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Jesus, Matthew, and the Law

In my previous post I discussed the differences – what strike me, at least, as the differences – between the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Galatians and with respect to whether the followers of Jesus are to follow the law or not.   Matthew’s Gospel indicates that the law will not cease to be in force until the heavens and earth pass away, and that Jesus’ followers need to follow the law to the limit, to follow it even better than the scribes and Pharisees do.   Paul, on the other hand, insists that the followers of Jesus must not think that they have to follow the law.  Any gentile who thinks he has to be circumcised, or to follow other aspects of the Jewish law, is in danger of losing salvation.

I would like to clarify one point about my view and explain one of its complications.   Clarification: in my post I was not discussing whether Paul saw eye-to-eye with Jesus about this issue.  My post was about the Gospel of Matthew.  I do not necessarily assume that Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus represents Jesus “as he really was.”  In a future post I will discuss the issue of whether Paul and Jesus saw eye to eye on this matter; but for now I just want to say that I have not yet addressed that issue here.  I instead have talked about what appears to be a difference between Paul and Matthew.

But one might object that in fact Matthew and Paul are not at odds.   Matthew’s Jesus is talking to his disciples and others during his public ministry.  These people would have been Jews.  He is telling Jews that if they want to be right with God, they need to follow the law God has given them to the utmost, even better than the most righteous Jews who are not among his followers.   Paul in Galatians is not speaking to Jews in Palestine but to gentiles outside of Palestine, and is telling them that they must not think that they have to become Jewish in order to have the salvation brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So are these really at odds?

One important aspect of this question is this:

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Can A Made-Up Story Be A False Memory?
Is Paul at Odds with Matthew?



  1. talitakum
    talitakum  March 27, 2015

    What about the Jewish Noahide laws for gentiles? They predate Paul and Matthew and they were considered enough for gentiles to get a place in the world to come. Moreover, they don’t explicitly include practices such as circumcision and kosher food (beside eating living animals).
    Why should we think that Paul and Matthew (and even Jesus) had to ask for more *from gentiles* than what contemporary Jewish expected in terms of Law observance?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      Conversion to Judaism was possible! The question is what it means to be fully a member of the people of God.

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    James  March 27, 2015

    “Matthew does not appear to think that the followers of Jesus represent a religion that is distinct from Judaism.” Can the same be said of Paul? Did he think the religion he preached was a new one, distinct from Judaism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      No, I don’t think he did.

      • Avatar
        jhague  March 31, 2015

        But Paul certainly had to know that he had radically changed Judaism. And all based on a claimed vision. Which is why most Jews did not accept his version of Judaism and he had to present it to Gentiles.

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    RonaldTaska  March 27, 2015

    I have been studying Christianity for decades. I have always been intrigued by Thomas Jefferson trimming down the Bible to just the teachings of Jesus, sort of like trimming it down to the “Q” source. I would go further and trim it down to those verses in the 25th chapter of Matthew to which you refer above, All else leads to division, dogmatic certainty, and discord.

  4. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 27, 2015

    I think you’re asking the wrong questions. The synoptic gospels portray Jesus as a backwoods sage of Second Temple Judaism. They go to great lengths to explain why the ideas of Christianity were unknown during his lifetime. It’s simple. He didn’t teach them. Christianity happened after his death. Sometimes the authors (or later editors) say things which could be interpreted with Christian meanings. Yet no one even accused him of violating Torah in any way. He taught its study and obedience. Jesus actually was one of those Pharisees. His teachings matched those of Hillel almost perfectly. The gospel ‘arguments’ were typical arguments among the Pharisees.

    Remember that the words came from the lips of the gospel diarists, not necessarily from the lips of Jesus. Or at least not without a little alteration. At least by the time this was written, Christianity was a religion of converted Gentiles, not converted Jews. Why not insert at least this little hint that some day the God of Israel might offer a contract to Gentiles. That was not Jewish thought at that time, so if people understood him that way, there would have been a reaction.

    These gospels tell the story of the kind of person they believed Jesus to be during his lifetime. Even in the synoptic gospels, hints that he was anything more didn’t come until after his death.

    The earthly ministry of Jesus was purely to the Jews. Unlike Shammai, Jesus (as other Pharisees of Hillel) wanted to reach out to non-practicing Jews (sinners) to repent and resume the practice of Judaism. The apocalyptic benefit was to allow God to stop punishing Israel and resume blessing them, giving them political independence. Jesus never ministered to Gentiles. He did use one as an example of faith. Also, by this time, there were probably already Ebionites or their philosophical predecessors, believing that the sacrifice of Jesus did not negate the need to obey Torah (except for the sacrifices).

    The author of Matthew probably would not insist that Torah be obeyed. But as a diarist, he would portray Jesus as saying so. Paul was only about the sacrifice of Jesus. The gospels were about the life of Jesus, or what they thought it might have been like.

  5. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  March 28, 2015

    Dr. Erhman, were there other forms of Judaism contemporaneous with Christianity that emphasized the ethical and social demands of the law rather than the ritual and ceremonial aspects?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      None in Palestine that I’m aware of.

      • Avatar
        yes_hua  March 31, 2015

        Do we make a mistake assuming Jesus’ idea of Judaism is at all standard? He was a Galilean preaching, for the most part, outside of Judea. He’s certainly not going to side with the Sadducees. I also wonder what influence the Pharisees had in Galilee before the War. Or do we also assume too much that Matthew truly had his finger on the pulse of non-Hellenized Judaism (if such a thing even existed by this time)?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2015

          I suppose most scholars think that Jesus represented one form of Judaism, not the standard form. In fact, most would say there was no standard form. And yes, it does appear that the Pharisees were not all that influential in the total scheme of things before the war.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  April 1, 2015

          The ideas were standard. They are an almost perfect match with those of Hillel. Jewish philosophy regarding obedience of Torah was that of the Pharisees, and mainly those of Hillel and Shammai. That’s the philosophy that survived to become rabbinic Judaism. The Sadducees were involved primarily with temple worship and civil government.

          All the early growth, perhaps even the origin, of Christianity was among Greeks in the greater Roman Empire.

          All the synoptics portrayed Jesus as one of those sages. Of course he taught obedience to Torah. To teach otherwise was Christian (later), not Jewish.

  6. Avatar
    Scott  March 28, 2015

    How does Matthew’s insistence on keeping the law better than the Pharisees jive with Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ views on keeping the Sabbath (Matt 12)? Is this a matter of keeping the “true” law over the camel-swallowing variety he attacks in Matt 23:24?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      Jesus is not against keeping Sabbath, but against Pharisaic interpretations of how to keep sabbath. Keep the law better than the Pharisees means doing what they do, and doing it even better (because one focuses on the intention of the law, not on its picayune fulfillment)

  7. Avatar
    Scott  March 28, 2015

    In the episode in Galatians where Paul upbraids Peter over not eating with gentiles, we are told that “certain men came from James” causing Peter to withdraw from a (communal?) meal with the uncircumcised.

    How much should we read this as indicating that the Jerusalem church was dominated by the circumcision party? Could Matthew come out of that tradition?

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    Jonathan  March 28, 2015

    I was an evangelical most of my life, and at some point I remember being told that Matthew (whoever he was) was the most Jewish Gospel writer. Do you feel this author was Jewish except for his belief in Jesus, or maybe belonged to a christian community that may have been lead by believing Jews? Or something else altogether?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      Jews who believed in Jesus were still Jews; I would imagine he was one of them.

  9. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  March 28, 2015

    My feeling is that the final author or redactor of the Gospel of Matthew envisioned a partly Gentile audience. But the author of Q, whoever that was, envisioned a mainly Jewish audience. So to the extent the Gospel of Matthew is based on Q, the expectation of a Jewish audience survives in it.

  10. Avatar
    paulmiller  March 28, 2015

    Dear Professor Ehrman,

    In reference to one of your responses from yesterday’s post about the Ten Commandments you said that Paul would probably believe we should follow all Ten Commandments with the exception of the Sabbath, just wondering why that would be for Paul? I have some friends who are Seven Day Adventists who say that Paul in the book of Galatians is talking about other Jewish celebrations and not specifically the Saturday Sabbath which to them is one of the most important commandments.Thank you again for all your time and effort in this blog.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      He seems to have thought that “days” and “foods” didn’t matter for those following Jesus.

  11. Avatar
    JoeWallack  March 28, 2015

    The Pericope you should have above is Mark 7:19 and “Matthew’s” reaction. But at this Forum I’m always primarily interested in Textual Criticism.

    28:19 “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

    Eusebius and Internal evidence are evidence that it might not be original. There is no known manuscript evidence against it. Potentially it could support your position that we can not be sure of what was originally written in general and considering that if original it would be the only support for the Trinity it not only effects a major Christian doctrine but would be worthy of The Daily Show Treatment.

    As the foremost Textual Criticism expert the world has ever known (you, not me) can you please give us you Textual Criticism opinion here? Thanks.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2015

      I am certainly not that! Not even close!!

      It’s not clear to me that Eusebius knew the verse without the trinitarian formula.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  April 1, 2015

      Plenty has been written on the subject. Do a search for Matthew 28:19 textual criticism and you’ll find several good, scholarly collections of citations and quotations. As far as I know, no direct manuscript of this text has been found older than the 4th century. Was Eusebius quoting it (without the trinitiarian text) or just abbreviating it? There are lots of passionate (but well-supported) arguments on both sides.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 1, 2015

        Yes, I’m aware of the scholarship. In fact, I believe I’ve read it all. You may recall that my major area of expertise for 30 years was textual criticism! But I repeat: I don’t think we know what Eusebius’s text was. The study of church fathers’ quotations of Scripture easily show the problems.

  12. Avatar
    Yes  March 29, 2015

    I’m not sure where to ask this. What would you say is the best scholarly journal on the bible? I’m a layperson who enjoys reading scholarly books on the bible but would also like staying abreast of the latest research. Where should I begin? I’m primarily interested in the Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament as well, so I’d prefer to start with a journal that publishes top-notch research on either.

    As I’ve been looking on my own, it appears that maybe the Journal of Biblical Literature might be the best “on-stop-shop” for this kind of thing. Do you agree or would you recommend another instead?

  13. Avatar
    Scott  March 29, 2015

    What exactly was Paul’s reason for withdrawing from eating with Gentiles and why would he be afraid of the circumcision party if they saw him doing it? Was it simply a matter of ensuring that the dietary laws were kept?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2015

      Do you mean Peter? Yes, it would have been to make sure that he was following kosher.

  14. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  March 29, 2015

    hello Bart

    please help me to understand theses verses in the gospel of matthew which demostrate in my opinion that the message of jesus was meant only to Jews

    But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” 24But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

    These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; 6but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7″And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’…

    why then gentils are converting to christianity if jesus is saying he is not sent to save them ?

    “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

    But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”…

    some say the dogs and swine are the gentils and they are unfit to be saved , is that true ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2015

      Yes, in Matthew’s Gospel that’s true. And yes, gentiles appear to be abused here. But the end of the Gospel indicates that now, after the resurrection, the message is to be taken to “all the world.”

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    Rick  April 9, 2015

    There is a relative on my wife’s side that we visit with once in a while. His name is Bruce Malina who retired from teaching at Creighton University not too long ago. He seems to think that when Paul mentions Gentiles for the most part he’s talking about Israelite’s who are civilized (Hellenized). It’s those who he is writing to that are a minority living among the gentiles. I’ve heard him say before that Paul was always writing to Israelite’s not gentiles. He thinks Paul was more concerned about Israelite’s then gentiles. Of course I am confused by this because it goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. I’d like to know what you think.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2015

      Bruce Malina is a very well known NT scholar and a very bright fellow. On this point I completely disagree with him I’m afraid…..

  16. Avatar
    Eaglesjack  February 26, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    I continue to hear extensive arguments about such verses as Col 2:14-17, that Apostle Paul was not excluding Sabbath and Holy Days, but arguing that Colossians were keeping them in a certain way and that they were being judged for it. (Something along the line of “do not touch…taste” etc) They say the Colossians were not resisting joys of these Feasts and shouldn’t be bogged down by others, but follow the Body of Christ ( a rendering of verse 17 or the example of the church). Though the argument may appear fitting, it doesn’t seem in line with the rest of Paul’s theology. Many Sabbath advocates today render such arguments. Are their statements at all plausible? How do you address such? Why don’t Sabbath arguments appear in document and antiquity/or do they? Thank you, as always, for your time and attention to these scholarly issues.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2020

      I don’t know of scholars who think this, quite the contrary, but only people with a particular religious view of their own that they certainly don’t want the NT to contradict!

  17. Avatar
    rickpidcock  March 24, 2020

    With Matthew being written to strengthen commitment to the Law, and Luke being possibly written as an apologetic defense book for the persecuted, it’s interesting to notice how the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew takes adultery to lust and murder to hatred, while Luke’s version ignores those commands and presents its sermon through the lens of ensuring that the reader won’t or shouldn’t be judged.

    Do you think the strengthening of the law in Matthew by defining adultery and murder as internal sins was more of a reflection of the Pharisaical tendency to go beyond the law, than the typical evangelical approach of shaming people for their internal feelings?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2020

      I see it as a different *way* of strengthening the law by getting to its heart (rather than the way of the Pharisees, by multiplying the requirements); and I do *not* think the modern way of thinking about ids, egos, and superegos, as translated into evangelical jargon, is what it’s all about.

      • Avatar
        rickpidcock  March 26, 2020

        I’ve seen it as fulfilling the law in the sense of getting to the heart of it as well. But thinking of Matthew as possibly a book by a Jewish community opposed to Paul’s views of the law, and hearing about Jesus and the Pharisees both being apocalypticists made me start to wonder if something different was happening.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 27, 2020

          I don’t think those are necessarily ideas in opposition to one another.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 26, 2020

      The gospels were evangelistic but not apologetic.The teachings attributed to Jesus were presented, not to strengthen commitment to Torah, but to portray Jesus as a sage of Second Temple Judaism. All the Pharisees (including Jesus) were teaching the Hedge of Hillel. Jesus did not originate that. The idea was the opposite of brinksmanship. Manage your anger to reduce the risk that you’ll commit murder. Pharisees seldom went beyond Torah. Mostly they argued details about how to obey it. All agreed Torah forbade work on the Sabbaths. They just disagreed on what constitutes work.

      The Jews never believed in thought crimes. It was the Christians who read these texts and chose to create thought crimes. The only thought crime of earliest Christianity was to not believe in the universal sacrifice of Jesus (therefore to offer sacrifices).

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