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Jesus Traditions

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Observance in Matthew 5



Matthew’s Warning for His Readers
Matthew 5:17-20

Guarding the gateway leading into the six revolutionary teachings of Matthew 5:21-47 stands the solemn warning in Matthew 5:17-20 for disciples who might be led astray from their loyalty to the Law


This message would have brought reassurance to the hearts of the Christian Jews among whom the author of Matthew likely lived and for whom he likely wrote; today it may bring a nod from some and perplexity to others.

As stated elsewhere, it appears that in 5:17-20 Matthew took a bit of Q tradition (Matthew 5:18 || Luke 16:17), and  built around it a mini-manifesto for Christian Judaism, which has Jesus endorsing Torah observance as indispensable for his followers. As for the Q saying, we cannot be certain whether it goes back to Jesus or whether it may have originated in a Christian Jewish community which like Matthew’s was trying to maintain Torah as obligatory. 

In the table below, the material in blue print is Q, and that in green print is Matthew’s special material, possibly from a written or oral source, but more likely his own composition.


Matthew 5:17-20

Luke 16:17

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.                                                                         
18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [Q]   17But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. [Q] 

19Therefore, whoever breaks [note, annuls] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.     

Brief comments: 
  • In 5:17, the phrase law and prophets refers to the first two divisions of the Jewish Bible, in the first century, before the third division, “the writings,” was added. Fulfillment is a major interest of Matthew.
  •  5:18, the Q material.
  •  5:19, possibly a polemic against the law-free gospel characteristic of Paul and his successors.
  •  5:20, typical of Matthew’s anti-Pharisaic position.


Six Contrasts: Matthew 5:21-47


Having just assured his Christian Jewish readers that Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, Matthew now considers it safe to present six revolutionary contrasts (5:21-47), which effectively relativize Torah! How can this be? We scratch our head.



Beyond Legalism



Prohibition of murder Warning against anger and hate 5:21-26


Prohibition of adultery Warning against lustful thoughts 5:27-30


The regularization of divorce (marriage as exploitation) The permanence of marriage (equal respect of persons) 5:31-32


Oaths, as assurance of truth telling      No oaths: integrity, as assurance of the truth 5:33-37


Lex talionis: equal retaliation as the way of resolving disputes Reconciliation through creative use of suffering 5:38-42


Loving one’s neighbor and hating one’s enemy  Loving one’s enemy

The first two contrasts represent an advance beyond the Law, but in contrasts three to six Jesus effectively annuls the old laws and raises morality to a new level; more of this, at Jesus Traditions: Sayings (4). Because of the warning he had given in 5:17-20, Matthew may well have thought it safe now to frame these six contrasts as part of the discourse in chapters 5 to 7—which we may refer to as the [So-called] Sermon on the [So-called] Mount.



      Ambivalence of Matthew? On the one hand, Torah for Matthew and his fellow Christian Jews was of undoubted importance, as we have already noted; compare also Torah as Obligatory.

On the other hand, he did use material from his sources which brought into question the ultimacy and inviolability of Torah. Not only so: but he also sharpened up the differences between the old and the new in the six contrasts of Matthew 5:21-47. These contrasts employ considerable Q material and some Mark material, but the framework of this section and the formula which contrasts new and old are apparently the contribution of the writer himself. (Click on Origin.) The effect of this editorial activity is to show that for Matthew, at least in these cases, Torah could be, and needed to be, up-dated and even abrogated. 

So why this ambivalence? we would like to know. As usual, we have more questions than answers.
   •  Was Matthew perhaps unaware of the inconsistency between Torah as obligatory in 5:17-20, and Torah as superseded in 5:21-47? Or,
   •  Was Matthew genuinely trying to find a way for Christian Jewish disciples to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, without making Torah obsolete? Or, to put it differently, Did Matthew really want to be Torah observant and at the same time to champion a movement which raised the bar with its moral and spiritual demands?

We do not know. We can say that Matthew shows ambivalence on other issues also:
   •  He can be intensely anti-Pharisaic, as well as acknowledging the authority of rabbinic tradition; 
   •  He can show a universalistic side, as well as an exclusivist one. So why not one more:
   •  He can insist that Torah is obligatory, as well as require conduct that nullifies Torah.

    Ambivalence of Jesus? But is it only Matthew that is ambivalent? Behind the ambivalence of Matthew, is there evidence that Jesus also was ambivalent toward Torah?

If the Q saying (Matthew 5:18 || Luke 16:17) is authentic, we would like to know if Jesus remained loyal to the Law while at the same time he was revising and even annulling the Law—in the process giving evidence of a certain autonomy with respect to the Law. It would be credible that Jesus the Jew had never turned his back completely on Torah, in the same way that Paul the Jew exhibited a good deal of ambivalence, if not confusion or contradiction, in what he said about Torah (Romans 3:28, 31; 4:14-15; 7:4-7, 12-14; 9:3-5). Did Jesus appreciate the benign influence of Torah as a kindly way of ordering life under God (Mark 10:19), at the same time that he understood the corruptibility of Torah in the hands of the unscrupulous (Mark 7:8-13)? 

Mark reports (10:19) that when a rich man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus commended to him the ten commandments: “You know the commandment: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  

It is plausible that Jesus was reared in a Torah observant home, and that he internalized the commandments, along the lines of Psalm 40:7-8. Thus we may leave open the possibility that he never really moved out of the gravitational pull of Torah


Jesus: Moderate or Radical?  

If we acknowledge the possibility of Jesus’ ambivalence toward Torah, we also maintain that Jesus exercised a certain moral sovereignty with respect to Torah:
By his selectivity in using certain teachings of the Jewish Bible and rejecting others; and
By his rejection of legalism in favor of the principle of love/agapę. 

Though there was continuity with historic Judaism in the teaching of Jesus, there was also an independence from (and what his adversaries took as a certain nonchalance toward) the authority of Torah. This autonomy likely convinced both Pharisees and Sadducees that he was radical, and dangerous!

Whether this independence from Torah justifies the label of moderate or radical, his position is significant for a number of reasons.
     •  It accounts for much of the controversy during his public activity.
     •  It might account in part for the events leading to his death.
     •  It would at least indirectly influence the shape of mission in the post-Easter period, and especially the encouragement of the law free gentile mission. Torah would remain an important guide, but not an absolute authority. If Paul was right in observing (Galatians 4:4-5) that Christ was born under Torah (genomenon hypo nomon), he was paradoxically also right in describing Christ as the one who liberates those who are under Torah (hina tous hypo nomon exagorasęi).


Revised July 22, 2003


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