial symbol of the end-time judgment, where the wicked/worthless ones will be punished (with fire, burned as refuse)

Example/Application:

This warning against anger is followed by two examples illustrating the importance and (practical) value of reconciliation:

  • Vv. 23-24: reconciliation with one’s neighbor takes precedence over fulfilling religious/ritual obligations
  • Vv. 25-26: if you do not try to reconcile you may end up facing the harsh judgment of the court (to say nothing of God’s Judgment!)

2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)

Customary saying: “you shall not commit adultery”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looks (on) a woman toward setting (his) heart/desire/passion upon her already has committed adultery (with) her in his heart”

Relation to the Law: as with the first Antithesis, we have a simple citation from the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:13 [LXX]).

Jesus’ Exposition:

His reply follows that of the first Antithesis: he does not deny the validity of the Law, but rather extends it to any lustful/passionate gazing upon a woman (naturally enough the reverse also applies—a woman gazing upon a man). Marriage (and at a very young age) was more widespread in the ancient Near East than in modern (Western) society—looking a woman typically meant looking at a married (or betrothed) woman; however, certainly the basic principle Jesus states is relevant even for unmarried men and women. The Greek word qumo/$ is somewhat difficult to translate in English; fundamentally it refers to a passionate/violent movement (as of wind or breath), which I prefer to render “impulse”, but (with human beings) can be understood in the general sense of “will”, “soul”, “mind”, “anger”, and the like. The verb e)piqume/w means to set one’s qumo/$ upon something (or someone); in English idiom we might say “set one’s heart (or desire)” upon someone/something, or simply to “desire”. Sometimes, as here, the verb is translated “lust (after)”—not a very literal rendering, but it does get the idea across.

Example/Application:

Verses 29-30 repeat a set of sayings by Jesus found elsewhere in Synoptic tradition (cf. Mark 9:43-48), told in provocative language—a crude (and graphic) warning to his followers to “cut off” any source of sin. As with the first Antithesis, the warning points to the end-time Judgment and punishment in “Gehenna”.

3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)

Customary saying: “who(ever) would loose his woman [i.e. wife] from (him), let (him) give her a (document of) separation [lit. standing away] from (him)”

Jesus’ saying: “every one that looses his woman/wife from (him)—besides an account of porneia—makes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries (a woman) loosed from (her husband) commits adultery”

Relation to the Law: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 offers a provision for divorce—that is, for a man to divorce his wife (it is not clear that the woman is understood to have the same right). The acceptable justification for divorce is stated in vague terms, which Jesus clarifies: divorce is allowed only in the case of pornei/a (porneía). This Greek word is somewhat difficult to translate; originally it referred to sex for hire (i.e. prostitution), but eventually came to be used for any illicit sexual intercourse, and even to sexual immorality in general. Here it is generally synonymous with (but not strictly limited to) “adultery” (moixei/a).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 10:1-12 par) Jesus discusses the question of divorce (and Deut 24:1-4) more extensively—the only instance in the Gospels where he addresses a specific Torah regulation at any length. There he explains that the provision in Deut 24:1-4 was written as (a necessary) accommodation to the people’s “hardness of heart”. He further cites Genesis 2:24 to affirm the sacred and binding nature of marriage. In the Markan account (vv. 11-12) he makes a statement nearly identical to Matt 5:32 here—but without the porneia-exception. Scholars have long debated whether or not the historical Jesus forbid divorce outright, as indicated in Mark 10:1-12; this would certainly be the more radical approach. The teaching in Matt 5:32 differs only moderately from the Torah regulation.

4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)

Customary saying[s]:

  • “you shall not give a (false) oath” but (rather)
    “you shall give forth [i.e. give back, repay] your oaths to the Lord”

Jesus’ saying:

  • “wholly not to affirm (by oath)”—i.e. “do not affirm/swear (by an oath) at all”

Relation to the Law:

The first customary saying generally relates to the commandments in Exod 20:16 / Deut 5:20 (also Lev 19:12)—that is, against committing perjury (false witness which is taken on oath). For the expression in Greek, see LXX Zech 5:3-4; Wis 14:25; 1 Esdras 1:46, in Philo On the Special Laws I.235, etc., and esp. the Sentences of Ps.-Phocylides §16 (cf. Betz, p. 263). The second saying would seem to emphasize the binding, religious character of an oath (like a vow made to God)—see Deuteronomy 23:21ff for similar language. It should be pointed out that the Torah does not require oaths (or vows), but simply gives instruction concerning them.

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus’ teaching on the matter requires a clear sense of the ancient concept of the oath and is easily misunderstood today. The Greek word here translated as “oath” is o%rko$ (hórkos); its etymology is uncertain, but it seems to have the fundamental meaning of something which encloses or limits, or otherwise binds a person. The verb e)piorke/w (with the related noun e)piorki/a) also has an obscure origin, but the particle e)pi (“upon”) may indicate an action or gesture made “in addition to” the statement; however, the word (or expression) came to mean (giving) a “false oath” (i.e. committing perjury). For early use of these terms, see esp. Hesiod Theogony 231-32, Works and Days 193-94, 282-83 (cf. Betz, p. 264). In the ancient world, the oath had a religious-magical quality—it was intended to guarantee reliability of speech and behavior by calling upon the divine powers (i.e. specified gods, including [commonly] heaven and earth, sun, moon, stars, etc). The “gods” or divine forces were witness to the oath and would thus punish any violation or transgression. Even in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, we still see this usage of calling upon heaven and earth, etc. as witnesses (Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:40; Isa 1:2, etc). Of course, the monotheism of ancient Israel meant that oaths and vows were primarily made unto YHWH, or by His Name (Gen 24:3; Jos 2:12; 9:18-29; Judg 21:2; 1 Sam 20:12; 24:21, etc); and, according to the ancient religious mindset, the name of the Deity represented its very power and presence. It is this quasi-magical thinking that underlies the commandment in Exod 20:7—against using the name of YHWH for a false or evil purpose. However, by the time of the New Testament, oaths by God (or his name) were to be avoided altogether, as expressed clearly by Philo in On the Special Laws II.1-38 (commenting on Exod 20:7). Philo urges that oaths be kept as simple as possible (beyond “yes” or “no”), but suggests that one may (in addition) call upon the earth, sun, stars, etc. It is such a view that Jesus speaks against in Matt 5:34-36.

Example/Application:

Though not the only teacher who argued against the value of oaths (for examples from the Delphic oracle, Sophocles, Plutarch, Quintilian, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Diogenes Laertius, etc., see Betz, p. 267), Jesus’ blunt declaration in v. 34 that one should not affirm anything (by using an oath) at all is perhaps the most absolute and striking. As he states in the concluding verse 37, an emphatic “yes” (nai\ nai/) or “no” (ou* ou&) should be sufficient—anything beyond/exceeding [perisso\n] this is “from the Evil (One) [e)k tou= ponhrou=]”. This would seem to be an especially strict teaching, forbidding any sort of oath, with, as I see it, two principles at work: (1) Jesus objects to the quasi-magical character of the oath, and (2) he wishes to emphasize that trustworthiness should stem (internally) from a person’s own heart and moral character, requiring no practical or external prop. Many commentators argue that Jesus’ teaching here does not relate to the modern practice of taking oaths (in a court of law, etc). I thoroughly disagree with such an interpretation—even though our modern oaths are largely routine and but a faint vestige of the ancient usage, the underlying principle is the same, as defined by Philo (Spec. leg. II.10: “an oath is… to call God to bear witness in a disputed matter”) and Cicero (De officiis 3.104: “an oath is an assurance backed by religious sanctity”) [cf. Betz, p. 261]. It is up to each believer to follow his or her conscience in such matters, but the teaching of Jesus here should not be carelessly set aside or neglected out of practical concern.

5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)

Customary saying: “eye against eye and tooth against tooth”

Jesus’ saying: “not to stand [i.e. do not stand] against the (one doing) evil”

Relation to the Law:

The customary saying is taken from Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21 [LXX]. The Greek preposition a)nti (“against, opposite, over”) here has the meaning “in exchange, in place of”; the maxim is usually rendered in English “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. It is actually an ancient legal principle—the talio principle or lex talionis (ius talionis)—which extends back even earlier than the Law of Moses (cf. §196ff of the Code of Hammurabi). Its fundamental purpose was to regulate the administration of justice and ensure that punishment was commensurate with the crime or the injury inflicted. It was also meant to curb the seeking of personal revenge, which can easily become excessive and devolve into blood vengeance. Over the millennia legal experts and philosophers have debated whether the principle should be taken and applied literally—many have thought so, but from the earliest time we also find the practice of providing monetary compensation to the injured person (proportionate to the injury). Jesus here apparently takes the maxim literally (for such a contemporary view, cf. Philo On the Special Laws III.181-204).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus treats the underlying principle broadly, beyond the literal wording of the maxim itself; instead of specifically relating to a physical injury, he refers to any one who does evil. This is the best way to understand o( ponhro/$ (“the evil [one])” in verse 39—earlier in v. 37 it seems to refer to the Devil/Satan (“the Evil One”), but here the context requires “the one [doing] evil”. The verb a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”, “set [oneself] against”) can be understood several different ways: (1) to oppose someone (generally), (2) to resist someone, (3) to retaliate against someone. While the first two senses may still relate to Christian ethics, it is the third which seems to be in view here—Jesus is telling his followers not to retaliate (strike back) when struck by another.

Example/Application:

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Jesus goes beyond even this basic ethical principle with the examples which follow in vv. 39b-41:

  1. Verse 39b: if someone slaps/strikes you on the right cheek (perhaps with the back of the hand, as an insult), turn your (left) cheek (inviting him to strike you there as well).
  2. Verse 40: if someone seeks your shirt/tunic in a legal judgment (i.e. lawsuit) against you, give your opponent even more than he is asking (give him your coat as well).
  3. Verse 41: if a soldier (or other authority figure) commandeers you and forces you to walk a mile, do even more than he asks (go with him two miles).

The principle of non-retaliation is thus extended—to willingly accept greater hardship and suffering rather than to resist or strike back. While ancient philosophers and wisdom writings often counseled showing kindness and fair treatment to one’s enemies, it is hard to find a similar example of such bold and radical teaching in this regard (cf. further on the sixth Antithesis below). Jesus also acted out the principle (in striking fashion), according to Gospel tradition—Matt 26:50-54 par; Mark 14:60-65 par; cf. also 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9-12.

Verse 42 provides a maxim parallel to that in v. 39a: “give to the one asking of you, and do not turn away the one wishing to borrow from you”—the negative command has turned into a positive one.

6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

Customary saying:

  • “you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]”

Jesus’ saying:

  • “love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you”

Relation to the Law:

The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.

Example/Application:

As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:

  • makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
  • sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike

In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis is here on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.

Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.

Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:

“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”

This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.

By way of conclusion, we must consider the following:

  1. The relationship of the Antitheses to Jesus’ statements regarding the Law in verse 17ff
  2. How the Antitheses are summarized by Jesus in verse 48

Each of these will be addressed in a supplementary note.

 

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Note of the Day – July 24

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Today’s note on Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17 is supplemental to an article on the “Antitheses” (Matt 5:21-47) in the Sermon on the Mount, part of a continuing series on “The Law and the New Testament” (“Jesus and the Law”). I have also discussed Matt 5:17-20 in an earlier note.

Matthew 5:17

Mh\ nomi/shte o%ti h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$: ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai
“Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

Because of the importance of this saying, both with regard to the teaching which follows (in vv. 21ff) and for Jesus’ view of the Law as a whole, each element will be examined closely.

mh\ nomi/shte—The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. However, the verb also generally can indicate a customary way of thinking (according to appearance), or a common assumption, which (often) in some way proves to be incorrect, as the usage in Matt 20:10; Lk 2:44; 3:23; Acts 7:25; 14:19; 16:27; 21:29. In Acts 8:20; 17:29; 1 Tim 6:5, it is an incorrect thinking regarding religious matters. The aorist subjunctive form here in Matt 5:17, along with the negative particle mh, has the force of an imperative—i.e., “do not think (incorrectly) in the customary way (concerning this)”; the same expression in found in Matt 10:34.

o%ti (“that”)—the conjunction here may indicate a quotation, i.e. “do not regard as proper/correct (the following statement)”.

h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$—this is the (false or incorrect) saying of Jesus: “I have come to loose down the Law and/or the Foretellers”.

katalu=sai—as a legal term, katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc. The verb is used by Jesus (or in a saying attributed to him) in reference to the destruction of the Temple—Mark 13:2; 14:58; 15:29 (par Matt 24:2; 26:61; 27:40; Lk 21:6); Acts 6:14; cf. also John 2:19; 2 Cor 5:1. For a similar use of the verb in a context related to the Law, see Galatians 2:18, possibly also in Lk 19:7 (Jesus going in to associate with a “sinner”); and note Paul’s use of it as warning in Rom 14:20 not to “destroy” the work of God.

to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$—here no/mo$ is the Old Testament / Jewish hr*oT (tôrâ) or “Law” (lit. “instruction”), specifically as Scripture—that is, as the divinely-revealed Instruction written down and preserved in the five books of Moses (Pentateuch). Similarly the “Prophets” are the writings, the books which record the Prophets’ words. It became commonplace to refer to these in tandem as “the Law and [kai] the Prophets” (cf. Matt 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Rom 3:21); here, however, Jesus uses the disjunctive conjunction h&, i.e. “(either) the Law or the Prophets”. The difference perhaps is slight, but a distinction is being made: the Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time. Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”

ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai—This is the “correct” saying: “I have not come to loose down (the Law or the Prophets), but to fill (them up)”. The verb plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”), like the corresponding verb katalu/w, can be used in the legal sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. How precisely should we understand katalu/w and plhro/w here? There are several possibilities:

katalu/w, “loose, dissolve”, in the sense of:

  • relax the strictness of the Torah regulations, either for his followers or for all (Jewish) people
  • teach that his followers need not observe the regulations
  • declare that the Torah is no longer valid or in force (for anyone)

plhro/w, “fill up, fulfill”, in the sense that:

  • Jesus and his followers faithfully observe the Torah regulations
  • in his teaching (and by his example), Jesus restores the original meaning and purpose of the (written) Torah
  • through his teaching (and example), Jesus points to a deeper meaning and significance for his followers
  • Jesus, in his person and through his teaching, completes the Torah, either in the sense of: (a) giving it a new meaning, or (b) effectively replacing it

This question will be discussed further in the next daily note.

It is interesting to note that the ‘incorrect’ statement of v. 17a (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63), “I have come to dissolve the works of female-ness” (this unusual phrase refers to all the elements of the current world-order, including conventional religious forms). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176.

It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”

As indicated above, the verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law (see above). Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

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Jesus and the Law, Part 2: Survey of Passages

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As indicated in the previous article, I recognize three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah) which seem to be reflected in sayings and actions of Jesus preserved in the Gospel traditions. I will be using these as a framework for outlining the various relevant passages. However, to begin with, it is helpful to survey the Gospel passages according to specific aspects of the Law and Torah observance:

First, it is important to note that Jesus only rarely mentions the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, such as the sacrificial offerings and other cultic duties involving the Temple; indeed, I find only two (or three) passages where he directs someone to observe specific laws (or related practices):

  • Mark 1:40-44 (par Lk 5:12-14; Matt 8:1-4)—upon cleansing a man of “leprosy” (a severe skin disease), Jesus instructs him to offer “what Moses commanded” (cf. Leviticus 14:1-32); there is a similar directive in the Lukan account of the cleansing of the “ten lepers” (Lk 17:11-19, v. 14).
  • Matthew 17:24-27—on the question of whether Jesus and his disciples (should) pay the half-shekel “Temple tax” (cf. Exod 30:13; 38:26), Jesus ultimately instructs Peter to pay it (v. 27); however, the discussion in vv. 25-26 is much more ambiguous regarding the Law (see below).

Similarly, Jesus discusses (or mentions) specific laws only on rare occasions in the Gospels:

  • Most notable, is the question posed to him regarding divorce in Mark 10:2-12 (par Matt 19:3-9); from the so-called “Q” tradition (in Matthew/Luke), we find similar teaching (Matt 5:31-32; Lk 16:18); the specific Mosaic law is in Deut 24:1-4.
  • Interestingly, apart from Jn 7:22-23, Jesus never mentions circumcision.
  • Other laws, such as the Sabbath observance, are touched upon, but they are better dealt with under the category of Jesus’ discussion/disputes with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”, cf. below).

Mention should also be made of the so-called “greatest commandment”, whereby Jesus cites (or affirms) Deut 6:4-5 (love toward God) and Lev 19:18 (love toward one’s neighbor) together, in Mark 12:28-34 (par Matt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28).

On a number of occasions Jesus cites the Torah (as Scripture) or otherwise emphasizes the authoritative character of the Law:

  • Matthew 5:17-20 (see below)—this is Jesus’ most direct and specific teaching regarding the Law.
  • Most notable are the citations in the Temptation episode (Matt 4:1-11 / Lk 4:1-13), where he quotes Deut 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13—while being commands, these verses represent religious precepts rather than laws involving socio-political or ritual matters.
  • In several places, Jesus interprets (or is said to interpret) the Law (and Prophets), clearly implying its authoritative character—e.g., the ‘Antitheses’ of Matt 5:21-48 (also through chs. 6-7); the references in Luke 24:27, 44-45ff.

In numerous passages, Jesus is shown in debate with the religious leaders (“scribes and Pharisees”) over issues related to the Law. The “scribes” were the scholars and legal experts, many of whom were also Pharisees. Though frequently depicted as Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees would have had a fair amount in common with him; in general, their religious devotion was much to be admired, and Jesus must have engaged in lively discussion and debate with them (only a small portion of which is preserved in the Gospels). The noteworthy passages are:

  • Mark 2:16-17 (par Lk 5:30-32; Matt 9:11-13)—on Jesus’ eating with “sinners” and toll-collectors (with citation from Hos 6:6); cf. also Lk 15:1-2 and the parables which follow
  • Mark 2:18ff (par Lk 5:33ff; Matt 9:14ff)—on why Jesus and his disciples do not fast (with a parable)
  • Mark 7:1-5ff (par Matt 15:1-3ff)—on why Jesus’ disciples do not wash hands when they eat (note the discussion in vv. 6-13, with citation from Isa 29:13); and note the specific mention of the Pharisees in Matt 15:12ff
  • Mark 8:11-13 (par Matt 16:1-4)—on their testing Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven
  • Mark 10:1-12 (par Matt 19:1-12)—the question regarding divorce (dealing with Deut 24:1-4; Jesus also cites Gen 2:24)
  • Mark 12:13-17 (par Lk 20:20-26; Matt 22:15-22)—on whether it is right to pay tax/tribute to Caesar (i.e. the Roman government), a legal-religious question
  • Mark 12:28-34 (par Matt 22:34-40, also Lk 10:25-28)—on which commandment is the most important (citing Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18); in Lk the parable of the Good Samaritan follows
  • [John 8:1-11]—question to Jesus regarding application of the Law for a woman caught in adultery
  • Cf. also the role of the Scribes/Pharisees in the Sabbath controversies (below)

Note also:

  • Matt 5:20—Jesus’ saying/warning to his disciples (rel. to the Pharisees); in this context, note also Mark 11:27-33 par, and the parable in Matt 21:28-32ff (cf. the Pharisees’ reaction in vv. 45-46)
  • Luke 7:30, 31-34—Jesus’ response to the criticism by the religious leaders (mention of the Pharisees in v. 30); cf. also Lk 16:14-15
  • Luke 7:36-50—the episode of Jesus being anointed by the “sinful woman” in the house of (Simon) the Pharisee
  • Mark 8:14-15ff (par Matt 16:5-6ff)—Jesus’ teaching warning against the “leaven of the Pharisees”
  • Luke 17:20-21ff—question to Jesus regarding the coming of the Kingdom of God
  • Luke 18:9-14—the parables of the Pharisee and the toll-collector
  • Mark 10:33 (par Matt 20:18)—the “scribes” are specifically mentioned (with the “chief priests”) in Jesus’ (third) Passion prediction
  • Luke 19:39-40—the Pharisees rebuke of Jesus’ disciples hailing him (at the ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem), with Jesus’ reply
  • Mark 12:35-37 (par Matt 22:41-46; Lk 20:41-44)—Jesus’ question regarding the interpretation of Psalm 110:1
  • Mark 12:38-40 (par Lk 20:45-47, and in Matt 23)—Jesus warns his disciples against (behaving like) the Scribes
  • Mark 14:1-2 (par Lk 22:1-2, and cf. Matt 26:1-5)—the role of the Scribes in plotting Jesus’ death; and their role in the “trial” itself (Mark 14:53-65 par), also Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15

An important source of controversy in the Gospel tradition involves Jesus’ observance of the Sabbath. There are certain critical (and interpretive) questions regarding these passages, and I will be dealing with them in more detail in a separate article in this series. First, it should be pointed out here that Jesus is shown in the Synagogue in religious observance of the Sabbath, as in Luke 4:16-20ff; and Mark 1:21ff (par Lk 4:31ff)—this latter passage involves a healing miracle, but with no mention of any controversy. The Sabbath controversy traditions involve two episodes:

  • Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5), with the associated Son of Man saying(s) in vv. 27-28
  • A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition:
    Mark 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11): the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (as in Mark 1:21ff par)
    Luke 13:10-17: the healing of a crippled/hunchbacked woman (again in a Synagogue); this is almost a doublet of 6:6-11 par
    John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)—the Sabbath question continues into the discourse of vv. 18-29ff
    The question of healing on the Sabbath also appears in John 7:21-25 (note the connection to the Law in vv. 16-19) and 9:14-17; and Jesus deals with the question directly (responding to scribes and Pharisees) in Luke 14:1-6

In addition to the Sabbath, we should mention passages which refer to Jesus observing the other holy days (or ‘feasts’) prescribed in the Law—namely, Passover, which Jesus is shown observing on at least one occasion (Mark 14:12-25; par Matt 26:17-29; Lk 22:7-23; and cf. John 13:1-30). In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears in Jerusalem during the feasts on other occasions—Passover (Jn 2:13-25; and cf. also 6:4ff), Booths/Tabernacles (Jn 7-8), Dedication/Hanukkah (Jn 10:22-42), and an unspecified feast (Jn 5). On these occasions, at the historical level, Jesus presumably would have participated in the ceremonial/ritual aspects; however, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis is on his teaching and the fulfillment (in his own person) of the various religious and ritual elements.

Finally, notice should be taken of the interesting relationship between Jesus and the Temple. Apart from the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-19 (par Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48) and John 2:13-22, Jesus is mentioned subsequently teaching in the Temple (presumably over some days, see esp. Lk 19:47; 20:1; 21:5, 37-38), but otherwise is never seen there (as an adult, at least). His few sayings regarding the Temple—Mark 13:1-2 par; Matt 12:5-6; 23:16-21; John 2:19 (and cf. Mk 14:58 par); including the citation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 in Mk 11:17 par—are either critical of the Temple (and its establishment) or highly ambivalent. I will be discussing this entire question in a separate article in this series as well.

Now here is an outline of some key passages according to the three main approaches to the Old Testament Law (Torah), mentioned above:

1. Traditions where Jesus advocates Torah observance, but where following him may involve going beyond it:

  • Matthew 5:17-20, which I have discussed in a previous note. Each of the four sayings in these verses would seem to imply that the commands and precepts of the Law (Torah) remain in force for Jesus’ followers; this is especially true if one understands the “commandments” in verse 19 as those of the Torah rather than Jesus himself, though I tend to think the latter is more likely. Much of the same thought pervades the entire “Sermon on the Mount” (chs. 5-7), and especially the so-called ‘Antitheses’ of 5:21-48; these, in particular, will be discussed in the next part of this series. The principle here understood is made explicit in 5:20: Jesus’ followers are expected to match (and surpass) the Pharisees in terms of justice/righteousness, which in context seems to include observance of the Torah (and/or Jesus’ own commands and interpretation concerning it).
  • In Matthew 23, the “Woes” delivered by Jesus in rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders (Scribes and Pharisees), we find the same mindset as in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly emphasizing that inward purity and devotion should match the outward observance; note especially verse 24, which suggests that the outward observance is still required (or at least is still important).
  • In the episode of the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22ff par), Jesus’ reply to the man’s question, citing the Ten Commandments, would imply that these fundamental commands (the ethical side, at least, i.e. Exod 20:12-17) are required to be observed strictly; however, it is also clear that following Jesus requires more than this (v. 21).
  • Consider also the Matthean version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matt 3:13-17); in verse 15, Jesus responds to John’s objection (toward baptizing Jesus) by stating “it is fit/proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. This principle expressed in this statement can be understood along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. above), that following Jesus involves fulfilling (i.e. observing) the Law (Matt 5:17)

2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance:

a) By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
b) By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations

There are a number of passages which can be understood especially according to (b); among the most notable are:

  • The saying in Mark 2:27-28 par, associated with the Sabbath controversy (plucking grain on the Sabbath), where Jesus declares two (related) principles:
    (a) the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (v. 27) and
    (b) the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) is Lord even of the Sabbath (v. 28)
    The second statement, especially, suggests that Jesus’ authority (in his own person) supersedes that of the Sabbath regulation (and, by extension, any other [lesser] law as well)
  • In the context of the Matthean version of the Sabbath controversy (mentioned above), three sayings are strung together:
    (i) “(something/someone) greater than the Temple is here” (Matt 12:6)
    (ii) “I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]” (12:7, citing Hos 6:6 [cf. also Matt 9:13 par])
    (iii) “for the Son of Man is Lord (even) of the Sabbath” (12:8)
    The second saying devalues (or relativizes) the important of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law, while the first and third clearly indicate that Jesus himself supersedes both the Law and the Temple.
  • Similarly, the emphasis on Jesus’ authority, especially to declare forgiveness/pardon for sin, proved highly controversial for religious leaders. Though the objections are framed in terms of Jesus elevating himself to Divine status, the main religious issue would seem to be that, in declaring forgiveness, Jesus was essentially circumventing the sacrificial/ritual means for dealing with sin (as prescribed in the Law). For passages reflecting this, see esp. Mark 2:9-10 par; Luke 7:47-49ff; and see also Mark 2:15-17 par. For the related idea that belief/trust in Jesus removes any condemnation (according to the Law), cf. Luke 23:40-43; John 3:18; 8:10-11.
  • The saying in Matt 8:22 / Lk 9:60 is particularly striking: a man requests to bury his father before proceeding to follow Jesus, to which Jesus responds: “leave the dead to bury their own dead”. If taken at face value, Jesus is directing the man to disregard his filial obligation toward his father—effectively a violation of the commandment to “honor one’s father and mother” (Exod 20:12). Many attempts have been made to soften or mitigate Jesus’ difficult (and harsh-sounding) statement, none of which are especially convincing. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is declaring, in rather provocative language, that following him must (ultimately) supersede all family ties, including customary and/or legal-religious obligations related to them.

Passages according to (a) above may require a bit more speculative interpretation, however I would suggest at least the following:

  • The pericope of Mark 7:1-23 par clearly contrasts external observance of purity regulations or customs with the internal condition of a person’s heart/soul (vv. 20-23). While this passage does not specifically address the dietary laws, the principle stated in v. 15 certainly points toward their abolishment subsequently in Christianity (cf. Acts 10:9-16).
  • Similarly, one may interpret the ‘Antitheses’ of Matthew 5:21-48, and especially the teaching regarding prayer/alms/fasting in 6:1-18, as a contrast between outward religious observance and the inward purpose and intent. While this does not abrogate the law or ritual per se, it again leads in the direction of an emphasis on the ethical and spiritual aspect of religion.
  • Though a similar dynamic can be found elsewhere in Judaism, the manner in which Jesus distills the Law (and the Prophets) down to basic precepts—such as the twin “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34 par) or the “Golden Rule” (Matt 7:12 par)—effectively serves to devalue the many specific regulations found in the Torah. The end result can be seen in the way that the Torah commandments are summarized (and even ‘replaced’) in much of early Christianity by the “Love command”, most notably in the Gospel and First Epistle of John.
  • Jesus’ enigmatic saying in Luke 17:20-21 prefigures (or reflects) a tendency in early Christianity to “spiritualize” the Kingdom of God. This latter is a many-faceted concept within Judaism of the period, but it should be understood along two main lines: (i) an ethical-religious aspect, i.e. the righteous living according to the will and rule of God (expressed principally in the Law [and Prophets]), and (ii) an eschatological aspect, whereby God (and/or his representative) will appear and judge the world, establishing his rule finally and absolutely. Jesus uses the term in both aspects, though here in Lk 17:20-21 it is the eschatological aspect which is in focus. His twin declaration that the Kingdom will not come “with careful observation” and that the Kingdom “is in(side) of you [pl.]”, though difficult to interpret, I understand essentially as: (a) the Kingdom is manifest in Jesus’ own person (which is [already] in/among the people, though they do not realize it), and (b) the Kingdom is recognized (and realized) by believers at the spiritual level.

3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope:

In many ways this aspect cannot be separated from #2 above; certainly, in early Christian thought, the person and work of Jesus inaugurated an (eschatological) “new age”, in which the old religious forms and patterns either passed away or were given new meaning. We must be cautious about reading subsequent Christian thinking back into the teachings of the historical Jesus; however, there are certain passages (including sayings of Jesus) which certainly seem to follow this line:

  • The pair of sayings in Mark 2:21-22 par, especially the second (v. 22) involving “new” and “old” wine, suggests very much the idea of something new replacing the old. The sayings contain an implicit warning that attempting to hold onto the old (religious forms) along with the new (revelation) risks ruining them both. While the context relates to the general religious custom of fasting, rather than specific commandments in the Torah, the implication for Torah observance cannot be avoided.
  • Jesus’ sayings in Matt 11:11 (par Lk 7:28) and 11:12-13 (par Lk 16:16) indicate a clear division between the period up until the time of John the Baptist and the period after. The Law and Prophets belong to the period prior to (and including) John, but what place do they hold in the period after John? The implication (implied, but not stated) is that the Law and Prophets are now fulfilled in the person of Jesus (cf. John 1:17). Subsequently, a “replacement theology” (that is, Jesus replaces the older religious forms, including the law [esp. in its ceremonial/ritual aspects]) would develop in early Christianity (cf. in the Gospel of John and Hebrews), but in the Synoptic tradition this is not so clear.
  • In the curious episode regarding the Temple tax in Matt 17:24-27 (discussed above), even though Jesus ultimately directs his disciples to pay the tax (v. 27), the exchange in vv. 25-26 suggests that the “sons” (that is, Jesus and his disciples) are free (from the requirement to pay the tax). The tax is only to be paid so that they do not “trip up” (i.e. offend) other people.
  • In the episode of the “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus’ action could be understood as striking against the entire machinery of sacrificial offerings. If so, then his saying (quoting Isa 56:7) emphasizes the proper role of the Temple as a place for prayer to God (rather than sacrifices). The eschatological orientation of the Isaian passage could mean that Jesus was declaring a new purpose for the Temple (as the house of God). Since the sacrificial offerings, along with the Temple cultus as a whole, are a fundamental part of the Old Testament Law, their abolishment puts the entire legal-religious establishment into question. At the very least, sayings such as Matt 9:13; 12:6-7 (citing Hos 6:6), devalue the significance of the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

No doubt other verses and sayings of Jesus could be added to the various categories above, but I believe that what I have provided is representative and reasonably exhaustive. I will refrain from making any conclusions regarding Jesus’ view of the Law until evidence from the rest of the New Testament has been examined (throughout this series). This portion of “Jesus and the Law” will continue with a study of the so-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).

 

 

 

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 12: Acts 7:1-53ff (concluded)

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Due the length and complexity of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), I have discussed it over three parts (9, 10, 11) of this series on the Speeches of Acts; in this part I will address several key critical and interpretive issues which have thus far been mentioned only in passing:

  1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting
  2. The actual Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen
  3. The view of the Temple in the Speech (and in the book of Acts), and, finally
  4. The Speech in the overall context of Acts

1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting

A number of factors have led critical scholars to question the historicity/factuality of the Sanhedrin setting:

  • it follows a general (narrative) pattern already encountered in chapters 4 and 5; and, while certainly it is plausible that the Apostles would have had multiple run-ins with the religious and Temple authorities, the pattern is distinct enough (esp. comparing 5:17-42 with 6:8-7:1, 54-60) to suggest a literary device.
  • the Sanhedrin trial setting, especially here in chs. 6-7, is suspicious due to the clear parallels drawn with the trial/death of Jesus (outlined at the end of part 11); while this may simply represent an historical synchronicity, it is likely that conscious literary patterning is at work here (at least in part).
  • the speech, and the narrative as a whole, in some ways, makes more sense without the Sanhedrin setting (removing portions of 6:12-15 and 7:1):
    (a) the long historical summary better fits a public sermon than a (defense) speech before a tribunal
    (b) Stephen nowhere in the speech directly deals with the charges against him—more to the point, he does not address the question asked to him directly by the High Priest in 7:1
    (c) the shift between the public dispute in 6:9-10 and the appearance before the Council (6:12ff) is rather abrupt and suggests a narrative adaptation
    (d) the reaction of the audience (to the speech) and the subsequent action in 7:54-60 is more consistent with a mob “lynching” than an official action by the Council—in some ways it better fits the (popular) reaction to a public sermon given by Stephen than the Council’s reaction to a defense speech
    (e) this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the Council is not mentioned in vv. 54-60; apart from the detail mentioned in v. 58b (possibly), there is nothing to suggest that this is an official action

Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the narrative at face value; while some literary shaping is certainly present, with omissions and simplifications of detail, none of the events described are implausible per se. Probably the most difficult (apparent) discrepancy, recognized by nearly all commentators, is the fact that Stephen’s speech really does not answer (nor even address directly) the charges against him (according to 6:13-14; 7:1). It is to this question that I now turn.

2. The Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen

As mentioned previously, nearly all commentators have noted that the speech does not seem to address the charges brought before the Council in 6:13-14 (and see v. 11) and, correspondingly, the question of the High Priest in 7:1. Indeed, the most implausible detail in the narrative is that the Council would allow Stephen to talk for several minutes, without interruption, delivering the long (and seemingly irrelevant) historical digression we find in vv. 2ff. It must be admitted that, at least through verse 34, there seems to be no clear purpose to the speech; it is just what it appears to be—a straightforward summary of Israelite history (focused on Abraham, Joseph and Moses), with a significant degree of rhetorical development in the section on Moses (vv. 17-34). This changes in verse 35, and it is to verses 35-53 that we need to look for an answer to the charges against Stephen. I offer the following expository conclusions, based on prior exegesis (cf. parts 10 and 11):

  • Moses is presented as one who receives special revelation from God (through Angelic mediation) at Sinai (vv. 30-34), which leads subsequently to:
    (i) receiving the “living words/oracles” of God at Sinai (again through Angelic mediation, vv. 38, 53)—the Law
    (ii) receiving the type/pattern for the “tent of witness” (vv. 44f)—precursor to the Temple
  • A parallel is drawn between Jesus and Moses; both are: (a) sent by God, (b) made to be a leader and redeemer/savior for the people, (c) a Prophet, and (d) ultimately denied/refused by the people
  • A parallel is also drawn between the Temple and idolatry (the Golden Calf, etc)—both are works “made by (human) hands”
  • Just as Moses was denied/refused by the people, so was Jesus—this ultimately meant a rejection of the words of God, i.e. of the Law and the Prophets

These can be distilled down to two basic accusations leveled by Stephen in this section of the speech, that the people:

  1. acted according to a mistaken conception or idea of the “house” (dwelling) of God—the Tent/Temple
  2. refused to follow the Law-giver and Prophet (Moses/Jesus), and so rejected the Law itself

The first conclusion is stated in vv. 48-50, the second especially in v. 53 (and earlier in vv. 35, 39f). These do, in fact, address the two charges against Stephen, though somewhat obliquely; he has actually turned them around into charges against his accusers! Let us revisit the original claims (according to 6:13):

  1. he speaks words against this Holy Place (the Temple), and thus speaks evil “against God” (v. 11)
  2. he speaks words against the Law (also in v. 11)

In verse 14 this is further described according to teaching that:

  1. Jesus would destroy/dissolve this Place (the Temple), cf. Mark 14:58; John 2:19
  2. Jesus would alter the (religious) customs delivered by Moses

The first claim is partially supported in Gospel tradition, and it is certainly possible that Stephen had made statements (related to Jesus and the Temple) which could be interpreted in this way (cf. below). It is hard to know what to make of the second claim, which better fits the accusations made against Paul (see Acts 21:28, etc). If there is any substance to it at all, perhaps Stephen had taught to the effect that the new (eschatological) age inaugurated by Jesus meant that strict observance of the Law was no longer required. This is only guesswork, for we have nothing by which to assess Stephen’s teaching except for the speech in 7:2-53; and, in the speech itself, he makes no statements which could be in any way understood as anti-Law. It is a rather different matter regarding the Temple, as we shall see.

3. The View of the Temple in the Speech

I have already discussed parallels drawn in vv. 35-50 connecting the Tent/Temple with idolatry. Actually, this negative assessment is generally reserved for the Temple itself, the Tent of Witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness period being treated more positively. Still, there can be no mistaking the implicit claim, regarding the (semi-)idolatrous nature of the Temple as a work (like the Golden Calf) “made with hands”. It is possible, of course, that Stephen (along with many Jews and early Christians) was not objecting so much to the Temple itself, but rather to the way it had been used and administered. This is the essence of the opposition to the Temple in the Qumran texts—it was being run by an invalid (and corrupt) priesthood. To a lesser degree, one can detect a similar emphasis in Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple (as recorded in Gospel tradition), both in the action itself and the saying which cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 together. However, the use of Isa 66:1-2, in the context of expounding/applying Amos 5:25-27 (along with the summary of Israelite history from the Golden Calf to the building of the Temple), strongly suggests a more fundamental opposition to the actual Temple (and the idea/conception of it). If so, this in many ways contrasts with the positive view of the Temple elsewhere presented in Luke-Acts; note:

  • The role and setting of the Temple in the Infancy narratives (Lk 1-2)
  • Compared with the other Gospels, Luke curtails the Temple “cleansing” scene (Lk 19:45f), and gives extra emphasis to the fact that Jesus was regularly teaching in the Temple precincts (19:47; 20:1; 21:37-38)
  • Luke does not include the Temple-saying reported at Jesus’ “trial” (cf. Mark 14:58 par)
  • After the resurrection, the disciples worship God in the Temple (Lk 24:53), and early Christians continue to frequent the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (2:46; 3:1-10; 5:20-25, 42)
  • Acts 6:11-14 describes the claim that Stephen spoke against the Temple as a “false” charge
  • In Acts 21:17-26, prior to Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the author takes great care to depict that the claim that Paul teaches against the Law and religious ritual is false or unsubstantiated

The presentation in Luke-Acts probably accords with historical reality—that the early (Jewish) Christians continued to frequent the Temple, probably until the time of its destruction (70 A.D.), though the emphasis may have been more on the Temple as place for prayer, teaching and fellowship, rather than the sacrificial cult/ritual. Many of the New Testament writings (even Paul’s letters) say little or nothing specifically about the Temple. Eventually in early Christianity, a theology of “replacement” developed, which taught that Jesus (in his own person and work) fulfills (and effectively replaces) the Old Testament religious forms—including the Temple and all of its sacrificial ritual. This is best seen in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all writings which likely post-date the destruction of the Temple. Luke-Acts probably also stems from this period (c. 70-80 A.D.), but, as indicated above, it demonstrates a more positive view of the physical/historical Temple.

Apart from Stephen’s speech, the nearest parallel to Acts 7:48-50 (with its citation of Isa 66:1-2) is found in Revelation 21:22, which states that there will be no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Rev 21-22 draws heavily upon the eschatological/idealized “New Jerusalem” described in Isa 65-66, and in the later prophecy the Christian theology of replacement/substitution could not be more explicit: “for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and [i.e. along with] the Lamb”. For believers, ultimately, God (the Father) and Jesus Christ are the Temple. To what extent does Stephen (and/or the author of Acts here) hold such a view? At the very least, the clear use of Isa 66:1-2 in this context would point in that direction. However, the association between the Temple and idolatry probably has more to do with polemical rhetoric (after the manner of the Prophets) than with a developed theological position. Also, one should not ignore the place of the speech in the overall context of Acts, as representing the last great episode of the early Jerusalem Church, prior to the mission into the wider (Gentile) world (see below). Acts records Paul using similar language in regard to Greco-Roman (heathen, polytheistic) religion (cf. Acts 17:24).

4. The Speech in the overall Context of Acts

As indicated above, Acts 6:8-8:1 (which includes the speech of 7:2-53) is the final episode recorded of the early believers in Jerusalem, the first major division of the book (1:12-8:3). The themes (and style) of Stephen’s speech then would be expected to draw upon the prior chapters, as well as to look forward to what follows. I propose these points for consideration:

  • the sequence of appearances before the Sanhedrin, from a literary/narrative point of view, serve several purposes:
    (a) they provide an effective dramatic setting for proclamation of the Gospel
    (b) they depict early believers fulfilling the pattern and example of Jesus, who also faced opposition from the religious leaders and faced a similar “trial” before the Sanhedrin
    (c) they demonstrate the increasing division/separation between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and the rest of the (Jewish) people
  • the speech, while it may not entirely fit the Sanhedrin “trial” setting, is nevertheless appropriate here in the narrative:
    (a) it offers a definitive statement as to the place of Jesus and (by extension) early Christians within the Old Testament and Israelite history, and as the fulfillment of it
    (b) the corruption/deterioration depicted through history (leading from true revelation to idolatry) emphasizes the idea that a “new age” has dawned, reflecting the important theme of the “restoration of Israel” found in the early chapters of Acts
    (c) just as Gentiles would need to be instructed in Old Testament history, so here a summary of that history is presented prior to the inauguration of the wider mission (to the Gentiles) as recorded in chapters 8-12ff
  • the climactic position of the narrative makes a longer, dramatic speech fitting, in several respects:
    (a) it records the death of Stephen, the first Christian “martyr”, in terms somewhat similar to Jesus’ own death in the Gospels
    (b) it inaugurates a period of intense persecution, which leads to the dispersal of believers outside of Jerusalem (and Judea) and ultimately into the wider Gentile/Greco-Roman world
    (c) it marks the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism

In conclusion, it may be useful to revisit a basic critical question regarding the speeches in the book of Acts, which is especially acute in the case of Stephen’s speech—that is, the source and nature of their composition. There are two main components to Acts 6:8-8:1: (i) a traditional narrative involving Stephen (reflected in 6:8-15; 7:54-60), and (ii) the speech in 7:2-53. Nearly all scholars would, I think, agree that the core narrative stems from authentic tradition, with some degree of editing or adaptation having taken place. Opinion varies much more greatly regarding the speech; there are four main views:

  1. The speech more or less records Stephen’s actual words (with minor modification), delivered just as the narrative context in Acts suggests—this would be the traditional-conservative view.
  2. The speech is an (authentic) tradition, preserving the substance of what Stephen said (or preached) publicly prior to his death, though much of the actual wording (and style) is probably Lukan (i.e. from the author of Acts); according to this view, the Sanhedrin setting may (or may not) be authentic.
  3. The author (trad. Luke) has set an authentic Christian speech/sermon (or the substance of it) into the mouth of Stephen, inserting it into the traditional narrative and creating the seam at 6:15; 7:1 and 7:54.
  4. The speech is essentially the creation of the author of Acts, though perhaps drawing upon tradition and examples of early preaching, being inserted into the narrative much as in view #3.

Most critical scholars would hold some version of view #3 or 4; my own (personal) view of the matter is closer to the moderate critical position of #2 above. Fortunately the power and effect of Scripture here in Acts (as elsewhere) does not depend on a particular view of historicity and composition, though these are important questions to address; rather, the narrative as it has come down to us—reflecting both historical tradition and inspired creative expression—speaks as a whole, the marvelous end product unique and unparalleled as a work of Christian history, and requiring no defense.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 11: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

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In the previous two parts of this series (9 and 10), I examined the background and setting of Stephen’s speech, the Narrative Introduction (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1), and the Introductory Address (7:2-42a) which includes the lengthy summary of Israelite history (and the last section of which [on Moses] I discussed in some detail). In this part, I will treat the remainder of the speech, beginning with the citation from Scripture in verses 42b-43.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)

Though the length of the prior historical summary might suggest otherwise, the Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27) here is as central to Stephen’s speech as that of the prior sermon-speeches in Acts, for it begins to address (somewhat more directly) the charges against Stephen regarding the Temple and the Law. The version of Amos 5:25-27 more or less matches that of the Greek LXX, with two minor differences, and two more significant ones:

  • v. 42 has reversed the order of “in the desert” [e)n th=| e)rh/mw|] and “forty years” [e&th tessera/konta]
  • MSS B D (and several others) read “of the god” instead of “of your god” in v. 43, omitting the pronoun u(mw=n
  • v. 43 read “to worship them [proskunei=n au)toi=$]” instead of “yourselves” [e(autoi=$]
  • the conclusion of the citation, “upon those (further parts) of…” [i.e. beyond, past], Acts reads “Babylon” instead of “Damascus” in Amos 5:27, making it relate more directly to the Babylonian exile (which involved the destruction of the Temple)

The Greek version itself appears to be corrupt, having misread (and/or misunderstood) the twin references in Amos 5:26:

  1. <k#K=l=m^ tWKs! (sikkû¾ malk®½em), “Sakkut your king”
    th\n skhnh\n tou= Molox, “the tent of Moloch”
  2. <k#yh@ýa$ bk^oK /WYK! (kiyyûn kô½a» °§lœhê½em), “Kaiwan, star of your god”, or “Kaiwan your star-god”
    to\ a&stron tou= qeou= u(mw=n Raifan, “the star of your god Raiphan”

In the first expression, (a) MT twks was read rel. to hK*s% (s¥kkâ), “woven-shelter [i.e. hut, booth, tent]”, whereas it should almost certainly be understood as the Assyrian-Babylonian deity Sakkut [vocalized tWKs^, sakkû¾]; and (b) “(your) king”, where the MT klm was vocalized/read as the proper name “Moloch”. In the second expression, it is generally assumed that an original transliteration Kaifan (Kaiphan) became Raifan/Refan (Raiphan/Rephan); in some (Western) MSS of Acts it reads Remfan (Remphan), while in B a3 it is Romfa–n— (Rompha[n]). “Sakkut” and “Kaiwan” are names of Assyrian/Babylonian astral deities (the latter [kayawânu] being the name for the planet Saturn). In the original Hebrew of Amos, the word <k#ym@l=x^ (ƒalmê½em), “your images”, despite its positioning, it probably meant to refer to both deities; it is possible, of course, that there is also corruption in the Hebrew MT. Amos 5:26-27 is quoted, more or less following the MT vocalization, in the Damascus Document [CD MS A] 7:14ff, but applied in a very peculiar way (in connection with Amos 9:11).

Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50)

Also unusual is the interpretation which Stephen (and/or the author of Acts) gives to these verses, for it differs significantly from the original context (though far less markedly than that of CD). Amos 5:18-24, 25-27 is part of a series of Woe-oracles pronouncing judgment against Israel (primarily the northern kingdom, under Jeroboam II, centered in Samaria). Verses 18-20 speak of the day of YHWH, how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly—hitting God’s own people right where they live. Verses 21-24 emphasize that God’s judgment extends even to Israel’s religion: He will not accept their worship and sacrificial offering—a theme found elsewhere in the Prophets, most famously in Isaiah 1:10-17. The implication, indicated by the exhortation in Amos 5:24, is that the people are not living and acting according to justice/righteousness. This is expressed most strikingly in Jeremiah 7:1-26, where condemnation is especially harsh against those who act wickedly and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual (esp. vv. 9-11). The current corruption of religion, according to the prophet, is apparently contrasted with the wilderness period (Amos 5:25): at that time Israel did not present sacrificial offerings (those began only when the people arrived in the promised land)—a much better situation than the corrupt (and idolatrous) worship currently being offered up (v. 26)! It is not entirely clear whether or not we should take v. 26 literally: were the Israelites actually worshiping these Assyrian deities, or are the expressions meant to symbolize the idolatrous character of the ritual (corrupted by unrighteousness and injustice). Either is possible—Jeremiah 7:9-10, for example, mentions actual idolatry (Baal worship) together with moral corruption, whereas Isa 1:10ff emphasizes the ethical side.

In Stephen’s speech in Acts, a rather different point of view is implied: during the wilderness period, the Israelites did not offer sacrifices to God (even though they should have!), and instead actually practiced idolatry during those years. This idolatry began with the Golden Calf (7:40-41), whereupon God “gave them over” (v. 42) to worship the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars, etc). However, it would seem that this interpretation is not so much historical as it is rhetorical (and didactic); note the pattern, which I extend to the verses (vv. 44-47) which follow:

  • Failure to obey Moses in the wilderness—idolatry (the Golden Calf), vv. 39-41
    • The (portable) tent of witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, following God’s words to Moses, vv. 44-45
    • David and Solomon seek instead to build a (fixed) house (Temple) for God, vv. 46-47
  • The people are “given over” to more serious and persistent idolatry (leading to the Exile), vv. 42ff

The history of Israel, then, is depicted according to two different progressions—one involving idolatry and corruption of religion (the outer pair above), the other involving the building of a house (temple) for God (the inner pair). That these are meant to be understood in parallel (and corresponding terms) becomes even more clear if one includes the Scripture citation (of Isaiah 66:1-2) that follows in vv. 49-50 and present them in sequence:

  • Failure to obey Moses’ words—beginning of idolatry, vv. 39-41
    • The people are given over to more serious idolatry, v. 42a
      • Citation from Amos 5:25-27, in vv. 42b-43
  • A portable Tent, according to God’s instruction to Moses—beginnings of a “house”, vv. 44-45
    • Construction of a more permanent (fixed) house for God, vv. 46-47
      • Citation from Isaiah 66:1-2, in vv. 49-50

The interpretative key to all this is found in verse 48, which summarizes the Isaiah passage that follows:

“but the Highest does not put down house [i.e. dwell] in (buildings) made with hands…”

Isa 66:1-2 is part of an eschatological/idealized vision of a “new Jerusalem” in 65:17ff, where the people live in peace and harmony in relationship with God. Verses 1-4 of chap. 66 shift the focus to religious worship, questioning the very purpose and value of the Temple and its ritual. Acts cites vv. 1-2a precisely according to the LXX, except for ti$ to/po$ (“what place”) instead of poi=o$ to/po$ (“what sort of place”). The two principal nouns in v. 1—oi@ko$ (“house”) and  to/po$ (“place”)—are commonly used of the Temple. Verses 3-4 identify the ritual sacrifices (offered at the Temple) with outright wickedness, to the point of referring to the (prescribed) ritual as a “miserable” (/w#a*) and “detestable” (JWQv!) thing—both words can be euphemisms for idolatry. This echoes a regular prophetic theme that religious worship is worthless (even detestable) in God’s eyes if it is not accompanied by (personal and communal) righteousness and justice, or if it is similarly corrupted by idolatrous behavior; Jeremiah 7 provides perhaps the most striking example (see above). Isaiah 66:1-5 has a clear parallel earlier in the book (Isa 1:10-17), only here we find a more direct declaration of true worship (in 66:2b):

“This (is the one) I will look on [i.e. give attention to]—to (the one who is) humble/lowly and stricken of spirit/breath and trembling upon my word”

This very much prefigures the language of Jesus in the Beatitudes (and elsewhere in his teaching), and it is significant that Jesus himself says very little about the Temple and its ritual—the few statements which are preserved in the Gospels tend to be critical, such as the citation of Hos 6:6 in Matt 9:13; Mark 12:33 par and the sayings associated with the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-17 par (citing Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). Keep in mind that in John’s account of the Temple “cleansing”, Jesus uttered a saying similar to that reported during his ‘trial’: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again)” (Jn 2:19). Of course, such a claim was also part of the charge against Stephen (Acts 6:13-14).

This brings us to a key motif in Stephen’s speech: the idea of the Temple as something “made with hands”; note the references:

  • the charge against Stephen in Acts 6:13-14 echoes the saying of Jesus reported at his trial (and partially confirmed by John 2:19); the Markan version of this saying has an interesting detail (italicized):
    “I will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine made with hands [xeiropoi/hton] and within three days I will build another house made without hands [a)xeiropoi/hton]” (Mk 14:58)
  • in the speech (7:41), the Golden Calf (and, by extension, any idol) is cited as “the works of their hands” (ta e&rga tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n)
  • the Tent of Witness (v. 44f), i.e. the Tabernacle, is viewed positively (much moreso than the Temple) in the speech, yet it too is something “made” (poie/w); in the Life of Moses II. 88, Philo refers to the Tent with the same expression “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
  • in verse 48, the Temple is specifically referred to in terms of a house “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
  • the citation of Isa 66:2a [LXX] in verse 50, by contrast, refers to God as the one whose hand (xei/r) has “made (e)poi/hsen) all these things [i.e. all creation]”

The statement in verse 48 was a truism actually well-understood by ancient people—that the invisible, transcendent Deity did not “dwell” in human-built shrines in an actual, concrete sense. This was admitted by king Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, as recorded in 1 Kings 8:27 (cf. 2 Chron 2:6; Jos. Ant. 8.107). A physical temple or shrine represented a religious accommodation toward human limitations, a way for human beings to relate to God in time and space, by ritual means; however, like any human institution (even one divinely appointed), it was prone to corruption and abuse. Temple priests (and/or the religious-political leaders who controlled them) were often powerful (even wealthy) persons who exercised considerable influence over ancient society. Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward the religious leadership, and the fiercest opponents of Jesus (and early Christians in Jerusalem) were the “Chief Priests” who controlled much of the Temple establishment. Beyond this, however, we do find here, to some degree, strong criticism against the Temple itself, which I will discuss in the next (concluding) part of this series on Stephen’s speech.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53)

Instead of the exhortation in the sermon-speech pattern, we have here a harsh and vehement accusation toward those in the audience (the Sanhedrin), which proceeds along three points (still drawing upon the historical summary):

  1. they “fall against” [i.e. resist/oppose] the holy Spirit—as their fathers did (v. 51)
  2. they became ones who betrayed and murdered the “Just One” [Jesus]—as their fathers pursued and killed the prophets (v. 52)
  3. they received the Law (as a divine revelation), but did not keep it—along with their fathers (implied) (v. 53)

Several of the expressions in verse 51 are taken straight from the Old Testament:

  • “hard-necked” (sklhrotra/xhlo$)—Exod 33:3, 5; Deut 9:6, 13 LXX; and cf. Exod 32:9; Neh 9:29-30
  • “uncircumcised (a)peri/tmhto$) of heart and ears”—Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; 6:10; 9:26; Ezek 44:7-9
  • “resisting” the (holy) Spirit—cf. Isa 63:10

The particle a)ei (“always”, i.e. continually, regularly) connects the current people (esp. their leaders) with those in the past who rebelled against God. Opposition to the Holy Spirit (by persecuting the Christians) is the most prominent, immediate transgression—from this, Stephen works backward:

Verse 52—their role in the death of Jesus (“the Just [One]”, di/kaio$, cf. 3:14), which has led them to become “betrayers” (prodo/tai, [ones] giving [Jesus] before [the Roman authorities]) and “murderers” (fonei=$)
Verse 53—even prior to this, by implication, they had not kept the Law (of Moses); it is not certain just what is meant by this: from an early Christian standpoint, rejection of Jesus was tantamount to rejecting the Law and Prophets, but whether he is charging them otherwise with ethical or ritual transgressions is hard to say.
For the idea of the Law having been delivered by heavenly Messengers (Angels), cf. Deut 33:2 LXX; Jubilees 1:27-29; Jos. Antiquities 15.136; Galatians 3:19; Heb 2:2 and earlier in Acts 7:38.

Narrative Summary (7:54-8:1a)

The reaction is similar to that in Acts 5:33, with the same phrase being used:

and having heard these things, they were cut/sawn through [diepri/onto] in their hearts…”

In the earlier narrative, Gamaliel is able to prevent the crowd from taking violent action (5:34ff); here the hostility builds as they “grind/gnash their teeth upon him”. Verse 55 picks up from 6:15, emphasizing that Stephen was under the power of God (“full of the holy Spirit”), and stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] into heaven, he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right-hand of God. The image of Jesus having been raised and exalted to the “right hand” of God in Heaven was an important piece of early Christian preaching (influenced by Psalm 110:1), as seen previously in Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31. It is hard to say whether there is any special significance to Jesus standing (normally he is described as seated), but it certainly adds to the dramatic effect, and may draw greater attention to the “Son of Man” connection.

In describing his vision (v. 56), Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man (ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), the only use of this title in the New Testament by someone other than Jesus himself. This is curious, and may reflect authentic historical detail, however, it is just as likely that the reference is primarily literary—to enhance the parallel between the trial/death of Jesus and Stephen; note:

  • the setting before the Sanhedrin
  • the (false) charges, and their similarity—6:11, 13-14; Mark 14:55-58 par
  • mention of the Son of Man at the right hand (of God)—v. 56; Luke 22:69 par
  • the prayer, after Psalm 31:6—v. 59; Luke 23:46
  • the loud cry before death—v. 60; Luke 23:46
  • the prayer for forgiveness—v. 60; Luke 23:34

There certainly would seem to be some degree of conscious patterning here. The dramatic moment leading to the execution (by stoning) is described vividly in verse 57:

“and crying (out) with a great voice, they held together their ears and with one impulse [o(moqumado/n] rushed (ahead) upon him…”

The adverb o(moqumado/n was used repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; cf. also 8:6; 15:25) as a keyword to express the unity and solidarity of believers in Jerusalem; here it is used in an entirely opposite sense—to depict a (unified) opposition against Christ (cf. also 18:12; 19:29). Here, opposition has finally broken into open violence against Christians. The mention of Saul in 7:58 and 8:1a sets the stage for the intense, if short-lived, persecution which follows (8:1-4; 11:19a).

By way of conclusion, I will discuss some key points of criticism and overall interpretation of the speech in the next part of this series.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 10: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

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In Part 9 of this series, I examined the overall setting and background of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

  • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
  • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
  • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
  • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
  • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

In this part I will continue with the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; cf. also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

 &Andre$ a)delfoi\ kai\ pate/re$, a)kou/sate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, cf. Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

  • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
  • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
  • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
    (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
    (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
    (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
    —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
    —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
    ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)

Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (e)n tw=| o&rei tou/tw|) we find “in this place” (e)n tw=| to/pw| tou/tw|), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

  • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
  • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
  • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [e)plhrou=to] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [plhrwqe/ntwn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

  • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
  • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236
    and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
  • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, acc. tou=ton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (cf. Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

  • V. 35—”this [tou=ton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [tou=ton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
  • V. 36—”this (one) [ou!to$] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
  • V. 37—”this [ou!to$] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
  • V. 38—”this [ou!to$] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun o%$ [dat. w!|]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

  • the people denied/refused [h)rnh/sato] Moses (v. 35, cf. also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
  • “leader [a&rxwn] and redeemer [lutrwth/$]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
  • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. a)poste/llw) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
  • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
  • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
  • Moses was with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church”—the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), esp. in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])…
who [o^$] received living lo/gia to give to us,
to whom [w!|] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…

The neuter noun lo/gion (lógion), related to the more common lo/go$ (lógos, “account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts unto Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (qusi/a, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, ei&dwlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [e)n toi=$ e&rgoi$ tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [e)stra/fhsan] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [e&streyen, same verb] and gives the people over [pare/dwken] for them to do (hired) service [latreu/ein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see, e.g. Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (cf. Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be discussed in the next part of this series.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 9: Acts 7:1-53ff

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The great sermon-speech of Stephen in Acts 7 is by far the longest in the book and serves as the climax of the first division (Acts 1:1-8:4)—the story of the early believers in Jerusalem. The persecution recorded in 8:1-4 sets the stage for apostolic mission outside of Judea and the mission to the Gentiles. Stephen’s speech is part of a larger narrative arc, from 6:1 to 8:4:

  • Introductory Narrative (6:1-7)—Stephen and the Seven “deacons”, with summary in verse 7
  • Main Narrative (6:8-15)—the story of Stephen: his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin, which serves as a narrative introduction to the speech
  • The Speech of Stephen (7:1-53)
  • Continuation of the Narrative (7:54-8:1a)—the crowd’s reaction and the death of Stephen, which serves as a narrative summary/conclusion to the speech
  • Concluding Narrative (8:1-4)—onset of persecution and the dispersal of believers out of Jerusalem and Judea

There are several details in this narrative which indicate that it is transitional between the story of the early Jerusalem believers (centered around Peter) in chapters 1-5 and the missionary outreach which follows:

  • Stephen is a member of a second group of (seven) men who serve a ministry and leadership role in the congregation, separate from the (twelve) Apostles (6:2-3ff).
  • Though not Apostles, men such as Stephen still share in the miracle-working gift and power of the Spirit (6:8); more than simply waiting on tables (v. 2ff), Stephen was capable and empowered to teach and preach. It is specifically said of him that he was “full of trust (in God) [i.e. faith] and (the) holy Spirit” (v. 5) and “full of favor (from God) [i.e. grace] and power” (v. 8), and that he spoke “with wisdom and (the) Spirit”. Philip, another member of the Seven, has a similarly prominent role in Acts 8.
  • Stephen (and apparently the rest of the Seven) are connected with the “Hellenists” (6:1). Though its precise meaning is disputed, here the term “Hellenist” (transliteration of  (Ellenisth/$, “Greek” or “one who speaks Greek”) probably refers to Jews (i.e., Jewish Christians) who primarily (or entirely) speak and read in Greek. Most likely this includes many Jews from the surrounding nations (the Diaspora) who came and dwelt (“put down house”, 2:5) in Jerusalem and were among the early converts (2:6ff, 41).
  • In verse 9ff, Stephen is shown in close contact with other Hellenistic Jews (from the Diaspora), indicated as being members of several different groups—Libertini (free Roman citizens in Italy), and people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia (i.e. in Asia Minor). Here “synagogue” (sunagwgh/) refers not to a building, but to a congregation that meets together for worship and study. Probably five different congregations (along national/ethnic) lines are meant; though it is possible that the last four groups were all part of the Libertini. This detail echoes the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as well as foreshadowing the upcoming dispersion (“diaspora”) of Christians into the wider mission field.

Stephen’s speech, though familiar, is probably not so well-known as one might think. It is actually highly complex, especially when looked at within its context in the book of Acts. Despite its length and complexity, it still fits the sermon-speech pattern I have been using in discussing the speeches of Acts:

  • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
  • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
  • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
  • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
  • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

 Narrative Introduction (6:8ff; 7:1)

The main narrative is divided into two parts: (1) the arrest of Stephen with his appearance before the Sanhedrin (6:8-15) and (2) the death of Stephen (7:54-58), with the speech occurring in between. 6:8-15 effectively serves as an introduction to the speech. Much as in chapters 3-4, 5, the miraculous, Spirit-filled ministry of the early Christians (vv. 8-10) provokes a hostile response from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Stephen, like Peter and the Apostles, is seized and brought before the Council (the Sanhedrin) for interrogation (v. 12; cf. 4:1-6; 5:17-18ff). Stephen’s opponents, it is said, “threw (in) men under(neath)” (i.e., acted underhandedly, in secret) to make claims against him; this, in turn, “moved [i.e. stirred/incited] the people together” to act, as well as the religious leaders (elders and Scribes) who had him arrested, and brought (“into the [place of] sitting togther”, i.e. the Sanhedrin) to face additional charges. Three specific claims or charges against Stephen are mentioned:

  1. “we have heard him speaking words of (abusive) slander uttered unto [i.e. against] Moshe [i.e. Moses] and God” (v. 11)
  2. “this man does not cease speaking words uttered down on [i.e. against] [this] holy (Place) and the Law” (v. 13)
  3. “we have heard him recount/relate that this Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this Place and will make different [i.e. change/alter] the customary/usual things that Moshe gave along to us” (v. 14)

The dual charge in vv. 13-14 is said to have been made by “false witnesses”—this, along with the mention of dissolving/destroying the Temple, establishes a clear and obvious parallel with Jesus’ “trial” before the Sanhedrin as narrated in the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 14:56-59 and the par Matt 26:59-61); there is also an echo of the High Priest’s question to Jesus (Mark 14:60 par) here in Acts 7:1. These correspondent details have led many (critical) scholars to the conclusion that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) has consciously patterned the narrative framework after that of Jesus’ trial (note the similar framing in chs. 4-5), and that the Sanhedrin setting is secondary (and artificial) to the basic narrative and the speech of Stephen. I will address this point further on.

It is possible to summarize and simplify the charges against Stephen:

  1. he says harsh and evil things against Moses and God
  2. he speaks against the Temple and the Law of Moses (i.e. the Old Testament / Jewish Law)
  3. he says that Jesus will abolish/destroy the Temple and alter the religious customs (rel. to the Law of Moses)

The first claim should probably be viewed as a vulgarized or simplistic form of the last two, which themselves appear to be parallel versions of the same idea—the abolition of the Temple and the Law. But what exactly is involved? Elsewhere in early Christianity, we find two related claims made (against Jesus and Paul):

  • In Synoptic tradition, as indicated above, witnesses at Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Council claimed that Jesus said:
    “I will loose down [katalu/sw, i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine ‘made with hands’ and through [i.e. within] three days I will build another ‘made without hands'” (Mk 14:58)—the Matthean version is simpler:
    “I am powered [i.e. able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and, through [i.e. within] three days, to build the house (again)” (Mt 26:61)
    Mark and Matthew say that these were “false witnesses” (as in Acts 6:13); however, Jesus is recorded as saying something similar in John 2:19:
    “Loose [lu/sate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it”
    I have discussed this saying at some length in an earlier article.
  • In Acts 21:27-28, upon the occasion of Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the claim is made against him that:
    “This is the man (the one) teaching every(one) everywhere against the People and the Law and this Place…”
    The reaction to Paul may simply be due to the way he dealt with Gentiles (in relation to the Law); however, his complex (and controversial) arguments in Galatians and Romans, especially, could certainly be viewed by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as speaking against the Law.

The charges against Stephen seem to be a combination of these—i.e., (a) he was repeating a saying/teaching of Jesus similar to that of John 2:19 (cf. also Mk 13:1-2 par), and/or (b) he was teaching that the ‘new age’ in Christ meant that it was not necessary to observe the Law and/or Temple ritual. There is no way of knowing for certain whether either of these were fundamental to Stephen’s own argument—Acts 6:10 provides no information; all we have to go by is the speech in 7:2-53. This is most significant, since the High Priest asks Stephen directly whether these charges are true: ei) tau=ta ou!tw$ e&xei, “if these (things) thus hold (true)?” (7:1) One might expect that Stephen would address the charges in defense; but his response provides a most interesting answer, as we shall see.

A final detail in the narrative here is in 6:15:

“And stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] unto him, all the (one)s sitting down in the (place of) sitting-together [i.e. council, Sanhedrin] saw his face—as if the face of a (heavenly) Messenger!”

This precedes the High Priest’s question and heightens the drama greatly; it also foreshadows the conclusion to the narrative in 7:54ff, with Stephen’s vision of the exalted Christ (Son of Man) in Heaven at God’s right hand.

The remainder of Stephen’s speech will be discussed in the next part of this series.

speeches-acts

The Speeches of Acts, Part 8: Acts 5:34-40

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Acts 5:34-40 represents the seventh speech in the book of Acts, and the first by a non-Apostle (Gamaliel). It functions in tandem with the speech of Peter in Acts 5:27-32—on this, along with an outline of the overall narrative structure in chapter 5, see the discussion in Part 7. Gamaliel (la@yl!m=G~, transliterated in Greek as Gamalih/l) the first (flourished c. 20-50 A.D.) was a known historical figure, a Rabbi (Teacher/Master, lit. “great one”) of the highest degree (Rabban, /B*r^, “Our Master”), grandson of the famous R. Hillel and grandfather of R. Gamaliel II. Here in Acts he is described as:

  • ti$ e)n tw=| sunedri/w|—someone [i.e. a certain member] in the “(place of) sitting together” (Sanhedrin, or council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem)
  • Farisai=o$—a Pharisee
  • nomodida/skalo$—a Teacher of the (Old Testament / Jewish) Law
  • ti/mio$ panti\ tw=| law=|—honored by all the people

According to Acts 22:3, the young Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) studied under Gamaliel.

Though it does not reflect apostolic preaching, Gamaliel’s speech, in many ways, still follows the basic sermon-speech pattern I have used in analyzing these speeches in the book of Acts:

  • Narrative Introduction (v. 34)
  • Introductory Address (v. 35)
  • Citation from History (vv. 36-37)—instead of a Scriptural citation, two examples taken from recent/contemporary (Jewish) history are cited
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 38-39), with an application to the current situation
  • Narrative Summary (vv. 39b-41)

Before proceeding, it may be useful to repeat the narrative transition of verse 33, which describes the reaction to Peter’s speech (in vv. 27-32) and joins it to the speech of Gamaliel:

“And (at this) the (one)s hearing were cut [lit. sawn] through and wished to take them up [i.e. do away with them, kill them]”

This reaction and response is similar to that following Stephen’s speech (cf. Acts 7:54ff), only here Gamaliel’s words restrain the crowd (of Jewish leaders) seeking the Apostles’ death.

Narrative Introduction (v. 34)—it is narrated how Gamaliel, “standing up” (a)nasta\$), intervened:

“…he urged [i.e. ordered] (them) to make the men [i.e. the apostles] (wait) outside a short (time)”

For the terms and expressions used to describe Gamaliel, see above.

Introductory Address (v. 35)—Gamaliel addresses the Council in a manner similar to that of Peter in Acts 2:22; 3:12 (cf. also 2:14, 29):  &Andre$,  )Israhli=tai… (“Men, Israelites…”); his address serves as a word of warning:

“have (care) toward yourselves upon [i.e. concerning] these men, how [lit. what] you are about to act!”
(or, in more conventional English)
“take care yourselves concerning what you are about to do to these men!”

Citation from History (vv. 36-37)—instead of a citation from Scripture (according to the sermon-speech pattern), Gamaliel offers two examples from recent/contemporary Jewish history—of Theudas and Judas the Galilean—men who had considerable (revolutionary) influence over the people, but whose success was short-lived and ended in failure. These verses contain two apparent (and apparently blatant) historical discrepancies:

  1. According to Josephus (Antiquities 20.97-98), Theudas was a Messianic-type ‘imposter’ who gathered a following during the period when C. Cuspius Fadus was procurator in Judea (44-46 A.D.). This would seem to have occurred later than the time of Gamaliel’s speech here in Acts (44 A.D. is the customary date given for the death of Herod Agrippa I, which does not take place until Acts 12:20-23).
  2. Judas the Galilean, an even more dangerous revolutionary, who incited rebellion during the time of the census (of Quirinius), according to both Acts and Jos. Ant. 20.102, War 2.118. By all accounts, this census took place in 6-7 A.D., clearly some time prior to Theudas’ movement, and yet Gamaliel here indicates that Judas appears after Theudas.

These apparent discrepancies, if proven correct, would provide an extremely strong argument that the speech of Gamaliel, at least, is fundamentally a Lukan creation. However, traditional-conservative commentators (and other interpreters assuming, or eager to defend, a particular view of Scriptural inspiration and/or inerrancy), naturally enough, have sought explanations which preserve the historicity of the speech. It has been suggested that there was another (earlier) “Theudas” (with a similar career), perhaps during the reign of Herod the Great, but this is rather unlikely; Acts and Josephus almost certainly are referring to the same person. A simpler explanation is that Gamaliel is counting backward, from Theudas to the earlier Judas; however, the normal sense of the Greek expression meta\ tou=ton (“after this”) speaks decidedly against this, and in any event it would only partially solve the problem. It is also possible that Acts preserves here advice given by Gamaliel at a later date (subsequent to Theudas’ appearance), but again at least a partial discrepancy would remain. Another possibility is that Josephus is himself mistaken about the date of Theudas, but this too seems somewhat unlikely. None of these solutions are especially convincing.

Historical questions aside, the point of these examples (Theudas and Judas) in Gamaliel’s speech is clear enough; note the parallels used to describe them:

  • they both “stood up” (a)ne/sth), that is, “rose up, appeared”
  • by this is implied that they suddenly achieved some measure of prominence—of Theudas is added the detail that he “counted himself to be some(one)”
  • they both gained a devoted following:
    Theudas—about four hundred men “were bent/inclined toward” [i.e. joined with] him
    Judas—he caused people to “stand away” [i.e. go away], following after him
  • they both perished—Theudas (“was taken up”, i.e. killed), Judas (“went away to ruin”, i.e. destroyed himself)
  • both groups of followers are specified as those who were persuaded/convinced by (e)pei/qonto, i.e. obeyed) the false leader—foolishly and in vain (implied by the context)
  • the followers of Theudas were “loosed/dissolved throughout” (i.e. dispersed) and “came to be nothing”; the followers of Judas were “all scattered throughout”

The comparison with Jesus and his followers is readily apparent.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 38-39)—this is in the form of an injunction (or direction) urging his fellow leaders to:

  • “stand away from” [a)po/sthte, the same verb used in v. 37] the Apostles (“these men”)—that is, refrain from any further hostile action, and
  • “release” [a&fete] them—i.e. leave them alone for now

There is an interesting parallel to Peter’s response in Acts 4:19; 5:29, where the choice is between obeying God or obeying men. See how this is framed in vv. 38b-39a:

  • If (the word and work of the Apostles) is of men (e)c a)nqrw/pwn)
    • it will be loosed down (kataluqh/setai)—i.e. it will dissolve (by itself)
  • If (the word and work) is of God (e)k qeou=)
    • you will not have power [i.e. be able] to loose it down (katalu=sai)—i.e. you cannot dissolve/destroy it

A final warning is added—if the work of the Apostles is truly of God, and the Sanhedrin leaders try to resist it, Gamaliel cautions:

mh/pote kai\ qeoma/xoi eu(reqh=te

which has to be understood in light of the conditional sentence in vv. 38-39, but also in the context of the entire speech (beginning with the imperative prose/xete in v. 35); in other words—

“take care… that you do not even find (yourselves) fighting God!”

The noun qeoma/xo$ (theomáchos) literally means “one fighting with (or against) God”. It is a relatively rare word, appearing only here in the New Testament, and most notably at 2 Macc 7:19 in the LXX (the spirits/shades of the dead [? <ya!p*r=] are also translated by qeoma/xoi in Job 26:5; Prov 9:18; 21:16). Use of the related verb qeomaxe/w in Greek literature (admittedly rare, cf. several instances in Euripides) suggests opposition to the will and forward march of the deity.

Narrative Summary (vv. 39-40)—the summary begins with the conclusion of verse 39 (“and they were persuaded [e)pei/sqhsan] by him”, or “they obeyed him”, i.e. they accepted his advice). This repeats the key verb pei/qw, used previously (or in compounds) in vv. 29, 32, 36-37. A variant reading (in the Byzantine Majority text) adds mh\ qeomaxw=men (“let us not fight [against] God”); for this verb, and the related noun (used earlier in v. 39), see above. Verse 40 narrates in succession that the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin (a) called the apostles back in, (b) had them flogged (lit. “skinned”, i.e. struck so as to remove skin), and (c) directed them again not to speak “upon the name of Yeshua/Jesus” (as in 4:18). After this, the Sanhedrin “loosed” the Apostles from custody (i.e. released, set them free).

The narrative summary continues in verse 41; however, I regard vv. 41-42 more properly as the conclusion to the entire narrative section beginning with vv. 12ff (or at least vv. 17ff). Verse 41 mentions two actions of the apostles, that:

  • they traveled (out away) from the “face” of the Sanhedrin
    • rejoicing that they were (indeed) considered worthy to be dishonored [i.e. treated with dishonor]
      • over [i.e. for the sake of] the name (of Yeshua)
  • they did not cease… in the sacred place [i.e. Temple] and according to house [i.e. from house to house]
    • teaching and giving the good message of [i.e. announcing/proclaiming]
      • the Anointed (One) Yeshua

In many ways this is parallel to the narrative section in 4:23-31—the Apostles leave the Sanhedrin Council precincts and return to their own (fellow believers). The outline above indicates a pair of triads:

  1. Location—Sanhedrin council (where they face trial/suffering) vs. Temple and private houses (where they teach and worship)
  2. Regular Activity—rejoicing (over their suffering) vs. teaching and preaching (“the words of life”, cf. 4:20)
  3. Central Focus—the name of Jesus (the cause of their suffering) vs. Jesus the Christ (the content of their teaching/preaching)