Matthew Chapter 5:21-30

The Sermon on the Mount continues, and it will for much, much longer. Once again, the tone and the form have changed from the structure in the last section we did. This further enhances the sense that this is a collection of sayings, but it also imparts a sense that this may be a collection of groups of sayings. I’m still not sure what this says about the likelihood of this stuff being from Q. The thing is, I would say that, the longer Q supposedly was as a document, the less likely it is that the document would have become “lost”. The more content it contained, the more valueable it would have been, and hence, the more likely it would have been preserved.

21 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐ φονεύσεις: ὃς δ’ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει.

22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει: ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ, Ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ: ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ, Μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.

“You have heard that it was said by the ancients, ‘Do not kill’; one how has killed is subject to judgement”. I say to you  that he who is angry with his brother is subject to judgement. For one who may say to his brother, ‘Raka,  let him be subject to the Sanhedrin. But he who says, ‘Fool’, let him be subject to Gehenna of the fire.”

First, ‘raka’ seems to be a more or less untranslatable expression of contempt. Per Wikipedia, it seems like there really isn’t a lot of agreement on origin or specific meaning. As for contextual meaning, it seems a lesser crime than calling your brother a fool; the one is punishable by human agents; the other is worthy of the fires of Gehenna.

Which brings us to the key feature of this passage: Gehenna. Like “raka”, what does this mean? Why is it fiery? The word was not used at all by Paul. Mark used it three times, all in the same passage in 9:43-47. Luke uses it once, and James once. Matthew uses it seven times, more than all the others put together. After another Google search, I find that Someone told me that this is a reference to a valley outside Jerusalem where children had once been sacrificed to Baal or Moloch in the bad old days. The sacrifice consisted of burning the children in a fire. Only gradually did it become associated with the eventual Christian concept of Hell. Given the origin, one can see the development of the word; it started as a sort of generic place of punishment–perhaps not dissimilar from the way English nannies tried to scare their charges into behaving by telling them that “Boney” (Napoleon Bonapart) was going to get them–into a very specific place of punishment with deep theological resonance. 

The question thus becomes “how did Matthew intend the word in this context?” Seeing that the word has about a dozen uses in the entire NT, I’m not sure if we can say with confidence that the transition to hell-fire has been made. That being said, however, a glance at the way fire is used, especially by Matthew, the concept of fire-as-punishment is very strong. Are we turning the corner? Consider that Paul did not use the concept of fire-as-punishment at all, and Mark only used it in the one place, so some development of the concept has likely occurred. OTOH, the subsequent uses in Luke don’t seem to develop the idea further, and John only uses the word once. But the thing with Matthew is that his became the “standard” gospel, especially of the early church. This “preferred” status gave Matthew outsized influence and impact on patristic thought. As such, any further development of the idea of hell-fire is probably based on Matthew.

The patristic thinkgers also believed it was the first written, which is why they placed it first in the canon. Unfortunately, this lack judgement betrays, I think, a certain amount of wishful thinking on the part of the fathers. They wanted Matthew to be first. Given this, I have a very difficult time giving credence to statements of Pappias and Eusebios about the very early history of the Jesus movement/Christian church. But we’ll pick this up again shortly, when we get to Matthew’s repetition of the use of gehenna/fire from Mark.

21 Audistis quia dictum est antiquis: “Non occides; qui autem occiderit, reus erit iudicio”.

22 Ego autem dico vobis: Omnis, qui irascitur fratri suo, reus erit iudicio; qui autem dixerit fratri suo: “Racha”, reus erit concilio; qui autem dixerit: “Fatue”, reus erit gehennae ignis.

23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ,

24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου, καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου.

So should you proffer your gift upon the altar, and there you should be reminded that your brother has something against you (24), leave your offering before the altar, and first go and be changed (as in, ‘change your mind’) toward your brother, and then go to offer your offering.

This is kind of interesting. The word here is ‘brother’.  The NIV renders this as “brother or sister’. And this brings us to the perpetual question about translation: do you remain faithful to the original–slavishly so, in my case–or do you put it into terms for the new languages, and contemporary for the time? 

Now this strikes me as a new attitude, a change from the way people generally thought. The Greeks bragged about how they were a scourge to their enemy; both of those behaviours are decidedly not Christian. And that is precisely the point. We are introducing new standards of behaviour into mainstream thought. Now, to be fair, Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures present a very strong moral code that provides the basis–and much, much more–for what we call “Christian” morality. Hence the term “Judeo-Christian”, because the latter really stands on the shoulders of the former. The innovation here is that this “new” moral code is being introduced on a wide scale to a pagan and Graeco-Roman audience. That is a huge step.

Now, as we have noted, synagogues attracted the so-called ‘god-fearers’, pagans interested in Judaism, largely for its moral code. I have suggested (without a shred of evidence) that Matthew was such a god-fearer. One thing we have to remember is the timing; at the time Matthew wrote, the new proto-Christian message was being put out largely divorced from its Jewish heritage. The Temple had been destroyed, probably close to a generation previously. This had become a distant memory for a lot of people, for pagans who were not directly affected by the tragedy. This had removed an alternative focal point for the spread of this morality. More, those spreading the “new” code no longer required that those joining the group follow any of the Jewish dietary restrictions–not eating pig was a major hardship for some–or undergo a painful adult circumcision. So the traditional Jewish morality has come unstuck from its restrictive Jewish practices, giving it an appeal it may not have had a generation prior.

By the time Matthew wrote, I think, the tipping point had been passed, was in the past. By the time Matthew wrote, most new converts were likely to be of pagan background, and this had probably been true for some time, perhaps as long as a decade. Long enough for a new sensibility to take root, a sensibility that provided Matthew with a strong incentive to wrote a new gospel for a new time.

Note one thing that is missing in Matthew that was prominent in Mark: the secret. Mark was big on Jesus instructing people and demons not to reveal his identity. We shall see, but I don’t think we’re going to run across that in Matthew. Keep your eyes peeled–a lovely American expression for “be watchful”.

23 Si ergo offeres munus tuum ad altare, et ibi recordatus fueris quia frater tuus habet aliquid adversum te,

24 relinque ibi munus tuum ante altare et vade, prius, reconciliare fratri tuo et tunc veniens offer munus tuum.

25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ’ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μή ποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ, καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ, καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ:

26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.

(25) Be quickly well-disposed to your legal adversary, while you are with him on the road, lest your legal adversary hand you over to the one judging, and lest the judge should (hand you over) to the bailiff, and you be thrown into prison. (26) Amen I say to you, go there until you have paid the last penny.

First, I specified “legal adversary” because that is compacted into the Greek word. Simply using “adversary” or “opponent” would miss this legal sense. I do not know if there is an English legal term for “adversary at law”. I believe that is what “adversary” technically means, but, in English, the term has become diluted and whatever legal connotation it may have has been lost in general usage. I wanted to get that across since the Greek is very specific. 

There are a number of anachronisms in my translation as well. “Judge” probably works, but “bailiff” and “prison” really don’t fit. But, they get the point across, I think. What I rendered as “prison” is probably most technically “be put under guard”. And “penny”…that would be, literally, ‘denrius’, but that’s Latin, and the Latin doesn’t even say that. But rendering it as “smallest unit of coinage in your particular country in your particular time” is a bit cumbersome, don’t you think?  

Finally, Jesus here has a pretty dim view of one’s chances at law. I suspect, but cannot say for certain, that this is perhaps a reflection of one of two things. The first is that Jesus is speaking mainly to people of lower stature. Such people in the ancient world (or the modern world) would have been at a decided disadvantage going to law against an adversary of higher social status. As such, chances were that the judge would, indeed, find against the lower-status individual who would then find him/herself dragged away and put under guard. I consider this the more likely possibility, but it is also possible that this is a reference to a time when followers of Jesus may have found themselves at a legal disadvantage because they were followers of Jesus. It is very difficult to be confident about this given the very sporadic nature of persecution. A year could make a difference, one place vs. another could make a big difference. The disadvantage of a lower-status individual was pretty much a constant; the status of a follower of Jesus was very random. As such, most likely Jesus–or Matthew–is speaking to lower-status individuals.

25 Esto consentiens adversario tuo cito, dum es in via cum eo, ne forte tradat te adversarius iudici, et iudex tradat te ministro, et in carcerem mittaris.

26 Amen dico tibi: Non exies inde, donec reddas novissimum quadrantem.

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Οὐ μοιχεύσεις.

28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

You have heard that it is said, “Do not adulterize”. (28) But I say to you, the one who looks at a woman towards the desiring of her already adulterized her in his heart.

We’ve run across this before. In Greek, one doesn’t commit adultery; the latter is a verb, so one ‘adulterizes’. And in the final clause, the feminine pronoun is in the accusative case which is the case used for direct objects. So a man ‘adulterizes’ a woman.

More important, however, is the content of this passage. It’s no longer enough to refrain from doing something; even the desire is a transgression. Now notice, the 10 Commandments enjoin against coveting a neighbor’s possessions, or his wife. And this passage essentially is about coveting your neighbor’s wife. However, this sort of thing was not really considered a transgression among pagans. Here, this new standard of behaviour is being introduced to the pagan audience, as happened above in the passage about reconciliation. Again, I believe this reflects that Matthew is aiming this at a pagan, not a Jewish, audience. 

Finally, any Americans old enough may remember that this passage got Jimmy Carter into a bit of trouble in 1976. During the campaign for US president, he did an interview with Playboy Magazine, in which he admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart many times”.    

27 Audistis quia dictum est: “Non moechaberis”.

28 Ego autem dico vobis: Omnis, qui viderit mulierem ad concupiscendum eam, iam moechatus est eam in corde suo.

29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, rip it out and throw it from you. For it is better for you that your body parts should be destroyed and not your complete body be thrown into Gehenna. 

This is really interesting. What happened here? Recall that we ran across this idea in Mark. Except there we had an alternative. There is nothing here about “the life” as there was in Mark. The choice is simply a body lacking parts…doing…something…vs. a complete body being thrown into (presumably the fires of) Gehenna. What happened to entering the Life? That was my initial question. However, after a bit more research, I discovered that Matthew actually more or less repeats this concept, with the idea of entering the life, later on in the gospel. What does that mean?

Historians are accustomed to talk about “twinning”, in which the same event is duplicated and told as if it had been two separate events. This was my initial theory about the Feeding of the 5,000/4,000 in Mark: that it was the same event that got told in different ways, or by different groups so that eventually it came to be seen as two separate events. This is similar, I suppose. One group told the story as we found it in Mark: better to enter the life with one eye, etc., than to be thrown into Gehenna with all your parts intact. (I did not consider what that said about the idea of the Resurrection Body at the time; will have to remember to do that when we reach the appropriate place in Matthew.) But another group told it as we see it here: minus the part about entering the Life. These two streams then reached Matthew as separate entities so he recorded each as distinct from the other.

Sounds great in theory; the problem is…well, there are lots of problems. The first is sources: what were the different sources? Was one of them Q? Which one? Well, it would have to be this one, since Q supposedly is wisdom stuff and does not include material about the/an afterlife. But then, what about the Gehenna part? That seems to be implying an afterlife. Or was being thrown into Gehenna something that the secular authorities did? Was this sort of Jerusalem slang for being exiled from the Temple community? Interesting thought, isn’t it?

So if it wasn’t Q, then what? How many other sources were floating around? Perhaps quite a few, although we have to ask if the destruction of the Temple increased or decreased the number of sources available to Matthew. On the whole, I would say it increased the number. One possible outcome of the destruction of Jerusalem is that a lot of Jesus’ followers may have been scattered to be absorbed into different communities. There, lacking contact with the scattered communities, the stories started heading down different paths. They started evolving into different tracks that would have begun diverging from each other, perhaps to converge again as two different episodes. Is that what happened here? I have no idea. It’s possible, but that’s about all that we can say about it.

29 Quod si oculus tuus dexter scandalizat te, erue eum et proice abs te; expedit enim tibi, ut pereat unum membrorum tuorum, quam totum corpus tuum mittatur in gehennam.

30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.

And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you. It is better for you to destroy your body parts and not with your body  whole go into Gehenna. 

 30 Et si dextera manus tua scandalizat te, abscide eam et proice abs te; expedit enim tibi, ut pereat unum membrorum tuorum, quam totum corpus tuum abeat in gehennam.

There really is nothing more to be said about this that wasn’t said in the comment to the previous verse. Once again, self-mutilation is preferable to going into Gehenna whole. 


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 13, 2014, in Chapter 5, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is really good stuff! I shared it in a Facebook group and on my main Facebook wall. Peace.

  2. Thanks Jesse! I had a big increase in traffic. I appreciate the boost.

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