Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12

Part One: Dogs, Pigs, Wafers, and Wisdom

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6, NRSV).

Matthew 7:6 appears to be a non sequitur dropped into this section of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s like a fart in church – surprising, uncomfortable, out of place, and then ignored as it dissipates. If that’s really what the verse is, then the Matthean author gets pretty sloppy in an otherwise tightly organized composition.

That’s hard to swallow. But it is precisely how, for example, the NRSV treats the verse. It has its own section title. Chapter seven has the appearance of being a miscellaneous catch-all as the preacher hurries to get to the big finish in verses 24-29.

I don’t buy it.

The first paragraph (verses 1-5) prohibits, in clear and colorful hyperbole, condemning others (at least within the Matthean community). Then the Matthew Jesus points to some as “dogs” and “pigs” who don’t deserve the holy and precious things of God. Wait, what?

Don’t judge others. But call some of those others names and keep them away from the central elements of the Jesus movement. Yes, that makes perfect sense. No wonder the NRSV and other translations punt on the structure of the argument here.

I’m increasingly struck by the oral/aural nature of the New Testament documents. I am further impacted by what we lose in our interpretation without those oral/aural experiences. When we only have the text, we don’t get the tone, the gestures, the direction of gaze, the sheer volume (or whispering) provided by a performer.

Beginning with Albert Mehrabian, we have learned that only seven percent of communication comes to us through words. Fifty-five percent is nonverbal – body language, gestures, etc. Thirty-eight percent is vocal – tone, volume, etc. I don’t know precisely how this works in our interaction with the New Testament documents. But it’s fair to say that we do not have direct access to a large part of the information and experience conveyed to the first audiences.

Of the canonical gospels, the Markan account has been most fully explored as an oral/aural performance. The Markan account may have been performed first and then written down. The other canonical gospels may have been written first and then performed. Nonetheless, these texts, according to David Rhoads, “were in any case composed not for private reading but with oral performance as the expected medium—an approach to writing that would have been the primary factor in determining style, content, and rhetoric.”

Rhoads argues that the written scripts existed to facilitate oral performance. They might have created some guardrails to prevent the performers from taking too many liberties with the stories. The written documents were a way to transfer the gospel accounts from one house church or community to another. But even then, the accounts would have been performed. And they would have been performed in their entirety, not in the piecemeal fashion in which we read them in our Christian worship settings.

Unless the literacy rate in the Roman Empire exploded after 70 CE, all of the canonical gospels were heard much more than read. That would be especially true of the lower socioeconomic strata in which the Christian movement found its greatest growth in the second half of the first century CE. In order to access even a small part of the other ninety-three percent of the text, we have to engage our imagination in the oral/aural process.

Matthew 7:1-12 offers, I think, an illustration of the importance of this oral/aural dimension. Neil McEleney makes a good case for Matthew 7:6 as a snide quote from those who engage in judging. It’s worth pursuing a bit of his argument to get to a better translation and interpretation of Matthew 7, the entire Sermon on the Mount, and the whole Matthean account.

Verses one through five teach the disciples not to condemn others. Verses seven through twelve teach the disciples to be as generous to one another as God is to them. How do these teachings fit together and is verse six a rhetorical bridge connecting them? Verse five addresses the “hypocrite” who cannot see the wooden beam in their own eye. “In avoiding such self-blinded, self-righteous corrective zeal,” McEleney writes, “the true disciple of Jesus practices a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees and become eligible for the kingdom of heaven” (page 493).

How does verse six expand on this? Some scholars argue that there is a mistranslation of the Aramaic original at fault here. As McEleney notes, that may be the case. But due to the lack of textual evidence, “it must remain an interesting conjecture” (page 494). How does the text as we have it work?

It may be that the Matthean community has been too liberal in sharing the “wafers and the wisdom” (the holy things of God) with outsiders – the dogs and the pigs. In that case, the Matthean Jesus is exercising a necessary corrective here. However, that collides with much of the rest of the Matthean account. Jesus seems to go out of his way to be kind to Gentile outsiders in much of the Matthean gospel. Even though, as McEleney notes, the earthly Jesus focused on the ”lost sheep of the house of Israel” in that gospel, the risen Jesus sends the disciples to reach “all nations (Gentiles).”

“Why should [Jesus] tell the crowds and his disciples to hold back from the Gentiles what would bring them closer to God?” McEleney asks. “The answer,” he believes, “is that the Matthean Jesus cites a well-known (and probably pharisaic) proverb only to counter it with several sayings of Jesus which amount to an exhortation to generosity on the pattern of God’s generosity to all” (page 497).

There is some evidence that such a proverb may have existed in first-century Mediterranean discourse. However, the primary evidence must come from the structure of the text itself. The second paragraph highlights the generosity of God. And it argues, McEleney says, that “Because God is always generous to Jesus’ hearers, they should conclude that they should be generous to others” (page 499).

Jesus describes his listeners, in Matthew 7:11, as “evil.” This really means “ungenerous, cheap, begrudging,” as McEleney notes. This is how the word is used, for example, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in Matthew 18. The conclusion is clear for the Matthean author. Whatever you want to have someone do for you, do also for them. “Do not hold back,” McEleney suggests, “but be generous, even to the Gentiles” (page 499). This is, then, what it means to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and to have a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now we come to the oral/aural dimension. McEleney suggests that prior to Matthew 7:6, we should insert the phrase, “You have heard this proverb.” Then the verse itself would be shared with the first-century equivalent of “air quotes” (or “scare quotes”). Verse seven should begin with “But I say to you…” In this way, the text then resembles the antitheses we find in Matthew six.

Why didn’t the Matthean author include those words in the text if that was the intention? McEleney doesn’t address that (as it seems to me) obvious question. I would suggest that in an oral performance of the text, such insertions were not necessary. They would be indicated by tone, gesture, gaze, and body language. In other words, the insertions would have been part of the ninety-three percent rather than the seven percent.

This interpretation leaves me with questions to ponder. What do we do with the next few verses – the ones that contrast the wide and narrow gates? On their face, these verses seem to indicate a less than generous understanding of the gospel, akin to the traditional reading of Matthew 7:6. What if, however, these verses are another proverb spoken by the hypocrites?

What if this niggardly approach to God’s wafers and wisdom is precisely what the “false prophets” of Matthew 7:15ff. are preaching? I’m going to think some more about that one. But I think that’s a real possibility for interpretation. And again, it would have been indicated clearly in an oral/aural experience.

The more pressing question is how to incorporate this interpretation into proclamation. What good are these interpretive gymnastics to the average reader who has no idea what’s really going on here? I’m going to reflect on that a bit more in my next post. I do have some ideas that I think I’ll try on my unsuspecting listeners in the near future.

And, as always, I continue to wonder what this means for our sense of the authority and inspiration of “scripture” as we have it. In some ways, such interpretations just make a hash of those ideas. In other ways, I think we get closer to the authority of the living word as opposed to the “dead letter” of a written text. But the nature of that text then is dynamic and situational rather than fixed and “reliable.” I’m good with that.

References and Resources

McELENEY, NEIL J. “The Unity and Theme of Matthew 7:1-12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1994): 490–500. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43721713.

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