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Torah Observance in Matthew 5
Matthew’s Warning for His Readers
Guarding the gateway leading into the six revolutionary teachings of
Matthew 5:21-47 stands the solemn warning in Matthew 5:17-20 for disciples
who might be led astray from their loyalty to the Law:
This message would have brought reassurance to the hearts
of the Christian Jews among whom the author of Matthew likely lived and
for whom he likely wrote; today it may bring a nod from some and
perplexity to others.
As stated elsewhere,
it appears that in
5:17-20 Matthew took a bit of Q tradition
(Matthew 5:18 || Luke 16:17), and built around it a mini-manifesto for Christian Judaism,
which has Jesus endorsing Torah observance as indispensable for his
followers. As for the Q
saying, we cannot be certain
whether it goes back to Jesus or whether it may have originated in a Christian
Jewish community which like Matthew’s was trying to maintain Torah as
In the table below, the material in blue
print is Q, and that in green print is Matthew’s special
material, possibly from a written or oral source, but more likely his own
|17Do not think that I have come to abolish
the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to
|18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass
away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the
law until all is accomplished. [Q]
17But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away,
than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. [Q]
whoever breaks [note, annuls] one of the least of these
commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called
least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and
teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For
I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes
and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
• In 5:17, the phrase law and prophets refers to
the first two divisions of the Jewish
Bible, in the first century, before the third division, “the writings,” was
is a major interest of Matthew.
• 5:18, the Q material.
• 5:19, possibly a polemic against the law-free
gospel characteristic of Paul and his successors.
• 5:20, typical of Matthew’s anti-Pharisaic
Having just assured his Christian Jewish readers that Jesus did not
come to abolish
the law or the prophets, Matthew now considers it safe to
present six revolutionary contrasts (5:21-47), which
effectively relativize Torah! How can this be? We scratch our head.
|Prohibition of murder
||Warning against anger and hate
|Prohibition of adultery
||Warning against lustful thoughts
|The regularization of divorce (marriage as exploitation)
||The permanence of marriage (equal respect of persons)
as assurance of truth telling
oaths: integrity, as assurance of the truth
talionis: equal retaliation as the way of resolving disputes
through creative use of suffering
one’s neighbor and hating one’s enemy
The first two contrasts represent an advance beyond the Law, but in
contrasts three to six Jesus effectively annuls the old laws and raises
morality to a new level; more of this, at Jesus Traditions: Sayings
Because of the warning he had given in 5:17-20, Matthew may well have thought it safe
now to frame these six contrasts as
part of the discourse in chapters 5 to 7—which we may refer to as the
on the [So-called] Mount.
Ambivalence of Matthew? On the one
hand, Torah for Matthew and his fellow Christian Jews was of undoubted
importance, as we have already noted; compare also Torah
On the other hand, he did use material from his sources which brought into question the ultimacy and inviolability
of Torah. Not only so: but he also sharpened up
the differences between the old and the new in the six contrasts of Matthew 5:21-47. These
considerable Q material and some Mark material, but the
framework of this section and the formula which contrasts new and old are
apparently the contribution of the writer himself. (Click on Origin.)
The effect of this editorial activity is to show that for Matthew, at least in these
cases, Torah could be, and needed to be, up-dated and even abrogated.
So why this ambivalence? we would like to know. As usual, we have more
questions than answers.
• Was Matthew perhaps unaware of the inconsistency between
Torah as obligatory in 5:17-20, and Torah as superseded in 5:21-47?
• Was Matthew genuinely trying to find a way for
Christian Jewish disciples to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and
Pharisees, without making Torah obsolete? Or, to put it differently, Did Matthew really want to be Torah observant and
at the same time to champion a movement which raised the bar with its
moral and spiritual demands?
We do not know. We can say that Matthew shows ambivalence on other
• He can be intensely anti-Pharisaic,
as well as acknowledging the authority of rabbinic tradition;
• He can show a universalistic
side, as well as an exclusivist
one. So why not one more:
• He can insist that Torah is obligatory,
as well as require conduct that nullifies Torah.
Ambivalence of Jesus? But is it only
Matthew that is ambivalent? Behind the
ambivalence of Matthew, is there evidence that Jesus also was ambivalent toward
If the Q saying (Matthew 5:18
|| Luke 16:17) is authentic, we would like to know if Jesus
remained loyal to the Law while at the same time he was revising and even
annulling the Law—in the process giving evidence of a certain autonomy
with respect to the Law. It
would be credible that Jesus the Jew had never turned his back completely on
Torah, in the same way
that Paul the Jew exhibited a
good deal of ambivalence, if not confusion or contradiction, in what he
said about Torah (Romans 3:28, 31; 4:14-15; 7:4-7, 12-14; 9:3-5). Did Jesus
appreciate the benign influence of Torah
as a kindly way of ordering life under God (Mark 10:19), at the same time
that he understood the corruptibility of Torah in the hands of the
unscrupulous (Mark 7:8-13)?
Mark reports (10:19) that when a rich man came to Jesus seeking eternal
life, Jesus commended to him the ten commandments: “You know the
commandment: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit
adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false
witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and
It is plausible that Jesus was reared
in a Torah observant home, and that he internalized the commandments, along
the lines of Psalm
40:7-8. Thus we may leave open the possibility that he never really moved out of the gravitational pull of
Jesus: Moderate or Radical?
acknowledge the possibility of Jesus’ ambivalence toward Torah, we also maintain that Jesus
exercised a certain moral sovereignty with respect to Torah:
• By his selectivity in using certain
teachings of the Jewish Bible and rejecting others; and
• By his rejection of legalism in
favor of the principle of love/agapę.
Though there was continuity with historic Judaism in the teaching of Jesus,
there was also an independence
from (and what his adversaries took as a certain nonchalance toward) the authority of Torah.
This autonomy likely convinced both Pharisees and Sadducees that he was radical, and dangerous!
Whether this independence from Torah justifies the label of moderate
or radical, his position is significant for a number of reasons.
• It accounts for much of the
controversy during his public activity.
• It might account in part for the events leading to his death.
• It would at least indirectly
influence the shape of mission in the post-Easter period, and especially
the encouragement of the law free gentile mission. Torah would remain an important guide, but not an absolute authority.
If Paul was right in observing (Galatians 4:4-5) that Christ was born under Torah
(genomenon hypo nomon), he was paradoxically also right in
describing Christ as the one who liberates those who are under
Torah (hina tous hypo nomon exagorasęi).
Revised July 22, 2003
to Jesus Traditions: Sources