Friday, May 20, 2022
Bible & Archaeology (University of Iowa)
Carl Bloch Sermon on the Mount painting
Carl Bloch (1834–1890), Sermon on the Mount. 1877. Oil on copper. Museum of Natural History, Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark. (Image credit: Lecen via Wikimedia)

Sometimes we struggle with a parable of Jesus or a teaching from the Bible because we don’t quite get the reference or the metaphor. Then again, sometimes we struggle precisely because we think we understand what it is saying. Take, for example, this particularly graphic teaching from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:21–22: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell (Greek: γέενναν; géennan) of fire."

So, murderers will be judged. Got it. But has anyone ever called someone a fool? (Remember, the Apostle Paul called the whole community foolish (Greek: ἀνόητοι, anóētoi) in Galatians 3:1.) Apparently hellfire awaits them as well.

Or how about this one:

Matthew 5:27–30: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

How many of us have looked at someone and for even the briefest moments had "lustful" thoughts? Do you think these "thought crimes" are the same as adultery? Is that worth tearing out your eye?

Jesus then goes on to argue that you should "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43–48). Is anyone feeling good about this particular command these days? He also says you should "turn the other cheek" and "give to everyone that asks" (Matthew 5:38–42). I'm not sure how these two biblical commands from Jesus would go over in our current society.

Finally, Jesus explicitly states that divorce is only acceptable in cases of spousal "unchastity" (Greek: πορνεία; porneía). He also says that anyone who marries a divorced woman is committing adultery (Matthew 5:31–32)—a crime punishable by death according to the Bible (Leviticus 20:10). (I mention this for all the pro-capital punishment folks out there.) With all the clamor we hear today about regulating marriage, why aren’t people outraged about all the individuals getting second and third marriages, who are "living in sin" according to the Bible? How come we don't often hear about people who want to constitutionally ban these clearly biblically-prohibited marriages?

These teachings form a section of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount known as the Antitheses, since Jesus goes against the traditional thought or interpretation. (E.g., "You have heard it said ... but I say to you...") But is Jesus serious here? Are these commands meant to be taken literally, or is Jesus possible making statements that he knows his disciples will not (or cannot) follow? Can anyone uphold Jesus's interpretation of these passages?

Many scholars argue that this is the very point that Jesus is making with the Antitheses—the Law cannot possibly be followed to the letter, and thus is no longer sufficient as a guide to righteous living. And yet, Jesus introduced these teachings by saying:

Matthew 5:17–20: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter (Greek: iōta), not one stroke of a letter (Greek: keraía), will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Here we are given the interpretive lens for the entire Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not saying that the law is obsolete. Quite the opposite—he says it will remain without anything being removed. Jesus is going to interpret the Law of Moses so that his followers uphold it even better than all the others:

Matthew 5:48: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

The interpretative method Jesus uses here is not innovative. In fact, it's a method referred to in Mishnah Avot 1:1 as "making fences around the Torah." Here's how it works. If there is a law, let's say, "Do not murder," then you create a law prohibiting actions leading up to murder that will prevent someone from ever coming close to committing murder. It's the equivalent of living on a busy street and building a fence around your yard to help prevent your children from being hit by a car. You could simply tell your kids, "Don't go in the street," but in addition to this command, you build a fence between the yard and the street and create an additional rule saying, "Never go beyond the fence," to ensure that your child never even gets near the street.

The additional "fences around the Torah" are designed to help keep people from breaking the initially prohibited action. This is actually where the prohibition against writing and speaking the divine name or Tetragrammaton originated. Speaking and writing the name YHWH is nowhere prohibited in the Bible; in fact, it appears many times and was used in countless oaths and corporate psalms. But as one of the Ten Commandments prohibits "using the LORD's name in vain," building a fence prohibiting the very speaking and writing of God's personal name was thought to help prevent against using the LORD's name in vain. If it isn't spoken or written, then it can't be spoken or written in vain.

Thus, when the law says, "Do not murder," Jesus builds a fence around this law and adds, "Do not get angry," and, "Do not say 'You fool!'" to prevent anyone from even getting close to committing murder. When the law says, "Do not commit adultery," Jesus adds the fence that says, "Do not even look at a woman with lust," as this is designed to keep someone from even considering an act of adultery."

The additional teachings are safeguards that form an interpretative tradition to assist in preventing the faithful from breaking the law. The question is whether these new legal "fences" are just as legally binding as the original Mosaic law? The fences are not themselves the initial law, but they provide an interpretative tradition of additional regulations designed to help people become "perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." For Jews, debate over these later legal "fences" were a matter of interpretation and application of the Torah. For Christians, because Jesus personally spoke these later commands, and they are recorded in the New Testament as Scripture, they carry as much weight as the Mosaic commands, if not more so.

Jesus has built some incredibly restrictive fences here, so we still need to determine if they are literal. Is such perfection actually possible?

Perhaps if we turn to the narrative context of the Antitheses, we will find a clue to his intentions. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus survived an attempt to kill all the newborn boys in the land (like Moses in Exodus 1:22), and then, like Moses, spent time in Egypt (cf. Matthew 2), grew up and was baptized in Matthew 3 (literally "passed through water" as did Moses in Exodus 14:21–22), and spent 40 days in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (cf. Exodus 16:35; Numbers 14:33; 32:13), all before ascending this mountain to teach Israel how to follow the Torah (Matthew 5–7; cf. Exodus 19–24). Matthew portrays Jesus exactly like Moses. In fact, Matthew is not just presenting Jesus as Moses the law-giver, but as Moses in Deuteronomy who also acted as law-interpreter. Just before the conquest of the Promised Land began, Moses stood on a mountain and interpreted the Law for Israel and even predicted that the Lord would raise up a future prophet from among the people that they must heed (Deuteronomy 18:15–19).

If we consider where the laws in Jesus's Antitheses are found, we get the following:

Matthew Torah
5:21 "You shall not murder" Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17
5:27 "You shall not commit adultery" Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18
5:31 "Divorce" Deuteronomy 24:1–4
5:33 "Don’t swear falsely" Deuteronomy 23:21; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2
5:38 "An eye for an eye" Exodus 21:23-24; Deuteronomy 19:21; Leviticus 24:19–20
5:43 "Love your neighbor" Leviticus 19:18; ("hate your enemies" not found in Torah)
5:48 "Be perfect" Deuteronomy 14:2, 26:19; Leviticus 19:2

Only "love your neighbor" is not found in Deuteronomy (cf. Leviticus 19:18.). As the "new Moses," Jesus provides the interpretation for the coming kingdom of heaven.

While this context is helping us understand the larger picture, we still don’t know if he intended these teachings literally. Let's look at Jesus's interpretation of the Torah a little more closely and see if we can identify a pattern. He appears interested in more than just preventing capital crimes. Jesus progresses from Mosaic laws to issues of ritual and public piety, targeting such practices as giving alms, praying, and fasting. Regarding prayer, he teaches:

Matthew 6:5–6: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Does he really mean you can only pray in a closet? That doesn’t seem likely since Jesus himself frequently prays outside (like in the Garden of Gethsemane). If we back up just a bit, we find another interpretative hint. Jesus introduces this segment of teaching with:

Matthew 6:1: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."

Now we have a potential connection. Jesus is laser focused on (and not happy with) those who exhibit their faith publicly for the purposes of being seen by others, and who then do not practice true righteousness toward these same spectators. His critique sounds like a "spirit vs. letter" of the law argument aimed squarely at those who insist on a literal reading of the letter of the law publicly, while completely missing what that same law was intended to prevent. So, for instance, while it is good not to murder, following only that particular prohibition—taking someone's life—and yet doing everything else right up to the act of murder does not make one righteous.

With only 613 commandments in the tradition, the Torah could not possibly cover every issue that would come up. Thus, it required interpreters and prophets who formed an "interpretative tradition" to apply it to the new situations and contexts that they encountered over time. This is not a literal, originalist reading of the text, but an adaptive one that uses the Torah to inform decisions about issues that could not possibly be anticipated when the Torah was written.

Here also we find Jesus working within traditional lines of interpretation. The Hebrew prophets formed one such "interpretative tradition" that became something of a recurring theme in the Bible. It established a precedent of dismissing the literalist "letter of the law" argument, and instead repeatedly insisted on righteous living and the implementation of the "spirit of the law" toward all people. The prophets didn't care so much for the public aspects of worship—corporate or individual—and instead pressed people of faith to act in a fair and equitable way toward even the least among them.

Amos 5:18–24 "Alas for you show desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; Or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
Micah 6:6–8 "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with then thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of your
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God
Hosea 6:6 "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."
Isaiah 1:11–17 "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifice? Says the Lord…
Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow

The Hebrew prophets all foreshadow Jesus's critique of religious authorities that used rituals and public demonstrations of religion to justify a selfish lifestyle that abandoned justice and exploited the least among them. Jesus has chosen to follow this prophetic interpretative tradition, not the legalist, minimalist tradition of those who read only a strict literalist interpretation of the text. In the opinion of Jesus and the prophets, such positions are hypocritical, selfish, self-aggrandizing, and self-righteous.

And when a lawyer challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, he responds as follows:

Matthew 22:34–40 (Cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18): "When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 'Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, '"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets'."

Jesus is setting up his "interpretive tradition" of the meaning of the "law and prophets" and includes the recurring theme of putting the needs of others, particularly the least and most vulnerable, at least on the same level as your own. Jesus also refers to "the law and prophets" near the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:12: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."

Here Jesus provides his 1st century CE variation of the "Golden Rule," teaching that the spirit of the laws is to focus on the needs and feelings of others. Jesus joins many others from around the world by creating a variation of this teaching found in the writings of earlier Greeks like Herodotus in the 5th century BCE ("But I, so far as it lies in me, shall not do myself what I blame in my neighbor." — Histories 3.142.3), and Aristotle in the 4th century BCE ("To the question how we should behave to friends, he answered, 'As we should wish them to behave to us'." —Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 5.1.21), and Isocrates in the 4th century BCE ("But most of all will you have the respect of men, if you are seen to avoid doing things which you would blame others for doing." Letter to Demonicus 1.17). We find versions of the Golden Rule in the teachings of Confucius in the 6th Century BCE ("Do not do to others what you would not like yourself." —Analects 12:2; 15:23), and even in the Jewish Apocrypha, specifically the 3rd–2nd century BCE Book of Tobit, which was included in the Greek Septuagint—the de facto Bible of 1st century Jews and Christians: ("And what you hate, do not do to anyone." —Tobit 4:15).

Jesus's statements sound the most like a tradition about Rabbi Hillel (1st century CE). A man challenged him and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel replied:

b. Shabb. 31a: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."

By taking the position that the Spirit (or intent) of the Law is more important than the Letter (or specific wording) of the Law, Jesus joins a long line of prophets and rabbis that have argued that the core essence of the Torah was to care for those in need.

This interpretation remains important in Christian thought. The Epistle of James argues:

James 1:26–27: "If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

It is also central to Paul's advice to the Corinthian community for their many problems and questions—sexual episodes with prostitutes and stepmothers (1 Corinthians 5, 6:12–19), lawsuits in court (1 Corinthians 6:1–11), marriage questions (1 Corinthians 7), and my personal favorite—battles over spiritual powers (1 Corinthians 12–14). Since no Pauline humble brag is ever complete without a reminder that he is the model to follow, he points out he doesn't take advantage of many benefits that he could (1 Corinthians 9).

In a passage familiar to many readers from Christian weddings, Paul sums up his whole point:

1 Corinthians 13:1–7: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

Its presence in weddings leads most to think of the love here as between a husband and wife, but the love Paul is talking about here in Greek is called agapē. This is more akin to the unconditional love represented by God’s love for humanity, drawing on the idea found in the prophets cited above. In the same way that we are called to love one another as we'd like to be loved, the guiding principle for Christians here is always to put the needs of others above your own.

It turns out that the Beatles were right, after all. It's not about yanking out your own eye. All you need is love…