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

Today’s note on Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17 is supplemental to an article on the “Antitheses” (Matt 5:21-47) in the Sermon on the Mount, part of a continuing series on “The Law and the New Testament” (“Jesus and the Law”). I have also discussed Matt 5:17-20 in an earlier note.

Matthew 5:17

Mh\ nomi/shte o%ti h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$: ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai
“Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

Because of the importance of this saying, both with regard to the teaching which follows (in vv. 21ff) and for Jesus’ view of the Law as a whole, each element will be examined closely.

mh\ nomi/shte—The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. However, the verb also generally can indicate a customary way of thinking (according to appearance), or a common assumption, which (often) in some way proves to be incorrect, as the usage in Matt 20:10; Lk 2:44; 3:23; Acts 7:25; 14:19; 16:27; 21:29. In Acts 8:20; 17:29; 1 Tim 6:5, it is an incorrect thinking regarding religious matters. The aorist subjunctive form here in Matt 5:17, along with the negative particle mh, has the force of an imperative—i.e., “do not think (incorrectly) in the customary way (concerning this)”; the same expression in found in Matt 10:34.

o%ti (“that”)—the conjunction here may indicate a quotation, i.e. “do not regard as proper/correct (the following statement)”.

h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$—this is the (false or incorrect) saying of Jesus: “I have come to loose down the Law and/or the Foretellers”.

katalu=sai—as a legal term, katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc. The verb is used by Jesus (or in a saying attributed to him) in reference to the destruction of the Temple—Mark 13:2; 14:58; 15:29 (par Matt 24:2; 26:61; 27:40; Lk 21:6); Acts 6:14; cf. also John 2:19; 2 Cor 5:1. For a similar use of the verb in a context related to the Law, see Galatians 2:18, possibly also in Lk 19:7 (Jesus going in to associate with a “sinner”); and note Paul’s use of it as warning in Rom 14:20 not to “destroy” the work of God.

to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$—here no/mo$ is the Old Testament / Jewish hr*oT (tôrâ) or “Law” (lit. “instruction”), specifically as Scripture—that is, as the divinely-revealed Instruction written down and preserved in the five books of Moses (Pentateuch). Similarly the “Prophets” are the writings, the books which record the Prophets’ words. It became commonplace to refer to these in tandem as “the Law and [kai] the Prophets” (cf. Matt 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Rom 3:21); here, however, Jesus uses the disjunctive conjunction h&, i.e. “(either) the Law or the Prophets”. The difference perhaps is slight, but a distinction is being made: the Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time. Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”

ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai—This is the “correct” saying: “I have not come to loose down (the Law or the Prophets), but to fill (them up)”. The verb plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”), like the corresponding verb katalu/w, can be used in the legal sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. How precisely should we understand katalu/w and plhro/w here? There are several possibilities:

  • katalu/w, “loose, dissolve”, in the sense of:
    • relax the strictness of the Torah regulations, either for his followers or for all (Jewish) people
    • teach that his followers need not observe the regulations
    • declare that the Torah is no longer valid or in force (for anyone)
  • plhro/w, “fill up, fulfill”, in the sense that:
    • Jesus and his followers faithfully observe the Torah regulations
    • in his teaching (and by his example), Jesus restores the original meaning and purpose of the (written) Torah
    • through his teaching (and example), Jesus points to a deeper meaning and significance for his followers
    • Jesus, in his person and through his teaching, completes the Torah, either in the sense of: (a) giving it a new meaning, or (b) effectively replacing it

This question will be discussed further in the next daily note.

It is interesting to note that the ‘incorrect’ statement of v. 17a (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63), “I have come to dissolve the works of female-ness” (this unusual phrase refers to all the elements of the current world-order, including conventional religious forms). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176.

It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”

As indicated above, the verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law (see above). Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

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