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Jesus and the Law, Part 1: Introduction

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The first portion of this series will examine “Jesus and the Law”—that is, Jesus’ own view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) and his relationship to it. This initial article will draw attention to several key themes and issues. The next article will provide a survey of the most relevant passages.

The first key issue, connected to the overall question of Jesus’ view of the Torah, is that of the Jewishness of Jesus. During the past century, this has become an important critical question related to the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of the Gospels”. Was Jesus’ teaching and self-identity contained entirely within the Judaism of the period, or did he break from it to found a new religion (Christianity) centered entirely upon his own (Divine) person and message? From the critical standpoint early in the 20th century, two representative positions can be summarized by C. G. F. Heinrici and Julius Wellhausen:

“Jesus ist nicht der letzte Jude, sondern der Schöpfer einer neuen, wurzelechten Religion; er ist der erste Christ”
(“Jesus is not the last Jew, but [rather] the Creator of a new, genuinely-rooted Religion; he is the first Christian”)
—Heinrici, Bergpredigt [Sermon on the Mount] (1905), p. 98.

“Jesus war kein Christ, sondern Jude”
(“Jesus was not a Christian, but [rather] a Jew”)
—Wellhausen, Enleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien [Introduction to the first three Gospels] 2nd ed. (1911), p. 102.

Today, in critical circles especially, the pendulum has swung fully in the latter direction: of Jesus as a Jew. Related to this is the marked tendency to regard theological and Christological elements in the narrative traditions and sayings of Jesus as products of the early Church rather than a reflection of Jesus’ own self-understanding. However, even among more traditional-conservative commentators, there is evident a greater interest than in generations past toward recovering the authentic Jewish background of the sayings and narratives. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has certainly played an important role in this regard. For a reasonably thorough and readable (though highly critical) treatment of the subject, see E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985).

A second key issue involves the nature of the Gospel traditions and sayings of Jesus, particularly their authenticity. Traditional-conservative commentators tend to accept that the Gospels record Jesus’ words and actions more or less exactly as they occurred (with only a small amount of editing by the authors and their sources). For many Critical scholars, on the other hand, there is considerable debate as to whether, or to what extent, the traditions have been shaped and colored (or even created) by the early Church. A number of “Criteria of Authenticity” have been developed over the years to aid critics in attempting to establish the sayings and traditions which are more likely to be authentic. I prefer to use the term “authentic” in a slightly different way: to indicate traditions which have come down (generally) from the time and place of the sayings and events described. This itself does not establish or safeguard factuality or historicity of the traditions in detail—these have to be argued (or simply believed) on other grounds. With regard to critical studies on the authenticity of Jesus traditions, I neither reject nor disregard them as such; however, for the purpose of these articles, I assume that all the sayings of Jesus generally reflect his actual words—if not the ipsissima verba, then at least the ipsissima vox.

Still, even if one accepts the essential historicity of the Gospel traditions, they have been given a distinct literary form which must be recognized. Historical accuracy should not be confused with literary purpose and arrangement. This leads to a third key issue: the shaping of narratives and blocks of teaching by the Gospel authors (and/or their sources). The relationship between the Gospels (and their sources) is a highly complex and much disputed topic. In these articles, I have adopted the following framework in citing references and developing the various studies:

  • The common Synoptic tradition—that is, traditions common to Mark-Matthew-Luke; Markan priority is assumed, but only as a method and primary point of reference for presentation of material
  • Material common to Matthew and Luke (but not Mark)—this is so-called “Q”. It is generally assumed here that most, if not all, of sections in Matthew related to the Law are part of this common tradition, and not uniquely the product of the Gospel writer.
  • Special material in Luke. There is more evidence for a distinctive theological and literary handling of material related to the Law and Judaism in the Gospel of Luke, which I will be examining separately when treating the Law in the book of Acts. However, several Jesus traditions unique to Luke’s Gospel will be discussed together.
  • Traditions in the Gospel of John.

The fourth and last key issue has to do with what many interpreters regard as contrasting (even contradictory) views of the Law present in the Gospel traditions. Setting aside for the moment, the material unique to the Gospel of John, I would suggest that there are three basic points of orientation for the traditions in the Synoptic Gospels:

  1. Traditions where Jesus seems to advocate observance of the Torah, but that following him entails going beyond the (letter of the) Law.
  2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance, in two principal respects:
    a) By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
    b) By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations
  3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope

I will be looking at these apparent differences in more detail in the next article. To begin with, however, it may be helpful to include a daily note I have already written on the fundamental sayings in Matthew 5:17-20 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) which deal explicitly with the Torah.

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Note of the Day – April 7

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(After several weeks’ hiatus, regular Daily Notes will be presented during the Lenten/Easter season and on through Pentecost)

(This note is also part of a series on The Law and the New Testament)

Nowhere does Jesus offer such a clear example of his view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) as in Matthew 5:17-20, which also serves as the introduction to two key blocks of teaching: (1) the six so-called “Antitheses” [Matt. 5:21-48], and (2) instruction on specific religious behavior (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) for his followers [Matt. 6:1-18]. They are also among the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings, especially for (Protestant) Christians accustomed to the idea of a “Law-free” Gospel.

To begin with, it is important to consider these four verses in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (for a critical introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’, see the introductory notes of my series on the Beatitudes). Matt. 5:17-20 follows the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and several additional sayings illustrating the character of Jesus’ faithful followers (Matt 5:13-16). The sayings in vv. 17-20 need not have been uttered by Jesus at the same time—the “Sermon” is better understood as a literary and didactic arrangement or collection of Jesus’ teaching, rather than as a single discourse delivered on a particular occasion. Instead these four sayings are thematically related, representing, as it were, principles governing Jesus’ own interpretation of the Torah for his followers. They will each be examined in turn.

1. 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 and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

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. Similarly the opposing verbs katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”) have a very specific meaning in this context: as a legal term, katalu/w can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc., while plhro/w has the sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. Several points can be made:

  1. The juxtaposition of “Law and Prophets” here indicates hrwt/no/mo$ primarily as Scripture, rather than as the law-code or commandments per se. That is, no/mo$ here refers to the Pentateuch (books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and the “Foretellers” the Prophetic books (probably including Joshua–Kings and the Psalms). The conjunction h* means that Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”. 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.
  2. The ‘incorrect’ statement (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!”
  3. 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. Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

2. Matthew 5:18

a)mh\n ga\r le/gw u(mi=n: e%w$ a*n pare/lqh| o( ou)rano\$ kai\ h( gh=, i)w=ta e^n h* mi/a kerai/a ou) mh\ pare/lqh| a)po\ tou= no/mou, e%w$ a*n pa/nta ge/nhtai
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’.

There is an interesting chiastic form and parallelism to this saying:

  • “Until heaven and earth should pass along”
    • “One yod or a single horn will not pass along from the Law”
  • “Until all (things) should come to be”

The first and last phrases are both temporal expressions: the first in concrete terms, according to the ancient worldview (“heaven and earth” represents the universe as understood at the time); the second more abstractly, as the coming-to-be of all things. In between these two expressions is a statement regarding the (relative) permanence of the Law. The “yod” is traditionally the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and of the Greek as well); it is not as clear precisely what kerai/a (lit. “horn”, or possibly “hook”) signifies here, but presumably it indicates a small ornamental mark in the script. The force of the expression is rhetorical rather than literal, i.e. “not even the smallest letter or mark will pass away from the Law”. Noteworthy is the fact that the reference is specifically to a written text. It is not certain to what extent there was a distinction between written and oral Torah in Jesus’ time; but overall Jesus appears to have had a negative view of traditions added to the primary sense of the written text. Indeed, it can be argued that a fundamental purpose of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere) was to restore the true meaning and significance of the original (written) Torah. In any event, it is clear enough that here Torah means primarily sacred Writing (Scripture, as in v. 17); but it probably also refers to the Torah as (written) Law-code—i.e., the collection of commandments, statutes, etc., contained in the Pentateuch.

The saying as a whole seems to limit the force and validity of the Law to the current world-order, as opposed to subsequent Jewish ideas which often emphasized the eternality of the Torah. There is an eschatological aspect at work here, as in much of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ followers were to be aware of the (imminent) end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God (with its accompanying Judgment). The Law would only serve as a governing (religious) authority for believers during the present Age. Paul expresses a rather different view of the temporal limitation of the Law (see, for example, in Galatians 3:26-4:7).

3. 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]”. There are a number of important questions within this verse, which I will discuss briefly in sequence.

  • How does the verb lu/w here relate to 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”.
  • What exactly is meant by “these commandments”? Are these the commandments of the written Torah, or are they the commandments of Jesus? Arguments can be made for both views. The context of verses 17 and 18 would indicate that the written Torah is meant—if so, then the saying would imply that the written Law is fully binding for Jesus’ followers. However, many commentators would hold that Jesus’ commands are what is meant here; such commands would include Jesus’ (authoritative) interpretation of the Law, but would not be synonymous with the commandments of the written Torah itself.
  • What is meant by the “least/littlest” of these commandments? 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”.
  • How should the juxtaposition of “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven 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.

The most significant question remains whether “these commandments” are those of Jesus, of the written Torah, or both? I don’t know that it is possible to give a decisive answer here. Subsequent Christian tradition tended to identify “the commandments” with “the commandments of Christ” (I will be discussing this phrase in more detail in a later article), but is this the same as what Jesus means in the saying of verse 19? It is probably best to understand the phrase here in the qualified sense of “the commandments of the written Torah… as interpreted by Jesus”. Admittedly, we almost certainly do not have all of Jesus’ teachings related to the Law. The Gospels themselves contain, I am sure, only a portion of them; even here in the Sermon on the Mount, the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 and the instruction in 6:1-18 are only representative of the teaching Jesus gave to his followers. For this reason, in particular, the phrase “commandment[s] of Christ” requires a more thorough and systematic treatment.

4. Matthew 5:20

Le/gw ga\r u(mi=n o%ti e)a\n mh\ perissu/sh| u(mw=n h( dikaiosu/nh plei=on tw=n grammate/wn kai\ Farisai/wn, ou) mh\ ei)se/lqhte ei)$ th\n basilei/an tw=n ou)ranw=n
“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.”

This is probably the simplest, and yet, in some ways, the most difficult of the four sayings. It does not deal directly with the Law; rather it offers a challenging point of comparison for Jesus’ followers. The “Scribes and Pharisees” is a stock phrase and schematic expression in the Gospels, often related to those who question or dispute with Jesus, involving some point of legal or religious observance. They are typically mentioned only in the setting of the narrative, or in reaction to something Jesus says or does. The Pharisees have been given a superficially bad reputation by Christians, often as the result of careless reading of the Gospels. Of the major Jewish groups known from the time, the Pharisees probably had the most in common with Jesus himself. He doubtless had many interactions with them, of which only traces have been preserved in the Gospels; on the whole, they appear to have been thoroughly devout and scrupulous in religious matters, though not as strict as the Community of the Qumran texts (usually identified as Essenes). The Scribes [lit. Writers] were legal experts, largely synonymous with the “Teachers of the Law”, and certainly many Scribes were also Pharisees. Jesus’ disputes with the “Scribes and Pharisees” (and other religious leaders) will be discussed in some detail in an upcoming article in this series.

It is important to understand the sense of dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosún¢, “justice/righteousness”) here. As throughout the Sermon of the Mount, and much of early Gospel tradition, the term signifies obedience and conformity to the will of God as expressed in the Torah and the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. In this respect, it is comparable (and compatible) with the traditional Jewish sense of righteousness, and should not be confused with subsequent Christian (esp. Pauline) theological and soteriological use of the word. Presumably, for the first followers of Jesus, and early Jewish Christians, the point of the comparison with the righteousness of the “Scribes and Pharisees” would have been more readily apparent. Today, we can only speculate as to what precisely was meant. There are several possibilities:

  1. The Scribes and Pharisees did not go far enough in observing the Torah—that is, they did not penetrate to its deeper meaning and significance, as indicated by Jesus in his teaching. This would seem to be implied by the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48.
  2. Their approach to Torah observance and religious behavior was fundamentally flawed, and not the product of a pure heart. This seems to be the thrust of Matt 6:1-18, as well as the Beatitudes. Cf. also the association of Pharisees with “hypocrisy” at numerous points in the Gospels (esp. in Matt 23).
  3. The religious leaders who failed to follow Jesus were (all) missing the teaching and revelation which fulfills and completes the Law (and Righteousness). As such the righteousness of Jesus’ followers would (and should) by its very nature far surpass theirs.
  4. The comparison is primarily rhetorical and exhortative: a call to follow and obey Jesus’ authoritative instruction and interpretation of the Law.

I think there is merit in each of these four views, which can be supported by further detailed study of the Sermon on Mount itself.

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The Law and the New Testament – Introduction

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This is the beginning of a series on the Old Testament Law (of Moses) as it is treated in the New Testament Writings. This issue, of course, cannot be separated from the question of the relationship between the (Christian) believer and the Law. Christians have long struggled with this question—from the very beginning until the present day, it has been a pressing concern, both in terms of doctrine and practical application to daily life and belief. It is deserving of thorough and thoughtful discussion today, particularly as modern society continues to move further and further away from the ancient thought patterns and religious culture in which the Old Testament Law first came to light. This study has, as its primary aim, to present a careful and objective survey (and exegetical Commentary) on many (if not all) of the relevant New Testament passages dealing with this subject. A basic outline of the study will be presented below.

To begin with, it is important to recognize several fundamental difficulties involved with a proper understanding of “the Law”:

1. First is a terminological difficulty. There are three primary words with overlapping ranges of meaning:

  • Law—the English word is from Germanic derivation (Old English lagu), in the basic sense of something laid down, i.e. a “binding custom or practice (of a community)”, as defined by M.-W. It is partially synonymous with the word rule (Lat. regula, regere, “[lead/make] straight”)—i.e., something which leads or guides a person or community.
  • hr*oT—the Hebrew word hr*oT (tôr¹h or tôrâ) is typically translated “law”, but is more properly rendered “instruction”. It is derived from a root word hr*y` (y¹râ) with the fundamental meaning (in the hiphil causative stem) of “direct, instruct, teach”. The related term hr#om (môreh) would be rendered “teacher, instructor”. The word hroT appears (in both the singular and plural) more that 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in the general sense of teaching/instruction (whether human or divine); however, it can also refer to a specific body or collection of (authoritative) teaching. The teaching which was understood to govern the ancient Israelite Community—in both religious (cultic) and social aspects (the two being closely interwined)—is preserved in the books of Exodus and Leviticus (also portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy), forming significant blocks of what is commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), and which, in Israelite/Jewish tradition is itself called “Torah” (hr*oT). The Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that this authoritative Instruction is the product of Divine Revelation, and is frequently referred to as “the Instruction [Torah] of God” (hw`hy+ tr^oT, tôra¾ YHWH)—cf. Exodus 13:9, etc. Several partially synonymous words appear in conjunction with hr*oT, such as: (a) qoj/hQ*j% (µôq/µuqqâ), indicating something inscribed or engraved, often understood in the sense of “statute, decree, ordinance”, etc.; (b) hw`x=m! (miƒwâ), from the root hw`x* (ƒ¹wâ), “direct, order, command”, and usually rendered as “commandment”; (c) fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), “judgment”, often in the technical sense of a specific legal case or decision. These three terms, especially, can be seen as covered under the wider concept of hr*oT.
  • no/mo$ (nómos)—the Greek word usually translated as “law” originally had the basic sense of something assigned for particular use (spec. an allotment of land), and developed a broad range of more abstract meaning, such as a “(proper) custom, order, arrangement, usage,” etc. Within the political-legal sphere, the word took on the sense of a “(binding) custom” or regulation, much akin to the English word “law” (see above). Despite the clear difference in history and primary meaning of the two words, no/mo$ typically was used to translate hr*oT (in the Septuagint, etc). Indeed, within the New Testament itself, no/mo$ is usually understood in this manner—of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish “Law of Moses” (or “Law/Torah of God”), rather than Greco-Roman Law or “law” in a more general/abstract sense. The verb nomi/zw, which we might translate as “regard as proper/customary”, also has a technical legal or religious meaning, the background of which is important to keep in mind when examining certain New Testament passages.

We should be sensitive to the differences and nuances of language and meaning between these words, and be cautious against reducing everything to a specific or generalized concept of “Law”.

2. Second is a further difficulty of definition. At the time of the New Testament, how was the word hr*oT (Torah) understood? There are several aspects which should be considered:

  • As a law code—this stems from the basic definition of hr*oT as an (authoritative) body or collection of instruction (see above). Jewish tradition established the number of Scriptural commandments (twwxm) at 613 (see the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b-24a, and especially the “Book of the Commandments” [Sefer ha-Miƒwôt] by Maimonides)—365 negative, and 248 positive, commandments—compiled ostensibly from the relevant portions of Exodus-Leviticus and Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • As a corpus of religious tradition—this includes not only the written instruction found in the Pentateuch, but two further related aspects: (1) the “Oral Torah/Law”, instruction passed down through the generations (beginning with Moses) and transmitted orally; and (2) authoritative commentary and interpretation of both written and oral Torah. This material is extensive and wide-ranging, having been preserved (and, in a sense, codified) in the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the various Midrashim. Many of the earliest Rabbinic traditions—of the Tannaim—may be contemporary with (or even pre-date) Jesus and the New Testament authors. The extent to which Rabbinic literature can be used to document beliefs and traditions from Jesus’ own time remains a topic of considerable debate.
  • As Scripture—sometimes “Torah” specifically refers to the sacred Writings, whether limited to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, trad.) or the whole of Scripture. This latter sense is often covered by the expression “the Torah/Law and the Prophets”; however, even here the Torah tends to have priority, with the Prophets (probably including both the Historical books [Joshua–Kings] and the Psalms) seen as expounding/interpreting the Torah of God.
  • As a religious way of life—the observance of the Instruction (Torah) of God (as revealed in Scripture and tradition) was (and still is) fundamental to the Israelite/Jewish religious identity. It reflects the terms of the Covenant between God and His people. As we shall see, the idea of Torah observance as “works-righteousness”, by which one obtains salvation, is something of a serious distortion of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. More properly, we should regard Jewish observance of the Torah from the standpoint of a requirement (or obligation) which maintains and preserves the covenant (agreement) with God.

3. Third, and finally, is the difficulty of interpretation. All Jews in Jesus’ time would have agreed on the importance and necessity of observing the Torah; however, various groups differed in two respects: (1) on the precise nature and extent of the Torah, and (2) on what constituted definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Torah. This involved what we might call the perennial question of religious authority—who determines the required rules and customs, and how should they be performed or followed? The New Testament gives us only a narrow window into the debates and discussions which must have taken place in this regard. By all accounts, Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees (or the “scribes and Pharisees”) over points of Torah, but only traces of this survive in the Gospels. There were fundamental differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees on chief points of doctrine. More notably, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts also had serious disagreements with other groups [including Pharisees, it would seem] over the proper interpretation and application of Torah. The centrality of Torah observance for the Qumran Community is especially clear in the so-called “Rule of the Community”:

As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way…” This is the study [vrdm] of the law [hrwth] which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy spirit… (1QS 8.14-16)

The commitment to study (lit. searching, vrd) and observance of the Torah is virtually synonymous with entry into the Community (1QS 1.1-3ff, 5.1, etc), by which a covenant is established (or re-established) between the faithful and God (1QS 1.16-17). A basic premise for the Community was that Israel had abandoned the way of truth and no longer followed the Instruction of God (Torah) properly; furthermore, new revelation and insight regarding the Instruction was being given to the Community (as the faithful end-time Remnant). There are several references to an “Interpreter [lit. searcher] of the Law” (hr*oTh vr@oD, dôr¢š hattôrâ)—an idealized, eschatological figure representing the importance of authoritative instruction (CDMS A 7.18ff [4Q267 ii 15f]; 4Q174 fr. 1 col. 1, 11-12; 4Q177 col. 2, 5). This Interpreter is connected with the coming Davidic Ruler (i.e. Messiah, “Prince of the Congregation”), and may be identified with either the “Prophet like Moses” who is to come or to a Priestly ruler (“Messiah of Aaron”). However, in the history of the Community the role also seems to have been filled by the person known as “the Righteous Teacher” (CDA 6.7)—in such an eschatologically-oriented religious sect, present and future are closely intertwined. This “Righteous Teacher” (qdxh hrwm) or “Teacher of Righteousness” (hqdxh hrwm) served as a title for the leader who would offer divinely-sanctioned interpretation of both the Law and the Prophets; on this figure, see CDA 1.11; 6.11; CDB 20; 4QpPsa col. 3-4, etc; and throughout the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk, e.g., 4QpHab 1.13; 2.2; 5.10, 7.4, 8.3, 9.9, 11.5. In many ways, Jesus filled this same role as authoritative Interpreter, especially in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, as we shall see. The apostles, too, worked long and hard to clarify the relation of the Christian Community (broadly speaking) to the Torah and the Prophets. It was on this very point that the fiercest early battles were fought—most vividly demonstrated in Paul’s harsh polemic (esp. in Galatians) against other Jewish Christians who opposed his approach to Christian identity (in particular, the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring observance of the Torah).

As indicated above, Christians continue to struggle with the question of whether, or to what extent, it is necessary for believers to follow the Old Testament Law (Torah). A number of differing approaches have been taken, the most notable of which may be summarized as follows:

  • Believers are obligated to observe the Torah fully. This was a serious issue in the earliest years of the Church, but today it really only applies to Jewish Christians (or “Messianic Jews”).
  • Believers are entirely free from the Torah, and not required to observe it in any way; religious and moral conduct is now governed by other means (the Holy Spirit, inspired Christian instruction, etc). This view derives primarily from Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans.
  • Believers are still required to observe all things in the Torah which have not been explicitly (or practically) abolished (or rendered unnecessary) according to the teaching of the New Testament.
  • The ritual or ceremonial portion of the Torah no longer applies (nor does most of the political-social legislation and case law); believers are only required to observe the ethical precepts.
  • Believers are only required to observe the Ten Commandments (a narrower version of the two previous approaches).
  • Believers are required to observe only the “Commandments of Christ”, which can be defined various ways, but certainly includes Jesus’ own instruction related to the Torah (such as in the Sermon on the Mount).
  • The entire Torah for believers is reduced to the “Love-Commandment” (love of God and neighbor), according to the example of Christ. This is more of a general principle than a law or commandment as such.
  • Rather than observing the Torah commandments literally, believers should, by a process of interpretation, seek to understand and apply the underlying principles to modern religious and social circumstances.

I will reserve comment on these (and possibly other) approaches until the end of this series of studies. Here is a simple outline of how I will be proceeding:

  • Jesus and the Law—covering the following areas:
    • Evidence for two contrasting approaches by Jesus to the Torah
    • Jesus’ handling of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. in the Antitheses)
    • Jesus’ interaction with Pharisees and religious authorities (esp. the Sabbath controversies)
    • Jesus’ relation to the Temple
    • The Law in the Gospel of John
  • The Law in the book of Acts (drawing also upon the Gospel of Luke)
  • Paul’s view of the Law
    • In Galatians
    • In Romans
    • Key references in the remaining epistles
    • Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Epistles
  • The Law in the Epistle of James
  • The Law in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • The Law in the rest of the New Testament (with key references in the Apostolic Fathers)

Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Qumran texts used in this series are taken from: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8.

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Note of the Day – March 5 (Beatitudes)

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By way of conclusion for this series of daily notes on the Beatitudes, I thought it worth examining in summary fashion other Beatitude-sayings in the New Testament and early Christian literature. Besides the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, there are a number of Beatitudes elsewhere in the Gospel tradition:

1. Matthew 11:6 (identical with Luke 7:23)

maka/rio/$ e)stin o^$ e)a\n mh\ skandalisqh=| e)n e)moi/
“happy is the (one) who would not be tripped (up) in me”

The expression skandalisqh=| e)n e)moi/ is foreign to English; typically it is translated something like “would not be offended by me”. A ska/ndalon (skándalon) is a trap or snare, such as would cause one to trip or fall and so be caught; the verb skandali/zw (skandalízœ) in the active voice means “to trap”, with the general sense of “cause (one) to trip, stumble”, while the passive refers to the one who is trapped or tripped up. In the figurative sense, to trip/stumble over a person means to take offense or be led astray, etc by him/her—in English, we might say “find offense in (someone)”. What the person says or does (or what he/she represents) can cause one to be offended or troubled. In both Matthew and Luke, the saying is part of Jesus’ response to messengers from John the Baptist who ask “are you the one coming [i.e. the Messiah/end-time-Prophet] or do we look toward (receiving) another?”

2. Matthew 13:16 (par. Luke 10:23b)

u(mw=n de\ maka/rioi oi( o)fqalmoi\ o%ti ble/pousin kai\ ta\ w@ta u(mw=n o%ti a)kou/ousin
“but happy your eyes (in) that they see (these things), and your ears (in) that they hear…”

The Lukan saying is shorter and simpler: maka/rioi oi( o)fqalmoi\ oi( ble/ponte$ a^ ble/pete (“happy the eyes seeing the [things] which you see”). The context is different, but in both versions the emphasis is upon the disciples who have seen and heard Jesus (something prophets and kings [or righteous persons] wished to see, but did not [Matt 13:17; Lk 10:24]). Contrary to the original setting and main purpose of the Beatitude form, the saying here refers specifically to the present, though the promise of future (eternal) happiness may also be implied. Parts of the body are sometimes singled out for happiness/blessing.

3. Luke 11:28 (cf. verse 27)

maka/rioi oi( a)kou/onte$ to\n lo/gon qeou= kai\ fula/ssonte$
“happy the (ones) hearing the account/word of God and watching/guarding (it)”

This is Jesus’ response to a declaration by a woman in the crowd: “happy the belly th(at) held you (up) and the breasts which you sucked!”—a natural, popular view of sacredness by association. Jesus begins his response with the emphatic particle menou=n(ge), which could be rendered something like “yes, indeed, but…”—he draws attention away from the sign (the biological/familial aspect) of his person to that which the sign signifies (the word of God). A similar point and parallel is made in Mark 3:31-35 par.

4. Matthew 16:17

maka/rio$ ei@ Si/mwn Bariwna=, o%ti sa\rc kai\ ai!ma ou)k a)peka/luye/n soi a)ll’ o( path/r mou o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
“happy are you Shim±ôn Bar-Yôna, (in) that flesh and blood did not take the cover from [i.e. uncover, reveal] (this) for you, but my Father in the Heavens”

This is part of Peter’s famous confession and subsequent commission in Matthew 16. The basis for the Beatitude is that Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed, the Son of the living God”, v. 16) came as the result of special divine revelation.

5. Luke 12:37 (with repetition in v. 38, 43; par. Matthew 24:46)

maka/rioi oi( dou=loi e)kei=noi ou^$ e)lqw\n o( ku/rio$ eu(rh/sei grhgorou=nta$
“happy the slaves who the lord having come should find (stay)ing awake/aroused”

This is part of a parable with an eschatological emphasis, about the importance of disciples staying alert and watchful for the Lord’s return. As such, it is very much in keeping with the original eschatological/judgment setting of the Beatitude form.

6. Luke 14:14 (cf. verse 15)

maka/rio$ e&sh|, o%ti ou)k e&xousin a)ntapodou=nai/ soi, a)ntapodoqh/setai ga/r soi e)n th=| a)nasta/sei tw=n dikai/wn
“happy you will be (in) that they have no (means) to give back (in return) to you, for it will be given back (in return) to you in the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of the just/righteous (ones)”

The context of this saying is Jesus’ teaching that hospitality and expense (of food, etc) should be extended to the poor and sick rather than to one’s well-to-do friends and relatives. This has much in common with the Beatitudes, in particular: (1) the importance of Jesus’ followers identifying with the poor and lowly; (2) the emphasis on (heavenly) repayment in the life to come. In the next, related pericope a man dining with Jesus utters another beatitude: “happy the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”, which prompts Jesus to relate the parable of the ‘Great Banquet’ (for a similar narrative device and parallel, cf. on Luke 11:27-28, above).

7. Luke 23:29

maka/riai ai( stei=rai kai\ ai( koili/ai ai^ ou)k e)ge/nnhsan kai\ mastoi\ oi^ ou)k e&qreyan
“happy the firm [i.e. sterile] ones and the bellies th(at) have not caused (children) to be (born) and breasts which have not thickened (i.e. nourished [children])”

This is an eschatological beatitude of a very different sort. In the narrative setting (on the way to his death), Jesus responds to the lamentation of women in the crowd (v. 27) with a warning of coming (impending) tribulation (v. 28): “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep upon me, (but all the) more weep upon yourselves and upon your offspring, (in) that see—the days are coming…” The blessing of verse 29 is darkly ironic in the face of the terrible travail that is coming, though it is in keeping with the focus of the Beatitudes (esp. in Luke) on the poor and suffering. For Jesus’ foretelling of end-time tribulation (fulfilled, in part at least, during the war of 66-70 A.D.), cf. Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-36 par.

8. John 13:17

ei) tau=ta oi&date, maka/rioi/ e)ste e)a\n poih=te au)ta/
“if you see/know these things, happy are you if/when you should do them”

The immediate context of this (conditional) beatitude is the example (washing the disciples’ feet) and teaching of Jesus in Jn 13:3-16, but it certainly could be said to apply to Jesus’ teaching in general (as recorded in the Gospel of John). In its simple, generic way, this Beatitude summarizes the famous Matthean/Lukan Beatiudes—the disciple will be declared happy/blessed in so far as he/she follows the will of God (in the person and teaching of Jesus). Indeed, there are here a number of parallels to themes in the Sermon on the Mount: (a) the importance of humility and sacrificial service, (b) identifying with the poor and lowly (i.e. the menial task of footwashing), and (c) an emphasis on imitating God (in Christ) by performing such service. For a similar saying, cf. James 1:25.

9. John 20:29

maka/rioi oi( mh\ i)do/nte$ kai\ pisteu/sante$
“happy the (one)s not seeing and (yet) trusting”

This is the conclusion of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples (especially to Thomas) in Jn 20:24-29 (cf. the ‘earlier’ appearance in vv. 19-23). Upon seeing Jesus, his doubt removed, Thomas exclaims “my Lord and my God!”, to which Jesus’ replies: “(In) that you have seen me you have trusted? Happy the ones not seeing and (yet) trusting!” In effect, this simple and beautiful saying concludes the Gospel of John as well.

10. Acts 20:35

maka/rio/n e)stin ma=llon dido/nai h* lamba/nein
“It is more happy (for one) to give than to receive”

Paul cites this saying of Jesus at the close of his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, but it is otherwise unattested in the Gospels.

11. Revelation 22:7, 14

maka/rio$ o( thrw=n tou\$ lo/gou$ th=$ profhtei/a$ tou= bibli/ou tou/tou
“happy the (one) guarding the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll”

maka/rioi oi( plu/nonte$ ta\$ stola\$ au)tw=n, i%na e&stai h( e)cousi/a au)tw=n e)pi\ to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$…
“happy the (ones) washing their robes, that their exousia [i.e. right, permission] will be upon the tree of life…”

These sayings are recorded as coming from Jesus (implied) in the final vision of the book of Revelation. They recapture the original context of the Beatitude form—that of declaring the righteous able to pass through the judgment to enter into heavenly bliss—but in other respects the language and sentiment differs considerably from the Beatitudes of Jesus in the Gospels.

Other Beatitudes in the New Testament not spoken by Jesus are: Luke 1:45; Romans 4:7-8 (quoting Psalm 32:1-2); 14:22b; James 1:12, 25; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:14; Revelation 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; cf. also Acts 26:2; 1 Cor 7:40. In the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (late-1st–mid-2nd centuries), Beatitudes also appear; sometimes these are citations from Jesus or the Gospels, in other instances they are original formulations—cf. 1 Clement 44:5; 50:5 (also 35:1); ‘2 Clement’ 16:4; 19:3; Ignatius Philadelphians 10:2; Polycarp Philippians 2:3; Didache 1:5; Barnabas 10:10; 11:8; Hermas Visions 3.8.4; Commandments 8.9; Similitudes 5.3.9; 6.1.1; Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:1.

As for the “Woes” corresponding to the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-23, 24-26), there are similar Woe-sayings of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels (Mark 13:17; 14:21 pars; Matt 11:21; 18:7; 23:13-29 pars; Lk 17:1), as well as several other Woes in the New Testament (1 Cor 9:16; Jude 11; Rev 8:13; 9:12; 11:14; 12:12; 18:10, 16, 19).

Finally, it may be worth mentioning the Beatitudes in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. This document, the date and origins of which still uncertain (it was probably written or compiled sometime between 100 and 150), consists entirely of sayings of Jesus. It is an interesting and, it would seem, unusual mixture of: (1) sayings similar to those recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels; (2) otherwise unknown sayings similar in character and style to those in the Gospels; (3) unknown sayings which seem to have a ‘Gnostic’ sense about them, or are otherwise difficult to interpret. With regard to the sayings with parallels in the Synoptic Gospels, scholars continue debate whether these, on the whole, are dependent on the canonical books or are independent of them. There are a good many sayings similar to those in the Sermon on the Mount, including the following “versions” of the Beatitudes:

#54: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Lk 6:20b; Matt 5:3)

#68a (cf. also #69a): “Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted” (Lk 6:22-23; Matt 5:11-12)

#69b: “Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who desires will be filled” (Lk 6:21a; cf. Matt 5:6)

Translation of Thomas O. Lambdin in James Robinson ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd edition (Brill:1988), pp. 126-138.

Other Beatitudes in the Gospel of Thomas are in sayings #18, 19 , 49, 58, 69a, 79 [Lk 11:27-28; 23:29], along with a lone Woe-saying in #112.

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Note of the Day – March 4 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous note, I examined the structure and arrangement of the Beatitudes, including the idea of number symbolism associated with them. Today, I will follow this up with a short discussion of ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted and applied by Christians, focusing on two principal figures in the early Church: Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa.

2. Early Interpretation of the Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on early Christian ethical instruction (see esp. throughout the epistle of James and the “Two Ways” portion of the Didache [chs. 1-6]); and may have been used specifically in catechesis prior to baptism. However, citations of the Beatitudes (whether direct or indirect) are actually somewhat rare in early writings—cf. Polycarp Philippians 2; Ignatius Ephesians 10 [long version]; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.1; IV.9.2, 20.5, 23.9; V.9.4; Tertullian To His Wife II.8; On Modesty 2, 5; On Fasting 15; On Flight in Persecution 7, 12; Origen On First Principles II.3.7, 11.2. The first, sixth and seventh Matthean Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 8, 9), with their more obvious spiritual and theological emphasis, were clearly the most popular and oft-quoted. The mystical (‘gnostic’) sense of the sixth [v. 8], along with the reference to believers as “sons of God” in the seventh [v. 9], appealed especially to the Alexandrians Clement (who cites verse 8  numerous times in his Stromateis) and Origen (On First Principles I.1.9; Against Celsus VI.4; VII.33, 43). Unfortunately the relevant portion of Origen’s massive Commentary on Matthew (Book 2) has not been preserved (except for a fragment [on Matt 5:9] in the Philokalia ch. 6; cf. also the reference in Book 13.7). The Pseudo-Clementine literature provides a commentary of sorts on Matt 5:3, 8-9 (Recognitions I.61; II.22, 29; III.27, 29; Homilies XV.10), including the clarifying point that only the righteous poor will be blessed (not all poor).

One of the earliest and most influential treatments of the Beatitudes is that of Augustine in his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, written c. 395 A.D.). Augustine adopts the eight-fold (7 + 1) structure (of Matt 5:3-10), and uses it as an organizing principle for the exposition (cf. I.3 [§10] and II.25 [§87]), dividing the Sermon into seven sections (inspired by the idea of the “seven gifts” of the Holy Spirit [cf. Isa 11:2-3 and in I.4 §11]). The seven principal beatitudes reflect an “ascent” of the soul and progress in virtue, and serves to divide the commentary into two parts: (1) the first five Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-7) relate primarily to the “active life” (vita activa, with its good works [bona opera]) and govern book 1 (on Matt 5); (2) the last two Beatitudes (Matt 5:8-9) refer to the “contemplative life” (vita contemplativa) and govern book 2 (on Matt 6-7). Augustine connects the vision of God in the sixth Beatitude with the teaching on prayer and worship in Matt 6:1-18 and includes a seven-fold exposition of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13 [II.4-11 §§15-39]). Augustine was probably familiar with the work of his older contemporary Ambrose of Milan (who discusses the Beatitudes in his Commentary on Luke, written c. 390). Ambrose draws a parallel between the eight Matthean Beatitudes (representing the ascent of the soul) and the four Lukan Beatitudes (which represent the four cardinal virtues). In many of his exgetical and homiletical works, Ambrose shows clear influence of Greek ascetic-mystical theology, such as that reflected in his contemporary Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory’s set of eight Orations on the Beatitudes (along with a comparable set of five on the Lord’s Prayer, both written sometime between 385 and 390) represents the earliest extensive treatment on the Sermon on the Mount which has come down to us. Using the mountain setting (Matt 5:1ff) as his reference point, Gregory interprets the eight Beatitudes as steps or stages in the ascent of the soul, devoting one sermon for each Beatitude or “step”. In this, Gregory draws upon a popular concept and viewpoint common to both Greco-Roman ascetic philosophy and early Christian (mystical) theology, whereby the disciple or initiate learns to purify himself (or herself) from the passions and earthy/material or fleshly concerns (the lower aspect of the soul) and rises to experience in greater fullness and clarity the mind or spirit (the higher aspect of the soul, which is a reflection of God). Something of this ascetic-mystical teaching can be found in the New Testament itself (especially in Paul’s ethical dualism and spiritual instruction), but generally in a moderated form. Within the mystical tradition of the Eastern Church, in particular, these points came to have much greater emphasis;  we see this within monasticism especially, in the writings and teachings of the so-called Desert Fathers. It is very much a synergistic spiritual ethic: through the ascetic life-style of self-effacement and self-denial one works to eliminate the passions (apatheia) and cultivate the (Christian) virtues, preparing the ground work for receiving the (gift of) knowledge of God and to be transformed into His likeness (theiosis). The “ladder” motif proved useful and popular as a framing device for spiritual and ethical instruction in this regard, as indicated by works such as the 4th-century Syriac Book of Steps and, most famously, in the 7th century Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. In the Beatitudes, this purification of the soul begins with humility and poverty of spirit (the first Beatitude) and would seem to culminate in the sixth Beatitude, where the pure in heart “see God”—indeed, this is favorite theme of Gregory’s which he expounds elsewhere in his writings (most notably in the second book of his Life of Moses, esp. related to the Sinai revelation and theophany). The arrangement of the Beatitudes in Matthew forces Gregory to go beyond the beatific vision to discuss the seventh and eighth Beatitudes (Matt 5:9-10), which he does with his usual skill, though he admits to some difficulty in approaching the final Beatitude (on persecution).

In general, I would agree with the eight-fold (7 + 1) structure used in analyzing and expounding the Beatitudes. Early commentators such as Gregory, Ambrose and Augustine, in viewing them through the fundamental interpretive lens of the ascent of the soul and progress in virtue, certainly read a bit too much into the text. On the other hand, at their best moments, they display considerable insight and sensitivity to the spiritual dimension of Scripture—something sadly lost and neglected today. But is there a meaningful order to the Beatitudes which might accord with something like the “ascent” viewpoint in early Christian thought? In the previous note, I examined the way in which the Matthean Beatitudes might have expanded from a smaller (four-fold) set such as we find in Luke 6:20-23. Here, I might suggest the following outline:

  • Happy the poor in the spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heaven (#1, Matt 5:3)
    • Happy the ones mourning, that they will be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted] (#2, Matt 5:4)
      • Happy the meek/gentle ones, that they will receive the earth as (their) lot (#3, Matt 5:5)
    • Happy the ones hungering and thirsting for justice/righteousness, that they will be fed full (#4, Matt 5:6)
      • Happy the merciful/compassionate ones, that they will receive mercy/compassion (#5, Matt 5:7)
        • Happy the ones pure/clean in heart, that they will see God (#6, Matt 5:8)
        • Happy the ones making peace, that they will be called sons of God (#7, Matt 5:9)
  • Happy the ones having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens (#8, Matt 5:10)

This outline has the advantage of preserving the basic structure of the Lukan set [the first three + a concluding beatitude regarding persecution]. It also keeps the second and third Lukan sayings in tandem (expounding the basic idea of the poor), intercut with an ‘inner’ pair of sayings involving meekness and compassion (which could be said to expound the idea of poor in spirit). Moreover, it does demonstrate a kind of progression (or “ascent”) from outer (the first beatitude) to inner (the sixth-seventh), before concluding with the final beatitude (parallel to the first) that frames the entire set. As indicated previously, I prefer to treat the ninth (or ninth + tenth) beatitude in Matt 5:11-12 as a transitional verse: it moves from the exordium of the Beatitudes into Jesus’ teaching proper—beginning with the saying on salt and light in vv. 13-16.

For several observations above I am indebted to the critical Commentary by Hans Dieter Betz (The Sermon on the Mount, Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1995]), which I have consulted on a number of occasions throughout these notes on the Beatitudes; here see pp. 105-109.

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Note of the Day – March 2 (Beatitudes)

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In bringing this series of daily notes on the Beatitudes to a close, it may be helpful to discuss briefly something of the way the Beatitudes have been interpreted and understood in Church History. I will focus on two areas: (1) the order and arrangement (of the Matthean Beatitudes in particular), and (2) the history of interpretation as prefigured in the treatments by Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine.

1. The Order and Arrangement of the Beatitudes

The question of the number, order, and arrangement of the Beatitudes is connected with the more difficult question of the relationship between the Matthean and Lukan sets of Beatitudes (addressed in my introduction to this series of daily notes). I tend to accept the general scholarly premise that the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain both stem from a common tradition—a collection of sayings of Jesus already arranged in a particular order which may (or may not) reflect a unified oral discourse. The Matthean Beatitudes (along with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole) is longer and more extensive than the corresponding version in Luke. In all likelihood, the Gospel writer in Matthew has expanded the collection with additional material from other sources—this applies primarily to the material in chapter 6 (some of which is attested elsewhere in Luke), but also to other portions: notably 5:17-42, and expansions in 7:21-23, as well as in the Beatitudes. I think it quite possible that we have something like the original ‘core’ (of four Beatitudes) in Luke; at any event, it is easy to see how this structure might have been filled out with other sayings (additional Beatitudes of Jesus are attested in the Gospels). Note the following outline, with the elements unique to Matthew offset and italicized and the Beatitude number (Matthean/Lukan) indicated in parentheses:

  • Happy the poor in the spirit (1)
  • Happy the ones weeping/mourning (2/3)
    • Happy the meek/gentle ones (3)
  • Happy the ones hungering and thirsting for justice/righteousness (4/2)
    • Happy the compassionate/merciful ones (5)
    • Happy the ones pure in heart (6)
    • Happy the ones making peace (7)
    • Happy the ones pursued/persecuted because of justice/righteousness (8)
  • Happy are you when men… because of me. Be joyful and leap for joy, that your payment is great in Heaven…they did the same to the Prophets (9/4) [because of the length and complexity of the last Beatitude, there is greater variation between the two versions].

One can point to three areas of ‘expansion’:

  1. The addition of qualifying/explanatory phrases in Matthean 1 & 4 (“poor in the spirit“, “hunger [and thirst] for justice/righteousness“)
  2. A series of four beatitudes (Matthean 3, 5-7), which roughly form two thematic groups:
    Happy the meek / Happy the merciful
    Happy the pure in heart (…will see God) / Happy the peace-makers (…will be called sons of God)
  3. A concluding beatitude (Matthean 8) which precedes the final compound saying and shares with it the common theme of persecution (“for the sake of…”)

Of course, it is also possible that in Luke a larger collection of Beatitudes has been reduced, though I think this is somewhat less likely. Occasionally, scholars have sought to reconstruction an original collection (in Aramaic) of Beatitudes from which both the Matthean and Lukan sets are derived (cf. M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd edition, Oxford:1967, pp. 156-158), but this is highly speculative at best.

The structure of the Lukan set is extremely simple and compact:

  • Happy the Poor
    • Happy the ones hungering now
    • Happy the ones weeping now
  • Happy are you when men… because of me. Be joyful and leap for joy, that your payment is great in Heaven…they did the same to the Prophets

It follows a clear 3 + 1 formula, with the second and third beatitudes expounding the first (illustrating the present condition of the “poor”), and with the first and fourth beatitudes in dynamic parallelism. This parallelism is brought out more precisely when comparing the first and eighth beatitudes in Matthew:

  • Happy the ones poor in the spirit, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens
  • Happy the ones having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens

As to the number of Beatitudes in Matthew, there is some debate as to how this should be understood. Did the Gospel writer (or Jesus himself) have any particular number (symbolism) in mind? Several possibilities have been suggested by commentators:

  • By including Matt 5:11-12, there are nine beatitudes, or ten, if one counts the last (compound) saying as two (“Happy… Rejoice…”). Ten is well-known in the ancient world as symbolic of completion, perfection, etc; within Jewish tradition, 9 + 1 = 10 serves as a significant formula (see Sirach 25:7ff; Philo Questions on Genesis 4.110 [cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 105-106]).
  • By separating out Matt 5:11-12 as an appendix or transitional saying, there are eight beatitudes. Matt 5:10 frames the collection, forming an inclusio with the parallel in the first beatitude; following this structure results in (the sacred number) 7 + 1 = 8.
  • Some scholars have questioned the originality Matt 5:5 (the third beatitude); if it were removed, the same first three beatitudes would be grouped together as in Luke, and yield a total of seven (or, including Matt 5:11-12, eight: 7 + 1). However, there is no real textual basis for omitting the verse, though some manuscripts include it in a different position (as the second beatitude, ahead of verse 4).

The eightfold structure (7 + 1) of verses 3-10 is to be preferred as an interpretive base, treating the ninth (or ninth + tenth) beatitude of vv. 11-12 as a kind of appendix. This arrangement, with its (possible) number symbolism will be discussed in the next day’s note, in relation to early interpretation of the Beatitudes.

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Note of the Day – March 1 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous day’s note, I examined the Lukan Beatitudes and Woes (Lk 6:20-26), with their stark juxtaposition of poor vs. rich, specifically in light of: (1) Jesus teaching regarding riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition), and (2) the thematic emphasis of rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke. With this study as background, I will proceed today with some fundamental points of interpretation. The very difficulty of the passage necessitates that these be taken as helpful observations (to facilitate additional study) rather than definitive rules.

1. “Poor” and “Rich” in the Beatitudes are, in fact, to be understood broadly in terms of socio-economic status.

Unlike the situation in the Matthean Beatitudes, which qualify poverty and hunger (“poor in the spirit”, “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”), in Luke we are certainly dealing with poverty in the customary sense (as physical/material need and want). In this regard, there are two aspects which are important to bear in mind:

(a) By comparison with much of modern (Western) society, life in the ancient world tended to be harsher and more precarious. Disease and natural disaster could wreak far greater havoc on a predominantly agricultural and pastoral society, one without our modern-day amenities. The finest social ideals in our civilization today are the product of centuries and millennia of thought and struggle; the earliest law codes (even that of the Mosaic Law [Torah]) had only just begun to address issues of equality and social justice. In ancient Palestine, for example, the poor and most vulnerable in society (the landless, the sick, the widows and orphans, etc), with less-developed institutional “safety nets” in place for protection, were especially prey to the powerful and unscrupulous (rulers, land-owners, etc [and their representatives]). The Old Testament Prophets thundered this theme of condemnation for the neglect and oppression of the poor repeatedly throughout the oracles and messages which have come down to us in Scripture. The traditional topos of (good)-poor vs. (wicked)-rich was not simply an artificial invention: it reflects the socio-economic situation for countless people over many generations. We should not be misled by the apparent naïvité of this juxtaposition; it may seem overly simplistic on the surface (painting with a very broad brush), but the dualism powerfully expresses an underlying and deep-seated conflict at the heart of ancient society.

(b) Jesus’ audience appears to have been drawn largely from the poorer classes; as indicated by the quotation from Isa 61 in Luke 4:16-19; 7:18-23 par, Jesus came (as the Anointed One) to proclaim “good news” to the poor. In the (Synoptic) Gospel tradition, he is repeatedly depicted associating with the lowly (including many who would have, in socio-religious terms, have been considered “sinners”). Numerous parables and teachings stem from the current economic situation in Palestine: of persons forced, more frequently, to work as tenant farmers for rich (absentee) landowners and their managers. Women, Gentiles, Samaritans and other foreigners would have faced prejudice and oppression as well—occasionally these are given special attention by Jesus (especially in the Gospel of Luke). Jesus appears to have demanded of his follows that they identify themselves, in various ways, with the poor and lowly in society (see below). To this we must add the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus faced estrangement and persecution from their own countrymen, which certainly added to the poverty and hardship of early Palestinian (Jewish) Christians. Nearly a generation after the Gospel had spread out into the Roman Empire, Paul continued to recognize a special need for the Christians in Jerusalem (sometimes identified as “the poor”, Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10; on this, see below). Poverty, then—voluntary or otherwise—was effectively the reality for many, if not most, of Jesus’ first followers (the first generation of Christians).

2. Jesus demanded of his followers that they identify themselves with the poor and lowly.

This is reflected by the two sides of his injunction to the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:21 par):

  • “sell whatever you have…”
  • “and give to the poor…”

“…and (come) here—follow me!” References to abandoning possessions and family ties occur frequently enough in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:16-20; 10:28-30; Luke 9:57-62; 14:26-33 etc & pars), disappearing soon after in the early Church, so that we can be certain (on objective grounds) that this reflects the authentic teaching and practice of the historical Jesus. The two sides of this command—the initial process of becoming Jesus’ disciple—are: (a) to give up one’s possessions and attachments (i.e. become poor), and (b) give to those others who are poor. In both practice and symbol, followers of Jesus identify themselves with the poor and unfortunate in society—a frequent theme illustrated by Jesus in his parables (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37). This habit of self-sacrifice and voluntary poverty continued on in the first congregations of believers in Jerusalem, who (according to the account in Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37ff) chose to share all their possessions in common, selling property and donating the proceeds for use by the Church as a whole. As Christianity spread into the cities across the Roman Empire, this practice was not maintained; indeed, there is little evidence of any emphasis on voluntary poverty in Paul’s letters. He presents a very different ideal of mutual cooperation and concern which did not, apparently, involve giving up property or possessions. Rather than abandoning family ties, the expectation was that whole families and households would together consist of believers, serving to build up a wider Christian Community. It is this model which continues today; though, on occasion, groups such as the Hutterites have attempted to live out the communalistic organization envisioned in the early Jerusalem Church (and, similarly, the Jewish Community of the Qumran scrolls). The ideal of (voluntary) poverty retains an important place within the monastic traditions as well.

Most of Paul’s references to riches and poverty are soteriological, related to the (spiritual) gifts and blessings bestowed by God in Christ (Rom 9:23; 10:12; 11:12, 33 etc). Explicit references to the poor are rare, largely limited to discussion of Paul’s collection project for the Christians in Jerusalem, see esp. Rom 15:26ff; 2 Cor 8-9—the latter passage draws upon the soteriological language of rich/poor, using the example of Christ (his incarnation, 2 Cor 8:9). Only in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 6:9-10, 17-18) are riches as such addressed, with the customary warning. This theme is much more prominent in the epistle of James (Jas 1:9-10; 2:1-7; 4:1ff; 5:1-6), which is not so much a letter as a sermon or collection of teaching, with many points of contact with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain—this may indicate that James is earlier than the letters of Paul, and it almost certainly reflects a Palestinian (Jewish Christian) background.

3. “Poor” and “Rich” are not limited to socio-economic status, but connect with the experience of following Jesus.

Here I would point out several important, related aspects:

(a) “Poor” is not limited to material or economic poverty: it extends to include, in the words of the first Matthean Beatitude, “the poor in spirit”—this means that the follower of Jesus will embrace lowliness, meekness and humility, both in relationship to God and in service to others. This occurs as a specific point of emphasis throughout Jesus’ teaching; of many examples, see Matt 18:3-4; 23:12; Mark 9:33-37; 10:42-45; Luke 14:7-11; 17:7-10; 18:9-14 and pars (cf. also Lk 1:48, 52). Note especially the importance in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18) of doing acts of justice and charity in secret, receiving recognition and reward from no one else but God.

(b) “Poor” is not limited to poverty per se, experienced for any reason: it extends specifically to those who experience hardship and suffering on account of Jesus, or for his sake—that is, because of following him. This, too, is stressed in a number of passages (e.g., Mark 8:34-37; 10:21, 29-30; 13:9-13; Matt 10:16-25 and pars).

(c) A life and attitude of poverty imitates the example of Christ (and of God the Father in Christ), in terms of: (i) the incarnation (his self-emptying, cf. Phil 2:5-11; 2 Cor 8:9), (ii) his sacrificial service for others (even unto death, Mark 10:45 par; Phil 2:8, etc). This is also an important theme in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. the keynote verse Matt 5:48 / Lk 6:36).

4. The Beatitudes (and Woes) are intended as consolation for those who experience hardship in following Jesus.

There is some debate as to whether the Beatitudes (and Woes) represent descriptive or performative language—that is, whether Jesus’ sayings merely describe the situation and condition of people or serve to actualize it. The ancient dynamic-magical view of language, as well as the original context of the Beatitude form (a divine declaration at the Judgment after death), would suggest the latter; whereas the paraenetic (teaching and exhortation) purpose given to it would tend to frame the Beatitude as an exemplary description (or promise). There are two dimensions to the ethical/paraenetic purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe):

The first is to offer consolation and encouragement for those seeking to pursue the ethical path of justice/righteousness (in this case, following the teaching of Jesus). There may be no obvious and immediate material reward—indeed, it may require considerable deprivation, and result in mocking and mistreatment by others—but there is the promise of future (heavenly) repayment for all that one may endure in this life. The declarative form of the Beatitude has the interesting effect of announcing now that which will only be realized in the life to come. The question is whether the believer and faithful follower actually experiences the blessing now, or simply holds it as a promise/pledge for the future. The former situation is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology” and represents an important component of New Testament teaching, with a two-fold aspect: (i) we do not have to wait for the next life to experience the reality of God’s truth and presence at work in our hearts and lives (for it is our identity now already); and (ii) the realization of what we already possess should lead us to think and act accordingly (in Paul’s language, “if we live in the Spirit, we should also go in order [i.e. walk] in the Spirit”, Gal 5:25).

5. The Woes serve both as a warning of Judgment to the world and as an ethical warning to believers.

This brings us to the second ethical/exhortational purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe): it serves as warning. But are the Woes addressed to the world at large (that is, primarily to the wicked [unbelievers]) or to the followers of Jesus (the righteous [believers])? An examination of other Woe-sayings of Jesus (Mark 13:17; Matt 11:21; 18:7 and pars) would suggest that it is the world at large he is addressing, occasionally pointed as a condemnation to would-be followers and supposedly righteous persons who act wickedly (Matt 23:13-29; Lk 11:42-46 [scribes and Pharisees]; Mark 14:21 par [Judas Iscariot]). The role of the Messiah in God’s Judgment of the nations (according to traditional Jewish thought) is sometimes overlooked; this very role is associated with Jesus in the Gospels, especially through the heavenly/eschatological figure of the “Son of Man” (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Matt 13:37-41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27-39; Lk 21:36 and pars). Psalm 1, which is in many ways paradigmatic for the Beatitudes, stresses that the wicked will not stand along with the righteous in the Judgment (v. 5f); the “Woe” reflects (or presages) this declaration of judgment on the wicked (or unfaithful follower), those who, in terms of the Lukan Woes (Lk 6:24-26) are wrapped up in the material things of this life.

However, the Woes (as part of the Lukan Beatitudes) are ultimately addressed to Jesus’ own disciples, and serve fundamentally as a warning not to be associated (that is, be identified) with the faithless and wicked of the world (Ps 1:1; and, for a similar instruction against following the ways of the world, repeated in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, cf. Matt 5:46-47; 6:1, 5, 7, 16, 19, 25, 32, etc). In Matt 7:21-23, Jesus demonstrates the reality of false disciples claiming to act and work in his name, but who do not follow the will of God (as expressed through Jesus’ teaching). Specifically, the Woes emphasize the danger of believers becoming caught up with the manner and thinking of the rich, powerful, and haughty in the world—where there is indulgence and empty entertainment, derision and mockery, accumulation of wealth and luxury—there it is no place for the righteous. Paul frames the ethical instruction differently (see Gal 5:16-24, etc), but the basic point is the same: “walk about in the Spirit, and you will not complete the impulse of the flesh” (v. 16).

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Note of the Day – February 28 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous day’s note, I looked at the structure and arrangement of four Lukan “Woes” (Luke 6:24-26), both as collection, and in relation to the four Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23). Today, I will discuss some basic difficulties of interpretation involved in these verses—their meaning and significance in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Plain” (and elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke). In such matters, one must be careful not to rush to “explain away” the difficulties—such as facile attempts to harmonize the Matthean-Lukan Beatitudes, or to “soften” the rich-vs-poor dualism in Luke. As always, careful and sensitive exegesis (often requiring great patience) will yield more fruitful results and will end up being far more faithful to text in the long run.

At first, it should be noted that the Lukan “Woes” are far from unique: many collections of Beatitudes in the ancient world included corresponding warnings or “woes”. From the standpoint of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition, one finds series of Woes at places within Apocalyptic and Wisdom literature (e.g., Isa 5:8-22; Eccl 10:16-17; Tob 13:12ff; 1 Enoch 94-100; 2 Baruch 10:6-7); note especially the alternation of blessing and woe (curse) in 2 Enoch 52. The person who receives the woe reflects the opposite characteristics of the person declared happy/blessed. Highly influential in this regard for Judaism and early Christianity was the macarism and “Two Ways” structure of Psalm 1 (on this subject, see my earlier note). By the time of the New Testament, this dualism between righteous and wicked was well-established and familiar; as was the specific association of the righteous with the poor and oppressed. (cf. my earlier note on the first Beatitude).

Taking the text at face value would lead one effectively to identify the faithful followers of Jesus with the poor as a socio-economic class or type. But surely the poor will not all be happy and blessed in the life to come, simply for being poor, will they? Must one be destitute in this life in order to follow Jesus and receive heavenly reward? It will be helpful to examine briefly two areas: (1) Jesus’ other teaching on riches and poverty, in relation to following him; and (2) the specific emphasis on rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke.

(1) Jesus teaching on riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition)

  • In the parable of the Sower, riches are among the “thorns” which choke the growth of the seed and prevent it from bearing fruit (Matt 13:22 / Mark 4:19 / Luke 8:14)
  • Jesus warns against storing up treasure on earth, rather than focusing upon treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19-21; Luke 12:33-34); the version in Luke follows a command to sell one’s possessions and give to the poor (v. 33), and is illustrated by the parable of the “Rich Fool” (see below).
  • In response to messengers from John the Baptist (“are you the one coming [that is, the Messiah and/or end-time Prophet]?”), Jesus draws upon the language of Isa 61:1ff (Matt 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23). Among the actions associated with the Anointed is the proclamation of “good news” to the poor (see also in Lk 4:16-19). Isaiah 61 proved to be a key Messianic passage, reflecting a growing concern in the Prophets about the fate of the poor and oppressed (what today we would call social justice). Especially harsh condemnation is leveled at those who mistreat or neglect the needy, and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual, as though nothing were wrong (e.g., Isa 1:10-17; Jer 7, etc). The eschatological restoration/redemption of Israel would be centered on the righteous and faithful “poor” (cf. Luke 2:25-28).
  • In the encounter with the so-called Rich Young Ruler (“what should I do that I may have the life of the ages as [my] lot [i.e. inherit ‘eternal life’]?”), Jesus commands him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor before becoming a disciple (Mark 10:17ff / Matt 19:16ff / Luke 18:18ff). There is a tendency to limit Jesus’ injunction to the case at hand; however, the discussion which follows points to a wider application: (a) the statement that it is difficult (almost impossible) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23ff par), (b) the indication that his followers have left their possessions (Mark 10:28 par), and (c) Jesus’ declaration of future reward for those leave their family and possessions to follow him (Mark 10:29f par). For more on leaving all to follow Jesus, see Mark 8:34-37 par; Matt 8:19-22 / Luke 9:57-62.
  • The episode of the poor widow’s offering in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44 par). There are two aspects to Jesus’ response: (1) he contrasts the widow’s offering (positively) with the gifts of the wealthy; (2) the episode follows directly upon his (negative) condemnation of the unscrupulous behavior of the (wealthy) religious authorities (which includes the “devouring” of widow’s houses), Mark 12:38-40 par—this echoes a familiar prophetic theme (see above), and makes the plight of the widow (in the Temple precincts) all the more poignant.
  • The Judgment illustration of the “Sheep and Goats” in Matt 25:31-46 emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (note the eschatological two-way/two-group formulation [blessing vs. woe]). This is probably the main thrust of the prior parable of the “Talents” as well (Matt 25:14-30 [cf. also Lk 19:12-27]).
  • The curious episode of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume, along with the disciples’ rebuke that the perfume could have rather been sold and money given to the poor. This is recorded, with some variation, in Mark 14:3-9 / Matt 26:6-13, and Jn 12:1-8; cf. also Lk 7:37-39. John adds the detail that Judas Iscariot made the rebuke, with the aside that he was a thief and really did not care about the poor (Jn 12:4-6). The point is that, however necessary care for the poor may be, focus on the person of Jesus (that is, following him) is ultimately more important (cf. Lk 10:38-42 for a similar message).

(2) Rich and Poor in the Gospel of Luke

The juxtaposition between rich and poor that we see in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes serves as a special point of emphasis throughout the Gospel of Luke. There are a number of important passages (in addition to the Beatitudes & Woes) which are occur only in this Gospel:

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (esp. vv. 33-35).
  • The parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21), which serves as a dire warning against the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions: “…thus is the one storing treasure for himself and (who) is not rich unto God!” (v. 21)
  • Prior to Jesus’ parable of the (eschatological) Great Banquet (Lk 14:16-24), he offers instruction that such expense and hospitality should be extended especially to the poor and sick, rather than well-to-do friends and relatives (Lk 14:12-14, also v. 21ff). This, in turn, is preceded by a teaching (also using a Feast illustration) on the importance of humility and self-effacement (Lk 14:7-11). One finds throughout this chapter numerous echoes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. also vv. 34-35 [Matt 5:13]).
  • The parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Lk 16:1-9) remains somewhat obscure, but the exemplary behavior of the manager may consist in reducing the bill of the debtors by eliminating his own commission (that is, giving up money which would have come to him, for the sake of future [job] security). If so, then the parable would be illustrative of the same theme (as in the Beatitudes, etc) of temporary deprivation which results in future reward. There is here, too, a connection to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain in the discussion which follows (Lk 16:10-13, cf. verse 13 [= Matt 6:24]).
  • Zaccheus is the rare example of a positive rich character in the Gospels (Lk 19:1-10), but it is important to note that emphasis is given to the specific point that he gives away half of his goods to the poor (v. 8). It is not clear whether this means he only now (upon encountering Jesus) begins to do this, or whether this reflects his regular (just/righteous) behavior. His description as a (rich) toll-collector (v. 2) would itself seem to imply the former—such a designation, from the traditional Jewish religious viewpoint, would be enough to mark him as a lost “sinner” (v. 10). Interestingly, the parable of the Minas follows directly (Lk 19:11-27), creating an implicit interpretive connection between that parable and giving away one’s possessions to care for the poor (there is a similar association of themes in Matt 25:14-46).

Two passages are deserving of special note:

  • The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55)—this canticle, attributed to Mary (though a few witnesses read “Elizabeth”), draws upon the language and imagery of the Old Testament and related Jewish literature (see my earlier Advent season note). Verses 51-53, in particular, contrast God’s action toward the rich and mighty with that toward the poor and humble, in a manner very similar to that of Jesus’ teaching in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. Note especially verse 53, which is connected syntactically with the clause in v. 52
    52He has taken down the powerful (ones) from their seats and lifted high the lowly (ones);
    53the (ones) hungering he has filled up with good (things) and the rich (ones) he has set out (away) from (him) empty.
    —this is close in wording and thought with the second Beatitude and Woe (Lk 6:21a, 25a).
  • The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Here we find the nearest approximation to the teaching and conceptual formulation in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. The parable contrasts Lazarus (poor, sick and destitute) with the Rich Man (wealthy and well-fed), along with a reversal of their situations in the afterlife (vv. 22-23ff). Lazarus ends up in “Abraham’s bosom” (a paradisial ‘intermediate state’), for no other reason (apparently) than that he was poor and had suffered; similarly, the Rich Man is in Hades for just the opposite reason (see v. 25). There is no indication that Lazarus had lived a particularly righteous life, other than the misery which he had endured. It is just this unqualified identification of poverty and righteousness (with the related association of wealth and wickedness) which, as in the case of the Beatitudes, proves so difficult for interpreters today.

I will continue on with several interpretative guidepoints in the next day’s note.

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Note of the Day – February 27 (Beatitudes)

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As discussed in prior notes on the Beatitudes, only the collection in Luke contains a corresponding set of “Woes” (Lk 6:25-26). Since, in many other respects, both the Matthean “Sermon on the Mount” and the Lukan “Sermon on the Plain” clearly draw from the same tradition (identified by many scholars as a source document “Q”), there have been a number of attempts to explain this difference, most commonly:

  • The Woes were originally part of the inherited tradition, but have been omitted (by the Gospel writer) in Matthew
  • The Woes were not part of the tradition, but were added (by the Gospel writer) in Luke, either from a separate source or by invention of the author
  • The Woes were in the version of the tradition inherited by Luke (QL) but not in the version inherited by Matthew (QM)

Strong arguments can be (and have been) made for each of these theories. A comparison of Matthew 7:21-24 and Luke 6:46-49 is perhaps instructive in this regard. Both passages deal with persons (followers or would-be followers) who hear Jesus’ words but do not obey them. However, whereas Lk 6:46 is couched as a simple lament for his followers (“and [for] what do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the [things] that I say?”), in Matt 7:21-23 Jesus is describing a specific group of people (“not every one saying to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will come into the kingdom of the Heavens…”)—false or would-be followers who perform (or claim to perform) great works in Jesus’ name but fail (or refuse) to do the will of God. This last point is implied by way of verse 21b: the false disciples are the opposite of “the one doing the will/wish of my Father in the Heavens”. Verses 22-23 provide an eschatological setting of Judgment which corresponds to that of the Woes in Lk 6:24-26—there, too, the “wicked” for whom “woe” is declared, represent the opposite of the very things which characterize the “righteous” (Lk 6:20-23). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, especially, those who fail to do the will of the Father, in fact, fail to keep the Law (as understood and interpreted in Jesus’ teaching)—they are “the ones working lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). In light of this special emphasis in Matt 7:21-24, it is certainly possible that (in Matthew) the Gospel writer has omitted any Woes associated with the Beatitudes inherited from the Tradition.

I touched upon each of the Lukan Woes briefly in my earlier notes on the first, second, fourth and ninth (Matthean) Beatitudes. It is worth recounting several fundamentally difficult points of interpretation. To begin with, here are the four Woes, each of which corresponds (almost precisely) with a Beatitude:

Plh\n ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, o%ti a)pe/xete th\n para/klhsin u(mw=n.
“(All the) more, woe to you the rich (one)s!—that you have your help/comfort (from riches)!” (v. 24)
Beatitude: “Happy (you) the poor (one)s, (in) that yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20b)

Ou)ai\ u(mi=n oi( e)mpeplhsme/noi, o%ti peina/sate
“Woe to you the (ones) having been filled up now, (in) that (later) you will hunger!” (v. 25a)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) hungering now, (in) that (later) you will be fed (full)” (v. 21a)

Ou)ai\ oi( gelw=nte$ nu=n, o%ti penqh/sete kai\ klau/sete
“Woe to (you) the (ones) laughing now, (in) that (later) you will mourn and weep (aloud)!” (v. 25b)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) weeping (aloud) now, (in) that (later) you will laugh” (v. 21b)

Ouai\ o%tan u(ma=$ kalw=$ ei&pwsin pa/nte$ oi( a&nqrwpoi:
kata\ ta\ au)ta\ ga\r e)poi/oun toi=$ yeudoprofh/tai$ oi( pate/re$ au)tw=n
“Woe (to you) when all men should say (things) beautifully [i.e. speak well] of you;
for accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the false-Foretellers [i.e. false prophets]!” (v. 26)
Beatitude: “Happy are you when men should hate you…on account of the Son of Man!
Be joyful and leap (with joy), for see—your payment (is) much in Heaven;
For accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]” (vv. 22-23)

The first three Beatitudes/Woes can be grouped together as follows:

  • Principal dualism of Poor vs. Rich (v. 20b, 24) with ultimate inheritance of each (Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches)
    • Eschatological reversal (= reversal of values):
      • hunger vs. being well-fed (v. 21a, 25a)
      • weeping/mourning vs. laughing (v. 21b, 25b)

The fourth Beatitude/Woe concludes the Beatitudes (and the exordium) and transitions into the subsequent teaching—i.e., how the righteous (follower/believer) should live out the characteristics that (will) declare him/her “happy/blessed”. The ninth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:11-12) serves the same rhetorical and instructional purpose, but in a slightly more complex arrangement. The Lukan Beatitude/Woe, however, is unique in the way it repeats and emphasizes the principal dualism of Lk 6:20b, 24:

  • Poor vs. Rich
    • Inheritance: Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches
  • People do/speak evil to you vs. speak well of you (example of Prophets vs. False Prophets)
    • Reward: Much in Heaven vs. worldly favor (implied)

It is this stark dualism (with its reversal of values) that has caused so much difficulty for thoughtful interpreters. The apparently harsh, almost simplistic, juxtaposition of poor vs. rich has led to the Lukan Beatitudes being thoroughly ignored (in comparison with the far more popular set of Beatitudes in Matthew). One is unlikely to hear them preached today, and the Woes hardly ever (especially in the reasonably well-off and well-to-do churches of the modern West)! Sadly, they suffer neglect even from many serious and distinguished commentators. The reasons are not hard to find; and yet, it is important to examine these difficult verses to see just what it is that Jesus (and the Gospel writer) wish to communicate, and why this particular form of instruction was used. This I will attempt to do in the next day’s note.

NoteOfDay_AfterEpiphany_3

Supplemental Study (Beatitudes): Prophets and False Prophets

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In previous notes I discussed the Beatitude of Jesus in Matt 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 (with the corresponding “woe” in Lk 6:26); there “Prophets” and “False Prophets” are mentioned in relation to the ethical instruction for believers to rejoice when experiencing persecution. It may be helpful to examine briefly the background and significance of these terms.

Prophets

The English word prophet is simply a transliteration of the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), which is presumably derived from a root compound of a verb fh(mi) (“say, speak, tell”) and the particle pro (“fore[ward], before”), along with the related (or denominative) verb profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ). This can be understood in either (a) a spatial-relational sense (i.e., to speak/declare before someone, to speak forth), or (b) a temporal sense (to speak/declare beforehand). In earlier Greek (from the classical period) the former sense is dominant; by the time of the New Testament, the latter is more prominent. The verb prophteu/w (“to speak/tell before”) is roughly synonymous with similar verbs such as prole/gw (“gather/count/say before”), profwne/w (“give voice before”), and proagoreu/w (“say in public before”), and early on came to be used in the technical sense of delivering an oracle or message from the gods (cf. G. Friedrich in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT] VI:781ff for an extended discussion and many references).

The Hebrew noun ayb!n` (n¹»î°) is usually translated in English as “prophet”, though its precise etymology remains uncertain. The Arabic verb naba°a (“announce, inform, impart”) may ultimately derive from the same (early Semitic) root as ayb!n` (the verb ab*n` is denominative, itself deriving from the noun ayb!n`). In all likelihood the Hebrew noun relates to the Akkadian verb nabû (“call, proclaim,” etc), and may reflect a passive form (i.e. “[one who is] called”, “[one] appointed to proclaim”; cf. a comparable term dyg]n` n¹gîd, “[one] highly visible, in front” [leader/ruler]). In any event, ayb!n` refers more to a role than a specific activity (unlike the partially synonymous word hz#j) µœzeh, “seer”, one who receives visions, cf. 1 Sam 9:9)—namely, to serve as an intermediary or spokesperson between God and the people. The role of prophet/ayb!n` was hardly unique to Israel; it is attested throughout the ancient world (the prophetic/oracular letters from Mari provide perhaps the closest early examples). Our best information, understandably, comes from prophets attached in some way to the royal court, but there doubtless were persons who fulfilled a similar role and function at the smaller community level (of family, clan, or tribe). By use of various means and methods (vision, oracle, divination), prophets informed people of the will and intention of the gods. “Prophecy” in the popular mind is often associated primarily with predicting the future; however, this is a distortion of the prophet’s true function—to reveal the will of God (or the gods). In the dynamic-magical (one might say “proto-logical”) religious mindset of the ancient world, that which God (or the gods) willed would certainly come to pass. In a non-literate or pre-literate society especially—with no sacred writings—leaders depended upon such a spokesperson for accurate “revelation”. As such, the “false prophet” (see below)—one whose revelatory information was ‘incorrect’ or unreliable—could have a devastating effect on society.

Interestingly, the term ayb!n` occurs only rarely in the Pentateuch and early Historical Books (Joshua–Samuel); outside of Deuteronomy and 1-2 Samuel, it appears only in Gen 20:7 (said of Abraham); Exod 7:1 (of Aaron); Num 11:29; 12:6; Judg 6:8, along with the feminine form ha*yb!n+ (Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4, of Miriam and Deborah) and the denominative verb ab*n` in Num 11:25-27 (of inspired elders/leaders of Israel, cf. v. 29). Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22 provide instruction for how the people should regard prophets who appear or become known in the community, including tests for true and false prophecy (see below); the latter passage, in particular, refers to Moses as a prophet (also in Deut 34:10). Samuel was the first great Prophet, in the traditional sense (1 Sam 3:20); but there are also enigmatic references to groups of prophets (1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24) as well as passing mention of “prophets” (1 Sam 9:9; 28:6, 15), the precise context of which is lost to us today. Other specific prophets begin to be mentioned in the later sections of 1-2 Samuel—Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11) and Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25)—and many more figures appear in the books of Kings (with parallel accounts in 2 Chronicles), intertwined with the political history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The best known of these prophets are Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 8) and Isaiah (see esp. Isa 6:1-9:6; 36-39 and parallel passages in Kings-Chronicles). Contrary to the popular conception of Elijah (and, subsequently, John the Baptist) in tradition, most of the prophets were almost certainly educated and literate persons, especially those associated with the royal court. In all likelihood, there were ‘schools’ or ‘guilds’ of prophets—already in 1 Sam 10:5-12; 19:20-24 we see prophetic groups or communities, and Isaiah is described in a matter of fact way as having ‘disciples’ (Isa 8:16). This latter reference also suggests the task of recording and preserving prophecies (in written form)—a very slight indication of the sort of work which may ultimately have produced the core of the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) which have come down to us (similar collections of oracles [of the Sibyls] are known from the Greco-Roman world).

The early Old Testament references to prophets and prophecy seem to emphasize three primary aspects: (1) the general role of serving as spokesperson (i.e. for God), (2) declaring a specific oracle or message from God, and (3) delivering ecstatic (divinely-)inspired utterances. By the kingdom period, it is the second aspect which dominates, in two basic ways (for an extended discussion, cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 223-229):

  1. Royal oracles—messages delivered to kings, and related to their rule
  2. Judgment oracles—messages delivered to both king and people, foretelling and/or threatening God’s coming judgment, sometimes with an exhortation to repent

In the Prophet books (Scriptures) which are principally pre-exilic and/or exilic in date, the message is largely one of judgment, focusing upon the condition and fate of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, gradually, this is extended to incorporate two additional themes:

  1. Judgment oracles against the surrounding nations
  2. The promise of restoration following judgment (for at least a “remnant” of Israel/Judah)

The theme of restoration becomes even more prominent in the later exilic and post-exilic writings (all the more so if one wishes to include some or all of Isaiah 40-66 in this category), and provides the background for a good deal of Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity.

Within Jewish tradition, “the Prophets” came to be virtually synonymous with the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) that are now part of the Old Testament. The extent to which these writings derive from the Prophets themselves (and reflect their exact words) continues to be debated by scholars. There can be no doubt, however, that in Jesus’ time “the Prophets” meant the books as least as much as the men associated with them. The expression “the Law and the Prophets” served as a locution for all of what we would call inspired or authoritative Scripture (cf. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:16, 29-31; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; cf. Sirach 1:1), though the extent of the “canon” at the time remains an open question. The book of Psalms appears to have been included under the “Prophets” (with David as a prophet, cf. Acts 2:30), as well as the historical books Joshua–Samuel (associated with the prophet Samuel). Even the Law (Pentateuch) had a prophetic character, considered traditionally as the work of Moses (a prophet, cf. Deut 18:15ff; 34:10).

It is less clear to what extent the actual prophetic role and gift was believed to continue on in persons within Judaism up to the time of the New Testament. The evidence from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) is equivocal and ambiguous at best. The word ayb!n` (whether in the singular or plural) nearly always refers to the Prophets of old (or their Writings); in only a few instances is it possible that prophecy is thought to continue on into the present (e.g., in 1QS 1:3; 8:15-16; 1QpHab 7; 4Q265; 4Q375; 11Q5; 11Q19 54, 61; for these and other references cf. George J. Brooke, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Qumran Scrolls and the New Testament” in Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity Brill:2009, pp. 32-41). Within the Qumran Community, the positive sense of prophecy appears to have been limited to the (inspired) teaching and interpretation of Scripture (“the Law and Prophets”), such as is exemplified in the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Jesus fulfills a similar role as inspired interpreter in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. Matt 5:17-20ff). 1 Maccabees 9:27 seems to reflect a common sentiment that authoritative Prophets (in the ancient religious and Scriptural sense) had disappeared from Israel—a view which helped to fuel eschatological and apocalyptic expectation of a great Prophet-to-Come. There were two strands to this tradition: one, in terms of Moses (via Deut 18:15-19, cf. 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41; 1QS 9:11; 4Q158; 4Q174); the other, in terms of Elijah (prim. from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. Sir 48:10; 4Q558; also 4Q521). This (eschatological) Prophet is mentioned several times in the New Testament, in reference to Jesus (see Jn 6:14; 7:40, also Lk 7:16; Jn 1:21, 25 and note the imagery in Mark 9:4ff par); in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37, Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff. As for the figure of Elijah, there is some evidence associating him with Jesus (see Mark 9:4ff par; Jn 1:21, 25; Lk 4:25-26 and 7:18-23 par, with similar language [from Isa 61] in Lk 4:18ff), though in the Synoptic tradition he is more commonly identified with John the Baptist (Mark 8:18; 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but see John’s explicit denial of the role in Jn 1:21). In the Gospels, Jesus himself is depicted as prophesying: regarding his own suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31 par), the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-2 par; Lk 19:43-44), and other end-time events (Mark 13 par [Matt 24; Lk 21], also Lk 17:20-37). And, of course, in traditional Christian theology, Prophet is one of the three main “offices” of Christ.

Within the early Christian community, prophecy was viewed as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, marking the “new age” which inaugurates the end-time (see the quotation and adaptation of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s Pentecost speech, Acts 2:14ff, and cf. Acts 19:6). In the Pauline congregations, prophecy had its proper place as a “gift” and work of the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29; 13:2, 8-9; 14:1-6, 22ff; 1 Thess 5:20); and there are other references to prophets and prophecy in the Church as well (Matt 7:22; Acts 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14, etc), though the exact nature such activity and utterance is not entirely clear. The early Christian Didache (chaps. 11-13) deals with the issue of receiving prophets, including the question of how to judge whether they are true or false (see below). The expression “Apostles and Prophets” (Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:14; Didache 11:3) almost serves as a locution for all leaders and teachers in the community. This may also relate back to the manner in which early believers (esp. the Apostles and first disciples) were, by the suffering and persecution which they would endure, identified with the Prophets of old—the theme of persecution of the Prophets is relatively common in the New Testament (Matt 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; 1 Thess 2:15), serving as sympathetic and exhortative examples for believers (Heb 11:32-12:1) and signifying their ultimate heavenly reward (Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:22-23; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24).

Interestingly, there is relatively little direct evidence in the Old Testament itself regarding the persecution of the Prophets. We read of attempts to kill Jeremiah (Jer 26; 38:4-6ff, cf. also Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1ff); the latter episode occurring within the context of Ahab and Jezebel putting prophets to death (1 Kings 8:4, 13; 19:1, 10, 14), just as king Jehoiakim put to death Jeremiah’s contemporary, Uriah. Later tradition, as recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 10.38), attributes similar widespread slaughter of prophets by wicked king Manasseh, but there is no comparable detail in the Old Testament (Josephus may simply be elaborating upon 1 Kings 21:16). Amos encountered threatening opposition from the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:10-13), but no further action is recorded. The Jewish work known as The Lives of the Prophets (1st cent. A.D.?) summarizes the lives and careers of twenty-three prophets; of these, only six (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, and Zechariah ben Jehoiada) were put to death, though a number of others suffered persecution in some form. Most famously, Isaiah is recorded as having been sawn in two during the reign of Manasseh (1:1), and this appears to be reasonably well-established tradition (cf. Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-5; j. Sanh 10:28c, 37; b. Yeb 49b, and the reference in Heb 11:37a). For Zechariah ben Jehoiada, see the note at the bottom of the page.

False Prophets

The term “False Prophet” translates the Greek yeudoprofh/th$ (pseudoproph¢¡t¢s), but actual references to “false prophets” in Scripture are quite rare. As indicated above, societies—especially those which did not rely on fixed authoritative Writings—depended on the veracity and reliability of their prophets (i.e. those who spoke for and interpreted the will of God [or the gods]). False or unreliable prophecy was, therefore, a religious problem of the highest magnitude. For ancient Israelite religion, the question of false prophets is addressed in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22. The first passage is connected with idolatry: the prophet who advocates following after “other gods”, even if associated prophetic ‘signs’ have come true, can be judged to be acting falsely (implied) and should be put to death. The second passage frames the true Israelite prophet as being like Moses (see the discussion above), and offers a simple test in 18:20-22: if the prophecy does not come true, then it is not a message spoken by God (cf. also Jer 28:9). This latter test is reasonable enough on the surface, but who makes this determination? Moreover, it may take generations to determine whether a prophecy has ultimately come to pass; indeed, numerous oracles in the Prophetic writings (Scriptures) have not clearly come to pass or require questionable methods of interpretation to demonstrate that they have taken place. By comparison, the early Christian Didache, in its discussion on receiving prophets (chaps 11-13), uses their moral conduct and ethical behavior (along with ‘orthodoxy’ in teaching) as the principal test (11:8-12). Jesus himself offers a test regarding false prophets (Matt 7:15ff), whom he apparently identifies with those followers who have not done “the will of my Father” (vv. 21ff); in the context of the Sermon on Mount, this no doubt refers to those who fail or refuse to follow Jesus’ own teaching and interpretation of the Law.

Who exactly are these “false prophets”? Are there any examples in Scripture? The prophets of pagan religions and deities (such as those of Canaanite Baal-Haddu, 1 Kings 19:20-40 etc), according to the nature of Israelite monotheism, have to be considered false. Other “false” prophets are, perhaps, to be associated with the use of questionable means (forms of visions, dreams and divination, etc, cf. Jer 23:25ff; Ezek 13:7ff; Isa 8:19, etc); however, the emphasis in Jer 23:9-40 and Ezek 13:1-23 has more to do with relying on “false” visions which come from the prophet’s own mind. 1 Kings 22:5-28 records an historical instance of “false prophets” (contrasted with a “true” prophet, Micaiah vv. 8ff)—here at least the name of one “false” prophet is mentioned (Zedekiah, v. 24). In 1 Kings 22 and Ezek 13, the false prophets declare peace, security and military success (which, of course, is just what the people and the ruler would like to hear), rather than judgment, destruction, and military defeat. This, indeed, would seem to be the primary characteristic of “false prophets”—they declare what appeals to their audience, rather than the (often harsh) message which may come from God (Isa 30:10-11; Jer 5:31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:3; Mic 2:11; 3:5; for a similar thought, cf. also 2 Tim 4:3). In Jeremiah 28, Hananiah is a (false) prophet who, in a similar fashion, predicts the defeat of Babylon (see esp. Jeremiah’s response and rebuke in vv. 6-9). At the time of the New Testament, the famous and ancient figure of Balaam would no doubt have been considered a false prophet, of sorts (cf. 2 Pet 2:5; Rev 2:14); however, in at least one strand of Old Testament tradition, Balaam appears as a positive figure, who utters (inspired) oracles regarding Israel (Numbers 23-24).

Within the New Testament and early Christian tradition, along with the revival of Spirit-guided prophecy (see above), the problem of false prophets surface anew. Already Jesus had warned of false prophets (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24) to come. The Jewish magos Elymas (bar-Jesus) is called a false prophet in Acts 13:6; and the danger of (pseudo-)Christian false prophets is mentioned in early writings as well (1 Pet 2:1; 1 Jn 4:1; Didache 11-13). In Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13 par) “false prophets” are connected with “false Christs”—that is, false Messiahs—(Mk 13:22 and par Matt 24:11, 24); and elsewhere there is an association with those who claim to have done wonders in Jesus’ name (Matt 7:21-23). More prominent is the connection with “false teaching” in the Church (see esp. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 4:3f; 2 Pet 2:1-3; 1 Jn 4:1ff; 2 Jn 9-10; Rev 2:14-15, 20, 24; Did 11:3ff, and Paul’s reference to “false brothers” and “false apostles” in 2 Cor 11:13, 26; Gal 2:2, cf. also Rev 2:2). 1 John provides perhaps the most detailed description of false teaching, related to a specific Christological view, which is difficult to determine precisely (see esp. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6). This aberrant view of Christ is connected both with “false prophets” (4:1) and “antichrist” (2:18) which have resulted in divisions within the community (2:10). 1 Jn 4:1ff provides another test to determine false prophets, whether the spirit which speaks through the Christian messenger is truly from God. Mention should also be made of the personification of false prophecy depicted in the book of Revelation (see on the “False Prophet” in Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10); whether this should be understood as a real flesh-and-blood figure, or symbolic and representative, quite depends on one’s mode of interpreting the book (but cf. 2 Thess 2:9-11).

In referring to “false prophets” in the ‘Woe’ of Luke 6:26, Jesus is drawing upon the Old Testament image of prophets who declare things which the people want to hear (peace, prosperity, material security, et al), rather than the message of God. This explains why people speak well of them, and they may have considerable currency and popularity in their lifetime; but the ultimate (heavenly) reward belongs to those who confront society with a message of righteousness (justice) and holiness, according to the example of God in Christ.

The reference to Zechariah in Matt 23:35 presents a notorious historical-critical difficulty. Here he is named as “Zechariah son of Berechiah” (the designation of the Old Testament exilic prophet of the book that bears his name), but the historical event described almost certainly relates to “Zechariah son of Jehoiada” (2 Chron 24:20-22), an earlier figure. The Lives of the Prophets correctly distinguishes the two characters, but regards them both as prophets (chs. 15, 23 [2 Chron 24:2 describes Zechariah ben Jehoiada as a priest]). That there was some confusion in the tradition is clear from the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (mid-2nd cent. A.D.), which further identifies the Zechariah slain in the Sanctuary with Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (§23-24).