Nowhere does Jesus offer such a clear example of his view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) as in Matthew 5:17-20, which also serves as the introduction to two key blocks of teaching: (1) the six so-called “Antitheses” [Matt. 5:21-48], and (2) instruction on specific religious behavior (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) for his followers [Matt. 6:1-18]. They are also among the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings, especially for (Protestant) Christians accustomed to the idea of a “Law-free” Gospel.
To begin with, it is important to consider these four verses in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (for a critical introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’, see the introductory notes of my series on the Beatitudes). Matt. 5:17-20 follows the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and several additional sayings illustrating the character of Jesus’ faithful followers (Matt 5:13-16). The sayings in vv. 17-20 need not have been uttered by Jesus at the same time—the “Sermon” is better understood as a literary and didactic arrangement or collection of Jesus’ teaching, rather than as a single discourse delivered on a particular occasion. Instead these four sayings are thematically related, representing, as it were, principles governing Jesus’ own interpretation of the Torah for his followers. They will each be examined in turn.
1. Matthew 5:17
Mh\ nomi/shte o%ti h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$: ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai
“Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”
The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. Similarly the opposing verbs katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”) have a very specific meaning in this context: as a legal term, katalu/w can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc., while plhro/w has the sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. Several points can be made:
- The juxtaposition of “Law and Prophets” here indicates hrwt/no/mo$ primarily as Scripture, rather than as the law-code or commandments per se. That is, no/mo$ here refers to the Pentateuch (books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and the “Foretellers” the Prophetic books (probably including Joshua–Kings and the Psalms). The conjunction h* means that Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”. The Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time.
- The ‘incorrect’ statement (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63), “I have come to dissolve the works of female-ness” (this unusual phrase refers to all the elements of the current world-order, including conventional religious forms). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176. It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”
- The verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law. Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”
2. Matthew 5:18
a)mh\n ga\r le/gw u(mi=n: e%w$ a*n pare/lqh| o( ou)rano\$ kai\ h( gh=, i)w=ta e^n h* mi/a kerai/a ou) mh\ pare/lqh| a)po\ tou= no/mou, e%w$ a*n pa/nta ge/nhtai
For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.
There is an interesting chiastic form and parallelism to this saying:
- “Until heaven and earth should pass along”
- “One yod or a single horn will not pass along from the Law”
- “Until all (things) should come to be”
- “Until heaven and earth should pass along”
The first and last phrases are both temporal expressions: the first in concrete terms, according to the ancient worldview (“heaven and earth” represents the universe as understood at the time); the second more abstractly, as the coming-to-be of all things. In between these two expressions is a statement regarding the (relative) permanence of the Law. The “yod” is traditionally the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and of the Greek as well); it is not as clear precisely what kerai/a (lit. “horn”, or possibly “hook”) signifies here, but presumably it indicates a small ornamental mark in the script. The force of the expression is rhetorical rather than literal, i.e. “not even the smallest letter or mark will pass away from the Law”. Noteworthy is the fact that the reference is specifically to a written text. It is not certain to what extent there was a distinction between written and oral Torah in Jesus’ time; but overall Jesus appears to have had a negative view of traditions added to the primary sense of the written text. Indeed, it can be argued that a fundamental purpose of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere) was to restore the true meaning and significance of the original (written) Torah. In any event, it is clear enough that here Torah means primarily sacred Writing (Scripture, as in v. 17); but it probably also refers to the Torah as (written) Law-code—i.e., the collection of commandments, statutes, etc., contained in the Pentateuch.
The saying as a whole seems to limit the force and validity of the Law to the current world-order, as opposed to subsequent Jewish ideas which often emphasized the eternality of the Torah. There is an eschatological aspect at work here, as in much of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ followers were to be aware of the (imminent) end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God (with its accompanying Judgment). The Law would only serve as a governing (religious) authority for believers during the present Age. Paul expresses a rather different view of the temporal limitation of the Law (see, for example, in Galatians 3:26-4:7).
3. Matthew 5:19
o^$ e)a\n ou@n lu/sh| mi/an tw=n e)ntolw=n tou/twn e)laxi/stwn kai\ dida/ch| ou%tw$ tou\$ a)nqrw/pou$, e)la/xisto$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n: o^$ d’ a*n poih/sh| kai\ dida/ch|, ou!to$ me/ga$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”
[in more conventional translation:]
“Therefore, whoever looses (a single) one of these littlest commandments and teaches men (to do) thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the Kingdom of Heaven; but (the one) who does and teaches (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the Kingdom of Heaven”
The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. There are a number of important questions within this verse, which I will discuss briefly in sequence.
- How does the verb lu/w here relate to katalu/w in verse 17? The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”.
- What exactly is meant by “these commandments”? Are these the commandments of the written Torah, or are they the commandments of Jesus? Arguments can be made for both views. The context of verses 17 and 18 would indicate that the written Torah is meant—if so, then the saying would imply that the written Law is fully binding for Jesus’ followers. However, many commentators would hold that Jesus’ commands are what is meant here; such commands would include Jesus’ (authoritative) interpretation of the Law, but would not be synonymous with the commandments of the written Torah itself.
- What is meant by the “least/littlest” of these commandments? There are several possibilities:
(a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
(b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
(c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
(d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).
In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.
- How should the juxtaposition of “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here.
The most significant question remains whether “these commandments” are those of Jesus, of the written Torah, or both? I don’t know that it is possible to give a decisive answer here. Subsequent Christian tradition tended to identify “the commandments” with “the commandments of Christ” (I will be discussing this phrase in more detail in a later article), but is this the same as what Jesus means in the saying of verse 19? It is probably best to understand the phrase here in the qualified sense of “the commandments of the written Torah… as interpreted by Jesus”. Admittedly, we almost certainly do not have all of Jesus’ teachings related to the Law. The Gospels themselves contain, I am sure, only a portion of them; even here in the Sermon on the Mount, the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 and the instruction in 6:1-18 are only representative of the teaching Jesus gave to his followers. For this reason, in particular, the phrase “commandment[s] of Christ” requires a more thorough and systematic treatment.
4. Matthew 5:20
Le/gw ga\r u(mi=n o%ti e)a\n mh\ perissu/sh| u(mw=n h( dikaiosu/nh plei=on tw=n grammate/wn kai\ Farisai/wn, ou) mh\ ei)se/lqhte ei)$ th\n basilei/an tw=n ou)ranw=n
“For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”
This is probably the simplest, and yet, in some ways, the most difficult of the four sayings. It does not deal directly with the Law; rather it offers a challenging point of comparison for Jesus’ followers. The “Scribes and Pharisees” is a stock phrase and schematic expression in the Gospels, often related to those who question or dispute with Jesus, involving some point of legal or religious observance. They are typically mentioned only in the setting of the narrative, or in reaction to something Jesus says or does. The Pharisees have been given a superficially bad reputation by Christians, often as the result of careless reading of the Gospels. Of the major Jewish groups known from the time, the Pharisees probably had the most in common with Jesus himself. He doubtless had many interactions with them, of which only traces have been preserved in the Gospels; on the whole, they appear to have been thoroughly devout and scrupulous in religious matters, though not as strict as the Community of the Qumran texts (usually identified as Essenes). The Scribes [lit. Writers] were legal experts, largely synonymous with the “Teachers of the Law”, and certainly many Scribes were also Pharisees. Jesus’ disputes with the “Scribes and Pharisees” (and other religious leaders) will be discussed in some detail in an upcoming article in this series.
It is important to understand the sense of dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosún¢, “justice/righteousness”) here. As throughout the Sermon of the Mount, and much of early Gospel tradition, the term signifies obedience and conformity to the will of God as expressed in the Torah and the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. In this respect, it is comparable (and compatible) with the traditional Jewish sense of righteousness, and should not be confused with subsequent Christian (esp. Pauline) theological and soteriological use of the word. Presumably, for the first followers of Jesus, and early Jewish Christians, the point of the comparison with the righteousness of the “Scribes and Pharisees” would have been more readily apparent. Today, we can only speculate as to what precisely was meant. There are several possibilities:
- The Scribes and Pharisees did not go far enough in observing the Torah—that is, they did not penetrate to its deeper meaning and significance, as indicated by Jesus in his teaching. This would seem to be implied by the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48.
- Their approach to Torah observance and religious behavior was fundamentally flawed, and not the product of a pure heart. This seems to be the thrust of Matt 6:1-18, as well as the Beatitudes. Cf. also the association of Pharisees with “hypocrisy” at numerous points in the Gospels (esp. in Matt 23).
- The religious leaders who failed to follow Jesus were (all) missing the teaching and revelation which fulfills and completes the Law (and Righteousness). As such the righteousness of Jesus’ followers would (and should) by its very nature far surpass theirs.
- The comparison is primarily rhetorical and exhortative: a call to follow and obey Jesus’ authoritative instruction and interpretation of the Law.
I think there is merit in each of these four views, which can be supported by further detailed study of the Sermon on Mount itself.