Note of the Day


Note of the Day – September 14

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In the previous note, I examined Romans 1:18-32 (specifically, verses 19-23) in the light of the Areopagus speech by Paul in Acts 17:16-34. Today, by way of conclusion, I will look at the climactic verses—Acts 17:29 and Romans 1:23—dealing with the matter of the worship of God through images (i.e. idols).

The starting-point

In Romans 1:23, it is the do/ca (dóxa), i.e. the proper esteem/honor/glory which belongs to God
In Acts 17:29, it is the divine origin of human beings and their kinship with God (“we are the lineage [ge/no$] of God”)

This would appear to be a major difference, the importance and significance of which will be discussed below. In each passage, this is the basis upon which the turning (away) into idolatry should be understood. In Romans, this do/ca is distorted/perverted into images of human beings and animals; in Acts, the essential human kinship with God is ignored in favor of other likenesses.

The likeness—Both passages mention that human beings considered God to be like, or in the likeness of, something else:

In Romans, they make/change (the honor/glory of) God “in(to) a likeness” (e)n o(moiw/mai)
In Acts, they customarily/habitually regard (nomi/zein) the deity to be “like” (o%moion) something

The emphasis in Romans is on the (active) perversion/distortion of the true nature and character of God, in Acts it is on a lack of proper knowledge and understanding. In Rom 1:23, the regular noun qeo/$ (“God”) is used, in Acts 17:29 it is the substantive adjective qei=o$ (“deity”); this is a relatively minor difference, since qeo/$ also appears earlier in the verse.

The images

In Romans, the emphasis is on the particular shape/form of the image (ei)kw/n)
In Acts, the emphasis is on the making of the image, in two respects:
—(a) the material (gold/silver/stone)
—(b) the work of cutting/engraving (the “cut-mark” [xa/ragma])

These different points of emphasis can be seen as complementary, as both can be found in the traditional condemnation and polemic against (pagan) idolatry in the Old Testament and Judaism, with the stress on the making/fashioning of the image perhaps more common in the Prophets.

The human role

In Romans, we are dealing with an image “of decaying/corruptible man”—in other words, the human being is the form and pattern for the image, its character and shape
In Acts, it is the artistic skill (“production and inspiration”) of man which is in view—the process of devising and shaping the image

Again, these can be seen as complementary aspects of the creation of images/idols. Human religious history shows ample evidence of man’s tendency to conceive and imagine God in his own image (cf. Gen 1:26-27), with human characteristics and attributes being applied. Today, in an era largely devoid of religious idolatry, we are able to look at this phenomena more objectively; in the ancient world, concrete images and conceptions of deity (of all sorts) were a vital part of religious expression, requiring that the matter be dealt with head-on in Scripture. It can be difficult for us today to get inside of the thinking that is at work here, the religious and theological underpinnings of (pagan) polytheism now being rather foreign to us. The context of these verses require that they be studied carefully.

The loss of human dignity—Both passages suggest not only a departure from a proper conception of God, but also from a proper understanding of human nature:

In Romans, this is perhaps indicated by emphasizing images of various kinds of animals, in addition to man; Jewish, Christian and philosophical polemic against (pagan) idolatry occasionally stressed the ‘grotesque’ forms of many animal images (however poorly understood) as an especially perverse feature of idol-worship
In Acts, this is emphasized again by the contrast between man’s (metaphysical/spiritual) kinship with God and the fashioning of images in metal and stone

This brings us back to the starting-point (cf. above), whereby it is necessary to take a closer look at the overall difference of approach between Rom 1:23 and Acts 17:29:

Doxa (do/ca)—As discussed above, this refers to the dignity, honor and esteem which is to be accorded God by human beings; it is based on:

  1. God Himself—in traditional theological terms, this would be his nature and attributes; in Romans 1:20 it is summarized as qeio/th$, “God-ness” (i.e., deity).
  2. His Work—indicated here in Rom 1:20 as His power (du/nami$), but power manifested primarily, according to Old Testament/Jewish (and early Christian) tradition, in:
    (a) His work as Creator—giving existence and life to all things, in particular, to human beings
    (b) His work on behalf of Israel—his mighty actions in delivering and establishing His people, especially through the Exodus and Conquest of the land of Canaan.
    Christian tradition and doctrine would extend this salvific work to the deliverance of the people of God from the bonds of sin and darkness.

The improper religious response to God, as described in Rom 1:18-32, involves a perversion of the doxa which belongs to God; this leads to idolatry, and, ultimately (in a similar manner), to all kinds of immorality (vv. 24-32).

Lineage of God (ge/no$ tou= qeou=)—Whereas in Romans much traditional Old Testament (and Jewish) thought is at work, in Acts 17 Paul (and/or the author of Acts) draws more extensively upon Greco-Roman philosophical language and concepts (for more detail on this, see the previous articles on the Areopagus speech). Most noteworthy is verse 28, which contains two elements:

  1. A triadic formula defining the life and existence of human beings “in Him” [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in God]; this is very different from Paul’s usual theological/Christological language—it has been characterized as “panentheistic”, and appears to have much in common (as well as other parts of the speech) with Stoic thought, in particular.
  2. A citation from the astronomical/meteorological poem (or verse-treatise) of Aratus, an early 3rd-century B.C. author (and contemporary of Zeno of Citium) who was influenced by early Stoic thought. Paul picks up on this quotation and uses it in verse 29 as the basis for the argument against the worship of God through images.

The quotation reads: tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men “for we are of (his) lineage”. The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul seems to affirm this Greek philosophical-religious sentiment, by re-stating it in verse 29: ge/no$ ou@n u(pa/rxonte$ tou= qeou=, “then, being of the lineage of God”, or perhaps “…belonging to the lineage of God”, with the word ge/no$ given emphasis. Would the historic Paul (of the letters) have used such an argument? This has been much debated by commentators and scholars. It was not unusual for him to take up statements or concepts, which he might not otherwise entirely accept (without qualification), for the greater purpose of the overall message and teaching (cf. for example, his apparent use of Corinthian ‘slogans’ in 1 Cor 6:12; 7:1; 8:1, 4; 10:23). Consider also his declaration in 1 Cor 9:20-22; if we take this seriously, then Paul certainly would not have shied away from using Greek philosophy if it might help win Greeks to Christ. As I have previously noted, Acts 17:16-34 is really the only example we have of Paul (or any other New Testament speaker/author, for that matter) directly addressing pagan Gentiles. A stronger argument against Pauline authenticity is the significant number of words, expressions and concepts which do not occur in the letters, or are used in a different sense, but even this is far from decisive.


Note of the Day – September 13

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Having established the background (in the previous day’s note) for a comparison of the Areopagus speech in Acts 17:16-34 with Romans 1:18-32, let us begin the comparison here by listing out some essential points of the speech (for more detail, cf. the series on the Speeches of Acts and my supplemental article):

  • Paul notes the religious devotion—deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine powers”) / eu)se/beia (“good/proper fear”)—of the Greeks in Athens (17:22-23). This is done with complimentary language (rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae); earlier in the narrative (v. 16), Paul’s spirit was stirred/angered (“brought to a [sharp] point”) by the number of idols/images throughout the city.
  • A two-fold argument is presented against temple buildings (and the ritual/objects associated with them) as things “made with hands” (17:24-25):
    (1) God as Creator made all things (with his hands)
    (2) He gives all things to human beings and needs nothing from them
  • God created all human beings with a two-fold purpose (17:26-27):
    (1) to live and dwell upon the earth, with the seasons and natural features appointed to them as a divine gift
    (2) to seek God, emphasizing that he is close to (“not far from”) all human beings
  • The divine origin of humankind—stated by accommodation to Greek religious-philosophical language—is presented as a decisive argument as to the true nature of God (“Deity”, to\ qei=on), and against the worship of images (17:28-29)
  • The entire situation described in vv. 22-29 is summarized as the “times of unknowing/ignorance” which God has (up till now) overlooked (v. 30). This is contrasted in verse 31 with the “day” on which God will ultimately judge the world (and which is about to come).

Verses 22-29 are about as close as we come in the New Testament to an objective, positive appraisal of pagan/polytheistic (Greco-Roman) religion. To see this more clearly, note the following chiastic outline:

  • V. 22-23: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious forms (altars/temples), with praise for their religious devotion, though emphasizing (at the end of v. 23) that it is done without knowledge (of the true God)
    • V. 24-25: Two-fold presentation of the true nature of God (the Creator)—contrasted with the temples/altars, etc. of Greco-Roman religion
    • V. 26-27: Two-fold presentation of God’s purpose in creating human beings—emphasizing God’s nearness to them (i.e. requiring no temples, sacrificial ritual, etc)
  • V. 28-29: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious-philosophical language (triadic formula and citation from Aratus), stressing the kinship of human beings with (the true) God, and using it as a powerful argument against the worship of God through idols/images

Only in verse 30 does the tone shift to the more familiar theme of judgment against human wickedness, which is the very point at which Romans 1:18-32 begins. In this light, let us see how pagan religion is described by Paul here in Romans. The relevant discussion is limited to vv. 19-23, verse 19 following the announcement of God’s judgment (his wrath/anger) in v. 18 with the connecting (subordinating, causal) conjunction dio/ti, “through (the fact) that”, “for (the reason) that”, i.e. “because”. The clause governed by this conjunction is fundamental to Paul’s argument, and should be examined carefully:

to\ gnwsto\n tou= qeou= “the (thing) known of God”—i.e., that which is (or may be) known of God (or about Him); this motif of the knowledge of God is shared with the Areopagus speech
fanero\n e)stin e)n au)toi=$ “is shining (forth) in/among them”—i.e. is manifest to them (and among them); the specific idea of God manifesting himself in Creation is generally foreign to the Areopagus speech
o( qeo\$ ga\r au)toi=$ e)fane/rwsen “for God has shone forth to them”—i.e. the (true) God has manifest himself to them; the emphasis in the Areopagus speech was on knowledge of the true God, a distinction more or less taken for granted in Romans

Verses 20-21 come very close to providing an early Christian theory on the origins and development of polytheistic/pagan religion; while not satisfactory from the standpoint of an objective modern analysis of the phenomenology of religion, it remains most incisive, even apart from its theological/doctrinal value.

V. 20: “For the unseen (thing)s [a)o/rata] of Him, being brought to mind by the (things that are) made [poih/samen] from the production [i.e. creation] of the world, are seen accordingly”

These unseen aspects and attributes of God are specified as his ever-present/everlasting [ai&dio$] power [du/nami$] and deity [qeio/th$]. The noun qeio/th$, related to qeo/$ (“god”), is literally “god-ness”, which in ordinary English can only be rendered as “deity”; sometimes it is translated here as “Godhead”, but that is rather inaccurate and misleading. The word occurs only here in the New Testament, and has a parallel (of sorts) with the substantive adjective qei=o$ in Acts 17:29, which likewise is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. The idea of God’s divine and eternal attributes and nature being present and recognizable in the natural world is not specified in the Areopagus speech; at best, it might be inferred from vv. 26-27. Even more distinctive is the phrase at the end of Romans 1:21: “…unto their being [i.e. that they are] a)napolo/ghto$“—this adjective literally means “without (the ability to offer) an account for (onself)”, as before a tribunal, i.e. “without a defense”, here in the sense of “without an(y) excuse”. The idea seems to be that God’s manifestation in creation should be sufficient to bring forth proper recognition and worship of Him among human beings. While not specified as such in the Areopagus speech, there is a similar assumption that God—the true God—can be found and recognized by all human beings. In modern theological terminology, this is described as the knowledge of God by natural revelation; however, Paul makes no clear division between “natural” and “special” revelation, and the categories/labels do not exactly apply.

Verse 21 continues with a dio/ti clause parallel to that in verse 19:

“through (the fact) that [dio/ti, i.e. because] (while) knowing God, they did not esteem (him) as God nor did they show good favor…”

The verb doca/zw is typically rendered “give glory, glorify”, but the sense of “honor, regard with honor” is perhaps better; I have translated here with “esteem”. The verb eu)xariste/w literally means “show/offer a (good) favor”, but it can also refer to the proper response to being well-favored, i.e. “showing gratitude/thanks”. Paul thus attributes to all human beings (even pagan Gentiles) some degree of genuine knowledge of God, but that humankind (universally, it would seem) did not respond properly, in two respects: (1) they did not regard or honor Him as God, and (2) they did not offer thanks/gratitude in turn for the grace/favor He has shown. One would very much like Paul to expand on what he means here—precisely how should human beings have given honor to God as God? This can only be inferred from the verses that follow. An interesting comparison with the Areopagus speech may be offered here:

  • In Acts 17:23, Paul states that the Greeks (pagans) are “not knowing” (a)gnoou=te$) the true God in their religious actions and attitudes (playing on the idea of “unknown god”); this idea is echoed by the expression “times of unknowing” in verse 30. Paul praises (in a sense) their religious response, and emphasizes their lack of proper knowledge.
  • In Romans 1:20-21, Paul takes the opposite approach—affirming their knowledge (“knowing”, gno/nte$) of God, but finding fault with their religious response.

The (pagan) religious response is indicated, negatively, by the adversative conjunction a)ll’, “but (rather)”, and is characterized two-fold:

  • “they became vain/empty” (e)mataiw/qhsan)—”in their thoughts“, as typically rendered; dialogismo/$ being derived from the verb dialogi/zomai, lit. “count through, go through an account”, and generally, “to think/reason through, reckon, consider”, etc.; here it can be understood in the sense of religious thinking or conception. In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, pagan idols/images are typically referred to as “vain/empty” (ma/taio$) things, cf. Acts 14:15; 1 Pet 1:18.
  • “their heart was darkened (e)skoti/sqh)”—”heart” being qualified by the adjective a)su/neto$ (“without understanding, unintelligent”, i.e. senseless/foolish); darkness can be used as a motif for a lack of knowledge (ignorance), but also generally for sin/wickedness and immorality.

This last point is stated in harsher terms in verse 22: “declaring (themselves) to be wise, they became dull [i.e. foolish]”; then follows the concluding statement in verse 23, which describes the beginning of (pagan) idolatry and immorality:

“…and made the esteem/glory of the undecaying God other(wise) in(to) a likeness of (an) image of decaying man and (also) winged-animals and four-footed (creature)s and creeping (thing)s”

The verb a)lla/ssw “make other[wise]” more precisely means “make/change (one thing) into another”, i.e. “change, exchange”, and it is this verb which defines the onset of idolatry. Note also these important details:

  • do/ca (of God) vs. ei)kw/n (of man and animals)—do/ca is usually rendered by “glory” and, in reference to deity, covers two aspects of God: (a) corresponding to Hebrew dbk, lit. “weight” and metaphorically as “honor, dignity, majesty” and the like; (b) according to the fundamental sense of the Greek word of the (favorable) thought/consideration given to someone/something, i.e., by extension, “reputation” or the “honor/esteem” given to someone. Here, then, is a seminal religious distinction between the human conception (or understanding) of God and its translation into physical form and shape (the image [ei)kw/n]).
  • The apposition of ei)kw/n (“image”) with o(moi/wma (“likeness”)—in other words, the conception/image of God is made into a specific likeness (human, animal, etc).
  • a&fqarto$ (God) vs. fqarto/$ (man and animals)—the adjective fqarto/$ relates to the idea of “ruin” and “destruction”, often in the sense of (physical) corruption or decay; I have translated above with “undecaying/decaying”, in order to capture the vividness of the comparison, but other parallel terms could be used (e.g., “incorruptible/corruptible”, “indestructible/destrucible”).
  • The sequence from “man” to “winged (animal)s” [i.e. birds], “four-footed (creature)s”, and “creeping (thing)s” may be meant to indicate or imply a descent into even more ignoble and grotesque forms of idol-worship.

It is here, in verse 23, that we find perhaps the most notable point of comparison (and difference) with the Areopagus speech, as will be discussed (in conclusion) in the next daily note.


Note of the Day – September 12

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The next several daily notes are part of a recent study on the Areopagus Speech of Paul in Acts 17:16-34; cf. Parts 20 and 21 of my series on the Speeches of Acts, as well as a supplemental article. One of the passages in the Pauline letters which is often compared with the Areopagus speech is Romans 1:18-32. Both deal with the subject of ‘pagan’ (polytheistic) religion and idolatry prior to human beings receiving the Gospel. It has been argued by a number of critical scholars that the historic Paul (of the undisputed letters) would not have spoken the way the Paul of Acts 17 does, and that the speech (like most of the others in Acts) is a Lukan composition, i.e. primarily a product of the author of Acts (trad. Luke). I have previously noted a considerable number of words, expressions, and concepts in the speech which appear to be foreign or otherwise unattested in the letters. It is possible, however, that this is the result of the different audience—the Pauline letters (undisputed and disputed), along with the remainder of the New Testament books, were all written to and for Christians, while the Areopagus speech is virtually the only example in the New Testament of an address to pagan Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. There is no clear and simple solution to the question, on objective grounds. But what of the comparison with Romans 1:18-32? Even upon first glance, one notices a substantial difference in orientation; this difference is primarily two-fold:

  • The emphasis is on the impending judgment of God against humankind, brought out clearly at the start in verse 18, with the basis for judgment expounded forcefully in vv. 19-31 and punctuated in v. 32. The idea of judgment is present in the Areopagus speech, serving as the culminating exhortation of 17:30-31, but it is not the main theme of the speech.
  • Romans 1:18-32 deals principally with the immorality of humankind, viewed as a product of human wickedness and a result of idolatry. This is not present in the Areopagus speech at all.

Elsewhere in the letters, Paul’s references to Greco-Roman paganism are all negative, from the standpoint of salvation—the Gentiles once were in darkness, enslaved by idolatry and immorality, but God has rescued them through Christ (cf. Gal 4:8-9; Rom 6:17-19; Col 1:21; 3:7, also Eph 2:2-3). An importance point of emphasis in Romans, of course, is that all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—were slaves to sin in much the same way, whether they lived under the Law or as “sinners”. Typically, Paul refers to idolatry as well from an ethical standpoint, according to its traditional association with licentiousness and immorality (cf. Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5 [also Eph 5:5]). In only four instances (apart from Rom 1:18-32), does he make reference to idols in the context of pagan/polytheistic religion

  • Twice, in brief statements related to the former state of Gentile believers’, before conversion:
    “…how you turned from images to be a slave to [i.e. serve] (the) living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9)
    “You have known that when you were (as the) nations, (you were ones) being led away toward voiceless images, as you might be led” (1 Cor 12:2)
  • In two separate passages related to the question of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22)

The first two verses imply a condition of enslavement (“being led away”); the references in 1 Cor 8 and 10 deal more properly with the nature of idolatry. There were two views on this subject in early Christianity:

  1. The pagan deities were identified primarily with their images/idols, by way of polemic distortion, and so regarded as vain or nothing, i.e. they did not really exist. This is the view generally expressed throughout the Old Testament Prophets (including the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy–Kings) and in Jewish tradition.
  2. The deities had real existence, but were actually evil/unclean spirits or “demons”. This came to be the predominant view in early Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul seems to express both views in 1 Cor 8 and 10—on the one hand, that the deities and their idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4-5; 10:19; also Gal 4:8), on the other, that they are “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21).

A more sophisticated treatment of polytheistic/pagan religion is presented in Romans 1:18-32 and the Areopagus speech, which will be discussed in the next note.


Note of the Day – August 31

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In the two previous notes, I have been discussing the so-called “Apostolic Decree” from the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15, focusing in particular on the four restrictions (prohibitions) required of Gentile believers in v. 20, 29 (cf. also Acts 21:25). The prior day’s note examined each of the four items which Gentile Christians were to “hold/keep themselves away from”. It is now necessary to look again at the best way to understand and interpret the decree. I had indicated three main views:

  • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required. [View #1]
  • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities, and would make table fellowship (sharing of meals) more difficult. [View #2]
  • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture. [View #3]

The way the matter is framed in the letter from the Council (vv. 28-29), addressed to Gentile believers, would suggest the first option—that these four restrictions are the (only) regulations from the Torah which are binding on Gentiles. It might be better to state that they are the only ritual/ceremonial regulations which apply, the essential ethical precepts (e.g. of the Ten Commandments) remaining in force as part of basic Christian instruction. However, it is difficult to associate the four items specifically with commandments in the Torah. Often Leviticus 17-18 is cited as the source of the prohibitions—with parallels to the four in Lev 17:3-9, 10-12, 13-16, and 18:6-18—and yet, only the command against (eating) blood is clearly addressed (Lev 17:10-12). The identification between the sojourner/foreigner in Israel (the g¢r) and Gentiles is also highly questionable, especially since there are numerous other laws which also would apply to the g¢r—Exod 12:48-49; Lev 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 26, 29-30; cf. also Exod 20:10; Lev 16:29; Num 19:10; 35:15; Deut 5:14; 16:11, 14; 26:11; Josh 20:19 and the “Noachide laws” of Gen 9:8-18. In addition, the interpretation of pornei/a as illicit/improper marriage relationships (according to Lev 18:8-18) is far from certain.

A more fruitful line of reasoning, perhaps, relates specifically to the dietary/food laws. Consider again, the vision of Peter (10:9-16; 11:5-10), which effectively eliminates the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Christians now (and, in particular, Gentile Christians) may eat any meats without restriction. The decree, however, establishes three specific principles of kashrût which must still be observed: (1) no meat which has been sacrificed/associated with idols, (2) no meat which has not been properly butchered (draining the blood), and (3) a prohibition against eating any blood itself. This would still leave the question of where/how pornei/a is related to these.

The second interpretation (above) is probably the most popular and widely adopted today, especially by more traditional-conservative commentators. The basic idea is that these four restrictions are enjoined upon Gentile believers in order to promote peaceful relations and (table) fellowship with Jewish believers, especially in areas (such as Jerusalem and Antioch) where the Jewish element in the congregations (and in society at large) tends be dominant. As such, the restrictions are often viewed as local (cf. verse 23), and of a temporary nature (Paul does not cite them in his letters), based on historical and cultural circumstances. This line of interpretation, however, seems rather colored by Paul’s own instruction in Romans and 1 Corinthians, for example, and almost implies that the restrictions would be adopted voluntarily by Gentile believers out of concern for peace and fellowship. However, the language in the letter itself makes it clear that the four prohibitions were seen as compulsory (that is, required)—note the use of the adverb e)pa/nagke$ in v. 28. The verb kri/nw (“judge”) in v. 20 (cf. also 21:25) indicates an authoritative decision, and not simply good advice. Moreover, nothing in James’ words (or the letter) suggests that the purpose of the restrictions was to facilitate table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. If the decree (and the letter) was in any way a response to the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 (which involved Jewish Christians eating with Gentiles), it would provide support for this interpretation, but there is too little evidence to say for certain.

The third view (above) in some ways best explains all four restrictions taken together—the three dietary restrictions are all related to (idolatrous) pagan practice involving animals slaughtered for sacrifice or used in meals. This does not necessarily require a specific cultic ritual—Jews (and Jewish Christians) were highly sensitive to the idolatrous character of the Greco-Roman culture around them, touching many aspects of daily life, everything from coinage to the meat sold in the marketplace. In this view, the emphasis is not so much on a requirement to observe the Torah, but on avoiding the defiling elements of pagan culture (note the expression which leads the list in 15:20). Any of the three main interpretations of pornei/a (see previous note) would fit this view as well. The four restrictions essentially relate to three defiling aspects of pagan culture: (1) food associated with idolatrous sacrifices, (2) improper handling or consumption of blood, and (3) improper sexual and/or marital relationships.

Before concluding, it will be useful to examine the statement by James in verse 21; after listing the four prohibitions he states:

“For out of [i.e. from] beginning (time)s (that have) come to be, according to (every) city, Moshe {Moses} has the (one)s proclaiming him, being known again (in writing) [i.e. being read] in the places of bringing-together [i.e. synagogues] according to every Shabbat {Sabbath}”
In more conventional English:
“For from earliest times/generations, in every city, Moses has those proclaiming him, being read in the Synagogues every Sabbath”

In other words, the Law (Torah) “of Moses” is read and proclaimed in every city—i.e., in cities all throughout the Roman Empire. The specific interpretation of this declaration, however, remains much debated, especially in connection with the restrictions of v. 20. There are two main approaches:

  1. The Law is in force, and is binding (on Jews and Jewish Christians) throughout the Empire, even in areas which might be otherwise influenced by Greco-Roman culture. Gentile believers everywhere are required to observe these four simple restrictions which relate, in some manner, to the Torah commands.
  2. Since there are devout, observant Jews in cities all over the Empire, Gentile believers should be sensitive to their religious scruples and beliefs, especially in matters of food and sexual/marital relations, which might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. Particularly for Gentile Christians in Judea, Syria and the surrounding regions, where Jewish believers dominate, this would be important.

The first option generally corresponds with view #1 (regarding the four restrictions) above. The second option (by far the more popular among commentators today) corresponds with view #2. As I mentioned above, the language of the letter itself (vv. 28-29) tends to suggest view #1, as does James’ reference to it in 21:20-25. The context of this latter passage is important; James and others in Judea have heard about Paul’s extensive missionary work among the Gentiles, and James is concerned about the way it is being viewed and characterized in some quarters. Verse 20 reads (in conventional translation)—

“You notice, brother, how many (tens of) thousands there are among Jews who have trusted (in Jesus) and they all live under zeal for the Law”

and continuing with v. 21 (in a literal, glossed rendering):

“but it has sounded down (in their ears) about you, that you teach a standing-away from Moshe {Moses} (for) all the Yehudeans {Jews} down (among) the nations, relating (that) they (are) not to circumcise th(eir) offspring and (are) not to walk about [i.e. live] by the (proper) customs.”

Clearly this is a distortion of Paul’s teaching, even in Galatians. At most, Paul taught that Jewish believers were free to observe (or not observe) the Torah, though even that is not stated so directly, but is implied from a number of passages. At any rate, one finds nothing of this in the book of Acts, and here (vv. 22-24) James urges Paul to demonstrate that these claims are completely unfounded, advising him to participate in a purification ritual at the Temple. Verse 24 concludes:

“…and all will know that the (things) which were sounded down [i.e. reported] about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather that) you step in line and (you your)self guard/keep the Law”

In verse 25, directly following this, James mentions the decree and the four requirements for Gentile converts (from 15:20, 29). Clearly, then, the context has to do with observing the Law.

I would, however, be inclined to modify this interpretation, according to the third view (regarding the decree and its restrictions) mentioned above. This could be summarized as follows:

The purpose of the restrictions is for Gentile believers to keep themselves away from those (ordinary) elements of Greco-Roman (or otherwise non-Jewish, pagan) culture which expressly violate the Law. Above, I outlined what these three basic elements would be: food associated with idols, improper handling or consumption of blood, and improper sexual and/or marital relationships. None of these would necessary appear obviously sinful or problematic to Gentile converts, especially when ingrained as part of the ordinary fabric of society and daily life. Yet, they violate the Law at key points, even if in a technical sense, and, at the same time, would likely offend the sensibilities of observant Jewish Christians. This may contrast somewhat with Paul’s subsequent approach (see his treatment of such matters in 1 Corinthians), but it seems to be the best way to understand the decree (with its restrictions) in its historical context and within the book of Acts.


Note of the Day – August 30

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In the previous day’s note, I began looking at the statement of James in Acts 15:20-21 which introduces four restrictions (prohibitions) which are required of Gentile converts (repeated in the letter of vv. 22-29). This is sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem or Apostolic Decree. I posed the three principal questions related to these verses as:

  1. What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
  2. How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
  3. How do they relate to the broader witness of the New Testament in regard to the Law?

I dealt with the first question in the prior note. Here it remains to touch upon the next two, and to examine specifically the statement in verse 21.

With regard to an interpretation of the prohibitions, there are three main ways to understand them:

  • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required.
  • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities.
  • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture.

Before offering any evaluation, it is necessary first to examine each of the four restrictions. As indicated above, they are often seen as deriving from Leviticus 17-18 (part of the so-called Holiness Code), involving regulations which apply both to Israelites and to the foreigners/sojourners dwelling among them. In 15:20 (and v. 29), the four items are introduced by the infinitive a)pe/xesqai, “to hold (onself) away from”; in 21:25 the verb is fula/ssesqai, “to guard (oneself from)”. The injunction is, then, to abstain or keep away from the following four things (the order differs between v. 20 and 29, I am using the order in the letter):

ei)dwloqu/ton (eidœlothy¡ton, pl. “things slaughtered [i.e. sacrificed] to images”)—in verse 20, the expression is “pollutions (a(li/sgema, pl.) of/from images”, clarified in v. 29 and 21:25 as “things [i.e. food/meats] sacrificed to images”. This is familiar to students and readers of the New Testament from 1 Corinthians 8-10. It relates not only to involvement in pagan religious/cultic meals, but also the (ordinary) purchase or consumption of meat in the marketplace which had been sacrificed to pagan deities (“idols/images”). As Paul’s discussion makes clear, in a Greco-Roman cultural setting a complex social dynamic was at work, and it was not always easy to be certain whether food had been sacrificed. Paul the Jew may have been inclined to offer a blunt and simple answer to the question, along the lines of the Jerusalem decree; instead, he presents a long, nuanced and highly sensitive argument (spanning three whole chapters). However, it is clear that he ultimately warns strenuously against any association with what here is called “pollution of idols/images”.  Interestingly, Leviticus 17-18 (cf. above) does not deal specifically with this matter; rather, 17:3-9 offers regulations regarding sacrificial offerings, emphasizing specifically that they are to be offered, in the proper manner, within the central sanctuary (the Tent/Tabernacle or later Temple), rather than out in the open field. These regulations may, at least in part, have been intended to eliminate pagan tendencies; verse 7 particularly mentions the practice of sacrificing to ´®±îrîm (<yr!yu!c=), “hairy/shaggy ones”, goat(-shaped) deities/demons and presumably spirits personifying the wilderness (cf. also the ±¦z¹°z¢l in Lev 16), though the precise cultural context is lost to us. Verses 8-9 apply the regulations to the foreign traveller/dweller (rG@, g¢r) in Israel (see below). A more direct prohibition against sacrificing to pagan deities is found in Lev 20:2-3 (cf. also Ezek 14:7-8).

ai!ma (haíma, “blood”)—though this may have been understood by later scribes and commentators as “bloodshed”, there can be no doubt that it refers to the ritual prohibition against eating blood. Of the four items in the Jerusalem decree, this is one most clearly reflected in Lev 17-18—17:10-12 expressly forbids the eating of any blood, the prohibition applying equally to the foreigner/stranger (g¢r) dwelling in Israel. See also Lev 3:17; 7:26-27; Deut 12:16, 23; it is also found among the so-called Noachide laws (Gen 9:4), which subsequent Jewish tradition applied to Gentiles.

pnikto/$ (pniktós, “thing[s] choked [to death]”, pl. in verse 29)—here again a ritual context is involved, for the term refers to an animal choked/strangled rather than being slaughtered in the proper fashion (with the blood drained). The basic idea is dealt with in Lev 17:13-14, being extended (in vv. 15-16) to any animal that dies of itself (rather than being slaughtered); this regulation is related distinctly to the prohibition against eating blood (above). However, within the context of Acts, the regulation appears to be highly problematic; suddenly it seems as though the Jewish Christians are beginning to impose upon Gentiles the sort of legal ‘burden’ that they sought to remove (Acts 15:10, 28). It is not surprising that Western (and other) manuscripts omit this item from the list, some ‘replacing’ it with a version of the Golden Rule, giving the prohibitions an ethical, rather than ritual, emphasis.

pornei/a (porneía)—this term has perhaps caused the greatest difficulty for interpretation; there are three main options:

  • In the general sense of “sexual immorality”
  • As a symbolic description of idolatry
  • As a reference to improper/illicit marriage relationships

For those who view the four prohibitions specifically as legal restrictions (from the Torah) applicable to Gentiles, the last option is preferred, since it is addressed in Lev 18:6-18, and is known to be an issue dealt with by Paul among Gentile believers at least once (cf. 1 Corinthians 5). However, it must be asked if Gentile believers would make this connection based on the simple use of pornei/a, without further explanation. On the other hand, the general sense of the word (indicating “sexual immorality”, spec. “fornication”) seems somewhat out of place in the context here, which is doubtless the reason why a few manuscripts and textual witnesses omit it from the list. If the other three items mentioned are all connected with pagan animal sacrifices, then the second option could be possible—the Hebrew tWnz+ (z®nû¾), largely synonymous with Greek pornei/a, is often used as a shorthand pejorative for idolatry and the deviation from true religion (2 Kings 9:22; Ezek 23:11, 29; Hos 2:4, 6; 4:12; 5:4, etc). It should also be remembered that the fundamental meaning of pornei/a is prostitution, though in the New Testament it is typically used in the wider or more general sense of illicit sexual intercourse.

(to be concluded in the next day’s note)




Note of the Day – August 29

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These three daily notes are supplemental to a discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. Elsewhere, I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21), and the narrative as a whole in relation to “The Law in the Luke-Acts“, along with a separate article addressing several key critical questions. Here I will be looking specifically at the so-called Apostolic “Decree” in verses 20-21 (at the conclusion of James’ speech), repeated in the Letter from the Council (v. 29).

In verse 19, along with the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18, James effectively confirms the words of Peter in the prior speech (vv. 7-11)—

“…And God the heart-knower witnessed (to them), giving them [i.e. Gentiles] the holy Spirit, even as he also (did) to us, and judged/separated nothing through between us and them, cleansing their hearts in trust/faith. Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do you test God, to set upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples/believers] a yoke which neither our fathers nor we had strength to bear?” (vv. 8-10)

Peter here somewhat surprisingly referring to the Law as a yoke which even Jews are unable to bear! (verse 10, along with vv. 11, does have a certain ‘Pauline’ ring to it). James makes a simpler, more direct determination:

“Therefore I judge (that we are) not to crowd in alongside [i.e. to pressure/trouble] the (one)s from the nations turning upon [i.e. turning to] God” (v. 19)

This is stated even more clearly in the letter (addressed to Gentile believers):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden…” (v. 28)

This decisively refutes the claim made by other Jewish Christians that Gentile converts must be circumcised and observe the Law (Torah) of Moses (v. 1, 5); though neither Peter nor James (nor the letter) specifically mentions circumcision, this is covered by the expression “not one burden” (mhde\nba/ro$)—i.e., not one regulation/restriction from the Jewish Law. So far, so good. This would conform with the “Law-free” Gospel and approach to the Gentiles proclaimed by Paul (and expounded so forcefully in Galatians). The difficulty comes with what follows from James in verse 20:

“…but to set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and fornication/prostitution [pornei/a] and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”

This list of restrictions is repeated in the letter (v. 29), with the conclusion of verse 28 (picking up from above):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden more than these (thing)s (which are) e)pa/nagke$…”

The four prohibitions of v. 20, 29 are described as e)pa/nagke$—an adverb which is somewhat difficult to render literally, but it refers to something which proceeds “upon force, compulsion”, typically translated in English as “by necessity, out of necessity”, etc—in other words, these things are necessary or compulsory, not optional. This is sometimes glossed over by commentators in light of v. 29b, where James states “…(these things) from which, thoroughly guarding yourselves, you will practice/perform well”, but is sometimes rendered as though James is simply offering good advice (i.e., “you will do good to avoid these things”). But James does indeed appear to be enjoining Gentile converts strictly to observe specific religious (legal) restrictions—but only these. In attempting to understand the prohibitions of v. 20/29, there are several main questions which tend to overshadow the exegesis:

  1. What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
  2. How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
  3. How do they relate to the broader witness of the New Testament in regard to the Law?

With regard to the first question, the Alexandrian/Majority text of verse 20 reads as indicated above, with a similar set of prohibitions in v. 29:

V. 20: a)pe/xesqai tw=n a)lisghma/twn tw=n ei)dw/lwn kai\ th=$ pornei/a$ kai\ tou= pniktou= kai\ tou= ai%mato$
“…to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and pornei/a and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”
V. 29: a)pe/xesqai ei)dwloqu/twn kai\ ai%mato$ kai\ pniktw=n kai\ pornei/a$
“…to hold (yourselves) away from (things) slaughtered to images [i.e. sacrificed to idols] and blood and (thing)s choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and pornei/a

The ‘Western’ text (D lat [d] Irenaeus, also MS 323 945 1739 1891), however, omits tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n (“{thing[s]} choked/strangled”) and reads in its place a negative form of the “golden rule”—”as many (thing)s as they/you do not wish to come to be unto them/yourselves, they/you should not do to others”. Several witnesses (including Ë45) retain tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n but leave out the reference to pornei/a. There seem to be two factors at work:

  • The Western text of D etc, finding the prohibitions problematic or difficult to understand, interprets them in a more general ethical sense: “blood” probably was understood as “bloodshed”, resulting in three basic ethical prohibitions—against idolatry, immorality [pornei/a], and murder/violence. The reference to “(thing[s]) strangled” may have been thought to be out of place, and so omitted; or, it may have been subsumed under the idea of “bloodshed/violence”. Exactly how the negative form of the Golden Rule, in particular, was added to this list is anyone’s guess; there may have been an attempt to preserve four items.
  • The omission of kai\ [th=$] pornei/a$ perhaps occurred for the opposite reason: among a list of three ritual/ceremonial prohibitions (see below), the reference to pornei/a (understood generally as fornication or sexual immorality) probably seemed out of place.

There are other minor variants, in the order of the items in the list, and so forth; but scholars are more or less in agreement that the Alexandrian/Majority text, though not without its own difficulties, is the best option. An interesting theory is that originally there were only two prohibitions—against things associated with idols and blood—which came to be expanded (to four) by various ways in the textual tradition. On this theory, and other related matters, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 379-383.

(continued in the next day’s note)



Note of the Day – July 31

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This note (on Matthew 12:5-8) is a supplement to my current article(s) on the “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospels (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”). In the episode of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism has two parts:

  1. He cites the example of David and his men at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6)
  2. The saying: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”

In between these, Mark has an additional saying of Jesus (Mk 2:27): “the Sabbath came to be for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Matthew, by contrast, includes three different sayings of Jesus which may (or may not) have been uttered on separate occasions and joined together by thematic (or “catchword”) bonding. Each of these will be discussed in turn:

Matthew 12:5

“Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath (day)s the sacred officials [i.e. priests] in the sacred place [i.e. Temple] cross the threshold of [i.e. transgress/violate] the Sabbath and (yet) do not require an inquiry [i.e. are without fault/guilt]?”

The example from 1 Sam 21:1-6 does not relate directly to the question of violating the Sabbath law; the general example Jesus adds here increases the relevance. As a practical necessity, in order to maintain the Temple ritual, the priests (and other Temple officials) have to perform work, even on the Sabbath. There is an implicit underlying principle: those who perform work related to the sacred place (that is, the Temple) are exempt from the Sabbath restriction. But does Jesus mean to indicate that his disciples, in the simple action of plucking grain in the fields, are somehow to be compared with those who work in the Temple? The logic is extended by Jesus with the saying in verse 6.

Matthew 12:6

“But I say to you that (something/someone) more than the sacred place [i.e. Temple] is here”

The statement is concise and rather ambiguous: “but I say to you that more/greater [mei=zo/n] than the Temple is here”. It is generally thought that Jesus is referring to himself; this has to be inferred from the context, but it is a fair assumption. Critical scholars may doubt the authenticity of this saying; but, if it is authentic, then it is one of the clearest statements by Jesus to the effect that he surpasses the Law (especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects) in his own person. The ‘Temple-saying’ in John 2:19 (cf. also Mark 14:58 par) also suggests that Jesus himself fulfills and, in a (spiritual/symbolic) sense, replaces, the Jerusalem Temple. What precisely is meant by the comparative/superlative adjective mei=zon (“more, greater”)? It is tempting to read in subsequent Christological considerations (with regard to incarnate Deity in the person of Christ), but it is better to keep to the context—what is involved in this passage? An outline of the sequence of the narrative may be helpful, with key themes and elements emphasized, presented as a chiasm:

  • The action on the Sabbath is in response to physical need (hunger), also emphasized in the Sabbath healing stories
    • It is the disciples—those following Jesus—who perform the action
      • The action is viewed by religious authorities as a violation of the Sabbath (though the claim is questionable at best)
    • The disciples (those in service to Jesus) are compared with those who serve in the Temple
  • Jesus declares his authority over the Sabbath, either to interpret the Sabbath law or to override/contravene it

According to this structure, the central religious claim (of the disciples violating the Sabbath) almost becomes irrelevant, whether or not the claim is accurate. For, surely, the argument in verses 5-8 would (or could) apply even to a more serious (and legitimate) violation of the Sabbath restriction. The implication is rather stunning: those engaged in ministry and service to God (and Christ), in the midst of such service, are not bound by the Sabbath law. Interestingly, the logical consequences of this idea do not seem to have been pursued elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, nor even in the early Church, at least not for some years.

Matthew 12:7

“But/and if you had known what (this) is [i.e. what this means]—’I wish (for) mercy and not (for ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice]’—you would not have brought down judgment against the (ones) requiring no inquiry [i.e. the guiltless]”

Perhaps even more striking is the use here of Hosea 6:6a, also cited in Matt 9:13. The context of the previous passage is the call of Matthew/Levi (cf. Mark 2:13-17 par), where certain Pharisees had similarly objected to Jesus eating with toll-collectors and “sinners”. There are two sayings of Jesus in Mark 2:17:

“The ones (who are) strong have no requirement for (one) who cures/heals, but the ones having illness (do)”
“I did not come to call the ones (who are) just/righteous, but sinners”

In Matthew, the saying with Hosea 6:6a is included between these. The original verse in Hosea is part of an exhortation for repentance and a return to YHWH; v. 6 echoes a familiar prophetic theme emphasizing ethical behavior and spiritual integrity over the ritual/ceremonial dimension of religion. The entire verse, rendered from the Hebrew, reads:

“For I desire(d) (faithful) kindness and not (ritual) slaughter [i.e. sacrifice],
and knowledge of the Mightiest One [i.e. God/Elohim] more than (the) rising of (burt offering)s”

This basic teaching is effectively summarized by the scribe in Mark 12:28-34, who responds to Jesus’ declaration of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (vv. 29-31):

“Upon truth [i.e. truly] you have said (it) beautifully, Teacher… to love Him out of (one’s) whole heart and out of (one’s) whole understanding and out of (one’s) whole strength—and to love (one’s) neighbor as himself—is over (and) above [i.e. far more than] all the whole burnt (offering)s and (ritual) slayings [i.e. sacrifices]” (vv. 32-33)

Jesus affirms the substance of the scribe’s comment by saying “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).

The context in Matthew 12:1-8 even more dramatically emphasizes the distinction, as a juxtaposition between following Jesus and the Temple cultus (especially in verse 6, above). This would seem to involve a devaluing, or relativizing, of the sacrificial offerings associated with the Temple (and required according to the Torah). A proper treatment of this question is better reserved for a discussion of Jesus and the Temple (upcoming in the series on “Jesus and the Law”). However, the concluding saying of Jesus in verse 8 is certainly relevant:

Matthew 12:8

“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”

This is nearly identical with the parallel versions in Mark 2:28 / Lk 6:5; though the additional sayings and teachings in vv. 5-7 (above) have added depth and resonance to the Matthean form of the declaration. We are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a clear Christological dimension within the early Gospel tradition. This raises the question of the relationship between the Matthean and Markan/Lukan versions here; from an historical-critical and tradition-critical standpoint, there are two main possibilities:

  1. Matthew has added verses 5-7 to a simpler (earlier) form of the narrative, best represented by Luke 6:1-5
  2. Matthew preserves a more complete version of the (historical) narrative, which has been simplified/shortened in Mark and Luke

Critical scholars would, I think, almost universally opt for the first, while traditional-conservative commentators would tend to prefer the second. Much depends on one’s view of the way Gospel tradition has developed. A critical rule of thumb is that elements or details which increase or add to a heightened view of Jesus’ person and nature tend to be added to the Gospel (and textual) tradition, not removed. If Matt 12:5-7 were original to the historical tradition, it is hard to see why they would be removed from Mark/Luke (or their underlying sources), whereas a reason for their addition is easy to find—they help to explain the narrative and serve to join together vv. 4 and 8. This does not mean that vv. 5-7 are not authentic sayings of Jesus, but only that they may have been added to the context here. Be that as it may, it is necessary that we deal with the text of Matthew as it has come down to us; and the presence of vv. 5-7 has several interesting effects related to an understanding of verse 8:

  • The sayings involving the Temple in vv. 5-6 result in expanding the position and authority of the Son of Man: from the Sabbath law, in particular, to a larger view of the Law (as a whole), especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects.
  • It is the particular ritual aspects of the Law—the sacrificial offerings and the Temple cultus—which are relativized or devalued in verses 6-7; by logical extension, back to verse 5 and ahead to verse 8, the Sabbath command would also appear to be relativized—following Jesus takes priority.
  • Though not clearly stated, the saying in verse 6, joined with that in verse 8, has a decided Christological ring to it—that which is greater than the Temple (and, it would seem, the Sabbath as well) is identified with Jesus’ own person. Even if one may question whether the historical Jesus held this self-identification precisely, there can be no real doubt that the Gospel writers (and most early Christians) understood the matter this way. I believe that, within Gospel tradition, the emphasis is more on the personal authority of Jesus, rather than his deity as such, but the latter is certainly present and would come to dominate early Christian tradition.



Note of the Day – July 27

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Today’s note deals with Matthew 5:48, which concludes chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount (and the Antitheses in vv. 21-47); this note is supplemental to my article on the Antitheses (“Jesus and the Law”). In this note I will discuss the following, in turn:

  1. Exegesis of the saying in verse 48 (on its own)
  2. Comparison with the similar/parallel saying in Luke 6:36
  3. Its relation to the Antitheses in chapter 5

1. Matthew 5:48

e&sesqe ou@n u(mei=$ te/leioi w($ o( path\r u(mw=n o( ou)ran/io$ te/leio/$ e)stin
“therefore you shall be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”

e&sesqee)stin—these two forms of the (existential) verb of being are emphatic, placed at the beginning and end of the verse. The future indicative form e&sesqe can be understood in the sense of a prediction/promise (“you will be…”) or an imperative (“be ye…”). The use of the form in Luke 6:35 is parallel to that of the aorist subjunctive (ge/nhsqe, “[that] you may come to be”); while the use further in Matt 6:5 suggests an imperative meaning. The closest formal parallel surely comes from the LXX of Leviticus 19:2 (also cited in 1 Peter 1:16):

a%gioi e&sesqe o%ti e)gw\ a%gio$ ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ u(mw=n
“you shall be holy, (in) that I (am) holy the Lord your God”

which is a close rendering of the Hebrew. The command of Lev 19:2 is very much in view in this saying of Jesus (but note the differences in the Lukan parallel, below). The imitation of God is stressed by the position of the two verbs of being—Jesus’ followers shall be as God the Father is.

te/leioi / te/leio$—the adjective te/leio$ (téleios) is typically translated as “perfect” in reference to God, and as “mature” (or the like) when referring to believers (or other human beings); however, more properly, it should be rendered “finished, complete”, being related to the noun te/lo$ (“end, limit, finish, completion”, or sometimes “goal”). God, of course, by any standard theological definition, is complete, and believers, by imitating God (and Christ) will become complete. For other use of the adjective in the New Testament, see Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Phil 3:15; Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; 4:12; Heb 5:14; 9:11; James 1:4, 17, 25; 3:2; 1 Jn 4:18. In the Old Testament (LXX) it typically translates <ym!T*, most notably in the context of a whole (unblemished) sacrificial offering (Exod 12:5); for other usage, cf. Gen 6:9 (and Sir 44:17); Deut 18:13; Song 5:2; 6:9; and note also Wisdom 9:6. It is generally not used as a description of YHWH himself, though it does appear as an epithet for Zeus, Apollo, etc, in Greek literature (cf. references in TDNT VIII.86). As for the context here in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-47), note the following uses especially in relation to the Law:

  • Matt 19:21: in the Matthean version, Jesus tells the ‘rich young ruler’, ei) qe/lei$ te/leio$ ei@nai… (“if you wish to be complete…” it is necessary not only to observe the commandments (the fundamental precepts of the Decalogue are cited), but also to sell off possessions and follow Jesus.
  • James 1:25 has a reference to “the complete law of freedom”—this unusual expression (which also appears in 2:12) presumably relates to verse 8: “if you complete [telei=te] the royal law according to the Scripture… you do beautifully”. The “love-command” (citing Lev 19:18) is primarily in view, but the thought and language of the Sermon on the Mount otherwise pervades much of these chapters in James.

Both references appear to relate back to Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:17—as previously noted, I understand the use of the verb plhro/w in verse 17 (“[I have come] to fulfill [the Law and Prophets]”), in the sense that Jesus completes the Law (and the Prophets), by way of his teaching, his work, and (it may be said) in his own person. It is, of course, Jesus’ teaching that is prominent in the Sermon on the Mount.

o( path\r u(mw=n o( ou)ran/io$—God is referred to as “Father” some 250+ times in the New Testament, the majority of instances coming from the Gospels (by Jesus himself). The Gospel of John contains the most occurrences, with Jesus referring to God as “the Father” or “my Father”; with a high number also in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew), Jesus often uses the qualified expression “the/my Father in Heaven (or the heavens [pl])” or, less frequently, “the/my heavenly Father”; for instances in the Sermon on the Mount itself, cf. Matt 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9, 14, 26, 32; 7:11, 21. Within the (polytheistic) religion of predominantly patriarchical societies, the main/high deity was typically thought of as Father (progenitor) of the gods and all creatures (including human beings); in Israelite monotheism, too, YHWH was the father of human beings (as Creator) and in his covenant relationship with Israel—of the many references, see specifically Deut 32:6; Psalm 89:26; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:9; Mal 2:10. In particular, Israel (and/or the king as divine representative) may be referred to as God’s son[s] (Exod 4:22; Deut 14:1; 2 Sam 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 1:2; Jer 31:9, etc); however, the expression “son[s] of God” in the Old Testament is usually applied to heavenly beings (Gen 6:2; Deut 32:8 [LXX and Qumran]; Psalm 29:1; 82:6; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Dan 3:25). In the New Testament, the expression “sons of God” (i.e. “children of God”) is used of believers and/or the promise of their (future) destiny—Matt 5:9; Luke 20:36; Jn 1:12 (cf. also 11:52); Rom 8:14, 19; 9:8, 26; Gal 3:26; Phil 2:15; 1 John 3:1, 10; 5:2; note also Matt 5:45; 13:38; Luke 6:35; Gal 4:31; 1 Thess 5:5. At least two different concepts or metaphors are at work, neither of which captures the meaning completely: (a) adoption, by which believers share in the same rights and relationship as Christ the Son of God, and (b) imitation, i.e. the natural image of the child imitating everything he/she sees the parent doing (and saying). This latter concept better fits the situation in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the moral-ethical sense—Jesus’ true follower is one who imitates (and so demonstrates) the character of God.

2. Luke 6:36

gi/nesqe oi)kti/rmone$ kaqw\$ [kai\] o( path\r u(mw=n oi)kti/rmwn e)stin
“(you shall) come to be compassionate, even as [also] your Father is compassionate”

This is a parallel form (or version) of the saying in Matt 5:48, with several differences, most notably the use of the adjective oi)kti/rmwn (“compassionate/merciful”) instead of te/leio$ (“complete”). The word oi)kti/rmwn is rare in the New Testament (otherwise occurring only in James 5:11), but somewhat more frequent in the LXX—in reference to God (YHWH) it is used most prominently in Exod 34:6 (cf. also Deut 4:31; Isa 63:15, etc). The related verb oi)kti/rw (“have pity/compassion [on]”) and noun oi)ktirmo/$ (“pity, compassion, mercy”) are more common. The Lukan saying better fits the immediate context of Matt 5:38-47 / Lk 6:27-35, with its emphasis on loving one’s enemies. The parallel teaching of Matt 5:45 / Lk 6:35 further makes the point that love and kindness towards “good” and “evil” people alike reflects the character of God Himself; following God’s own example, will lead to the (eschatological) promise of becoming like Him—”your payment [i.e. reward] will be much” and:

e&sesqe ui(oi\ u(yi/stou
“you shall be sons of (the) Highest (One)”
Matt 5:45a: o%pw$ ge/nhsqe ui(oi\ tou= patro\$ u(mw=n tou= e)n ou)ranoi=$
“how that you may come to be sons of your Father in (the) heavens”

This same idea is central to the Beatitudes, cf. especially Matt 5:7-9. The association of purity/completeness and mercy in this context (emphasizing the nature and character of God) may derive from Psalm 18:25 [MT/LXX 26]: “with the kind/merciful you show yourself (to be) kind/merciful, with the complete [i.e. blameless] you show yourself (to be) complete”. The Hebrew adjective <ym!T* is usually translated by te/leio$, as in Matt 5:48 (see above).

3. The relation to the Antitheses in Matthew 5

Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:48 relates most directly to the sixth Antithesis (on loving one’s enemies, vv. 43-47) just prior, as the parallel saying in Luke 6:36 makes clear. However, there can be little doubt that the saying (in Matthew at least) is meant to summarize the teaching of the Antitheses as a whole—and probably also the entirety of chapter 5. Even if Matt 5 was not uttered together as a unit by Jesus on a single occasion, the literary structure of the text as we have it can be taken as a whole:

  • The Beatitudes (vv. 3-12) promise eschatological blessedness/happiness to those so characterized—that is, those who pursue justice/righteousness (v. 6, 10), following the teaching (and example) of Jesus. The original background of the Beatitude form had to do with the (righteous) person being admitted to share in the blessed life (of the gods) after death. In Jesus’ Beatitudes we also find prominent the idea of being (and becoming) like God (esp. vv. 8-9) and of belonging to His Kingdom (v. 3, 10).
  • The sayings in vv. 13-16, especially those comparing Jesus’ followers to light, likewise suggest that they (should) reflect something of the exemplary character of God.
  • The central sayings of vv. 17-20 introduce the theme of fulfilling the Law (Torah) (v. 17), and, in turn, of fulfilling the righteousness/justice of God (v. 20).
  • The six Antitheses of vv. 21-47, each demonstrate (in different ways) that following Jesus involves going beyond what is written in the Law—not in the sense of transgressing the Torah commands, but by touching upon the deeper purpose and intent of the Lawgiver himself (God the Father), as newly revealed in Jesus’ teaching.
  • The concluding saying of v. 48 summarizes the themes and specific teachings in each of these section with beautiful symmetry (see above). Ultimately, it is not so much a question of completing (that is, fulfilling) the Torah as it is of becoming complete [te/leio$] oneself, just as God the Father is perfect and complete.

Note of the Day – July 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 5:19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Note of the Day – July 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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