Is this section of the Matthean account one argument? Or is it the end of the prologue to the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the main body of the Sermon? That makes some difference to how we might interpret what the Matthean Jesus is saying here. If my interpretation is rooted in the text as we have it, then the answer to those questions matters to me.
Samuel Byrskog examines these issues in detail and concludes that Matthew 5:13-20 is one argument with several rhetorical pieces. His view runs counter to the majority opinion which sees Matthew 5:17ff. as the beginning of the next section of the Sermon.
As we’ve noted in a previous post, the emphatic second-person plural makes it clear that Jesus is addressing the disciples. Byrskog notes that the Matthean author uses this technique as well in Matthew 13 and Matthew 23. The disciples are the primary addressees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The crowds overhear the Sermon but are never directly addressed.
Elsewhere in Matthew (10:34) Jesus uses the phrase “Do not think” to continue a line of argument begun earlier in the text. That phrase is likely not a marker for a new argument. In rhetorical terms, the new argument more clearly begins at 5:13. To interpret 5:17-20, Byrskog argues, we are best served, then, to see how those verses fit with the previous argument.
In his analysis of verses 13-20, Byrskog finds that verses 16 and 19 have the conclusions to the argument here. “Both conclusions emphasize the disciples’ deeds – the good works and the practice of ‘these commandments,’” Byrskog writes (563). Each of these conclusions says these actions should impact the people who witness them. On the basis of these conclusions, then, Jesus outlines examples of disciple behavior in verses 5:21ff.
Matthew 5:17f. in this analysis is a proposition leading to the conclusion in Matthew 5:19. This proposition is offered because the disciples could have possible misunderstandings of what has come before. Being salt and light could be construed as ways to leave behind the Law and the Prophets – annulling the Torah and the Witnesses. Instead, the disciples are to imitate Jesus’ own relationship to the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, Byrskog argues, “they are also not to set aside but to practice and teach even the least of ‘these commandments’” (page 567).
We’ve made the connection in a previous post between the argument here in Matthew 5 and the concluding instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28. Byrskog makes that connection as well. In Matthew 28, Jesus instructs the eleven to make disciples of all nations. In doing so, they are to teach the nations to observe everything Jesus has commanded them. “Jesus starts preparing his pupils,” Byrskog writes, “for their future didactic mission already in the Sermon on the Mount” (page 568).
It is worth considering that the “commandments” that Jesus commends in Matthew 5 are really Jesus’ own interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 5:19 and 28:20, Byrskog observes, have the same terms – to “keep” and “commanded.” He notes that many scholars discount the “letter and stroke” language of Matthew 5 as a pre-Matthean leftover.
However, Byrskog argues that his analysis leads to a different conclusion. “It is entirely conceivable to understand this verse [5:19] as an admonition to practice and teach the exposition of the Torah as contained in Jesus own teaching” (page 568). What the disciples are to keep, observe, and teach is exemplified, then, in what follows in the rest of the Sermon.
Byrskog gives this summary of his analysis. “5:17f is thus central to the entire Matthean narrative as it implies that Jesus is the perfect example to be followed when the disciples themselves, having eventually listened and learned from all of Jesus’ speeches, are to be teachers of the nations” (page 569).
In other words, “For the main author of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus was a teacher whose words and deeds represented the ultimate, normative criterion to be applied in various situations of his Jewish-Christian community. A reference to Jesus,” Byrskog concludes, “needed no further defense” (page 571). The Matthean author has a relatively “high” Christology, therefore, but that Christology is demonstrated through narrative rather than through dogmatic assertions.
Is this, then, what the Matthean Jesus means when he says that he has not come to abolish the Law but rather to fulfill it? Matthew Thiessen tracks the use of the idea of “abolishing the Law” in connection with the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s BCE and the Jewish War as described by Josephus. We get some interesting context for the terms and their importance.
In the documents connected to Antiochian persecution, “These writers view this attack on circumcision, Sabbath, Temple cult, and food laws as an attack on the Jewish or Hebrew ‘politeia,’ and upon Jewish ancestral customs,” Thiessen writes. “It is important to note,” he continues, “that, according to each [of the authors he quotes], it was a Jewish group that was closely involved in the abolishment of the Jewish law in an attempt at Hellenization” (page 548).
In each of those documents, Thiessen observes, the consequence of this abolishing of the law was divine wrath in the form of persecution.
I find that especially interesting in the context of our verses. If Jesus says that persecution will be a result of keeping his commands, then one possible conclusion to be drawn would be that this persecution was an expression of Divine disapproval. After all, that was the conclusion that other Jewish writers were drawing from their history. It would be important to make a strong argument against this possible conclusion.
Josephus argues that the Zealots routinely and repeatedly “abolished” the Law during their war against Rome, especially because they ceased Sabbath observance in order to do battle. My ears perk up immediately at that mention, since debates about Sabbath observance are constant in Jesus’ ministry. Josephus goes into great detail regarding numerous other ways the Zealots were reputed to have “abolished” the Law. Most glaring was their occupation of the Temple precincts. Again, one cannot help but think of events in the ministry of Jesus in the gospels.
Thus, both in the Antiochian documents and in Josephus “those who abolished the law bring divine judgment upon the people as a whole” (page 551). The Matthean account is produced in the generation following the Jewish war, probably in Antioch. The memory of such charges against the Zealots would have a particular sting if they were leveled as well against the Matthean community.
So, Thiessen asks, is Jesus guilty of abolishing the law? Since there is no parallel in Mark or Luke to Matthew 5:17, 19-20, this appears to be a special concern for the Matthean author and community. Thiessen describes what such a charge might have looked like. “Join with us against the law-abolishing followers of this law-abolishing Jesus so we might guard ourselves against God’s wrath, which led to the persecution under Antiochus IV” (pages 551-552).
Add to this charge the fresh memories of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE. Was the Matthean community charged with responsibility for the war as divine punishment? “Given the probability that the air was rife with the accusations of various Jewish groups against their rivals in the wake of the devastating results of the revolt,” Thiessen writes, “this seems a distinct possibility” (page 552).
Thiessen says these accusations may be the concrete content behind Matthew 5:10-12. In response, therefore, the Matthean Jesus-followers needed to show their good works and praise God. “Since Jesus did not come to abolish the law as Matthew makes clear in 5,17-19,” Thiessen argues, “the members of the Matthean community are supposed to live in a way that their opponents will not be able to bring such charges against them” (page 553).
The Matthean author then flips the field and suggests that it is the scribes and the Pharisees who have taken the easier path – perhaps the path of accommodation, as Warren Carter suggests. This would point the finger of blame at the scribes and Pharisees rather than at the Jesus-followers.
To summarize Thiessen’s argument. In the post-70 struggles of the Jewish communities, some identified Jesus as a law-abolisher and Jesus’ followers as responsible for the Divine wrath that resulted. “Matthew’s gospel should therefore be understood, in part,” Thiessen writes, “as a response to such charges” (page 554).
In the Matthean account, Jesus is the New Moses. He calls for authentic Torah observance. Jesus claims to interpret what that authentic Torah observance is. As Byrskog demonstrates, this is the logic of the argument in Matthew 5:13-20. What we do with this as interpreters and preachers remains to be seen. But I find it helpful to understand the text more clearly on its own terms.
References and Resources
Byrskog, Samuel. “MATTHEW 5:17-18 IN THE ARGUMENTATION OF THE CONTEXT.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 104, no. 4 (1997): 557–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44089356.
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.
Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.
Thiessen, Matthew. “Abolishers of the Law in Early Judaism and Matthew 5,17-20.” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 543–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617307.
Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.
Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.