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Would Matthew and Paul Have Seen Eye-to-Eye

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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Early Christianity in Egypt
Gentile Judaizers



  1. Avatar
    asjsdpjk  July 7, 2013

    Doesn’t Paul say that belief in jesus resurection replaces the law? So the rules got changed when jesus died and rose.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      Well, it’s not exactly what he says. But you can get a sense of his views by reading Galatians.

      • Avatar
        CaseyDayton  July 9, 2013

        Paul still had a view even after the resurrection of Christ that one could not live a sinful life style and be saved, that is very much Paul’s point in Galatians five…… through many of his letters you see this thread of works being shown in the life of a “True Believer” I do not think the commandments are done away with completely…. even the idea of one not being able to lose their “salvation” is not derived from scripture itself but from a branch of reformed Calvinist who are afraid to think otherwise.

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    toddfrederick  July 7, 2013

    You compare two very different views of the way to “salvation”… that of Jesus and that of Paul…that of following the commandments (the Law) and even going far beyond them to perfection, and Paul’s view of justification by faith alone.

    Yet, as you mentioned, Matthew also advocates the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, as do others in the New Testament which to me seems to be an add-on.

    That in itself seems to be a major contradiction.

    (personally I am put off by the notion that a Loving God would require the blood of His Son to be shed as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all humankind and I have problems dealing with this theologically)

    Question: Sometime would you address the issue of how the doctrine of the Atonement became such a prominent fixture in the New Testament while it seems that Jesus is presenting a different message?

  3. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  July 7, 2013

    I believe since Paul is writing first, it seems he is preaching a totally different message than the Jerusalem apostles. I see polemics all through Paul’s writings directed towards mostly the Jerusalem Christians. Each sect was bringing a different gospel to the table, but Paul’s gospel won simply because, (1) following the law was too Jewish, (2) Constantine adhered to the gospel of Paul, (3) after the destruction of the temple at around 70 CE the Jerusalem Christians were forced underground which left Paul’s gospel to flourish in the gentile countries. I do not think that Paul was much of a fan of “midrash” which I am convinced that that is what the gospel’s mostly are, especially the book of Matthew. The above mentioned story did not probably even happen historically. Matthew is full of individual attestations. and since I do not believe in an “unknown” document called the “Q-source” I adhere to the very “Jewish” explanation called, midrash.

    • Avatar
      Jdavis3927  July 7, 2013

      *by unknown I mean non-existent

      • Avatar
        Jdavis3927  July 8, 2013

        Oops, correction, there is an account of this story in Luke, but I notice he (Luke) seems to be following Matthew word for word as if he (Luke) had Matthew before him as he was writing. I believe that Matthew was very aware of the writings of Paul so he put this story in Jesus’ mouth as a polemical response to Paul’s writings. So if he did put these words into Jesus’ mouth, would that not be considered midrash? He is either using another source “Q” or midrashing. Sorry for blowing up your blog Bart.

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    dennis  July 7, 2013

    I would think that the only honest answer ( as opposed to rhetorical gymnastics attempting , for ” apologetic ” purposes , to reconcile the irreconcilable ) would be that Christianity has a very large tent and that the Deed vs Creed issue has been around for a very long time . Our hypothetical young rich man obviously had enormous respect for the person of Jesus likely originating in direct observation or he would not have posed the question to him in the first place . Whether he would have had similar respect for an itinerant tent maker who had received this crucial information in a series of strictly private visions post Crucifixion would be , I submit , rather doubtful . An even sharper contrast could be drawn between the Epistle of St James and Galatians . James would appear to be saying that Creed absent a whole boatload of daily Deed equals self delusion .

    • Avatar
      brandyrose  July 9, 2013

      Mmm, I really like that phrase “Deed vs Creed” as well as the big tent idea. Thank you for mentioning that.

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    RonaldTaska  July 7, 2013

    It is a good exercise. I would add the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew which also emphasizes works rather than faith. So, my vote is that the two views are not reconcilable. Personally, I think all too often emphasis on faith allows the believer to escape the hard work of having to critically examine crucial questions and just believe. When there are discrepancies, statements by Jesus override statements by Paul.

  6. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  July 7, 2013

    …really enjoying this series on Matthew!

  7. Avatar
    dfandray  July 7, 2013

    I think the Evangelicals reconcile the two views by saying that Jesus was demonstrating just how difficult it would be to gain salvation by works alone. Therefore, Paul’s vision is the only path to salvation that people can realistically take.

    But isn’t there yet another level of tension here? Was this really Jesus’s view of the path to salvation? Or was it Matthew’s? Paul, after all, wrote his letters long before Matthew wrote his gospel. One might well assume that Paul’s view of the path too eternal life better reflected Jesus’s view based on their relative chronological proximity. Unless, of course, Paul’s view represented an entirely different strand of Christian thought than Jesus’s did.

  8. Avatar
    dfogarty1  July 8, 2013

    Is there any evidence in Mathew, Mark and John that these authors knew about Paul? I know Luke writes extensively about Paul (and gets much of him wrong) but what about the other Gospel writers?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      The strongest case has been for Mark. The odd thing about Luke is that Paul is his hero, and yet he appears to have a different view of Jesus’ death and its effect from Paul. Maybe I’ll post on that….

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 10, 2013

        You already have posted on Luke’s view and it was an excellent post!

  9. Avatar
    RyanBrown  July 8, 2013

    The views of Paul and Jesus with respect to the Torah are completely at odds, it seems. It’s a wonder that more Christians don’t recognize this. Best to not examine too closely, I suppose.

  10. Avatar
    Michael Wilson  July 8, 2013

    In the judgment stories in Matthew, I don’t see people being judged on whether or not they kept the law.

  11. Avatar
    ben.holman  July 8, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thanks for another thought provoking post! It sparked a two-sided question in my mind that’s sort of related to the salvation issue.

    First, do you think, if we were able to ask Paul, “can a Christian lose their salvation?” (become “unjustified”, etc..) by choosing to walk away from the faith, what do you think Paul would say? And second, why do you think none of the New Testament authors specifically address such an important question in non-ambiguous terms?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      Paul: yes. Other NT writers: I think Heb. 6:4-6 (and 10:26-27) are pretty non-ambiguous!

    • Avatar
      CaseyDayton  July 9, 2013

      Paul taught people could lose their faith including himself, in first Corinthians nine at the very end Paul says “lest I myself become disqualified from the race” The last time I seen a race in our day and age or any-given sport for that matter. People become “disqualified’ thats it, over, done, Now that would be some of Ehrmans points in his book “Forged” that some of the letters claiming to be written by Paul were actually not. why? well because when you read romans or the seven undisputed letters they’re written from the perspective of salvation as being future-ally not presently..

      Read the letters Colossians or Ephesians the author (Paul) claims that salvation is a present reality (now) where as read Phil 3 , Paul says he has not attained “a resurrection from the dead” but is hoping he makes it to that glorified day. NT Scholars have tried to harmonize this tension calling the “already but not yet” view…… interesting stuff man.

  12. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 8, 2013

    Bart, it seems like these are not the only instances where the NT texts offer different views on what’s necessary for salvation … ? One other such example would be Matthew 25:31-46 where it seems that those who ‘simply’ have been compassionate and who have helped other people will be saved and allow entry into the Kingdom? No talk there about having to be ‘born again’, to accept Jesus as your ‘Lord and Savior’, etc?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      The “saved” there not only don’t *believe* in Jesus; they’ve never even *heard* of him.

  13. Avatar
    maxhirez  July 8, 2013

    Don’t students presented with this conundrum just respond by saying something about the rules being different before and after the resurrection? I’ve heard that often enough to know when it’s been drummed into a population by repetition.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 9, 2013

      Yes, but that’s the point. If one could be saved before Jesus came by being good, why did Jesus need to come at all?

  14. Avatar
    Mikail78  July 8, 2013

    It can be quite amusing to hear evangelical apologists and pastors try to reconcile the contradictory plans of salvation found in the New Testament.

    Bart, I know this is off the subject, but have you figured out how you will continue blogging while teaching? You go back to teaching next month, right? Just curious.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 8, 2013

    Hmm. It could be argued that what Paul calls “faith in Jesus Christ” necessarily includes accepting everything Jesus taught. So “following the Law” would be meaningless in itself – if one had come to it by another route, such as conversion to Judaism – but is required of a follower of Christ, solely because he’d endorsed it.

    Of course, Paul may not have believed that actually was a teaching of Jesus! The statements above, taken alone, can be reconciled; but that might not be true of the totality of Paul’s and “Matthew’s” beliefs.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 8, 2013

    But now I realize there’s another problem: Jesus seems to be saying salvation is possible *without* faith in *him*. I don’t see how Paul could get around that. He’d probably deny that Jesus could ever have said it.

  17. Avatar
    brandyrose  July 8, 2013

    Thank you for pointing this out! This was the crux of my question a few posts back, about what the *point* of the Law was for Matthew’s Jesus, if it is Jesus that saves not the Law. I see now that I’ve been guilty of putting a Pauline reading onto Matthew, and not letting the tensions that are there between the two exist. I appreciate the intellectual honesty this blog, and your work in general, holds me to. While I’ve remained a practicing and believeing Christian during this journey, I definitely am not the same kind of Christian I once was. Thank you.

  18. Avatar
    stephena  July 8, 2013

    This also occurred to me a while back, and it began a long process of re-assessing Paul. I think they are clearly in conflict with one another and cannot be reconciled, despite how modern Christianity tries to do so – by ignoring Jesus’ words entirely!

  19. Avatar
    kat127  July 9, 2013

    I am very grateful for your work. I was born into a Catholic family, then my mother “found Jesus” when I was in my teens. We left the Catholic Church, church-hopped, then ended up in a fundie Baptist church. I went to bible college, did the whole church thing for my kids, blah blah. They’re grown, life moves on, and voila, information! I am obsessed, devouring as much as I can about the origins of the Christian faith. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. I’ve always questioned everything, and now I feel like I have some answers. Wonderful!

  20. Avatar
    CaseyDayton  July 9, 2013

    But what if the Gospel of Matthew was written as a historical narrative ( which obviously it is) that was just explaining who This risen Jesus was prior to Pauline Theology. It would seem at the preaching of the kingdom of God by John the baptizer as well Jesus that to enter the kingdom in their time was repenting (changing their minds about who Jesus was, centering their lives around him, as Josephus mentions in his histories) That Jesus was re-Centering the cosmos around God and Him, including the law at that time period. Maybe its not so much a problem if you think about Matthew (which you claim did not actually write the gospel) being honest with the data that he had received from the community of believers around him.

    Putting Jesus in His context is key, so I do not see it as a difference in Theology, but more as a Historical narrative explaining Jesus prior to His death and resurrection. Also I am glad that Matthew did not change Jesus to fit the aftermath of what the resurrection would have entailed. Why? because it seems like Jesus being a jew would never have said “the hell with the law” but more so re-interpeting around Himself as well the Kingdom’s intentional mission in Jesus’ own life time.

    For me I do not see Paul saying that works are completely out of the way and done away with, in his letter written to the Galatians Paul says that even those who “practice evil” will not enter the kingdom of God…. which to some degree (making an exception to the sabbath, because Jesus was the reason we could rest) would be adhering to the commandments. why would they not keep most of the levitical law? we’ll because Jesus was the sacrifice and propitiation for the sins of the world ( according to the christian community) the other dietary laws and clothing laws, In my opinion were written and given to make the Jews distinct at that time as a people ( Just like any worldview today seeking distinction)

    The Law still stands in the community as far as ethics and morality are concerned……. Paul would have never thought it was okay to be a heathen or endorsed sinful living ( first corinthians the man sleeping with his own mother, Yikes!!) The death of Jesus is what made it possible for people to enter in the covenant with God, but that does not mean ethics in the Pauline Gospel are somehow thrown away. Now understanding why Matthew would have said if you want to enter “eternal Life” keep the commandments…. maybe Jesus was showing him many things, there are many different perspectives given on this, Than you listed….

    some would argue Jesus is showing the young man that he is “greedy” “covetous” which is braking the commandments….. Some would say Jesus was showing the young man that its impossible to keep the commandments perfectly apart from the Spirit of God. Maybe even at that time prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection & ascension it was keeping the law in order to be right… Many things, Jesus was teacher and also very Jewish, Which the Jews (I am one by birth myself) are very good at story telling and being great challengers and interpreters. I would not be surprised to find out that a-lot of the difficult stories and things we do not understand turn out to be Jesus’ ways of being sarcastic and witty.

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