Matthew Chapter 5:31-42

And so we continue with the Sermon on the Mount. This will conclude Chapter 5.

31 Ἐρρέθη δέ, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον.

32 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται.

It has been said, ‘Who would dismiss his wife, let him give her a standing away from (i.e., an official notification of dissolution). (32) But I say to you that all who dismisses his wife (aside from the cause of fornication) makes her adulterize, and he who dissolves the marriage adulterizes.

First, the vocabulary. The word that I rendered as a “standing away from” is “apostaseon”. I’m guessing we can all see the word “apostasy” in there. And that pretty much means “standing away from”, especially as standing away from a former belief. Hence the emperor Julian the Apostate. (However, if he’d been successful in re-establishing paganism, he’d have gone down in history as “Julian the Restorer”.

What is most interesting about this section is that it agrees with both 1 Corinthians 7:10-14 (appx), and Mark 10:2-12 (appx). I am going to go out on a limb here (not really) and conclude that this is one of the best candidates for something that actually can be traced back to Jesus himself. There is one point I’d like to make about “multiple” attribution. Either Mack or Ehrman (the latter, I believe) said that something attested in the Triple Tradition can be said to have been corroborated by three different and independent sources. Um, no. Given that pretty much everyone agrees that Matthew and Luke used Mark, then Matthew and Luke absolutely cannot be said to be independent sources. They are dependent sources, secondary sources derived from Mark. Now Paul, OTOH, may in fact represent a distinct source tradition. It’s hard to say that for sure, but Mark, in particular, does seem to be more or less unaware of Paul and his message. I will leave it at that. For now. But the point remains, and remains strong: that both Paul and Mark report that Jesus was opposed to divorce presents a pretty strong case that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. Note that.

31 Dictum est autem: “Quicumque dimiserit uxorem suam, det illi libellum repudii”.

32 Ego autem dico vobis: Omnis, qui dimiserit uxorem suam, excepta fornicationis causa, facit eam moechari; et, qui dimissam duxerit, adulterat.

33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου.

34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως: μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ:

35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ: μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως:

36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν.

37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ: τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.

Again, you have heard it said by the old ones that you will not take an oath, but you will give to God your oath. (34) OTOH I say to you, do not swear at all, neither by the heaven, for that is the throne of God. (35) Nor by the earth, for that is the footrest of his feet. Nor towards Jerusalem, for that is the city of the great king. (36) Nor swear by your (own) head, for you are not able to make a single hair white or black. (37) Let your word yes (be) yes, (your) no (be) no. That which is in excess of this is from wickedness.

 Lots of very interesting stuff in here. The first, of course, is that this is unique to Matthew. He felt that this was very worth saying; Luke and John…not so much. Why? Why was this so crucial to Matthew. And only to him? Can we go so far as to suggest that, perhaps, Matthew inserted this on his own authority? Or can we assume that he had some sort of line from a source on this. Personally, I do not believe that everything in the gospels (or epistles) can reasonably be said to be attributable to Jesus; I fully believe that the authors of the NT often made statements on their own authority, based on the firm belief that, if Jesus had not said this, he would have agreed with it, or he would have said it had the situation arisen. We can even call this divine inspiration; the authors no doubt fully and firmly believed that words were given to them by God, perhaps breathed into (in Latin, lit = in spiro) them by the sacred breath. I suspect this is such a moment for Matthew. 

There is an interesting epilogue to this passage, In the Middle Ages, after about the year 1000, there appeared numerous manifestations of individuals and groups who sought to return to the true apostolic tradition of the earliest Christians, thereby turning away from the overly ornate and ritualized Church. One of the hallmarks of several of these groups was the refusal to swear an oath of any kind, solely and completely because of this particular passage. Now, these groups threatened the status quo of the established Church by questioning whether the bishops should be worldly lords, and rich ones, so the groups espousing this return to apostolic tradition were, of course, branded as heretics. They were sought out and Mother Church sought to persuade her errant children to recant such nonsense. And one of the ways to do this was to ask them to swear an oath that they did not hold any heretical teachings. Of course, the refusal to swear was seen as proof that they were heretics. So Matthew’s words were not without repercussions. And I do believe these are Matthew’s words.

One really interesting question is who is the “great king”? Or is it “great King”? This is what the Latin says. Or perhaps “Great King”? Except that the Great King was the King of Persia–Cyrus, Darius, or Xerxes. Jerusalem would not have been his city. That would have  been Persepolis, or Susa. The king in Jerusalem would have been, theoretically, David and his descendants. Is that what this means? The commentaries aren’t much help. except to say that this is a cite of Ps 48:2. Aside from that, the commentaries I read didn’t seem to be terribly clear on this. So, like a lot of those passages from Galatians and Thessalonians, this passage is not exactly well-understood, despite a couple thousand years of reading and commentary. Most of the ones I glanced at suggested that this was a reference to the Messiah (capitalized), but I tend to doubt this. Rather, my suspicion is that it meant something to Matthew and his audience that is more or less lost to us.

The other element in here is the idea of the majesty of God. Heaven and earth as throne and footstool, while we’re helpless to change the color of a single hair. God had become more and more majestic and powerful over time, and had become unique. Sort of.  At least, God was the unique beneficent power in the universe, aside from those lesser powers–angels, mainly–that served God. Other supernatural beings were not denied; it’s just that they were considered demonic. As such, they weren’t exactly divine; at least, not by some definitions of the word. Overall, however, I still find this whole anti-oath attitude a little peculiar. Perhaps, like the “great king”, this had some implication for Matthew and his audience that is lost. Or, perhaps the meaning here is well-known–to everyone but me!

33 Iterum audistis quia dictum est antiquis: “Non periurabis; reddes autem Domino iuramenta tua”.

34 Ego autem dico vobis: Non iurare omnino, neque per caelum, quia thronus Dei est,

35 neque per terram, quia scabellum est pedum eius, neque per Hierosolymam, quia civitas est magni Regis;

36 neque per caput tuum iuraveris, quia non potes unum capillum album facere aut nigrum.

37 Sit autem sermo vester: “Est, est”, “Non, non”; quod autem his abundantius est, a Malo est.

38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος.

39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ: ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα[σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην:

40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφεςαὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον:

41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο.

42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

You have heard it said that, eye against eye, and tooth against tooth.(39) But I say to you do not stand against evil. But the one who strikes you on your right jaw-line, turn to him also the other. (40) And to the one wishing from you (your) tunic by being judged, also give him your cloak. (41) And he who compels you to go a mile, go with him two. (41) To the one asking, give, and what is wanted to be loaned by you, do not turn away. 

Recall what “Jesus” said earlier about not an iota of the law being lost? Seems to me that Jesus–by way of the evangelist, is superseding a lot of what has come down to the audience. Note that these things were said “by the ancient/old ones”. One presumes that this is a reference to the Hebrew scriptures. Or was this what Jesus was doing? Is he referring to the OT here? Maybe, but maybe not necessarily. Jesus has contravened a custom allowing divorce, has told his audience to forswear oaths, and now he is undercutting the idea of an eye for an eye. The thing is, divorce was allowable under most pagan law codes; the Romans in particular saw marriage as a legal institution, a legal partnership. So Jesus/Matthew is not necessarily referring exclusively to Hebrew/Jewish custom. Nor is the idea of swearing oaths. This was a commonplace for ancient legal practice, and it’s still at the heart of trial testimony or affidavits, or any number of things. And finally, “eye for an eye” was by no means the sole property of the ancient Hebrews. It dates back to Hammurabi.

So the thing is, there is nothing specific to Judaism here. Any of these could be applicable to people of a wide variety of backgrounds Here is where my contention about the composition of the new converts really comes to be an important consideration. 

So exchanging “eye for an eye” for “turn the other cheek” would be something novel for almost anyone. Now, I would say that this represents a major turning point in the development of Western Thought. I would say that because it does represent a significant moment; but the thought here is not necessarily new. Recall that the Buddha lived 400 years before Jesus. Even the Cynic sages, while not exactly pacifists, were non-conformers, non-participants in the macho code of honour practiced by the Greeks and played professionally by the Romans. Many of the Hellenistic schools of thought were inward-looking, seeking to avoid conflict when and where possible. So Jesus/Matthew’s thought here is not exactly novel. But it’s put in a novel manner, one that resonates because it has a certain tone, or a perfect pitch. It’s counterintuitive; it seems wrong; it’s not what most of us would think of when struck.

The priest of one of the churches I attend gave a sermon on this passage a couple of years ago. He explained it in a way that struck (pun intended) me. As he explained it, the idea of turning the other cheek had a social significance. Masters would strike their slaves, or social superiors would strike an inferior with the back of the hand. So, if the slave/inferior “turned the other cheek”, the master/superior would be forced to strike with a fist. What this did was elevate the slave’s status, because using one’s fist was how one struck a social equal. Now think about this in connection with what I said before about Jesus/Matthew’s admonition to settle the lawsuit before getting to court. My conjecture was that this was because the audience was persons of lower status; this seems to be painting the same picture, or strengthening the sense that the audience are low-status individuals. Of course, this reinforcement depends on whether or not this explanation of the use of the back of the hand is accurate. I cannot verify, but there is a ring of possible truth to it.

As for the “extra mile”, my priest explained that this was a reference to the Roman occupation. According to his explanation, a Roman soldier could, legally, compel a subject of the Empire to carry the soldier’s pack for a mile. Think Simon of Cyrene being impressed into carrying Jesus’ cross. So, the admonition here is to do that, and throw in another mile for free, as it were. Again, there is a question of status here; the Roman soldier, even one that was a lower-class Roman still had a social edge on a subject.

So perhaps three references to class status in a fairly short period of time. There is a certain consistency here. But there is also a theme of not making a bad situation worse. Settle the suit, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. This makes me question the idea of the backhand vs. the fist, because that is actually a provocation. But, regardless, the theme of class seems to be running through all of these stories. I just wish I had a better idea of whatever it is that I’m missing in the forswearing of oaths.

38 Audistis quia dictum est: “Oculum pro oculo et dentem pro dente”.

39 Ego autem dico vobis: Non resistere malo; sed si quis te percusserit in dextera maxilla tua, praebe illi et alteram;

40 et ei, qui vult tecum iudicio contendere et tunicam tuam tollere, remitte ei et pallium;

41 et quicumque te angariaverit mille passus, vade cum illo duo.

42 Qui petit a te, da ei; et volenti mutuari a te, ne avertaris.

43 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου.

44 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν καὶ προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς,

45 ὅπως γένησθε υἱοὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς, ὅτι τὸν ἥλιον αὐτοῦ ἀνατέλλει ἐπὶ πονηροὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς καὶ βρέχει ἐπὶ δικαίους καὶ ἀδίκους.

46 ἐὰν γὰρ ἀγαπήσητε τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας ὑμᾶς, τίνα μισθὸν ἔχετε; οὐχὶ καὶ οἱ τελῶναι τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν;

47 καὶ ἐὰν ἀσπάσησθε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς ὑμῶν μόνον, τί περισσὸν ποιεῖτε; οὐχὶ καὶ οἱ ἐθνικοὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν;

48 Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.

You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. (44) But I say to you, love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute (lit = ‘pursue’) you. (45)  In this way you will become children (lit = ‘sons’) of your father in the heavens, that the sun rises upon the wicked and the good, and it rains on the just and the unjust. (46) For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not the tax-collectors do the same thing? (47) For if you greet your brother only, what benefit (lit = ‘excess’) is there? Do not also the nations (traditionally = ‘Gentiles’) do this same thing? (48) So be completed like your father the heavenly one is completed.

43 Audistis quia dictum est: “Diliges proximum tuum et odio habebis inimicum tuum”.

44 Ego autem dico vobis: Diligite inimicos vestros et orate pro persequentibus vos,

45 ut sitis filii Patris vestri, qui in caelis est, quia solem suum oriri facit super malos et bonos et pluit super iustos et iniustos.

46 Si enim dilexeritis eos, qui vos diligunt, quam mercedem habetis? Nonne et publicani hoc faciunt?

47 Et si salutaveritis fratres vestros tantum, quid amplius facitis? Nonne et ethnici hoc faciunt?

48 Estote ergo vos perfecti, sicut Pater vester caelestis perfectus est.

This bit about hating your enemies could be addressed to any number of different ethnic groups.  Even the Psalms brag about how God will smite our enemies and make them into footstools and such. From this, it’s really impossible to tell what group Matthew may be addressing here. Now, there is the bit about the “nations” greeting their brother, that sounds like we’re addressing a Jewish audience. But why? Because “ethnoi” has been rendered as “gentile” for a very long time. Now, I don’t know what the Aramaic word may be that lurks behind this–if there is one. The thing is that, as generally used, ‘gentile’ pretty much corresponds to ‘barbaros’ in Greek in the sense that it’s an ‘us vs. them’ distinction. But that connotation simply is not present in ‘ethnoi’, at least not to the extent of ‘gentile’. The latter means non-Jew, and it’s as much religious as it is ethnic. As I understand ‘gentile’, the corresponding Greek term would be ‘barbaros’, and not ‘ethnikos’. It’s a matter of degree. The KJV sidesteps this by rendering both words as ‘publican’; the NASB and the ESB prefer ‘gentile’; the NIV chooses ‘pagan’. While this has explicitly religious overtones, I’m not sure it’s not the best translation of the lot. 

Then there’s the “telios” which often gets translated as “perfect”. At root it means “end”, as in teleology the branch of philosophy dealing with the ultimate end of things. The idea is that if something is complete, it’s perfect, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable with “perfect”. The connotation feels very different. I’ve often wondered about the part about “you” (the audience) being perfect. How are we supposed to pull that one off? Let’s talk about setting people up to fail. That, part, is why I’ve often questioned the translation here, and prefer something other than “perfect”.   

Notice that Matthew uses the verb ‘agapao’. This is the same stem as ‘agape’, which we saw in 1 Corinthians is the justifiably famous passage about how love is patient and kind. Now back when we read that passage, I mentioned that this is not a word really found in the Classical writers. That is true for “agape”, but it’s not true for the verb form used here. The point though, is that Paul did change the course of the word to some extent, especially in the noun form. The verb, as here, is common enough among the Classical writers that it pretty much maintained its meaning of “greet with affection”. That’s basically how it’s used here. So if I mislead anyone on the word back in the commentary on 1 Cor 13, my apologies. Not having the biblical background, I’m going to make mistakes like that. This is truly a voyage of discovery for me, too.

A few verses ago, when discussing “turn the other cheek”, we were more or less talking about a (quasi-) pacifist attitude. This part about loving your enemies is related to this, but not at all identical. Again, this idea is not exactly new, but it’s not exactly been expressed either to this point in Western Civ, at least. I can’t really speak to what the Buddha may have said about this. And it’s running alongside the Stoic attitude of a universal siblinghood (believe I coined the word a while back). So, even though it’s novel in some sense, it’s not completely without precedent or precursor, either. It is through Christianity, of course, that this idea gained traction in the west, at least to the point that people realize they should pay lip-service to the idea, even they don’t believe in it enough actually to practice it. 

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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 19, 2014, in Chapter 5, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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