Matthew Chapter 5:11-20

The Sermon on the Mount continues.

11 μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ διώξωσιν καὶ εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν καθ’ ὑμῶν [ψευδόμενοι]ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ:

Blessed are you when they reproach you and persecute you and say all evil against you [ falsely ] on account of me.

It’s pretty much impossible that Jesus said this. The conditions described are those of the decades following his death. It is important to realize that there is no tradition that any of Jesus’ followers were arrested immediately after Jesus’ execution. That should be taken as very strong evidence that, for the Romans, Jesus was a one-off sort of execution, an individual transgressor and not the leader of any kind of following that posed any kind of problem for Roman occupation. Otherwise, Jesus would have been tortured for names of accomplices, suspected followers would have been tortured to give up more names, and there would have been some kind of effort to root out and destroy the threat. Tiberius–or possibly those operating in his name (depends on how far you believe Tacitus/Robert Graves)–were employing exactly these tactics at the time of Jesus’ death to root out real or imagined enemies of the emperor. The Romans had no concern for civil rights, public opinion of the governed, or any niceties at all. As rulers they were brutal and ruthless–but only when provoked. For peoples who went along, things were pretty good: you got roads, settled conditions, security, and trade in as your reward for giving up your local ruler in exchange for an emperor. But this is a digression.

Anyway, the point is that those who followed Jesus’ in the latter’s lifetime were not unduly harassed, and so any reference to persecution almost certainly dates to the time after Jesus’ death. As such, references like this cannot trace back to Jesus. Now, this brings up another interesting question. When was Q written? It had to be some time before Matthew wrote; that’s known as the terminus ante quem. It had to be available for Matthew to use. And both Mack and Kloppenborg claim it was the earliest gospel. But how early? Immediately after Jesus’ death? If so, any references to Jesus’ death were inserted later, perhaps a decade or more later. But if it was written so early, and was so important to the early followers, why didn’t Mark use it? How did it remain unknown to Mark? Or if known, why wasn’t it used? This is the problem when you build a textual case without sufficient reference to how this all fit in with events in the outside world. There has to be a merger of the two.

And if this was added to the Q text, what else was? Just the stuff we want to think was added? If stuff like this verse was added, how can we be sure that stuff like “blessed are the poor” is authentic? Because it sounds like Jesus? Or because it sounds like what we want Jesus to say? When we start going down that road, matters get very subjective. They are value judgements, without a lot of historical validation. From the historical point of view, it would be difficult to construct an argument that this was not something added a decade or two after Jesus’ death.

11 Beati estis cum maledixerint vobis et persecuti vos fuerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos, mentientes, propter me.

12 χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, ὅτι ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς: οὕτως γὰρ ἐδίωξαν τοὺς προφήτας τοὺς πρὸ ὑμῶν.

Rejoice and exult, that the reward of yours is great in the heavens; for in this way they persecuted the prophets that were (i.e. came) before you.

This, I think, represents another milestone in the development of what came to be Christian belief. This seems to be a point–the point?–when the rewards of the afterlife were the truly important part of the doctrine. You are persecuted now; you will be rewarded then. Naturally this ties back to “seeing God” and “inheriting the kingdom of the heavens/earth”. So we can see here that Matthew is using this section to lay out the groundwork of what the followers of Jesus believed. In fact, I’m sorly tempted to start calling then “Christians” at this point, because I think this is the formulary for what certainly became Christianity. This is why Matthew’s gospel comes first: when the Church set out the official contents of the NT, Matthew’s gospel was put first because they believed it was written first. They believed it prior to Mark because it has all of the Christian doctrines, most of which are absent in Mark.

They are absent in Mark because they had not been fully formulated yet. It took an extra decade or so for this all to be worked out.

And just a word about the “prophets before you”. Here we are getting the fixing of Jesus into the epic of Israel, explaining his death in terms of the way prophets were (mis)treated according to the legendary history. This helps situate both Jesus and the persecuted followers in this “pantheon”. Now, the fact that Matthew is taking pains to associate Jesus and the followers with the Jewish tradition might seem odd if I am correct and the audience–and bulk of converts–was pagan. Just remember that, for most of the people of the day, these two formulas held: antiquity = good; and innovation = bad. Connecting the Jesus movement to something as ancient as the Jewish legend would have given the movement a significant level of appeal.

12 Gaudete et exsultate, quoniam merces vestra copiosa est in caelis; sic enim persecuti sunt prophetas, qui fuerunt ante vos.

13 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς: ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω κατα πατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt becomes dull (loses its flavour), in what (way) is it salty? It is worth nothing, except to be thrown out to be trampled under by people.

This is an interesting bit here. It’s the sort of wise, pithy analogy that most would trace back to the living Jesus. But what makes it interesting is that it’s in Mark, too, in slightly different form. This is one of those awkward Mark/Q overlaps that cause a certain amount of hemming and hawing and staring at the shoes among the Q proponents. They have to explain how something in Q can also be in Mark, when Mark didn’t know about Q. Honestly, the answer is not difficult: I have been saying right along that there were a number of traditions about Jesus that could easily have made their way to Mark’s hearing as well as being part of the tradition that created Q. As such, this could be something attested by two independent sources. The first is the one Mark heard, and the second is the one represented by Q. And, as such, I think that the likelihood of this dating back to Jesus becomes very strong.

As an aside, we talked about “salt of the earth” when it occurred in Mark. The Latin is “sal”, which is the root of our word “salary”, because Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. That is how valuable it was as a commodity. This is slightly ironic, because nowadays salt is so common that most of its price is incurred from the cost of packaging. But the point being, “salt of the earth” is a valuable commodity; calling someone by this moniker is quite a compliment. But one aspect of this that doesn’t get much attention is, what does the second part actually mean? Salt losing it’s saltiness? How does that happen? Can that happen? I’m really not at all sure about the science of this. But it does sort of fit in context with the subsequent verse. The two are similar in construction, a direct address rather than a general statement. And they both refer to the audience as something good, but only this one has the negative ending.

Back to the main point, if I’m basically conceding that this does–or at least could–trace back to Jesus, the question becomes whether this is typical of Jesus. I’m still sort of going through the stuff that’s supposed to be in Q verse-by-verse, so the jury is still out on that question. No doubt that this is the thing that the Q people believe is typical of Jesus. This is something that will be looked at as we go along.

13 Vos estis sal terrae; quod si sal evanuerit, in quo salietur? Ad nihilum valet ultra, nisi ut mittatur foras et conculcetur ab hominibus.

14 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη:

You are the light of the cosmos. A city cannot be hidden when it lies on a hill.

“Kosmos” is a funny word. Obviously, it’s the root for “cosmos”, and the base meaning in Greek is something like “organized” or “arranged” or “in order”. As such, it’s not exactly a synonym for “the world” the way “the earth” and “the world” are in English. However, it most often simply does function as a synonym for “the earth”. The Latin is “mundus”, which is “the world”. But then, Latin doesn’t have a word like “cosmos”; even though “universe” comes from a Latin root, it’s a recent coinage, not something the Romans would have used. 

One thing to think about here is whom Jesus is addressing. Per the narrative, Jesus is still addressing the crowd, but don’t these give the sense of being directed towards a smaller group? Like perhaps the disciples? Regardless, the sense I have here is that Matthew has taken some disparate maxims and strung them together into a single “sermon”. The question becomes, does this stringing together of distinct pieces argue for Q, or against Q? The point of Q, after all, is that it’s just a collection of such sayings, basically on the format of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, the discovery of the latter made the existence of Q seem all that much more likely. And the fact that G-Thomas fits the mold of what Q was supposed to be has been used as an argument for an early date for G-Thomas, perhaps as early as Q. Never mind that this is pretty much circular: how do we know that Thomas is early? Because it’s the same form as Q. How do we know that Q is early? Because it’s the same form as the Gospel of Thomas.

14 Vos estis lux mundi. Non potest civitas abscondi supra montem posita;

15 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ.

Nor do they burn a lamp and place it under a measure(ing basket), upon the lampstand, and it lights the whole of the house.

More of this pithy wisdom. This is the sort of stuff that makes Burton Mack consider Jesus something on the lines of a Cynic sage. No, of course one does not do this. 

But does anyone else see a disconnect between the content of verses 3-10 and 11-15 (and perhaps beyond)? The form is different, the sort of thought expressed is very different, and it feels like the audience might even be different.  

15 neque accendunt lucernam et ponunt eam sub modio, sed super candelabrum, ut luceat omnibus, qui in domo sunt.

16 οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

In this way your light illuminates before people, just so they might know your good works and might glorify your father that is in the heavens.  

The first part is very literal; something like “lighting the way for everyone” is probably closer to a more idiomatic English translation. And again, who is he addressing. Is this directed towards the large crowd gathered? Or was this said in a more intimate setting and spoken mainly to his disciples? The “light of the world” is similar to “the salt of the earth” that will come up shortly. These are high terms of praise. What do they mean? Or maybe, what do they imply? And to whom are they applied? This is why I ask if they don’t seem more appropriate for a small group setting. And perhaps another interesting question is, why “the light of the world” and the “salt of the earth”? Why not “of the kingdom of the heavens”? Is it merely editorial variety? That is certainly a possibility. Questions like this, IMO, are why it’s so hard to base an entire theory of Christian origins on comparisons between texts. Sometimes authors say something because they like the way it sounds.

16 Sic luceat lux vestra coram hominibus, ut videant vestra bona opera et glorificent Patrem vestrum, qui in caelis est.

17 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας: οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι.

Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets; I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill (them). 

Seriously. There is no thematic coherence here. I will have to consider this and evaluate how this affects my position on Q; for this truly is a collection of sayings. Now, just to be clear, just because this really feels like collected sayings does not in any way corroborate the existence of a written collection. Nor does it provide any guarantee that any of these sayings were first spoken by Jesus.

This one in particular strikes me as a later addition, something that more likely originated with one of his followers. In fact, I would suggest that Matthew is the author. So far, we’ve seen Matthew tie Jesus to the Hebrew scriptures and deepen his identificatio with John. Both of these were meant to connect Jesus to the ancient Jewish tradition. Given the level of paganisation that we saw already in Paul and probably in Mark, it would not be surprising to see Matthew taking a stand to make sure that the nascent religion did not come totally unmoored from a Jewish heritage. 

And, oddly enough, I still suspect that Matthew may have started life as a pagan who became a god-fearer who steeped himself in Jewish tradition before becoming a follower of Jesus. I have absolutely no proof of this; rather, it’s the sense I get from the zealousness of Matthew’s adherence to the Hebrew tradition at a time when the Temple had been gone for almost a generation. So why not a Jew from birth? I’m not sure yet, just as I’m not sure about the content of this chapter so far.

As far as that goes, it almost seems to make more sense that Matthew was collecting these sayings exactly because they had not been collected prior. Just as Mark wrote, I think, to merge the various traditions into a single doctrine at a time when many of the original followers were dead or dying, so Matthew wanted to collect all the aphorisms that had accumulated among Jesus’ followers in the time since Mark. Some of them not doubt were intially said by Jesus, but certainly not all of them, and almost certainly not this one in particular. This fits too nicely in with what Matthew has been doing so far: accumulating the evidence for how Jesus is the fulfillment of “prophesies” from the Hebrew scriptures. Think back to Chapter 1, with the cite from Jeremiah tied to a fictitious slaughter of the Innocents, or to Jesus being the son that God called from Egypt. Given this as Matthew’s intention, it’s hardly surprising to see him have Jesus assure us that he’s not destroying the Law, but fulfilling it.

Because that must have been something that was being discussed by this point. The Temple was gone; Mark had taken steps to distance Jesus from the Jewish tradition. The Pauline tradition stressed Jesus’ similarities with Greek pagan thought. Over time the links of the Jesus movement to Judaism were breaking. Matthew saw the need to step in and re-establish them.

17 Nolite putare quoniam veni solvere Legem aut Prophetas; non veni solvere, sed adimplere.

18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

For amen I say to you, until the sky and the earth pass away, one iota or a single [tittle] will not pass away from the law until it shall all come to pass.

“Tittle”. The word rendered so does not really exist in Greek. As it is, the word here is a homophone for the Greek word for “horn”, as in, “horn of a goat” or such. The bit about the “one iota” refers to the letter “iota”, which more or less corresponds to the Latin “i”, so it’s the smallest letter. Sometimes iota/Latin i at the beginning of a word is rendered as an English ‘j’ (but pronounced as an ‘i’), so “iota” can become “jot”, a not uncommon translation for “iota” here. (The Latin i >> j is amply demonstrated by the Latin ‘iustus’, the root of the English “just”, “justice”, & c. A Latin ‘i’ between two other vowels also became written as a ‘j’.  Sorry, can’t think of an example at the moment. And note that Italian did not follow this convention; as a result, the Italian alphabet has only 22 letters, lacking j/k/w/y.)

I find it very interesting that here Matthew uses “sky” in the singular. This is telling, I think. It may indicate that he has already begun to see a distinction between “the sky” as the big blue thing up above us, and “the heavens” which apparently has become a place. This is not completely novel; this implication had been implicit in Greek since the time of Homer. But the distinction of singular and plural is an innovation, I believe, one indicating that the words had begun to separate.

The comment to the previous verse also stands for this one.

18 Amen quippe dico vobis: Donec transeat caelum et terra, iota unum aut unus apex non praeteribit a Lege, donec omnia fiant.

19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν: ὃς δ’ ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.

He who may loosen one of the least of the commandments, and may teach people in this way, he will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens. He who will do this (keep the commandments) and may teach this, he will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.

OK, the thing is, we have a section of three verses dealing with Jesus’ adamant insistence to preserve the law without dropping a single letter from it. None of this in any way traces back to Jesus; these are the sorts of things that someone would only say after the fact. Now, this is in Luke, too, which presumably means it’s supposedly part of Q. However, it doesn’t appear to be in the reconstruction of Q that I got from Mack’s “The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins”. At least, it’s not in the original stratum; Mack and Kloppenborg both posit three layers of Q, but it’s apparently in one of the subsequent layers. Just about the time that the sense that we are reading a collection of sayings that Matthew has collected, and just as I’m starting to wonder if, maybe, there may be some case for the existence of Q, we run into something like these past three verses. Again, these do not trace back to Jesus; Mack tacitly admits that by not including it in his original stratum. So where did they come from? When did they come from? This question, as far as I can tell, is not addressed. Now, Mack’s book cited here is the first I read on the topic, and it may be that I’ve forgotten that he addressed this, but Kloppenborg certainly didn’t.

Really, as far as I can tell, these verses are considered to be part of Q because they are both in Matthew and Luke. Isn’t the simpler explanation that Luke took them from Matthew? I need to address this in a separate post, but, for now, just let me say that Luke either changed the wording and/or order of parts of Matthew or parts of Q. This is an either/or, black and white, yes or no situation. Luke changed one or he changed the other one. How does it make more sense to claim that Luke changed a source for which we have no proof, aside from the fact that Luke changed the wording that we find in Matthew?   

19 Qui ergo solverit unum de mandatis istis minimis et docuerit sic homines, minimus vocabitur in regno caelorum; qui autem fecerit et docuerit, hic magnus vocabitur in regno caelorum.

20 λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

For I say to you that unless your righteousness abounds more that (that) of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of the heavens.    

20 Dico enim vobis: Nisi abundaverit iustitia vestra plus quam scribarum et pharisaeorum, non intrabitis in regnum caelorum.

Well, here the scribes and Pharisees are actually a positive example. The implication is that, while they are righteous, they’re not sufficiently so. And what are the Scribes and Pharisees known for? Their integrity in fulfillment of the law. This despite what Paul said. Now, the other interesting thing about this passage and Paul is that the word “righteousness/justice (= iustitia in Latin)” occurs very frequently in Paul, not at all in Mark, only once in Luke, twice in John, four times in Acts, and like every other word in Romans. And it’s the third time we’ve run across it in Matthew. Why is that? Well, one really obvious possibility is that Matthew was familiar with at least some of Paul’s writing. How this happened, or which letters he’d read, is impossible to say. Another is to say that it’s a common-enough theme, but then how to explain its relative scarcity outside of Paul and the seven uses in Matthew? But then why is Matthew more or less contradicting Paul on the value of the Law?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions. At least, not at the moment. But these are questions that need to be asked, and this is another topic of discussion that I’ve never run across. To my mind, this sort of topical correlation will tell us more about the historical Jesus, the links between the authors of the NT, and the way that the followers of the historical Jesus gradually–but only gradually–transformed into Christians by sometime in the last two decades of the First Century. The important thing to remember is that the influences and development were not simple, and certainly not linear. Ideas combined and re-combined, influenced each other, mutated, and then came back again in somewhat different form to start the process all over. To think that we can trace all this by straight textual analysis, by comparing differences in word choices, or the order in which the material is presented is, I believe, naive.

Another facet of this discussion is understanding why Matthew and Luke and John wrote a gospel. They wrote it because they had something they felt needed to be said. They believed that they had an additional contribution to make, something new to say. So when Matthew wrote, after becoming aware of Mark’s gospel, Matthew felt he had something to add to Mark. As such, he did not just slavishly repeat Mark. Why bother? That had been done. And in the same way Luke felt that he had something to say beyond what Matthew and Mark said. So of course he changed things he found in Matthew (or Q), he re-arranged, reorganized, reworded. Why do you write a new gospel if you’re not going to change things?

Keep that in mind as we proceed. 



About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on December 4, 2014, in Chapter 5, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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