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Are Matthew and Paul at Odds on the Most Important Issue?

I have been talking about contradictions and their value for knowing about history — about what actually happened in the past.  There are lots of other kinds of ways that passages of the New Testament are at odds with one another.  Sometimes, and more important for many people, they can have very different theological views, sometimes on absolutely key and important issues.  That is a matter I addressed many years ago on the blog, in this post:

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One of my major goals as a professor of New Testament is to get my students to understand that the NT is not a single entity with a solid and consistent message.  There are numerous authors who were writing at different times, in different parts of the world, to different audiences, and with different – sometimes strikingly different – understandings about important issues.  In fact, about key issues, such as who Jesus was and what his role was in salvation.

One of the assignments that I used to give was to have students compare Matthew’s view of salvation with that found in Paul.  Specifically, what is the role of doing what the Law demands and of doing good deeds?  If someone abides by the law and does good deeds for others – will that bring about salvation?

The way I get them to think about those questions is by looking at two passages, one in Matthew and the other in Paul.  The first is Matthew’s version of the “rich young ruler” (he’s actually not a “young ruler” in any of the Gospel accounts; in one he’s young and in another he’s a ruler: but that’s just what the passage is typically called).    According to this passage, how does one receive eternal life? Here’s the passage.

 

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A Key Contradiction in the Birth Narratives
Are the Gospels Principally Concerned to Show What Actually Happened?

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Comments

  1. caesar  July 10, 2018

    Are you familiar with good Christian scholars who have attempted to harmonize this passage or others like it (Sheep and Goats, Good Samaritan) with the ‘salvation by faith’ passages? How do they attempt to harmonize them?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      One way is to say that Jesus was speaking before Easter and Paul after. The problem is that if Jesus were *right* (that one could be right with God by keeping the law), why would he have to die?




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      • Telling
        Telling  July 13, 2018

        With an understanding that all cells have consciousness, that we are a “gestalt” awareness composed of other consciousness, that we create our reality individually and collectively, the riddle is resolvable.

        We presume (cannot be proved) awareness is eternal, the outer world temporal. You can logically see that loss comes when temporal things decay and die or are no longer visible. Love of course bind us — formless beings emerging and reemerging to show and better themselves within stable temporal worlds — and so our productive resources are to love one another (even our enemies), redirecting our desires away from the temporal and toward the eternal. Losing attachment to temporal forms we become “perfect”. and with perfection we have an abundance.

        Simple, isn’t it?

        I believe this was the Jesus teaching, and that Paul sensed it but could not grasp it, and so taught “devotion” (through the Cross), devotion being a more earthy path to perfection.

        I don’t believe Jesus was crucified for reason you give.




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      • Iskander Robertson  July 14, 2018

        are you saying that obeying the law can save you therefore jesus did not need to die? jesus is not needed , the law is needed to get right with god?




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          I’m not saying that that’s my belief. I’m saying that if Jesus/Matthew were right that obedience to the law could bring salvation, then it’s hard to see what the point of Jesus’ death is.




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    • godspell  July 12, 2018

      I think Jesus believed faith and good behavior went together. Not religious dogma–that isn’t what Jesus meant by faith.

      A Canaanite woman (most likely a polytheist) comes to him to heal her daughter, and he rejects her in a brusque manner, calling her a dog, which can be interpreted in various ways, none of them polite. (I take it as a compliment myself, being a dog person.)

      And her response delights him. She says even a dog can eat the scraps from the master’s table. He tells her to go home, her daughter has had the evil spirit cast out from her. Now we don’t have to believe all that happened to know what the story means. The story means that faith is what matters. But faith applied to good works–in this case, helping her daughter. The fact is, she’s shown more understanding of his mission than many eminent members of his own religious community. And there must have been incidents like this in Jesus’ life, and they must have affected his sense of his own mission, and he conveyed this to his followers, creating this tradition (and making Christianity better able to reach out to gentiles).

      A Non-Jew might have faith, an outwardly devout Jew might have none. He identifies as Jewish, thinks that is the religion that’s come closest to understanding God, but his experience told him that men and women of good will–and their antithesis–can exist anywhere.

      By their fruit shall ye know them. If you judge people only by beliefs they profess to have, you have failed to understand (we can argue all day about who Jesus was, and what we think about him and the religions he spawned, but this is simply the truth).

      A person who professes no faith, but acts as if he has faith, is superior to the person who professes deep faith, but acts as if he has none. Deeds are the only proof of faith. All else is meaningless.

      But religions require adherents to survive as institutions. If there is no preferential treatment on the basis of membership, the membership will dwindle. This is the problem you refer to.




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  2. godspell  July 10, 2018

    The most noteworthy difference here is that Matthew is recounting a story, in which Jesus tells someone what to do in order to gain salvation–and it’s really hard. It’s probably the one passage in the New Testament that gives Christians the most trouble. Because very few people could come close to living up to these strictures.

    Even worse–Jesus says he himself is not good. Even though he’s presumably following the commandments, and has no possessions other than the clothes on his back. Only God is good. And Jesus is a man.

    While ‘Matthew’ may not have believed Jesus was God, he did believe he was the begotten son of God, born of a virgin, so I don’t think this story would be in there if some version of this conversation wasn’t already well known in the Christian community. It does in fact sound like the kind of provocative thing Jesus would say.

    Paul is just giving us his take. He only encountered Jesus in a vision. He’s not putting words in Jesus’ mouth, not telling a story, and indeed he only rarely tells stories in his epistles, and never at any great length. He is not a gifted storyteller, as the gospel authors were–his talents lie elsewhere.

    He believes that he has been divinely delegated to interpret Jesus for us, and since he believes he achieved salvation by coming to believe in Jesus, he is prescribing the same path for everyone else. (This is a nigh-universal human trait–if something works for us, whether it’s a home remedy or an exercise plan, we assume it’ll work for everybody).

    Paul doesn’t care about stories, because he’s more interested in the ideas he’s come up with himself, that he believes were part of a divine revelation granted to him and him alone. Both writers go to their strengths, their primary areas of interest. As all writers do.

    Matthew’s Jesus is less human than Mark’s, but more so than Paul’s, if only because Matthew is out to tell a story–not lay out the foundations of a new understanding of Jesus, based not on recollection and anecdote, but rather on internal reflections and insights.




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  3. Robert
    Robert  July 10, 2018

    Paul would certainly not have disagreed with the Matthean Jesus’ “advice’ to keep the moral commandments against murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, honoring one’s father and mother, or the love commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 19,19 = Gal 5,14). Loving one another, bearing one another’s burdens is what Paul refers to here as the messianic law (6,2) and God’s final judgment against the unrighteous who do not ‘do the law’ is a fundamental part of Paul’s gospel preaching (Rom 2). For Paul, those who do the law shall indeed be justified. (οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται). Paul upholds the law,. None of this is what he means by ‘works of the law’ such as circumcision for Gentiles.

    If you still seem to cling to a Lutheran caricature of justification by faith alone as the valid interpretation of Paul, you will always be a recovering fundamentalist. I desire that you finally be free of these childish things.




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    • Robert
      Robert  July 10, 2018

      What Paul means by ‘works of the law’, such as circumcision for Gentiles, is not the moral or Messianic law. It seems to be comparable to the ‘works of the law’ in the Qumran MMT text, ie, matters of ceremonial purification for priests, which Paul would also not impose on Gentiles.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      No, but Paul would *not* have agreed that this is how one attains eternal life. And that is no Lutheran caricature! I haven’t held to a traditional Lutheran reading of Paul for forty years!!




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      • Robert
        Robert  July 12, 2018

        “No, but Paul would *not* have agreed that this is how one attains eternal life. …”

        So does Paul really think one can attain eternal life without upholding the moral commandments against murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, honoring one’s father and mother, or the love commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself?




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 12, 2018

          No, not in my view. What he thought was that anyone who was baptized into Christ received the Spirit and was thereby (and by no other way) empowered to do the will of God as embodied in the Torah.




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          • Robert
            Robert  July 12, 2018

            “.. What he [Paul] thought was that anyone who was baptized into Christ received the Spirit and was thereby (and by no other way) empowered to do the will of God as embodied in the Torah.”

            Oh, so not really at odds with the Matthean resurrected Jesus’ ‘great commission’ in Mt 28,19-20 to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 14, 2018

            Matthew certainly doesn’t have Paul’s theological understanding of baptism.




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          • Robert
            Robert  July 14, 2018

            “Matthew certainly doesn’t have Paul’s theological understanding of baptism.”

            We don’t really know much about Matthew’s underlying theology of baptism. That was not my point. But you’ve acknowledged (here and previously) that Paul and Matthew both taught the importance of following the moral commandments in general and Jesus’ love commandment more specifically. I think some of your readers assume a Lutheran interpretation of Paul as a too easy way of differentiating between Paul and Jesus or between Paul and Matthew.




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 15, 2018

            I said that only because I thought you were saying that Matthew and Paul were on the same theological page because they both speak about baptism.




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  4. mannix  July 10, 2018

    Jesus cited 7 of the 10 Commandments ,the Golden Rule, and forsaking material possessions. Do these constitute the “works of the Law” that Paul referred to? I got the impression Paul was talking about Jewish food restrictions, sacrificial rituals, circumcision, etc. Could one propose that having “faith” in Christ could be construed as believing compliance with the Mt 19 instructions will guarantee, through Jesus, “eternal life”?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      That’s right. But he certainly did not think that “keeping the Ten Commandments” was the key to eternal life. It it were, there would have been no reason for Christ to die.




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  5. ddorner  July 10, 2018

    Is it likely that Matthew is preserving, at least in spirit, an actual teaching of Jesus? Perhaps he kept the tradition without fully considering the theological implications? Similar to the “Son Of Man”, and “the Sheep and the Goats” teachings.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      Yes, my sense is that htis is something Jesus could well have said.




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  6. forthfading  July 10, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would it be correct to conclude that the resulting orthodox church tended to use Paul’s theological perspective and views more than the Gospel writers, at least the views they attributed to Jesus?

    Thanks




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  7. prestonp  July 10, 2018

    Jesus told him,
    “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
    It was a test.
    “Do you love me?”
    “Huh?”
    “Do you love me?”
    “Um, Sure. I’m being good, man. Sup?”
    “No, I said, ‘do you love me?'”
    “Love you? Of course, all my life I’ve done what I’m supposed to do.”
    “Great. Wonderful. O yes, one more thing. Sell your junk and give all the proceeds to the poor.”
    “What? You’re kidding!”

    Now, these days, since Jesus bled and died and became alive again, we can go to Him boldly and say,
    “Lord, I ain’t cutting it. Please help me. I try and try and I just screw up big time. No matter how hard I try, I blow it. I steal, I cheat, I’ve lied all over the place, I hate people. I’ve hated you. I hate everything!”
    “Now you’re talking. You want my help?”
    “Lord, I do! I do! Please help me!”
    “Cool. Now, let go and I’ll come to you. (It’s hard to save a drowning man when he’s squirming and flipping and flopping all over the place.) I will hang out with you. We’ll eat breakfast together. The two of us can make it, just like I showed Paul.”




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  8. flshrP  July 10, 2018

    I wonder how many people (it must number in the millions) have died because of this particular NT contradiction. Roman Catholics follow Matthew’s idea. Protestants follow Paul’s. A very bloody history over this issue. This is one NT contradiction that has had tragic consequences.




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  9. Stephen  July 10, 2018

    How much of a distortion of what might have happened at the Jerusalem Council do you think the account in Acts actually is? Might it in reality have been totally acrimonious, a definite split, and a rejection of Paul? Or is that going too far?

    thanks




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      I think Paul is more likely to have given a better sense of what happened, since he was actually there (though he clearly would have portrayed the moment from his own perspective, and possibly slanted it accordingly).




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  10. fishician  July 10, 2018

    Even in the Gospel of John there are hints of salvation by works: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28, 29) Do you think the book of James was written at least in part to enter into this debate of works vs. faith?




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  11. anthonygale  July 10, 2018

    I am imagining what an apologist might say…Jesus wouldn’t have said his death brings salvation during his lifetime because he didnt die yet. And the issue isnt that obeying the law cant bring salvation. It would if people only followed it. But all have fallen short, which is why Jesus had to die. So obeying the law could bring salvation in theory but in practice only faith in Jesus does.

    I agree though this likely reflects conflicting understandings of salvation. Much like you’ve said with the sheep and the goats story, do you think the apparent conflict within Matthew (not just between Matthew and Paul), i.e. quoting Jesus as he does while also understanding Jesus’ death as bringing salvation, suggests that the quote goes back to the historical Jesus?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      Yes, that’s a typical explanation. But it leaves unexplained why, if Jesus was right, he would have to die. Why not just tell people to behave?




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      • anthonygale  July 12, 2018

        I think they would say the law already tells people how to behave, the problem is that people are unwilling or unable to follow it, so that’s why Jesus is needed. I suppose Marcion took the unable approach and many people still take the unwilling one. I realize that the argument from free will can’t explain all of the suffering and evil in the world, yet I agree that if there is a God I doubt he would want to “create robots.”

        Do you think the historical Jesus really said something along the lines of “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” I get the sense that there is not only conflict between Matthew and Paul on the idea of salvation, but perhaps even within Matthew. If this quote is part of the problem, does that suggest it goes back to Jesus on the basis of dissimilarity?




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2018

          I doubt if Jesus said exactly this, but it’s hard to say. Matthew in particular stresses the need for “perfection,” so this may be his editorial addition.




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        • Iskander Robertson  July 14, 2018

          “I think they would say the law already tells people how to behave, the problem is that people are unwilling or unable to follow it, so that’s why Jesus is needed”

          but that’s not what jesus thought and the torah did not think that either. we have examples in isaiah 52 where people are able to keep the law and don’t need jesus.




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  12. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 10, 2018

    I agree there are conflicting messages in the New Testament and these are a good example. I wonder if another issue compounding the problem is Martin Luther? Having been raised Catholic I was taught that Salvation was a combination of works and grace which I think such teachings attempt to resolve the discrepancies and tension between the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Do you think the reasons your students do not see any tensions in these two Scriptures are party due to the influence of Luther’s doctrine of salvation via faith and grace that has been the foundation of Protestantism for the last 500 years?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      I’m not sure. I think a Lutheran would especially see the problem, if Jesus was thought to teach that “being good” would bring salvation.




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  13. doug  July 10, 2018

    When I believed the Bible was inerrant, I would have thought, “There MUST be a way they are consistent!”. It would not have occurred to me that a perfect God wouldn’t have put two things in the Bible that are apparently inconsistent. And God wouldn’t be doing that to “test my faith”. Because God is supposedly all-knowing – he would know if I was faithful or not, no tests necessary.




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  14. balivi  July 10, 2018

    “…that Matthew too thinks that Jesus’ death brings salvation;”
    Yes and no, because in Matthew’s version realy Jesus, who dies on the cross. But this not the same as Paul. Because according to Paul God, who handed Jesus to death, on that night, when he took the bread (in 1Cor11:23). Then Jesus could not die on the cross. This is the differenc.
    “So are Matthew and Paul reconcilable or not?” Not. Only are Luke and Paul reconcilable. Luke, as Paul too, thinks that Jesus’ death on the cross dont brings salvation. Because Luke thinks like Paul, Jesus handed by God to death, the previous night.
    Therefore it has in Luke, the curtain of the temple was torn in two before the death, and therefore it has in Luke, sweat was like drops of blood. The Son of God have not blood. Because the Son of God was only in the likeness of sinfull flesh. Sweat was like drops of blood: is the Christ




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    • balivi  July 10, 2018

      The another very important different between Matthew and Luke (actually Paul) the centurion’s words.
      In Luke 23:47: “Surely this was a righteous man.”
      In Matthew 27:54: “Surely he was the Son of God!”

      Its clear. Luke (actually Paul) dont says: Jesus in the cross: Son of God true? This said only Matthew. Why?




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      • Bart
        Bart  July 12, 2018

        Mark has “Son of God” as well.




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        • balivi  July 12, 2018

          Yes of course, but this shows, that Luke, and only Luke changes that in this phase. This dos it mean, Luke had a another/different “Quelle”? If yes, in my opinion this was Paul, or the Pauline letters/teaching.




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        • turbopro  July 13, 2018

          Prof, re this excerpt related to the centurion’s declaration at Jesus’ death:
          1. where in Mark and Mathew the centurion states “Son of God,” and Luke has “righteous man”: is there a reason why Luke does not aver Jesus’ divinity?
          2. is there a reason why John makes no mention of any centurion?

          I ask because Luke’s difference vs Mark/Mathew appears to be somewhat significant, but at least the synoptics all script a cameo appearance for John Wayne. But no so much in John’s gospel; John’s silence is, well, deafening.




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 14, 2018

            1. Luke stresses throughout his passion narrative that Jesus was completely *innocent*. That’s what he wants to emphasize time and again; 2. It’s not clear that John ever heard that part of the story.




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          • balivi  July 14, 2018

            In 1Cor11:24 “This is my body (σῶμα- soma, and not σάρκα- sarka), which is for you…”

            Why did not say flesh (σάρκα- sarka)? What does it mean? It’s mean, that for the Jesus (as Son of God at the Paul), has not flesh, what he could give it, because he is “only” the likeness of sinfull flesh (as Son of God, Rom8:3; Fil2:7).
            Therefor God gave to death (the σῶμα- soma), on the night, when he took the bread (in 1Cor11:23). It’s: the σῶμα- soma, which gave it to death by God. So “being made in human likeness” (ὡς ἄνθρωπος- as antropos), as Christ (in Fil2:8).
            Who is the righteous man in the Pauline doctrine? Who is righteous by faith, true? Who believe in the Christ.
            Why do need the Crihst- faith, to get righteous? Because of Paul’s gospel: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last (from faith for faith)” (Rom1:17) The first: from Christ-faith (from the visible); to last: Son of God- faith (to the not visible).

            Therefore in Luke, the centurion can not say: Son of God, only righteous man.




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          • balivi  July 14, 2018

            In 1Cor11:26: “…you proclaim the Lord’s (Jesus, as the Son of God, in the likeness of sinfull flesh) death…”. What did say as well? Actually, nothing else, as necessary proclaim Jesus’ death, that is the Christ. But this is not death on the Cross. This is death the previus night.




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  15. Hon Wai  July 10, 2018

    Have you written some posts on what Jesus may have meant by “eternal life”? Would his contemporaries have understood it as a post-mortem state, namely, heaven as envisaged by many Christians today?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      It depends on which Gospel you’re reading, but for the most part it means something like “life with God in heaven forever.”




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      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 12, 2018

        i was under the impression that you thought
        >Jesus . . . meant by “eternal life”
        life on earth

        rather than
        >>something like “life with God in heaven forever.”




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2018

          Ah, right — sorry, I was thinking only of the Gospel of John and wrongly speaking for the others. For them it means a joyful life forever in God’s kingdom.




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  16. john76  July 10, 2018

    Paul and Matthew both emphasize love of neighbor (not purity) as the greatest focus of life (Galatians 5:14, Romans 13:8, Galatians 6:2 / Matthew 7:12).




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      Yup! But Paul thinks it’s possible only by being empowered by the Spirit, received at baptism after believing in Christ.




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  17. wgmccollum  July 10, 2018

    Are there any other indications in Matthew that Matthew’s Jesus was simply out to save the Jews alone, that his entire mission was JUST to direct and save the Jewish people for whom God was THEIR God and not the God of gentiles? Thank you. I am not saying that the example you give here is evidence that Matthew’s Jesus was just for the Jews, but are there instances in Matthew or the other Gospels that Jesus was simply there to deal with the Jewish people and forget the goyem!




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  18. Tempo1936  July 10, 2018

    Since the “holy spirit” is part of the trinity, are you planning to write a trade book on this subject?

    Most Christians are taught that the spirit in the OT was only available for limited specific purposes while it resides continually in theNT believer revealing all truths.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      Nope, no plans to write about the early Christain understandings of the Spirit. Interesting topic: but I have other things I feel more driven to write about just now.




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  19. paul373  July 11, 2018

    Your discussion of contradictions in the Bible has been fascinating. Perhaps you should consider a future trade book on this subject. I suspect there would be considerable interest in the topic.




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  20. rebamagnolia  July 11, 2018

    Do believers typically reconcile the passages with the idea that before the death of Jesus “acts” were required for salvation, but after (and because of) the death of Jesus, acts were no longer required? So Jesus was right about the requirements at the time that he spoke the words in Matthew’s passage, but the requirements later changed? Or is that not a plausible reconciliation?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2018

      Yes, that’s a typical way of reconciling the passages; but it it were true, then it would be hard to explain why Jesus had to die in teh first place. Instead he could have just told people to behave.




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      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  July 12, 2018

        I have heard some Christians believe that Jesus was teaching his Jewish followers the Old Covenant (a works based salvation) because he hadn’t died and resurrected and established the New Covenant yet.

        To me that makes no sense whatsoever. Why spend your time teaching a method of salvation that will be obsolete in a very short while? To me the more logical explanation is that two different methods of salvation are in the New Testament.




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2018

          Moreover, why bother to die if salvation was available otherwise?




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          • Iskander Robertson  July 16, 2018

            if the instructions of god could help save people and god gave them, then the people who received them would think that doing them would save them.
            quote :
            Think about it. The more airtight Paul makes his argument (by citing the Old Testament) that it has been Godʼs plan all along to show no partiality (2:11; 3:21-31) to Jews, the more Jewish followers of Jesus might want to ask, “So, was all that back then about keeping the covenant just a big smokescreen? And what about all those Jews over the centuries who lived their lives according to Torah, some of whom were martyred—does that mean nothing?”

            there are christians who say that the law does not help one get right with god, but then it would mean that god gave law which could not help people get right with god . then why didnt he give the jews easier laws?




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 17, 2018

            THe laws aren’t particularly hard. You shouldn’t murder or sleep with your neighbor’s wife; if your ox gores your neighbor you have to make reparation; take a break one day of the week; don’t worship other gods, etc.. The Jewish laws aren’t any where NEAR as stringent as AMerican laws, and we have no real trouble keeping most of ours!




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