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Sermon on the Mount

Note of the Day – January 10

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In the previous note, I looked at the theme of believers as “sons/children of God” in terms of birth—i.e., of being born—especially in the famous passage of John 3:3-8. Today, I will be surveying the New Testament references where believers are specifically called “sons” (or “children/offspring”) of God.

To begin with, we must look at the Old Testament and Jewish background of the idea. In several key passages, the people of Israel, collectively, are referred to as God’s “son”—Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6. Eventually, largely through the influence of Wisdom traditions, the righteous generally are described, on various occasions, as God’s children—cf. Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5; 16:10, 21, 26; 18:4-5; 19:6; Sirach 4:10; 23:1, 4; Jubilees 1:23-25; Psalms of Solomon 17:30. In Wisdom 2:18 and 18:13 there is a clear parallel between Israel and the righteous person: they are both called the “son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=).

In order to see how this was applied within the New Testament—both in the teaching of Jesus and as a theological/ethical motif in the Letters—let us look briefly at the relevant passages, in context:

1. “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)

Matthew 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35

“Happy the peace-makers, (in) that they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9)

This is the 7th Beatitude from the set in Matthew (5:3-12), part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In some ways it summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon (esp. that of Matt 5:21-48), as indicated by the parallel reference in Matt 5:45. As a conclusion of the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus states:

“…how as [i.e. so that] you might come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of your Father in the heavens”

The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), like the cognate genna/w (“come to be [born]”), can be used in the sense of birth/begetting, as previously indicated with regard to passages such as John 1:12-14; Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4ff, etc. The Lukan version of this saying is found in Lk 6:35:

“…and you will be [e&sesqe] sons of the Highest [ui(oi\ u(yi/stou]”

This expression matches that used of Jesus, by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Mary, in the context of Jesus’ birth:

“…and he will be [e&stai] great and (the) Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]” (Lk 1:32)

In the setting of the Beatitudes, coming to be (born) as sons of God, is effectively synonymous with inheriting/entering the Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Kingdom of the Heavens”)—Matt 5:3, 10, cf. also 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21. I will discuss this particular image in more detail in the next Christmas season note.

Luke 20:36

Like the Beatitudes, which have a strong eschatological emphasis, the reference in Luke 20:36 is to believers (or the righteous), i.e. those considered worthy by God (v. 35), who, in their heavenly existence (in the Kingdom of God/Heaven), will be “equal to the angels”, and, like them, are “sons of God”:

“…for they are equal to (the) Messengers and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection”

It is through the resurrection that believers are ‘born’ as sons of God. For an understanding of the resurrection in terms of birth imagery, cf. also Acts 13:33 (citing Psalm 2:7); Rom 8:18-23, 29; 1 Cor 15:20-23; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5.

Galatians 3:26

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”

In Galatians 3-4, Paul is drawing the Old Testament imagery of the children/descendants of Abraham, which he refers to as children of the promise. Christ is identified as the promised seed of Abraham (v. 16), and believers in Christ are the “sons of the promise” (v. 29). The reference to believers here as the “sons of God” draws upon the Old Testament background of the people Israel (collectively) as the “son of God” in a symbolic or spiritual sense.

Romans 8:14-15, 19, 23 (Gal 4:4-7)

Romans 8:12ff builds upon Paul’s earlier argument in Galatians 4:4-7, using similar language and phrasing at several points. In particular, Rom 8:14-15 is close to Gal 4:5b-6, as can be seen by comparison side by side:

Romans 8:14-15

“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive (the) spirit of slavery again into fear, but (rather) you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry (out) ‘Abba, Father!'”

Galatians 4:5b-7a

“…(so) that we might receive from (God) placement as sons. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God set forth out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ So (too) then, you are no longer a slave, but a son…”

Here sonship is understood properly in terms of our (present) faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit. The future eschatological aspect of sonship (cf. above) comes out in vv. 19ff, with the image of creation itself waiting and groaning (in labor) to give birth. Creation (or the creature, lit. the thing formed), Paul states, is

“…looking to receive from (God) the uncovering [a)poka/luyi$] of the sons of God

The “sons of God” (i.e. believers, with/in Christ) are in the world, but their true nature and identity has not been manifested; this will only happen at the end time. Paul parallels the labor pains of creation with our own inward groaning as believers—we, too, long to see our identity realized in full:

“…and not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking to receive from (God) placement as sons…” (v. 23)

Ultimately this realized in the final resurrection, which Paul describes as “the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies”.

2. “Sons” (ui(oi/)

In several other passages, believers are referred to as “sons” in a context where it seems clear that this is generally synonymous with fuller expression “sons of God” (above).

2 Corinthians 6:18

In 2 Cor 6:16-18, a chain (catena) of Old Testament references are cited: Leviticus 26:12, Isaiah 52:11, and (it would seem) 2 Samuel 7:14. The last of these has been adapted—originally, 2 Sam 7:14 read “I will be for a Father to him, and he will be for a son to me”; however, in 2 Cor 6:18 it has been modified as “I will be unto a Father to you [pl.], and you will be unto sons and daughters to me”. Originally, the reference was to the (Davidic) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic sense; here it now refers to believers—male and female—together, much as faithful Israel and the righteous could be thought of as God’s “son” (cf. above). In 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, sonship is conditional on proper religious and ethical behavior, much as the prophecy of 2 Sam 7:14 is conditional (cf. verses 14bff). See also the connection between sonship and righteousness in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount (above).

Romans 9:26

Here we have another Scripture citation (from Hos 1:10), in the context of Gentiles (those who were “not My people”) coming to faith in Christ—”they will be called sons of the living God“. Sonship is based on acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Christ.

Hebrews 2:10

As part of a litany describing and extolling Christ’s work, the author includes: “leading many sons into glory“. The implication is that believers come to be “sons of God” along with Christ.

Hebrews 12:5-8

Believers are exhorted and disciplined by God as sons are by a father. If we are obedient and attentive, then we prove ourselves to be legitimate sons (vv. 8ff). Once again, we see the ethical basis and context of sonship clearly described.

Revelation 21:7

There is here another allusion to 2 Sam 7:14 (cf. above), within an obvious eschatological setting, with the ethical aspect now understood in terms of faithful endurance and victory in the face of intense persecution and suffering during the end time. It also draws on the traditional idea of inheriting the kingdom of God (above):

“The one being victorious will obtain as (his) lot [i.e. inherit] these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son

3. “Offspring/children of God” (te/kna qeou=)

This expression occurs numerous times in the Gospel and First Letter of John, generally in place of “sons of God” (which neither work uses). It is to be found in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2, 10; 4:4; 5:2. The ‘birth’ of believers as children of God is similar to Paul’s understanding of believers as “sons of God” (cf. above)—it is the result of trust/faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit (see the previous note for more on 1:12-14, along with 3:3-8, in this regard). 1 John 3:1-2 is interesting in the light of how names functioned in ancient thought:

  • 1 Jn 3:1: believers are called children of God (“that we might be called [klhqw=men] offspring/children of God”)—this is tied fundamentally to the idea and act of naming (i.e. naming a child), cf. Luke 1:32, 35; our being called “children of God” is specifically related to the love God showed to us (through the work of his Son, Jn 3:16, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:1-2: believers now are children of God (“now we are [e)smen] offspring/children of God”)—in ancient thought, the name embodied and represented the essential identity of a person, often in a quasi-magical manner; in Old Testament tradition, naming scenes could have a prophetic quality, which carries over into the New Testament (see esp. Luke 1:13ff, 31-33; Matt 1:21, also 16:17-19, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:2: believers will be sons of God (“…what we will be [e)so/meqa]”)—a person’s identity is fundamentally tied to his/her future destiny; ultimately believers will be something more than “offspring/children of God”—when Jesus appears again at the end time, we will see him in glory, and will be “like him”, i.e. like the Son (ui(o/$). This is perhaps part of the reason why 1 John (and the Gospel of John) does not use the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)—believers may be born as offspring (te/kna) of God, but only Jesus is truly the Son.

Paul seems to use “sons of God” and “offspring/children of God” more or less interchangeably—for example, compare Romans 8:16-17, 21 (and 9:8) with 8:14-15, 19, 23; 9:26 (see above). For other Pauline use of the expression, see Philippians 2:15 and the near parallel in Ephesians 5:1.

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 1)

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The Law in the Letter of James

Introduction

By tradition, the “James” of the letter—who describes himself in the text simply as “a slave/servant of God and of (the) Lord Jesus Christ”—is James the brother of Jesus, the leading figure (after Peter) of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 12:17; 15; 21:18ff; Gal 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:7). This identification is almost certainly correct; the only real issue is whether the letter is authentically by James or is pseudonymous. On this question, scholarly opinion is divided; as also is the dating of the letter, which ranges widely—from very early (40s A.D.) to very late (90-100 A.D.). On the basis of a careful and unbiased study of the letter, I find little that points to a date beyond 60-70 A.D.; the similarity of subject matter and terminology with Paul’s letters (Galatians/Romans), as well as 1 Peter, suggests a comparable milieu—somewhere between 50-60 A.D. The lack of any developed Christology is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of an early date.

If we take James 1:1 literally, then the letter was addressed to Jews of the Diaspora/Dispersion, “to the twelve tribes th(at are) in the scattering-throughout [diaspora/]”. We find similar Jewish imagery applied (symbolically) to Christians generally in 1 Peter, but here in James it seems certain that Jews (or Jewish Christians) are intended. The work is undoubtedly Christian, despite the relatively scant references to Christ or specific Christian doctrine (James 1:1, 18ff; 2:1; 5:7, 14, etc). The strongest evidence for this are the many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel. This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the Torah. The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

  • James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
  • James 1:4—Matt 5:48
  • James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
  • James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
  • James 1:20—Matt 5:22
  • James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
  • James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
  • James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
  • James 2:13—Matt 5:7
  • James 2:15—Matt 6:25
  • James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
  • James 3:18—Matt 5:9
  • James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
  • James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
  • James 4:8—Matt 6:22
  • James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
  • James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
  • James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
  • James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
  • James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
  • James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
  • James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
  • James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

  • James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
  • James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
  • James 1:12—Matt 10:22
  • James 1:21—Lk 8:8
  • James 2:6—Lk 18:3
  • James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
  • James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
  • James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
  • James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
  • James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
  • James 4:17—Lk 12:47
  • James 5:5—Lk 16:19
  • James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
  • James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
  • James 5:17—Lk 4:25
  • James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. It is important to keep this in mind when examining James’ view of the Law.

It is now time to look at the most relevant passages in James with regard to the Law.

James 1:21-25

The theme of this passage is the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (adj. e&mfuto$) believers. In using lo/go$ here, the author probably means it in a comprehensive sense, including:

  • The Gospel message, centered on the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a proclamation of deliverance/salvation and new life in Christ
  • The teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. above) preserved and transmitted by apostles, missionaries and teachers such as “James”
  • Authoritative early Christian instruction and teaching, delivered principally by the apostles and fellow-missionaries

Paul uses lo/go$ with a similar range of meaning. Jesus also refers to his word (identified with the word of God) in the context of being planted (cf. Mark 4:4-8, 26-27, 31 par; Matt 7:17-19; 12:33; 13:24ff; 15:13; John 8:37; 15:1-7). In the Gospel of John, the lo/go$ is identified more directly with the person of Christ, and he (in/through the Spirit) himself is the living, eternal seed in the believer (cf. John 5:38; 6:53; 12:23-24; 14:17, 20; 15:4; 17:21; 1 John 2:14; 3:9). James does not go quite that far—his description of this lo/go$ as “the (thing) having power to save your souls” is reminiscent of Paul’s famous declaration regarding the Gospel in Rom 1:16. That this “word/account” serves much the same role for believers as the Old Testament Law previously did for Israel—this is indicated in several ways in the passage:

  • James exhorts people to become ones who do (poihtai/, “doers” of) the word (v. 22); this parallels closely the idea of “doing” the Law (i.e. observance of the Torah commands), cf. Gal 3:10-12; Rom 2:13, etc. The context makes clear that “doing” the lo/go$ involves (normative) ethical behavior and performance of good deeds.
  • There is also a normative, governing quality of the lo/go$ indicated by the metaphor of the mirror in vv. 23-24 (cf. Sirach 12:11; Wisdom 7:26). In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, the Torah also allows a person to see clearly, though more often the image is of light or a lamp (Psalm 119:105; Isa 51:4, etc).
  • A connection with the Law (o( no/mo$) is made specific in verse 25—one looks into the Word (lo/go$), one looks into the Law (no/mo$). Note the following details here that seem to echo both Paul and Jesus’ teaching:
    —This Law is called “complete” (te/leio$, cf. also vv. 4, 15; 3:2); note the important usage of this adjective in Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13, as well as the related verb tele/w (“[make] complete”, sometimes in the context of fulfilling the Law, e.g. Luke 2:39; Matt 17:24; Rom 2:27; James 2:8), and the noun te/lo$ (“completion, end”, note esp. Rom 10:4).
    —It is also called the Law of freedom (e)leuqeri/a$); in this context, it is impossible to ignore Paul’s references to the freedom of believers with regard to the Law (cf. Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 7:1-6; 8:2ff, etc).
    —Doing this Law is referred to as “work” (e&rgon); again, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s regular expression “works [of the Law]” (e&rga [no/mou]), cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; also Eph 2:9.
    —Doing this Law leads to beatitude (maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”); the famous beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5:3-12, etc) are closely tied to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. For the Pauline teaching on the relationship between the Law and the justice/righteousness of God, see Rom 1:17; 2:13; 3:21ff; 4:3-13; 7:12ff; 8:3-4; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, et al.

The expression “the complete Law of freedom” is discussed in a separate daily note.

James 1:27

In this verse the author declares what is “qrhskei/a clean and without stain/soil alongside [i.e. before] God”. The original meaning and derivation of the word qrhskei/a is uncertain, but it generally refers to religious worship and practice, and is often translated simply as “religion”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18. In other words, James is defining what true and proper religion is before God: “to look upon (those) bereft (of parents) [i.e. orphans] and widows in their distress, (and) to keep oneself without spot from the world”. This definition is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there is no mention of observing the Law, either generally or in its ceremonial sense. Instead we find a two-fold injunction which fairly summarizes much of the ethical teaching shared by Jews and Christians both, which ultimately derives from the Old Testament Scriptures (including the Torah): (1) to care for the poor and needy (esp. widows and orphans), and (2) to avoid the sinful/defiling influences of the world.

James 2:1-13

This passage can be divided into two sections: (a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). Overall the emphasis is on care for the poor (cf. above on 1:27) and acts of mercy. It is in this context that the author of the letter makes his most prominent direct reference to the Law (o( no/mo$). Two principal points are made:

  1. Anyone who fails to fulfill the Law in one detail is guilty of violating all of it (v. 10; Paul makes much the same point in Gal 5:3). The verb ptai/w, rare in the New Testament (Rom 11; James 3:2; 2 Pet 1:10), refers to tripping and falling, used often in a metaphorical sense of failure.
  2. Showing partiality to the rich and mighty, which in turns shows lack of proper care for the poor and lowly, is a sin and a violation of the Law (v. 9)—indeed, it violates the “royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) (v. 8).

Because of the importance of this passage, it will be discussed in more detail—along with the expressions “royal Law” (v. 8) and “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$, v. 12)—in a separate note.

Note of the Day – July 27

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

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

1. Matthew 5:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Luke 6:36

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

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

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

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

3. The relation to the Antitheses in Matthew 5

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

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

Note of the Day – July 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 5:19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note of the Day – July 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customary saying[s]:

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

Jesus’ saying[s]:

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

Relation to the Law:

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

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

Example/Application:

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

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

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

Customary saying: “you shall not commit adultery”

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

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

Example/Application:

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

3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)

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

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

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

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

Customary saying[s]:

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

Jesus’ saying:

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

Relation to the Law:

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

Example/Application:

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

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

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

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

Relation to the Law:

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

Example/Application:

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

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

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

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

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

Customary saying:

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

Jesus’ saying:

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

Relation to the Law:

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

Example/Application:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By way of conclusion, we must consider the following:

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

Each of these will be addressed in a supplementary note.

 

Note of the Day – July 24

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

Matthew 5:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note of the Day – April 7

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

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

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

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

1. Matthew 5:17

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

The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. Similarly the opposing verbs katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”) have a very specific meaning in this context: as a legal term, katalu/w can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc., while plhro/w has the sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. Several points can be made:

  1. The juxtaposition of “Law and Prophets” here indicates hrwt/no/mo$ primarily as Scripture, rather than as the law-code or commandments per se. That is, no/mo$ here refers to the Pentateuch (books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and the “Foretellers” the Prophetic books (probably including Joshua–Kings and the Psalms). The conjunction h* means that Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”. The Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time.
  2. The ‘incorrect’ statement (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63), “I have come to dissolve the works of female-ness” (this unusual phrase refers to all the elements of the current world-order, including conventional religious forms). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176. It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”
  3. The verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law. Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

2. Matthew 5:18

a)mh\n ga\r le/gw u(mi=n: e%w$ a*n pare/lqh| o( ou)rano\$ kai\ h( gh=, i)w=ta e^n h* mi/a kerai/a ou) mh\ pare/lqh| a)po\ tou= no/mou, e%w$ a*n pa/nta ge/nhtai
For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.

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

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

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

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

3. Matthew 5:19

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

The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. There are a number of important questions within this verse, which I will discuss briefly in sequence.

  • How does the verb lu/w here relate to katalu/w in verse 17? The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”.
  • What exactly is meant by “these commandments”? Are these the commandments of the written Torah, or are they the commandments of Jesus? Arguments can be made for both views. The context of verses 17 and 18 would indicate that the written Torah is meant—if so, then the saying would imply that the written Law is fully binding for Jesus’ followers. However, many commentators would hold that Jesus’ commands are what is meant here; such commands would include Jesus’ (authoritative) interpretation of the Law, but would not be synonymous with the commandments of the written Torah itself.
  • What is meant by the “least/littlest” of these commandments? There are several possibilities:
    (a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
    (b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
    (c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
    (d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).
    In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.
  • How should the juxtaposition of “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here.

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

4. Matthew 5:20

Le/gw ga\r u(mi=n o%ti e)a\n mh\ perissu/sh| u(mw=n h( dikaiosu/nh plei=on tw=n grammate/wn kai\ Farisai/wn, ou) mh\ ei)se/lqhte ei)$ th\n basilei/an tw=n ou)ranw=n
“For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”

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

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

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

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

Note of the Day – March 4 (Beatitudes)

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

2. Early Interpretation of the Beatitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note of the Day – March 2 (Beatitudes)

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

1. The Order and Arrangement of the Beatitudes

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

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

One can point to three areas of ‘expansion’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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