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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Matthew 1-7, The Life of Jesus, part 7, by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz


Holy Kings

1.3 “You are the salt of the earth …” (5:13–16*)
Johannes Beutler, “Ihr seid das Salz des Landes (Mt 5,13),” in Cornelius Mayer, Karlheinz Müller, and Gerhard Schmalenberg, eds., Nach den Anfängen fragen: Herrn Prof. Dr. theol. Gerhard Dautzenberg zum 60 Geburtstag (Giessen: Selbstverlag des Fachbereichs, 1994) 85–94.
Oscar Cullmann, “Das Gleichnis vom Salz,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1952–1962 (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1966) 192–201.
Hahn, “Worte.”
Roman Heiligenthal, Werke als Zeichen: Untersuchungen zur Bedeutung der menschlichen Taten im Frühjudentum, Neuen Testament und Frühchristentum (WUNT 2/9; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1983) 115–23.
Joachim Jeremias, “Die Lampe unter dem Scheffel,” in Abba, 99–102.
Michael Krämer, “Ihr seid das Salz der Erde … Ihr seid das Licht der Welt,” MThZ 28 (1977) 133–57.
Wolfgang Nauck, “Salt as a Metaphor in Instructions for Discipleship,” StTh 6 (1953) 165–78.
Johann Rauscher, Das Bildwort von der Öllampe in der synoptischen Tradition: Eine Auslegung von Mk 4,21f par Lk 8,16f; Mt 5,15; Lk 11,33 (Desselbrunn: self-published, 1994).
Rudolf Schnackenburg, “Ihr seid das Salz der Erde, das Licht der Welt,” in Schriften zum Neuen Testament: Exegese in Fortschritt und Wandel (Munich: Kösel, 1971) 177–200.
Gerhard Schneider, “Das Bildwort von der Lampe: Zur Traditionsgeschichte eines Jesuswortes,” ZNW 61 (1970) 183–209.
Josef Bohumil Soucek, “Salz der Erde und Licht der Welt,” ThZ 19 (1963) 169–79.

For additional literature see above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29).

13 “You are the salt of the earth.
But when the salt becomes dumb, with what will (it) be salted?
It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and to be trampled underfoot by people.
14 You are the light of the world.
A city lying on a mountain cannot remain hidden.
15 Nor does one light a lamp
and put it under a bushel
but on the lamp stand,
thus it gives light to all in the house.
16 Let your light thus shine before people so that they see your good works and praise your father in heaven.”
This section is linked to vv. 11–12* with an emphatic “you” (ὑμεῖς). Thus again the subject is especially the disciples. Often, and correctly, the concluding verse 16* is regarded as a title of sorts for vv. 17–48*:3 there it is explained what “good works” are. In addition, in 6:1* Matthew refers back to 5:16* (“before men, your Father in heaven”) in order to prevent a misunderstanding of v. 16*.
The section is structured clearly. Both a shorter negative statement that ends with a threat of judgment and a longer positive statement that focuses on the missionary dimension of the community are introduced with “you are the …” (ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ …) plus the genitive in the final position (vv. 13*, 14–16*). Between the two parts there is a chiastic correspondence characterized by the catchwords “shine/give light” (λάμπω: vv. 15d*, 16a*), “light” (φῶς: vv. 14a*, 16a*), and “men” (vv. 13c*, 16a*). The conclusion, v. 16b*, c*, with the “upward glance” to the Father in heaven, is structurally surplus material, which therefore has special importance.
The structure of the second sequence, vv. 14–16*, is complicated. The introductory sentence, v. 14a*, is followed by two images. The first image, that of a city on a mountain, appears to be poorly suited for the context. The second, that of a lamp on the lamp stand, is a parable whose application is introduced appropriately in v. 16* with “thus/so” (οὕτως). It draws on only the parable’s conclusion in v. 15d* (“give light to all”).
Redaction and Sources
It is commonly held that vv. 13a*, 14a*, and 16* are redaction.4 The logia of the salt (v. 13b*, c*) and the lamp (v. 15*) come from Q. Here Matthew leaves the Sermon on the Plain, and between this point and v. 39* inserts other material from Q and his special material. He omits the Markan variants of these logia (Mark 9:50*; 4:21*) and, at least with the saying about the lamp, probably preserves the Q text more faithfully than does Luke. Luke uses it twice (Luke 8:16*; 11:33*) and is more aggressively redactional. He assimilates the two texts to one another and reworks them after the model of a city house with a cellar and entryway. The saying about the city (v. 14b*) comes from Matthew’s special material.
This thesis requires only a few corrections. It is hardly the case that Matthew inserted the saying about the city in v. 14b*, because it fits neither the introduction in v. 14a* (light) nor the application in v. 16*, which speaks of a behavior rather than of a condition. Q was probably expanded before Matthew (QMt?). It is difficult to determine to what extent there were other preredactional changes in the Q logia. That we must again assume the existence of QMt is naturally a difficulty for the Q hypothesis. We can neither exclude with certainty that vv. 13* and 14–16* were connected prior to Matthew nor that they were already linked to the Beatitudes before Matthew.
In my judgment the close parallels between 1 Pet 2:12* and v. 16* are not derived from basic common Jewish ideas;8 they are rather to be explained by the fact that 1 Peter presupposes the Gospel of Matthew.
One can, of course, scarcely say anything with certainty about the origin of the logia of salt and of light. In my judgment, there is no reason to say that both of them do not go back to Jesus. In the final analysis, however, the decision depends on their interpretation; therefore, we can only conjecture.
We can no longer determine with certainty the original meaning of these wisdom logia. In what on the whole was probably the older Q version, based on its conclusion the salt saying is to be understood as a threat, while Mark 9:50b* interprets it secondarily in a parenetic sense. Luke 14:34–35* also relates it to the disciples. It may originally have been a threat of Jesus directed against Israel. Nothing can be discovered about the origin and original meaning of the saying about the city.10 Similarly difficult is the saying about light. Between Matthew and Mark 4:21* it is not possible to decide which is clearly the oldest form.11 The meaning is also uncertain: Jeremias interprets καίω as “to kindle, ignite,” and putting the light under a bushel as “to extinguish,” so that the saying means: “One does not light a lamp in order to extinguish it right away.” However, one cannot really claim that a bushel is a useful and common instrument for extinguishing an oil lamp.13 Yet it makes no more sense to hide a light under a bushel. Why does one not extinguish it when one no longer needs it? In short, the image speaks of a senseless activity without being able to connect it to an everyday practice. It is therefore difficult to say to what it originally referred. Suggestions are: Jesus speaks of his own activity, which is not permitted to remain hidden.15 He is thinking of the kingdom of God that is dawning in him. He is opposing the Jewish leaders who are keeping the kingdom of God from people (cf. Matt 23:13*).17
These considerations show where the difficulty lies in interpreting the text. The images are general. Salt, city, and light can be used for almost anything, and the history of interpretation shows that this indeed is what has happened.

■ 13* In his redactional introduction Matthew places “you” (ὑμεῖς) emphatically first. As in vv. 11–12*, it is the entire community that is addressed here, not merely the apostles or the proclaimers.19 The emphatic “you” picks up on vv. 11–12*: it is precisely you who are persecuted and reviled who are the salt of the earth.20 Verses 13–16* direct the persecuted community to its missionary task. “Salt of the earth” is a strange-sounding metaphor. Since it is not immediately clear what is meant, one is anxious to find out.21 At the very latest, after the parallel “world” (κόσμος) in v. 14*, if not already because of 5:5*, the reader who is wondering about the meaning will understand “earth” (γῆ) as referring to the world and not to soil. As is the case with v. 14*, the logion is to be understood in terms of Matthean universalism.22 It is unclear how the evangelist has understood (a) the metaphor “salt” and (b) the parable of the salt’s “becoming dumb.”
a. Following especially the Jewish metaphorical use of salt, in ancient times and more recently a variety of allegories have been suggested. Based on the function, some have reminded us that salt seasons, purifies, and preserves. The reality to which the salt refers is the disciples’ wisdom,24 their proclamation, their willingness to sacrifice,26 and the way they conduct their lives. In a radical way Jülicher wanted to make an end to the allegorical interpretations, claiming that the tertium comparationis is only the difference between the salt’s good nature and its uselessness. Jülicher himself makes the absurd claim, however, that the metaphor “salt” could be replaced by any other. One cannot say, as he suggests, “you are the coal of the earth,” nor can one, as Ragaz correctly points out, replace salt with sugar.28 Thus the choice of the metaphor is not arbitrary; it must be interpreted. But how? Probably most natural is the everyday use of salt as seasoning. With “to season” (ἀρτύω) this meaning is assured for Mark 9:49* and Luke 14:34*. It cannot be proved for Matthew, but since seasoning is the most common use of salt, it is probable. With salt as seasoning its necessity and irreplaceability are both established.29
b. There are two possibilities for interpreting the parable of the salt “becoming dumb.” According to one, the evangelist simply understood it as a figurative way of referring to an impossible situation, since chemically salt cannot lose its quality. Speaking in favor of this interpretation may be the much-discussed Jewish parallel b. Bek. 8b, also vv. 14b* and 15*, both of which emphasize something impossible. Speaking against this interpretation, however, is the consideration that if salt can never become saltless, then it cannot be thrown out and trampled underfoot. The hearer’s agreement with the image that is essential for understanding it would not be assured if in reality there were no situation in which salt would not have to be thrown out. The only other possibility is that Matthew must be thinking of a real situation. Perhaps he is thinking of the physical disintegration of salt by moisture that takes place when salt (e.g., with the dealer) is stored in the open. Since only about one-third of the salt from the Dead Sea consists of kitchen salt and even in commerce was not sold without admixtures,32 the moisture can affect the more easily dissolved parts of the salt mixture and detract from its taste.
The logion’s importance is in its threat. “To be thrown out” and “to be trampled underfoot”35 evoke associations with judgment terminology. What is required is first indirectly suggested by the metaphor “salt of the earth.” Salt is not salt for itself; it is seasoning for food. In the same way the disciples are there not for themselves but for the earth. In v. 16*, which also summarizes v. 13*, Matthew will say what he specifically means.

■ 14* Verse 14* again begins with a metaphor, the hyperbolic character of which is even clearer than in v. 13*. You—that is, the persecuted, small group of disciples—are the light of the world. The metaphor is not explained until vv. 15–16*; first the evangelist offers the image of the city on the mountain that is not completely appropriate for the idea of works. The absence of the article shows that the thought is hardly of the city of God, Jerusalem on Mount Zion, but simply of a city located on a mountain. All metaphorical or allegorical interpretations of the city are to be avoided; the issue is only that the city is visible from a distance.

■ 15* In that regard it corresponds to an oil lamp placed on a stand, which nobody will put under a bushel37 because it is there to give light. The image of v. 15* probably presupposes a Palestinian one-room house. The essentially superfluous “all” (πᾶσιν) corresponds to the universal expressions “earth” (γῆ: v. 13*), “world” (κόσμος: v. 14*), and “people” (lit. “men,” τῶν ἀνθρώπων: v. 16*).38 Here the meaning of the metaphor “light of the world” is already beginning to be clear; Matthew is thinking of the brilliance that the light sends out into the world.
“Light” is an “open” metaphor whose meaning only the context illuminates. We encounter it in Judaism in different applications: Israel, righteous individuals and teachers,40 the Torah, the servant of God,42 or Jerusalem can be designated as light (of the world). Such a manifold use does not permit us to interpret the statement “you are the light of the world” as a polemic against a particular Jewish self-understanding of Israel as the light of the world.
The readers of the Gospel of Matthew will think back to 4:16*, where Isaiah spoke of the light that the people sitting in darkness see. Thus the task given the disciples corresponds to the mission of Christ himself. As for the rest, the meaning of the parable remains hidden. Not until the imperative in v. 16* does it become clear what it means. The community, which is the light of the world, is to let this light shine; otherwise it is as absurd as the oil lamp under the bushel. Only v. 16* makes clear why Matthew, in contrast to Q, even in the image introduces a universal element: the light on the stand lightens all who are in the house.

■ 16* Verse 16* is the summarizing key of the pericope. The perspective changes from the persons addressed to their works. The linguistic sign for the change is the transition from “lighten/give light” (λάμπει) to “let shine” (λαμψάτω, vv. 15*/16*). For Matthew, however, that does not mean the introduction of a new category, because for him people are made up of their deeds, and they live in them. The disciples—that is, the Christians—are the light of the world by letting their works shine44 just as salt is only salt when it salts. Thus the indicative “you are the light of the world” is at the same time a claim that must be made real in deeds.
“Good works” is a fixed expression that can be understood in two ways. If one understands it as a translation of the Jewish מַעֲשִׂים טֹובִים, the thought is of those demands of God that are not legally prescribed by the Torah, such as especially works of charity and almsgiving. On the other hand, in later early Christian writings (Pastorals, Hebrews, 1–2 Peter, 2 Clement) the term is related to Christian ethics in general. In my judgment Matthew refers here to a Jewish topos of proving oneself before others through good works, a topos that is not specifically rabbinic and suggests rather good deeds in a general sense. This is also a central idea in 1 Peter. It is interesting that Matthew and 1 Peter (influenced by Matthew?) are in agreement that mission and proving one’s works in living a life of integrity are decisive precisely when one is persecuted (Matt 5:11–12*).
The contents of the good works are to be determined in terms of the preceding beatitudes and the following antitheses. If the first eight beatitudes were a general reflection of Christian virtues, one could understand the section vv. 11–16* as, so to speak, a concrete challenge to the persecuted community to take them seriously in its situation. Verse 16b* states the goal of the conduct: the works of the Christians have a missionary function. Here the Matthean priority of deed over word is clear. Just as discipleship means fulfilling Jesus’ commands, so also in preaching the life of the Christians receives a, if not to say the, decisive place. In such a conception of a “Christianity of the deed” a special preaching office cannot force its way into the foreground. Bearing witness with one’s life remains the task of the entire community.
Unlike Paul, Matthew thinks of indicative and imperative together. The condition of being saved, granted by God (“salt,” “light”), is at the same time a call to act. Matthew speaks openly about good works without meaning self-justification by works. In only a few NT texts is honoring God so clearly the goal of all Christian activity. At the same time, for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, God is referred to as “your Father in heaven.” Presumably this expression did not surprise the readers; in that day it was common in the synagogue,48 and it was the designation of God with which the community was familiar from its own worship. Still, it deserves our attention, because the designation of God as “Father” plays an exceptionally important role precisely in the Sermon on the Mount. It defines the sermon’s center, that is, the part where Matthew develops the relationship to the Father as the “inner side” of the Christian way leading to perfection (6:8–9*, 14–15*; cf. 6:1*, 4*, 6*, 18*). Thus our passage looks ahead to this central midpoint, especially to the dimension of prayer. Matt 6:1–18* will then develop this first reference to the designation of God that is central for the practice of the Sermon on the Mount.
History of Interpretation

Two misunderstandings in the history of the interpretation of this text call attention to aspects that are also important in our situation.
1. Because of his opposition to works-righteousness, Luther was not able to do justice to the text. For him the text is “in accordance with St. Matthew’s way of speaking; he usually talks this way about works” and does not speak of faith in Christ as do Paul and John. Luther tries to vindicate the text by claiming that it speaks not so much of works of charity, as in Matt 25:31–46*, but rather “principally about the distinctly Christian work of teaching correctly, of stressing faith, and of showing how to strengthen and preserve it.”50 The text could not be more fundamentally misunderstood. In my opinion, in the interpretive tradition of the ancient church and the Middle Ages the text was never interpreted in such a way that there was a danger of anything like a works-righteousness. On the contrary! Theodore of Heraclea, for example, says that the text leads away from one’s own passion for glory. The Glossa ordinaria establishes as the purpose of v. 16* “that you not think that the aim of good works is people’s praise” (“ut non finem boni operis in laudibus hominum constituatis”).52 Trilling, a modern Catholic interpreter, writes: “The good works are simply the light that has penetrated life and been realized there. They are truth become tangible, faith become life. They are not something apart from faith.… The whole of our good works are Christian life in action, active precisely in work, always discharging like an active volcano.”53
2. Another reinterpretation of the text also had serious consequences in the entire history of interpretation. The text was applied to the apostles’ inner circle as disciples and by extension to officeholders. Salt (occasionally)55 and light (usually) were understood as preaching. Again, this interpretive tradition was especially influential on Protestant soil. According to Luther, the text speaks of the apostolic or preaching office whereby salt is to be understood as the harsh preaching of judgment and light as “the other part of the office,” the enlightenment to eternal life. According to Zwingli, it refers “in primis” to apostles and pastors whose concern is public preaching. Understandably, the anticlergy criticism of the church was also able to make use of this text. Wycliffe’s Opus evangelicum is especially impressive on this text, and it comes to a climax by demanding poverty for the proclaimers of the word who hide their light under the bushel of a worldly interest about money.

Matthew’s goal is that the life of Christians should operate to the glory of God as faith’s witness. When considering Protestant theology, it is noteworthy that there is for the evangelist no hiddenness of the Christian life sub contrario, no tendency toward an ecclesiological variant of the two-kingdoms doctrine. Instead, the light of the world takes shape in the works of Christians. Among them he understands primarily love as he interprets it in the Beatitudes and the antitheses. The demand “to keep everything I have commanded you” (28:20*) that is to be carried into the entire world encounters people as light through the works of Christians. In this way Matthew has made clear in his entire theology the open images of salt and light with their ability to be applied in various ways. At the same time, in contrast to Catholic and Protestant interpretation, it is noteworthy how it is obvious for Matthew that the community consists of all of its members and how inconceivable it is for him to reserve Jesus’ promise and claim for a specific circle of special members of the community. “Salt of the earth” and “light of the world” are, so to speak, the “Christian foot soldiers,” for there simply are no other Christians than these people who together are moving on the way of righteousness made possible by Jesus.

2 The Main Part (5:17–7:12*)
2.1 Preface (5:17–20*)

Matthew 5:17–20* introduces the main part of the Sermon on the Mount. With the catchwords “law” (νόμος) and “prophets” (προφῆται), 5:17* and 7:12* form an inclusion. The main part consists of the sections 5:21–48* and 6:19–7:11*, which are of exactly equal length, and the shorter central section 6:1–18*.
Allison, New Moses, 182–90.
David L. Balch, “The Greek Political Topos περὶ νόμων and Matthew 5:17, 19 and 16:19,” in History, 68–84.
Banks, Jesus, 204–26.
Barth, “Understanding,” 65–73.
Hans Dieter Betz, “Die Hermeneutischen Prinzipien in der Bergpredigt (Mt 5,17–20),” in Gesammelte Aufsätze, vol. 2: Synoptische Studien (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1992) 111–26.
Günther Bornkamm, “Wandlungen im alt- und neutestamentlichen Gesetzesverständnis,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze, vol. 4: Geschichte und Glaube, part 2 (BEvTh 53; Munich: Kaiser, 1971) 73–80.
Broer, Freiheit, 11–74.
W. D. Davies, “Matthew 5:17–20,” in Mélanges bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de André Robert (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1957) 428–56.
Marlis Gielen, Der Konflikt Jesu mit den religiösen und politischen Autoritäten seines Volkes im Spiegel der matthäischen Jesusgeschichte (BBB 115; Bodenheim: Philo, 1998) 61–86.
Giesen, Handeln, 122–46.
Ferdinand Hahn, “Mt 5,17—Anmerkungen zum Erfüllungsgedanken bei Matthäus,” in Ulrich Luz and Hans Weder, eds., Die Mitte des Neuen Testaments: Einheit und Vielfalt neutestamentlicher Theologie; Festschrift für Eduard Schweizer zum siebzigsten Geburtstag (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983) 42–54.
Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, “Attitudes to the Law in Matthew’s Gospel: A Discussion of Matthew 5:18,” BR 17 (1972) 19–32.
Adolf von Harnack, “Geschichte eines programmatischen Worts Jesu (Matth 5,17) in der ältesten Kirche: Eine Skizze,” SPAW (1912) 184–207.
Christine Heubült, “Mt 5,17–20: Ein Beitrag zur Theologie des Evangelisten Matthäus,” ZNW 71 (1980) 143–49.
Heinrich Julius Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie (2d ed.; 2 vols.; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1911) 1.502–8.
Rudolf Hoppe, Der theologische Hintergrund des Jakobusbriefes (FzB 28; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1977) 123–30.
Hübner, Gesetz, 15–39.
Simon Légasse, “Mt 5,17 et la prétendue tradition paracanonique,” in Josef Zmijewski and Ernst Nellessen, eds., Begegnung mit dem Wort: Festschrift für Heinrich Zimmermann (BBB 53; Bonn: Hanstein, 1980) 11–21.
Henrik Ljungman, Das Gesetz erfüllen (Lunds Universitets Årsskrift NF Adv. 1/50/6; Lund: Gleerup, 1954) 7–76.
William R. G. Loader, Jesus’ Attitude towards the Law: A Study of the Gospels (WUNT 2/97; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1997) 165–82.
Luomanen, Entering, 69–92.
Ulrich Luz, “The Fulfillment of the Law in Matthew (Matt. 5:17–20),” in Studies, 185–218.
McConnell, Law, 6–41.
Marguerat, Jugement, 110–41.
Meier, Law, 41–124.
Russell Pregeant, Christology beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ in Process Hermeneutic (SemSup 7; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 63–83.
Dieter Schellong, “Christus fidus interpres Legis: Zur Auslegung von Mt 5,17–20,” in Christof Landmesser, Hans-Joachim Eckstein, and Hermann Lichtenberger, eds., Jesus Christus als die Mitte der Schrift: Studien zur Hermeneutik des Evangeliums (BZNW 86; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1997) 659–87.
Heinz Schürmann, “ ‘Wer daher eines dieser geringsten Gebote auflöst …’ Wo fand Matthäus das Logion Mt 5,19?” in Untersuchungen, 126–36.
Eduard Schweizer, “Matthäus 5,17–20: Anmerkungen zum Gesetzesverständnis des Matthäus,” in Neotestamentica (Zurich: Zwingli, 1963) 399–406.
Idem, “Noch einmal Mt 5,17–20,” in Matthäus und seine Gemeinde, 78–85.
Klyne Snodgrass, “Matthew and the Law,” in Bauer-Powell, Treasures, 99–127.
Strecker, Weg, 143–52.
Trilling, Israel, 167–86.

For additional literature see above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29).

17 “Think not that I have come to annul the law or the prophets; I have come not to annul but to fulfill.
18 Amen, for I say to you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not a single iota or not a single stroke will pass away from the law until everything takes place.
19 Whoever then loosens one of these least commandments and teaches people so
will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever does and teaches them,
this one will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say to you: If your righteousness does not far exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The section is uneven in theme and form. It consists of four individual logia. The last of them, v. 20*, is clearly the title, the summary2 of the antitheses that, according to the rabbinic model, precedes them. With “I say to you” (λέγω ὑμῖν) it is linked to vv. 22*, 28*, 32*, 34*, 39*, 44*, and with “exceed/excess” (περισσεύσῃ/ περισσόν) to v. 47* (inclusion). In addition, v. 20* refers back to 4:10* and ahead to 6:1*, 33* (“righteousness”) and 7:13*, 21* (“enter the kingdom of heaven”). Thus v. 20* has a key position as the statement of the theme for the antitheses. Verses 17–19*, on the other hand, are not directly connected to the antitheses. Their theme is also different, since they deal with the validity of the law rather than with the disciples’ righteousness. Thus one might ask whether we should interpret vv. 17–19* separately and should understand v. 20* as a new beginning.3 That would have consequences for the interpretation of v. 17*. Then the ties between the contents of vv. 17–19* and those of the antitheses would be considerably looser. However, v. 20* does not begin a new section; with “for” (γάρ) it connects directly to v. 19*. Verse 19* already speaks of the disciples’ behavior and only indirectly of the law. With the emphatic “I say to you” v. 20* is linked closely to v. 18*, with “kingdom of heaven” to v. 19*. At the same time, “I say to you” (v. 18*) forms a small bridge between the beginning section on the law (vv. 17–19*) and the antitheses. Again one sees that Matthew composes not by sharply demarcating sections but by connecting them with transitions.4 Thus vv. 17–19* are not clearly to be separated from v. 20* and the antitheses, although thematically v. 20* constitutes a new beginning. That makes the interpretation of vv. 17–19* difficult.
A second problem is the question of the inner relationship of the four logia to one another. Hans Dieter Betz (“Prinzipien”) interprets them as four equally important logia alongside one another, which he views as four programmatic “hermeneutical principles” at the beginning of the pre-Matthean Sermon on the Mount. Now, however, they do not stand side by side as equals, because the substantiating “for” (γάρ) requires that we read v. 18* initially more as a continuation of v. 17*. With “therefore” (οὖν) v. 19* is connected to vv. 17–18* and draws an inference from them. To be sure, v. 20* also is loosely connected with γάρ, although here there is certainly no substantiation of the preceding statements. The Matthean use of γάρ is so loose that we can make a decision about the logical relationship of the logia to one another only after we have interpreted them.
The individual logia are varied in form. Verse 19* contains an antithetical parallelism, but the second part is abbreviated. Verse 17* also contains an antithesis. It, however, is even farther removed from a clear parallelism. With its two conflicting “until” (ἕως ἄν) clauses, v. 18* is “misshapen.” The amen saying of v. 18* is a prophetic prediction; v. 19* is formulated as a legal axiom. Verse 20* is a saying about “entering the kingdom of God” that, as in 18:3*, is formulated negatively.
Sources and Origin
The prehistory of the individual sayings varies. Matthew was heavily engaged in forming this section.
Verse 17*: Much is redactional: “fulfill” (πληρόω), law/prophets (νόμος/προφῆται), their linkage with “or” (ἤ). It is a matter of controversy how to judge the formal relationship to 10:34*6 and whether the evangelist has edited a traditional saying. However, we can scarcely say any longer how it might have sounded. That has two consequences.
1. It is risky to attribute this saying to Jesus and to make it the central point for interpreting Jesus’ understanding of the law.
2. It is risky to (re)construct an Aramaic original of this saying and to make such a (re)construction the basis for interpreting the difficult word “fulfill” (πληρόω). That would be to explain a difficulty with something completely hypothetical.
b. Verse 18*: The traditional relationships are hopelessly opaque. Does the verse come from Q (cf. Luke 16:17*)?9 However, in Luke 16:17* there is no recognizable Lukan redaction, and in Matt 5:18* there is only uncertain Matthean redaction. There is, furthermore, no basic common syntactic pattern,10 nor is there a convincing place in the Sayings Source for this isolated saying. Verse 18* may come from Q; it may also come from a Jewish Christian special tradition. However, then it is no longer certain which of the two conflicting “until” clauses is redactional. Word statistics are of no help. Klaus Berger has discovered a NT schematic form of sentences structured according to the pattern “amen, I say to you—by no means” (ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν—οὐ μή) + prophetic future + temporal clause with “until” (ἕως or μέχρις). If Matthew used such a sentence, the first “until” clause would have to be a Matthean addition.14 However, an isolated logion with the temporal clause “until everything takes place” would not be understandable. On the other hand, a traditional logion that contained the first “until” clause in v. 18b* would be understandable by itself.16 In addition, v. 18b* would be difficult to interpret as Matthean redaction. Furthermore, the traditional logion of Luke 16:17*, even if it was not directly used by Matthew as a source, naturally speaks for the view that the first “until” clause is already traditional. In conclusion, along with most exegetes, I assume that the second “until” clause was added by Matthew.17
Whence does the logion come? The usual thesis that the logion has a Semitic origin because the yodh is the smallest of the Hebrew consonants is not completely certain. In that day the Hebrew and Aramaic yodh was a small letter, but it was not clearly the smallest letter. In Greek the ἰῶτα, of course, was not smaller than other letters, but it only consisted of a single stroke and was therefore regarded as a basic element (στοιχεῖον). In Greek the “stroke” (κεραία) for a small mark is well documented. Thus the possibility that the logion was originally composed in Greek is not to be excluded. Verse 18* is hardly a saying of Jesus.21 The usual assumption is that it comes from a law-observant Jewish Christian prophet.
c. Verse 19*: Linguistically much is Matthean.22 Many interpreters often judge the verse to be completely traditional, because they are reluctant to attribute such a legalistic logion to the evangelist. On the other hand, it is not likely that the logion is completely redactional. A number of indications suggest that the second part of the parallelism—that is, the positive formulation in v. 19c*, d*—comes from the evangelist.24 According to a rather strong consensus, v. 19* also comes from strict Jewish Christian law-observant circles, perhaps from debates and internal Christian polemics about the validity of the Mosaic Law. Whether v. 19* is an originally independent logion or whether from the very beginning it originated as a commentary on v. 18* is debated.25 It is conceivable that the two sayings were transmitted together before Matthew. If v. 18* was in Q, we may have here QMt.
d. There is widespread agreement that v. 20* is redactional;26 it is one of the evangelist’s favorite sayings about entering the kingdom of heaven.

By placing these verses at the beginning of the main part of the Sermon on the Mount before the antitheses, Matthew makes clear that they are fundamentally important for him. At issue here is his relationship to the Mosaic Law and thus to Judaism. At the same time, unfortunately our verses are among the most difficult in the Gospel. I begin by noting some of the most important questions for interpretation.
1. What is the significance of the two traditional verses 18–19* for the entire text?
2. What is the relationship of vv. 17–19* to the antitheses that begin in v. 21*, antitheses that Marcion already interpreted as opposed to the law?27 They constitute the strongest check against every interpretation of the antitheses as critical of the law.
3. What is the exact meaning of v. 17*? The wording of this verse appears to be so general that there is almost no possible interpretation that one can exclude with certainty.

■ 17* The introductory “do not think” (μὴ νομίσητε) speaks directly to the church. There is no evidence of a direct polemic, for example, against antinomians. Matthew argues on principle; it cannot be proven that he had concrete opponents in mind, whether antinomians or Jews who accused Jesus of annulling the law.29 What is the meaning of “law or prophets”? One can either think of the prophetic/predictive significance of the law and prophets—indeed, in Judaism Moses is also a great prophet (cf. Deut 18:15*), or one can think of their function of giving directions or instructions—for Matthew in particular the prophets were also important witnesses for the love commandment (cf. Hos 6:6* = Matt 9:13*; 12:7*). The meaning of “fulfill” will then also change depending on the choice one makes. Now it seems rather clear, in spite of important advocates of a salvation-history prophetic interpretation,31 that in this passage Matthew is not thinking of the predictions of the law and prophets. Too many things speak against such an understanding: the context of the antitheses, the immediate repetition of “law and prophets” with a simple “law” in v. 18*, and the fact that in 11:13*, the only place where Matthew wants to emphasize the prophetic function of law and prophets, he puts “prophets” first32 and adds the verb “prophesy” (προφητεύω). Furthermore, the opposing verb “annul/ destroy” (καταλύω) makes it difficult to interpret “fulfill” in terms of predictions. What this verse thus means is that Jesus “fulfills” the instructions or directions of the law and prophets. However, what do the two verbs “annul” (καταλύω) and “fulfill” (πληρόω) mean?
We can relate them either to Jesus’ teaching or to his life. In either case they are still ambiguous and permit various nuances of interpretation.
1. If we relate καταλύω and πληρόω to Jesus’ teaching, we can go further and ask whether Jesus’ teaching does or does not change something in the law. If Jesus makes no changes in the law, πληρόω may mean (a) “to emphasize it in its true meaning,” “to express it completely.” If, however, Jesus’ fulfilling changes the law itself, we could understand πληρόω either quantitatively in the sense of (b) “to add,” “to complement” (something that is missing) or qualitatively in the sense of (c) “to finish,” “to make perfect.”36
2. If we relate καταλύω and πληρόω to Jesus’ activity, πληρόω can mean either that Jesus (a) “fulfills” the requirements of the law and prophets in his life with his obedience, that is, that he keeps the law. Or we can also (b) think of Jesus’ death and resurrection: with his death and resurrection Jesus has “fulfilled” the law and thus brought it to its goal and end.
History of Interpretation
The alternatives gain their profile from the history of interpretation. There are two situations in the history of the church in which the interpretation of Matt 5:17* was the focal point: (a) the controversy with Marcion in the ancient church and (b) the controversy with the Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation.
a. Marcion wanted to eliminate this verse. He was opposed by the church’s interpretation in Irenaeus and the Christian Gnostic interpretation in the Valentinians. The two are closely related. For Ptolemy, the teacher of Flora, Matt 5:17* means the completion of the law that by nature is incomplete (ἀτελής) and in need of being perfected (ἐνδεὴς πληρωθῆναι) and only in a limited sense corresponds to the perfect God. Ptolemy develops this idea by making a distinction among the commands of God, of Moses, and of the leaders. In Haer. 4.13.1 Irenaeus understands the fulfilling of the law by Jesus as an expansion (extensio) whereby the “more” that Jesus brings is faith and the expansion of the area in which the law is valid from deeds to desires. He makes a distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law that was fulfilled in a different way. Annulled as a literally understood commandment, it remains as a sign pointing to Christ (Matt 4:16*). Dominant from Irenaeus on is the interpretation of 5:17* centered on Jesus’ completion of an imperfect law.42 Origen compares the development from the old law to the new with the development of a child to an adult in which the child changes but is not destroyed. What is added to the law is grace.44 Since the High Middle Ages it is usually said that the consilia Evangelica are added to the law.
It is strange that scarcely any traces of a Jewish Christian legalistic interpretation have been preserved. Such an interpretation would have to emphasize that Jesus kept the law in his life and endorsed it in his teaching. Apart from b. Šabb. 116a–b, where the text is very uncertain, there are only general references to completely law-observant Jewish Christians, but scarcely any interpretations of Matt 5:17*. While it is true that Matt 5:17* with v. 18* is often quoted in the Pseudo-Clementines, their community does not keep the entire law, because there are forged pericopes. The Syriac Didascalia polemicizes in chap. 26 against those who still keep the ceremonial law: “In the gospel he [scil. Jesus] has renewed the law, fulfilled and confirmed it, and he has annulled and abolished the repetition of the law.” From the statement one can conclude indirectly that the Jewish Christians against whom the author polemicizes appealed to Matt 5:17*. This text plays a central role in the Jewish Christian writing preserved in ʿAbd al-Jabbar. One is not to take anything from the law. “Whoever diminishes anything in it shall be called ‘diminished.’ ” This interpretation of Matt 5:17* is no longer reflected in the church fathers in keeping with the fact that the law-observant Jewish Christians were a marginal group about which hardly anything was known.
b. Matt 5:17* again became a central text during the Reformation in the controversy with the Anabaptists. In the Protestant interpretation during and after the Reformation the accents shift. The center of attention is no longer the completion or perfection of the law as maintained in medieval exegesis; now it is its correct interpretation by Jesus. That is already intimated in Luther, who applied the perfectio, the central concept in the exegesis of Matt 5:17*, to Jesus’ interpretation of the law: “Christ not only recites the Law of Moses; he interprets it … perfectly (perfecte explicat).” The Wochenpredigten formulate emphatically: “I do not want to bring a different or new law but to take the scriptures as you have them and to fill them out and to act accordingly so that you will know how to keep it.” Calvin emphasizes the unity of the covenant or the “connection of Law and Gospel inviolable.”52 Similarly, according to the reformers, in the antitheses Jesus interprets the Decalogue in its true sense against the distortions by the Jews; Jesus no longer speaks his “but I say to you” in opposition to the OT itself. In Calvin it becomes especially clear in which situation this interpretation became relevant. It was not Christ’s will to abolish the old religion. For then only “triflers and trouble-makers would have laid hold on the Spirit’s opportunity, eagerly to attack and tear down the whole system of religion.”54 The application to Calvin’s day is obvious.
By contrast the Anabaptists maintained the thesis that there is a basic difference between the OT and NT. For them the Sermon on the Mount is more than an interpretation of the OT; instead, “there is a great difference between the office of the law and the office of Christ.” The concern of the Anabaptists was that the law renewed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount would be practiced in the churches. The Bavarian Anabaptist Hans Denck, who died as early as 1527, offers an interpretation of Matt 5:17* in this sense in his short main document Vom Gesetz Gottes (“On God’s Law”). Denck is deeply troubled by the thesis that depreciates Christian practice by claiming that “since Christ has fulfilled the Law, we, therefore, need not keep it.” For it is the Christians “by whose good works the heathen are to be moved to praise God the father in heaven.” He knows: “Not a single law that has ever been conceived or written is complete until it is perfect in the body of Christ.” He was concerned about the life of the church, and in that regard he is Matthew’s theological brother.
In the frequent disputations with the Anabaptists, Matt 5:17* played a major role in the reformers’ argument against the Anabaptists.57 The latter advocated nothing more than a sharpened version of the ancient church’s thesis of the perfectio legis. However, the reformers had basically returned to the Jewish Christian thesis that Christ had interpreted the Law of Moses, of course, now on the basis of the church’s basic conviction that the ceremonial law always had been meant only figuratively.
The other previously mentioned possible interpretations have complemented the history of interpretation as a kind of occasional or permanent accompanying music. I can find no special emphases here. Characteristic in any case is that at no time were different possible interpretations mutually exclusive; instead, they were always regarded as aspects. This is also the reason why the new accentuation of our text in the Reformation did not become a point of confessional controversy. I cite a few examples. John Chrysostom speaks of the threefold fulfillment of the law—in that Christ never transgressed it (according to 3:15*), by Christ’s atoning death (according to Rom 8:3–4*), and by its deeper application in the antitheses.60 John of Damascus says that Christ fulfilled the law by being circumcised, by keeping the Sabbath, and by effecting the salvation to which all the scriptures bear witness. Thomas Aquinas even speaks of a sevenfold fulfillment of the law by Jesus.62

The history of interpretation shows how difficult it is to find a precise meaning of v. 17* and in the interpretations how much from the very beginning the context of the antitheses, the total witness of the Bible, and one’s own situation played a role. Decisive for the interpretation are (a) the meaning of πληρόω and καταλύω and (b) the Matthean context.
a. On the meaning of the words. In connection with “law” (νόμος) and similar words, καταλύω is almost idiomatic in Greek and Hellenistic Jewish texts. The meaning varies between “to get rid of” in the sense of “to cancel,” “to abolish,” and “to get rid of” in the sense of “not to keep,” “to break.” Πληρόω is also documented in connection with “law” and similar words. Most texts speak here of “fulfilling” through obedience and practice. Based on the usage in the Hellenistic and Jewish parallels, the readers of that day would initially have more likely thought of Jesus’ practice rather than of his teaching.
b. On the context. Of course, πληρόω reminds the readers of the fulfillment quotations; however, this is, as it were, a diversion that leads to a dead end—an association that in the context cannot be correctly heard. Also important, however, is the reminiscence of 3:15*, where Jesus and John fulfill “all righteousness.” The concern here was their action. The immediate context of our passage also makes one think of Jesus’ action (5:16*, 20*).65 However, the antitheses suggest that 5:17* has something to do with Jesus’ teaching. Verse 19* is especially important. Here in a similar antithesis “loosen” is contrasted with “doing and teaching.” That in turn corresponds to the total image of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus, who teaches the will of the Father and the fulfilling of the law, is also the obedient Son of God (3:13–4:11*) whom Matthew presents to his community as a role model.
Based on the meaning of both verbs, we should thus most likely think that Jesus fulfilled the law through his obedience (interpretation 2a). However, the following context also permits us to think of his teaching. The idea is presumably a secondary idea in the text, because Matthew thinks about the unity of practice and teaching with Jesus. However, praxis takes precedence (cf. 7:15–23*).
Especially when one thinks of Jesus’ practice, it is noteworthy that Matthew uses “fulfill” (πληρόω) and not “keep” (τηρέω) or “do” (ποιέω). Unlike the profane sources and Paul, πληρόω is for him an exclusively christological verb. Only Jesus (and John the Baptist) “fulfills” the law. There resonates a singular element of completeness and fullness. Fittingly, v. 17* is an “I came” saying (ἦλθον): fulfilling the law and prophets fully and comprehensively is Jesus’ special mission. Verse 17* also contains a christological element,67 even if Matthew is not thinking of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is then continued in vv. 18* and 20* by the emphatic “I say to you” and especially in the “I” (ἐγώ) of the antitheses.

■ 18* The interpretation of v. 17* is defined more precisely by vv. 18* and 19*. The primary statement of v. 18* stands in the main clause, v. 18c*: no iota and stroke of the Torah will fall away. “Iota” is a mere line, the simplest letter of the Greek alphabet. “Stroke” (κεραία) is something proverbially small, like an accent or a breathing mark. The validity of the Torah is solemnly affirmed without any qualification. Is it however temporally limited by v. 18b*? How to interpret “until” is debated. “Until heaven and earth pass away” can be a way of saying “never,”68 or it can mean that the law is valid until the end of the world.
The decision is very difficult. Important for the interpretation is 24:34–35*. Verse 34* has much in common with our passage; in v. 35* it is expressly said that Jesus’ words will outlast heaven and earth. Does the evangelist thus mean—in contrast to Jesus’ words—that the law is to be valid only until the end of heaven and earth? Yet the readers of the Gospel of Matthew do not yet know this saying of Jesus, and only a few of them will be familiar with the Gospel of Mark in which it appears (13:30–31*). There is thus great significance attributed here to the readers’ “encyclopedia” (Umberto Eco). As Jewish Christians they will initially have started from the “common sentiment”70 of the abiding validity of what for Jews was the preexistent Torah. I am not aware of Jewish texts that unequivocally limit the Torah to the duration of the world. And above all, the temporal limitation of the Torah would not fit at all well in the context, where the subject is its unlimited validity. If the Matthean Jesus had temporally limited the validity of the Torah, that would have been a completely surprising message for the Jewish Christian readers of the Gospel. It would not at all have been in keeping with the one who wants to keep the same Torah down to its last iota. Thus I regard it as totally improbable that v. 18b* wants to place a time limit on the validity of the Torah.72 “Until heaven and earth pass away” focused rather on universal time. Thus the Torah will remain in force.74
Equally difficult is the last final or purpose clause, “until everything takes place.” Since people do not want to believe that the evangelist simply repeated the content of the first final clause—a repetition that furthermore would linguistically be very awkward—an ethical interpretation is widespread today. “Until everything takes place” then means: until everything commanded in the law is done. In Matthew γίνομαι can mean “be done” (cf. 6:10*; 26:42*), even if that is not the most obvious meaning. In that case, Matthew would be calling attention in this brief closing clause to the necessity of practical fulfillment of the law. Of course, the temporal “until” remains difficult.
However, all other interpretations are even more difficult. A salvation-history interpretation in terms of the fulfillment of the OT promises would be possible only if v. 17* were to be understood in the same way.77 That leaves the attempt to interpret v. 18d* christologically to mean that in Christ’s death and resurrection “everything” predicted in the OT has “happened.” However, that would require complicated eisegeses of the text,78 quite apart from the difficulty that then according to v. 18b* the law would be valid until the end of the world but according to v. 18d* only until Christ.

■ 19* In v. 19* “loosen” (λύω) picks up on “annul/destroy” (καταλύω) of v. 17* and can mean the transgression of a commandment as well as its annulment. What is meant by the “smallest commandments”? In a continuous reading of the text one can hardly understand “these79 least commandments” to refer to anything other than the “iota and stroke” of v. 18c*. It is thereby clear, however, that the thought is of the smallest commandments of the Jewish Torah. The rabbis made a distinction between “light” and “weighty” commandments. They were thinking on the one hand of the effort required of a person and on the other of the reward promised for keeping the commandment.80 Our logion agrees with them by emphasizing the keeping of even the least commandments, for in the final analysis one cannot know (thus the rabbis) how much reward every commandment brings. Thus the keeping of all commandments is expressly commanded, regardless of their content and their relation to the center of the Torah. Based on their knowledge of the Jesus tradition, the Christian readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have thought of the “least commandments” as those commandments that Jesus regarded as less weighty, for example, the tithing of herbs (23:23–24* or purity regulations (cf. 23:26–27*). Nothing at all in the text suggests that we are to think of the “short” commandments of the Decalogue82 or even of the antitheses.
The promise to be “great” or “the least” in the kingdom of heaven is strange. There are two possible interpretations.
a. Is the idea that there are different places in heaven? There were such ideas in Judaism; they correspond to the need for individual reward in eternity. Understood this way our logion possesses a “half-radical” attitude: those who transgress the small Torah commandments and teach others to do so will receive the smallest place in the kingdom of heaven; nevertheless, they will enter the kingdom. Käsemann surmises that although Jewish Christian prophets wanted to deny church fellowship here on earth to their opponents who had a more liberal attitude regarding the law, such as Pauline Christians,85 they did not want to deny the kingdom of heaven to them completely.
b. The other possibility is that the second clause, “will be called least,” was formulated parallel to the first clause only for reasons of rhetorical consonance and the correspondence of deed and consequence. For all practical purposes that would mean exclusion from the kingdom of heaven.88 This logion would then be a witness for an exclusive law-observant Jewish Christianity. It would be important to decide between these alternatives, because that would permit us to understand the place of the pre-Matthean Jewish Christianity in the history of the church.
In the latter case the traditional logion of v. 19* would have come from radical law-observant Jewish Christians, possibly from people like those who around the year 50 made life difficult for Paul because they were of the opinion that there could be salvation for the Gentile Christian Galatians only if they were obedient to the Torah. Indeed, the Jewish Christians of Matt 5:18–19* appear to be even more strict than the Galatian Jewish Christians whom Paul still has to remind that whoever demands circumcision must then keep the entire law in all its regulations (Gal 5:3*). Their position corresponds to the radical rabbinic statement: whoever says, “I accept the entire Torah except for this (one) word,” of him it is said that “he has despised the word of the Lord” (Num 15:31*).89 However, if the Jewish Christians of Matt 5:19* state that their more freethinking opponents can occupy only the last places in heaven, then according to Jewish categories we are confronting a special “half-liberal” type. It demonstrates an affinity with a number of rabbinic statements. Although in their teaching the rabbis strictly maintained that all of God’s commandments, even the smallest, were valid, in practice they (esp. the Hillelites) were realists who in many things depended on God’s grace and by no means demanded the keeping of all commandments as a condition for entering the kingdom of God. It was enough if one kept most of the commandments or exhibited true repentance.90 People who insisted that all commandments be kept or who said that “accursed is whoever does not continue in everything written in the book of the Law, in order to do it,” were exceptions in Judaism. The pre-Matthean Jewish Christians may have been such “exceptions”; however, maybe they were “half liberal.” A decision appears to be impossible.
A decision is also difficult for the Matthean level. Since Matthew is familiar with the concept of different positions in heaven (11:11*; 18:1*, 4*; 20:21*), and since he also knows the idea of degrees of reward (10:41*; cf. 5:12*), one may give the preference for him to the first interpretation and count him among the “half-liberal” law-observant Jewish Christians. Still, that is by no means certain.

■ 17–19* However, that does little to change the basic problem of 5:17–19*. Matthew has appropriated a Jewish Christian tradition that demands the keeping of all individual commandments of the Torah and excludes material criticism of Torah commandments. He not only appropriated it; he also intensively edited it and placed it at a prominent place in his Sermon on the Mount. That fits in well with the basic intention of the Matthean v. 17* that speaks primarily of the fulfillment of the law through Jesus’ obedience and life. The conclusion seems unavoidable that the “fulfilling of the law” in v. 17* must first of all be interpreted on the basis of vv. 18–19*. What is then meant is the faithfulness to every individual commandment of the Torah. This interpretation does not contradict the christological accent of vv. 17* and 18* (“Amen, I say to you”), because Jesus’ mission is to establish the Torah by his obedience down to the last and smallest commandment. Jesus is not the servant of the Torah; he is its Lord. However, he exercises his lordship by letting the Torah remain valid without any restrictions.
That is not compatible with an interpretation that sees only insignificant Jewish Christian tradition in vv. 18–19*.92 However, neither is this view consistent with a thesis that throughout centuries of Christian teaching and practice has become classic—the thesis that Matthew affirms the ethical law and ignores the ceremonial law. There are enough passages in Matthew that show that for him the ritual Torah commandments are also valid, for example, 23:23*, 26*, or 24:20*. These texts also show what the difference is between the Matthean community and Judaism: for Matthew it is, based on Jesus, in principle clear that justice, mercy, and faithfulness—for all practical purposes the love commandment—are the main commandment and that commandments such as to tithe (23:23*) or to clean the outside of the cup (23:26*) are iotas and strokes. The love commandment is at the heart of the Torah, while the ceremonial laws are secondary. However, they are all parts of the law that Jesus fulfills in its entirety. Verses 17–19* are a “Jewish Christian program”94 of great conciseness.

■ 20* Verse 20* is the Matthean heading for the antitheses. What has been said about vv. 17–19* has not made its interpretation easier. The continuation with “for” (γάρ) makes clear that v. 20* wants to develop further the preceding ideas. Thus the greater righteousness that is now the subject does not eliminate the law. What is meant, however, by the “greater righteousness”? This verse offers no explanation of the term. It functions more as an “empty text” that the readers will then fill with content as they go on to read the antitheses.95 Nevertheless, v. 20* offers them some guidance in filling the empty text. As in 3:15*, δικαιοσύνη is righteousness that a person does. The comparative “shall exceed … more” (περισσεύειν … πλεῖον) is strange; μᾶλλον would be a more common word. Πλεῖον suggests a quantitative interpretation: if your righteousness is not present in a measurably higher quantity than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew defines himself here over against the leaders of Israel’s majority that was hostile to Jesus, and he tendentiously makes a negative judgment about their “righteousness.”100 Thus there is in any case in the text a quantitative element in its comparison of the righteousness of the disciples with that of the Pharisees and scribes. It corresponds to the insistence in vv. 17–19* that the individual commandments of the law also be fulfilled. Based on vv. 17–19*, the better righteousness of the disciples thus at least means a quantitative “more” in their fulfillment of the law. Admittedly the text does not say of what this “more” consists.
That is clarified by the antitheses, at which we now take a brief advance look. The issue in them is not merely that individual OT commandments are radically intensified. It is equally important for Matthew that the love commandment becomes the center of these sharpened individual commandments. It is as if the first and last antitheses serve to frame all of the antitheses. On the basis of the antitheses the quantitatively greater righteousness of the disciples means at the same time that their lives, led by love, are qualitatively more intense before God. Verse 20* hovers as it were between these two ideas and faces one or the other depending on whether one reads it “from the front” or “from behind.” The verse has a transitional or hinge function not only in a literary sense but also in terms of content.101
Summary and History of Interpretation

Two of the questions for the interpretation with which we began remain unanswered.
1. What is the meaning of the Jewish Christian logia in vv. 18* and 19* for our entire text?
Modern interpreters have often struggled with them. In the liberal theology of the nineteenth century it was customary to interpret v. 17* and the antitheses to mean that Jesus makes the law perfect “by deepening it, going back to the intention, ultimately to love and inner truthfulness.”102 Verses 18–19* did not fit well in such an interpretation. While vv. 18–19* represent “rabbinic orthodoxy,” the antitheses sound almost Marcionite.103 Verses 18–19* had a “distinctive effect” on the “developed sense of the whole.”104 But from which sense of v. 17* are we to proceed?
Various possible solutions have been suggested. Ferdinand Christian Baur had understood the Gospel of Matthew as the representative of an ancient, not yet particularistic Jewish Christianity. The two-source theory dated its origin after 70 C.E. Now the unclarity of vv. 17–20* and 21–48* was understood as an expression of the evangelist’s difficulty of freeing himself from his Jewish legalistic shell105 or conversely of his difficulty of doing justice to the different groups in his strongly Jewish Christian community. So was 5:17–20* the expression of a not completely successful synthesis of Baur’s great polarity between Jewish and Hellenistic Christianity? It was easier to eliminate vv. 18–19* as an interpolation.107 The twentieth century offered additional possibilities for dealing with the problem. Verses 18–19* now widely became a piece of traditional Jewish Christian baggage that, although the evangelist transmitted it, actually had no meaning for him.108
By contrast, our interpretation has established that Matthew has also edited vv. 18* and 19* to a considerable degree and that their contents were important to him. Verse 17* is an “I came” saying, and vv. 18* and 20* are especially singled out by “I say to you.” Furthermore, the assumption is on principle doubtful that the evangelist simply passes on material with which basically he himself no longer agrees, and that he does it at such a prominent place. Thus we were looking for an interpretation that was able to take vv. 18–19* seriously. That led us to the simple thesis that Matthew really means what is there: according to Jesus’ opinion and in keeping with his example, the Torah and the Prophets are to be fulfilled—that is, kept completely, eliminating nothing. This interpretation makes it very difficult to answer the second leading question:
2. What is the relationship of this “preface” to the following antitheses? Anticipating my interpretation of the antitheses, I would like to offer a few preliminary reflections in the form of theses.
a. This preface to the antitheses has a clear thrust that the antitheses do not have in the same way. By putting it first Matthew wanted to point the interpretation of the antitheses in a clear direction or prevent them from being misunderstood. He wanted to ensure that in no case would they be interpreted in an antinomian way as a break with Israel’s heritage. The Matthean community had lived through the painful break with the synagogue. In this situation Matthew, the Jewish Christian who understood himself and his community as representatives of the true Israel called by Jesus, had to lay claim programmatically to Israel’s whole Bible for the sake of the identify of God, the Father of Jesus. The fulfillment quotations assert the programmatic claim to the predictions; our text, 5:17–19*, asserts the programmatic claim to the Torah.109
b. Today, as readers influenced by a Christian rather than a Jewish background, we tend to interpret this prelude to the antitheses as a correction. Matthew probably did not see it that way. He appears not to have sensed what for us is the tension between the programmatic fulfilling of the law by Jesus postulated in v. 17* and its partial annulment in the antitheses. Nor did he see a contradiction between the qualitative fulfillment of God’s will in the antitheses made infinitely more intensive by the love commandment and the obedience to all individual requirements of the Torah demanded in vv. 18–19*. The movement from vv. 17–19* by way of the transitional v. 20* to the antitheses takes place smoothly and inconspicuously, not in an adversarial manner but loosely with the connecting words “for” and “therefore.” In my judgment that is not a sign of unclear thinking but an indication of how Matthew thought. In practice his community probably subordinated the Torah’s many individual commandments to the love commandment as their center. In theory it was able to see no tension at all between the two. It did not have the impression that the iotas and strokes of the ritual law were unreasonable or incomprehensible, nor did it have the impression that the regulations of the law were associated with the idea of heteronomy and unfreedom. For Matthew, Jesus’ directions in the antitheses were binding commandments (ἐντολαί: 28:20*); thus they were the same as the OT commandments. The individual prescriptions and the intensifying of the law based on love are for him not opposites; they belong together, and they make concrete the offer of God’s will. In this understanding of God’s will as grace, Matthew is rooted in the Bible and in Judaism.
c. There is for Matthew a strong link between the preface and the antitheses—namely, the claim of Jesus of Nazareth, who has come as Immanuel (v. 17*). Jesus’ sovereign “I say to you” connects vv. 17–20* to the antitheses. That makes clear that the biblical law is not simply the Jewish Torah as it has always been accepted. Now there is a new authority behind it—Jesus, who has come in the name of God to “fulfill” it. Then with their sovereign “but I say to you” the antitheses may be said to develop the full significance of the “I came” of v. 17*. Jesus is not subject to the law; he is its Lord. The entire Matthean Sermon on the Mount, including the antitheses and their preface of 5:17–20*, are part of the story of Jesus the Son of God who transcends them.
Meaning for Today

Thus this text explains a basic principle designed to interpret and protect the antitheses. The history of interpretation showed that its basic significance for the most part was recognized only when the OT appeared to be threatened as a basic text of the church. It further showed that it has always been very difficult for a church that is no longer Jewish to recognize the real meaning of this text. Access to 5:17–20* was made almost impossible not only by the Pauline theme under which it was often read but especially by the fact that for the Gentile Christian Great Church the law was for all practical purposes reduced to the moral law, especially to the Decalogue.112 At the same time, however, that also means that for us who belong to this Gentile Christian Great Church the Jewish Christian program of 5:17–20* belongs to the past. Does the text nevertheless have a meaning for us?
When we visualize what the church was doing when it used 5:17* to argue against Marcion and what the concern of the reformers was who used Matt 5:17* in their struggle against what they regarded as the Anabaptist retreat into the conventicle,113 it becomes clear what its fundamental meaning could be even today: the OT commandments inculcate that Christian faith is a practice in the world. There is a valid will of the Father for this world. The concrete pillars on which it rests are the divine commandments as they are formulated in the OT with permanent validity and as Jesus has “fulfilled” them in his Sermon on the Mount. They cannot be circumvented by a principle of morality, no matter how “perfected” it may be, or by a flight from the world, in whatever form it might take.
I close with a summary reference to a major interpreter of this text. Of all the reformers, Calvin most clearly gave the law a central, positive position in his thought. More clearly than others he spoke of the similarity, indeed the unity, of the old and new covenants. The basic structure of Matthew’s theology and that of Calvin are analogous. It is a structure that led both of them to a practical piety that took seriously the existence of the community in the world. Admittedly, the manner of this existence is different in Calvin and in Matthew. Calvin was interested in shaping this world, while Matthew, like the Anabaptists during the Reformation, was interested in shaping the life of the church and its missionary task in the world. Related to this difference is the fact that “the reformer (abandons) … large parts of the Sermon on the Mount to the Anabaptists and … withdraws to the Old Testament.”
2.2 Better Righteousness, I: Antitheses (5:21–48*)
Banks, Jesus, 182–203.
Berger, “Gesetzesauslegung,” 149–82.
Ingo Broer, “Die Antithesen und der Evangelist Matthäus,” BZ NF 19 (1975) 50–63.
Idem, Freiheit, 75–113.
Daube, New Testament, 55–62.
A. Descamps, “Essai d’interprétation de Mt 5,17–48: ‘Formgeschichte’ ou ‘Redaktionsgeschichte’?” StEv 1 1959 (TU 73) 156–73.
Christian Dietzfelbinger, Die Antithesen der Bergpredigt (TEH 186; Munich: Kaiser, 1975).
Idem, “Die Antithesen der Bergpredigt im Verständnis des Matthäus,” ZNW 70 (1979) 1–15.
Wilhelm Egger, “Handlungsorientierte Auslegung der Antithesen Mt 5,21–48,” in Karl Kertelge, ed., Ethik im Neuen Testament (QD 102; Freiburg: Herder, 1984) 119–44.
David Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Entdeckungen im Neuen Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1987) 21–31.
Tord Fornberg, “Matthew and the School of Shammai: A Study in the Matthean Antithesis,” Theology & Life 7 (Lutheran Theological Seminary Hong Kong, 1984) 35–59.
Guelich, “Not to Annul,” 117–215.
Idem, “The Antitheses of Matthew 5:21–48: Traditional or Redactional?” NTS 22 (1975/76) 444–57.
Victor Hasler, “Das Herzstück der Bergpredigt,” ThZ 15 (1959) 90–106.
Hans Hübner, Das Gesetz in der synoptischen Tradition: Studien zur These einer progressiven Tradition (Witten: Luther-Verlag, 1973) 40–112.
Kuhn, “Liebesgebot.”
Simon Légasse, Les pauvres en esprit: Évangile et non-violence (LD 78; Paris: Cerf, 1974) 57–98.
Eduard Lohse, “Ich aber sage euch,” in idem, Christoph Burchard, and Berndt Schaller, eds., Der Ruf Jesu und die Antwort der Gemeinde: Exegetische Untersuchungen: Joachim Jeremias zum 70. Geburtstag gewidmet von seinen Schülern (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970) 189–203; reprinted in idem, Die Einheit des Neuen Testaments (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973) 73–87.
Meier, Law, 125–61.
Merklein, Gottesherrschaft, 253–93.
Percy, Botschaft, 123–65.
Sand, Gesetz, 46–56.
Jürgen Sauer, Rückkehr und Vollendung des Heils: Eine Untersuchung zu den ethischen Radikalismen Jesu (Regensburg: Roderer, 1991) 109–20, 220–33, 402–10.
Günther Schmahl, “Die Antithesen der Bergpredigt,” TThZ 83 (1974) 284–97.
Strecker, “Antithesen.”
M. Jack Suggs, “The Antitheses as Redactional Products,” in Georg Strecker, ed., Jesus Christus in Historie und Theologie: Neutestamentliche Festschrift für Hans Conzelmann zum 60. Geburtstag (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1975) 433–44; reprinted in Luise Schottroff, et al., Essays on the Love Commandment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 93–107.
Vouga, Jésus, 189–301.
Hans Weder, “Ich aber sage euch”: Zur Begründung der Gesetzesauslegung Jesu in der Bergpredigt, in Einblicke ins Evangelium: Exegetische Beiträge zur neutestamentlichen Hermeneutik: Gesammelte Aufsätze aus den Jahren 1980–1991 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992) 201–17.

For additional literature see above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29*).
Formal Structure

Only the first and the fourth antitheses contain the complete introductory formula “you have heard that it was said to the ancients” (ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, vv. 21*, 33*). In addition, the new introduction in v. 33* is emphasized by “again” (πάλιν). Thus the antitheses are divided into two blocks of three (vv. 21–32*, 33–48*), and the two are of equal length.1 In the first two cases the antithesis is introduced with “all/every(one)” (πᾶς, vv. 22*, 28*). In the fourth and fifth it has the form of a prohibition (μή with the infinitive, vv. 34*, 39*). By dividing the antitheses into two blocks Matthew obscures the fact that the material comes from different sources. Finally, the special length of the first and last antitheses is not accidental; obviously the evangelist wanted to give them special emphasis. The third antithesis is the shortest, also in the introductory formula; in its theme it is closely connected to the second antithesis.
Source-Critical Questions

The first, second, and fourth (perhaps also the fifth, vv. 38–39*) antitheses are special Matthean material. Matthew has supplemented this special material with material from Q (vv. 25–26*, 29–30*? cf. vv. 31–32*). This corresponds to the general results: first come the antitheses from the special material (vv. 21–37*; the third antithesis was inserted here only because thematically it belongs to the second), then come the antitheses from Q. Thus Q was not the primary source but—as also in chaps. 13, 18, and 24 with Mark—a source of supplementary material. That speaks for the hypothesis that Matthew had a collection of antitheses in written form that contained the first two and the fourth and that may have been connected already with 6:2–18*. He then adds Q material. From this collection he also took the form of the antithesis.
Tradition History

The origin and originality of the antitheses are controversial issues. There are three competing theses:
a. The so-called normal hypothesis: The first, second, and fourth antitheses, which come from the special material, are “primary” antitheses, while the third, fifth, and sixth are “secondary.”
Only in the case of the primary antitheses does the possibility exist that they go back to Jesus as antitheses. In all probability the secondary antitheses were created by Matthew as antitheses. Sometimes a thesis about the content is also included, claiming that the primary antitheses radicalize the OT commandment while the secondary antitheses invalidate it.
b. The tradition hypothesis: All six antitheses were already available to the evangelist as antitheses.
The most important point at which to approach this hypothesis is the theological relation of the antitheses to 5:17*. If Matthew’s concern was that Jesus has fulfilled the law, he cannot himself have created antitheses that show that he puts himself above the law. The claim is sharpened by the (probably mistaken but widespread) assumption of many representatives of the “normal hypothesis” that it is precisely the secondary Matthean antitheses that invalidate the Torah. The “tradition hypothesis” has source-critical consequences, and this is where its weakness lies. Either it must claim that the Sayings Source did not exist (Jeremias, Wrege), or it must accept a far-reaching reworking of Q prior to Matthew, which then was responsible for all the antitheses. One must take seriously the question whether there is not already a pre-Matthean antithesis in vv. 38–39*.
c. Advocated more frequently today is the redaction hypothesis: All six antitheses come from the evangelist Matthew.
Only Broer has attempted to offer real proof. Of his arguments one need not take seriously his reference to other antithetic formulations in Matthew, the reference to 19:9*,8 or to the emphatic “I” (ἐγώ) that is frequently redactional in Matthew. Probably a more serious argument, however, is his reference to the parallel between 5:21–32* and the catalogue of vices in 15:19* (murders, adulteries, fornications). However, 15:19* shows only that Matthew repeated the sequence of the first three antitheses, which came from him anyway. In addition, this hypothesis faces a double difficulty: it must prove for all the antitheses that the connection between thesis and antithesis is secondary, and it must interpret 5:17–20* in such a way that all the antitheses fit the interpretation. Thus, in spite of the increasing number of advocates, this thesis is the least probable.
I can offer here only a brief suggestion of my own position. Along with the “normal hypothesis,” I regard the third, fifth, and sixth antitheses as redactional. In contrast to the “normal hypothesis,” however, it seems probable to me that the fourth antithesis is also secondary, even if the antithetic formulation there comes from the source used by the evangelist.

Apart from several redactional formulations and the reworking of the antitheses in vv. 31–32*, 38–39*, 43–44*, the evangelist’s most important accomplishment lies in the composition of the section. With his forming of the sixth antithesis and his rearrangement of the Q material from Luke 6:27–36*, he is able to frame the series of antitheses with the love commandment—more precisely, with the commandment to love one’s enemies (vv. 25*, 44*). In this way the final antithesis, with its culmination in the key word “perfect” (τέλειος), proves to be the “climax.” In addition, Matthew has paid homage to his “conservatism” not only in the wording but also in the composition of the antitheses. In spite of some rearranging, both the Q block (Luke 6:27–36*) and the block of special material (Matt 5:21–37*) remain intact. In his formulation of new antitheses Matthew has passed on the antitheses form that he found in his special material tradition.
The Antitheses Formula in the Framework of Jewish Language Forms

There are Jewish parallels to the antithesis formula.
a. Rabbis are able to contrast two possible interpretations of a biblical text, often a literal and a free interpretation, with the formula שֹׁומֵעַ אֲנִי … אָמַרְתָּ (I could understand … but you are to say).
b. Rabbis are able to contrast their own interpretation with that of other rabbis with an emphatic וַאֲנִי אֹומֵר. Here the rejected interpretation is not introduced with a fixed expression. With their use of the first person, these parallels are very close to Matthew.
c. “But I say to you” without an antithetic opposite has parallels in wisdom and apocalyptic15 Jewish writings. In the didactic epistle 4QMMT the author, speaking in the name of his fellowship, introduces each of his own halakot with an emphatic אנחנו אומרים without meaning the halakot of his opponents, which he rejects.
Thus, when compared with the Jewish parallels, the antitheses’ introductory phrase is in any case an independent new creation, even if there is a certain similarity to Jewish exegetical terminology.
The Meaning of the Antitheses Formula

The main question is whether the antithesis refers to the Jewish-Pharisaic interpretation of the OT, that is, to the halakah, or to the OT itself.17 That interpreters are divided on this question is not a recent phenomenon. At the very least since the Reformation there have been alternative interpretations that to a great extent divide along confessional lines.
After the Marcionites’ rejection of the OT law and its differentiated rejection by the Gnostics, an exegesis prevailed in the ancient and medieval churches that understands the antitheses as a contrast of old and new law. Here the positive relationship of the two laws is set forth in a nuanced way; the decisive concepts are those of completion and expansion.20 That Jesus eliminated individual commandments is said, if at all, discreetly. For the most part, this understanding of the antitheses continues in the post-Reformation Catholic exegesis.22 It is sharpened by interpreters from the free churches: the law of the OT, which, for example, permits the use of violence and oaths, is no longer valid for Christians. However, the NT law is valid without any qualifications.
There are new tones in the exegesis of the Reformation. Emphasized here without exception, in Luther, Calvin, and in the post-Reformation interpretation, is Jesus’ agreement with the OT and his opposition to contemporary Jewish-Pharisaic interpretation. The OT commandment is then interpreted on the basis of the NT, for example, the sixth (seventh in some traditions) commandment on the basis of Matt 5:21–22*.26 One sees a motive for this interpretation in, for example, Calovius’s attempt to see the superiority of the new covenant not in a new law but in the gospel.27 Calvin does not want to make of Christ a new lawgiver and to free the OT from responsibility for human sin toward God. Calvin does not exonerate the Jews, who have fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of the law, and he rebukes them accordingly.29 They must bear the burden of this theology.
Based on rabbinic terminology, “to hear” can be understood in the sense of “to receive as tradition.” An interpretation in terms of tradition rather than the OT is improbable, however, because the content of the second and fifth, but probably also the first, third, and fourth theses, is literally, or at least in its meaning, an OT statement and not a rabbinic interpretation. Furthermore, in the third thesis the “you have heard” (ἠκούσατε) is even missing. Correspondingly, the “I say” (λέγω) of the antithesis is contrasted not with the “you have heard” but with the “it was said” (ἐρρέθη) of the thesis. It is therefore in my judgment not possible that the antitheses are directed only against a particular Jewish practice of interpreting the Bible. Ἠκούσατε probably means in a completely untechnical sense: “You have heard” (e.g., in the synagogue or at home) that the following was said in the Bible. On the basis both of the rabbinic exegetical usage33 and of Matthean usage, however, ἐρρέθη is most likely to be understood as passivum divinum for God’s speaking in the scriptures. Because of the fulfillment formula this is as good as certain for Matthew. For earlier stages of the tradition it is probable both on the basis of rabbinic usage and because of the content of the theses. Then the “ancients” are probably to be understood in the sense of the rabbinic רִשֹׁונִים as the Sinai generation. Thus the antitheses formulas pit Jesus’ word against that of the Bible itself. They do not support the thesis that Jesus wanted to criticize only Jewish interpretation or even only certain directions in it, for example, the Sadducees.35 In interpreting the antitheses formula the ancient, Catholic, and free church interpretation is fundamentally right in contrast to the classical Protestant interpretation.
On the other hand, the Matthean introduction in 5:17* emphasizes that Jesus “fulfills” the Torah and the Prophets. This poses a decisive problem of interpretation: What is the relationship between Jesus’ antitheses and their Matthean interpretation? Is there a contradiction here so that the Jewish Christian Matthew perhaps tried to bind the “only teacher,” Jesus (Matt 23:8*), back to the Torah, possibly against his own intention? I do not think that we are on the right track with such a suspicion. It assumes that people already made a distinction in general between the written and the oral Torah, or between the Torah and its interpretation.36 In that day the will of God transmitted as Torah was a living reality. The Torah could not only be sharpened; it could also be reformulated in a different way. People expected from the Messiah a clear interpretation, a final confirmation, and also an adaptation of the Torah to his new, messianic age.38 Jesus’ antitheses formulas are part of the early Jewish basic conviction of a living Torah. Within it, however, they are very unusual for two reasons. For one thing, Jesus is the “only teacher” (cf. 23:8*) who teaches the will of God as “living Torah.” Jesus accuses his opponents, the Pharisees and scribes, of neglecting the will of God in favor of their own tradition (15:3*). For another, Jesus contrasts the will of God with the Torah itself, which had been said by God to the ancients on Sinai: “But I say to you.”39
The Antitheses Formula as an Expression of Jesus’ Authority

The chance that Jesus himself formulated antitheses is relatively great. That is probable on the one hand because of their similarity to the language of Jewish tradition, and on the other because of their difference from other Jewish statements. The antitheses do not interpret the Bible; they extend and surpass it. While an emphatic “but I say to you” is also found in Jewish texts, it is not found in an antithesis to the Bible. Even the understanding of the Torah in the Qumran Temple Scroll, formulated with the “I” of divine speech, is not directly comparable to the antitheses.41 I assume, therefore, that the antithetic formulation of the first and second antitheses goes back to Jesus. Then the antitheses formula is not simply a new variant of rabbinic interpretation formulas but something distinctive within Judaism.
In my judgment this formula is of great significance for determining Jesus’ self-understanding. Christian exegetes have the impression that Jesus appears here with a claim that “Jewish feeling regarded as an invasion of the divine prerogative.” Although this impression is not completely false, I would like to warn against putting the main emphasis on a formal or quantitative determination of Jesus’ authority. In my judgment, the decisive question is not how much more authority Jesus claims here than, for example, a rabbi or an apocalyptic teacher. Rather, how he claims his authority is decisive. He does not appeal to someone else’s authority, for example, to God’s authority, as did the biblical prophets in their messenger pronouncements, or to a revelation, as did the apocalyptic visionaries. Nor does he appeal to his own authoritative position, for example, that he is the coming Son of Man. Indeed, he does not even appeal to the coming of the kingdom of God.43 Instead, his authority resides in what he himself says. Behind his proclamation of God’s will is his total personal involvement. Behind the risk of his proclamation of God’s will there is no authority other than his own, but there is this unreservedly. This is why in no single antithesis are Jesus’ demands in any way justified. They are simply stated. Then they are trusted to have the power to be obvious to the hearers and to make new people of them.
Jesus, the “only teacher” (Matt 23:10*), formulates his demands in contrast to the Torah spoken by God on Sinai—that is, in contrast to the highest authority of that day. In so doing he does not want to abolish the commandments of the Bible, but he does abolish their formal authority, which is based simply on the fact that it is biblical (ἐρρέθη) and traditional. Thus the biblical commandments become living Torah, and in the coming kingdom of God they will become the conditionally valid, unconditionally binding will of God.
There is a remaining problem of interpretation for the individual antitheses. At least some of them contain nothing that could not also be found in Jewish tradition, especially in parenesis influenced by wisdom. Why are statements that in part are common in Jewish-wisdom parenesis and thus are by no means new identified in this way with Jesus’ authority? How are they changed in the process?
The Antitheses in the Framework of Matthean Theology

Why did Matthew even add to the number of antitheses when in vv. 17–19* he had to protect them against a misunderstanding?46 They underscore the christological dimension of Jesus’ commandments, and they clarify the “I have come” of v. 17* and the “I say to you” of vv. 18* and 20*. They show how the Son of God in perfect sovereignty fulfills the word of God in the law and prophets by contrasting his word with the word of the Bible. Matthew had already intimated this by locating Jesus’ first proclamation of the gospel “on the mountain.” However, 5:17–19* make clear that this does not mean that a second Moses abolished the Torah of the first Moses. Instead, for Matthew Jesus’ new proclamation of God’s will is also the doorway to the old Torah transmitted in the Tanak, which Jesus does not annul. Instead, he radicalizes it and thus fulfills it without eliminating a single stroke. In interpreting the individual antitheses one needs to ask how Matthew could have conceived this.
In anticipation of that interpretation I can say that by framing the antitheses with the first and sixth antitheses Matthew shows that he sees the center of the law and prophets in love. Love is the fulfillment, not the abolition, of the law and prophets (5:17*). The love commandment does not cancel the “smallest commandments” (5:18–19*) but relativizes them case by case. In this sense the law and prophets “hang” on the love commandment (22:40*).48
2.2.1 First Antithesis: On Killing (5:21–26*)
David Alan Black, “Jesus on Anger: The Text of Matt 5:22a Revisited,” NovT 30 (1988) 1–8.
Shawn Carruth, ed., Q 12:49–59: Children against Parents: Judging the Time: Settling out of Court (Documenta Q; Louvain: Peeters, 1997) 269–415.
Dalman, Jesus, 73–85.
Anton Fridrichsen, “Exegetisches zum Neuen Testament,” SO 13 (1934) 38–46.
Robert A. Guelich, “Mt 5:22: Its Meaning and Integrity,” ZNW 64 (1973) 39–52.
Joachim Jeremias, “ῥακά,” TDNT 6 (1968) 973–76.
Konrad Köhler, “Zu Mt 5,22,” ZNW 19 (1920) 91–95.
Marguerat, Jugement, 151–67.
C. F. D. Moule, “The Angry Word: Mt 5:21f,” ExpT 81 (1969) 10–13.
Trilling, Christusverkündigung, 86–107.
Manfred Weise, “Mt 5:21f—ein Zeugnis sakraler Rechtsprechung in der Urgemeinde,” ZNW 49 (1958) 116–23.
Zeller, Mahnsprüche, 62–67.

For additional literature see above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) and II A 2.2 on the antitheses (5:21–48).

21 “You have heard that it was said to the ancients:
‘You shall not kill.’
Whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.
22 But I say to you:
Everyone who is angry with his brother shall meet with judgment.
And whoever says to his brother ‘Raka!’ shall be liable to the Sanhedrin.
And whoever says ‘Fool!’ shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire.
23 Now if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar,
first go, be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
25 Be well disposed to your opponent quickly while you are with him on the way, lest the opponent deliver you to the judge and the judge to the bailiff and you be thrown into prison. 26/ Amen, I say to you: You will not come out of there until you have repaid the last penny.”
The section is divided into three parts: vv. 21–22*, 23–24*, and 25–26*. “I say” (λέγω) loosely brackets the entire section (vv. 22*, 26*). The key word “brother” (ἀδελφός, 4 times) is central for the first two parts. Noteworthy is the change from the second person plural to the second person singular that first of all is to be explained source-critically. It strengthens the direct address (9 times “you” [σου], etc., in vv. 23–26*). Verses 21–22* are strictly structured. The thesis in v. 21* consists of a double sentence: the commandment from the Decalogue and a legal sentence that builds on it. The antithesis in v. 22* builds on the legal sentence from v. 21c* and contrasts it with three “counterstatements.”
Source Criticism
Verses 23–24* are an independent traditional unit; unlike vv. 21–22*, now the brother is the one who is angry. Verses 25–26* (with their parallel in Luke 12:57–59* = Q) are also an independent unit. It is not clear when these traditional pieces were brought together; Matthew is presumably responsible at least for the addition of vv. 25–26*, since he wanted to create a bracket with the last antithesis under the theme of the love of one’s enemy.
Tradition History and Origin: Verses 21–22*
With vv. 21–22* we face difficult problems in the history of the tradition: (a) Did the thesis and antithesis originally belong together? With “shall be liable to judgment” (ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει) v. 22a* is closely connected to v. 21b*.3 Already in Jewish wisdom tradition anger and (as its consequence) murder belong together. Thus there is no reason to separate v. 22* from the thesis.5 (b) Is v. 22* a unified piece? It is unusual that the antithesis of v. 22* is divided into three parallel statements. All three of them are linked to v. 21c*—the first with the reference to punishment, the second and third with “but whoever.” This observation has occasioned numerous attempts at tradition-history deconstructions. Most regard v. 22b*, c* as secondary additions.6 In my judgment, however, v. 22* is an original unit that cannot be further broken down.7 The change from “everyone who” to “but whoever” was stylistically necessary. In addition, v. 22b* and c* contain an extraordinarily effective rhetorical graduation of punishment. In my judgment the traditional piece, with its unity, comes from Jesus.
Tradition History and Origin: Verses 23–24*
The two verses are pre-Matthean, since they presuppose the existence of the cult. The relatively high number of Mattheanisms may indicate an oral tradition that the evangelist composed relatively freely. This text is not a simple variant of Mark 11:25*.10 Our interpretation will show that it comes from Jesus.
Source Criticism, Tradition History, and Origin: Verses 25–26*
Verses 25–26* come from Q. Matthew has taken the logion out of the compact Q section Q 12:49–59 and changed its construction. He is probably responsible for putting the imperative “be well disposed” (ἴσθι εὐνοῶν) first and reaccentuating the time structure with “quickly” (ταχύ) and “while” (ἕως ὅτου). By contrast, Luke 12:58–59* portrays realistically what takes place in a debtor’s trial.12 The text is not a crisis parable—presumably the redactional introduction of Luke 12:57* is responsible for this widely held but incorrect designation—but a wisdom exhortation.13 The curiously doubled reference to the law court is unusual. For that very reason it goes well together with Jesus’ proclamation.

■ 21* The double thesis in v. 21* consists of an OT quotation only in its first half (fifth [Jewish order: sixth] commandment). Its second half is a free rendering of the legal order as it is laid down in Exod 21:12*; Lev 24:17*; cf. Num 35:16–18*. Thus Jesus does not allude to a contemporary halakic regulation that differs from an OT command. Based on the OT, “judgment” (κρίσις) most likely means the legal punishment of the murderer. In Greek “liable” (ἔνοχος) is a legal term that means “to be subject.”

■ 22* The three-part antithesis of v. 22* poses several lexical problems. In all probability ῥακά is a transcription of Aramaic רָיקָא, a frequently used, quite harmless, condescending expression that meant something like “feather brain” and was often used in the family.16 “Fool” (μωρός) is a common Greek word of abuse with a nuance of disrespect, but it too has little importance. An Aramaic equivalent may be שָׁטְיָא (“insane,” “deranged”), also a common word of abuse. There is no essential difference in the meaning of the two words. Still, it is possible to assume that there is an increase in intensity from the first to the second.
On the punishments, in the NT συνέδριον almost always means the Jerusalem Sanhedrin of 71. In our passage, especially since it has the article, συνέδριον should not be understood any differently. “Gehenna”—Matthew probably added “of fire” in order to heighten the idea of judgment20—probably comes from Aramaic גֵּיהִנָּם and is a designation of hell as the eschatological place of punishment.
How are the three sentences (v. 21a*, b*, c*) related to one another?
Since the ancient church a type of interpretation has dominated that wants to see in the three offenses and punishments a progression in intensity. “To be angry” would then refer to the animosity hidden in one’s heart, while the two insults designate increasing levels of abuse. The punishment in hell would be a greater punishment than that given in the previous words “judgment” and “Sanhedrin.” People have often interpreted “judgment” (κρίσις) as the local court and “Sanhedrin” (συνέδριον) as the highest human court. Divine judgment is then added as the court of final appeal. However, this interpretation is difficult. Only very seldom does κρίσις designate a legal jurisdiction, and in any case it must have the same meaning in v. 22* as in v. 21*. Between “Sanhedrin” and “Gehenna of fire” there is not a gradation but a qualitative shift from human-earthly judgment to divine-eschatological judgment.
Thus we must abandon the thesis of a general progression in v. 22a*, b*, c*. A description of the relationship based on the preliminary clauses would be better: v. 22a* is a general statement, while v. 22b* and c sharpen it with concrete examples. They make clear how seriously v. 22a* is meant, and they let “anger” begin with the most banal abusive language. Examples are chosen in v. 22b* and c that are as radical and harsh as possible. How then are the expressions of anger related to the punishments in the concluding clauses? It becomes immediately clear that the three short sentences of v. 22* are only formally legal sentences; in reality the legal level is transcended. If a court had to deal with outbreaks of anger—indeed, if the Sanhedrin had to deal with simple abusive language—it would be hopelessly swamped. The sentences of v. 22* that appear to be sentences of law have the character of hyperbole.26 They want to say that what appears to be an insignificant expression of anger is the equivalent of murder that is subject to heavenly and earthly punishment. Between v. 22b* and v. 22c* there is an elevation into another dimension. If initially the punishment in v. 22a*, v. 22b* applied to the earthly realm, because the OT legal system in v. 21b* also judged on this level, the concluding v. 22c* makes clear that for Jesus anger is punishable not only on the earthly level. Behind the earthly judgment there is God’s judgment. Verse 22* is formulated from God’s perspective and with God’s seriousness. Because the root of human killing lies in the human heart, because every insignificant insult leveled at another person “dispatches” (i.e., kills) that person, there is also a judgment—namely, God’s judgment—for things that for human courts are too insignificant.
If that is true, then we must eliminate every thought of casuistry from the sequence of the three sentences. Verse 22b* and c are not the expression of the legal practice of the Matthean community, not practiced halakah,27 but the exemplary heightening of God’s unconditional demand. Matthew is not on the way to legalizing our antithesis, a way that by introducing a succession of offenses and punishments led to classifying most expressions of anger as venial sins. The punishment of hell is the perspective behind the earthly punishments and above all angry deeds.
Only a comparison of this heightened demand of Jesus with Jewish ethics makes clearer what the antithesis to the Torah might be.
Anger is a frequent subject in the OT and in early Jewish writings, especially in wisdom literature. The Community Rule of Qumran prescribes carefully defined punishments for outbreaks of anger against members of the sect that destroy the basis of fellowship (1QS 6.25–27; 7.2–5, 8–9; cf. 5.25–26). Jesus’ contemporary, Hillel, in contrast to the “angry” Shammai, embodied for many the ideal of the “mild,” patient, even-tempered Jew. Some statements in rabbinic texts understand anger as such a serious offense that there is no human punishment for it, only divine punishment.30 Public shaming of one’s neighbor is an offense for which one cannot make amends by good works. In anger a wise man’s wisdom abandons him so that even Moses forgot the halakah when he became angry.32 A baraita transmitted in b. Qidd. 28a in the style of a sentence of law threatens with the ban, forty lashes, and vengeance anyone who says to his neighbor “slave,” “bastard,” or “godless.”
Even more important are wisdom parallels that contain an interpretation of the fifth (sixth) commandment as broad as that of Jesus. From Eliezer ben Hyrcanus comes the sentence: “Whoever hates his brother, behold, he belongs to those who shed blood.” Sir 34:21–22* LXX already designated as a murderer the one who deprives a poor person of the necessities of life. 2 Enoch 44.3 also contains a series comparable to that of Matt 5:22*: “He who expresses anger to any person without provocation will reap anger in the great judgment. He who spits on any person’s face, insultingly, will reap the same at the Lord’s judgment.”
The parallels show that Jesus’ demand is nothing new in the framework of contemporary Jewish parenesis. They remind us that in Pharisaic Judaism Torah was not only the basis of a legal system, not merely “a matter of the civil sphere” or “external duty.” It comprised not only the realm of the measurable commandments (מִצְוֹת). It was God’s instruction for the whole person. In Pharisaic Judaism in particular it was not a new thing that the Torah must be read “within the legal line”—that is, in terms of the demand for mercy and the love commandment—and that it is “committed to the heart.”37 In Judaism Torah as demand and Torah as God’s will that lays claim to the whole person are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually inclusive. For their part Christians must not give in to the temptation to construct an image of Judaism that dismisses the entire area of wisdom-style parenesis as not legally binding and to marginalize it merely in order to save Jesus’ originality. Thus in its content the first antithesis is not at all original. Jesus simply formulates it more sharply and in a more attention-grabbing way by couching his admonition in the form of a legal sentence.39 In so doing he emphasizes that it is absolutely binding. However, that does not yet make it actually antithetical to Judaism and to the OT.
Does that mean that the only new element in Jesus’ admonition is its antithetical wording? Yet what does this mean if in his confrontation with the Torah by virtue of his special authority as the messenger of the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims something that basically everyone already knew? Then there is a gap between the pathos of the antitheses formula and its self-evident content.
In my judgment we must begin with the interrelatedness in Judaism between legal demand and parenesis. When Jesus antithetically contrasts parenesis (in the binding form of “sentences of law”) with the existing legal system, he does something special. While in Judaism the nation’s legal system given by God and the parenesis directed to the individual that goes beyond the law harmoniously supplement one another, Jesus sets them over against one another. The OT legal system is not radical enough, and it does not yet completely reflect God’s will; it is the radically formulated wisdom admonition that is actually his will. This view of the legal order as something of secondary importance is in keeping with Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. Jesus had scarcely any interest in valid and practicable legal regulations for his people, probably because he was interested in gathering the eschatological people Israel in light of the dawning of the kingdom of God and in proclaiming the will of God that corresponded to the kingdom of God. Although it is not said in the text, I think that only in light of the kingdom of God that is breaking into the world can we understand the antithetic relationship between (traditional) divine justice and (traditional) parenesis that emerges for the first time in the antitheses.
History of Interpretation

The history of the interpretation of the first antithesis is to a large extent a history of tempering its strictness.
a. Primarily, but not only, Western witnesses since Irenaeus limit the extent of the antithesis to unjustified anger. Since the reading “without cause” (εἰκῇ) became the textus receptus, exegetes have asked what constitutes justified anger. Such tendencies were strengthened by Aristotelian philosophy, which, in contrast to Stoicism,43 did not completely condemn anger as long as it was for the right cause and to the right degree. Thus there is also a justifiable anger, indeed, even a useful and necessary anger.45
b. One included here religiously motivated anger, the “holy hate.” Thus one tried to understand why in spite of his antithesis Jesus calls his Jewish opponents “fools and blind” (Matt 23:17*) and Paul scolds the Galatians as “unintelligent” (Gal 3:1*). A distinction must be made between anger against sin and that against the sinner.47 It is true that the first antithesis does not consider this side of the problem. Still, the generalization that the insult “fool” is not a sin if it comes “out of a kindly and motherly heart” can prove to be a way of circumventing its demand.
c. Above all, however, an exception was made for the “anger” of the government official. The problem was seen long before the Reformation when, for example, the Opus Imperfectum with convincing simplicity argues that without anger there would be “neither doctrine … nor legal sentencing” nor a check on crime. As a result, “rage that is for a purpose is not rage but judgment” (“Iracundia quae cum cause est, non iracundia est, sed iudicium”).49 Of course, the reformers also emphasize this in distinguishing between the two kingdoms. “If father and mother, judge, and preacher held back their mouths and their fists and did nothing to curb or punish evil, the wickedness of the world would destroy the government and the church and everything. So the command here it to ‘hate the deed, but love the doer.’ ”
d. The interpretation of the three sentences of v. 22* as stages of offense and punishment led to another kind of tempering. Anger that remains hidden in the heart or that comes out spontaneously with no insidious intention is not as serious and is not punished as severely. The distinction between venial and mortal sins was able to come into play with these sages and to limit the mortal sin to the more aggravating cases of anger described in v. 22c*.51 Or with Zwingli’s interpretation: because Jesus knew that complete freedom from anger is impossible, he added v. 22b* and c to ensure that, even if people cannot banish it from their hearts, at least they will not give vent to it.52 In substance that is no longer far removed from Luther’s bitingly compact “to forgive but not to forget.”
It is easy to respond exegetically to the interpretations. One will have to reject every interpretation that no longer can understand v. 22* as a demand that means what it says and is valid for everyone. One also misses its exemplary character when it is tempered or moderated. There is certainly no suggestion of a distinction between justified and unjustified anger, as Matthew indicates with the examples in vv. 23–24* and 25–26*, where such a distinction is completely absent. At most one might ask whether on the basis of the wisdom background of parenesis one can justify limiting the freedom from anger to the area of interpersonal relationships. One will also have to be skeptical here, however, since what is new with Jesus is precisely that this parenesis influenced by wisdom is directed antithetically against God’s existing legal system in the old eon. Even theses such as the claim that this antithesis fundamentally implies a rejection of the death penalty and of war54 cannot simply be rejected if they are based on the kingdom of God.
It is much more difficult to take a systematic position. How does it change things that the kingdom of God in the light of which Jesus formulated the antithesis and in anticipation of which he demanded absolute humanity from his hearers did not happen? Since that day its anticipation has faded away.
Are not the attempts to temper the antithesis in the history of interpretation a quite human reaction in this world? “Not only are you not to kill; you are not to want to kill. You are not to permit that impulse to be in you that, if you were to follow it, would kill.” Taken by itself, this demand of the first antithesis means that one’s superego exerts absolute control, extending even to a person’s most private feelings. Is it possible and helpful, or is it simply asking too much? Could it be that grace consists of doing what was attempted in the history of interpretation, namely, not demanding so much? Zwingli repeatedly interrupted his interpretation of the antitheses, which he understood as an expression of divine righteousness, with the lapidary sentence “as we do not keep it (for we are briefly not free of temptation).”56 He then added the minimal commandment of the “school master” that although with its “death for death, life for life, eye for eye … wound for wound” it does not correspond to God’s righteousness, at least it prevents the worst from happening. Is it then the much more human righteousness of the OT that is an expression of grace?
The question is: What then for Matthew—and also for us—has taken the place of the anticipation of the kingdom of God that supports a person? The Matthean answer is twofold. It is the story of the Son of God, Jesus, who has gone the way of obedience to the resurrection accompanied by his Father. And it is the community that follows him on this way and that learns that the story of the Son of God is a story of God with it. Only in the experience of the presence of the living Lord is his radical demand helpful. Thus the Matthean antitheses presuppose that he who makes their demands is the one who is with his church until the end of the world.
That is the basis for a way of tempering the demand that we have not yet mentioned and that is closer to Matthew than all the others. It limits the demand to the church. The prohibition of anger is related to the Christian brother “in whom Christ dwells.” Indeed, anger toward a fellow Christian can be declared to be nothing short of the sin against the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, for Matthew the reference to the community does not mean that the area in which it applies is limited. However, the key word “brother” does show that he is thinking of the community. It is for him the place that makes obedience to the Father’s will possible. But for him the obedience itself extends beyond the boundaries of the community. Matthew has already suggested that in 5:16*, where he spoke of the missionary dimension of Christian obedience. He will then go beyond the boundaries of the community especially in the last antithesis, which repeats the theme of the first one.

■ 23–24* The following two verses interpret and further develop this antithesis. They formulate positively what the antithesis itself formulated negatively. The issue is no longer avoiding deadly words; now it is in a positive sense reconciliation, that is, love for one’s brother. People have wanted to understand these verses as an example of how Matthew realistically made concrete the demands of the first antithesis. The opposite is true. A comparison with Jewish parallels shows that our example is not at all realistic.
For the nearest Jewish background one should not look primarily to the rabbinic regulations about interrupting the guilt offering in cases where the stolen property has not yet been returned (m. B. Qam. 9.12; t. Pesaḥ. 3.1), because there the issue is the correct performance of the sacrifice. Nor do Philo’s statements about examining oneself before the sacrifice (Spec. leg. 1.167) offer substantive parallels. Important rather are the statements primarily in the wisdom tradition about the unity of ethic and cult: sacrifices by godless persons are an abomination to God; whoever shows mercy performs a sacrifice (Prov 15:8*; 21:3*, 27*; Sir 31[34]:21–24*; 35:1–3*, etc.).61 In these texts as well the cult is secondary to ethics without in any way being abrogated. Such thinking found a place in rabbinic Judaism in the well-known principle that the only things for which the Day of Atonement does not atone are offenses against one’s fellow human beings (m. Yoma 8.9). Probably important for Matthew are prophetic traditions that he himself formulates with Hos 6:6*.
Against such a background these verses are understandable and, at the same time, strange. What is strange is their sharpness: whether the brother’s anger is justified is irrelevant. It may have sounded especially harsh to Galileans, for whom the commandment to be reconciled with the brother before offering sacrifice as a rule meant a journey of several days back to Galilee. As is often the case with Jesus, we also have here a categorical, hyperbolically exaggerated, exemplary demand whose goal is a new basic attitude to one’s fellow human being. It thus is a demand that requires more than its literal fulfillment. It says: reconciliation, and that means love, is to take the place of every feeling of anger, the root of human murder. For Jesus, as for Matthew, the cultic law is not abrogated by the commandment of reconciliation, but the reconciliation comes “first” (πρῶτον), a term that is repeated in 23:26*.
The church’s interpretation offers possible applications. Concern for one’s neighbor is the criterion and presupposition for the prayer of thanksgiving and for the Eucharist.64 Luther extends it to politics: sacrifice without reconciliation is “the same as bringing on war, murder, and bloodshed—and then paying a thousand guldens to have Masses said for the souls of those who were killed.” Augustine’s formulation is comprehensive: “Everything that we think and strive for must agree with what we confess with our mouth.”66

■ 25–26* The final traditional piece, about reconciliation with one’s opponent before the trial, lets an admonition that begins with a situation from everyday life take a sudden turn at the end so that the last judgment appears behind the trial situation. On the surface this text is pragmatic and has its parallels in similar advice in the wisdom tradition. For a debtor who is on his way to a debtor’s trial it is good advice to come to an understanding with his creditor before he is imprisoned for the debt. The creditor may also have an interest in such an understanding, since he does not know whether the family or the friends of the imprisoned debtor will actually pay for him.68 Since imprisonment for debt was unknown in Jewish law, we are dealing here with the terror of a Gentile trial where the poor debtor is imprisoned until the last penny is paid. Matthew’s community in Syria was as familiar with court officials (as torturers?)70 and imprisonment for debt as they were with the common Greek word “liable” (εὐνοέω).
However, the text’s depth dimension is decisive. On the one hand, it is focused on reconciliation with the opponent. The readers are to understand “be well disposed” in terms of “be reconciled” (v. 24b*). The opponent (ἀντίδικος) is to become a brother. Something of the love of one’s enemy that is developed later in the sixth antithesis is already visible here. Thus the negatively formulated antithesis of v. 22* is continued positively in vv. 23–26*: anger and harsh words are replaced by reconciliation and love. The “way”—in the original commonsense advice merely the way to where the court is located—becomes the time granted people before God’s final judgment.72 Thus beneath the surface of the commonsense advice the perspective of the last judgment becomes visible. Matthew signals it with his favorite word, “amen,” which almost always introduces an eschatological, last-judgment statement, and with “I say,” which is used similarly in many places.74 In the last judgment there will be no more grace. Here our text looks ahead to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, which is influenced by this judgment perspective (7:13–28*).75 Thus here the call to love is—at least also—sharpened with the threat of judgment. About this perspective, which is difficult for many modern people, here I can only briefly point out that Matthew is in no way thinking of the this-worldly “hell” of a life determined by formal justice and not by love—a life where the only rule is that all get what they deserve; he is thinking of God’s final judgment. He is thinking not only of the time granted in the present for love;77 he is thinking also of the end of this time. I am not concerned here to solve the theological problems this raises, only to point out that the text presents us with them.
2.2.2 Second Antithesis: On Adultery (5:27–30*)
Will Deming, “Mark 9.42–10.12; Matt 5.27–32 and B. Nid. 13b: A First Century Discussion on Male Sexuality,” NTS 36 (1990) 130–41.
Klaus Haacker, “Der Rechtssatz Jesu zum Thema Ehebruch (Mt 5,28),” BZ NF 21 (1977) 113–16.
Hildebrecht Hommel, “Herrenworte im Lichte sokratischer Überlieferung,” ZNW 57 (1966) 1–23.
Kurt Niederwimmer, Askese und Mysterium: Über Ehe, Ehescheidung und Eheverzicht in den Anfängen des christlichen Glaubens (FRLANT 113; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975) 24–33.
Johannes Schattenmann, “Jesus und Pythagoras,” Kairos 21 (1979) 215–20.
Stauffer, Botschaft, 82–85.

For additional literature see above II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) and II A 2.2 on the antitheses (5:21–48).

27 “You have heard that it was said:
‘You shall not commit adultery.’
28 But I say to you:
Everyone who looks at a woman with desire
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye leads you astray,
tear it out and throw it away;
for it is better for you for one of your members to perish
and your whole body not be cast into hell.
30 And if your right hand leads you astray,
cut it off and throw it away;
for it is better for you for one of your members to perish
and your whole body not go to hell.”
The structure of the second antithesis is similar to that of the first. The actual antithesis (vv. 27–28*) is followed by an attachment (vv. 29–30*) with a repeated direct address in the second person singular (12 times σου, etc., in vv. 29–30*). The introductory phrase and the thesis itself are shorter than those in v. 21*. Again the thesis and antithesis are closely related linguistically. This time the connection is helped with the existence of the punishable act of adultery (μοιχεύω, vv. 27b*, 28b*). This term also connects the following, third antithesis with the second.
Source and Prehistory: Verses 27–28*
One can discern scarcely any Matthean additions. As was the case with vv. 21–22*, this antithesis is presumably not subject to tradition-history deconstruction. In addition to the close relationship between thesis and antithesis established by μοιχεύω, in Judaism the seventh (sixth in other traditions) commandment and the commandment not to covet the neighbor’s wife (tenth commandment) have already been connected. The antithesis builds on an already existing tradition and makes use of it antithetically. It is in keeping with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and therefore may well come from him.
Source and Prehistory: Verses 29–30*
These verses have parallels in Mark 9:43*, 45*, 47* (par. Matt 18:8–9*), which more clearly reveal the underlying form of the biblical “tov saying.” Thus they are transmitted twice in Matthew. This and certain characteristics of the two Matthean versions show that the evangelist presumably took over our version of the sayings not from Mark but from elsewhere, perhaps from Q or QMt. Thus in 5:27–30* Matthew has also chosen his special source as the basic text and expanded it with Q material. Here the bridge between the antithesis and the added material is the “eye” in v. 28* that is understood as the instrument of seduction. The reconstruction of the word of Q is very difficult. Luke has completely omitted the logion; perhaps it was too radical for him. Among the material peculiar to Q that was not in Mark are probably the imperatives “tear” (ἔξελε) and “throw away” (βάλε ἀπό σου), the introduction with εἰ, and the construction with “it is better for you that … and not” (συμφέρει … σοι ἵνα … καὶ μή). About redactional additions we can at most make conjectures.7 Its Semitic background, the double tradition, and the fact that Jesus often exaggerates in a similar way all speak for the conclusion that the logion originated with Jesus.
History of Interpretation

The history of interpretation shows a strange ambivalence between a tendency to expand and to sharpen the text in a dualistic aversion to sexuality and a different tendency to weaken this antithesis also in order to be able to live with it.
a. The intensification and broadening may start in different places.
1. We understand γυνή not as a married woman but simply as any woman. The Vulgate translates it as mulier rather than as uxor. Correspondingly, the prohibition of the lustful look was applied not only to the wives of other men but also to other women, virgins, even to one’s own wife.9 Μοιχεία takes on a broader meaning and refers to unchastity in general, de facto even to sexual relations. The influence of 5:27–30* on a sexual morality of the church that is hostile to sexual relations is clear. Eugen Drewermann asks with justification: “How is married life to be possible when a man may not look at a woman without being a lecher?”
2. The interpretation focuses on the verb “desire” (ἐπιθυμέω), which is understood in the sense of concupiscence as the root of all sin. Thus the antithesis can point to further connections: it ultimately forbids any “dissolute” desire. The medieval interpretation sometimes approaches dualism. Thus the Opus Imperfectum distinguishes between the concupiscentiae carnis and the concupiscentiae animae; the former are fundamentally reprehensible. A broad and ancient tradition introduces the word “pleasure [or lust]” (ἡδονή) instead of “desire” (ἐπιθυμία), so that what Jesus actually objects to is lust. Thus the antithesis is drawn into the wake of tendencies hostile to pleasure and marriage.15 For all practical purposes it can lead to avoiding any dealings with women whenever possible. Here also the connection between the interpretation of 5:27–30* and a sexual morality of the church hostile to pleasure is obvious.
3. It is a different kind of expansion when especially in the interpretive tradition coming from John Chrysostom the antithesis was regarded as directed not only to men but obviously also to women. It is perhaps not right to say here that it was sharpened, since the greater freedom of women in large cities in late antiquity in comparison with rural Jewish Palestine involved a new situation.
b. The opposing tendencies are not adequately described with the catchword “weakening.” For them it is important that according to ancient, medieval, and Catholic tradition sin has not completely destroyed the human nature God created. In the Reformation’s interpretation the high regard for marriage along with the antipathy to monastic and priestly asceticism plays a major role.
1. The effort to determine the meaning of “to desire her” (πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτήν) has played an essential role in the interpretation. As a rule πρός was understood in a final (purposive) rather than a consecutive sense. If looking at a woman is to be sin it thus must be connected with an evil intention. Jerome and the medieval tradition distinguish between “anticipation” (προπάθεια) and “passion” (πάθος), whereby the former is an “animi subitus affectus … amoris” and the latter “deliberatio ex consensu.” Thus terms such as finis, deliberatio, and consensus play a major role in interpretation. After the Council of Trent concupiscence, against which the baptized person struggles with God’s help, is not a mortal sin, and Luther also is “willing to let it stand: ‘If an evil thought is involuntary, it is not a mortal sin.’ ”21
2. The reformers are concerned to protect marriage. Married love is the best way to obey Jesus’ demand: “It would be a real art and a very strong safeguard against all this if everyone learned to look at his spouse correctly, according to God’s Word, which is the dearest treasure and the loveliest ornament you can find in a man or a woman.” Luther is fighting on two fronts. On the one hand he emphasizes that we are not to flee from one another but are to live together, and marriage is part of this living together.23 He resists monastic perfection. On the other hand he resists the corruption of morals, especially “in Italy.” The emphasis on marriage has been maintained in post-Reformation exegesis, and today it can also be seen in influential Catholic statements.25
The history of interpretation makes us aware how and how strongly we are influenced here by our tradition—and sometimes also by our effort to be emancipated from it. It makes clear what the exegetical questions are: What does γυνή mean? How is πρός with the infinitive to be interpreted? It confronts modern interpreters with the question whether Matt 5:27–30* really justifies the church’s traditional sexual morality that is hostile to the body and to pleasure. And above all: What was the speaker of this antithesis really trying to say?

■ 27–28* Γυνή probably means “wife” and not simply any woman. That follows from the area encompassed by the sixth (seventh in Judaism) commandment and the meaning of μοιχεύω, which is “to commit adultery” and not simply “to act unchastely.” In the Jewish context μοιχεύειν is used exclusively of the man; when speaking of women it would have to be stated passively (cf. v. 32a*). This—and the following—antithesis is directed only to men.26 According to Matthean usage (6:1*; 23:5*; 26:12* redaction; 13:30* tradition), πρός with the infinitive designates the intention and not the consequence. Therefore reservations are in order toward all interpretations that sharpen and expand the meaning. At issue is intentional looking with the purpose of violating someone else’s marriage.
The meaning of πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτήν is difficult, because in reality desire can only be the result of an (appraising) look but not its intention. For this reason Haacker (“Rechtssatz”) suggests a different translation: “so that she [scil. the woman = αὐτήν] desires,” that is, “in order to kindle desire in her.” Speaking against such a reading are the Matthean use of πρός with the infinitive (never accusative with the infinitive) and the already existing Jewish association of the seventh (sixth in other traditions) with the tenth commandment. Matthew probably did not intend to speak of an unintentional “seeing” but of an intentional “looking at,” that is, of a human act. For that reason he adds to βλέπων the explicit final (purposive) definition.
What is the sense of the antithetical contrast? In that day by shifting the burden of proof in favor of the accused, the Jewish judiciary had made it more difficult to condemn someone to death as an adulterer. The wording of the antithesis puts the emphasis on the verb “to commit adultery”: at issue is a sharpened definition of adultery—that is, the sanctity of marriage. In that regard the antithesis fits Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. Only indirectly, based on all of Jesus’ activity, can one add that he was not interested in establishing a different judiciary. Therefore, the material with which the antithesis is to be compared is first of all the parenetic interpretation from Jewish tradition of the seventh (sixth) commandment. The result here is that with his interpretation Jesus has expressed a conviction that would have found agreement not only in the entire ancient world32 but also especially in the Judaism of that day. Adultery begins in the heart; sin begins in one’s thoughts.
Especially in Hellenistic Judaism, under the influence of the list of the four Stoic “passions” (πάθη), desire often became the basis of all sin. Likewise, the connection of the eyes with desire and unchastity in antiquity35 and in Judaism—especially under the influence of wisdom—is self-evident. There is evidence in rabbinic Judaism for the idea that sin is worse in thought than when it is committed.37 Similar to our antithesis, for example, are statements such as T. Benj. 8.2: “He who has a pure mind in love, does not look after a woman for the purpose of adultery.” B. Ḥallah 1: “He who looks at a woman with a (covetous) intention is as one who cohabits with her”; Lev. Rab. 23 (122b): “He who commits adultery with his eyes is also called an adulterer.” Such parallels are not isolated; indeed, they are more frequent than are the parallels to the first antithesis.
Christian interpretation should not try to defend the originality of Jesus’ demand at all cost. Taken by itself it is not original. It also does not preserve the woman’s rights; at most it protects the rights of the other husband, whose marriage is already violated by the lustful look.41 It fits in well with the sharpened interpretation of the seventh (sixth) commandment that we can observe in the context of Judaism’s purity idea in that day. Does that mean that the second antithesis is a basis of the church’s later sexual morality that is hostile to sexuality? Drewermann states that “the church’s sexual morality … begins … with Matthew,” and in opposing it he demands that we restore “to Jesus’ words their original humanity.”42 Yet based on the exegesis that is not all that easy.
It is true that Jesus’ attitude toward women is different from that reported about many rabbis. According to them one must avoid unnecessary contact with women, an idea resulting from the more strict interpretation of the seventh (sixth) commandment. One is not to speak unnecessarily with a woman, not even with one’s own wife (m. ʾAbot 1.5). One is not to walk behind a woman on the street, not to greet her, not to be served by a woman, not to be alone with another woman,44 because even a woman’s voice and hair are lewd. Naturally one should not look at a woman, not even at an unmarried woman,46 because by doing so one is in danger. These Jewish statements are part of an increasing tendency in that day to exclude women from public life, including religious life. Jesus is not to be included in these tendencies, in spite of ascetic inclinations. Jesus did not avoid dealing with women; instead, he affirmed them as persons who were the victims of discrimination. Therefore we may not simply put his second antithesis in the context of increased masculine fear of unchastity and impurity.
However, the difficulty is that this is not explicitly said in the text. He defines adultery, but he does not speak of the love that should characterize the relationship of a husband and a wife. He sharpens the Torah by limiting the man’s sexual freedom somewhat, but he speaks of the woman only as the potential object of masculine desire. What, therefore, is the context of this antithesis with Jesus? Unfortunately, that remains uncertain. Was Jesus concerned to protect the disadvantaged woman? Did he want to liberate her and to integrate her by means of an open life together—a life characterized neither by sexual desire nor by fear of it? Against such a claim is the thesis that Jesus was primarily interested in the sanctity of marriage. In my judgment the prohibition of divorce that Matthew immediately adds points in this direction, as does the formulation of the text as an antithesis to the seventh (sixth) commandment of the Decalogue. Also supporting this thesis are the logia added in vv. 29–30* in which the issue is the “causing to stumble” (σκανδαλίζειν), the seduction to sexual desire, and not the possibility of a new way of living together for husband and wife.
The antithetical form is to be interpreted in much the same way as in vv. 21–22*. Based on the kingdom of God, the sanctity of marriage ordained by God is so important for Jesus that even a man’s covetous look at a married woman is an act of adultery. That means on the one hand that the legal fact of adultery in the sense of OT-Jewish law moves to the background. That is not what interests Jesus in light of the kingdom of God. If the sanctity of a marriage is already destroyed by a covetous look, the “normal” acts of adultery are not debatable anyway. On the other hand, it means an endless intensifying of the seventh (sixth) commandment. Not only legal facts but the inner feelings of the human (masculine!) heart are affected by it. The Torah lays such a total demand on the whole person that its function as the basis of Israel’s legal system becomes completely irrelevant.

■ 29–30* The addition of vv. 29–30* confirms that Matthew understands v. 28* as a radical demand of obedience. At issue is not simply a mirror of the soul that reveals one’s own sin. There is no tendency apparent here to moderate the demands on a practical level. Matthew speaks—perhaps unlike his source—first of being led astray by the “eye,” because that immediately follows vv. 27–28*. In rabbinic texts, however, the hand is also regarded as an instrument of adultery and of unchastity.50
Are the logia meant realistically or symbolically? A “realistic” interpretation is possible to the degree that occasionally cutting off the hands is demanded in rabbinic texts precisely in the case of sexual offenses. Admittedly, there is little evidence that it was actually carried out. In the history of interpretation the literal interpretation was for all practical purposes unanimously rejected.52 An interpretation of “tear out” and “cut off” as hyperboles was more likely. The sense then was that one is no longer to use the eye and the hand for sinful purposes. As the interpretation of the ancient church already recognized, however, the problem with such an interpretation was the addition of “right” (δεξιός) to the eye. Why should the right eye play a special role in the seduction to sin? “Right” symbolically represents “good,” “costly,” “important.” The double saying may be a warning against sin attached to established expressions:55 in order to avoid sin one is to give up everything, even what is most important and most treasured. The perspective is one of judgment that makes even physical integrity a matter of secondary importance. The original saying was probably not limited to sexual offenses; such sayings can be applied to many areas.
With these logia Matthew wants to introduce his readers to a radical way of living free of compromise. Probably of special importance for him was the reference to the concluding condemnation in judgment (cf. vv. 25–26*). It is no accident that the word “Gehenna” (γέεννα) appears in the first and second antitheses and that both of them end with the prospect of possible condemnation in the last judgment.
History of Interpretation
The church’s tradition has interpreted the sayings allegorically and in so doing has been especially interested in the meaning of “eye” and “hand.” The church’s interpreters have discovered fields of application for these verses beyond the area of sexuality. Here they were influenced in part by 18:8–9*. The most common interpretation refers to the covetous spirit, evil thoughts, and false objectives of the will, all of which one must abandon.56 Under the influence of John Chrysostom the interpretation frequently refers to false friends, perhaps even family members and other relations from whom one should keep apart for the sake of the gospel, even if one has special affection for them.58 Finally, we must mention the interpretation in terms of the body of Christ, the church, which in certain circumstances must abandon some of its members for the sake of the life of the whole body. Of course, based on the literal meaning of 5:29–30*, these areas of application discovered with the aid of allegorical interpretation miss the mark. They are important, however, because they call attention to the openness of the two logia. In addition, they are hermeneutically interesting, because they show that the ancient church has fundamentally understood biblical texts as open texts and has worked out their various possible applications with the help of allegorical methods of interpretation.

We look back over the entire text. Our interpretation has left us with the impression that Jesus was more interested in marriage here than in love. We have not really been able to free this text from its ambivalent history of interpretation, especially in a sexual ethic of the church that was hostile to sexuality. We have not been able to interpret it in a convincing way based on the new openness that Jesus elsewhere shows in his relationships to women. We have also not been able, following Drewermann’s wish, convincingly to separate Matthew from Jesus and to declare that Matthew alone was the originator of the church’s mistaken developments. The text remains ambivalent. We should not let our horror about the shadows it has cast on the history of the church cause us to overlook its positive potential meaning. Among these positive elements is its holistic understanding of the person that does not permit a separation between inner and outer, between what is legally punishable and mere thoughts. It is also a positive thing that precisely the “privileged” men are admonished that total obedience of the heart is also demanded of them. It also may be part of the text’s positive potential that Jesus unmistakably calls attention to the sanctity of marriage, an institution that for him to a special degree corresponds to God’s will. I say “may be,” because it is precisely on this point that there are many critical questions.
2.2.3 Third Antithesis: On Divorce (5:31–32*)
Heinrich Baltensweiler, Die Ehe im Neuen Testament: Exegetische Untersuchungen über Ehe, Ehelosigkeit und Ehescheidung (Zurich: Zwingli, 1967) 82–119.
Johannes B. Bauer, “Bemerkungen zu den matthäischen Unzuchtsklauseln (Mt 5,32; 19,9),” in Josef Zmijewski and Ernst Nellessen, eds., Begegnung mit dem Wort: Festschrift für Heinrich Zimmermann (BBB 53; Bonn: Hanstein, 1980) 23–33.
Berger, Gesetzesauslegung 1.508–75.
Markus Bockmuehl, “Matt 5.32; 19.9 in the Light of Prerabbinic Halakhah,” NTS 35 (1989) 291–95.
Joseph Bonsirven, Le divorce dans le Nouveau Testament (Paris: Desclée, 1948).
Henri Crouzel, L’Église primitive face au divorce: Du premier au cinquième siècle (ThH 13; Paris: Beauchesne, 1971).
Gerhard Delling, “Ehescheidung,” RAC 4 (1959) 707–19.
Max Denner, Die Ehescheidung im Neuen Testament (Würzburg: Schöningh, 1910).
Hartwig Dieterich, Das protestantische Eherecht in Deutschland bis zur Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts (Jus Ecclesiasticum 10; Munich: Claudius, 1970).
Hans Dombois, Unscheidbarkeit und Ehescheidung in den Traditionen der Kirche: Ist die Unauflöslichkeit der Ehe absolut? (TEH 190; Munich: Kaiser, 1976).
David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul: The Use of the Synoptic Tradition in the Regulation of Early Church Life (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 102–31.
Jacques Dupont, Mariage et divorce dans L’Évangile (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1959).
Eheverständnis und Ehescheidung: Empfehlungen des Interkonfessionellen Arbeitskreises für Ehe- und Familienfragen (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1971).
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Matthean Divorce-Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence,” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (New York: Crossroad, 1981) 79–111.
Heinrich Greeven, “Ehe nach dem Neuen Testament,” NTS 15 (1968/69) 365–88.
Paul Hoffmann, “Jesu Wort von der Ehescheidung und seine Auslegung in der neutestamentlichen Überlieferung,” Conc 6 (1970) 326–32.
Hoffmann-Eid, Jesus, 109–46.
Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple: A Study with Special Reference to Mt. 19.1–12 and 1. Cor. 11.3–16 (ASNU 24; Lund: Gleerup, 1965).
Gerhard Lohfink, “Jesus und die Ehescheidung: Zur Gattung und Sprachintention von Mt 5,32,” in Helmut Merklein and Joachim Lange, eds., Biblische Randbemerkungen: Schülerfestschrift für Rudolf Schnackenburg zum 60. Geburtstag (2d ed.; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1974) 207–17.
Evald Lövestam, “Divorce and Remarriage in the New Testament,” Jewish Law Annual 11 (1981) 47–65.
William F. Luck, Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 86–129.
Corrado Marucci, Parole di Gesù sul divorzio: Ricerche scritturistische previe ad un ripensamento teologico canonistico e astorle della dottrina cattolica dell’indissolubilità del matrimonio (Aloisiana 16; Brescia: Morcelliana, 1982) 191–221, 333–406.
Joseph Moingt, “Le divorce ‘pour motif d’impudicité’ (Mt 5,32; 19:9),” RSR 56 (1968) 337–84.
Pierre Nautin, “Divorce et remariage dans la tradition de L’Église latine,” RSR 62 (1974) 7–54.
Niederwimmer, Askese, 12–41.
V. Norskov Olsen, The New Testament Logia on Divorce: A Study of Their Interpretation from Erasmus to Milton (BGBE 10; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1971).
Anton Ott, Die Auslegung der neutestamentlichen Texte über die Ehescheidung (NTAbh 3.1–3; Münster: Aschendorff, 1911).
Rudolf Pesch, Freie Treue: Die Christen und die Ehescheidung (Freiburg: Herder, 1971).
Ilona Riedel-Spangenberger, Die Trennung von Tisch, Bett und Wohnung (cc 1128–1132 CIC) und das Herrenwort Mk 10,9: Eine Untersuchung zur Theologie und Geschichte des kirchlichen Ehetrennungsrechts (EHS.T 102; Frankfurt: Lang, 1978).
Alexander Sand, “Die Unzuchtsklausel in Mt 5,31, 32 und 19,3–9,” MThZ 20 (1969) 118–29.
Berndt Schaller, “Die Sprüche über Ehescheidung und Wiederheirat in der synoptischen Überlieferung,” in Eduard Lohse, Christoph Burchard, and Berndt Schaller, eds., Der Ruf Jesu und die Antwort der Gemeinde: Exegetische Untersuchungen: Joachim Jeremias zum 70. Geburtstag gewidmet von seinen Schülern (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970) 226–46.
Phillip Sigal, The Halakah of Jesus of Nazareth according to the Gospel of Matthew (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986).
Wolfgang Trilling, “Zum Thema: Ehe und Ehescheidung im Neuen Testament,” ThV 16 (1986) 73–84.
Fritz Vogt, Das Ehegesetz Jesu (Freiburg: Herder, 1910).
Ben Witherington, “Matt 5.32 and 19.9—Exception or Exceptional Situation?” NTS 31 (1985) 571–81.

For additional literature see Bo Reicke, “Ehe, Eherecht, Ehescheidung,” TRE 9 (1982) 324–25; also above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) and II A 2.2 on the antitheses (5:21–48).

31 “But it was said:
‘Whoever dismisses his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’
32 But I say to you:
Everyone who dismisses his wife, except for a matter of unchastity, makes her commit adultery;
and whoever marries a dismissed woman commits adultery.”
The introductory phrase is formulated very briefly, not only because the symmetry of the antithesis required a brief formulation but primarily because this antithesis is closely connected to the preceding antithesis.2 Unlike the first two antitheses, it does not directly relate to the language of the thesis. Instead, with the double “to commit adultery” (active)/“adultery to be done” (passive) (μοιχεύω/μοιχάομαι) it relates directly to v. 27*; still at issue is the understanding of the sixth (seventh in Judaism) commandment of the Decalogue. Verse 32a* and b are formulated as a mashal with synthetic parallelism. It becomes even clearer if one omits “except for a matter of unchastity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας), which is special material not found in Luke 16:18* and Mark 10:11*, and if one assumes that the formulation “makes her commit adultery” (ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι) is based on a brief Aramaic Aphel form.
Sources and Redaction
We are indebted to Matthew for the wording of the thesis in v. 31*. The abbreviated introductory formula follows Mark 10:4* (cf. 19:7*). Here we again have an example of redaction that is completely based on tradition. Verse 32* had been transmitted to Matthew in two versions: in that of Mark 10:11* (= Matt 19:9*) and in one similar to Luke 16:18*. However, the hypothesis of a Q text is not certain. The wording cannot be reconstructed with any precision, nor can we find a meaningful context for the logion in Q. The unchastity exception was probably already available to Matthew. Its wording is different from that in 19:9*, where the evangelist presumably inserted it into the Markan text.4 Furthermore, 19:3–9* shows that the emphasis of Matthew’s reflection on the prohibition of divorce lies elsewhere. Presumably the possibility of a divorce in the case of unchastity reflects the practice of the Jewish Christian Matthean community. “Whoever” (ὃς ἐάν) in v. 32* comes from Matthew.5
Tradition History and Origin
The question of the original form of the logion v. 32*, Luke 16:18*, and Mark 10:11* is very controversial. Most improbable is, in my judgment, the suggestion that Mark 10:11* comes the closest to the original form.6 Luke 16:18* and Matt 5:32* have in common that they address only the man and that they forbid marriage with a divorced woman. Apart from the unchastity exception, which is certainly secondary, there are the following differences.
a. The passive formulation “makes her commit adultery” (ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι) in Matt 5:32a* presupposes the basic Jewish conviction that the husband cannot violate his own marriage. Is that a Jewish Christian community’s later moderation and adaptation to its surroundings? If so, then the secret provocation of Jesus’ original saying in Luke 16:18* would be that it implies that the man can violate his own marriage.7 If the Lukan version were closer to the original, Jesus’ saying would have been more “revolutionary.” Or is the active “commit adultery” in Luke 16:18* a secondary adaptation to non-Jewish circumstances? That is more probable, because “secret” provocations are not rhetorically effective, since one does not notice them. In any case, the desire to find a saying of Jesus that is as un-Jewish as possible must not lead us to prefer the Lukan version.
b. Is “and marries another” (καὶ γαμῶν ἑτέραν) original in Luke 16:18a* and omitted in Matt 5:32a* when the unchastity exception was inserted, perhaps because of the length of the saying? Or is it an addition, based perhaps on Mark 10:11*, that softens the saying and at the same time makes it legally more practical in the sense that the divorce becomes final and thus adultery only when the man remarries? The symmetry of the two parts, Matt 5:32a*, b* and Luke 16:18a*, b* supports the conclusion that the saying did not speak originally of the husband’s remarriage.
That means that we can already make a decision about the main problem. Is the prohibition of the marriage of a divorced woman (Matt 5:32b*) part of the original logion that then from the very beginning would have contained a parallelism? Matthew and Luke pass this prohibition on. In, or perhaps prior to, Mark it was probably replaced by v. 12*. In my judgment there is no reason to regard Matt 5:32b* and Luke 16:18b* as secondary.8 The logion probably goes back to Jesus in this form, that is, with Semitic parallelism. If that is true, it has important consequences for our interpretation. If Jesus has prohibited the marriage of a divorced woman, it is difficult to understand his prohibition of divorce as siding with the disadvantaged woman.

A great many of the scholarly articles or books on this text that have appeared since the 1960s come from Catholic writers and have the primary or incidental purpose of demonstrating its agreement with Catholic marriage law. We thus enter a theologically sensitive and controversial area with this text. From the literature it is less clear that it could also call into question Protestant divorce practices.

■ 31* The third antithesis differs from the two previous antitheses. The thesis in v. 31* contains a very special OT regulation. It is a free paraphrase of the OT regulation of divorce in Deut 24:1*. Strictly speaking there is no command there; the regular divorce with a bill of divorce is mentioned only in connection with the prohibition to the man against remarrying his divorced ex-wife (Deut 24:4*). Matthew contrasts this regulation with an antithesis that only indirectly has something to do with it—namely, Jesus’ qualification of divorce as adultery except in the case of πορνεία. How can one speak of “fulfilling the law” in the sense of 5:17–19* with this antithesis that Matthew has created himself? On the surface an answer is implied by v. 31*. With the possibility of a divorce in the case of πορνεία there remains one case where one writes a bill of divorce in the sense of Deut 24:1*. The formulation of the antithesis offers a second clue. Its wording is related not to the thesis in v. 31* but back to v. 27*. Since Matthew is concerned that the sixth (seventh in Judaism) commandment of the Decalogue must be kept, divorce for him is tantamount to adultery. In 19:3–9* the evangelist will make clearer how he understands the relationship of Jesus’ will to the OT regulation about the bill of divorce. Jesus’ demand reflects God’s original will. Moses’ commandment about the bill of divorce is merely a concession whose continuing validity is limited. Moses’ concession (19:8* = ἐρρέθη [“it was said”], 5:31*) is coordinated with and subordinate to Jesus’ proclamation of the original will of God (“but I say to you,” 5:32* = 19:9*).

■ 32* With v. 32* Matthew inserts a traditional saying of Jesus as the antithesis.
For Jesus

Whoever dismisses his wife causes adultery to be done with her. As was the case with the preceding antithesis, this logion applies only to the man, because in Judaism only the man can dismiss his wife.10 No further thought is given to the situation of the women, who are essentially objects of marriage, of divorce, and even of adultery; they appear only “passively.” It is not easy to interpret the prohibition of divorce in the framework of Jesus’ proclamation. The most common tendency is to connect it to Jesus’ affirmation of women, who in that day were regarded as “in all things inferior.” It is said that by understanding marriage as “an undivided whole that cannot be abolished by the law” he frees the woman from her dependency as a legal object and possession of the husband and discloses “the reality of the interpersonal relationship” of marriage.12 Thus the prohibition of divorce would be an expression of the love of Jesus and God for the disadvantaged woman. However, a number of points advise caution. First of all, it is puzzling that the woman nowhere appears in this antithesis as an active subject. Then it is to be observed that the Jesus logion combines the prohibition of divorce with the prohibition against marrying a divorced woman. While that is consistent, since in Judaism the regular divorce was designed to make it possible for the woman to remarry, this prohibition could be devastating for the divorced woman. It is, to put it mildly, “out of touch with reality,”14 and it is understandable only if one assumes that Jesus did not consider that in spite of this will of God there were in Israel unmarried, divorced women living in very difficult circumstances. The prohibition against marrying a divorced woman is in no way in the interest of the disadvantaged woman. Yet the Jewish commandment to the man to repay the dowry if there is a divorce meant a practical and effective protection for her.16 Thus Jesus is thinking in terms of God’s pure, unconditional will—that is, in terms of marriage—rather than in terms of love for the disadvantaged woman. In that sense the controversy story of Mark 10:2–12* has correctly understood him. He stands here in a biblical and Jewish tradition that fundamentally rejected divorce: “I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Mal 2:16*). In Qumran then divorce was presumably completely eliminated.17 For Jesus also the issue was probably that marriage and thus God’s will was inviolate. There appears to be a Qumran-like element here.
We must also critically examine another thesis. Many say that Jesus’ prohibition of marriage is not a sentence of law but a principle, a provocation,19 parenesis in the form of a sentence of law, “alienated” legal language analogous to 5:22* and 28*21 designed to convey a fundamental, irrevocable ethical demand. The relevance of this thesis for the present debate on the divorce laws of the various churches is considerable. Formally, v. 32* is an apodictic sentence of law that ends with a statement of guilt rather than with an announcement of punishment.23 Verses 22* and 28* show that such sentences of law can be used parenetically; then the sentence of law strengthens the parenesis. However, v. 32* has a different character from that of vv. 22* and 28*. Unlike an insult or a seductive look, a prohibition of divorce can be legally enforced and checked. One can see that in the community regulations of Qumran. Therefore, all early Christian communities have drawn legal conclusions from Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. By adding “and marries another,” Mark 10:11* indicates when the divorce becomes final and actionable. With his “privilege,” in 1 Cor 7:12–17* Paul does not set aside the Lord’s prohibition; he issues an opinion at the point where the community, which stands under the Lord’s command, and the world intersect. In any case, with his stipulation Matthew clearly shows that he understands Jesus’ prohibition of divorce as a valid regulation in his community24 and that he therefore can formulate an exception. In the light of this unanimous evidence in early Christianity it would appear to be problematic to accuse him of turning an ethical demand of Jesus into a law. Of course, Jesus did not establish a fellowship with a legal structure. However, his demand is, as it were, a potential law for eschatological Israel in the dawning of the kingdom of God. Contrasting law and parenesis misses the point.
For Matthew

In Matthew’s community Jesus’ principle was practiced in such a way that divorce was permitted only in the case of πορνεία. The literature on this stipulation is vast. What has the discussion established?
1. Παρεκτός (“apart from,” “except”) can only be understood in the sense of an exception: in the case of πορνεία the prohibition of divorce is no longer in effect.
Because the philological evidence is unequivocal, other interpretations have largely disappeared, such as the “inclusive” interpretation (“whoever dismisses his wife commits adultery even in the case of unchastity”) and the “preterite” interpretation (“whoever dismisses his wife—ignoring for a moment the case of previous unchastity—commits adultery”).27 Jacques Dupont correctly observes that the true difficulty lies not in explaining the biblical text but in the fact that so many good authors did not understand it.
2. Πορνεία can refer only to sexual misbehavior, and in the case of a married woman this as a rule would be adultery.
Πορνεία is a general word for “every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.” If a particular kind of unchastity is meant, that is always made clear by the context. Of course, in the OT tradition πορνεία can also figuratively mean “idolatry.”
a. In my judgment these observations include a decisive rejection of an older interpretation that has been renewed by Bonsirven and Baltensweiler31 and that today is especially popular in Catholic exegesis, namely, the interpretation that understands πορνεία in the sense of the prohibition of incest in Leviticus 18. In that case, perhaps similar to Acts 15:20* and 29*, Matthew would have declared illegitimate those marriages made between close relatives according to Gentile custom.33 However, this interpretation seems completely improbable to me, because: (1) Nothing in the context suggests that Matthew understands πορνεία with such a narrow meaning and intends to relate his exception only to former Gentiles. (2) Correspondingly, not a single church father and not a single interpreter before the modern period would have understood what his concern was. (3) The word πορνεία does not appear in Leviticus 18. (4) Since “except for a matter of unchastity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας) is a clear reference to Deut 24:1*,34 the subject under discussion must be the reasons for the divorce of legitimate marriages and not the invalidity of illegitimate marriages. Thus this exegesis is a “sleight of hand.” The only thing it has going for it is that it prevents the emergence of a (in my opinion supposed) conflict between this passage and Catholic church law.
b. The general meaning of πορνεία makes it impossible to define “unchastity” more narrowly. It cannot be defined more precisely as unchastity during the betrothal, as premarital sexual relations,37 as the wife’s ongoing unrepented adultery or prostitution, as concubinage,39 as “wild libertinism,” or as flirtation with another man.41 The exegete’s sexual morals are almost always the progenitor of such attempts.
c. It may be that in this passage πορνεία means the wife’s sexual activity outside the marriage, that is, genuine adultery. That follows from the context, which clearly speaks of married women. Furthermore, this best fits the controversy in Judaism over the interpretation of the “disgraceful matter” presupposed in Matt 19:3–9*.43 At most one must explain why πορνεία is used instead of “adultery” (μοιχεία). There are three reasons. (1) In the tradition of biblical language the root μοιχ- is more likely used of men, the root πορν- more of women. (2) The two roots do not have different meanings; instead, μοιχεία is a specific form of πορνεία so that the two words can also appear as synonyms. (3) A double μοιχεία / μοιχεύω (adultery/commit adultery) would be awkward.
Thus Jesus’ prohibition of divorce was in effect in the Matthean community, unless there was a case of adultery. Here it accepts a basic Jewish conviction: unchastity is an abomination that pollutes the land of Israel. One did not even ask whether in the light of God’s love adultery might not also be forgiven.47 Instead, the community seems to think, similar to Judaism, in cultic ritual terms: adultery and unchastity are a defilement that destroys marriage. Since adultery already destroys the marriage, for Judaism divorce is mandatory when adultery happens. Thus according to the Jewish Christian Matthew, a marriage must be terminated in the case of πορνεία, because according to Jewish conviction continuing it would contradict God’s commandment. The earliest Christian history of the interpretation of the text also usually sees it this way. Thus the Matthean community did not understand this exception as the liberalizing of a commandment that was too severe but as God’s commandment that protected marriage from impurity. Thus the practice of the Matthean community is close to the Shammaites, while Jesus himself is more likely close to the Essenes.

■ 32b* The prohibition against marrying a divorced woman expands the OT prohibition against remarrying one’s own divorced wife (Deut 24:4*) to include all divorced women. Here there is no exception.50 This prohibition also has a cultic-ritual sound. Its catastrophic consequences for divorced women are tempered in the Matthean community, at least for the wives of Christians. Since divorce is possible only in the case of unchastity, it is tantamount to a prohibition against marrying an adulteress.
Thus the antithesis reflects the marriage regulations practiced in the Matthean community. It reflects the evangelist’s voice only to the degree that he explicitly contrasts this practice with the OT. Matt 19:3–9* will make clear how he does this. It remains noteworthy that here the evangelist does not subordinate the practice of his community to the basic idea of God’s forgiveness, as he does, for example, in 18:15–17* with the excommunication regulation. To that extent our text is not specifically Matthean. It is Matthean, however, that the evangelist stands behind the practice of his community.
History of Interpretation

The history of interpretation reflects the different legal regulations of divorce in the various confessions. The basic position of the major confessions is known; every pastor experiences its consequences. Here I would like merely to suggest some main lines, and I will limit myself to the positions of the major churches.
a. In my judgment, in practice the Catholic position, which provides the possibility of a separation of table, bed, and dwelling with a continuing vinculum of the marriage, comes especially close to the Matthean position. That may be surprising in view of the flood of Catholic literature, which is probably an expression of a great uncertainty. To be sure, there are differences. Matthew speaks of the “dismissal” (ἀπόλυσις) and makes no distinction between the possible separation and what, with a continuing marriage bond, is the impossible divorce. However, the decisive point in which Matthew and Catholic practice converge lies in the prohibition against marrying a divorced woman. Corresponding to it is the denial of the possibility of a second marriage, which the church fathers generally maintained with great decisiveness.55 Not until the fourth century is there the beginning of a change in the East. Also important since then is the tendency to treat the husband and wife equally in the eyes of church law.57 Matt 5:32* was directed only to the man. If related to the woman, it would follow from 5:32b* that no woman can marry a divorced man. That means that if the man and the woman are consistently treated equally, 5:32* leads to the demand that neither divorced men nor divorced women be married. That is, it leads to a form of divorce (only in the case of unchastity!) that fundamentally differs from Jewish divorce by containing no possibility of a second marriage. That is practically, although not terminologically, close to the separation of bed, table, and dwelling.58 In my judgment no ecclesiastical legal solution is as close to the Matthean solution as is the Catholic. That becomes clear as soon as one includes v. 32b* in the deliberations.59 The numerous, in the last analysis apologetically motivated, “evasions” with regard to 5:32*, precisely on the Catholic side, are in my judgment an unnecessary labor of love. The main distinction between the Matthean and the Catholic position is that for the Jew, Matthew, in the case of a divorce because of adultery it is presumably impossible for the wife to be accepted again.
b. In the Orthodox churches a divorced person who is repentant has the possibility of a second marriage. The second marriage is already cautiously affirmed by some of the Greek fathers. Always important in the Eastern tradition was the conviction that adultery in fact already destroyed a marriage.62 Thus the possibility of a second marriage for divorced persons was conceded, based not on divine law (τάξις) but on the pastoral principle of fairness (ἐπιείκεια, οἰκονομία). The grounds for divorce here are restrictive, but they are not completely limited to adultery. From Matt 5:32* πορνεία is taken seriously as a reason for divorce, but the prohibition against marrying divorced persons is, as a concession to human weakness (cf. 19:8*), ignored.64
c. The Orthodox position was renewed in the churches of the Reformation, perhaps due to the influence of Erasmus. The reformers also emphasize that adultery destroys a marriage and thus makes a divorce possible.66 A factor that was essential for the further development and new in comparison with the churches of the East is the reformers’ understanding of marriage as a “secular thing.” This understanding had various consequences. It led first of all to a great deal of uncertainty how the problem of divorce is to be solved as a problem of church law. The short-term result was that there were mixed ecclesiastical-secular courts during the time of the Reformation. Soon the jurisdiction over divorce became a secular matter alongside which there were only initial impulses in the direction of binding church regulations. Corresponding to this development theologically is the basic conviction that Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is not a law but an ethical demand, which doubtless must be distinguished from civil law.69 That made it possible to give pastoral care, led by love, and to take seriously the concrete situation of the marriage. At the same time, however, it meant that for all practical purposes the church conformed to secular marriage law or to the secular (sinful!) reality of marriage and that it proclaimed God’s grace in all situations without distinction.
Meaning for Today

The need is great in all confessions. The inflexible divorce law in Catholicism appears to many to be the opposite of God’s love and forgiveness. On the other hand, the absence of a practiced church divorce law in Protestantism means that the pastors are left to their own devices so that they are able to do little more than bless all who want to have their marriages blessed. They experience the reverse side of Luther’s grand principle that love does not at all need laws,72 and they may ask themselves whether laws might not also help love so that it does not accept everything and keep quiet about everything.
The history of Matt 5:32* in Catholic church law clearly shows that simply going back to the biblical text does not solve the problems. On the contrary, when Catholics look at the regulation of 5:32* in a merely biblicistic way, they can be quite satisfied with things continuing as they are in their own church. However, 5:32* and the modern Catholic church are worlds apart. Marriage is no longer what it was in Jesus’ day;73 people’s experiences in marriage, not least of all the experiences of women, are different; and above all the church itself is different from Matthew’s community. Both Matthew, with his insertion of the unchastity exception, and especially Paul, with his situationally conditioned instructions of 1 Cor 7:10–16*, show how flexible one could be in the NT even in adapting laws given by the Lord to the situation. Where is this biblical and humane flexibility of the law in the church?75
Protestants, on the other hand, who suffer under their church’s laxness, perceive Matthew’s clear ecclesiastical regulation and the absoluteness of Jesus’ requirement of life-long monogamy to be a positive challenge to engage in reflection. The immovable pillars of the divine order, which in the Catholic church become for many people a burden and coercion, keep alive in the Protestant churches, in which it appears that all cats are gray and any lifestyle is permitted, the essential question whether there are not guidelines established by God that Christians can disregard only with difficulty.
When I speak of “guidelines,” however, I have shifted the emphasis away from what it is in the biblical text. Jesus’ categorical prohibition of divorce, formulated as a sentence of law, was more than a guideline. I have shifted the emphasis because based on the center of the biblical message I myself have questions about such a categorical prohibition of divorce. My most important question is how God’s love for people—the center of the biblical message—and the unconditional requirement of the indissolubility of marriage are related to one another. The experiences of the history of interpretation and especially our modern experiences show that in this case an unconditional demand can also imprison love instead of serve as its guideline.
2.2.4 Fourth Antithesis: On Swearing (5:33–37*)
Otto Bauernfeind, “Der Eid in der Sicht des Neuen Testaments,” in Hildburg Bethke, ed., Eid, Gewissen, Treuepflicht (Frankfurt: Stimme-Verlag, 1965) 79–112.
Gerhard Dautzenberg, “Ist das Schwurverbot Mt 5,33–37; Jak 5,12 ein Beispiel für die Torakritik Jesu?” BZ NF 25 (1981) 47–66.
Dennis C. Duling, “ ‘[Do Not Swear …] by Jerusalem Because It Is the City of the Great King,’ (Matt 5:35),” JBL 110 (1991) 291–309.
Takaaki Haraguchi, “The Prohibition of Oath-Taking in the Gospel of Matthew” (diss., Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, 1991).
Rudolf Hirzel, Der Eid: Ein Beitrag zu seiner Geschichte (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1902).
Martin Honecker, “Der Eid heute angesichts seiner reformatorischen Beurteilung und der abendländischen Eidestradition,” in Gottfried Niemeier, ed., Ich schwöre (Munich: Kaiser, 1968) 27–92.
Bernd Kollmann, “Das Schwurverbot Mt 5,33–37/Jak 5,12 im Spiegel antiker Eidkritik,” BZ 40 (1996) 179–93.
Ernst Kutsch, “ ‘Eure Rede aber sei ja ja, nein nein,’ ” EvTh 20 (1960) 206–18.
G. Stählin, “Zum Gebrauch von Beteuerungsformeln im Neuen Testament,” NovT 5 (1962) 115–43.
Zeller, Mahnsprüche, 124–26.

For additional literature see above, II A on the Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) and II A 2.2 on the antitheses (5:21–48).

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to the ancients:
‘You shall not commit perjury,
but you shall repay your oaths to the Lord.’
34 But I say to you:
Do not swear at all,
neither by heaven
for it ‘is God’s throne’
35 nor by the earth
for it ‘is his footstool.’
nor toward Jerusalem,
for it ‘is the city of the great king’;
36 nor shall you swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
37 Your word shall be: ‘Yes, yes,’ ‘no, no’;
Anything more than these is of evil.”
The thesis is reminiscent of v. 21*; as in the earlier case there are a complete introductory formula and two parts. It introduces the second half of the Matthean antitheses. The thesis (v. 33*) contains a direct quotation from a biblical text, in contrast to the other primary antitheses (vv. 21*, 27*) but similar to v. 31*. For the first time the antithesis is formulated as a prohibition (as in v. 39*). This prohibition contains no direct linguistic connection to v. 33*.2 The general prohibition (ὅλως: “at all”) is developed in four clauses introduced with “neither/nor” (μήτε). Three of them have parallel wording: “heaven,” “earth,” and “Jerusalem” are matching terms; each of the explanatory “because” clauses contains an OT allusion and ends with a reference to God, the last of which is especially full-toned. The fourth clause introduced with μήτε, v. 36*, differs from the others in its content, with the nontheological reason, and in its form, with the repeated “swear” (ὀμόσῃς), the second person singular address, and the absence of a biblical quotation. Verse 37* is a new main clause with the address in the second person plural, as in v. 34*.
Matthew appears to have taken over the entire traditional unit, vv. 33–37a*, from a source, probably from his written antitheses source.3 Linguistically, he might himself have provided only the final clause in v. 37b*.4
Tradition History
The antithesis was not produced in a single casting. Verses 34–35* and 37* have a variant in Jas 5:12* that is not in the form of an antithesis.5
1. The original traditional unit must be reconstructed with the help of Jas 5:12*.6 This verse contains a basic part of the specifications of Matt 5:34–35* but without the scriptural allusions and without v. 36*. Its second part corresponds to the positive exhortation of v. 37*. It does not speak of a double yes or no, however; it formulates with a predicate: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” The conclusion is completely different from v. 37b*. Basically, two possible reconstructions are conceivable: (a) Verses 33–34a*, b*, and 37* are the core of the original antithesis. Verses 34c–36* are secondary ethicizing expansions. The nonantithetical form of Jas 5:12* is secondary and corresponds to the wisdom style of James.7 (b) The antithesis is not original. In its tradition history the double admonition (prohibition—command) in the second person plural is original in a form close to Jas 5:12*.
In my judgment the second thesis is correct. The antithetical formulation is presumably not original, because the thesis in v. 33* contains no clear OT reference and because there is no verbal correspondence between the thesis and antithesis. Thus vv. 33–34* differ from vv. 21–22* and 27–28*. In addition, the comparison with Jas 5:12* permits the following conclusions: (1) Matt 5:36* is a secondary addition. (2) An element of vv. 34–35* could have belonged to the original text.8 Especially the OT motivations are secondary in Matthew. If that is correct, the prohibition and the command of the admonition were originally approximately of equal length, as in Jas 5:12*.9 (3) The predicative wording of the double yes and no that we find in Jas 5:12* is original. This view is also supported by the fact that it is the prevailing reading in the ancient church’s tradition, even where the influence of Matt 5:37* is clear.10
2. Secondary parts of the text.
2.1. Verse 33*. “You shall not commit perjury” (οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, v. 33b*) does not appear in the OT, and it has no linguistic relationship to the Decalogue prohibition against misusing the name of God in Exod 20:7*, or to the prohibition of bearing false witness in Exod 20:16*, or to the prohibition of false swearing in Lev 19:12*. There is, however, a similarly worded prohibition in Hellenistic Jewish parenesis (Ps.-Phoc. 16 = Sib. Or. 2.68; cf. Zech 5:3* LXX; Wis 14:25*; T. Abr. 2.6; Philo Spec. leg. 1.235; 2.26–27, 224; Decal. 88; Did. 2.3). In its wording the second part (v. 33c*) is remotely reminiscent of Ps 49:14* LXX; however, there the reference is to vows (εὐχαί). The two parts of the thesis are unequally related to the antithesis. The prohibition of v. 33b* is sharpened, while the command of v. 33c* is eliminated. Ἀποδίδωμι ὅρκον (to repay an oath) is unusual in Jewish Greek, but it is a Greek expression. Verse 33* probably comes from a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian community that formulated the prohibition against swearing antithetically using the first and second antitheses as a model and recalling the third (second in non-Jewish enumerations) commandment of the Decalogue (Exod 20:7*)13 and similar ethical collections of prohibitions. That v. 33c* is secondary to v. 33b* is an unnecessary assumption.15
2.2. The OT expansions of the three substitute oath formulas in vv. 34–35* are secondary. Since they are nicely symmetrical, they were formulated together. We can no longer say whether they presuppose the Hebrew or the Greek text.
2.3. Verse 36*, which formally follows vv. 34–35*, is very late. It has numerous Hellenistic and Jewish parallels.16
Since the categorical prohibition of swearing is unique in Judaism, it probably comes from Jesus.

In v. 34* Jesus champions a fundamental and unconditional (ὅλως) prohibition of oaths. He is probably the first person to take the widespread critical attitude in antiquity to the logical conclusion of a fundamental prohibition.
There is a widespread criticism of oaths in Hellenism. People are to be trustworthy of themselves and not bound by heteronomous authority. Oaths are unworthy of a free person. It is difficult to determine how the Greek criticism of oaths is related to religion: one is hardly able to describe with any certainty the prohibition of oaths in the Praecepta Delphica. Socrates used the so-called oath of Rhadamanthys and swore “by the dog”; Apollonius of Tyana interprets this as a pious act and as an intentional avoiding of the divine name.21 The religious character of the criticism of oaths becomes clear in a different way in late Stoicism: the true wise man does not need an oath, because he carries God in himself. A much later text interprets oath taking as dragging God down into human affairs.23 However, the criticism of oaths can also take on an enlightened, antireligious note: calling on the gods is superfluous, because human trustworthiness alone is decisive. Religion as a support for the truth has become a decaying foundation.25
Many of these Hellenistic motifs appear again in Philo. The difference is that as a Jew he considers the oath question theologically in terms of the holiness of the name of God, that is, based on the third (second) commandment of the Decalogue. “It says that the simple word of a brave man shall be an oath” (Spec. leg. 2.2). To swear is to defile and to desecrate the divine name (Spec. leg. 4.40; Decal. 93). Even swearing truthfully is only the second best possibility (Decal. 84); the rational thing would be not to swear, because “in the eyes of sensible people much swearing is a proof … of faithlessness” (Spec. leg. 2.8). Philo recommends as an alternative solution the Greek so-called elliptical oath or calling on something other than the highest cause, such as the earth, the sun, or the heaven (Spec. leg. 2.4–5).
According to the reports of Josephus (Bell. 2.135) and Philo (Omn. prob. lib. 84), the Essenes reject oaths and had been released by Herod from the oath of allegiance required of subjects (Ant. 15.371). In reality, however, they are familiar not only with an oath upon entering the sect (1QS 5.8–11 and frequently) but also with oaths in court. Did they forbid private oaths (CD 15.3–4)? It is not an oath itself but violating an oath that for them profanes the name of God (CD 15.4–5).
Prophetic (e.g., Hos 4:2*) and wisdom (Sir 23:9–11*) criticism of much swearing had an effect on rabbinic Judaism. One built a “fence around the Torah” by trying by means of legal regulations and penalties to prevent the misuse of the divine name with false or superfluous oaths,28 but also by emphatically warning in parenesis against frivolous swearing. The third (second) commandment of the Decalogue is understood as a prohibition of false and unnecessary oaths.30 There are only isolated statements that draw the “fence” around the Torah so tightly that they completely reject swearing.

■ 34*, 37* Both the form of the admonition and the prohibition of substitute expressions in vv. 34–35* indicate that, like the rabbis and Philo, Jesus speaks against misusing oaths as verifying embellishments in everyday life.32 We know that in those days swearing was done on the most banal occasions, much more often than today. Thus Jesus is completely in the tendency of Jewish parenesis, but with his categorical (ὅλως) prohibition of swearing he goes beyond it. The examples “also not35 by heaven, by earth, or by Jerusalem” strengthen the prohibition. It is valid in all circumstances, even with substitute formulas. “By heaven” and “by earth” were favorite formulas in Judaism for avoiding the name of God when swearing. Thus the prohibition applies even to the “harmless” oaths. Jesus does not go the way of Philo, who in order to protect the name of God accepts the substitute formulas as a lesser evil.
On the positive side he demands that the human word be unreservedly truthful. “He eliminated the distinction between words that have to be true and those that do not need to be.” There are not to be two kinds of truth among people. In this regard Jesus is in agreement with ancient38 and modern philosophy and with humanism.40 In all of daily life, without any reservation, a person is bound to God. Therefore, one’s word alone is to be absolutely truthful.
Still, that does not cover all of Jesus’ demand. Jesus’ prohibition of oaths is more than a categorical no to lying. The concrete examples in vv. 34–35* show that the issue for him, as for Judaism, is the holiness of God’s name and God’s majesty.41 Expressed differently, Jesus is not only concerned about truthfulness as an ethical principle so that oaths serve as an example of what truthfulness is; he is concerned about oaths, because here one invokes the name of God. The anthropological level—the command to truthfulness—has its theological correlate in the demand to sanctify God’s name. For Jesus, “human truthfulness” originates and exists “only with reference to God,” and this relationship determines not only the special case of the oath but every human yes or no.
As is the case with other categorical demands of Jesus, there is also something unrealistic about this one. Jesus gives no more thought to what kind of problematic consequences would result from his absolute prohibition of oaths than he does with his demand to reject violence or with his prohibition of divorce. God’s will takes precedence over everything else. Although it is not explicitly said in the text, one may see in this radicality a sign of the eschatological kingdom of God to which Jesus knew he was bound.44
The Community

■ 33* The community interpreted Jesus’ prohibition of oaths in various ways. Verse 33* states its relationship to the OT. With the antitheses’ form the community here shows that God’s OT legal system is surpassed by Jesus’ proclamation. In this case it is surpassed not only by being deepened—namely, with a more comprehensive sanctification of the name of God—but also by being abrogated—namely, with the rejection of oaths. Verse 33b* and c* belong together as a subject’s negative and positive sides. False oaths are rejected because oaths are made in God’s presence and are valid because of him. Jesus’ opposing position is also fundamental: he rejects any and all oaths. This antithesis is ambivalent toward the biblical will of God. Although Jesus’ prohibition of oaths is the most consistent way of avoiding a false oath (v. 33b*), whoever obeys it will no longer perform any oaths and vows to the Lord (v. 33c*).
That v. 33b* speaks of oaths that assert and v. 33c* of vows is an idea that first appears in modern interpretations.45 In my judgment, in view of the similar sounding formulations (ἐπιορκέω/ὅρκοι [swear falsely/oaths]), readers in that day would hardly have thought of this idea. Furthermore, the distinction between oaths and vows is not sharp in Judaism.47

■ 34–35*, 36* The community’s additions to vv. 34–35* deepen but do not change the original meaning. Thinking of Isa 66:1* and Ps 48:3*, the community strengthens the idea of God’s majesty that stands behind the substitution formulas (cf. 23:22*). The designation of God as “great king” is a frequent biblical metaphor.48 The accents are not shifted until v. 36*. By taking up another assertion formula,49 the verse first shows that the prohibition of oaths is actually to be understood concretely and not merely in a Platonic general sense. However, the argument has shifted. The issue is not primarily God’s power; it is the human lack of power because of which people cannot even change the color of their hair. Much as in 6:27* and 34*, the tone of this verse is one of wisdom-like resignation.

■ 37* Verse 37* is newly formulated in the Matthean tradition. What is meant with the doubled yes or no? Since there are two Jewish sources that understand a double yes as a substitute for an oath,51 some have thought that v. 37* is an expression of a beginning tempering of the prohibition of oaths, claiming that although Matthew still adheres to the prohibition of oaths, he makes available to his community a special formula for asserting the truth.52 That is probably wrong. In Greek, as in Semitic languages,54 as a rule doubling the word serves to intensify it. “Yes, yes,” means nothing more than a real yes, a yes that is true and lasting. Thus even in the Matthean version one cannot speak of an avoidance of the prohibition of oaths.

We can scarcely say with certainty how Matthew himself has interpreted the text. With his concluding “anything more is of evil” he demonstrates that he intends to understand Jesus’ prohibition and command literally. He has Jesus keep his own command. When the high priest “adjures” Jesus to confess himself as the Son of God—presumably to be understood as a challenge to swear with an oath—Jesus does not respond with an oath. He says merely “you said it,” letting the high priest be responsible for his statement without contesting its truth (26:63–64*).
History of Interpretation

Once again the history of the text’s interpretation is characterized by attempting to remove the text’s sting and to soften it or to evade its demand. Admittedly, in the ancient church it was almost always interpreted literally,57 in the Greek-speaking church for a long time after John Chrysostom had thrown his entire weight behind it. In the Latin church the attempts to temper the text began quite early.59 Significantly, the earliest attempts are related to the Constantinian change, as a consequence of which there developed on the government level oaths of loyalty to Christian emperors. An urgent concern of the church is now to reject heathen oath formulas and to establish the “Christian” oath. There are numerous attempts to adapt 5:33–37* to the new reality.
a. For many interpreters the false oath is actually what Jesus’ prohibition is designed to prevent. In order to prevent it, he forbids oaths altogether. Or: Jesus is only interested in preventing frivolous oaths. He forbids oaths, because frivolous oaths become habitual, and habitual oaths lead to false oaths. “Therefore the Savior forbade swearing out of respect for oaths.”63 It was claimed that Paul is an example of the thoughtful use of oaths, since he swore in his letters—that is, in writing and with due thought—but never in his sermons. With this interpretation Jesus’ prohibition of oaths is again brought to the level of rabbinic parenesis and of the OT. Only a few representatives of this interpretation have advocated this, most clearly Calvin, who consciously affirmed the orientation to the Mosaic Law as the final criterion: Jesus forbids “only those oaths forbidden by the law.”
b. One frequently comes across the thesis that Jesus did not forbid oaths in the name of God, only the substitute formulas mentioned in vv. 34c–36*.66 The Christian rejection of substitute formulas is probably based initially on the aversion to “heathen” oath formulas, later in the Protestant area on the aversion to the veneration of saints.
c. The model of a two-level ethic was applied to the fourth antithesis. After Augustine, oaths are regarded as a necessity in view of the “evil of human nature.” By contrast, more is required of monks. A number of monastic rules—for example, the rule of Benedict (chap. 4)—forbid monks to make oaths. In the Middle Ages priests often were also freed from the obligation to perform oaths. It is interesting that into the modern period kings and the aristocracy also tried to claim the same privilege for themselves.
d. Decisive for the reformers’ interpretation is the distinction between the two kingdoms. The prohibition of oaths does not apply to the realm of the state. Luther is able to reduce the distinction to a simple formula, but one that had disastrous consequences, and that is that Jesus’ prohibition does not apply to oaths that are commanded. The necessity of oaths in the realm of the state increasingly moved to the center of the reformers’ statements, in particular in their controversy with the Anabaptists. To prohibit oaths is “a destruction of secular government and justice, for government and justice are based on oaths.”72 Thus the normal practice of Protestantism develops that regards oaths as permitted when one of the following conditions is met. Either an important matter must be involved, or God’s honor must be at stake, or the oath must serve the best interests of a fellow human being, or it must be commanded by someone in authority.
e. Closely related to this interpretation is another type, which understands the difference between the two kingdoms as the difference between this eon and the kingdom of God. Because of sin our antithesis is hardly usable now. One accepts oaths as an “emergency measure”75 and regrettably concludes that “infirmitas … cogit.” Oaths are as necessary as medicine is for sick people.77
f. Finally to be mentioned is a type of recent origin that limits forbidden oaths to promissory oaths—that is, to personal obligations, promises and vows—and that wants to exclude from the prohibition oaths that establish or bear witness to something.
g. References to other NT passages that allegedly could be harmonized with our antithesis play a major role in the total interpretation. In addition to the presumably exegetically false reference to Jesus’ own oath before the high priest in 26:63–64*79 and the reference to Heb 6:16*, Paul in particular plays a role here, since in various ways he calls on God as a witness, precisely in his efforts on behalf of the gospel (Rom 1:9*; 2 Cor 1:23*; Gal 1:20*; Phil 1:8*; 1 Thess 2:4*).80
Thus since the early Middle Ages the entire tradition of the major churches has almost uniformly disregarded Matt 5:33–37* and accepted oaths, even if it often did so with a bad conscience. A few nonconforming groups and individuals stand in opposition to this tradition.
In the Middle Ages it was especially the Cathari and the Waldensians who rejected oaths. After the Reformation the humanists were also able to give the text its due.82 The importance that our text and thus the prohibition of oaths received among the Anabaptists lies on a completely different level. The statement of the Schleitheim Confession is simple and worth heeding: “He says, your speech or your word shall be yes and no, so that no one might understand that he had permitted it. Christ is simply yea and nay, and all those who seek him simply will understand his Word.”84 Once one has clearly understood the commandment, only obedience can follow. With Menno Simons the emphasis shifts to a person’s subjective truthfulness. If the ancient humanistic tradition plays a role here, that is even more the case with the Quaker William Penn, whose influential book on oaths makes use of the entire ancient tradition. According to him, swearing is forbidden by Christ, damaging to human nature because it creates two kinds of truths, and unnecessary.86 It is not surprising that Tolstoy joins the chorus of nonconformists and rejects oaths among other reasons even as a basis of war (pledge of allegiance to the flag!).

The journey through the history of interpretation and its wrong turns is discouraging. It takes little power of persuasion to demonstrate that the interpretation of the nonconformists comes the closest to the text. Nevertheless, the fact that the major churches, obviously under the influence of external considerations, failed to grasp the text should not cause us to overlook the reality that the simple obedience of the nonconformists does not solve all the text’s hermeneutical problems.
a. Questions remain from the total evidence of the NT. Paul and Matt 23:16–22* demonstrate that even in early Christianity there was only limited obedience given to Jesus’ prohibition of oaths. In contrast to the issues of fasting (Mark 2:20*) and the rejection of force (Luke 22:35–36*), however, nowhere here is the question raised about the difference from Jesus’ command. Was Jesus’ prohibition of oaths not well known?89 In any case, Jesus’ prohibition of fasting (Mark 2:19–20*), the regulation about provisions, or even Jesus’ prohibition of divorce show that in early Christianity Jesus’ commandments were nuanced and, in a positive or negative sense, were accommodated.90 What might that mean for the prohibition of oaths?
b. Jesus’ rejection of oaths might come into conflict with the center of the gospel, with love. Therefore in Catholic tradition, following Jer 4:2*, truth, judgment, and justice became the criterion for oaths.91 Even clearer was the Reformation’s interpretation, which made love the standard for performing oaths: “Thus one may also swear out of a duty of love, namely, if one neighbor swears to the other if the other so desires, not … only in spiritual matters.” In the sense of the double commandment Calvin says that it is to “serve a just need—either to defend the Lord’s glory, or to further a brother’s education.”93 Here the reformers have arrived at the point where Matthew himself with his grouping of the antitheses placed the center of Christ’s individual commands (however, without justifying their abolition). Unfortunately, he reflects no more about the relation of the individual commandments to the love commandment than he does about that of the iota and stroke to it. Probably for him they are subordinated to the love commandment in individual cases, while in the major churches the tendency is for all practical purposes to abolish them.
Meaning for Today

To ask about a “true” interpretation of biblical texts today is to ask about our present situation. Truth is always situational. Therefore I may be permitted to make a brief observation about our present situation. It seems to me that in our largely secularized post-Christian and pluralistic countries of northern Europe as far as Jesus’ prohibition of oaths is concerned our situation is completely different from what it was earlier. To a great degree the name of God has disappeared from public life. In the opinion of many people, God is suitable neither as an explanation of historical events, nor as legitimation for an individual’s decisions and deeds, nor as the guarantor or foundation of legal systems or constitutions. It is difficult for many modern people to speak the name of God, because they are aware that with the name a basis of one’s personal life is expressed that should not even be publicly debated, or also because with the name a reality is expressed of which many people no longer have any experience. In contrast to the society in Jesus’ day, what we experience today is not the inflationary use of God’s name but its disappearance from society. Correspondingly, the public oath has lost much of its meaning as an instrument of proof and as a means of obligating oneself. In their maturity modern people know that they are ethically obligated to tell the truth without needing a religious sanction.95 In any case, in most European countries today it is easy to refuse to swear an oath. Indeed, those who do so find a great deal of understanding for and agreement with their action. Today it is much easier to obey the fourth antithesis than any of the others.
What does the intention that stands behind the fourth antithesis mean in the modern situation? That God obligates people to absolute truthfulness is as important and basic as ever. However, that it is God who obligates and empowers Christians to this truthfulness must be made explicit in this secular and godless world.
Luz, U. (2007). Matthew 1–7: a commentary on Matthew 1–7. (H. Koester, Hrsg.) (Rev. ed., S. 203–269). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.


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