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Jesus and the Law

Yeshua the Anointed – Part 4: Teacher of Righteousness

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In this article I will be examining the idea of an Anointed Teacher, which, it must be said, reflects more of a specific role than a distinct Messianic figure-type. However, it is worth being treated as a separate category, due to certain terms and references in the literature associated with the Qumran Community (the Dead Sea Scrolls), and for the light that it may shed on important aspects of the presentation of Jesus in the Gospels.

“Teacher” and “Interpreter” at Qumran

There are several notable references to a special “Teacher” or “Instructor” (hr#om, môreh) in the Qumran texts, including those which use the specific expression hq*d*x=(h^) hr#om “(the) Teacher of Righteousness”. The genitive (construct) relationship in this expression can be understood as objective (i.e., one who teaches righteousness) or subjective (i.e., righteous teacher)—the former meaning is to be preferred. The full expression appears in the so-called Damascus Document (which exists in fragmentary copies from Qumran [QD] and in later copies/versions found at Cairo [CD]), as well as in several (pesher) commentaries (on Psalms, Habakkuk, Micah) which interpret Scripture in light of the Community and its history. Because of their importance, here is an outline of the references:

  • CD 1:11—as part of a historical survey (1:3-2:1) of the Damascus-group in the document (related in some way to the Qumran Community), it is said that God “…raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness in order to direct them in the path of his heart”. If this is a true historical reference, then, judging by the chronological indicators in the document, he might have appeared sometime in the early-mid 2nd-century B.C.
  • CD 19:35-20:1—we read here of the “gathering (in) of the one/unique [dyjyh] Teacher” (cf. 20:14), which has also been read “…of the Teacher of the Community [djyh]”. This is generally taken as a reference to the Teacher’s death, and is clearly set as a marker for future/end-time events “…until there stands (up) [i.e. arises] the Anointed (One) [jyvm] from Aaron and from Israel”.
  • CD 20:28, 32—the test for faithfulness to the covenant for those in the Community (the ones “coming into the covenant”) is two-fold: “to come/go upon the mouth of [i.e. according to] the Teaching [Torah]” and “to hear/listen to the voice of the Teacher”, along with confession of one’s sins before God (20:28). This is alluded to again in 20:32: “…give their ear to the voice of the Teacher of Righteousness“.
  • 1QpMicah [1Q14]—in fragment 10 line 6ff, Micah 1:5-6 is interpreted as relating to “the Teacher of Righteousness who [teaches the Teaching {Torah}]” to all who join the Community, who will be saved when judgment comes on Israel and Judah (Jerusalem).
  • 1QpHab [1Q15]—there are a number of references to the Teacher of Righteousness: 1:13 (on Hab 1:4), 2:2 (on Hab 1:5), 5:10 (on Hab 1:13), 7:4 (on Hab 2:2), 8:3 (on Hab 2:4), 9:9 (on Hab 2:8), 11:5 (on Hab 2:15). The emphasis is on conflict between the Teacher and the “Wicked Priest” (or “Man of the Lie”), which indicates persecution and the danger of ‘false teaching’ facing the Community. The position of the Teacher is indicated especially in 7:4, where it is stated that God made known to him “all the mysteries of the words of his servants the Prophets”, and 8:3 where we find the promise that those who have been loyal to the Teacher will be freed from Judgment by God.
  • 4QpPs a-b [4Q171, 173]—these fragments likewise emphasize the importance in the Community relying upon the Teacher (established by God) and of conflict with the “Wicked Priest”; for the references, cf. 4Q171 (on Ps 37) col. iii, lines 15, 19; col. iv, line 27; 4Q173 fragment 1, line 4; fragment 2, line 2.

Two other passages should be noted:

  • CD 6:2-11—this section is ostensibly a commentary on Numbers 21:18 combined with Isaiah 54:16, linking the inscribed/engraved “staff” [qqwjm] and the tools with which the people dug the well, and identifying it/them with the “Interpreter of the Law” [hr*oTh^ vr@oD] (v. 7). The word vrwd is a verbal noun from vrd, and refers to the act of searching something out intensively, the concrete idiom something like beating/cutting/digging a path. Figuratively it is used for searching out (an cutting through to) the underlying meaning of something—in this case, the correct meaning(s) of Scripture. In vv. 10-11 it is stated that the people (of the Community) are to walk according to this “staff” until “…the one teaching righteousness [i.e. Teacher of Righteousness] stands (up) [i.e. arises] in the (time) following the days [i.e. after the days / ‘end of days’]”.
  • 4QFlorilegium [4Q174]—in an eschatological collection of Scripture verses, as part of a Messianic interpretation of 2 Sam 7:11-14, it is stated that the “Branch of David” is the one who will appear along with the “Interpreter of the Law” [hrwth vrwd] at the end of days (col. i, lines 11-12).

Thus we see that the Qumran (and related) texts make reference to three figures:

  1. The Teacher/Instructor of Righteousness through whom God established the Community (in the past)
  2. The Teacher/Instructor of Righteousness who will appear at the end-time, and
  3. The “Interpreter” of the Torah, who may be a historical and/or eschatological figure

A Messianic Teacher?

Is it proper to speak of an Anointed (that is, ‘Messianic’) Teacher? In at least two respects the evidence from Qumran supports this:

  • Twice (in CD 6:10-11 and 4QFlor [cf. above]), the Teacher/Interpreter is identified as an eschatological figure who will appear at the “end of the days”. In the latter passages, he is specifically associated with a Messianic Davidic ruler (“the Branch of David”).
  • On various occasions (cf. the references above), it is said regarding the Teacher of Righteousness that he was specially appointed and established by God, and gifted with unique revelation. Even though anointing (“Anointed [One]”) itself is not mentioned, the corresponding idea of being uniquely chosen and set apart by God is clearly present. Moreover, we have the notion that faithfulness and obedience to the Teacher will preserve the Community from the coming Judgment—in various ways, all of the attested Messianic figure-types are associated with the end-time Judgment.

Moreover, for at least two of the Messianic figure-types I have outlined (see the Introduction), teaching and instruction play a prominent role. The first of these is the “Prophet like Moses” from Deut 18:15-20—that is, an Anointed Prophet according to the Moses-tradition (for more on this, see the previous article). As stated in Deut 18:18, this coming Prophet will command and instruct the people (being given the words to speak by God). In addition to being a great Prophet (Deut 34:10-12), Moses was the supreme Lawgiver in Israelite history and tradition, having received the commands and precepts of the Torah directly from God and delivered them to Israel. In the Qumran texts, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed” (4Q377 2 ii 4-5), along with the holy Prophets (Anointed Ones) of Israel (CD 5:21-6:1). The imagery and characteristics associated with Moses fit the descriptions of the Teacher of Righteousness very well (cf. above), and even moreso to Jesus (cf. Acts 3:18-24 and the discussion below).

The second Anointed figure is that of Priest. As will be discussed in an upcoming article, the idea of a coming eschatological/Messianic Priest, while rare in Judaism of the period, is attested at Qumran. Indeed, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts was, it would seem, originally founded by priests and they continued to hold the leading role. As we shall see, in terms of their eschatological expectation and Messianic thought, the (Anointed) king/prince is subordinate to the (Anointed) Priest. According to the fragmentary (pesher) commentary on Psalms (cf. above), the historical Teacher of Righteousness, naturally enough, was a priest (4QPs a col. iii, line 15). In the so-called Rule of the Community, there was to be at least one priest for every group of ten members, primarily to instruct them in the study and practice of the Torah, which was at the very heart of Community life and identity (1QS 6:3-7 etc).

With regard to the “Teacher of Righteousness” at Qumran, it is somewhat difficult to determine the relationship between the historical Teacher and the eschatological figure expressed in CD 6 / 4QFlor (cf. above). However, I believe that the statement in CD 6:10-11 probably reflects the original idea—of “one who will teach righteousness” appearing at the end-of-days, the phrase itself probably being an allusion to Hosea 10:12. Since the Qumran Community (and/or the community of the Damascus Document) almost certainly viewed itself as existing in the “last days”, it seems probable that the historical Teacher was thought to be fulfilling an eschatological role. Upon the death of the Teacher, this role was transferred to a future figure who was expected to appear (sometime soon). In the interim, the leading priests at Qumran would fulfill the role of Teacher—the little digging tools in relation to the great “staff” (cf. CD 6:2ff).

Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is hard to find a comparable idea elsewhere in Jewish writings of the period. Perhaps the closest we come is to the basic priestly tradition centered around Levi and Aaron, as expressed formally and in elevated language (cf. Sirach 45:6-17). In the book of Jubilees, as at Qumran, priority was given to the Priest (Levi), and in the reworking of Jacob’s blessing on Levi, the first thing mentioned could be summarized as “teaching righteousness” (Jubilees 31:15). In several passages in the Qumran texts, where the role of Priests is being extolled and expounded, it is teaching that is often given emphasis—cf. 4QFlor 6-11 (citing Deut 33:10) and 4Q541 fragment 9, etc.

Jesus as Teacher

That Jesus was viewed as a special Teacher scarcely needs to be emphasized—it is found all throughout the Gospel tradition, from the earliest layers on. According to the Synoptic narrative, Jesus essentially begins his ministry by teaching in the Synagogues of Galilee (on the Sabbaths), Mark 1:21 par. The uniqueness and special quality of his teaching was practically the first thing people noticed about him (Mk 1:22 par):

“and they were struck out of (themselves) [i.e. were amazed] upon his teaching, for he was teaching them as (one) holding authority [e)cousi/a], and not as the Writers [i.e. Scribes]”

In Mark 1:23ff par, Jesus performs a healing (exorcism) miracle in the Synagogue, and these two aspects—teaching and working miracles—dominate the account of his ministry in Galilee in the Synoptic tradition. In light of the previous article, which examined Jesus as an Anointed Prophet, we might say that he is here fulfilling two main characteristics of the Moses and Elijah types—authoritative teaching (Moses) and miracles (Elijah).

That Jesus was identified largely in terms of his teaching can be seen in the frequency (more than 50 times) in the use of the title “Teacher” (dida/skalo$), or the corresponding honorific “Rabbi” (r(abbi/). This latter term is a transliteration of the Hebrew yB!r^ (rabbî).  br (rab) simply means “great”, and as a title is literally “Great (One)”, generally corresponding to “Lord”, “Master”, etc. Rabbi (“my Great [One]”, “my Lord/Master”) is a sign of honor and respect in address; the intensive /B*r^ (rabb¹n), in Aramaic /oBr^ (rabbôn), came to be used as a title for an honored/respected scholar and teacher. At the time of Jesus, the form of address (in Aramaic) would have been yn]oBr^/yn]WBr^ (Rabbônî/Rabbûnî), as preserved in Mark 10:51; John 20:16. The closest we come to Jesus being described as an Anointed/Messianic Teacher is in Nicodemus’ address to him (John 3:2):

“Rabbi, we see that you are a Teacher having come from God, for no one has power [i.e. is able] to do these signs which you do, if not [i.e. except] (that) God should be with him”

In light of the eschatological/Messianic-type figure attested in the Qumran texts (cf. above), it is worth considering Jesus in terms of the “Teacher of Righteousness” and “Interpreter of the Law”. First we should note the place that justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh, along with the dikai- word group) plays in Jesus’ recorded teachings. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ first words in public (to John during his baptism) are directly on this point: “…it is distinguishing [i.e. is right/proper] for us to (ful)fill all justice/righteousness” (Matt 3:15). The idea is also central to his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33), and in several other blocks of teaching (Matt 13:43, 49; 23:28-29, 35; 25:37, 46; and cf. also Matt 10:41; 21:32; Luke 18:9; John 16:8, 10). It is fair to say that much of Jesus’ teaching could be described as instruction in righteousness. In several places in the New Testament, Jesus himself is referred to as “the Just/Righteous (One)” [o( di/kaio$]—Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; cf. also Matt 27:19. We might also note Acts 17:31, where Paul attributes to Jesus the end-time role in the Judgment, stating that he “…is about to judge the inhabited (world) in justice/righteousness”.

Regarding the second association, much of Jesus’ teaching clearly involved instruction and interpretation of God’s Law (i.e., the Torah). I have discussed this at length in earlier articles on “Jesus and the Law” (part of a series on “The Law and the New Testament”), and relevant links are provided below. Here are some of the aspects of Jesus’ fulfilling the role of “Interpreter of the Law”:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, cf. Luke 6:20-49)—especially the verses on the Law and righteousness (Matt 5:17-20) and the so-called Antitheses (Matt 5:21-48), on which see my earlier notes and articles.
  • The various controversies betwen Jesus and the religious leaders and scholars of the day often involved specific interpretation or understanding of the Law—the Pharisees and “Writers” (Scribes) were generally seen as authorities on the Torah. Cf. especially my articles on the so-called Sabbath Controversies.
  • In a number of passages, Jesus identifies himself—his person and/or his teachings—as the fulfillment of the Law and different related elements of Israelite religion. This is best seen in two respects:
    (1) Jesus’ relationship to the Temple [cf. “Jesus and the Law” parts 6-7] (2) His association with the great Holy/Feast days (Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, etc), especially in the episodes and discourses recorded in the Fourth Gospel [cf. “Jesus and the Law” parts 8-9]
  • In the Gospel of Luke, following the resurrection, Jesus is described as interpreting (in considerable detail, it would seem) the Scriptures (“Moses and the  Prophets”) for his followers (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 45; cf. also Acts 1:3). The emphasis in his teaching in these passages is on his suffering, death and resurrection as a fulfillment of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, Luke offers no detail as to which Scripture passages Jesus referenced; for a list of possible candidates, based on the overall evidence in the New Testament, cf. my earlier note.

For additional Gospel references related to Jesus as a teacher and his interpretation of the Law, cf. the introductory article of my series on “Jesus and the Law”.

Jesus and the Law, Part 10: Concluding Observations

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It is possible to draw some basic conclusions regarding Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Law (Torah), based on the narratives and sayings in the Gospels. I would reiterate the point that this analysis follows the methodological assumption that the sayings in the Gospels are substantially authentic, and that the narrative episodes likewise are derived from authentic tradition. The situation becomes more complex if one factors in critical questions and hypotheses regarding authenticity—I have touched upon some of these in the notes and articles, and may address them in more detail in future studies. Once sayings or episodes are taken out of consideration as being of doubtful authenticity or historicity, the picture will change somewhat; however, I regard such critical methodology as highly questionable. As an example, many critical scholars would doubt the authenticity of the Scripture citations (of Isa 56:7 / Jer 7:11) in the Synoptic account of Jesus’ Temple “cleansing” action, and yet this dual-citation provides the only explanation for Jesus’ action in the Synoptics; if it is ‘removed’, we are forced further into educated guess-work and speculation as to what the historical Jesus intended. While there may be value in such detective work (regarding the “historical Jesus”), it fairly well ignores the context of the Gospels themselves—thoughtful scholars and students should not be too quick to separate the historical and literary strands of the Gospel, for they are closely and carefully intertwined.

Source-criticism is helpful in outlining specific sources within the Gospels which should be taken into account when examining certain aspects of Jesus’ view of the Law:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) shows Jesus affirming the continued validity of the Torah commands (esp. Matt 5:17-20), though giving to them a new dimension and interpretation, pointing to a deeper sense (or level) of religious and ethical commitment. The Woes against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matt 23 appear to have a similar emphasis and viewpoint. Jesus’ followers are required to take the more difficult road, going beyond what is simply written in the Law. Though expanded and developed in Matthew, these portions largely stem from the so-called “Q” tradition—material common to Matthew and Luke (but not found in Mark). For a similar example in the wider Synoptic tradition, see Jesus’ instruction to the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:17-22 par). On Matt 5:17-20 and the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-47, see Part 3 of this series, along with a series of supplemental notes.
  • On the other hand, there are sayings and episodes unique to the Gospel of Matthew which seem to devalue or minimize the importance of the Law, at least in its ritual/ceremonial aspects. These include:
    (1) The citation of Hosea 6:6 in Matt 9:13; 12:7
    (2) The saying(s) regarding the Temple in Matt 12:5-6
    (3) The episode involving the Temple-tax in Matt 17:24-27 (esp. vv. 25-26)
    There are also certain sayings in the “Q” tradition which seem to relativize or limit the force of the Law, e.g. Matt 11:13/Lk 16:16; Matt 8:21-22/Lk 9:59-60.
  • The Synoptic (triple) tradition records numerous debates/disputes with “Scribes and Pharisees” regarding points of Law and/or Jesus and his disciples’ observance of religious custom, e.g. Mark 2:15-17, 18-20, 23-28; 3:1-6; 7:1-15; 10:1-12; 12:13-17; 12:28-34 etc. and pars. Especially noteworthy are the “Sabbath controversy” episodes (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6 par; also Lk 13:10-17; 14:1-6). These “controversy”-narratives serve as the setting for a saying or parable (often enigmatic or provocative) which provides an interpretation or comments on the Law in some way. The thrust of much of Jesus’ teaching in these episodes is to emphasize his personal authority and to stress the social-ethical aspect of religious matters. Jesus’ controversies and debates with religious authorities are narrated somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, but note the Sabbath-controversy framework of Jn 5 which has certain similarities with the Synoptic accounts. See Parts 4 & 5.
  • All four Gospels narrate the Temple action (“cleansing”, Mk 11:15-18 par; Jn 2:13-17) and Temple saying of Jesus (Jn 2:19ff; Mk 14:58 par, not in Lk but cf. Acts 6:14); the authenticity of both seems secure (entirely on objective grounds), but their meaning and significance continue to be debated (see Parts 6 & 7 of this series). At the very least, Jesus appears to: (a) emphasize the temporary nature of the current/earthly Temple, and (b) attack the machinery associated with the Temple ritual (and the way it is used/abused), in a manner similar to that of the Prophets (note the citations of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 in the Synoptic accounts). See also my prior series of notes on the Temple action and saying.
  • The Gospel of John provides a unique association of Jesus with the Israelite/Jewish holy (feast) days, in terms of: (a) the narrative framework of chapters 2-12ff centered on various feast days, and (b) the Discourses of Jesus in John. The Discourses combine and adapt Jesus’ sayings and teaching in a way that is very different from the Synoptics, while the narrative framework is used to incorporate the discourse-scenes in a festal setting. The result is that Jesus repeatedly ends up commenting on the various holy days (Sabbath and Feasts [Passover, Booths/Tabernacles, Weeks/Pentecost?, and Dedication/Hanukkah]), identifying himself (i.e. his own person and teaching) with many of their associated religious types and forms. This can be understood in terms of fulfillment and/or replacement (see Part 8 of this series).

I make the following summary notes, by way of response to hypothetical (but understandable) questions:

  • Did Jesus and his followers observe/obey the Torah commands and ordinances? It is likely that Jesus himself was observant, though it must be admitted that this is not indicated especially in the Gospels. According to the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:21-24, 39, 41-42), Jesus’ parents were devout in religious/ritual matters, and presumably would have sought to raise him the same way (cf. Lk 2:51-52), so it can fairly be inferred that, as an adult, Jesus would have been similarly devout and “righteous” (in the traditional Jewish sense, cf. Matt 3:15; 5:6, 17-20). The Gospels depict Jesus attending the local synagogues on the Sabbath (Mk 1:21 par; Lk 4:16, etc), and the Temple in Jerusalem on the appointed (feast) days (Mark 11 par; Jn 2:13ff; 7-8; 10:22ff; 12:20ff, note also chap. 5). However, it is important to point out that Jesus is not depicted participating in the religious ritual as such (though at the historical level, he presumably would have); rather, he is always shown in the Synagogue and Temple in the role of teaching, and possessing a unique religious authority himself (cf. Mk 1:21-22; 12:35 par, et al; Jn 7:14 etc). It is even less clear from the Gospels that Jesus’ disciples observed the Torah, though there is evidence that the importance of the Torah was part of his teaching (see esp. Matt 5:17-20), and it is likely that they would have been devout in religious matters, though not necessarily according to every custom (cf. Mk 2:18; 7:1-5 par). In Luke-Acts, after the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, the disciples continued to frequent the Temple regularly (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42), though they are not depicted directly participating in the sacrificial ritual—the emphasis is rather on prayer and gathering together to worship God. Peter’s objection to the visionary command in Acts 10:9-16 (cf. v. 14f) would indicate that he faithfully observed the dietary regulations in the Torah. Indeed, it has been argued that the opposition among Jewish Christians to Paul’s teaching and missionary approach with the Gentiles regarding the Law (cf. Acts 15; Gal 2, etc) only makes sense if the early Jewish believers in Jerusalem had been strictly observant themselves.
  • Did Jesus specifically command his followers to continue to observe the Law? This is a difficult question to answer, since the Gospels do not specifically address it; Jesus’ teaching was entirely within a Jewish context, and it would have been customary for Jews to observe the Torah commands, if only as a matter of religious habit. In other words, for someone who already keeps the Sabbath or the dietary regulations, it would hardly be necessary to command that these be kept. What Jesus does—in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere in his teaching)—is to point his followers to the deeper religious-ethical dimension which underlies the (written) Law. In terms of the ceremonial/ritual aspects of the Law, there is only one instance where Jesus directs a would-be follower to take part in the sacrificial ritual (Mk 1:44 par, cf. also Lk 17:4); in Matt 5:23-24 he appears to accept the validity of sacrificial offerings, or at least recognizes the practice. There is also the episode involving the half-shekel Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27), but in that instance the teaching is somewhat ambiguous. Similarly ambiguous is his teaching regarding the Sabbath (cf. above); interestingly, apart from a passing reference in Jn 7:22-23, he makes no mention of circumcision. With regard to the fundamental social-ethical commands of the Decalogue (Exod 20:12-17), the situation is somewhat different, for Jesus seems to treat these commands as binding (cf. Mark 10:19-20 par; Matt 5:21-30); likewise the underlying regulation related to divorce (Mk 10:1-12 par; Matt 5:31-32). Overall, Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:17-20 would seem to support observance of the Torah; however, these verses are rife with difficulties of interpretation.
  • Did Jesus ever teach that his followers need not observe the commands/regulations in the Torah? It is hard to find a specific example of this, though there are a number of relevant instances which have been pointed out (cf. above and throughout this series), including: (a) the Sabbath controversy episodes, esp. Matt 12:1-8, (b) the teaching in Mark 2:19-22 and 7:14-23 pars, (c) the exchange in Matt 8:21-22/Lk 9:59-60, (d) the teaching regarding the Temple tax in Matt 17:25-26, and, perhaps, (e) the (apparent) temporal limitation of the Law in Matt 11:13/Lk 16:16.
  • Did Jesus draw a distinction between the “ritual” and “ethical” parts of the Law? The answer appears to be a qualified “yes”, though we must be cautious about making too great of a ‘separation’ in the Law. As mentioned above, it is primarily the social-ethical side of the Decalogue that Jesus emphasizes, both in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in his teaching. The ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law also appear to relativized or devalued, in sayings such as Mark 2:27-28; 7:15-23 pars; Matt 9:13; 12:5-7, etc. In the Temple “cleansing” action and Temple saying, Jesus emphasizes the impending destruction of the entire Temple apparatus, along with its associated ritual; in Jn 2:19ff, it is Jesus himself, by his death and resurrection, who effectively ‘replaces’ the Temple. The two-fold “Greatest Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34 par) effectively reduces the Law to the love of God and love of neighbor (cf. Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)—see especially the exchange in Mk 12:32-34 which places these two commands over and above all sacrificial ritual.
  • Did Jesus see himself as superseding or ‘replacing’ the Torah? This is a most sensitive question; for the most part, he does not do this directly, but much of his teaching and example could be said to point in this direction. It is clearest in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is seen to be fulfilling, in his own person, the Temple (Jn 2:19ff) and many aspects of the religious feasts (with their symbolism and sacrificial ritual, cf. above). In the Synoptic Gospels, it also may inferred (cautiously) from many of the passages cited above; in particular, Jesus’ personal authority may be said to supersede the written Law in the sense that: (a) he provides a definitive interpretation of it (which his followers are to observe), and (b) his words, action and example (in healing, associating with ‘sinners’, declaring forgiveness of sin, etc) stems from a divine source which surpasses the written Law itself.

This concludes the series on “Jesus and the Law”; the wider series (“The Law and the New Testament”) will continue according to the following outline:

  • 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)

Due to the length required, several of these articles may be divided into two or more parts.

 

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 9: The Gospel of John (continued)

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The outline for this article is:

  1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives
  2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word
  3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

The first heading was discussed in Part 8 of this series; here I will continue with the second and third sections.

2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word

Since the Law and Torah (as Scripture) is sometimes identified as the “Word of God” it is worth exploring the distinctive manner in which “word” (lo/go$, and/or r(h=ma) is associated with Jesus in the Gospel of John—both the Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word. I will start with the second of these concepts.

(a) Jesus as the Word

[This section draws especially on the fine summary by R. E. Brown in his classic commentary on John (Anchor Bible vol. 29), Appendix II, pp. 519-24.]

This is found primarily in the Prologue to the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), where Jesus is identified with the (divine) lo/go$ in verses 1 (3 times) and 14. There is no single satisfactory English translation for lo/go$—”word” being as good as any. From the standpoint of creation (vv. 3, 10), it could also be understood: (i) in the sense of the underlying creative principle giving order to things (already used this way by Heraclitus, 6th-early 5th cent. B.C.), or (ii) as reason, reflecting the (ordered) thought and mind of God (cf. the typical Stoic usage). Philo of Alexandria, representing Hellenistic (and Alexandrian) Judaism at the time of the New Testament, blends the Greek philosophical use of lo/go$ with Old Testament concepts, resulting in the idea of the Logos as a divine intermediary, used by God in creation and serving as a pattern for the human mind/soul. In recent decades, scholars have looked closer at the Jewish background to the Logos-concept in John in at least three respects—(i) the “word of YHWH” as a distinct hypostasis, (ii) the personification of (divine) Wisdom, and (iii) the pre-existence of the Torah.

(i) The “word of YHWH” (hw`hy+Árb^D=) in the Old Testament does not simply reflect a statement or utterance received (by the Prophets, etc), but represents a dynamic (revelatory) manifestation of God to human beings, especially in the formula “the word of YHWH came to {so-and-so}…” (Gen 15:1, 4; 1 Sam 15:10; 2 Sam 7:4; 24:11; 1 Kings 6:11, etc; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1, et al). According to Genesis 1:1ff, the universe (the heavens and the earth) was created by the word of God (by his speaking), and continues to be sustained/renewed by his word—cf. Psalm 33:6; 147:15ff; Isa 55:11; also Wisd 9:1, etc. Over time, and with an interest in safeguarding the idea of God’s transcendence, the “word of God” came to be used as a kind of substitute (or periphrasis) for God Himself, which would speak and act (toward human beings)—effectively becoming a distinct hypostasis (divine manifestation). In Aramaic, this term for “the word” of God was ar*m=ym@ (m¢mrâ).

(ii) Similarly, the Wisdom of God could be personified or treated as a distinct hypostasis (manifestation); originally, this personification need have been nothing more than a poetic representation in ancient Wisdom Literature, used for dramatic and didactic effect (cf. Prov 1:20-33; 9:1-12, etc). However, the practical usage came to take on added theological dimension, as we see already in the famous passage of Proverbs 8—especially vv. 23-31 which depict Wisdom as existing at the beginning with God and participating in the work of Creation. There is indeed a close parallel between the Wisdom and (personified) Word of God in Jewish tradition—both are involved in the process of creation, being with God in the beginning, reflecting His glory, and coming forth from (the mouth of) God (cf. Sir 1:1; 24:3ff; Wisd 7:22, 25–8:1; 9:1-2). The parallels with the Johannine prologue are strong enough to suggest a Wisdom background, possibly even involving the influence or adaptation of a hymn in praise of (divine) Wisdom. There are a number of passages which refer to Wisdom coming (from heaven) to dwell among human beings, or wishing to (Prov 8:31; Wisd 9:10; Sir 24:8ff), but with some doubt as to whether she will be welcome (Baruch 3:9ff, etc); in the book of Enoch (1 Enoch) chapter 42, we find an especially close parallel to the idea in John 1:10-11, 14—Wisdom wishes to make her dwelling among the children of men, but sadly can find no dwelling-place and must return to heaven.

(iii) In later Rabbinic and mystical tradition, this personification (or hypostasis) of the Word of God was extended specifically to the Torah, conceived of as God’s offspring (or daughter, as with Wisdom) and existing prior to the creation of the universe. This was a natural identification, since Scripture (and particularly the Torah) was regularly understood as the “Word of God”. Already in Wisdom literature, the Law (Torah) is specifically identified with personified (divine) Wisdom (cf. especially Baruch 4:1 and Sirach 24:23ff). There is a long history as well of referring to the the Law (Torah) as light, which serves to illuminate human beings with God’s own (holy and revelatory) light (Jn 1:4-5, 9)—cf. Psalm 119:105; Baruch 4:2; Wisd 18:4; Testament of Levi 14:4.

(b) The Word(s) of Jesus

As a theme and motif, the word (or words) of Jesus plays a key role in the Gospel of John, occurring frequently (more than 40 times). These can be categorized as follows (note that lo/go$ [“word, account”] and r(h=ma [“word, utterance”] appear to be used interchangeably, with little difference in meaning):

  • Jesus’ words identified as God’s words, i.e. that which the Father (the one who sent him) gave him to speak—Jn 3:34; 8:47, 55; 14:10, 24; 17:8, 14; cf. also 5:24, 38; 6:68; 12:49-50.
  • Jesus’ words treated as synonymous/parallel with Scripture—Jn 2:22; 5:47 (also vv. 39-40); 10:34-36; 18:9, 32.
  • Emphasis on keeping Jesus’ words, as one is to keep God’s own Word (i.e. keep the Law/Torah)—8:51-52, 55; 12:47; 14:23-24; 15:20; 17:6.
  • Similar language on hearing Jesus’ word, abiding in his word, etc.—Jn 5:24, 38; 8:31, 37, 43; 12:47-48; 15:7; 17:8; cf. also 10:3-5; 18:47.
  • Jesus’ words have life-giving power and effect, as God’s own Word—Jn 4:50; 6:64, 68; 8:31-32; 15:3, 7; 17:17, 20; cf. also 5:25, 28; 11:43.
  • Keeping Jesus’ words is a guarantee of (eternal) life, much as keeping/observing the Torah preserves the covenant with God (and guarantees future salvation) according to Jewish thought—Jn 5:24; 8:51-52; 12:47-48; cf. also 14:23; 17:6.

So we see evidence in the Gospel of John that: (a) according to the Prologue (1:1-18), Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal and pre-existent Word of God, which encompasses the idea of the Wisdom and Law (Torah) of God, and (b) Jesus’ words are to be treated and regarded as God’s own Word, including everything typically associated with the commands and ordinances of the Torah.

3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

When discussing the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20 (especially verse 19) in an earlier note, I brought up the important question as to the relationship between the command(ment)s of Jesus and those of the Torah. We find the same issue here in the Gospel of John (and will see it again when addressing 1 John). There are a dozen or so references to: (a) commandments Jesus received from God the Father, and (b) Jesus’ (own) commandments to his followers; conceptually these two are closely related, if not synonymous. The passages are:

(a) Commandments Jesus received from God the Father—Jn 10:18; 12:49-50; 14:31; 15:10

(b) Commandments given by Jesus (to his disciples)—Jn 13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10, 12, 14, 17

All of these instances involve the noun e)ntolh/ (or the related verb e)nte/llomai), which fundamentally refers to something “laid on (a person) to complete”, and is usually translated “command(ment)” or sometimes “charge, order,” and the like. In a Jewish religious context, of course, e)ntolh/ refers to the commands of the Law (Torah), the corresponding term in Hebrew being primarily hw`x=m! (from the verb hw`x*). Yet, here in the Gospel of John, it is not clear to what extent (if at all) the “commandments” are related to the Torah commands. Let us look briefly at the context of these passages:

(a) Commandments Jesus received from God the Father:
Jn 10:18—here the command (or charge) has to with the power/authority Jesus has to (willingly) lay down his life and then take it up again (his death and resurrection)
Jn 12:49-50—the emphasis is on what the Father (“the One who sent me”) has given Jesus to speak; again this indicates the divine source (and authority) of Jesus’ own words
Jn 14:31—the sense is much the same: that Jesus does just as (and only as) the Father has commanded him
Jn 15:10—here Jesus states that he has kept the Father’s commandments, and abides/remains in His love

(b) Commandments given by Jesus (to his disciples):
Jn 13:34—Jesus gives his disciples a “new” commandment, the “love command” (see below)
Jn 14:15, 21—In these two verses Jesus states that those who love him will keep his commandments (and vice versa); it is a general statement, with no specific indication what those commandments are
Jn 15:10—draws a parallel between keeping Jesus’ commandments and abiding/remaining in his love, just as Jesus does for the Father
Jn 15:12, 14, 17—verse 12 restates the “love command” (13:34), verse 14 generally restates 14:15, 21, and verse 17 brings both of these together into a single teaching

Of all the references above, only 15:10a could conceivably relate to the Torah commands specifically, but even that is highly uncertain; in light of the other passages in category (a), it is better to see 15:10a in terms of Jesus’ mission—what he is directed to say and do. The Torah commands are clearly referenced as such only in Jn 8:5, which is part of the passage on the woman caught in adultery (generally recognized as an interpolation, and likely not part of the original Gospel).

Many of these references come from the so-called Farewell Discourse (chapters 13-17), a cluster of discourses probably built up out of (separate) smaller blocks of teaching, in which Jesus gives definitive instruction (and exhortation) to his disciples. There are many sayings and teachings of Jesus—both in John and throughout the Synoptic Gospels—which may be regarded as commands; but the only command clearly identified and emphasized as such in the Farewell Discourse(s) is the so-called “love command” in 13:34; 15:12. In Jn 13:34 the command is:

“that you should love one another—even as I have loved you, (I say) that you should love one another”
(the aorist subjunctive forms of the verb having the force of imperatives)

Clearly this is related in some way to the “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:29-31 par)—complete love for God and one’s neighbor—the second half of which, in particular, would become central in Jesus’ teaching as preserved in the early Church (Rom 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8). Love for God—demonstrated by loving Jesus (whom God sent)—is effectively treated as a command elsewhere in John, particularly in terms of abiding/remaining in Christ (Jn 15:4, 9, etc); but it is love for one’s fellow (believer) that is stressed in Jn 13:34; 15:12ff, and specifically referred to as a commandment. Indeed, it is called a “new” (kaino/$) commandment in 13:34, though the precise meaning and force of this distinction remains uncertain. These and other related questions will be dealt with in more detail in an article on “The Commandments of Christ” later on in this series; for now, it will suffice to conclude with the following observations:

  1. Jesus’ commandments come directly from God the Father (stressing Jesus’ unique role and nature as Son of God)
  2. They relate primarily to his mission on earth—what he is to say (teaching and proclamation, etc) and do (miracles, his willing and sacrificial death [and resurrection], etc)
  3. By word and example, he transmits these commandments to his disciples, best exemplified in the Farewell Discourse(s)
  4. The primary and leading command is two-fold: (i) to love one another, and (ii) to abide/remain in Christ (and his love)

The Old Testament Law (Torah) as such does not appear to be an essential part of this, except insofar as it provides the religious and ethical background to the “love command” and other teachings of Jesus. In this respect, the Gospel of John differs somewhat from the Synoptic Gospels, which depict Jesus dealing more directly (and regularly) with questions derived from (and related to) the Law of Moses.

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 8: The Gospel of John

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The Gospel of John holds a unique and unusual position in New Testament studies, with critical scholars having mixed views as to the relationship between this Gospel and (authentic) traditions and sayings of Jesus. On the one hand, the lengthy and theologically-developed Discourses in John are really like nothing we find in the Synoptics; moreover, the language, style and thematic treatment of the Discourses is often extremely close to that of 1 John, making it seem rather unlikely that we are dealing simply with the unvarnished words of (the historical) Jesus. On the other hand, critical scholars have increasingly recognized numerous strands suggesting early (authentic) tradition, even within the most ‘developed’ sections of the Gospel, and many commentators are willing to admit a significant historical kernel (or core) to the Discourses.

In light of all this, and with regard to this overall series on “The Law and the New Testament”, one could either: (a) discuss the Gospel of John under “Jesus and the Law”, or (b) discuss it along with the Epistles of John under the wider heading. I have decided to treat the Gospel of John primarily as part of the sub-series “Jesus and the Law”, under the basic premise (for the purposes of these articles), that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (including the Discourses in John) reflect the authentic words and teachings of Jesus, at least in substance (the ipsissima vox if not the ipsissima verba). However, I recognize that many scholars would dispute this; it should be stated that I neither reject nor dismiss the more critical examination and scrutiny regarding authenticity, and realize fully that the question is even more difficult and complicated with regard to the Discourses of Jesus in John. Yet I believe that my approach is justified, all the more as I am quite convinced of the extreme difficulty (and precarious nature) of attempting to separate the “authentic” words of Jesus from subsequent early Christian interpretation and elaboration. Ultimately, we must work from the integral text of the Gospels as they have come down to us.

This article will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives
  2. The Word(s) of Jesus and Jesus as the Word
  3. The Farewell Discourses and the “Love Command”

1. The Festal Setting of the Discourses and related Narratives

The Gospel of John is also unique (among the four canonical Gospels) in its presentation of Jesus appearing in Jerusalem on multiple occasions, in observance of the holy days—i.e. the Israelite/Jewish festivals (or “feasts”). This in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, which record just one main journey to Jerusalem, for the Passover, shortly before Jesus’ death. The Johannine festal settings should be considered according to three principal aspects: (a) historical, (b) narrative, and (c) theological.

(a) Historical—The “feasts” are more properly referred to as appointed days or times, generally related to the harvest and seasons of the year, which the people of Israel were to observe with religious ritual, sacrifice and communal celebration. There were five main appointed times (cf. Lev 23:4), including three pilgrimage festivals—Pesach/”Passover” (Unleavened Bread), Shavuot/Weeks (‘Pentecost’), and Sukkot/Booths (‘Tabernacles’)—which (according to Deut 16:16) adult males were commanded to attend, bringing offerings for the Lord. An observant Israelite or Jew in Jesus’ time would journey to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the pilgrimage festivals. In this regard, the Johannine framework of Jesus appearing in Jerusalem on multiple occasions, more accurately reflects the historical situation than the single Passover journey of the Synoptics, as virtually all commentators recognize. Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem (and in the Temple) suggests a (religious) concern to observe the Torah commands, though this is nowhere so stated in the Gospels. Clearly it was not an important point to emphasize for the Gospel writers (or was simply taken for granted), otherwise there surely would have been some mention of Jesus’ religious devotion, such as we find in the Lukan Infancy narratives for Joseph/Mary and Zechariah/Elizabeth (Lk 1:6; 2:21-24, 39). The closest we come, perhaps, is Jesus’ statement in Lk 22:15, where he speaks of his fervent desire to share the Passover with his disciples; though the context rather emphasizes his impending suffering and death as the reason.

(b) Narrative—Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “book of Signs”, are primarily divided according to the occasions of the feasts, each of which are associated with a discourse by Jesus:

  • Passover (Jn 2:13-25)
  • Sabbath/Unspecified feast (Jn 5:1-47)
  • Passover (Jn 6:1-15, 22-65, [66-71])
  • Booths (Jn 7:1-52; 8:12-59)
  • Dedication (Jn 10:22-39)
  • Passover (Jn 12:1-13:30ff)

The Discourse-format in John is the primary method used to incorporate traditional material—sayings of Jesus, miracle stories, etc—into the narrative framework; it is likely that, to some extent, shorter discourses (or simple exchanges) have been combined into a larger discourse-structure. A basic outline of the discourse-format would be:

  • A question (from “the Jews”) posed to Jesus
  • A saying by Jesus, often enigmatic or provocative, in response
  • A further question or reaction indicating misunderstanding of the true meaning of Jesus’ words
  • An exposition by Jesus, in reply

In Jn 2:13-25, the shortest of the episodes listed above, we do not have a full-fledged discourse, but it still more or less follows the basic format:

  • Question from “the Jews” (v. 18), in response to the Temple “cleansing” action of Jesus (vv. 14-17)
  • Enigmatic/provocative saying by Jesus (v. 19)
  • Question/reaction misunderstanding the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 20)
  • Instead of an exposition by Jesus, there is an explanation provided by the author (vv. 21-22)

The narrative structure of the Discourses, with their festal settings, can be demonstrated further:

  • Passover (2:13-25)—including the Temple-saying (v. 19) which foreshadows and prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus
    • Two discourses with a feast setting, each of which is preceded by a miracle similar to those in the Synoptic tradition, but neither takes place (entirely) in the Jerusalem Temple:
      Sabbath (& unspecified feast, 5:1-47)—miracle (healing of crippled man), vv. 1-15; discourse, vv. 16-18, 19-47
      Passover (6:1-65, [66-71])—miracle (feeding the multitude), vv. 1-15; discourse, vv. 25-65ff
    • Two discourses with a feast setting, each taking place in Jerusalem (and the Temple); these discourses are specifically centered on the theme of the identity of Jesus, and his relation to God the Father:
      Booths (7:1-52; 8:12-59)—a highly complex structure with a narrative introduction (7:1-13), followed by a sequence of five (or six) discourse-scenes, the last two of which (8:21-30, 31-59) identify Jesus with the Father
      Dedication (10:22-39)—a shorter combination of two discourse-sections (vv. 22-30, 31-38), each of which concludes by Jesus identifying himself with the Father
  • Passover (12:1-13:30)—a complex narrative and discourse structure in preparation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, leading into the “Farewell Discourse(s)” (13:31-16:33 and chap. 17) and the Passion narrative (chaps. 18-19)—all set during Passover

(c) Theological—It is not possible here to study each discourse (or discourse sequence) in detail, as they are dense and often complex, with an unbelievably rich thematic and symbolic texture. I will simply provide some basic observations which indicate the way in which Jesus is depicted as fulfilling (in his own person) certain Old Testament themes and symbols related to the feasts and holy days. I begin with the two “outer” sections in the chiastic outline above, both of which show Jesus in Jerusalem for the Passover:

John 2:13-25—This is John’s version of the symbolic Temple action (“cleansing”) by Jesus (vv. 13-17) and the Temple-saying (v. 19ff), each of which is attested in Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:15-19; 14:58 par); however, in John, the two are connected, with the clear implication (explained by the author in vv. 21-22) that Jesus fulfills (or replaces) the Temple itself, including the entire sacrificial/ritual apparatus associated with it. I have discussed this section in more detail in prior notes and earlier in this series.

John 12:1-13:30ff—Jesus’ death, presenting himself as a sacrificial offering, is suggested throughout this section (see esp. 12:23-24, 32f; 13:4-11ff) beyond what is found in the common Gospel tradition shared by the Synoptics (cf. 12:3-8, 27; 13:1-3, 21-30). John’s account of the Passion is unique in having the crucifixion occur on the very eve of Passover (19:14) when the lambs are slaughtered, and clearly identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb (19:31-33, 36; cf. also 1:29, 36).

The first pair of discourses of the “inner” sections (in the outline above) are:

John 5:1-47
Festal setting: The feast is unspecified, though commentators have frequently suggested the feast of Weeks (Shavuot, or ‘Pentecost’), which is traditionally associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai (cf. Exod 19:1). This is likely, since it would relate to the Sabbath—the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-11) being part of the Decalogue given to Moses on Sinai. More important to the author is the fact that the festal day coincides with the Sabbath.
Narrative setting: The section begins with a Sabbath healing miracle story (vv. 1-16ff) which has similarities to those in the Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6 par; Luke 13:10-17); the objection to Jesus healing on the Sabbath (vv. 10-16, 18) is central to the discourse which follows (vv. 17, 19-47) and serves to introduce it. The miracle took place at the pool of Bethesda (or Betzatha), a location close (just N/NE) to the Temple; the action then shifts to the Temple precincts (v. 14), with the discourse presumably understood as occurring in the Temple as well.
Structure of the Discourse: The principal saying of Jesus is in verse 17 (“my Father is even working until [now], and I [also] am working”). The bulk of the discourse (vv. 19-47) consists entirely of a lengthy exposition which can be divided into three sections:
—Jesus’ work: the Son does what the Father shows him (life-giving power), vv. 19-30
—Witness to Jesus’ work: four-fold witness (John the Baptist, the miracles themselves, the Word of God in the heart of believers, and Scripture), vv. 31-40
—Refusal of people to believe the witness (disbelief), vv. 41-47
Theological significance: The Sabbath theme is central, with Jesus identifying himself with God the Father in terms of his work as Creator (an important aspect of the Sabbath command itself, Exod 20:11). According to Jewish tradition (cf. b. Taanith 2a), God is understood to be continually at work, especially in the life-giving areas of: (a) rain, (b) birth, and (c) resurrection. It is the last of these (the power of resurrection) that Jesus particularly emphasizes (and claims for himself) in the discourse (vv. 21, 25, 28-29). According to the narrative (v. 18), some of “the Jews” who heard him recognized that Jesus was identifying himself with God the Father. It is not clear that Jesus here specifically fulfills (or replaces) the Sabbath, but the Synoptic saying in Mark 2:28 par would certainly take on added dimension in this context.

John 6:1-65ff—
Festal setting: It is close to the time of the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread (v. 4).
Narrative setting: Verses 1-15 record the miracle of feeding the 5000, similar to the Synoptic accounts (Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10 par); verses 16-21 have the episode of Jesus walking on the water, already joined to the feeding of the 5000 in early tradition (cf. Mk 6:45-51 par). Verses 22-24f serve as a narrative bridge leading into the discourse.
Structure of the Discourse: I have discussed the structure of chapter 6 in more detail elsewhere; the “Bread of Life” discourse proper I limit to verses 31-59.
Theological significance: Jesus himself fulfills two main symbols and motifs related to Passover and the Exodus:
—He identifies himself with God the Father who fed the hungry Israelites in the wilderness (cf. the miracle in vv. 1-15 and the discussion in vv. 25-30); note especially in this regard Scripture references such as Psalm 107:4-9.
—In the discourse (vv. 31-59) and the discussion which follows (vv. 60-71) he identifies himself with the manna (“bread from heaven”, cf. Exod 16:4, 15; Psalm 78:24; Wisd 16:20), specifying that he is the true bread which has come down from heaven.
The episode of Jesus walking on the water (vv. 16-21) may also be connected with God’s role in Israel’s crossing the sea (see esp. Psalm 77:19).

The second pair of discourses are as follows:

John 7:1-52; 8:12-59—
Festal setting: The feast of Booths (Tabernacles), as indicated in the narrative introduction (v. 2).
Narrative setting: This is provided by the narrative introduction in verses 1-13, which records a partial dialogue with Jesus and his brothers, and narrates Jesus’ (secret) journey to Jerusalem for the feast. Verse 14 shows him in the Temple, teaching.
Structure of the Discourse: The structure is lengthy and complex, spanning two whole chapters, and is further complicated by the presence of the pericope of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11, generally recognized as an interpolation and not part of the original Gospel). I understand 7:14-8:59 (not including 7:53-8:11) as representing a cluster or sequence of five (possibly six) discourses combined into a single arc, which emphasizes different aspects of Jesus’ identity (and his relationship to the Father):
—Jesus as Teacher (7:14-24): his relation to the Law, with a reprise of the Sabbath question from chapter 5
—Jesus as Messiah (7:25-36): where he comes from and goes to (returns)
—Jesus as (living) Water and Light (7:37-39ff; 8:12 + vv. 13-20): motifs associated with the feast of Booths
—Jesus as I AM (8:21-30): he comes from the Father and goes (returns) to Him
—Jesus as Word of God (I AM) (8:31-59): juxtaposition of Abraham and God as Father
Theological significance: Here I will limit discussion to the discourse in 7:37-39ff; 8:12-20, and the two principal motifs, associated with the feast of Booths, with which Jesus identifies himself. Traditional themes and images are largely dependent on Zechariah 9-14 (on Jewish ritual and ceremony, from a slightly later period, see the Mishnah tractate Sukkah):
Water (7:37-39): Cf. Zech 12:10; 13:1; 14:8; also Isa 44:3; Jer 2:13. A festal ceremony developed, involving filling a golden pitcher with water from the Gihon spring, followed by a procession to the Temple, where the water was poured out and made to flow into the ground around the altar; during the ceremony Isa 12:3 and Psalm 118:25 were recited. The ritual itself reflects an agricultural background and involving a prayer for rain (cf. Zech 10:1; 14:17).
Light (8:12ff): Cf. Zech 14:8. For the traditional ceremony of lighting the four golden candlesticks, see m. Sukkah 5:2-4. The theme of Jesus as light continues in the next chapter (Jn 9), and see also the thematic reprise in 12:35-36.

John 10:22-39—
Festal setting: The feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), v. 22.
Narrative setting: It is likely that 10:1-21 is meant to be connected with this section (as chap. 9 is with the prior discourse); note the reprise of the “good shepherd” theme in vv. 25-28. The possibility has also been raised that Ezekiel 34 may have been a synagogue reading (haphtorah) from the Prophets around the time/season of Dedication, which means that the “good shepherd” discourse of 10:1-21 may have been delivered at that time. In verse 23, Jesus is shown in the Temple, the setting for the discourse which follows.
Structure of the Discourse: It can be divided simply into two sections: verses 22-30 and 31-38, with a short narrative summary in verse 39. The structure becomes more complex if one wishes to include the “good shepherd” discourse of vv. 1-21 are part of unified sequence.
Theological significance: Like the Tabernacles discourse(s) of chapters 7-8 (above), these two discourse sections specifically emphasize the identity of Jesus and his relationship to the Father, and each concludes with a specific identification:
—Jesus as Messiah (vv. 22-30): identification with the Father in verse 30 (“I and the Father are one”)
—Jesus as Son of God (vv. 31-38): identification with the Father in verse 38 (“the Father [is] in me and I [am] in the Father”)
The feast of Dedication commemorates the rebuilding of the altar and new dedication of the Temple (1 Maccabees 4:41-61); this theme of consecration is implicit in this section, emphasized only in verse 36. The implication is that Jesus is to be identified (in his person) with the sacrificial altar (and the Temple itself), much as we see in the Temple saying of Jn 2:19ff.

The remainder of this article will continue in the next part of this series.

For a number of points and references above, I am indebted to R. E. Brown’s excellent critical commentary (part of the Anchor Bible series, vol. 29), cf. especially pp. 212-230, 245, 255-6, 261-6, 277-80, 326-9, 343-4, 404-12.

Jesus and the Law, Part 7: The Temple (continued)

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In Part 6, I looked at the episode of Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, as well as the “Temple saying” in John 2:19 par; in this part, I will conclude the article on “Jesus and the Temple” with an examination of other sayings related to the Temple, followed by a summary discussion.

3. Other sayings and teachings related to the Temple

References with an asterisk (*) indicate sayings related to sacrificial offerings (associated with the Temple cult), but do not refer to the Temple itself.

Luke 2:49

In the episode from the Lukan Infancy narratives (Lk 2:41-51), of the twelve-year old Jesus remaining behind in Jerusalem (following the Passover observance), when his parents (Mary and Joseph) find him and ask (v. 48)—

“Child, what [i.e. why] have you done thus to us? See, your father and I, being in pain, search [for] you”

Jesus responds:

ti/ o%ti e)zhtei=te me; ou)k h&|deite o%ti e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou dei= ei@nai/ me;
“What that [i.e. why do] you search [for] me? Did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?”

The precise meaning and rendering of the Greek phrase e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou is debated, as I have discussed in a prior note. It is sometimes translated as “in my Father’s house”, but this is rather inaccurate and misleading. The expression e)n toi=$ tou= {person} (“in/among the things/people of {so-and-so}”) can indeed have the wider sense of “in/among the possessions of …”, translated conventionally as “in the house(-hold) of…”. Such a basic meaning is attested in the Greek version of the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 41:51), and elsewhere in Greek texts of the period; a close parallel is found in Josephus (Against Apion I.118: e)n toi=$ tou= Dio$ “in the house-(hold) [i.e. temple] of Zeus”). However, if Jesus (or the Gospel writer) had wished to emphasize the Temple (building) as such, he certainly could have used the common word oi@ko$ (“house, building”). The AV/KJV translation “about my Father’s business” reflects the basic sense “in the affairs of my father”—that is, the things in an abstract sense, again referring, one would assume, to the teaching of the Torah and temple activity. Sometimes cited supporting this basic meaning is Luke 20:25, but better Mark 8:33/Matthew 16:23. The specific Greek phrase in verse 49 may be intended to capture both of these senses.

Overall, we see here a positive view of the Temple, which fits the key role and setting it plays in the Lukan Infancy narratives (chs. 1-2). However, it is important to note that Jesus’ saying does not emphasize the Temple, but rather God the Father (“my Father”)—he is in/among the things (and/or people) belonging to his Father. This clearly is meant as a juxtaposition between Jesus’ earthly parents and his (true) heavenly Father in the narrative scene. The specific wording may also imply that the Temple is only the “house(hold) of God” insofar as the things truly belonging to God take place there. Though the Temple ritual is implied in the festal (Passover) setting of the narrative, Jesus is specifically taking part (as a pupil) in teaching and instruction. This is an important emphasis throughout the Gospels (and Acts)—the role of teaching and prayer in the Temple seems to have priority over that of the sacrificial ritual.

Matthew 5:23-24*

In the first of the so-called Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47) of the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching on murder/anger (vv. 21-26), Jesus offers two practical examples of the importance of reconciling with one’s fellow neighbor, etc. The first of these (vv. 23-24) describes a situation where a person is in the midst of presenting a (sacrificial) offering at the altar (i.e. of the Temple), and realizes that he/she has an unresolved conflict with another person (“your brother holds something against you”); Jesus’ instruction is to leave the offering and first be reconciled with (lit. “be thoroughly changed”  toward) the other person. The implied principle is that fundamental ethical matters take priority over fulfilling the sacrificial/ceremonial requirements of the Law. This generally follows the common criticism leveled by the Prophets, denouncing those who participate in the religious ritual despite otherwise behaving in a wicked or faithless manner toward God and neighbor (see below). I have discussed the Antitheses at some length earlier in the series on “Jesus and the Law”.

Matthew 9:13; 12:7* (citing Hosea 6:6a)

I have discussed both of these verses in a recent note. Jesus’ teaching follows in line with the practical example from the Antitheses (above); and see also, especially, on Mark 12:33 below.

Matthew 12:5-6

This pair of verses was also discussed, along with v. 7, in the previous note.

Mark 12:33*

In the Markan version of the so-called “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34; par Matt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28), in response to a question from a certain scribe (“which [thing] laid upon [us] to complete [i.e. commandment] is first of [them] all?”), Jesus answers by citing Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18 together, emphasizing (total) love toward God and neighbor (“there is no other [thing] laid upon [us] to complete [i.e. no commandment] greater than these”, v. 31b). The scribe then responds to Jesus as follows (v. 33):

“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). So here Jesus effectively teaches that the two-fold “love command” far surpasses the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law. This reflects other sayings of Jesus in the Sermon the Mount (and elsewhere, cf. above), and would become a cornerstone teaching in the early Church (see esp. Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).

Luke 18:10ff

Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the “Tax collector” takes place in the Temple (v. 10), though it is not entirely clear if there is any special significance to this setting; the emphasis is rather on the contrast between the approach and conduct of the two men. The Pharisee is apparently scrupulous and devout in religious matters, observing the Torah, but also is self-assured (“self-righteous”), justifying himself in prayer before God. The tax collector, on the other hand, is humble and contrite before God, confessing that he is a sinner and asking for mercy. The parable is typical of other “reversal of fortune” sayings and parables by Jesus, such as in the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26) or the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Indeed, the Beatitudes (see Matt 5:3-12) especially emphasize the characteristics of meekness and humility. Beyond this, it is hard to ignore the apparent contrast also present in the Lukan parable between external religious observance and inward purpose or intention—without the second, the first is of little or no value. An implicit connection with the Temple, in this regard, has already been noted in the sayings above. A similar passage, with a Temple setting, is found in Mark 12:41-44, with Jesus’ comments on the widow’s offering.

Mark 13:2 par

In Mark 13:1-2 (and the parallel in Matt 24:1-2; Lk 21:5-6) we have Jesus predicting/foretelling the destruction of the Temple. This begins a collection of teachings and sayings (in the Synoptic tradition) known as the “Eschatological” (or Olivet) Discourse (Mk 13 / Matt 24 /Lk 21:5-36 [cf. also Lk 17:20-37]). A foretelling of the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem runs through this section; the Gospel of Luke, in particular, shows Jesus predicting the siege (more or less fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D.) in fairly graphic detail (Lk 19:41-44; 21:20-24; cf. also 23:28-31). This prediction may be related to one or both of the main traditions involving Jesus and the Temple—(1) Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, and (2) the “Temple saying” of Jn 2:19; Mk 14:58 par (on both of these, see Part 6 of this series). One possible interpretation of the Temple “cleansing” event is that Jesus meant to symbolize the destruction of the current (earthly) Temple; if so, then the prediction in Mk 13:2 par should be read in this light. Similarly, the “Temple saying” may indicate a belief or expectation (whether by Jesus or others) that the current Temple would be destroyed and replaced with something new.

The prediction in Mark 13:2 par does not necessarily indicate a particular view (positive or negative) of the Temple on the part of Jesus; however, at least two points may be fairly inferred:

  1. Jesus did not see the current (earthly) Temple as permanent—the building itself would be destroyed. The “Temple saying”, however understood or interpreted, could conceivably mean that something new would take its place.
  2. The destruction likely means that God’s judgment—against Jerusalem and/or the Temple establishment—was involved.

Jesus is responding to comments by his disciples (Mk 13:1 par) admiring the physical/material grandeur of the Temple building; this certainly would suggest a devaluing of the building itself, along with the accompanying Temple ritual—a view which would conform with a number of the sayings above.

Mark 14:49 par

In Mark 14:49 (and the parallel in Matt 26:55; Lk 22:53) Jesus refers to the fact that he had spent considerable time in the Temple, teaching. The Synoptic narrative tradition records just one main visit by Jesus to Jerusalem—during the Passover season just prior to his death. During the time between his (triumphal) entry into the city and his arrest, the Gospels present Jesus as spending most of his time teaching in the Temple (emphasized repeatedly in Luke, cf. 19:47; 20:1; 21:5, 37-38). In the Gospel of John, which records multiple visits by Jesus to Jerusalem (for the holy days), there too the image is of Jesus teaching in the Temple (for more on this see in Part 8). Though the picture painted by the Gospels is rather simplistic, two clear observations can be made:

  1. Jesus presumably was observing the Torah commands in coming to Jerusalem (and the Temple) during the holy (feast) days (such as Passover, Sukkot/Booths, etc)
  2. He is not depicting as participating the sacrificial/ceremonial Temple ritual (though presumably, at the historical level, he would have); rather, he is consistently shown in the role and act of teaching.

Summary Observations

In concluding this study on Jesus and the Temple, it may be useful to summarize the results and highlight several key observations which will be important to keep in mind as we proceed further in the series of “Jesus and the Law”:

The Temple action (“cleansing”)—the four Gospel accounts of this scene all stem from a single historical tradition, a dramatic event which had already begun to be interpreted differently in the various Gospels. By his provocative action, Jesus appears to be following the Old Testament Prophets (cf. the citation of Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11) who occasionally leveled harsh criticism against the sacrificial ritual of the Temple (especially when it was not accompanied by proper ethical and religious behavior). The action by Jesus was primarily symbolic, in two main respects:

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers, etc. likely was meant to be a kind of “cleansing”, at least in the sense of emphasizing the intended holiness of the Temple as the house/dwelling of God. In this respect, the symbolic action strikes against the Temple machinery and apparatus associated with the sacrificial ritual—the very aspect of the Temple most likely to become corrupted through its customary use (and misuse).
  • Turning over the tables, etc. probably was meant to symbolize the impending destruction of the Temple—either as a prediction or a warning. Early Gospel tradition may have connected the “Temple saying” (below) with the “cleansing” episode in various ways, as we see in John 2; the emphasis in the saying is on the destruction of the Temple.

If one gives credence to the quotation of Isa 56:7, especially, in the Synoptic accounts, it is also possible that Jesus was establishing (or at least suggesting) a different (symbolic) role for the Temple, in a two-fold sense:

  1. Emphasizing prayer, rather than sacrificial offering, as the basis for proper worship of God
  2. Inclusion of Gentiles (“a house of prayer for all nations“)—at the historical level, the buying/selling probably would have taken place in the Court of Gentiles; by driving out the buyers/sellers, Jesus may have been declaring the holiness of the entire Temple precincts, extending its sanctity to the Gentiles

There was probably also a definite eschatological dimension to Jesus’ action—ushering in a “new age” with the coming of the (end-time) kingdom of God meant that the old religious forms would either be replaced or given a new significance. If we accept the Johannine version (and context) of the “temple saying” (Jn 2:19ff), then Jesus had already consciously connected the Temple action with his own (sacrificial) death and resurrection.

The Temple saying—it seems certain (on entirely objective grounds) that Jesus made a statement similar to that reported during his trial (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61; cf. also Mk 15:29 par; Acts 6:14)—that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it (in three days)—even though Mark and Matthew report this as “false” testimony. John 2:19 perhaps records this very statement, accepting the Gospel record at face value: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up again)”. Most likely this saying is related in some way to the Temple action (above), though only in John 2:13-22 is a specific connection made. It is also only in John (vv. 20-22) that we have a direct interpretation of the saying, made by the Gospel writer (or his underlying sources) and not by Jesus himself. The author clearly states that Jesus was speaking of “the shrine of his (own) body”, though the disciples did not understand this until after the resurrection. In Acts 6:14ff this saying places a role in the charges made against Stephen and provides the setting for his great speech in Acts 7:2-53 (discussed in detail elsewhere). Stephen’s speech climaxes with a rhetorical (and polemic) argument against the Temple itself, comparing it in some sense with idolatry, in part through repeated use of the phrase “made with hands” (“work of [their] hands”, etc). Whether this, in any way, reflects authentic teaching of Jesus is uncertain.

Other teaching regarding the Temple and its Ritual—Jesus says relatively little about the Temple elsewhere in the Gospels, but the sayings and teachings which have been preserved (see above) would seem to suggest, or reflect, several related themes:

  • Jesus’ presence in the Temple occurs mainly in the context of teaching, rather than in the performance of sacrificial ritual (e.g. Lk 2:46ff; Mark 14:49 par). In several other sayings, teaching or prayer in the Temple is also emphasized (cf. the citation of Isa 56:7 in Mk 11:17 par; also Lk 18:10).
  • In several sayings and teachings, Jesus clearly states the importance and priority of love (for God and neighbor) over sacrificial offerings (Matt 5:23-24; the citation of Hos 6:6a in Matt 9:13 and 12:7; Mark 12:28-34 par; cf. also Lk 18:10ff).
  • Similarly, one may fairly adduce in such sayings a principle emphasizing inward intention and attitude over against external observance of the ritual (though the latter may still be deemed important).
  • The prediction of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:1-2 par) would seem to confirm an important aspect of both the Temple action (“cleansing”) and Temple saying—that the current (earthly) Temple was about to be destroyed, as part of God’s (end-time) Judgment.
  • The sayings in Matt 12:5-6, could be understood in a Christological sense, somewhat similar to the Temple saying (and explanation) in John 2:19ff, whereby Jesus (in his own person) surpasses (and/or replaces) the religious authority and position of the Temple. As there is relatively little evidence for this idea elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching (at least in the Synoptic Gospels), one must be cautious about such an interpretation; on the other hand, neither should it be dismissed simply as a product of early Christian belief.

It is possible—even likely, I should say—that early Christian belief more strongly influences the way that Gospel traditions are presented and narrated in the Gospel of John, and it is here (the Fourth Gospel) that we will now turn for the next part in this series.

 

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 6: The Temple

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Jesus’ relationship to the Jerusalem Temple is sometimes treated separately from his view of the Law (Torah); however, the Temple ritual is an important part of the commands and ordinances in the Law, so it will be discussed appropriately within the series “Jesus and the Law”. This article will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple
  2. The “Temple saying” of Jesus
  3. Other sayings and teachings related to the Temple

1. The “Cleansing” of the Temple

I have discussed this episode in some detail in earlier notes, and here will primarily repeat or summarize the results of those studies.

a. The Synoptic Accounts (Mark 1:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47)

Luke provides the simplest version (Lk 19:45-46):

45And coming into the sacred place he began to cast out the (ones) selling, 46saying to them, “It has been written: ‘My house will be a house for speaking-out toward (God) [i.e. prayer], and you have made it a cavern for plunderers’.”

Additional details found in Mark and Matthew (Mk 11:15; Matt 21:12):

  • Jesus casts out the (ones) selling and the (ones) buying
  • He overturns (lit. turns [upside] down) the tables of the coin-changers and seats of the (ones) selling doves

Additional details found only in Mark:

  • He did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place (v. 16)
  • The quotation from Isa 56:7 is extended: “…will be called a house of prayer to/for all the nations” (v. 17)

There can be no doubt that the compound Scripture citation is the key to interpreting the Synoptic accounts as they stand. The first portion comes from Isaiah 56:7: “…My House will be called a house of petition/prayer [hL*p!T=] for all the peoples”. The message of Isa 56:1-8 is that all people who adhere to the Law of God (including Gentiles and foreigners) will become part of God’s people gathered in from exile. It is interesting to note the difference of emphasis:

  • Jesus: “My house will be (called) a house of prayer
  • Isa 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples

Mark does include the last phrase, but, it would seem, with any special emphasis. However, considering that the commerce would have likely been taking place in the outer Court of the Gentiles (implied by the use of i(ero/n and not nao/$), the Isaian context of foreigners (Gentiles) joining to become part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel is surely significant. Primarily though, Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” with “cavern of thieves/plunderers”. This portion comes from Jeremiah 7:11, which also has something of a different meaning in its original context. Jer 7:1-29 is a lengthy oracle condemning the evils committed throughout Judah (delivered by the prophet while standing in the gate of the Temple, v. 2); this includes a familiar prophetic denunciation of those who commit evil and yet come to the Temple to participate in the sacred ritual (vv. 8ff). The bitter question is asked in verse 11:

“Has it become a cave of violent (men), this house of which My Name is called upon it, in your eyes?”

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew literally, using the approximate phrase “cavern of plunderers” (sph/laion lh|stw=n); Jesus’ quotation follows the LXX phrase. By way of dramatic hyperbole, any “profane” business, even that associated with maintaining the Temple, was tantamount to turning the sacred place into a “cave of violent robbers”! In all four Gospels, but especially in John (v. 16b), Jesus seems to be objecting to commerce taking place anywhere within the Temple precincts (see below). This also would be confirmed by the curious detail in Mark (v. 16),  that Jesus “did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place”. This probably is an echo of Zech 14:20-21, a passage which almost certainly colors the Gospel account, even as Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (as the coming/Anointed King) is shaped by Zech 9:9ff. Another relevant (Messianic) passage would be Mal 3:1ff, which speaks of the Lord coming suddenly to His Temple, where he will purify the priests and their offerings (vv. 3-4). That Mal 3:1 was understood to apply to Jesus (with John the Baptist as his messenger) in Gospel Tradition is clear from Mark 1:2 (cf. also Matt 11:10ff and Luke 1:76).

b. The Johannine Account (Jn 2:14-17)

In the Synoptic Gospels, the “cleansing” episode is narrated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the Entry into Jerusalem; in John, on the other hand, it appears to take place at the beginning of his ministry. Some traditional-conservative commentators, taking the apparent chronologies literally, harmonize by positing two separate “cleansing” incidents. This is highly unlikely. The narratives (in the Synoptics and John) are close enough that we can be relatively certain that a single historical tradition underlies both accounts. If this is so, then which ‘chronology’ is more accurate? The Synoptics really only record one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem (at the end of his ministry); on the basis of this arrangement, various traditions which take place within a Jerusalem setting, might naturally be included as part of this last visit. Many scholars would view the multiple visits to Jerusalem (with three different Passover settings) as technically and historically more accurate, and thus favor an earlier date for the “cleansing”. On the other hand, the dramatic nature of the episode, which (at the historical level) must have greatly increased opposition to Jesus from the religious authorities, fits better a time closer to his death. If the saying in 2:18-22 was actually uttered at the time of the “cleansing” (on this see below), then again a moment nearer to his trial and crucifixion is to be preferred.

The Johannine account (2:14-17), on the one hand, creates a more vivid and dramatic scene with the inclusion of several details:

  • The mention of cattle and sheep in the Temple precincts (v. 14f)
  • Jesus’ use of a whip made of cords (v. 15)—it is not entirely clear whether he uses it to drive out the sellers, the cattle/sheep, or both.
  • In overturning (lit. upturning) the coin-changers tables, the coin-pieces pour out (v. 15)

On the other hand, instead of the Scripture citation (from Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11), Jesus replies more matter-of-factly (to the ones selling doves): “Take up/away these (things from here) on this (side and that)! do not make the house of my Father a house of commerce!” (v. 16). Is the Synoptic quotation an ‘exposition’ of Jesus’ words as recorded here in John? Or does John’s account ‘explain’ the quotation? A (different) Scripture passage is cited in John, from Psalm 69:9: “The ‘zeal’ of [i.e. for] your house has eaten me (up)”. The word usually translated “zeal/jealousy” (ha*n+q!) has the basic sense of “(burning) red”, the Greek word zh=lo$ properly “heat/fervor”. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew quite literally, and the quotation in John follows the LXX (B), reading the future tense (katefa/getai “will eat me down [i.e. devour me]”). The future form, of course, betters suited the verse as a prophecy related to Jesus; indeed, reflection on Psalm 69 helped shape the Gospel tradition of his Passion (as indicated in v. 17a), and is doubtless one of the key texts used to show that the Messiah must suffer and die (see especially Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). There is a slight ambiguity here in the Psalm: while the ‘zeal’ is generally understood of the protagonist (or Psalmist)—that he is consumed with (righteous) fervor—it could also be taken to mean, in the overall context of suffering, that his righteous zeal has caused him to be “eaten up” by his enemies. The citation in the Gospel could be interpreted, or made to apply, either way. Since it is associated with Jesus’ “cleansing” action, the image primarily would be the intense nature (all-consuming fire) of his ‘zeal’ for God’s house; but it is also possible that a bit of wordplay is involved—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death that connects with the Temple saying in vv. 19-22.

c. Significance of the “Cleansing” (at the Historical level)

On the basis of an objective analysis of the Gospel accounts, there would seem to be two main possibilities with regard to what Jesus intended to convey by his action:

  1. Cleansing/Purifying the Temple. This is the most common interpretation, and is suggested particularly by the Synoptic accounts (see below). But cleansing in what sense? It can be understood several ways:
  • Jesus was focusing on the presence of the sellers of animals and money-changers in the Temple precincts. The general language used in the Synoptic accounts would suggest that he was targeting any commerce taking place in the Temple precincts (“the [ones] selling and the [ones] buying” Mark 11:15 par). Even though these transactions would have occurred in the outer court (of the Gentiles), and not the sanctuary, Jesus may have objected to their taking place in the Temple precincts at all. The symbolism might be understood in terms that the entire Temple (complex) should be holy.
  • Jesus was targeting not the Temple commerce per se, but rather the corruption and profiteering which was taking place. This is a popular view, but there is little evidence for it in the texts beyond a superficial reading of the second part of the saying in Mark 11:17 par (from Jer 7:11). More plausibly, Jesus is targeting the burden which the Temple commerce places upon the poor—cf. the emphasis on overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers-of-doves (the sacrificial animal of the poor).
  • Jesus’ emphasis was on the Temple ritual as a whole. Since the system of sacrifice, and the tax to fund the Temple, could not exist without the purchase of animals and exchange of coinage, Jesus’ driving out the sellers and money-changers could be viewed as an attack on the Temple ritual itself. However, apart from this episode, there it little evidence in the Gospels for such an explicit attack on the Temple. It will become more prominent later on (cf. the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 [esp. vv. 38-50], the epistle to the Hebrews, and, possibly, within the Gospel of John [see below]). Still, the quotation of Isa 56:7 in Mark 11:17 par. could indicate that Jesus had a different role for the Temple in mind.
  • Jesus was attacking the current Temple administration. This was characteristic of the Community of the Qumran texts, which did not oppose the Temple as such, but rather the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling Priesthood that oversaw the Temple machinery. In the Gospels certainly we find more instances of Jesus speaking out against the current religious authorities than against the Temple; however, it is hard to find much evidence of that in the episode here.
  • It was a general symbol of cleansing related to the idea of the Temple’s holiness. In other words, the Temple as symbolic of the place where people encounter the Presence of God, requires (at its fundamental religious and spiritual level) the removal of anything profane. I think it quite possible that this is closer to Jesus’ intention than the other interpretations mentioned above.
  1. Destruction of the Temple. Here more emphasis is placed on the overturning of tables, etc. as a symbol of judgment. We have additional evidence that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple on more than one occastion (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par.; Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6]). As mentioned above, if the saying in Jn 2:18-22 originally took place at the time of the the Temple action, then it makes this interpretation more likely. Again, one may consider several different aspects to the theme of judgment/destruction:
  • The corruption of the current Temple/priesthood. This view is similar to several of the “cleansing” interpretations offered above. The current apparatus will be destroyed and replaced with a new, pure Temple (whether real or symbolic).
  • The Restoration of Israel. In the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, as well as in later Judaism, a new (ideal) Temple is part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel. See the Temple description in Ezekiel 40-48, and especially Isa 56:1-8 and Zech 14:16-21, both of which are reflected in the Gospel accounts. Also, note that Mark, in particular, connects the Temple episode with the withering of the fig tree (an Old Testament symbol for Israel), Mk 11:12-14, 20-21.
  • Jesus himself replaces the Temple (cult). This is more appropriate as an early Christian interpretation (which will be discussed); however, it is noteworthy in the Synoptic accounts that, after this episode, Jesus spends much of the time teaching within the Temple precincts. At the historical level, Jesus appears to have consciously identified himself with the (Messianic) king of Zech 9-14 (cf. Mark 11:1-11 par.), and may have intentionally tied his presence in Jerusalem (and the Temple) to Zech 14:16-21 (see the curious detail found only in Mk 11:16).

Is it possible that symbolism both of cleansing and destruction apply equally to the event? If we take the Gospel accounts at face value, there are two elements to Jesus’ action (Luke only mentioned the first of these):

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers
  • Overturning the tables of the money-changers (and sellers of doves)

2. The “Temple-saying” of Jesus

This is known in two forms: (a) as a (false) charge against Jesus at his “trial”, and (b) in John 2:19ff.

a. The charge made during the “trial” of Jesus

According to the accounts in Mark and Matthew (Luke does not include this part), false witnesses came forward to testify that Jesus had claimed he would destroy the Temple. Here the statements are presented side by side, along with Jn 2:19 for comparison (cf. below):

Mark 14:58

We heard him saying that
“I will loose down [katalu/sw] this shrine th(at is) made-with-hands and through [i.e. by/within] three days I will build another (house) made-without-hands”

Matthew 26:61

This (man) said
“I have power [i.e. am able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and through [i.e. by/within] three days to build (it again).”

John 2:19

Jesus answered and said to them
“Loose [lu/sate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Even though the account in Mark/Matthew states that these were false and/or contradictory witnesses, most critical scholars would hold that Jesus made some declaration or prophecy along these lines. The charge was reasonably widespread (cf. also Mark 15:30 par, and Acts 6:14), and all three Synoptics record a prediction that the Temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:1-3 par.). And, of course, it would seem to be confirmed by the saying in Jn 2:19. What is the relationship between the Johannine saying and the Synoptic (false) saying? There are several possibilities:

  • They reflect separate sayings or traditions
  • It is the same saying—John records the exact form, the Synoptics show how it was misrepresented at the ‘trial’
  • It is the same saying, recorded by the Synoptic ‘witnesses’ with general accuracy, and modified slightly in John

The second option is probably closer to being correct, though critical arguments could be (and have been) made for the third. What do the Synoptics (Matthew/Mark) mean when they state that the saying as reported is “false” witness (Mk 14:57; Matt 26:60)? Do they deny that Jesus ever made such a statement (contrary to Jn 2:19)? Or is it a matter of misrepresenting what Jesus said? How then was it misrepresented? There are only a few ways this could have been done:

  • Altering the saying so that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple (“I will destroy/dissolve…”). By comparison, in John the imperative is used, directed at the Judeans (“[Go ahead and] destroy/dissolve…”). Interestingly, the version in Matthew (“I have power to destroy/dissolve…”), while differing in vocabulary, is not so different in meaning from the saying in John.
  • The reference to destroying the Temple that is made with hands (xeiropoi/hto$) and building in its place one made without hands (a)xeiropoi/hto$). These qualifiers are absent from the versions of the saying in Matthew and John. However, the sort of spiritual replacement of the Temple suggested by the terms is consonant with later New Testament theology, and could have originated with Jesus. For a somewhat comparable interpretation in the Gospel of John itself, see below; and note my discussion of the motif in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.
  • There are two other small differences between the Synoptic and Johannine sayings: (1) the trial witnesses use the phrase “dia/ [through, i.e. by/within] three days”, while Jesus says “e)n [in] three days”; and (2) the trial witnesses use the verb oi)kodome/w (“build [a house]”), while Jesus uses the verb e)gei/rw (“raise”). It is hard to know how far these differences alter the meaning, other than that the language in John better fits the interpretation of the saying given in Jn 2:21 (see below).

b. The Saying in John 2:19

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Connection to the question in verse 18. There is a parallel structure between the two verses:

  • Introduction: “Therefore the Judeans judged from (this) [a)pekri/qhsan] and said [ei@pan] to him”
    • Question: “What sign are you showing that you (should) do these (things)?” (v. 18)
  • Introduction: “Jesus judged from (this) [a)pekri/qh] and said [ei@pen] to them”
    • Answer: “Loose this shrine and in three days I will raise it” (v. 19)

The verb a)pokri/nomai indicates responding back to something one has considered (“judged”); in simple narrative, as here, we would say “answered/responded and said…”.  It is possible that the saying in verse 19 was originally separate from the “cleansing” episode, and that the Gospel writer has joined the two traditions together. Whether or not this is the case, the parallelism indicated above demonstrates precise, careful handling of the material; one might extend the structure, by considering v. 18-19a as a chiasm introducing the saying:

  • The Judeans answered/responded and said
    • “What sign are you showing…?”
  • Jesus answered/responded and said…

It is a bit difficult to determine just how the saying relates to the Judeans’ question (whether at the historical level or in the Gospel narrative). In spite of the different (Johannine) vocabulary, the question would be similar to that in Mark 11:28 par (“in what authority are you doing these things?”). Jesus’ response could then be paraphrased as “I have authority/power even to (destroy and) rebuild the Temple”. The imperative lu/sate seems to put the challenge to the Judeans—i.e. “(Even) if you were to destroy/dissolve this Temple…” or perhaps “Go ahead and destroy this Temple…”—but there is some uncertainty that this represents the original form of the saying.

The Reaction to the Saying in v. 20. One common element of the references to the Temple saying (with the possible exception of Mark 14:58) is that those who heard it assumed that Jesus meant he would destroy the actual (Herodian) Temple. The Synoptic Gospels record that Jesus, in fact, did predict its destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). How people understood the second half of the saying is not as clear: the Markan version presented at the ‘trial’ indicates that Jesus would build a Temple “made without hands”, by which probably was meant a real (physical) building, but one produced miraculously (possibly coming down out of Heaven). In John, the Judeans naturally question how Jesus could rebuild something comparable to the Herodian Temple (which took “forty-six years to build”) in just three days. This is an example of the wordplay, and theme of misunderstanding, which appear frequently in the Fourth Gospel—Jesus’ audience takes his words at the (superficial) level of their apparent meaning, and miss their deeper (true, spiritual) significance. This is clear from the Johannine interpretation which follows in vv. 21-22.

It is worth noting that many critical scholars believe that (the historical) Jesus meant the words literally (more or less as presented in the Synoptic ‘trial’ narrative)—that he said he would destroy (or that God would destroy) the Herodian Temple, and a new (miraculous) Temple would rise in its place. A new/rebuilt Temple was certainly part of the exilic/post-exilic prophecies (already found in so-called Deutero-Trito-Isaiah [cf. Isa 44:28; 56:1-8; 60:3-14; 66:18-24], and see especially in Ezek 40-48), tied to the idea of the restoration of Israel and, in post-exilic Jewish writings, to the dawn of the Messianic age (e.g., Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 89-90; and the Qumran Temple Scroll). It is also certain that the Herodian Temple was far from the idealized Temple of the new age—witness the critiques of the Qumran sectarians, and the “Cleansing” by Jesus—and, therefore, the coming of the Messiah would require the rebuilding of a pure new Temple. While some of Jesus’ followers may have expected this of him, there is precious little evidence for such a conventional “Messianic” emphasis in the Gospel narratives as they stand. Indeed, by the time the later New Testament books were written (including, it would seem, the Gospels of Luke and John, c. 75-90 A.D.), there is hardly a trace to be found of expectation for a rebuilt Temple.

The Johannine Interpretation (vv. 21-22). These verses, by the Gospel writer, finally determine how one must interpret the saying in the text as it stands. This interpretation is summarized first in v. 21—

But that one [i.e. Jesus] related/spoke about the shrine [nao/$] of his body

and then is expounded (parallel with verse 17) in v. 22—

Therefore when he was raised [h)ge/rqh] out of [i.e. from] the dead (ones), his learners [i.e. disciples] remembered that he had said/related this, and they trusted in the Writing and the account [i.e. word] which Yeshua {Jesus} had said.

The Temple saying as recorded by the Synoptics (at the ‘trial’) also uses the word nao/$ (“shrine”), presumably for the Temple as a whole (also in v. 20 here), even though the word more properly applies to the inner Sanctuary (“Holy Place”). Similarly the term i(ero/n (“sacred-place”), though it also could be used for the entire Temple (precincts), in the “cleansing” episode almost certainly it refers to the outer court (i.e. of the Gentiles). By bringing these two traditions together, the Gospel writer here creates an important juxtaposition between i(ero/n and nao/$—the nao/$ Jesus was speaking of was the (inner) sanctuary/shrine of his body. In this regard, the significance in his use of e)gei/rw (“raise”) in v. 19 is obvious. Here, too, we see the Johannine theme of Jesus replacing, or fulfilling, the Old Testament religious types and symbols—the focus moves away from the physical Jerusalem Temple (both sacred-precincts and shrine) to the Person of Jesus. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article on “The Law in the Gospel of John” (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”).

The remainder of this article—presenting additional sayings by Jesus related to the Temple, and concluding with an interpretive summary—will be found in the next part in this series.

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.

 

Jesus and the Law, Part 5: The Sabbath Controversies (continued)

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In the Part 4 of this series I examined the main “Sabbath Controversy” story in the Gospels—the Sabbath healing miracles; here I will look at the second narrative tradition (Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath), as well as provide several concluding observations on the subject.

The Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

This episode appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), and follows a simple narrative outline (using the Markan version):

  • As Jesus and his disciples pass through a grainfield on the Sabbath, the disciples pluck the heads of grain (to eat, being hungry), v. 23
  • Pharisees observe this (or otherwise learn about it) and apparently object to the disciples’ action: “(for) what are they doing on the Sabbath (day)s that which is not right/lawful?”, v. 24
  • Jesus responds by citing the episode of David at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6), where he and his men ate from the sacred loaves in the sanctuary (the “bread of the Presence”), vv. 25-26
  • The narrative concludes with a twin saying in vv. 27-28: (a) “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath”, and (b) “so too the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath”

The Lukan version is nearly identical to that of Mark; in Matthew there are included additional/expanded sayings of Jesus (Matt 12:5-7, on which see below). Interestingly, neither Matthew nor Luke includes the saying of v. 27 in Mark. Clearly this narrative is much simpler and shows less development than the healing miracle story-form previously discussed; however, it does have several elements in common (in addition to the Sabbath setting):

  • Jesus (or his disciples) take part in modest activity which responds to human (physical) need
  • Religious authorities (Pharisees) object to it as a violation of the Sabbath (though by any reasonable standard it is hardly such)
  • Jesus answers with a declarative saying and a practical example

Some critical scholars have thought that the narrative episode is an artificial construction, either as a reflection of early Jewish-Christian disputes, or to provide a setting for the saying(s) in Mark 2:27-28 par. However, if it is a product of the early Church, one would perhaps expect a more relevant life-setting than we find here. The healing miracle stories are more clearly intended to illustrate a saying of Jesus, and the critical view is more plausible in those instances.

Whether the disciples’ action in any way constitutes a violation of the Sabbath, as the Pharisees in the narrative claim, will be touched on briefly below. More noteworthy is the way that Jesus comments on the incident (and the Pharisees’ objection to it):

  • The example of David and his men from 1 Sam 21:1-6 demonstrates an instance when a far more egregious (apparent) violation of religious law and ritual was permitted in the face of human need (physical hunger). In the original historical context of the Old Testament narrative, the only issue mentioned is whether David and his men were in a state of impurity (vv. 4-5); if they had been, presumably they would not have been permitted (properly) to touch the sacred bread. Interestingly, this example does not deal directly with the legal question raised by the Pharisees, though the added sayings in Matthew increase the relevance.
  • The principal saying of Jesus (in all three Synoptics) is: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”. This will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. Mark has the additional saying “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath” (v. 27). The Greek preposition used is dia/ (“through”), but here better rendered in normal English as “for (the sake of)”—that is, God instituted the command to rest on the Sabbath to serve and help human beings, not the other way around (but cf. the reason stated in Exod 20:9-11). The twin sayings in Mark, then, make two basic points: (a) the Sabbath rest is meant to aid the human condition, and (b) the Son of Man has authority over the Sabbath.

These sayings of Jesus are fundamental to his teaching and view of the Sabbath—but how exactly should they be understood? Here it is necessary to refer back to the conclusion of Part 4, where I specified two main aspects for understanding and interpreting the Sabbath controversy stories—the legal-religious aspect, and the theological-christological aspect. Each will be discussed here in turn.

Conclusion:
The legal-religious aspect

The command to observe the Sabbath is specified in Exodus 20:8-11 (part of the Decalogue), cf. also Exod 16:26; 23:12; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2; Lev 19:3, 30; 23:3. The reason given is that the Sabbath—the seventh day—is holy, dedicated to YHWH (v. 10), in honor of his work as Creator (v. 11a); God blessed the Sabbath day and declared (made) it holy (v. 11b). The basic command involved the prohibition that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but there are few specific and practical examples in the Torah itself as to what defines or constitutes “work”; thus, one task of religious authorities and interpreters of the Torah, was to clarify this point (e.g. tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah, ch. 7).

Interestingly, in neither the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics nor the episode of the disciples’ plucking grain, is there a clear violation of the Sabbath. Jesus’ healing miracles (as recorded) involve no actual work—commanding the man to stretch out his hand, or laying his hands on the crippled woman. Exod 34:21 forbids work on the Sabbath related to harvesting (and see m. Shabb. 7.2), but the disciples’ behavior would scarcely qualify; the example in Num 15:32-36 is perhaps a closer fit, but even that is highly questionable. What, then, should we make of the objection made by the religious authorities (“scribes and Pharisees”)?—there are several possibilities:

  • it is a sincere objection, based an ultra-strict interpretation of the Sabbath law
  • an overly-strict interpretation is being used (under pretense) in order to accuse Jesus or to portray him as a “sinner”
  • it is being used as a pretext to mask opposition to Jesus, out of jealously, personal animus, etc
  • it is a caricature, lampooning the religious views of the “scribes and Pharisees”

Arguments could be made in favor of each of these; the second and third would best fit the actual description of events in the Gospel narrative, though I am inclined to believe there is a touch of the fourth in the Gospel tradition as well. The response of the Synagogue leader in Luke 13:14 is the only instance where we find an explanation: superficially, at least, he draws upon the actual reasoning in the original command (Exod 20:8-11), with the implication that healing could be done on any of the six days when work is allowed—why not wait a day to heal the woman? Jesus’ response dramatically emphasizes the human element—this woman has been suffering for eighteen years, why should she not be healed on the Sabbath (i.e. why should she have to wait another day)? With regard to the Sabbath healing stories, the legal question is clearly specified—

“is it right/lawful [e&cestin] to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10; Lk 14:3)

which Jesus expands/generalizes in Mk 3:4 as:

“is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath … to save life… ?”

Three different (but parallel/similar) examples are used in dealing with the care of animals; even on the Sabbath, one would naturally: (a) untie an ox/donkey and lead it to drink (Lk 13:15), (b) lift out a sheep that fell into a pit (Matt 12:11), or (c) pull out an ox that has fallen into a well (Lk 14:5 with var.). The implication is obvious—how much more should one care for a human being on the Sabbath! But is it possible that this principle giving priority to human (physical) need over technical observance of the Sabbath regulation means that Jesus is, in fact, opposing the Law? Consider the example in Num 15:32-36, regarding the man who is put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath—would not Jesus oppose such an application of the Law, in a manner similar to that described in John 8:1-11? It is an interesting question, but one which requires that we proceed to the second main aspect of the Sabbath-controversy stories.

The theological-christological aspect

This is best examined in terms of the principal saying of Jesus in Mark 2:28 par:

“the Son of Man is lord [ku/rio$] (even) of the Sabbath”

I will be looking at this saying (in its Matthean context) in more detail in a supplemental note, but here several different interpretations can be considered:

  • taking the Hebrew/Aramaic expression “son of man” in its ordinary sense (as “human being, mortal”), it may be a more dramatic way of saying what Jesus does in v. 27—that human need and care takes priority even over the Sabbath law
  • that Jesus (as the “Son of Man”) has authority (ku/rio$ in the basic sense of “lord, master”) which surpasses even that of the (Sabbath) Law, either in the sense that
    (a) by his word or action he can override the Sabbath regulations
    (b) he has authority to declare the true purpose, intent, and interpretation of the Sabbath
    (c) following the teaching and example of Jesus takes priority over specific observance of the (Sabbath) Law
  • that Jesus (the “Son of Man”) is also Lord, in the divine sense (as “Son of God”), even as God the Father (YHWH) is Lord; the Sabbath observance is dedicated to God, in his honor, and he has complete control over it

Again, arguments could be made for each of these points, but 2b perhaps best fits the overall Gospel presentation. We should, however, consider several related points:

  • Rather than simply rejecting (or correcting) the Pharisees’ criticism and application of the Law, Jesus takes the opportunity to address a deeper question as to the nature and ultimate purpose of the Sabbath command, much as he does else where in his teaching (such as in the Sermon on the Mount)
  • In what is perhaps the earlier strand of Gospel tradition, Jesus’ emphasis is on the priority of caring for the (physical) need of human beings, rather than the nature of his personal authority (regarding the Law)
  • The saying in Mark 2:28 par would seem to emphasize Jesus’ authority (as “Son of Man”, cf. also Mk 2:10 par) in relation to the Law
  • The additional sayings in Matt 12:5-7 stress even more clearly that Jesus’ authority—in his own person—surpasses that of the Law (and the Temple)
  • The Sabbath healing in John 5 is connected with an even more developed discussion regarding Jesus’ divine authority (as Son of God) and his relationship to God the Father

This suggests a process of development in Gospel tradition, leading from a relatively simple combination of short narrative and saying of Jesus to a more extended discourse with unmistakable Christological implications. But is it possible, at the historical level, that Jesus’ opponents—that is, certain “scribes and Pharisees” and other religious authorities—recognized the claims implicit in his words and actions from the beginning? Consider how, in the Synoptic tradition, the Sabbath healing of Mark 3:1-6 par represents the moment when the religious authorities begin to seek Jesus’ destruction (v. 6), a result seemingly out of proportion with the events of the narrative as we have them. John 5:18 specifically connects Jesus’ violation (“loosing”) of the Sabbath with saying that God was his Father (“making himself equal with God”), as their reason for wishing to kill him. This same question and issue will arise again regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Temple—which is the subject of the next part in this series.

Jesus and the Law, Part 4: The Sabbath Controversies

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The so-called “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospel, at first glance, appear to be among the most prominent traditions relating to Jesus and the Law (Torah); however, a closer examination reveals a number of historical-critical and tradition-critical difficulties which complicate the picture. These traditions are part of a larger grouping of narrative episodes, which one may refer to under the heading “Controversies and disputes between Jesus and religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees)”. For a thorough list of relevant verses, see my Survey of Passages earlier in this series. Such episodes typically follow one of two basic narrative patterns:

  1. The religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) react negatively to an action or saying by Jesus, which provides the setting for a subsequent saying or parable. A developed (and especially memorable) example is the episode in Luke 7:36-50, involving the anointing of Jesus by a “sinful” woman, and which takes place in the house of a Pharisee.
  2. The Scribes and Pharisees ask a question of Jesus, in order to test him, which elicits a (sometimes enigmatic) saying or parable in response. In some stories, the end result is that Jesus’ opponents are silenced—they are unable to answer or unwilling to question him further. The episode involving the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) or the question regarding paying tax/tribute to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17) are among the more familiar examples.

The “Sabbath Controversy” stories follow the first pattern; there are two basic traditions involved:

  1. The episode involving Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5).
  2. A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, but the most widely attested (in the triple Synoptic tradition) is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11).

Critical commentators have expressed doubt generally regarding the authenticity and historicity of these stories, claiming that the setting is artificial and contrived. This may, however, be partly due to a misreading of the traditional narrative, ignoring the natural simplifications and formal/typical elements shaping the story. For example, we need not imagine that there were Pharisees standing around in the fields on the Sabbath at just the right moment to catch Jesus’ disciples plucking grain—rather, the traditional narrative simply records, in representative and typical fashion, the ways in which certain scrupulous and religiously devout Jews responded and reacted to the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. The sheer number of these controversy-stories in the Gospels makes it virtually certain, on objective grounds, that Jesus’ often provocative teaching and actions struck many religiously-minded observers as questionable or problematic.

Yet many scholars would hold that the Sabbath Controversy stories are actually products of the early Church, reflecting the disputes between Christians and Jews regarding Sabbath observance, etc. However, if this were the case, one might expect a narrative context that better fits the life-setting of early Christians—healing miracles and plucking grain in the fields do not seem especially relevant in this regard. A more plausible critical approach—at least with regard to the Sabbath healings—is outlined below. Since the healing miracle story setting is more prevalent in the Gospel tradition, I will begin there.

Healing Miracle(s) performed on the Sabbath

This takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition. The main episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, which takes place in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11). The common elements (using the Markan account) are as follows:

  • Jesus is in a local synagogue on the Sabbath (vv. 1-2)
  • A person is present with a noticeable physical ailment (man with a dried/withered hand, v. 1)
  • People (presumably Pharisees, but unspecified) watch Jesus to see whether he will heal the person on the Sabbath (v. 2)
  • Jesus asks those watching: “is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)
  • They are silent, and Jesus looks around at them with grief/anger (over their hardness of heart) (v. 5)
  • Jesus tells the man “stretch out your hand”, the man does so and is healed (v. 5)
  • After this event, the Pharisees leave with the purpose of destroying Jesus (v. 6)

There are several key differences in the Matthean version:

  • It is certain of the people watching (presumably Pharisees) who ask the question “is it right/lawful to heal on Sabbath (days)?” (Matt 12:10)—Matthew adds the detail that they asked the question so that they might be able to accuse/charge Jesus with an offence (controversy pattern #2 above)
  • Similarly, instead of the question in Mark 3:4, here Jesus cites the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, how naturally one will grab hold to lift it out. He concludes with a statement, similar to the question in Mk 3:4, “it is right/lawful to do a fine thing [i.e. do good] on Sabbath (days)”

Luke’s account generally follows the Markan, but with several additions (some which heighten the dramatic effect):

  • He adds the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue (Lk 6:6)
  • He specifies that it is the “scribes and Pharisees” who are watching Jesus (v. 7), including (with Matthew) the detail that they asked the question in order to accuse Jesus
  • He explains that Jesus saw/knew their thoughts (v. 8)
  • He adds the detail that the Pharisees were filled with mindless rage (v. 11)

Luke also records a similar story in Lk 13:10-17; it is worth comparing the similarities and differences with the prior episode. First the similarities which fit a basic narrative form:

  • The Synagogue setting (v. 10); as in Lk 6:6, Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogue
  • A person with a physical disability (v. 11)—here it is a woman who was bent/stooped together and unable to straighten up (she is described as having a “spirit of weakness/infirmity” for eighteen years)
  • Jesus calls the person to him (v. 12); upon his command, the person is healed (v. 13)
  • A statement by Jesus to the effect that it is proper to to good (i.e. to heal) on the Sabbath; the statement, with its example involving animals, is similar to that in Matt 12:11-12
  • Jesus’ opponents are effectively silenced (here, “put to shame”, v. 17)

Apart from certain details, there are also these notable differences:

  • The personal detail in vv. 11, 12, 16, which suggest a stronger or more developed tradition
  • The response to the healing by the ruler of the Synagogue (v. 14)—this is especially significant in the way it frames the religious-legal issue (see below)
  • The positive response of the people in the Synagogue is emphasized, rather than the negative reaction of the suspicious/hostile Pharisees (vv. 13, 17b)

Even though Lk 13:10-17 is almost a doublet of Lk 6:6-11, there are enough differences to suggest that we are dealing with separate historical traditions (at some level), which may have been combined in Matthew’s single account. It is possible to isolate two distinct core elements (sayings) central to the episode(s):

  1. The question whether it is right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and
  2. An illustration involving caring for an animal on the Sabbath

These two are incorporated in different ways within the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics. It is noteworthy, however, that we find the same two elements in a sayings-context where the healing miracle is less prominent—in Luke 14:1-6. Consider, indeed, how close this is to the account in Mark 3:1-6 / Matt 12:9-14:

  • Jesus is in a particular place on the Sabbath, in the presence of Pharisees (here it the house of a Pharisee, not a synagogue)
  • A man is present suffering from a physical ailment (here “dropsy”, i.e. excess of water or fluid, resulting in edema or swollen-limbs)
  • Jesus responds to the “scribes and Pharisees” and asks: “is it right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (cf. Mark 3:4; Matt 12:9)
  • Jesus’ ‘opponents’ are silenced (twice, v. 4a, 6)
  • Jesus gives an illustration involving caring for an animal in need, close to that in Matt 12:11—here it is an ox in a well instead of a sheep in a pit

Thus we have (in Luke) three separate narrative episodes each with a similar format and common/overlapping elements. This raises the critical question whether specific sayings of Jesus (in various/variant form) have been applied to the diverse healing-miracle tradition in such a way as to produce the distinct narratives we see in the Gospels. In other words, might not the Sabbath healing narratives serve as dramatizations, illustrating the sayings of Jesus in Lk 14:3, 5, along with the religious-legal issues involved? It is possible that we can see something of the sort at work in the Gospel of John; the fourth Gospel has no narrative matching that of the Synoptics (above), but in the two closest healing miracles (involving physical disability), there is also a “Sabbath controversy” element:

  • John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)
  • John 9:1-7ff: the healing of man blind from birth

These two narratives are similar in many respects: each involves a reaction from the religious authorities, and a questioning of the man who was healed (cf. Jn 5:10-16; 9:13-34), followed by Jesus encountering the man a second time and addressing him (5:14; 9:35-38), and finally Jesus answers the religious authorities (5:17; 9:39-41). In neither narrative is the Sabbath setting central to the main account of the healing miracle, though in John 5 it is more closely connected, at least at the literary level—note:

  • The healing miracle itself (vv. 1-9a)—no mention of the Sabbath
  • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-18), with two overlapping themes:
    (i) Jesus violating the Sabbath by performing work (healing)
    (ii) Jesus identifying himself with God the Father
    These are combined in the saying of Jesus in verse 17, and the summary in verse 18
  • Discourse of Jesus (vv. 19-47)—on the Son doing the work of the Father

This is a far more developed and expanded narrative structure than we find in the Synoptic Gospels, and, as such, is typical of the Gospel of John. Despite the centrality of the Sabbath motif in chapter 5, there is reason to believe that it represents a secondary development or application. Consider, for comparison, the way the Sabbath motif is similarly introduced in 9:14-16, but otherwise plays no part in the narrative of chapter 9. In John 7:21-25 mention is made of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, with controversy surrounding it implied, but without any clear narrative context—is it a reference back to chapter 5? There is, of course, no way to be certain just how the various Gospel traditions and narratives developed, and traditional-conservative commentators will always tend to take the narrative episodes more or less at face value. Still, the manner in which the “Sabbath controversy” element variously presents itself, in my view strongly suggests adaptation and combination of traditional material.

What exactly is at work in these narratives? The following aspects of the question should be considered:

  • The legal-religious aspect, as best represented by the twin sayings of Jesus in Luke 14:3, 5
  • The dramatic aspect—historical-critical questions aside, it cannot be doubted that the Sabbath controversy element heightens the dramatic effect of the healing miracle stories in the Synoptics; it also dramatizes powerfully the conflict between Jesus and many of the religious authorities of the time
  • The literary aspect—illustrated by (a) the use of the Sabbath theme to join traditions together (as in Mark 2:23-3:6), and (b) the role of the Sabbath setting to join narrative and saying (in John 5, a more complex structure joining narrative and discourse)
  • The theological-christological aspect—whether at the historical or literary level (or both), the “Sabbath-controversy” setting was joined with the larger theological (and religious) issue of Jesus’ own (personal) authority. This is most prominently displayed in John 5 (with its great discourse of vv. 19-47), but is manifest in smaller ways in the Synoptic Gospels as well.

It is the legal-religious and theological-christological aspects which relate most directly to the topic of Jesus and the Law; I will discuss these after first examining the second of the main “Sabbath Controversy” narratives—Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5)—in the continuation of this article in the next part of the series.

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.