Jesus and the Law: The Antitheses (continued)

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 previous article (Part 3) of this series.

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.

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).

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