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Do Matthew and Paul Agree on the Matter Most Important to them Both?

I was going through posts from many years ago and came across this one, on an issue I’ve always thought was unusually interesting: if the writer of the Gospel of Matthew (whoever that was) and the apostle Paul had been locked in a room and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus statement on how one attains eternal life, would they still be in there, possibly with their skeletons locked in a mutual death grip?  I didn’t put it that way when I posted this so long ago, but I was younger and milder then I suppose.

Here’s how I expressed it then.  What do you think?


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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Matth 19:16-22

16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “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.”


OK, so according to Matthew Jesus tells this person that to have eternal life, he needs to keep the commandments (he cites not only some of the ten commandments but the “love command” as well). Note: he answers the question about “eternal life” by telling the  man to keep the commandments; if he wants to be even *better* than that, he should accept voluntary abject poverty in order to help others; then he will have even more than eternal life, he’ll be one of the rich folk in heaven.  But just to get there?  Keep the commandments!

Is that what Paul thought and taught?

To complete the exercise I ask them to imagine that twenty years later, this same man (the rich fellow who is told that if he keeps the commandments of the Jewish law he will have eternal life; and that if he gives away his possessions for the poor he’ll be “perfect”) comes up to the apostle Paul and asks him the same question that he asked Jesus (according to Matthew).  Would Paul *also* tell him that if he keeps the commandments of the Law he will have eternal life?  And that he can be perfect before God living in poverty for the sake of others?  Is that how he can have salvation?   Consider what Paul says in Galatians:

Gal 2: 16, 21

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law….  21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.


I’m amazed at how many of my students don’t see that there is any tension or discrepancy here.   But I always press hard the question.  If Jesus is right that eternal life comes to those who keep the commandments of the Jewish Law, then how can Paul be right that no one can be made right with God by doing what the Law demands?

On the other hand, the matter is complicated by the fact that Matthew too thinks that Jesus’ death brings salvation; that’s more or less the point of his narrative.  So are Matthew and Paul reconcilable or not?  If it were an easy answer, it would not be a very interesting assignment!

You too may have an opinion.  I just ask one thing: don’t reconcile these two passages to make them say the  same thing without considering the option that in fact they might be saying two very different things.  And don’t assume they are necessarily contradictory without seeing if they may, at heart, be very similar.  THEN make up your mind.


Did Paul Really Think “All Israel Will Be Saved”? Guest Post by Jason Staples
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  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  July 3, 2020

    “ you can’t get to heaven On your good deeds”
    That’s what these people at Thornton Pool back in the early 60’s used to say everyday. They were there every day in the summer.
    I figured out, even back then it was because they never did any good deeds. I never heard of them or recognized any of them other than them being there in the summer proselytizing ha

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 3, 2020

    It would be so helpful if God, as the Divine Editor, would iron out all these differences by sending us a revised and updated revision of the Bible much as scholars do every few years or so with their textbooks.

    • Avatar
      jamierussell2112@gmail.com  July 14, 2020

      It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. And the glory of kings to search it out….
      Proverbs 25:2

      • Avatar
        prs  July 25, 2020

        Using the phrase “God concealing a matter” is a poetic attempt to justify intentional torture of human beings by this Creator/God keeping understanding of the natural world beyond the reach of human knowledge. Attempting to make our natural evolution a spiritually mysterious element inherent in a Diety’s plan —debases the long suffering, and bloody path that the human animal has experienced. Over time the mental capacity for reason became a primary characteristic of modern humans. Harnessed by cultural norms and driven by ever more sophisticated technology, we discover and invent our way to ever better understanding of the “matter”, the hiding of which the above writer describes as “God’s glory”. The price paid for this “glory of God” is measured in billions of lives and unimaginable magnitudes of human suffering (and the suffering of our pre-human ancestors over millions of years). The current pandemic is only the latest rendition of suffering based in lack of knowledge. Such is the Moral Bankruptcy of theist thought that it seeks to justify such an evil conception of a Cosmic Play by referring to it as “God’s glory”.

  3. Avatar
    Pegill7  July 3, 2020

    I have always thought that Jesus’ reply to the young man about selling all his wealth was to let him know that his unwillingness to give up his wealth meant that he valued his wealth more than obeying God, and thus he was violating the most fundamental of all the commandments which was to place God above everything else. For him his wealth was his God. I don’t think that there is any other passage in the Gospels where Jesus commands a wealthy person to divest himself of all his possessions and he does know other wealthy persons. While Jesus goes on in this chapter to tell how difficult is for a rich man (the eye of the needle comparison), he doesn’t say it is impossible, but adds, ” For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

  4. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  July 3, 2020

    Did the writer of Matthew know about Paul? Since Paul died more than 20 years before the Gospel was written. Could it be possible that the writer heard about Paul’s message and disagreed with him?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      He gives no solid evidence he did, no. But it’s certainly possible.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  July 7, 2020

        The writer of “Luke” wrote a great deal about Paul in the book of “Acts”. Both writers of “Matthew” and “Luke” used the same source materials to write their Gospels. So I find it hard to believe that the writer of “Matthew” did not know of Paul and his messaging. Which makes me feel that he probably heard of Paul’s view on how one the attains eternal life.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2020

          I’d say there’s almost no evidence that *Luke* had read the letters of Paul we have, and actually good evidence that he did not.

          • stevedemarco
            stevedemarco  July 7, 2020

            Yes I know that the author of Luke wrote different accounts of Paul then that of his letters. So one could say that Luke did not read Paul’s letters. But regardless of that Paul is still mentioned in “Acts”. I debate myself sometimes if I should trust Paul’s own word at times in his letters or go with the outsider perspective on Paul in “Acts”, even if it’s pass down through oral tradition.

            For example, look at Galatians 1:18-20. I don’t know that this is true but, I feel Paul may have exaggerated the truth here.

      • Avatar
        jamierussell2112@gmail.com  July 14, 2020

        It goes deeper sir. I bet you have a brilliant way to.reconcile what is being said by Jesus here. Presuming the narrative is hinting at Jesus seeing into the man’s life.

  5. Avatar
    doug  July 3, 2020

    How do your students attempt to make the Matthew and Paul passages consistent?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      They say that when Jesus says follow him and you will have riches in heaven, he means what Paul means that you have to have faith.

  6. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  July 3, 2020

    It’s spooky that this post should arrive today as I was musing earlier whether, had St Paul somehow managed to attend (and speak at) the Council of Nicaea, (by time machine presumably), he would have been denounced as a heretic. As to the crux of this post, I, for one, cannot reconcile Jesus’s and Paul’s versions of the salvation criteria unless one argues that Jesus was talking pre-crucifixion and Paul was talking post-crucifixion. But then it would have be nice of Jesus to have made that clear.

  7. Robert
    Robert  July 3, 2020

    Completely off-topic! Did you ever interact with Kurt or Barbara Aland with respect to the Western non-interpolations? Kurt was pretty negative regarding Westcott & Hort and it sometimes sounds like he strong-armed the GNT3 committee. Has your support for W&H won the day? Is there still (or perhaps even more of a) German/Europe vs US/English-speaking divide on this issue?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      A bit. Kurt thought I was a dumb American whippersnapper. We only met once. But it did involve spending an evening in their apartment smoking cigars! Barbara and I had more contact over the years — she is a lovely person. She liked Orthodox Corruption but I don’t think we talked about teh non-interpolatinos. The reason they were so dead set against Westcott and Hort, in my opinion, is that the text they spent so many decades on based on so muhc more work and a somewhat different theory ended up looking almost exactly like Westcott and Hort’s. You gotta justify your work and all the hours and money that went into it!

      • Avatar
        Greg_Tx  July 8, 2020

        The Bible seems to provide ways to avoid doing good acts. Most shocking is the rationalization that suffering prepares people for heaven. This was Mother Teresa’s rationale for allowing her poor, sick patients to suffer while she swam in the cash from charitable donations and jet-setted around the world. Another rationale that it seems many Christians use allows them to focus on weekly worship rather than good deeds. In the stories recorded in the Bible, Jesus himself fed some people and did a few healings but he didn’t do as much as one might think that a god could do. To have a message like “love thy neighbor” spread through the world and persist through generations, because of human nature, it can’t go as an unadorned message, it has to have a cult built around it, a cult that has a personality that will engage everyone who hears the message. Of necessity, the cult becomes bigger than the message. So, to your question Bart, I think the persistence of the cult is the primary concern of the cult and its messages are secondary therefore Paul’s message wins out.

  8. cheriq
    cheriq  July 3, 2020

    When we look at the latter portion of Matthew 25, we find that those who did the acts listed (feed the hungry, etc) – will have “life eternal”.

    Mat 25:45-46 KJV

    Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
    And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

  9. Avatar
    janmaru  July 3, 2020

    I see more Paul as the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses that tries to seduce the virtuous and difficult Madame de Tourvel (Matthew).
    In a very famous scene of director Stephen Frears’s film adaptation, John Malkovich (Vicomte de Valmont) confronts Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) with his vanity and sense of self-control and also, more important, with his honest love.
    To all of Madame de Tourvel’s solicitations, appeals, and insults, he simply repeats obsessively: “It’s beyond my control.”
    The Marquise de Merteuil had promised Valmont that if he seduced Madame de Tourvel and provided her with written proof of seduction, she would spend the night with him.
    The Marquise de Merteuil represents the early church and is the puppeteer beyond Paul’s action and deeds (the later re-write obviously) but in his terrible defeat, the Vicomte de Valmont aims his gun to the Church vanity, its dishonesty.
    Paul says: “As for this present infatuation, it won’t last; but for the moment, it’s beyond my control” a phrase that would be repeated later and thrown toward Madame de Tourvel and the later Church, for saecula saeculorum.

  10. Avatar
    Q11Temple  July 3, 2020

    I would love feedback/criticism of this theory. There’s three things I would consider:
    1. The language is different “keep” as opposed to “work”
    In Luke 18:21 “keep” is G5442
    in Matthew 19:17 “keep” is G5083
    in Mark 10:20 “keep” is G5442

    This is guarding and treasuring not just observance:

    2. The Essene context that “works of the law” has https://www.jstor.org/stable/4193122 suggest this was obtaining salvation through observances and purity rather than Mathew’s list of substantial matters and heart/attitude conditions Matt 19:18-19 (Jesus the new covenant mediator focuses on heart: Matthew 5:38~, Jer 31:33)

    3. Galatians is using “law” for “Sinai law.” Paul’s not comparing the “old” and “new” covenants but the unconditional-blessings given to Abraham with conditional-blessings at Sinai (which Israel broke). He’s using the covenant of Abraham as an analogy for repenting and accepting mercy (Jeremiah 3:12-14) with the work of Christ and grace compared with justifying yourself through “works of law” and being susceptible to Sinai curses: Gal 3:16-18, Gal 3:10-12, Deuteronomy 27:26. Likewise in Romans 10:5-10 Paul compares the Moab covenant to Sinai with quotes from Lev 18:5 and Deut 30:11-14. Some Jewish tradition considers Sinai lacking and hence the need for Moab: https://www1.biu.ac.il/indexE.php?id=15430&pt=1&pid=14638&level=0&cPath=43,14206,14376,14638,15430 Paul uses a similar analogy in Galatians 4:21~

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Interesting points!

    • Avatar
      Rontor1964@gmail.com  July 8, 2020

      Thanks for your consideration and considerable effort in your reply.

      • Avatar
        Rontor1964@gmail.com  July 8, 2020

        Tally HOOOOH, what a Site!

  11. Avatar
    Poohbear  July 3, 2020

    Re “Matthew’s view of salvation”
    Matthew doesn’t give his “view of salvation”, he quoted Jesus.
    You are also confusing, for whatever reason, the different meanings of the word “law.”
    Jesus tested the rich man on his observance of the law. But what law was Paul and Jesus speaking of?
    In the bible there are the Ordinances (dietary rules, Tabernacle, Holy days etc.), the Judgments (property, inheritance, divorce etc.) and the Commandments (the moral law regards stealing, killing etc.) Jesus preached only the Commandments and made them more onerous. As Jeremiah put it, the new covenant would be written in the heart, not in rules or symbols.
    Thus there is “no law” in the NT, but over a thousand moral exhortations to obey. Half of every saying of Jesus and half of every verse of Paul’s speak to these requirements. Both men stated the Levitical and Deuteronomical commandments were not enough in themselves to be in Moses’ “book of life.”
    And the story of the “rich man” shows this perfectly – he was a good man, clearly impressed by Jesus, but there was nothing written in his heart.

  12. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  July 3, 2020

    The way I interpret the author of Matthew’s view is that yes, Jesus died for our sins (the basis for Christianity), but that only counts if people live moral lives.

    Paul also believed that Jesus died for our sins, but appeared to believe that only faith in Jesus mattered for salvation and that if works mattered then Jesus died for nothing.

    I’m very curious how someone can reconcile these differing views.

    • Avatar
      Chad Stuart  July 11, 2020

      I’ve given this some thought and have a slightly different view on it now. My thoughts on Matthew haven’t changed, but I think I have a better understanding on what he was saying.

      Slaves of Righteousness
      15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. [Romans 6:15-18]

      Paul appears to have believed that only faith in Jesus mattered for salvation, but that having faith in Jesus *causes* someone who become a slave of righteousness (i.e. live moral lives).

  13. Avatar
    veritas  July 3, 2020

    In my view, both Matthew and Paul are stressing that faith,works, grace, mercy keeping the law are all requirements in the person you become. In Matthew, Jesus sensed this rich ruler was cocky( prideful)and introduced abject poverty to him knowing he will not accept it.. For Paul, being an ex Pharisee, may still have believed in traditions of the fathers. Lev. 18; 5 So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord. Ezek. 20;11 I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live. Israel for Paul, was disobedient throughout the past, so Jesus,for him, became a redeemer for all the sins we/he could not possibly overcome on our own and thus he thinks practicing a little bit of everything,faith, works, mercy and the Laws helps in your progress of a Christlike person. Similar Scriptures; Gal.2;16 Gal.3;10,12, Rom.2;13, Rom.3;20. For Paul the Law was a pre-requisite and still important, but Jesus became the Savior(ultimate sacrifice), the Grace we all needed. Matthew and Paul are reconcilable for me. Challenging post!

  14. Avatar
    Truthserum46  July 3, 2020

    I don’t think the reconciliation is all that complicated. The authors of Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letters wrote at different times to substantially different constituencies, when post-crucifixion Christian communities had widely varying beliefs, and neither author’s views would have been accepted as correct and complete by members of the other community. Each author and its community carried the Christian torch that made sense to them. Paul and the Matthew author almost certainly would never have come to an entirely aligned view, even if they could find some overlap, and their skeletons would likely still be locked in combat. That is a good thing. ‘The more diversity the more better.’

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      I think you’re explaining the *reason* for the contradiction, not resolving it.

      • Avatar
        Truthserum46  July 8, 2020

        If Paul and the Matthew author are at least partially reconcilable as to the required basis for achieving eternal life, it is only in the apparently shared belief (in total for Paul, but only a partial resolution for the Matthew author) that salvation derives from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Paul would have to patiently ignore, as unnecessary, supplemental compliance by Matthew’s followers with the recited commandments for achieving a good life and becoming perfect. However, that limited reconciliation runs afoul of your instruction not to assume that the referenced excerpts use different words to say the same thing, and also requires the respondent to find other evidence outside the excerpts. Conclusion: a tenuous, limited reconciliation.

  15. epicurus
    epicurus  July 4, 2020

    Back in my evangelical days I probably would have read this in my trusty Charles Ryrie NASB Study Bible, whose footnote for v.21 & 22 says
    ” The man was being asked to prove his claim to have kept the Commandments especially the one that says “thou shall love thy neighbour as myself“ His unwillingness to do so (v.22) belied his claim in verse 20 and showed him as a sinner in need of salvation. “
    I probably would have taken this as an example that no one can keep the commandments , and so therefore the need to be saved through faith alone blah blah blah, and therefore voila! No contradiction between Paul and Jesus!

  16. Avatar
    Eskil  July 4, 2020

    I think they would have agreed just fine because Paul too writes in 1 Cor 7:19 “Keeping God’s commandments is what matters.” Hence, “works of the Law” must refer to something else. Isn’t the context where Paul writes about it always the Covenant of Circumcision? I think Paul is actually saying that in the New Covenant faith — not circumcision — justifies man. That would also explain why it is only jews by birth who knows this: Gal 2:15 “We who are Jews by birth […] know that a man is not justified by works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

  17. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  July 4, 2020

    Have you ever asked the question, “was Jesus intending to describe how to inherit eternal life?” Or was he solely asking these questions to get to the very internal issue related to the rich young ruler’s heart? Like many other times, Jesus knee the man’s heart and the very issue related to this man. His tight grip on his worldly possessions. The man approached Jesus as a rich young ruler, he left understanding himself to be a slave to his material wealth. That’s the purpose of this story, not to describe how to inherit eternal life. There’s no discrepancy here.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Right, maybe Jesus decided he didn’t want to answer the question!

      • Avatar
        Syahreza Ali  July 28, 2020

        What publisher you use for indonesia version?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 28, 2020

          I don’t use a publisher. A publisher arranges for a translation and then does it, without consulting me at all. So far as I know, the only book I ahve that has been translated into Indonesian is Misquoting Jesus, though of course I do not know what it’s title in translation is.

  18. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  July 4, 2020

    Furthermore, you’re exemplifying the very reason why Christians CAN NOT view the New Testament as anything less than a complete work. The Bible must be interpreted as a whole. If the nature and completion came about by people carried along by the Holy Spirit, it must be viewed as a whole. You can point out that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t address the question about how a person becomes right with God, but you can’t say it’s a discrepancy. It’s only a discrepancy because of your methodology. If you change your methodology, the way you view the Bible, there’s no contradiction. Just because Paul writes deep theology doesn’t make him at odds over Matthew. That is an enormous reach. Matthew May have never been given the theological revelation and given the mysteries of God, that Paul was afforded. Matthew was called to write his gospel exactly as is. You must take the Bible as a whole.

  19. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 4, 2020

    I think I would need to understand what Paul meant by “justification”. In Mathew Jesus is asked what is necessary for eternal life and the answer is, keeping a specific set of commandments. Paul is not using the term “eternal life” but “justification”. Should we understand justification and eternal life to be the same things? Why doesn’t Paul refer to eternal life? So, insufficient data. I’d never be able to pass your course.

  20. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 4, 2020

    Try this: if justification is equivalent to eternal life then contradiction. If justification is a prerequisite for eternal life, then contradiction. If justification is equivalent to Mathew’s perfection, no contradiction but then we ask, what sort of eternal life is available to those who only keep the law?

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