Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:17-20

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.

Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

Ipsissima verba is a Latin expression translated as “the actual words”, i.e. of a particular author or speaker. It has been used primarily in Gospel studies, applied to the sayings of Jesus (see below). It can also be applied to any of the narrative portions of Scripture (including most of Genesis through Esther, the four Gospels and Acts), as well as to the oracles and sayings of the Prophetic and Wisdom books, and even to the (superscriptions of the) Psalms. The expression can be understood or qualified two ways:

    1. In a strict sense—the exact words in the exact language
    2. In a looser sense—the actual words, but in translation, or modified/edited slightly in context

The first is a matter of linguistics and source-criticism. In fact, the words of the speakers in many of the Biblical narratives would not be considered their “actual words” (ipsissima verba) in the strict sense. For example, nearly all of the speakers in Genesis through Samuel would have spoken a language (or dialect) often very different from the Hebrew in which their words have come down to us—this is certainly true, say, for Abraham and Moses (the traditional author of the Pentateuch). In the New Testament, it is generally assumed that Jesus would have done most of his normal speaking and teaching in Aramaic; if so, then the Greek of the Gospels does not preserve Jesus’ “actual words” in the strict sense (except in the rare instances of transliterated Aramaic, Mark 5:41, etc). The same could be said for the words of Peter, James, etc (and even Paul, to some extent) in the book of Acts. Anyone who has attempted to translate Hebrew (or Greek) into a very different language (such as English) knows how difficult it can be to capture and transmit accurately the detail (and even the basic sense) of the original—a strict word-for-word, or otherwise ‘literal’, rendering can, at times, be almost impossible. The idea of ipsissima verba (in this strict sense) is, to a great extent, the result of an interest in trying to “recover” the original Aramaic of Jesus’ sayings; however, as I point out below, this has been rendered largely obsolete by modern trends in New Testament scholarship.

The second, looser, sense of the expression ipsissima verba is of far greater interest, from the standpoint of historical criticism. It has to do with the question of whether, or to what extent, the words of the speakers in the Scriptures are: (a) authentic and (b) (historically) accurate. Here it is worth mentioning the corollary expression ipsissima vox (“the actual voice“)—by this is meant that, though they may not represent the speakers “actual words” (in either a strict or loose sense), the words preserved in the Scripture do reflect the substance of what was actually said. In this regard, let us consider the two characteristics mentioned above:

    • Authenticity—i.e., the speaker really did say, in whole or in part, something similar to what is recorded. Again, this concept is most prevalent in Gospel studies, where scholars have sought to defend, disprove, or otherwise determine, whether sayings of Jesus are authentic. Critical scholars have developed a number of so-called “criteria of authenticity”, some of which are more useful (and convincing) than others.
    • Accuracy—i.e., on the whole, to a varying degree, the recorded words are reasonably close to what the speaker actually said (even if given in translation); to this may be added the qualification that the words may (or may not) have been spoken in the exact historical context (the place and position) indicated within the Scripture narrative.

A special difficulty arises with regard to the extended speeches in Biblical narrative—in the New Testament, most notably, the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John and the speeches in the book of Acts. As I discuss the latter in a study series (soon to be posted here), I will use the speeches of Acts as an example. Traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the speeches as representing the “actual” words of Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc, whereas many critical scholars believe the speeches are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke). A moderate critical position would see the end product as essentially Lukan, but built, to some extent, upon authentic tradition. Consider for the moment, the idea that the speeches do represent the ipsissima verba (as at least some tradition-conservative commentators would hold)—how exactly could this be? There are two possibilities: one natural, the other supernatural.

    • Natural—Luke (or the author of Acts) has access to a source (written or oral) of the speech, a stenographic record preserved by eye/ear-witnesses.
    • Supernatural—God (by the Holy Spirit) has somehow vouchsafed to the author a (perfect) stenographic record of the speech.

A “natural” word-for-word (or otherwise accurate) source for speeches (especially lengthy ones) given years prior can be extremely hard to obtain, as Thucydides clearly admits (cf. The Peloponnesian War I.22.1); to expect a record of the ipsissima verba of such speeches by entirely natural means would seem to be quite unrealistic. A “supernatural” source is often assumed simply on the basis of a belief of the divine inspiration of Scripture (for many believers, this includes the idea of verbal/plenary inerrancy). However, it is often unclear just how this works, especially in the case of historical speeches (as in Acts). Most of the clear examples of divine inspiration (or, more accurately, revelation) described in the Scriptures themselves refer either to: (a) God’s own original words (of instruction, prophecy, etc), or (b) foreknowledge of future events (including things people will say). It is hard to find many definite instances where inspiration functions by preserving a perfect record of what was done/said in the past. A “synergistic” theory, whereby the Spirit of God guides and superintends—enhancing, if you will—the natural process and development of historical tradition appears far more realistic. Along these lines, I might recommend a variation of the moderate critical view of the speeches in Acts: they accurately record a substantive tradition regarding what was said at the time (i.e. ipsissima vox), but are, to a significant degree, expressed by the author’s own (Spirit-guided) artistic style and wording. Clearly, the end result is not a mere stenographic record, but a powerful, dynamic work of literary art.

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

As mentioned above, the expression ipsissima verba has been used primarily in terms of criticism and study related to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (primarily the Synoptic Gospels). In the late 19th-century through to the middle of the twentieth, there was a particular interest among many New Testament scholars in the relationship between the current Greek of the Gospels (and Acts) and the Aramaic with which many of the original sayings and traditions are assumed to have been expressed. This interest and emphasis can be seen in the work of scholars such as Gustav Dalman, Adolf Harnack, C. C. Torrey, Matthew Black, and many others. To a large extent, this involved an effort to ‘recover’ or re-establish the “original” Aramaic, by way of, e.g.—

(1) textual criticism, working back from textual variants and other details in the text to find examples where the Greek may translating (or mis-translating) an Aramaic original
(2) comparative analysis, working with the Syriac versions, the Targums, etc., sometimes involving attempts to convert (retrovert) the Greek into a possible Aramaic original
(3) historical and critical study regarding possible (original) Aramaic versions and/or sources of the Gospels and Acts

In more recent decades, New Testament scholars have largely abandoned such efforts, along with a growing recognition that theories involving Aramaic sources for the Gospels and Acts are highly speculative and questionable. Scholars with an Aramaic speciality (such as J. A. Fitzmyer) have offered incisive criticism of earlier methodology, such as the use of later Jewish Aramaic sources to establish the Aramaic of the first-century. A greater emphasis on form-, genre- and literary-critical approaches has also tended to focus scholars back to the Greek text (of the Gospels and Acts) as it has come down to us, and away from pursuing source-critical Aramaic theories.

Jesus and the Law, Part 1: Introduction

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

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

“Jesus ist nicht der letzte Jude, sondern der Schöpfer einer neuen, wurzelechten Religion; er ist der erste Christ”
(“Jesus is not the last Jew, but [rather] the Creator of a new, genuinely-rooted Religion; he is the first Christian”)
—Heinrici, Bergpredigt [Sermon on the Mount] (1905), p. 98.
“Jesus war kein Christ, sondern Jude”
(“Jesus was not a Christian, but [rather] a Jew”)
—Wellhausen, Enleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien [Introduction to the first three Gospels] 2nd ed. (1911), p. 102.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law and the New Testament: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exegetical Study Series becoming available

I am posting here on this site a number of Exegetical Study Series that were up on Biblesoft’s earlier Study Blog. I have already posted several Christmas season series, and have just posted my series on The Beatitudes, and am in the process of adding two others—The Law and the New Testament (Jesus and the Law), and Yeshua the Anointed.

Soon to be posted as well, in the coming weeks:
Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, The Speeches of Acts, Gnosis and the New Testament, Women in the Church, and more!

If you did not have the chance to read and study these articles previously, I encourage you to take the opportunity to do so as they become available here. I believe (and hope) that you will find them stimulating and informative.

You should also be aware that some of the series have been turned into products that work within Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible program (see, for example, The Beatitudes: A Biblesoft Study Series). Eventually, this will be done for most, if not all, of the Study Series posted on this site.

The Beatitudes: Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Matthew 16:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Luke 23:29

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

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

8. John 13:17

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

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

9. John 20:29

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

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

10. Acts 20:35

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

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

11. Revelation 22:7, 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatitudes: Early Christian Interpretation

In the previous article, 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.

The Beatitudes: Order and Arrangement

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 of 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 article, in relation to early interpretation of the Beatitudes.