February 22: Luke 5:1-11

At the end of the previous note, I compared the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus (cf. Luke 4:16-30) with the reaction of the first disciples as recorded in Luke 5:1-11. Today I will be examining this passage a bit more closely. It derives, in part, from a common tradition found, in much simpler form, in Mark 1:16-20 / Matthew 4:18-22. The difference between the Lukan and Markan/Matthean accounts are significant, but clearly we are dealing with a single historical tradition involving the calling of the first disciples (Peter [and Andrew], James and John). This would serve to disprove any need to posit, e.g., two “cleansings” of the Temple, two visits to Nazareth, etc., in order to harmonize apparently divergent chronologies. The order and arrangement of episodes in the Gospels is as much literary as it is chronological. Still, it is useful to recognize the unique elements of the Lukan narrative, for it reveals something of the purpose and meaning the author attributes to it. Here are the main differences, compared with the account in Mark/Matthew:

    1. It is set after the initial ministry in Capernaum (Lk 4:31-44), instead of before (cf. Mark 1:21-39 par).
    2. It begins with a different historical/narrative setting (5:1-3)
    3. It incorporates a miracle, similar to that recorded in John 21:1-8, which is also centered on Simon Peter (5:4-9)
    4. The narrative of the miracle includes a significant saying of Simon Peter (5:8)
    5. The saying of Jesus, central to the main call narrative, differs from the version in Mark 1:17 par (5:10)

Each of these points will be discussed in turn.

1. The setting after Jesus’ initial ministry in Capernaum

In between the episode in Nazareth (4:16-30) and the call of the Disciples here, Luke records three narrative episodes set in Capernaum: (a) healing of the demon-possessed man in the synagogue (4:31-37); (b) healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39), with other similar healings being described (4:40-41); (c) Jesus’ retiring to a solitary place, with a statement regarding his mission (4:42-44). These can all be found in Mark/Matthew (Mk 1:21-39 par., in the same sequence), but they occur after the call of the first disciples (Mk 1:16-20). The Lukan order creates a much more dramatic (some would say, more realistic) setting for the call of Peter, et al.—it is only after they have spent some time with Jesus (in Capernaum), having witnessed a number of miracles, that they leave everything to follow him. By comparison, in Mark/Matthew, the disciples appear to follow Jesus on the spot, at first sight, with no psychological motivation provided. Luke may even suggest that a longer time is involved, with additional preaching in Judea (v. 44, other manuscripts reading “Galilee”), before the call in chapter 5. It could be too that the joining of several different traditions (from a later Galilean ministry setting, cf. below) has caused the narrative to move further down in the relative chronology of the Gospel.

2. A different historical/narrative setting

Mark 1:16 states simply that Jesus was himself going alongside the sea [qa/lassa] of Galilee and saw Simon Peter, etc. Luke, on the other hand, records that a crowd was laid upon Jesus as he stood alongside the lake [li/mnh] of Gennesaret (v. 1), and he gets into Simon Peter’s boat and preaches to the crowd. In addition to more precise terminology for the body of water, the setting of verses 1-3 is similar to that in Mark 4:1 / Matt 13:1. Luke would seem to be aware of this, for at the same point (Lk 8:4) he omits mention of Jesus teaching to the crowd from a boat (having already used this setting here in chap. 5). Of course, at the historical level, Jesus may of done this sort of thing on more than one occasion, but there is evidence here of conscious modification by the Gospel writer: he has combined elements from different parts of the (Synoptic) Tradition. Was this done simply for dramatic effect? for greater historical accuracy? or is there a theological reason for the change? In my view, the most likely reason for the joining of these traditions here is literary—by way of “catchword” bonding, with a common motif (the boat/lake setting), elements from different traditions are brought together here. This may seem forced and artificial to us today, but it was an effective and meaningful way of communication—of building up narrative—in the ancient world.

3. Incorporation of a (separate?) Miracle story

The central portion of the Lukan narrative is a miracle involving an extraordinary catch of fish (vv. 4-9). Even a casual reader of the Gospels will recognize the similarity to the miracle recorded in John 21:1-8, the latter of course taking place (in the Gospel setting) after the Resurrection. How are we to explain this? There are three possibilities:

    • They reflect different (authentic) historical events—one occurring early, the other late—which happen to have similar details.
    • The episode reflects a single historical tradition, which has been transferred, from an early Galilean setting (Luke) to a post-resurrection setting (John), or vice versa.
    • It is a “floating” tradition, which has been incorporated into different (chronological) settings in Luke and John.

The third option is perhaps more likely, on objective critical grounds. The first would generally be the traditional-conservative view, but is wrapped up within the larger critical question of the nature and composition of John 21 as a whole (and its relation to Jn 20:19-29 [cf. also Lk 24:36-53, esp. v. 49]). In any case, the miracle, as Luke relates it, would seem to belong to its setting in the (early) Galilean ministry of Jesus. It is the turning point upon which the disciples (Simon Peter, James and John; curiously Luke does not mention Andrew, cf. Mark 1:16) decide to leave their boats and nets to follow Jesus (v. 9-11). Harmonizing passages such as Lk 5:1-11 and Jn 21:1-8 on historical/chronological grounds is a questionable procedure at best; a comparison on symbolic or theological grounds is more profitable (and useful):

    • In both accounts, Simon Peter is the central figure, along with his companions (incl. disciples of Jesus) (Lk 5:3-5; Jn 21:3)
    • In each they fish all night and catch nothing (Lk 5:5; Jn 21:3b); in Lk this is said to Jesus
    • Jesus tells them to (go out again and) let down their nets:
      “Lead (out) upon (the water) into the deep and let go your nets unto a catch” (Lk 5:4)
      “Cast the net (down) into the giving [i.e. right] (side) of the sailboat and you will find” (Jn 21:6)
    • The disciples obey and catch a great “multitude of fish (plh=qo$ [tw=n] i)xqu/wn)” (Lk 5:6; Jn 21:6), so that:
      —the boats became filled so as to sink down (Lk 5:7)
      —they were not strong (enough) to drag it in (Jn 21:6)
    • The miracle brings about recognition of Jesus:
      “And at (his) seeing (it), Simon Peter…” (Lk 5:8)
      “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: ‘(It) is the Lord!'”(Jn 21:7)
    • Peter acts in response (Lk 5:8; Jn 21:7b)

Most significantly perhaps (as noted by many commentators), in Lk the nets are breaking [lit. rip through], but in Jn it is stated that the nets were not split, and the great catch (153 fish) is brought onto land (Jn 21:8, 11). This is sometimes seen as a symbol of the Church and her unity; in the Johannine context especially, an ecclesiastical image (associated with Peter, cf. vv. 15-17) probably is intended.

4. The saying of Simon Peter

This exclamation by Peter in the narrative context is noteworthy:

But (at his) having seen (it), Shim’ôn Rock {Simon Peter} fell to Yeshua’s knees, relating/saying: “Go out (away) from me! (in) that I am a sinning/sinful man, Lord!” (v. 8)

It would seem to be a reaction not just to the miracle, but also to the doubt which he had initially expressed in v. 5. However, in the previous note, I discussed the reaction of the people of Nazareth in relation to the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:34-35)—that the purpose prophesied for the child (Jesus) was to uncover the thoughts [counting/reckoning] out of many hearts. In the Nazareth episode, this uncovering leads to outright hostility; here, it leads to repentance and humility. Perhaps a slight irony is involved as well: the people of Nazareth, in passionate anger, cast out [e)ce/balon] Jesus from the city; Peter shouts to Jesus, “Go out [e&celqe] (away) from me!” Similar words, but a very different sense.

It is hard to determine whether this saying of Peter reflects a separate tradition (from the miracle story); if so, it has been joined effectively, for it fits within the context of the miracle extremely well. Some critical scholars have felt that Peter’s repentance expressed here is more appropriate in the post-resurrection context (of Jn 21), in light of his three-fold denial of Jesus during the Passion; I find this rather unlikely, on objective grounds. There is nothing else in Lk 5:1-11 which remotely suggests such a context—indeed, without Jn 21 for comparison, I doubt if anyone would consider such an association based on the details of Lk 5:1-11 itself.

5. The form of Jesus’ saying

The saying of Jesus as it appears in Mark 1:16 is:

deu=te o)pi/sw mou kai\ poih/sw u(ma=$ gene/sqai a(liei=$ a)nqrw/pwn
“Come (here) behind me and I will make you to become fishers of men”

These are the only words Jesus speaks in the short narrative (the par. saying in Matt 4:19 is nearly identical). The version of the saying in Lk 5:11 is noticeably different:

mh\ fo/bou: a)po\ tou= nu=n a)nqrw/pou$ e&sh| zwgrw=n
“Do not fear! from now (on) you will be catching men alive”

These are different enough to count as entirely separate sayings; however, assuming Luke was aware of the simpler Gospel tradition (and saying) in Mark, he has either modified or substituted the saying here. Most translations partially harmonize the Markan and Lukan saying by rendering the latter with “…you will be catching men”. However, the verb zwgre/w literally means “capture/take alive“. The contrast is more than simply catching men instead of fish: the disciples will be catching them alive. There may be a distinct soteriological nuance as well: catching men alive implies catching them unto (eternal) life. Since zwgre/w can also be used in the technical sense of taking someone captive (2 Tim 2:26), it may not be inappropriate to compare the Pauline idea of taking people “captive” for Christ—cf. especially 2 Cor 10:5, where the verb ai)xmalwti/zw (lit. take [away] by spear-point) is used.

In conclusion, it is worth comparing the two statements by Jesus which bracket the miracle narrative in vv. 4-9:

    • “Lead (out) upon (the water) into the deep and let go your nets unto a catch [a&gran]” (v. 4)
    • “Do not fear! from now (on) you will be catching men alive [zwgrw=n]” (v. 11)

This highlights the way in which Jesus, with a few simple words, could transform ordinary human activity into a profound expression of the work of God in the lives of human beings. This is not just a question of ‘evangelism’ and missionary work (important as those are), but cuts to the very heart of the nature of the eternal and spiritual dimension which Christ reveals at every moment.

(The Call of the Disciples is examined in more detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, soon to be posted here)

February 21: Luke 4:16-30 (concluded)

This is the third of three notes on the Lukan narrative of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30)—yesterday’s note dealt with the significance of the Scripture quotation in vv. 18-19 (Isa 61:1-2), today’s note will explore the people’s reaction to Jesus in vv. 22ff.

Following the reading (as represented in the citation by Luke), Jesus hands the scroll to the attendant and sits down (v. 20), with the eyes of all in the synagogue gazing intently [lit. straining a)teni/zonte$] at him. Jesus’ message to them is (or, begins):

“(To)day this Writing has been fulfilled in your ears [i.e. your hearing]” (v. 21b)

The reaction of the people is noteworthy—

“And all witnessed to/about him and wondered upon the words of favor [i.e. favorable words] passing out of his mouth, and they said/related: ‘Is not this the son of Yoseph?'” (v. 22)

an apparently positive response which would seem to be contrary to the negative reaction in the parallel passage (Mark 6:3/Matt 14:57). There are several ways to understand the Lukan narrative here:

    • That the dative personal object au)tw=| is a dative of disadvantage, reflecting a more negative, hostile reaction: “And all witnessed against him and wondered about the words…” This brings the passage more in line with the Markan/Matthean parallel.
    • It is a reaction to Jesus’ own eloquence and understanding (cf. Lk 2:47, 52), rather than the significance of the message.
    • They react generally to the Scripture passage, without really appreciating the significance of Jesus’ interpretation in v. 21.
    • They recognize and approve the Messianic significance of the passage (and Jesus’ statement), but do not see it being fulfilled in him.
    • They understand the Messianic significance and see Jesus as fulfilling it, but in a superficial or inappropriate manner.

Arguments can be made for each of these interpretations; I tend to find the second most likely, but much depends on how one relates the people’s reaction to what follows in verses 23ff. Reading the passage in the modern manner, applying psychological realism to the scene, Jesus’ response in vv. 23-24 is somewhat hard to explain. If the crowd’s reaction was positive (and if they understood the Messianic significance of Jesus’ statement), why the harsh and provocative response? The parallel in Mark 6:2-3 suggests that, in the historical tradition inherited by the Gospel writer, the crowd focused entirely on Jesus—how a man from their hometown could possess such eloquence and understanding, that he could have done such miracles as had been reported, etc—with the tradition emphasizing their lack of faith/trust in him (Mk 6:6 par). Luke has given a somewhat different tenor to the narrative, by keeping the crowd’s initial reaction general: the phrase e)martu/roun au)tw=| (“witnessed to/about him”) need not be understood in either a positive or negative sense especially, and e)qau/mazon (“wondered”) simply indicates a reaction to something extraordinary or auspicious. The expression “favorable words” (lit. “words of favor [xa/ri$]”) is, I believe, an intentional echo of the “favor” [xa/ri$] mentioned in 2:40, 52.

In order to analyze these verses further, it is perhaps useful to look at the structure of the passage as a whole, which I outline as follows:

  • Narrative introduction (Jesus comes to Nazareth) with the Synagogue setting (v. 16)
  • Part 1 (vv. 17-22):
    • Scripture passage [Isa 61:1-2] (v. 18-19) and Saying of Jesus (v. 21)
    • The (positive/neutral) reaction by the people (v. 22)
  • Part 2 (vv. 23-29):
    • Two-fold Saying of Jesus (vv. 23-24) and two-fold illustration from Scripture [1 Kings 17:1-18:1; 2 Kings 5:1-14] (vv. 25-27)
    • The (negative, hostile) reaction by the people (v. 28-29)
  • Narrative conclusion (Jesus leaves Nazareth) (v. 30)

Here the parallel reaction by the people in v. 22, 28-29 is central to an understanding of the passage—it effectively illustrates the prophecy of Simeon (2:34-35) from the Infancy narrative:

“This (child) lies out [i.e. is laid/set] unto (the) falling (down) and standing up of many in Yisrael, and unto a sign counted against [i.e. opposed/contradicted]… so that (the) counting-through [i.e. thoughts pl.] out of many hearts might be uncovered.” [For the moment I have left out the parenthetical address to Mary in v. 35a]

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ destiny and purpose for the child, indicated by a pair of clauses with the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto” [we would say “for”]), and a subordinating conjunction o%pw$ (“so as, so that”) expressing final purpose:

  • This (child) lies out
    • unto [ei)$] (the) falling (down) and standing up of many in Israel, and
    • unto [ei)$] a sign counted/reckoned against
  • so that [o%pw$] the counting-through/reckoning [pl.] might be uncovered out of many hearts

There are two aspects of the ‘inner’ purpose:

    1. The falling and rising of many in Israel—this can be understood as representing (a) two different groups of people, or (b) a sequence (first falling, then rising) of one group (or people in general). Usually it is interpreted in the former sense: Jesus will cause some to fall, others to rise. The implication is that these are people who will encounter Jesus’ person and message directly, and so are affected by it.
    2. A sign which is opposed [counted/reckoned against]—here the reaction is entirely negative or hostile: it is not so much the man Jesus himself that is opposed, but what he represents (the sign [shmei=on]). This negative reaction would be more general and (perhaps) widespread, even for those who had only heard of Jesus indirectly.

As for the ‘outer’ (final) purpose, it is that the thoughts [the “accounts/reckoning”] might be uncovered [i.e. the cover removed] from many hearts. The person and message of Jesus will reveal the innermost (true) thoughts of those who encounter him. This does, in fact, appear to be what occurs in the narrative under discussion—the hostility toward Jesus ultimately comes to the forefront in verses 23ff, to the point where the townspeople (some of them, at least) seek to throw him down the cliffside (v. 29).

One might compare the narrative with two other proximate passages in the Gospel: (1) the episode of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (2:41-51), and (2) the call of the first disciples (5:1-11).

There are several similar or related details between our passage and Lk 2:41-51:

Lk 2:41-51

  • Jesus separates from his parents and relatives (v. 43)
  • He is in a sacred place of worship (the Temple) (v. 45-46)
  • He is participating in Jewish religious matters (v. 46)
    (as a pupil sitting among teachers of the Law)
  • The people are amazed [e)ci/sthmi] by his understanding and responses (v. 47)
  • His parents (father Joseph) are juxtaposed with his (true) Father (v. 48-49)
  • His parents did not understand what he was saying (v. 50)

Lk 4:16-30

  • Jesus returns to the place where he was brought up (v. 16)
  • He is in a place of worship (the Synagogue)
  • He is participating in Jewish religious matters (v. 17-21)
    (the Synagogue service and reading of Scripture)
  • The people are amazed [qauma/zw] by his “words of favor” (v. 22)
  • He is identified by the people with his human father Joseph (v. 22b)
  • The people (incl. his relatives?) did not truly understand what he was saying (vv. 23-28)

In the Lukan narrative of the calling of the first Disciples (5:1-11), we see a different sort of reaction to Jesus: at first there is doubt in response to his word (v. 5), but they act in trust; and, following the miracle (vv. 6-7), they are amazed [perie/xw] (v. 9), but some of them (e.g., Simon Peter) by it recognize who Jesus is and what he represents (at a fundamental level) (v. 8), and leave everything to follow him (v. 11).

I will be discussing Lk 5:1-11 in more detail in the next daily note.

February 20: Luke 4:16-30 (continued)

The narrative of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), with its central Scripture passage (Isaiah 61:1-2) was introduced in the previous note. Today, I will be examining the significance of the passage from Isaiah. This can be understood from two primary aspects:

First, in terms of the themes and motifs of Isa 40-66 (so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah), especially those related to the restoration of Israel and the return of God’s people from exile. In an earlier note, I discussed the allusions to a number of Isaian passages in Lk 2:25-38—that is, in the context of devout Jews who are waiting (to receive) the “consolation [para/klhsi$] of Israel” (v. 25) and the “redemption [lu/trwsi$] of Jerusalem” (v. 38). These passages are thus to be understood in a “Messianic” context, broadly speaking—by the first century B.C./A.D., the idea of the “restoration” of Israel (and its kingdom), was closely tied to the coming of a new (Anointed) Ruler who would re-establish the Davidic covenant (cf. 2 Sam 7/Psalm 89, etc).

Second, Isaiah 61:1ff specifically as a Messianic passage. That the passage was understood this way in Jesus’ own time is indicated by the Qumran text 4Q521. This text survives only in several fragments, the largest of which (frag. 2 [col. ii]) reads as follows:

…[for the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his Anointed One [i.e. Messiah jyvm], 2[and all th]at is in them will not turn away from the precepts of the holy ones. 3Strengthen yourselves, you who are seeking the Lord, in his service! {blank} 4Will you not in this encounter the Lord, all those who hope in their heart? 5For the Lord will consider the pious, and call the righteous by name, 6and his Spirit will hover upon the poor, and he will renew the faithful with his strength. 7For he will honor the pious upon the throne of an eternal kingdom, 8freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twis[ted]. 9And for[e]ver shall I cling [to those who h]ope, and in his mercy […] 10and the fru[it of …] will not be delayed. 11And the Lord will perform marvellous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id], 12[for] he will heal the wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the poor 13and […] … […] he will lead the […] … and enrich the hungry. 14 […] and all … […]
(translation, with slight modification, from Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1997-8, 2000 Brill/Eerdmans, Vol. 2, p. 1045)

This section contains a blending of several Old Testament passages, primarily Psalm 146 and Isaiah 61:1-2 (for a somewhat similar use of Isa 61:1f cf. also 11QMelchizedek [11Q13]). The role of the Messiah (line 1) in what follows is not entirely clear, but it is possible that he is the agent through whom God will perform “marvellous acts” (line 11ff). It is hard to be certain, but the remaining fragments (especially frag. 2 col iii with its allusion to Mal 4:5-6) suggest the Anointed One (see also pl. “Anointed Ones” in frag. 8) should be understood as a prophetic figure, in the manner of Elijah. This will be discussed further below.

Isa 61:1, in its original context, referred to the prophet himself (trad. Isaiah)—the Spirit of Yahweh was upon him and anointed him to bring good news to the poor and oppressed; vv. 2-11 describe and promise the restoration of Israel, including a (new) covenant with God (v. 8) and (new) righteousness that will be manifest to all nations (vv. 9-11). Once the full sense of this “restoration” was transferred to the future, the speaker came to be identified with an Anointed eschatological (end-time) Prophet. Admittedly, prophets are not usually referred to as “anointed” in the Old Testament, but in later Judaism it became more common, and in the Qumran texts the word is used a number of times (especially in the plural) for the Prophets of Israel. At various points in its history, the Qumran Community (as reflected in the texts) seems to have expected three different Anointed (Messiah) figures—(1) a (royal) Messiah of Israel (sometimes with the title “Branch of David” or “Prince of the Congregation”), (2) a (priestly) Messiah of Aaron (perhaps identified with the “Interpreter of the Law”), and (3) a Prophet. It just so happens, of course, that these represent the three traditional “offices” of Christ (King, Priest, Prophet).

The concept of a “Messianic” (eschatological) Prophet derives from two main Old Testament passages:

    • Deuteronomy 18:15-19—The “Prophet like Moses” whom God will raise up.
    • Malachi 3:1-2—The Messenger, identified in Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] with Elijah, who will prepare the way of the Lord before His coming.

Both are attested as “Messianic” passages at Qumran and in the New Testament—for Deut 18:15-19 cf. 4Q175; 1QS 9:11; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37 (and see below); for Mal 3:1-2; 4:5-6 cf. 4Q521 frag. 2.iii; 4Q558(?); Mark 1:2; Matt 11:10ff; Luke 1:76. Elijah was the more popular figure, either as a type for the end-time Prophet or as Elijah redivivus (Elijah himself returning)—cf. Sirach 48:10-11; 4Q558; Mark 9:11-12 par.; Mishnah Sotah 9 (the Beraita), B. Metsia 1:8, 3:4, Eduyyot 8:7, and numerous passages in the Talmud (j. Sheqalim 3:3; b. Berakoth 35a, Shabbat 118a, Erubin 43b, Pesachim 13a, Chagigah 25a, Sotah 49b, B. Metsia 3a, Sanhedrin 48a, Menachot 45a, etc.). He was associated especially with the end-time judgment (cf. the Rabbinic invocation of his return in relation to resolving disputes), and with the resurrection (in addition to the talmudic references above, cf. j. Ketubot 12:3; Pes. de R. Kahana 76a; also 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 7, for a connection between the Messiah and the resurrection).

Beyond the traditions indicated in these texts, the Lukan passage under discussion itself provides evidence for interpreting Isa 61:1-2 as referring to Jesus as an Anointed Prophet according to the type of Elijah:

    • Jesus’ saying in Lk 4:24 (par.) effectively identifies him as a prophet
    • The two Scriptural illustrations in vv. 25-27 are all from the Elijah/Elisha narratives in 1 Kings 17:1-18:1; 2 Kings 5 (these are the only OT Prophets mentioned in the context of anointing, cf. 1 Kings 19:16).

Indeed, I would argue that Jesus, at the earliest levels of Gospel tradition, was primarily thought of in terms of an Anointed (Messianic) Prophet, more so than as the Anointed (Davidic) King. It is hard to find an Old Testament passage more applicable to the ministry of Jesus (as recorded in the Synoptics) than Isa 61:1-2; and Jesus himself cites very similar language in response to the Baptist’s question (“Are you the Coming One?”), Luke 7:18-23/Matt 11:2-6. By the “One (Who Is) Coming” probably the eschatological Prophet is meant (Deut 18:15-19), and Jesus is explicitly identified with the “Prophet like Moses” in Acts 3:22-23; 7:37. The Gospel of John perhaps preserves something of this tradition of Jesus as “the Prophet” in Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17[?] (cf. also Luke 7:39 v.l.).

The association of Jesus with Elijah in Gospel tradition is more complicated. The use of Isa 61:1-2 would seem to suggest it, but the Synoptic Gospels, at least, identify John the Baptist with Elijah (Mark 1:2; 9:12-13 par. [saying of Jesus]; Matt 11:10-14 [saying of Jesus]; Luke 1:17). However, in Jn 1:20-21, the Baptist denies, in turn, that he is “the Anointed One [Messiah]”, “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”—apparently, these are to be understood as three different figures—and, since, Jesus would seem to fulfill the first and third, presumably he would the second (Elijah) as well. Certainly, the traditional association of Elijah with the end-time Judgment and the Resurrection, applies prominently to Jesus. For more on this, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In the Transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8; Matt 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (traditionally they are depicted on either side of him). It is customary to interpret Moses and Elijah as representing the Law (Torah) and Prophets respectively; however, given the evidence above, I think that the original import of the scene may have been to confirm, symbolically, Jesus as the Anointed Prophet-to-Come (fulling the typology of both Moses and Elijah). In Jewish thought, both figures play an important eschatological role, and an early tradition along these lines would seem to underlie Revelation 11:1-13. It is noteworthy, that in the Synoptic tradition, following the Transfiguration, Jesus again identifies John the Baptist with Elijah redivivus (Mark 9:9-13 par. [but not in Luke]). Clearly, then, Elijah is distinguished from both the (Davidic?) Messiah and the coming Prophet. In later Jewish tradition, Elijah precedes and announces (even anoints?) the Messiah (appar. the Jew Trypho in Justin’s Dialogue 8, 49; Targum Ps-Jon. on Deut 30:4; and b. Erubin 43b). This idea may have already been current in Jesus’ time.

In the Gospel tradition as it has come down to us (most clearly in the Synoptics), Jesus as the Anointed One [Messiah] is presented in a two-fold aspect:

  1. As the Prophet (to Come)—limited essentially to the Galilean ministry, and with the role of “Elijah” reserved for John the Baptist.
  2. As the King (“Son of David”)—this is associated with the ministry in Jerusalem, beginning with the Triumphal Entry and continuing into the Passion and Resurrection narratives.

(The discussion on Luke 4:16-30 will conclude in the next day’s note, with an examination of the people’s reaction to Jesus.)

February 19: Luke 14:16-30

Over the next few days I will be looking at the Lukan narrative of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30), focusing on two areas: (1) the Scripture quotation (Isa 61:1-2), and (2) the reaction of the townspeople to Jesus’ words.

This episode is part of the common Gospel Tradition shared by the Synoptics, though in the Gospel of Luke it has been expanded considerably, and placed at a different point in the ministry (compare Mark 6:16; Matt 13:54-58). The chronological position, along with other apparent differences, have led some traditional-conservative commentators to posit two separate incidents. This is rather unlikely; the accounts in Luke and Mark-Matthew are close enough in outline that we should regard them as deriving from a single historical tradition. Were it not for a pious interest in harmonizing the chronologies, I doubt that anyone would have thought that two different episodes were involved. The Gospel writer (trad. Luke) has recorded the Nazareth event here (directly following the Baptism and Temptation), to mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It holds a similar position as the narrative summary in Matthew 4:13-16—both passages contain a ‘Messianic’ Scripture (Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 4:15-16), and look backward to the Infancy Narrative while looking forward to the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Here, indeed, there are several points of contact with the Luke Infancy narrative(s) (1:5-2:52):

    • The Nazareth setting “where he had been nourished/nurtured [i.e. brought up]” (v. 16)
    • The Isaian Scripture passage—cf. especially the allusions to deutero-/trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66) in 2:25-38 (discussed in an earlier Christmas season note).
    • Here Jesus is filled with the (power of the) Spirit (4:1, 14) just as the young Jesus grew and was filled with wisdom, with the favor of God being upon him (2:40)—these two motifs are reflected in the opening words of Isa 61:1 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”).
    • We may also see here a reflection of the wisdom and favor Jesus has with/before [lit. alongside] men (2:52)—cf. 4:15, 22.
    • The reaction of the people to Jesus (v. 22ff) may be understood as illustrative of Simeon’s prophecy in 2:34-35 (for more on this, cf. the next days’ notes).
    • A parallel may also be intended between (the boy) Jesus in the Temple (2:41-51) and (the adult) Jesus in the Synagogue.

Before discussing the Scripture passage (Isaiah 61:1-2) specifically, it is worth noting the way Luke joins the narrative here to that of the Baptism/Temptation (3:21-22; 4:1-13):

  • “And Yeshua turned back [i.e. returned] in the power of the Spirit into the Galîl {Galilee}” (4:14a)
    • “and (the) talk/report went out down (through) all the surrounding area about him” (4:14b)
    • “and he taught in their (places-of-)bringing-together {synagogues}” (4:15a)
  • “and being (highly) esteemed [i.e. honored/glorified] by all” (4:15b)

The ‘outer’ phrases (v. 14a, 15b) could be said to reflect the wisdom/favor Jesus has with God and men, respectively (two aspects, cf. 2:52). The ‘inner’ phrases perhaps illustrate two aspects of Jesus’ public ministry: (a) his teaching among the people (v. 15a), and (b) the reaction of the people to him (v. 14b). In particular, the emphasis on the Spirit is most important, and is especially characteristic of Luke-Acts (cf. the earlier references in Lk 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27; 3:16, 22; 4:1).

The Scripture Passage: Isaiah 61:1-2

Luke indicates that the Scripture Jesus recites in the Synagogue is from Isaiah 61:1-2. It is not clear whether this was an assigned reading (haphtarah) from the Prophets (connected with a particular section [parashah] of the Torah), or if Jesus selected it himself. A comparison between the Hebrew, Septuagint (LXX) and Luke is instructive:

Hebrew (MT)

1The Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me—
He has sent me to bring (a good) message (to) the poor/lowly (ones),
to wrap up (the pieces) for the (ones) broken of heart,
to call (out) ‘freedom’ for the captives
and ‘open wide’ for the (ones) who are bound,
2to call (out) ‘a year of acceptance for YHWH’
and ‘a day of vengeance for our God’,
to bring comfort (for) all mourners.

Septuagint (LXX)

1(The) Spirit of the Lord (is) upon me,
on account of which He anointed me
to bring (a) good message to the poor (ones);
He has sent me to heal the (ones) crushed together in the heart,
to proclaim ‘release’ to the (ones) taken by spear-point [i.e. prisoners]
and ‘seeing again’ to the (ones who are) blind,
2to call ‘an acceptable year of the Lord’
and ‘a day of giving (back) in return’,
to call alongside [i.e. help/comfort] the (ones) mourning.

Luke 4:18-19

18(The) Spirit of the Lord (is) upon me,
on account of which he anointed me
to bring (a) good message to the poor (ones);
He has sent me
{some MSS include the line here corresponding to the LXX}
to proclaim ‘release’ to the (ones) taken by spear-point [i.e. prisoners]
and ‘seeing again’ to the (ones who are) blind,
to set forth in release [i.e. freedom] the (ones who) have been crushed,
19to proclaim ‘an acceptable year of the Lord’.

The LXX translates the Hebrew fairly accurately, the main difference being the rendering of the somewhat obscure phrase j^oqÁjq^P= <yr!Wsa&l^w+ at the end of v. 1 (the LXX understands it as “opening [wide]” the eyes of the blind, but cf. a similar interpretation in 4Q521 frag. 2.ii line 8). The citation in Lk 4:18-19 follows the LXX, with several differences:

    • The phrase i)a/sasqai tou\$ suntetrimme/nou$ th=| kardi/a| (“to heal the ones crushed together in the heart”) is omitted (though it is retained/restored in some MSS).
    • A line, apparently taken from Isa 58:6 (LXX), is added at the end of v. 1.
    • V. 2 repeats khru/cai (“to proclaim”) instead of LXX kale/sai (“to call”)—this may simply match the consistent use of ar)q=l! in both verses, or may be meant to emphasize the idea of (Christian) proclamation (of the Word/Gospel).
    • Only the first part of v. 2 is cited, noticeably omitting the reference to “a day of vengeance/payback”; only the positive side of the proclamation is included (“an acceptable year”).

These facts would seem to indicate that the Scripture, as it is recorded here in Luke, does not represent exactly what Jesus would have spoken (at the historical level), but rather is a literary presentation of it (at the level of the Gospel writer).

Much more important is the significance of the passage, which will be examined in the next day’s note.

February 18: The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10; Lk 11:2)

The Lord’s Prayer is undoubtedly the most familiar passage in the New Testament. For centuries it was an essential part of the catechism (basic instruction) of Christians, and has been recited regularly in public worship from the early Church period until the present day. So familiar is the Lord’s Prayer, that one may not realize just how remarkable a text it is.

The Prayer is found, in two forms: in Matthew (6:9-13, part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’), and in Luke (11:2-4), both in the context of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Critical scholars generally hold that the Prayer is part of a collection of common sayings and traditions (designated as the source document “Q”, Quelle) shared by Matthew and Luke; however, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, it could just as easily have come by way of a separate tradition. As with the Beatitudes, the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter, made up of four imperatives (compared with seven in Matthew), with some differences in wording as well.

In these few, concise verses, one finds a multitude of difficulties and questions of interpretation, such as:

    1. What exactly does it mean to “make holy” (a(gia/zw) the name of God?
    2. What does it mean for the kingdom of God to come, and what is the force of the request?
    3. Similarly, what is the force of the request for God’s will to be done w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ (“as in heaven and/also upon earth” [only in Matthew])?
    4. What is the meaning of the word e)piou/sio$ in Matthew 6:11 (request for bread)?
    5. What are the “debts” (o)felei/mata) we ask to be released from? and what of the variant form of the request in Luke 11:4 which parallels “sin” (a(marti/a) and “debt” (vb. o)fei/lw)
    6. Is our releasing the “debts” of others a prerequisite for God releasing our “debts”, or does it follow as a consequence, or both?
    7. In what sense does God “lead” us into (“bring into”, ei)sfe/rw) testing/temptation (peirasmo/$)? And what does it mean when we pray that he not lead us so?
    8. What exactly is “the evil” (to ponhro/$) and what does it mean to be “rescued” (lit. “dragged [away from]”, r(u/omai) from it/him?
    9. How does the traditional doxology relate to: the prayer as whole, its context in the Gospel, its use in early Christian worship?

For the moment, I will discuss just one phrase, as found in Matthew 6:10a and Luke 11:2b—e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let] come your kingdom”, or “[may] your kingdom come”); for two reasons: (1) this request seems to be the focal point of the first half of the prayer, and (2) there is most interesting textual variant here [in Luke] that is worth discussing.

1. Position of the phrase in the Prayer

In Matthew, there are three imperatival phrases in the first half of the prayer:

  • God’s namea(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou (“[let/may] your name be made holy“)
  • God’s kingdome)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let/may] your kingdom come“)
  • God’s willgenhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou (“[let/may] your will/wish come to be“)
    to which is added the qualifying phrase w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ (“as in heaven and/also upon earth”), a phrase which, in a real sense, can be applied cumulatively to all three imperatives

Note that kingdom is in the center, between name and will, and closely connected to both. The “kingdom of God” is traditional Jewish language encapsulating and signifying God’s power, authority, sovereignty, His attributes, and everything related to his work (both in Creation and on behalf of His People). It is a simple, mighty concept, providing (for the ancient world, at least) an immediate sense of greatness and rule. The earthly metaphor of a kingdom is not merely fortuitous: for it expresses, or at least promises, the presence of (God) the king on earth—an expression also at the center of the Gospel message, and centered in the message of the incarnate Son of God—h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou=, “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.)

In Luke, there just four imperatival phrases in the prayer, the two in the first half identical with the first two in Matthew:

  • God’s namea(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou (“[let/may] your name be made holy“)
  • God’s kingdome)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let/may] your kingdom come“)

2. A textual variant in Luke 11:2

There are actual two substantial variants in this verse: (1) at the end of the verse, the majority of witnesses include the text of Matthew 6:10 (the third petition), but almost certainly an interpolation and probably not original to Luke’s version.

(2) The second variant is most interesting: in two late (11th-12th c.) manuscripts (162 700), instead of the petition regarding the kingdom (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou, “[let/may] your kingdom come”), we find (with slight variation): e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$ (“[let] come your holy Spirit upon us and cleanse us”). The same basic variant is also attested in Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent., Sermon 3 on the Lord’s Prayer), and in Maximus Confessor (7th cent., Comm. on the Our Father §4, probably dependent upon Gregory). Earlier, Tertullian (Against Marcion 4:26) mentions a petition for the Holy Spirit along with the petition for the Kingdom; however, the reference is ambiguous (it may have been in Marcion’s version of Luke). There is also a similar petition which occurs in the (Greek) Acts of Thomas (§27). It is possible that the variant is the result of a liturgical notation (an adaptation for Baptism?) which accidentally made its way into the text. However, it is very much worth considering why such a connection might have been made in the early Church.

Perhaps one does not tend to think of the Kingdom of God in terms of the Holy Spirit; but how else are we to experience the Kingdom, how else is it to come upon us—”as in heaven also upon earth”? Gregory, in his Sermons on the Prayer was keenly aware of contemporary disputes—the so-called Macedonian heresy (Pneumatomachoi), which denied full deity (in the orthodox sense) to the Spirit—and took pains to emphasize, on the basis of this passage, that the Spirit possesses all the attributes, including power and sovereignty, of God the Father (and Son). He even goes so far to state, succinctly: to\ de\ Pneu=ma to\ a%gion baslei/a e)stin, “but the holy Spirit is kingship” (PG 44 col. 1157 C). In this regard, the coming of the (Holy) Spirit parallels closely the sanctifying (‘making holy’) of God’s own Name (which, in ancient thought was a way of signifying the Person himself), with the cleansing work in hearts and lives of God’s People: that is, in the temple (or palace—closely related in the ancient world) of the King. Is this not also where we most fully find the God’s will being done…or, at least to pray that it be so?

For more on this particular variant, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition, pp. 130-131), and the standard Critical Commentaries.

There is a third ancient version of the Lord’s Prayer, found in the so-called Didache (“Teaching [Didakh/] of the Twelve Apostles”)—an early Church manual, probably dating from the mid-second century, but perhaps containing older material. The second half of the work (chapters 7-15) provides instructions for congregational worship and practice—ch. 8 briefly discusses prayer and fasting, and the text of the Lord’s Prayer is found in verse (or section) 2. This is the longest of the three versions, including the doxology, and is probably derived from the text in Matthew; however, it is at least possible that it came into the Didache through a separate tradition.

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 12:5-8

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

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

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

Matthew 12:5

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

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

Matthew 12:6

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

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

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

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

Matthew 12:7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 12:8

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:19

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 the series on “Jesus and the Law”]. This note will look briefly at the saying in verse 19, while a following 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”.

Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:17 (detail)

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…”

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.

February 10: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

The Beatitudes of Jesus, which occur at the very beginning of both the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) and the parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (Luke 6:17-49), must surely be regarded as one of the most famous (and extraordinary) portions in the entire New Testament. The contexts of the two accounts are similar, but different enough to lead more traditional-conservative commentators at least to regard them as separate sermons, preached on different occasions. Critical scholars, on the other hand, generally view them as two versions the same basic sermon (or collection of sayings), derived from a traditional source common to both Matthew and Luke (so-called “Q”, Quelle, source). On the whole, I find this latter view more likely. But, if so, then either Luke reduced the material considerably, or Matthew expanded it (most of Luke 6:27-49 can be found in Matthew as well); or, perhaps both took place. Part of the inspired, creative process in composing the Gospels involved incorporating authentic traditions and sayings of Jesus into an original arrangement, within a specific narrative framework. That details occasionally differ are not necessarily indications of ‘errors’, nor do they always need to ‘harmonized’—in most instances they are literary, not historical, differences.

Consider, in particular, the so-called Beatitudes (beatus, beatitudo, “blessed, blessedness”), or, more properly, Macarisms (from the Greek maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”). It is here that we find the greatest differences between the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, most significantly:

    1. Luke’s account (6:20-23) is considerably shorter, containing just four beatitudes, compared to nine in Matthew (5:3-12)—Luke’s four are paralleled in the 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 9th of Matthew
    2. Luke includes a series of corresponding ‘Woes’ (6:24-26) not found in Matthew
    3. For the first two Lukan beatitudes, the parallels in Matthew have qualifying phrases—”poor in the spirit” instead of “poor”, “hunger (and thirst) for righteousness/justice” instead of “hungry”

I wish to focus on this third aspect, especially as it relates to the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). Some scholars have thought that Matthew modified the ‘original’ saying (preserved in Luke), softening or ‘spiritualizing’ a harsher statement. If Matthew indeed modified the saying, it was more likely for the purpose of clarifying and providing deeper insight into the meaning of the terse statement. A comparison (points of difference italicized):

Luke:      Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/, o%ti u(mete/ra e)sti/n h( basilei/a tou= qeou=
“Happy the poor (ones), that yours is the kingdom of God
Matthew:  Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati, o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Happy the poor (ones) in the spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens
[1. I have left “spirit” in lower case for the moment; 2. o%ti introduces a reason/purpose clause, conventionally translated “for, because”]

It should be noted here in passing that, while the text of the Beatitudes (in both Matthew and Luke) is fairly certain (there are few substantive variants), it abounds with difficulties of interpretation. The following questions can be raised:

    1. The “poor” (oi( ptwxoi)—what sort of poverty is meant: physical, material, spiritual, or some combination? and in precisely what sense?
    2. Does “spirit” (pneu=ma) refer to: physical life, the spirit (spiritual component) of a human being, or the (Holy) Spirit of God?
    3. Is the dative case (tw=| pneu/mati) instrumental (“by the spirit”) or locative/referential (“in the spirit”)?
    4. How seriously should we take the differences between Matthew and Luke—how, indeed, should we understand them?

I offer the following brief comments for consideration:

1. The Poor—What sort of Poverty?

In the case of Luke, especially in the context of the four beatitudes together (“poor, hungering, weeping”), along with the Woes (ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, “woe to you the rich [ones]!”), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that here Jesus is speaking of real physical and material poverty. Certainly, throughout the Gospel, Luke gives special emphasis to the poor and outcast. This can be seen already in the Infancy narratives—especially the canticles—with strong parallels to the so-called ±an¹wîm piety of late pre-Christian Judaism and early Jewish Christianity: God looks upon the poor and humble, rescuing them and lifting them up from oppression and suffering. The same theme runs through many of Jesus’ most famous parables (10:25-37; 15; 16:19-31; 18:1-14, etc). However, before continuing, it is necessary to address the second and third questions.

2. The “Spirit”

The phrase in Matthew (oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati) is difficult; it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and this occurrence is virtually unique in the Greek language. The term pneu=ma more literally and concretely would be translated “breath, wind” so here it could simply be another way of referring to physical poverty (we might say, “short/faint of breath”), which would accord well with the context in Luke. There are also Old Testament and other Semitic parallels—jwr rxq, vpn rxq (“short of breath” or “short in soul/spirit”) that may relate. However a more direct Greek parallel is oi( tapeinoi\ tw=| pneu/mati, “the (ones) low/humble in the spirit” (see the LXX Psalm 33:19), which conveys a different sense (referring to the human soul/spirit), and that has a parallel in the Qumran texts jwr ywnu (1 QM 14.7; 1 QH 5.21-22, etc) which almost exactly matches the expression in Matthew. The phrase, then, most likely reflects a certain humility—a humble nature, recognizing one’s own weakness and mortality, faithfully and patiently enduring whatever hardship or suffering might come to pass.

3. “In” or “by” the “Spirit”

Given the likely reference to the human “spirit”, an instrumental sense for the dative is not likely. A locative or referential sense of “in the spirit” is better, locating the center of the poverty in a person’s own spirit or soul. But this is not so much a matter of anthropology (the nature of man as a created being) as it is of psychology (how one understands his/her created nature in relation to God). Is the poverty voluntary, or is it, like most instances of material poverty, the product of external conditions forced upon a person? Given the original setting of the Beatitude form (a pronouncement set at the last judgment), and the ethical context of Jesus’ teaching to his followers, the poverty should be understood primarily as voluntary, though often involving a willing response to conditions around us. The words of John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel (3:30) come to mind e)kei=non dei= au)ca/nein, e)me\ de\ e)lattou=sqai (“it is necessary for that one [i.e. Jesus] to grow, but for me to become less”); or Jesus’ own prayer to the Father on the eve of his death ou) ti/ e)gw\ qe/lw a)lla\ ti/ su/ (“not what I wish, but what you [wish]”; Mark 14:36 par.).

4. The Differences between Matthew and Luke

So what of the differences between the two forms of the Beatitude? One ought not gloss over them, or rush to harmonize in a facile manner, in order to avoid possible discrepancies. Rather each form should be studied carefully and prayerfully, with the understanding that they both stem from authentic sayings of Jesus. And, if one studies Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels, several clear facts emerge: (a) those who follow Christ faithfully will live modestly, without attachment to worldly possessions, and they are also likely to live in some form of poverty due to oppression or persecution; (b) we are called to follow like children, in innocence and humility, avoiding evil (both purity and poverty are a kind of “emptiness”); (c) our real poverty stems from our relationship to God, according to Christ’s own incarnate example (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:1-11). Both forms of the beatitude surely can be read in this light.

For more on the Beatitudes, I will be posting here this week several Exegetical Study Series that were previously up on Biblesoft’s earlier Study Blog site, including an in-depth series on the Beatitudes.

For an outstanding critical treatment of the entire Sermon on the Mount (and the Beatitudes), see especially Hans-Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (translated in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press, 1995), which includes many useful Classical parallels and references.