Notes on Prayer: Matthew 6:5-8

Matthew 6:5-8

The main section of teaching by Jesus on prayer, in the Gospel of Matthew, is in chapter 6 (part of the “Sermon on the Mount”). In Matt 6:1-18, Jesus gives instruction to his disciples regarding their religious behavior and attitudes, drawing upon three basic components of conventional (Jewish) religion—(1) charitable giving to the needy (vv. 2-4), (2) prayer (vv. 5-6ff), and (3) fasting (vv. 16-18). All three are discussed according to the pattern laid out in verse 1:

“You must hold (yourself carefully) toward your right(eous)ness [dikaiosu/nh], not to do (it) in front of men, (and) toward it being looked at by them, and if not [i.e. if you are not careful], (then) you hold no payment [misqo/$] (from) alongside your Father in the heavens.”

This statement illustrates the problem with translating dikaiosu/nh as “justice” or “righteousness”; something like “right-ness” would be more appropriate. Here it is used, in a conventional religious sense, of a person who lives and acts (or would so act) in a right way before God; or, perhaps more to the point—that such persons, through their behavior, would show themselves to be right and just. In this regard, Jesus’ teaching to his followers is as clear as it is striking: such religious behavior should not be done publicly in front of others. Actually there are two components to this injunction: (a) it should not be done in front of others, and (b) it should not be done for the purpose of being seen by others; this second aspect clarifies the meaning of the first, and represents a more serious situation. Jesus warns them that, if they are not careful in this matter, they will receive no recognition from God for their religious way of life. The word misqo/$ refers to payment made for the work a person does (and is hired to do)—that is, a wage, though sometimes it can also be used in the sense of a reward. Here, the basic idea is that a person would normally expect to receive recognition (payment, reward) from God for right and proper religious behavior.

This teaching by Jesus is illustrated through three examples of typical religious behavior, as noted above. The expository pattern followed is precise for each case, with the exception of the ‘added’ teaching on prayer in vv. 7-15. The pattern may be outlined as:

    • The u(pokritai/
      • Warning against behaving like them
      • Description of how they behave
      • They already have all the payment they will receive
    • Jesus’ disciples
      • Description of how they should behave
      • If so, they will receive future/heavenly payment from God

The noun u(pokrith/$ is difficult to translate accurately; it is often simply given in the transliterated form which has passed into English—hypocrite—but this is generally inappropriate and can be misleading due to the negative value-judgment built into this word. Originally, the verb u(pokri/nw (middle/passive u(pokri/nomai) literally would have meant something like “separating out from under”, generally in the sense of bringing out an answer or explanation. This came to be applied widely in the technical sense of an actor or poet interpreting a role or work (before an audience), and along with this basic meaning, the more negative connotation of acting falsely/deceptively by “playing a part”, “play-acting”, etc. Here, Jesus draws upon this idea of a person playing a role, and doing it in front of others—note in v. 1 the verb qea/omai (“look [upon]”) from which comes the noun qe/atron (our “theater” in English), lit. a place for viewing (looking at) something.

With this in mind, let us consider Jesus’ illustration of the teaching with regard to prayer—first, a description of the u(pokritai/:

“And when you would speak out toward (God), you shall not be as th(ose who) respond under (a mask) [oi( u(pokritai/], (in) that they are fond (of being) in the (place)s of gathering together (to worship) and in the corners of the wide (street)s, having stood to speak out toward (God), (and) how they might be made to shine forth (so) to men—Amen, I relate to you, they (already) hold their payment from (this).” (v. 5)

The verb typically translated “pray” (proseu/xomai) literally means “speak out toward”, which, in a religious context, obviously refers to addressing God. To preserve something of the literal meaning of the noun u(pokrith/$, I have translated the plural here as “the (one)s responding under (a mask)”, with the added detail of a mask capturing the image of the stage-actor playing a role. Who are these ‘actors’? In context, it can only refer to those who seek public recognition or affirmation for their righteous/religious behavior; implied in this, is that many (or most) religiously-minded people, to some extent, would fit under the description—that is, it is typical of conventional religion. It is said that such people “are fond” (filou=sin) of two things related to their prayer:

    • First, of being around other people, either in the buildings where people are brought together to worship (the sunagwgh/, or “synagogue”), or outside in the open (“wide”, platei=a) streets and squares.
    • Second, of standing (e(stw=te$) when they pray, which enhances their visibility

Both are done so that these persons “might be made to shine forth” (fanw=sin) as righteous and devout, and to be recognized as such by others. It should be pointed out that this portrait by Jesus is something of an exaggeration, one that is meant to illustrate typical religious behavior—one concerned with appearances and what others think about what we do—in a rather extreme manner. By contrast, Jesus’ instruction for his followers points to the very opposite extreme:

“But when you would speak out toward (God), you must go into your (own) place (where things are) gathered, and, closing your entrance, you must speak out toward (God) in the hidden (place); and (then) your Father, the (One) looking in the hidden (place), will give forth (payment) to you.” (v. 6)

There is, I think, an intentional contrast here, based on the motif of “gathering together”, which is largely lost in translation. I have tried to preserve this above by rendering the noun tam[i]ei=on most literally as a place where things are collected/gathered together (for use)—i.e. a store-room, closet, etc. Here this is understood to be a private room in a person’s own house, in contrast to a public place (or building) where groups of people gather together (i.e. sunagwgh, “synagogue”). Moreover, the door is to be shut, so that the person is entirely hidden (krupto/$) from all other people. The contrast could not be more definite. Is this meant to be taken concretely, as though one should avoid all public contact or gathering when one prays? Or does it rather symbolize the overall attitude and outlook Jesus’ followers (believers) should have? Probably the latter, with the specific details representing the same extreme or exaggerated portrait with which it is contrasted in v. 5. At the same time, Jesus absolutely emphasizes the “hidden” vs. the public—that is, recognition from God alone, since it is only He who can see into the hidden place. Ultimately this hiddenness is a matter of the heart—of inner attitudes and intention—rather than any sort of external behavior. Paul uses much the same language, though with a different purpose and emphasis, in Romans 2:28-29:

“For (one) is not a Jew in the shining forth [e)n tw=| fanerw=|] (to others), and circumcision (is not) in the shining forth in the flesh, but a (true) Jew (is so) in the hidden [e)n tw=| kruptw=|] (place), and circumcision (is) of the heart—in the Spirit, not the letter—the praise of which (comes) not out of men, but out of God.”

Interestingly, the conclusion is the same: praise and reward for one’s religious behavior is to come entirely from God, not other human beings. Jesus casts this in an eschatological light—the outward-oriented behavior of most religious people is rewarded in the present, from the public praise and recognition they receive; but, for Jesus’ followers, there will be a heavenly/eternal reward from God in the future.

Jesus’ teaching in verses 7-15

As noted above, the pattern for all three areas illustrated by Jesus—charitable giving, prayer, and fasting—is precise, and very nearly identical (vv. 2-6, 16-18). However, the prayer-illustration has been expanded to include additional teaching on prayer. While it is possible that this association could be part of the earliest tradition—that is, made by Jesus himself in his preaching—most critical commentators would hold that this section, like the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, represents a collection of Jesus’ teaching, originally given on different occasions (presumably), which has been gathered together based on theme and “catchword-bonding”. The disruption of the teaching pattern of 6:1-18, along with the fact that some of the teaching in vv. 7-15 (such as the Lord’s Prayer itself) occurs in a different narrative location (in Luke), would seem to confirm this. At any rate, this ‘additional’ teaching on prayer may be divided into four distinct sayings or traditions, including the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13). As I have discussed the Lord’s Prayer extensively in prior notes, I will here address, briefly, only the sayings in vv. 7-8, 14-15.

Verse 7

“And (in your) speaking out toward (God), you should not give a stuttering account, just as the (one)s (among the) nations (do), for they consider that in the many (words of) their account they will be listened to (by God).”

Here the contrast is specifically with the way that people in the surrounding nations pray; as in vv. 5-6, this again is certainly an exaggerated portrait of pagan prayer, characterized by two related terms:

    • The verb battologe/w, the first portion of which is of uncertain derivation but is usually understood to mean something like “stammering, babbling”, etc; I translate the verb above as “give a stuttering account”. It possibly refers to the tendency to extend or enhance prayer with ‘magical’ or strange-sounding words. Such use of ‘tongues’ can give a false impression of the special/inspired character of the prayer; cp. Paul’s careful instruction regarding the use of ‘tongues’ in (public) worship in 1 Cor 14.
    • The noun polulogi/a, “account/speech” (logi/a) of “many” (polu/$) words; again, there is a common religious tendency to extend the length and complexity of prayer with words, phrases, petitions, epithets, etc.
      (For more on both terms, and what they may signify, with examples from Greco-Roman literature and religion, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 364-7.)
Verse 8

“(So) then you should not be like them: for your Father has (already) seen [i.e. known] the (thing)s which you hold as need(s) (even) before your asking him (for them).”

The first portion of v. 8 clearly relates as much to the saying in v. 7 as what follows; I suspect that vv. 7-8, at least, belong together from the earliest (or very early) layer of Gospel tradition. Even if the core of v. 8 represents a separate saying, together here they form a contrast for how Jesus’ disciples should conduct themselves in prayer, as in vv. 5-6—it should not be the way most people (whether Jew [vv. 5-6] or Gentile [vv. 7-8]) typically do. In particular, there should be recognition of God’s providential foreknowledge regarding what His people (the righteous/believers) need, and that he will not fail to provide. There is a general parallel to this idea elsewhere in the Sermon (5:45; 6:25-34; 7:7-11; par Lk 11:9-13; 12:22-31). As such, this teaching is fundamentally theological—Jesus’ disciples are to understand this aspect of God’s nature and character. Indeed, it is this very awareness that shapes our prayer and also serves as a fitting introduction to the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13).

Verses 14-15

“For, if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, your heavenly Father will also release (them) for you; but if you would not release (them) for (other) men, (then) your Father also will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside.”

This dual-saying has a parallel in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:25[-26]), and has been included here (whether by Jesus as speaker or as a traditional association) because of its similarity to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer (v. 12). Moreover, it also relates back to earlier instruction in the Sermon itself (5:23-24), which similarly connects forgiveness/reconciliation toward others with the legitimacy of our (external) religious behavior—with the point that forgiveness takes priority over even our dearest offerings and prayer to God. The parallelism in this teaching is precise and absolute in its reciprocity—as we do (to others), so it will be done to us (by God). This is a core teaching of Jesus’, central to the Sermon (7:12, etc) as well as found in parables, etc, throughout the Gospel Tradition, and yet one that remains most challenging for us to follow. For more on the Gospel parallels and the relation of this saying to the Lord’s Prayer, see my earlier note on Matt 6:12 / Lk 11:4a.

References above marked “Betz, Sermon” are to the outstanding critical commentary on The Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz, in the Hermeneia Series (Fortress Press: 1995).

Notes on Prayer: Matthew 5:44

Last Monday, we examined references to prayer in the Synoptic Tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. Now, we will be looking at those passages and references that are unique to the Gospels and Matthew and Luke; today we focus on the Gospel of Matthew.

Actually, in Matthew there are relatively few teachings or traditions of Jesus regarding prayer beyond the Markan/Synoptic references. Indeed, the relevant passages are limited to the collection of teaching known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, and which, to some extent, has parallels in Luke (so-called “Q” material). We have already examined the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13ff; par Lk 11:2-4) in considerable detail. Within this context, there are two other passages which must be studied: (1) the saying in 5:44, and (2) the teaching in 6:5-8 which directly precedes the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 5:44

“But I say to you, ‘You must love your enemies and speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you’.”

This saying is part of the Antitheses section of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-47)—in particular, the final (6th) Antithesis, on loving one’s enemies (vv. 43-47). Here, I reprise the discussion from my earlier series on “Jesus and the Law”:

On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

Customary saying:

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

Jesus’ saying:

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

Relation to the Law:

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

Jesus’ Exposition:

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

Example/Application:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The saying in verse 44 (par Luke 6:28)

With the context of the Antitheses in mind, let us now consider the specific saying in verse 44. It will be helpful to compare the Matthean and Lukan versions, since they presumably stem from the same basic tradition, though they occur in rather different contexts in the respective narratives:

Matt 5:44:
“But I say to you,
{line 1} ‘You must love your enemies
{line 2} and speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you’.”

Lk 6:27-28:
“But to you the (one)s hearing (me) I say,
{line 1} ‘You must love your enemies
{line 2} (and) do well to(ward) the (one)s hating you;
{line 3} you must give a good account [i.e. speak well] of the (one)s wishing down (evil) on you,
{line 4} (and) speak out toward (God) about the (one)s throwing insults upon you’.”

I have broken the saying into separate lines in order to indicate the poetic character of Jesus’ saying. According to the style and conventions of traditional Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) poetry, the saying follows the pattern of parallel couplets (bicola) whereby the second line (colon) restates and builds on the first. The Lukan version is made up of two bicola, while the Matthean has just a single bicolon. In both versions, the main verb in each line is an imperative (“you must…!”), while the descriptive modifier for the ‘opponents’ in line(s) 2-4 is a present participle, perhaps suggesting continuous/repeated action. If both versions, in fact, stem from a common tradition (i.e. historical saying by Jesus), then it is likely that the Matthean version is an abridgement (and/or simplification) of a more extensive saying.

In each version, the command in the first line is identical: “(you must) love your enemies” (a)gapa=te tou\$ e)xqrou\$ u(mw=n) [so also at Lk 6:35]. The difference is found in the line involving prayer:

and (you must) speak out toward (God) over the (one)s pursuing you
kai\ proseu/xesqe u(pe\r tw=n diwko/ntwn u(ma=$
kai proseuchesthe hyper tœn diœkontœn hymas

(and you must) speak out toward (God) about the (one)s throwing insults upon you
proseu/xesqe peri\ tw=n e)pereazo/ntwn u(ma=$
proseuchesthe peri tœn epereazontœn hymas

The sayings are essentially identical in form, differing only in terms of the specific preposition (u(pe/r vs. peri/) and descriptive verb (diw/kw vs. e)perea/zw) used. The variation in preposition could merely reflect a stylistic difference in Greek; the choice of verb, however, is more substantive. The Matthean verb is diw/kw, “pursue [after]”, often in a hostile sense (i.e. “persecute”), directed specifically at Jesus’ followers; as such, the verb is used three times earlier in the Beatitudes (vv. 10-12; cf. also 10:23). The Lukan verb (e)perea/zw) is much more rare, occurring just once elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Pet 3:16); it means “(throw) insults/abuse upon”, sometimes in the more outright hostile sense of “threaten, be abusive (toward)”.

How are we to explain the difference between the two versions? Given the pointed use of the verb diw/kw elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems likely that the Matthean version may be an (interpretive) abridgment of an original saying preserved more completely in Luke. Certainly we could fairly say that the Lukan lines 2-4 are effectively combined and summarized in the Matthean line 2, with the emphasis being more directly on mistreatment toward people because they are followers of Jesus. On the other hand, the use of diw/kw could also reflect Jesus’ own emphasis (as speaker) in the context of the Sermon; this would certainly represent the more traditional-conservative explanation. At the same time, some commentators suggest that Luke has expanded the saying, and that Matthew’s more concise version more accurately preserves the original; perhaps the general parallel in Rom 12:14, using the same verb diw/kw, might be seen to confirm this. Either way, the main point is clear enough, in both versions: that Jesus’ disciples are to speak out toward God (i.e. pray) on behalf of those who are mistreating and abusing them. This remains one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of Jesus’ teaching for believers—and for us today—to follow faithfully.

The other principal passage on prayer in Matthew (6:5-8) will be explored in the next study.

March 15: Matthew 6:13b

Matthew 6:13b

The final petition in the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer, while present in the majority of manuscripts of Luke, is absent a diverse range of witness, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 a*2 B L f1 700 pc vg, and segments of the Syriac and Coptic tradition). As with the other parts of the Prayer where a shorter Lukan version is attested, the longer form is almost certainly secondary, representing a scribal harmonization (to Matthew), of the sort we see frequently in the manuscript tradition. Here the text-critical axiom lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferable”) holds good. This (final) petition in Matthew (followed by the Didache) reads:

a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou/
alla rhusai h¢mas apo tou pon¢rou
“but may you rescue us from the evil”

An Aramaic original, insofar as it valid to reconstruct, might be something like:

av*ya!B= /m! an`l=X#a^ <r^B=
b§ram °aƒƒéln¹° min b§°îš¹°
(cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901)

From the standpoint of the Matthean structure of the Prayer, it is better to consider this line as part of the previous petition (cf. the prior note). This is indicated by the contrastive/adversative particle a)lla/ (“but, rather”), establishing a contrast with the previous request, which had been negative (i.e., what God should not do); here is the corresponding positive request:

    • “May you not bring us into testing
      • but (rather) may you (instead) rescue us from the evil”

The main interpretive difficulty involves the precise meaning of the word ponhro/$ (“evil”). There are three question which must be addressed:

    1. Whether the article here is masculine or neuter
    2. The force of the definite article, and
    3. The nature of the “evil” referred to in the context of the Prayer

Each of these will be dealt with in turn. First, it is worth noting that the adjective ponhro/$ is much more frequent in Matthew than in the other Gospels. Mark has it (twice) in just one tradition (7:22-23), while it occurs just three times in John (3:19; 7:7; 17:5). It is a bit more common in Luke (12 times), with another 8 occurrences in Acts. By comparison it appears 25 times in Matthew, including 8 in the Sermon on the Mount; 5 of the 12 Lukan occurrences are in the parallel “Sermon on the Plain”. Overall, the adjective appears to be distinctive of the sayings of Jesus in the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

1. The word with definite article is a substantive adjective (i.e. functioning as a noun), but the particular genitive form tou= ponhrou= is ambiguous in terms of gender: it can either be masculine or neuter. It is helpful to consider first the other 7 occurrences of the adjective in the Sermon on the Mount. It modifies masculine nouns in 5:45; 6:23; 7:11, 17-18—”man” (a&nqrwpo$ [implied]), “eye” (o)fqalmo/$), and “fruit” (karpo/$). In all these instances the adjective is used to describe the character of human beings, their attitude and actions. The same is probably the case in 5:39, where the substantive use (with the definite article) most likely refers to the person doing evil, rather than the evil itself. In 5:37 the substantive genitive tou= ponhrou= has the same ambiguity we see in here in the Prayer. The only certain occurrence of the neuter is in 5:11, where it refers to evil that is spoken against Jesus’ disciples. This neuter usage is similar to the plural substantive in Mark 7:23 (“these evil [thing]s”). Thus, it would appear that it is more common in the Sermon to use the adjective as characteristic of a person, rather than a reference to evil itself.

2. An interesting question is whether the definite article simply reflects a substantive use of the adjective (as a noun) generally, or whether it refers to evil in a specific sense. This will be discussed further under point #3 below. However, it is worth keeping in mind the parallel with the noun peirasmo/$ (“testing”); the rhythm and structure of the petition is aided by the inclusion of the definite article—peirasmo/$/o( ponhro/$—creating two nouns at the center of the contrast: “into testing” vs. “(away) from the evil”. But perhaps true definiteness is intended here as well, and meant to be emphasized, i.e. “the evil”. If so, then there are several possible meanings:

    • The evil which we experience or which comes upon us, specifically as sin, in the course of our life on earth
    • The (power of) evil which dominates the current Age, or, in an eschatological sense, is coming upon the world
    • The Evil One—the personification of evil, or the person most characterized by evil and responsible for it, i.e. the figure known as the Satan (/f*c*[h^]), dia/bolo$ (‘Devil’), or Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:15 and the Qumran texts).

If we look at other occurrences in Matthew where the adjective is used with a definite article, we see that it is used two ways: (1) for specific person(s) who are evil, and (2) for the specific evil things a person says and does. There are actually two sections where these references occur: the teaching in 12:33-37 (cp. 7:15-20 and Mk 7:21-23), and the Kingdom parables in chapter 13. An examination of these is instructive.

  • Matt 12:35 presents a contrast between the person who is good and the one who is evil:
    “The good man casts out good (thing)s out of the good treasure (of his heart), and the evil man [o( ponhro/$ a&nqrwpo$] casts out evil (thing)s [ponhra/] out of the evil treasure [e)k tou= ponhrou= qhsaurou=] (of his heart).”
    This wording echoes that of 5:37 in the Sermon and may provide the context for the more ambiguous expression there:
    “And (so) your account must be “Yes, yes” (and) “no, no”, and the thing over (beyond) these (words) is [i.e. comes] out of the evil [e)k tou= ponhrou=].”
    It is often assumed that “the evil” that brings about the oath here is “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Devil; however, the parallel in 12:35 suggests that it may actually refer to the evil (treasure) that is in a person’s heart.
  • By contrast, twice in chapter 13, in Jesus’ explanation of both the parable of the Sower and of the Weeds (vv. 19, 38), the expression o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) almost certainly does refer to “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan. The evil human beings (“the evil [one]s”) who are separated from the good at the Last Judgment (v. 49) reflect the character of the Evil One himself, even as Jesus’ faithful disciples reflect the character of God Himself (cf. 5:48, etc).

3. Now let us consider further the use of o( ponhro/$ (or to\ ponhro/n) in the context of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. As documented above, the adjective serves the dualistic contrast present in Jesus’ teaching—that is, as a way of characterizing persons who do not follow his teaching, and who act and think in a way that does not reflect God the Father in Heaven. This continues the dualism we noted in earlier parts of the Prayer, especially in the opening petitions which emphasize God the Father as the One in the heavens. Jesus’ true disciples are those who, by following his teaching and example, actually do the will of God here on earth, even as it is done in heaven. The opposite of God’s will on earth is the presence and manifestation of wickedness and evil, which characterizes much (if not the majority) of humankind (cf. 7:11). Most people act and think in an earthly manner, seeking after earthly (and not heavenly) things. This is a fundamental principle that runs through the Sermon and establishes the contrast for how Jesus disciples are supposed to conduct themselves in their daily life (on earth). At the same time, there is an eschatological dimension, to both the Sermon and the Prayer, which emphasizes the coming Judgment and also the suffering and persecution Jesus’ followers will face on earth from the wicked and the forces of evil.

With all of this in mind, it is time to set forth several lines of interpretation for the phrase a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“from the evil”) in this petition of the Prayer; bear in mind that each interpretation must also take into account the parallel expression “into testing” (ei)$ peirasmo/n):

  1. The evil we experience, in terms of sin and the temptation to commit sin (understanding peirasmo/$ here as “temptation”).
  2. The evil we experience (from others), and to which we must respond and endure–understood generally as mistreatment and persecution; here the “testing” involves our response to such mistreatment, following Jesus’ own instruction in the Sermon.
  3. The “testing” is temptation (which God allows), and “the Evil One” (i.e. Satan/Devil/Belial) is the one who tempts us to follow the way of evil along with the rest of humankind.
  4. The “testing” is the suffering and distress which Jesus’ followers experience on earth, and the evil is that which dominates the current Age (under the control of the Evil One).
  5. A variation of (d) gives greater emphasis to the eschatological context of the Prayer—i.e. the suffering/distress which is coming upon the world, and especially upon Jesus’ followers in the form of persecution and the danger of being deceived, falling from faith, etc.

In the next note I will discuss these options further, along with what it means to be “rescued” by God from this evil.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 8: Matthew 6:10b

Matthew 6:10b

In the previous notes, we examined the first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, which are the same in both Luke and Matthew. In the Lukan version, these two petitions form a clear and definite pair—syntactically, thematically, and conceptually. In Matthew’s version of the Prayer, however, there is a third petition not found in (what must be regarded as) the original text of Luke:

genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou
w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$
gen¢th¢tœ to thel¢ma sou
hœs en ouranœ kai epi g¢s
“May your will come to be—
as in heaven (so) also upon (the) earth”

NOTE: The majority of witness here in Luke include this petition, including important uncials such as A C D W D Q. However, it is missing from a diverse range of witnesses, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 B L f1 1342 etc), a fact that is nearly impossible to explain if the longer text in Luke were original. Almost certainly the longer text is secondary, representing the kind of harmonization between Gospels that we find frequently in the manuscript tradition.

The inclusion/addition of this line gives a different structure and rhythm to the Prayer. Some commentators who regard the shorter Lukan version as representing the (original) historical tradition (or, at least closer to it) consider the line to be an addition by the Gospel writer, perhaps drawn from early liturgical tradition. However one judges its status at the historical level, the petition in Matt 6:10b is vital to the Prayer as it appears in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. This point must be discussed.

In an earlier note, I mentioned how the expression “(our) Father the (One) in the heavens” in the Matthean invocation is distinctive of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a dualistic contrast that runs through the Sermon—between (a) the religious behavior of the majority of people on earth, and (b) the behavior of Jesus’ followers which should reflect the character of God the Father in heaven. It is just this contrast which underlies the expression in verse 10b.

As in the first petition, we have here a 3rd person (aorist) passive imperative (“it must [be]…”) rendered as an exhortative request (“may/let it [be]…”). The Greek verb used is gi/nomai (“come to be, become”)—”May it come to be…”. Five of the seven occurrences of this imperative are in the Gospel of Matthew (also 8:13; 9:29; 15:28; 26:42), the other two are in citations from Scripture (LXX); thus, it reflects a distinctive Matthean vocabulary.

The traditional rendering “may your will be done” is somewhat misleading, since there is no actual mention of doing God’s will; rather, the request is that God would see to it that His will comes to pass on earth. This touches upon the complex philosophical/theological question of the will of God. If God is sovereign and all-powerful, then by its very nature His will always comes to pass in all things. At the same time, there is clear and abundant evidence that all things on earth do not always (or often) conform to the declared will (or wish) of God; in particular, human beings typically do not act according to His will. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not address this philosophical dimension directly, but the very point of his teaching throughout is centered on the idea that human beings must (choose to) live and act in a way that conforms with God’s own nature and character (including His will). Thus, there is implicit in this request the concept of doing (or fulfilling) the will of God the Father.

As mentioned above, this continues the contrast of heaven and earth which runs through the Sermon (cf. the previous notes). God’s will is done in heaven, but it is often not done by people on earth. Again, the will (qe/lhma) here refers to something which God has declared for people—i.e., his word or instruction (Torah) which reveals his intention for humankind, to act and think in a way that corresponds with his own character and example. This is unquestionably how qe/lhma is used in most of the occurrences in the Gospel, in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. Most notable in this regard is the Synoptic saying in Mark 3:35 (par Matt 12:50, the Lukan form is rather different):

“Whoever would do the will of God, this (one) is my brother and sister and mother.”
i.e. Jesus’ true family consists of his followers who do the will of God; Matt 12:50 reflects the distinctive Matthean wording:
“For whoever would do the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Three other occurrences of qe/lhma in Matthew express the same basic idea (7:21; 18:14; 21:31); the first of these is also from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone saying to me ‘Lord, Lord…’ will come into the kingdom of the heavens, but (only) the (one) doing the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens.” (Matt 7:21)

Also noteworthy is the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32 par), which draws upon a similar dualistic contrast: those who do the will of God the Father (i.e. followers of Jesus) and those who do not (i.e. conventional/false religious behavior). In many ways, the closest parallel to the petition in Matt 6:10b is found in Jesus’ prayer in the garden at the beginning of his Passion. In Mark, this (Synoptic) saying reads:

“Abba, Father, all (thing)s are possible for you: (please) carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! But (yet), not what I wish [qe/lw], but what you (wish).” (Mk 14:36)

In Matthew’s version of this scene, this saying is preserved, generally following the Markan phrasing (Matt 26:39); however, words from the second session of prayer are also included which match more closely the petition in the Lord’s Prayer (the words in italics are identical):

“My Father, if it is not possible (for) this (cup) to go along (from me) if I do not drink (it), may your will come to be [genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou] .” (v. 42)

It would appear that the Gospel writer, noting the similarity to the petition in 6:10b, shaped this particular tradition to match it. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Luke records essentially the same saying by Jesus, but with different wording:

“Father, if you wish, carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! (But all the) more—may not my will, but yours, come to be.” (Lk 22:42)

The best explanation for this apparent blending of details is that Matt 26:42 represents a “Q” tradition which Matthew and Luke have each combined with the Synoptic saying (Mk 14:36) in different ways. The Gospel of John, though drawing upon an entirely separate line of tradition, also records numerous statements by Jesus describing how he, as Son, does the will (qe/lhma) of the Father—Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40. The one who follows Jesus likewise does the Father’s will even as he himself does (Jn 7:17; 9:31).

Thus there is a well-established basis in the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Matthew, for the idea that Jesus’ disciples (believers) are to obey the will of God the Father, as expressed especially in the teaching and example of Jesus (the Son). This is the central principle in the Sermon on the Mount. By this faithful obedience of the disciple, God’s will is done on earth, even as it is done in heaven—i.e reflecting the nature and character of the Father who is in the heavens. Somewhat surprisingly, the petition in 6:10b uses the singular (ou)rano/$) instead of the plural (ou)ranoi/). Most likely, this simply reflects the fact there is little difference in meaning between singular and plural forms of this noun in Greek. The singular in 6:26 refers to the (physical) skies, as probably also in 5:18, while v. 34 may have the primitive (cosmological) meaning of the vault of heaven; however, in 6:20 it refers to the realm or domain of God, much as the use of the plural does elsewhere in the Sermon. The traditional pairing of heaven and earth may explain the specific use of the singular here (cf. in 5:18, etc).

As noted above, the third petition contains and envelops the first two. As the disciples of Jesus follow him faithfully, the will of God is fulfilled on earth—a foreshadowing or beginning of the eschatological moment when the declared will of God comes to pass and is realized for all on earth, when his Kingdom is established truly over all humankind, and people everywhere treat Him with sanctity and honor.

For parallels to Matt 6:10b in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, cf. Psalm 103:21; 135:6, and especially 1 Macc 3:60 (“as the will might be in heaven, so shall it be done”). In Rabbinic literature, note b. Ber. 17a, 29b; t. Ber. 3.7; Pirke Abot 2.4; Abot R. Nathan (B) 32. For these and other references, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 392-6.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 5: Matthew 6:9 (continued)

Matthew 6:9b, continued

In the previous note, we examined the longer invocation to the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew (and the Didache [8:2]): “Our Father, the (One who is) in the heavens”, pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$ (Did. “…e)n tw=| ou)ranw=|“). I pointed out how the expression “…Father the (One) in the heavens”, as well as “(in) the heavens [pl.]” itself, is distinctive to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew, and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs numerous times (along with the parallel, “heavenly Father”). Indeed, it is a key thematic phrase within the Sermon, and expresses an important theological principle. The significance of the expression will be examined here in today’s note.

To begin with, let us consider the use of the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/). The word ou)rano/$ in Greek refers specifically (according to the ancient cosmology) to the high hemispheric vault (‘firmament’) which covers the earth, separating it from the waters (above), and providing the atmospheric space (air/sky) directly below. It came to be used broadly for the entirety of the skies above the earth, especially when used in the plural—on this traditional usage in the New Testament, cf. Mark 1:10 par, etc. Ancient religious thought tended to view the dwelling place of God (or the gods), in spatial terms, as being in a high location above the ‘vault of heaven’ (ou)rano/$). The divine dwelling-place generally came to be called by this name, whether in the singular or plural (“heavens”, ou)ranoi/). Most of the occurrences of ou)ranoi/ in the New Testament refer to the place where God the Father (YHWH) and other divine beings (“Angels”) reside, and this is certainly so in the Gospel sayings of Jesus.

The extensive use of the plural (ou)ranoi/) in Matthew, however, may also reflect the corresponding word in Hebrew and Aramaic, which is always in the plural—<y]m^v* š¹mayim; Aram. /y]m^v= (always emphatic aY`m^v= š§mayy¹°, “the heavens”). A reconstruction of the Matthean phrase in Aramaic might be: aY`m^v=B! yD! an`Wba& (°A_»ûn¹° dî bišmayy¹°); cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901. Aramaic aY`m^v= has essentially the same range of meaning as oi( ou)ranoi/ in Greek. For Aramaic references in the Old Testament, where it refers to the abode of God, cf. Dan 2:18-19, 28, 37, 44; 4:31, 34; Ezra 5:11-12; 6:9-10, etc. The close association of God with “heaven” is indicated by the fixed (emphatic) expression “the God of Heaven” (aY`m^v= Hl*a$). It is possible that “…Father the (One) in the heavens” in Matthew reflects such a traditional expression in Aramaic.

Whether one attributes the phrase “our Father the (One) in the heavens” primarily to the Gospel writer or to Jesus himself (in Aramaic), there can be no doubt of the importance it has to the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs six times (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21); the expression “in the heavens” itself occurs again in 5:12, and “the kingdom of the heavens” (par. to “kingdom of God”) also six times (5:3, 10, 19 [twice], 20; 7:21). In addition, we find the parallel expression “(your) heavenly Father” (o( path\r [u(mw=n] o( ou)ra/nio$) four times in the Sermon (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32). Thus there is a definite (and concentrated) emphasis on associating God the Father with “the heavens” in the Matthean Sermon on the Mount, beyond anything we find elsewhere in the Gospel tradition. How is this to be understood?

The main point of emphasis appears to be idea that the behavior of Jesus’ disciples on earth should follow the example of God the Father in heaven. This is clearly expressed in 5:16 and 45, and the principle is summarized powerfully in the declaration of verse 48, whereby, if Jesus’ teaching is followed:

“You shall then be complete, (even) as your heavenly Father is complete.”

When we turn to the instruction in 6:1-18 (of which the Lord’s Prayer is a part), we find a slightly different emphasis: that of a dualistic contrast between common religious behavior by people (on earth) and the behavior of Jesus followers (focused on God in heaven). The principle is well expressed in the opening verse: “you must not do (things) in front of men to be seen by them, otherwise you hold no wage [i.e. reward] from your Father the (One) in the heavens“. The earthly desire and inclination of human beings is to demonstrate one’s religious devotion publicly, and to receive recognition for it from other people. Such recognition, Jesus says, is the only reward such people will receive—i.e. earthly, not heavenly (vv. 2b, 5b, 16b). Jesus’ followers are instructed to behave in just the opposite way—to act privately (“in the hidden [place]”), being concerned only about being seen by God (who is in heaven), vv 3-4, 6, 17-18. When it comes to instruction regarding prayer, the contrast is expressed two ways:

    • Prayer should not be done (publicly) in front of people, especially not for the purpose of being seen/recognized by others for one’s devotion; rather, it should be practiced privately, in one’s inner room (whether understood literally or figuratively), before God alone [vv. 5-6].
    • The importance in prayer is not the number of words/petitions, nor the pious-sounding character of them—characterized by the verb battologe/w (“give a chattering account”) and noun polulogi/a (“account [of] many [words]”). Moreover, even with the best of intentions, it is not necessary to utter everything out loud to God, since the Father (in heaven) knows the all needs of his children (on earth) before any request is made [vv. 7-8].

In all of this there is an implicit spiritual dimension at work, even though the Spirit (Pneu=ma) is not specifically mentioned, neither in the Lord’s Prayer (the variant reading in Lk 11:2b will be discussed), nor in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. This is in contrast to the Lukan context of the Prayer, where the Spirit it is of the utmost importance. I would, however, maintain that for the Matthean form of the Prayer, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea of the Spirit is embedded in the expression “in the heavens”—i.e. the heavenly dimension defined by God’s own Power and Presence. This will be discussed further in the notes which follow.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Excursus (Lk 6:20-8:3 etc)

In the previous note, I presented the Synoptic narrative outline, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, along with a more detailed breakdown of the traditions in Mk 3:13-8:30, the second half of the Galilean period (1:14-8:30). Today, I want to look at how this material was developed by Luke and Matthew. In particular, I will focus on Luke’s treatment of the Synoptic/Markan traditions.

First, here again is the outline of Mk 3:13-6:13:

  • Calling the Twelve—3:13-19
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; 3 traditions joined together:
    3:20-21, 22-30, 31-35
  • Parables of Jesus—4:1-34, a distinct block (or sub-unit) of traditional material, organized as follows:
    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Parable of the Sower:
      —The Parable (vv. 3-9)
      —Saying to the Disciples (vv. 10-12)
      —Explanation of the Parable (vv. 13-20)
    • Three additional Parables (vv. 21-32)
    • Conclusion (vv. 33-34)
  • Miracle (Calming the Storm): Jesus with the Disciples together in the boat—4:35-41
  • Healing Miracles: 2 Episodes (3 miracles)—5:1-20, 21-43
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; episode at Nazareth—6:1-6a
  • Mission of the Twelve—6:6b-13

The green above indicates portions which Luke appears to have either re-worked or presents in a different order:

    • Luke reverses the order (6:12-16, 17-19) of the material corresponding to Mk 3:7-12, 13-19, reworking it to some extent
    • In 8:4-21, also the material corr. to Mk 3:31-35 & 4:1-25 is reversed and set in a different narrative context (omitting Mk 3:20-30)
    • Luke has a quite different (and expanded) version of the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a), and it is set in a different location—at the very beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Lk 4:16-30); cf. the earlier note on this passage

The dark red portions above indicate the Markan traditions which Luke has omitted, or otherwise does not include—Mk 3:20-30; 4:26-34.

Besides the ‘additions’ to the Nazareth episode (mentioned above), Luke has also included a considerable amount of material at a point corresponding to Mk 3:19. Here is the Lukan outline, with Markan parallels in parentheses:

From this point, Luke 8:22-9:6 follows Mk 4:35-5:43 + 6:6b-13. It is important to consider the additional Lukan material (6:20-8:3), which is comprised of six distinct units set in sequence. “Q” indicates the so-called Q-material, shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. “L” refers to traditions found only in Luke. There are three “L” traditions included here:

    • 7:11-17: a healing miracle story—the raising of the dead son of the widow at Nain.
    • 7:36-50: an encounter story (with a parable), involving the traditional motif of conflict/debate between Jesus and the Pharisees—the anointing of Jesus by the “sinful” woman. This tradition is quite similar to, but not identical with, Mk 14:3-19, and will be discussed in an upcoming note.
    • 8:1-3: a narrative summary, probably of Lukan composition, but containing traditional/historical information.

The traditions in 7:11-17 and 36-50 are very much in keeping with the episodes of the core Synoptic Tradition (cf. the previous note), though 7:36-50 shows definite signs of literary development. The “Q” material is rather different, and indicates that it has been derived from a separate (and early) line of tradition.

Many scholars believe that “Q” was an actual source document, comprised mainly of a collection of sayings by Jesus. These sayings, at an early point, were joined together, by way of thematic and “catchword” bonding, to form small units, which then could be collected/grouped into larger sections of sayings-material. “Q”, if it existed at all as a specific text, would have been made up of these larger sections, two of which are found at this point in Luke:

1. The “Sermon on the Plain” (Lk 6:20-49), which follows the basic outline of the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew (chapters 5-7). Despite the narrative setting in each Gospel, which presents the material as a single “sermon” given by Jesus, most (critical) commentators believe that it is better understood as a collection of sayings, parables, and teachings by Jesus, which represents the sort of instruction he gave regularly to his disciples. Matthew’s version contains considerably more material, some of which is found in a different location in Luke. Moreover, there are some significant differences in wording and emphasis, especially in the Beatitudes (cf. my earlier series on the Beatitudes for more detail). Here is a breakdown of the Lukan “sermon”:

Luke and Matthew have each arranged several distinct units of “Q” material (sayings and parables, etc) to form a sermon or discourse. Notably, each Gospel writer (independently) has set this in the context of Jesus gathering his disciples together and instructing them (Matt 4:18ff; 5:1-2; Luke 6:12-16, 17)—though in each Gospel it occurs at a slightly different point in the narrative.

2. Jesus and John the Baptist (Lk 7:18-35). I have discussed this section briefly in the earlier notes of this series on the Baptism of Jesus. Again, while it would seem that the material in vv. 18-35 is all part of a single discourse by Jesus, this more likely reflects the thematic joining of a number of different traditions during the (early) process of collection and transmission. Clearly, the common theme involved is John the Baptist and his relation to Jesus. In my view, this is a mark of very early historical tradition, as the interest in John the Baptist soon faded among Christians in the New Testament period. There is less variation between the versions of this material in Matthew and Luke, than for the earlier “Sermon” (cf. above); both Gospels preserve it as a distinct block of tradition. Here is how it appears in Luke:

It is worth noting the portions in Matthew’s version which are not found in Luke (or occur in a different location):

Interestingly, while this Q-material in Luke follows generally after Jesus’ calling the Twelve (6:12-16) and the “Sermon” (6:20-49), in Matthew it occurs at a different (though similar) point in the narrative. The calling and subsequent mission of the Twelve is narrated together (Matt 10:1-5f), followed by an entirely separate collection of instruction (or “sermon”) for the disciples (10:5-42).

This brief, though detailed, analysis demonstrates the creative work of each Gospel writer in selecting, adapting, and arranging traditional material. Many of the themes and contours of the narrative are the same in each Gospel, but the overall presentation and thematic structure differs considerably. This is all the more true when we consider how the (historical) traditions have been developed and arranged in the Gospel of John. I will be examining this in the next 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 5:48

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

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

1. Matthew 5:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Luke 6:36

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

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

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

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

3. The relation to the Antitheses in Matthew 5

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

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

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: The Antitheses (continued)

This note follows up on that of the previous day (on Matthew 5:17), and also serves as a supplement to my survey and discussion of the Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-47) of the Sermon on the Mount in the previous article (Part 3) of this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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