One of the biggest problems in New Testament theology, in my opinion, is the apparent contradiction of the Gospel presentation in Matthew versus the rest of the N.T. Cannon. The contradiction lies in the question, “Do Christians have to keep the Torah or not?” Now I don’t know about you but when I became a Christian I was taught the answer to that question was “μὴ γένοιτο” (absolutely not!). Matter of fact, I was taught that Torah keeping was fundamentally opposed to the Gospel; that question is ridiculous. The only problem is that in my study of Matthew’s Gospel the text does not bear this out. Actually, it is the opposite: Law observance is assumed and reinforced. Three texts seem representative:
- Matthew 5:17-20 ― here Jesus explicitly claims that all of the Torah is valid even the jot and tittle (apparently the smallest parts of the Hebrew letters.
- Matthew 19:16-22 ― the story of the “Rich Young Ruler” shows that Jesus believes that Israelites were to keep the Torah but that being like God, that is perfect, required radical allegiance to Jesus.
- Matthew 23:23 ― Jesus, in condemnation of the Pharisee’s states that all of the Torah should be kept not just the “light” matters of the Torah; Justice, mercy and faithfulness were the “weightier” matters that must trump all other concerns.
It seems to me, that many (not all) scholars have felt the tension between the singular witness of the Gospel of Matthew versus the manifold witness of the other three Gospel accounts and Paul that (seemingly) reject Torah observance and try to harmonize Matthew. J.P. Meier and R.T. France are two examples of this but they by all means are not the only ones to do this. Here it may be appropriate to quote France, “If that is what Matthew intended, the interpreter must face the fact that this teaching is out of step with the overall thrust of New Testament Christianity and with the almost universal consensus of Christians ever since, at least with regard to the more ceremonial aspects Old Testament law, particularly its sacrificial provisions.” (NICOT Commentary on Matthew, 179–180) Also, it is important to state that I do not believe Matthew’s Gospel teaches it is merely permissible to keep the Torah but that it is mandatory. A true disciple of Jesus (for Matthew) carefully follows the Torah. Matter of fact they will go above and beyond to insure that they do not even come close to breaking a commandment. This teaching, that the disciple was to go above and beyond in their pursuit of Torah observance is best heard in the Sermon on the Mount. For some people the Sermon is the exact place that doesn’t teach Torah observance; it is the beginning of the abrogation of the Torah. I strongly reject this hearing of the Sermon for the simple reason that Jesus does not “loosen” the Torah’s teaching instead he intensifies the law. In other words he, in a way, builds a fence around the law. This is definitely not “Let go and let God” theology!
- So that you don’t murder eradicate anger.
- So that you don’t commit adultery banish lustful looking.
- So that you don’t divorce wrongly even consider it (except for cases of adultery)
- In order to be God’s true sons (and not like the Gentiles) love your enemies!
So, why don’t we just admit that the intended community of the Gospel of Matthew was a Torah observing community? I imagine the reason for many of us is that we then have a problem with Paul’s message. Right? I think I have a unique answer to this problem. It should take a couple of posts to tease it out though…