Commentary Magazine

On Reading Matthew

Does the Judeo-Christian tradition exist? There has been much talk about it, especially since the Vatican Council, but to talk about a thing does not necessarily mean that the thing is real. A Judeo-Christian tradition, if it existed, by its nature would have to be ancient and Palestinian-Mediterranean; but the talk seems to be mostly modern and Western, not to say American. One is apt to be suspicious.

From the Jewish side it is generally the Orthodox and the Zionists who are most suspicious. For the Orthodox, a Christian who talks about a Judeo-Christian tradition is now trying to seduce Jews by gentleness and fair words, after the failure of violence and threats to compel them; and a Jew who talks about it, sinfully denying the uniqueness of Judaism, is helping the Christian seducers. For the Zionists, the talk has nothing to do with theology or sacred history, but is only another of the many stratagems Jews in the Diaspora have used to protect their civic equality and to fool themselves into believing that they need not go up to Israel for their safety and dignity.

Both the Orthodox and the Zionist suspicions may be examined in recent numbers of De'ot, an Israeli quarterly that describes itself as the publication of the religious (i.e., Orthodox) academics. In the latest number I have seen there is a comment by Eliezer Livneh. Livneh, who must be respected for his independence above all, is neither an academic nor, I am pretty sure, Orthodox, but he is a Zionist. Denying “a common Judeo-Christian heritage,” he tells us that Christianity was really “only one of the currents of late Hellenism, which succeeded in becoming a world religion. . . . Besides innocent causes for discovering a Judeo-Christian ‘partnership,’ there enters into the picture conscious apologetics. . . . This is not at all innocent: it is a Diaspora-Jewish [yehudit-galutit] propaganda instrument, especially in the United States, for ‘public relations.’ Its spiritual worth is nil.” Galuti can have about it something of the contempt that American Negroes give to “Tom.”

Livneh is advancing two arguments here: that Christianity is not Jewish but Hellenistic in origin, and that “the Judeo-Christian tradition” is a Diaspora-Jewish ideology. The first is more serious than the second. An ideology arises to justify the interests and aims of those who hold it, but it is a fallacy—the genetic fallacy—to believe that knowing about the birth and function of an idea proves its untruth. Equality is the ideology of those who have been kept inferior. May we conclude that equality is a false idea?

Livneh declares flatly that Christianity's origin is Hellenistic, not Jewish. As they say, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but his is only that. Intertestamental literature, early Christianity, late Hellenism, and contemporaneous Judaism are not his fields. They are the fields of David Daube, the Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford who is also a traditional Jew, and Daube sees Christian orgins as very Jewish indeed. Even more persuasive is the testimony of David Flusser of the Hebrew University, the Israeli scholar Edmund Wilson wrote about in his book on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to Wilson, Flusser was irreligious then, but he does not seem to be now, if we may judge from the two pieces of his in the same issue of De'ot Livneh was in. Livneh appears to be unaware that in the Festschrift for Isaac Fritz Baer a few years ago, Flusser published a study, uncompromisingly titled “The Jewish Origin of Christianity,” that was impatient with the Enlightened commonplace about Hellenistic origins. Flusser's person deflects arguments based on the genetic fallacy. About the thing itself, the relation of Christianity to Judaism, the English summary of his study says this:

. . . paganism had very little effect on the origins of Christianity . . . . the tension between Christianity and Judaism can better be explained by the operation of Jewish centrifugal forces in the new religion . . . .

(1) Rabbinic Judaism, which was the origin of the religious personality of Jesus and of the mother-church of Jerusalem; (2) the Essene movement, which influenced the second stratum of Christianity, dominated by the religious personalities of Paul and John the Evangelist, and (3) Hellenistic Judaism, which influenced Christian apologetics.

In the first note to his text, Flusser cautions: “Of course this does not mean that Christianity is Jewish, or a Judaism of a certain kind. . . . The forces that led to the rise of Christianity, though their origin was in Judaism, brought about Christianity's independence and separation from the body of Judaism.”

Of course. Christianity is distinct from Judaism. What would be the point of asking about a Judeo-Jewish tradition?


* * * *

Matthew. Language and Text
Ever since Wilson's essay “On First Reading Genesis,” I have wondered how it would be to examine the Greek New Testament as he examined the Hebrew Bible, but I got around to it only with the current debate over the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ad fontes—back to the sources. This is a report on the first book, Matthew.

Wilson's fondness for deducing a people's timeless character and mentality from language must impress a linguist pretty much as a fondness for phrenology would impress a psychologist. Reading a text in its original language will not lay bare the soul of a people—or even, for most of us, reveal nuances blurred in translation. The first advantage of reading in a foreign language, above all if you do not know it well, is that you must slow down. Nowadays we have to make our way through such masses of print that all of us are speed-readers, whether or not we have taken the course. With an.important text, read slowly; but that is hard to do when its language is yours and the text seems easy. Until I read Matthew slowly, I thought I remembered the argument in Chapter 15 as being against the prohibition of non-kosher food. In fact it is against having to wash the hands before eating.

The other advantage is that ambiguities are preserved. Translations have a way of being more definite than originals. For instance, in the Lord's Prayer (6:13) the Authorized (or King James) Version has “. . . deliver us from evil”; so has the Revised Standard Version, but adds a note: “Or the evil one,” while the New English Bible has “. . . save us from the evil one.” Slightly earlier in the Sermon on the Mount (5:39) KJV had “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil”; RSV, “. . . Do not resist one who is evil,” and NEB, “. . . Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you.” On the basis of the language alone, “deliver us from a wicked man” and “do not resist the Devil” are as possible as what the versions give us. (Context makes the second a bit less likely than the first.)

Ambiguity goes beyond language, to the text itself. RSV's translators say explicitly that they often prefer other Greek manuscripts to the ones King James's translators worked on, and words, phrases, even entire verses differ. Three examples: l. KJV ends the Lord's Prayer with “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” RSV does not include this. 2. In 19: 9, according to KJV it is adulterous to marry a divorced woman, but not according to RSV. RSV: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” KJV: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (But compare 5:32. Luke [16: 18] does not recognize Matthew's exception for unchastity: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Matthew was edging way from Luke's uncompromising doctrine. The End of Days kept receding and life had to go on.) 3. In 24: 36 it is KJV that omits and RSV that adds. KJV: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of Heaven, but my Father only;” RSV: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” The theological significance of saying the Son is inferior to the Father is obvious.

For a Jew the instability of the New Testament is all the more striking because he is accustomed to a firmly stable Hebrew Bible (christiane, “Old Testament”). The differences between the text of Kittel's Biblia Hebraica and the Hebrew Bible lying before King James's translators are minute, mostly in vowel-signs and accents, but the differences between Nestle's Novum Testamentum Graece and KJV's New Testament are many and weighty.

But even a stable text does not do away with ambiguity. Take the Shema': “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Its conclusion can be translated, and has been, in at least three more ways: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one; the LORD our God is one LORD; the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. (As if that were not enough, shema' itself can be not only “hear” but something additional as well.)


* * * *

The first effect of Matthew's language is a kind of amazement. Why should Jews be talking Greek? All those polysyllables—like katadikasthese (i), “you will be condemned” (12: 37)—so unlike Hebrew and Aramaic. But immediately one hears the Jewish language under the Greek. “And it came to pass,” which KJV retains faithfully, is not Greek but biblical Hebrew: wa-yehi. “Answering he said”—e.g., 3: 15. “And Jesus answering, said unto him”—is also biblical: wa-ya'an wa-yo'mer. When the angel said (1: 20-21): “. . . Mary . . . shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people . . .”, he was not talking Greek. “Call his name” (rather than “call him”) is an idiom of the Hebrew Bible, and it is in Hebrew that the name corresponds to the reason for the name: Jesus is Yeshua' (in the English versions Jeshua, a later variant of Joshua), and “he shall save” is yoshia'. Compare Genesis 16: 11: “And the angel of the LORD said unto her [Hagar], . . . thou . . . shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard [shama']. . . .”

Or consider some nonbiblical expressions and formulas. A good Greek compound, oligopistoi (“men of little faith,” as in 6: 30), turns out to be rabbinic: “R. Eliezer the Great said, Anyone who has bread in his basket and asks, What shall I eat tomorrow?, is but of the men of little faith” (mi-qetanne amanah; Sotah 48b). In 10: 13 “let your peace come upon it [the house]” is “say, ‘Shalom ‘alekhem, peace (be) upon you,’ to the people in the house.” For 11: 26 RSV gives as the more literal rendering, in a note, “so it was well-pleasing before thee.” That is still the liturgical Hebrew of the synagogue: with a change of tense and mood, ken yehi razon and yehi razon mille-fanekha, and even—though I think this is late—ken yehi razon mille-fanekha. In 12: 32 KJV's “this world . . . the world to come” and RSV's “this age . . . the age to come” are transparently ha-‘olam ha-zeh, ha-‘olam ha-ba’.


* * * *

“Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” is Matthew's special contribution to what has been called the teaching of contempt. It has cost us dearly. Yet even this is of Jewish origin; and not only Jewish, but actually Pharisaic. There is a famous story in Sotah (22b) about Alexander Jannaeus, who killed thousands of Pharisees almost a century before Jesus was born: “Said King Jannaeus to his queen, Be afraid neither of the Pharisees nor of those who are not Pharisees, but of the hypocrites who seem like Pharisees. For their deeds are like the deed of Zimri, but they seek the reward of Phinehas.” (The reference is to Numbers 25. Calling a Jew Zimri is something like calling a Christian Judas.)

Now I come to what may be—I am not sure—an original thought. It seems to me possible that Jesus (or Matthew's source) liked “hypocrite” so much because it was a pun, and punning was an accepted mode of scholarly-religious discourse among the Jews. Thus, the prayer book quotes from the tractate Megillah (28b): “It was taught in the school of Elijah: Whoever studies laws every day is assured of life in the world to come, as it is said (Habakkuk 3: 6): ‘His ways are everlasting.’ For ‘ways,’ halikhot, read ‘laws,’ halakhot.” This last almost seems to be debating by pun across the centuries. Though I have forgotten where, I remember reading some years ago that one of the Dead Sea writings was bitter about the ish ha-halaqot, the man of smooth things, the man of flattery. Is there an attack here against the ish ha-halakhot, the man of the (novel, Pharisaic) laws?

“Hypocrities” is zevu'in, as in the statement attributed to Alexander Jannaeus. An honorific word associated with the Pharisees was zenu'in, “modest, retired, chaste”; or, in relation to such matters as tithes, “scrupulous, meticulous.” In the Mishnah Demai (6: 6) we read, about a fine point of tithing, that “the more meticulous [zenu'in] of the school of Hillel used to observe the words of the school of Shammai.” If there was one thing not calculated to impress Jesus and his followers, it was fussiness about tithes. Do the Pharisees like to be called zenu'in, modest, meticulous? Rather call them zevu'in, hypocrites—especially since they use the word themselves, for men who have the show but not the substance of Pharisaism.


* * * *

Matthew's references to the Hebrew Bible and quotations or paraphrases from it are abundant, if only because he causes so many prophecies to be “fulfilled”: a common formula is “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” (RSV, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet”). Almost always the quotations are apposite and show a good knowledge of the original—by heart, and thus sometimes not quite accurate in detail. The few I have compared with the Septuagint lead me to believe that Matthew need not rely on the existing Greek translation but can translate directly from the Hebrew. For instance, 7: 23 quotes Psalms 6: 9 (8), “Depart from me, all you workers of evil;” but where the Septuagint has aposteëte for “depart,” Matthew has apochōreite; and Matthew, unlike the Septuagint, omits “all.” He can also differ from the Septuagint when quoting from the Pentateuch, the first part of the Bible to be translated, whose Greek text was therefore more established than that of Psalms.

Besides quotations, Matthew has pseudo-quotations. A fine pseudo-quotation is in 27: 9-10, an alleged fulfillment of prophecy about the thirty pieces of silver, supposedly from the book of Jeremiah. In their notes Nestle and RSV give pride of place to Zechariah 11: 12-13, but even that does not quite fit. As for Jeremiah, the verses they suggest, hesitantly, are out of the question. In Nestle's critical apparatus we learn that some ancient manuscripts have Matthew quoting not Jeremiah but Zechariah; and some, Isaiah! It was an embarrassment from the beginning.

Finally, there is deliberate tendentiousness. From the Sermon on the Mount Christians have learned for centuries that a Jew is commanded to hate his enemies. In Nestle's edition typography shows up the tendentiousness—or rather, falseness—beautifully. Since Nestle uses bold type for New Testament quotations from the Hebrew Bible, 5: 43 would look like this if he were giving us Matthew in RSV's English: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’” Visibly, the first part is a quotation, the second is not. The margin refers us back to Leviticus 19: 18: “. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”


* * * *

To paraphrase a saying of Jesus', it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian translation of the New Testament to be entirely honest. Witness Matthew 1: 20-23 (RSV):

. . . an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. . . .” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . . .”

Let us look closely at “virgin.” The Revised Standard Version so renders Greek hē parthenos here, like the King James Version before it and even the New English Bible after it. The Hebrew word in Isaiah 7: 14, which the Septuagint translates as Matthew was to do later, is ha-‘almah. Now KJV is at least consistent: its Isaiah also reads “virgin.” Not so RSV's Isaiah, which, unlike its Matthew, reads “young woman”; but then, to make things even worse, it adds one of the most disgraceful notes I have ever seen in a scholarly enterprise: “or virgin.” Disgraceful, because it has been many years since anyone has so understood ‘almah. Brown, Driver, and Briggs were Protestant clergymen as well as professors of Hebrew or Bible (at Union Theological Seminary and Oxford), and their Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, published in 1907, was only stating what had long been accepted by all scholars when it denned ‘almah as “young woman (ripe sexually; maid or newly married).”

Why did the Septuagint translate ‘almah as parthenos in the first place? Perhaps for the same reason that modern translators—including RSV!—refrain from translating parthenos as “virgin” in another part of Matthew. In Chapter 25 KJV's five foolish and five wise virgins are maidens for RSV, and in the New English Bible they are five foolish and five prudent girls. Hellenistic parthenos was no longer exclusively or necessarily “virgin.” What had happened to this word in the course of time was something like what has happened to English “maid,” but less than to German Dime—“damsel” first becoming “wench” and then “strumpet.” (“Wench” itself has a similar history.) So it used to be that a lover was a suitor, and his mistress the girl or woman he wanted to marry; while now, lover and mistress are—well, lover and mistress. When T. S. Eliot wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement complaining about NEB's girls and asking for the return of the virgins, the scholars firmly put him in his place: parthenos in Hellenistic usage might be a virgin; she was a girl or young woman. Which did not prevent RSV and even NEB from translating ‘almah-parthenos in Matthew's Isaiah as “virgin.”

A question to the scholars: Is “the young woman” the best rendering for ha-'almah? Perhaps it should be “the Crown Princess,” wife of the heir apparent to the throne? Ha-gevirah means “the lady,” but as a title it is “the Queen” or “the Queen Mother.” (Monsieur and Mademoiselle were the styles of specified members of the French royal family.)


* * * *

Jews and Gentiles

For Jesus, the Gentiles (Greek hoi ethnikoi, ta elhnë = Hebrew ha-goyim) are to be avoided. What they do is bad; and if they do something good, that proves it is so to be taken for granted, is so much a mere human instinct, that no merit attaches to it. In 10: 5-6, he charges his disciples: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And in the Sermon on the Mount:

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

(The tax collector—KJV's publican—was the lowest of the low, enriching himself while serving the voracious foreign oppressor.) A contradictory verse, 28: 19, is manifestly late and not Jesus' at all: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Anti-gentilism persists in a Christian halakhah that must have arisen to govern internal church discipline after Jesus, though it is attributed to him (18: 15-17): “If your brother sins against you . . . but . . . does not listen to you . . . [or to] two or three witnesses . . . [or] even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The law is based on Deuteronomy 19: 15: “. . . only on the evidence of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.”

What then of “their synagogues,” so frequent in Matthew? It may mean “the synagogues of those others, the Jews.” Or it may mean “their synagogues”—the synagogues of those who do not follow Jesus, as opposed to ours, the synagogues of those who do follow him. So, in modern times, Hasidim and Mitnaggedim could say “their” about each other's synagogues.

Christianity's passage from the Jews to the Gentiles has left its clearest traces in the contradiction between the New Testament's account of Jesus' descent and its account of his birth. In the genealogical part Jesus is descended from David. Only a Jew would say this, and only to Jews. For them David was the great king, from whose line would come the Messiah: in the Shemoneh-‘esreh Jews still pray (three times a day, most days), “Speedily cause the scion of David, Thy servant, to spring forth, and exalt his horn [strength, glory] by Thy salvation; for we await Thy salvation all the day. Blessed art Thou, etc.” But what was David to the heathen? An obscure shepherd-chieftain who had once attained some local eminence, according to the Jews, in a minor outpost of the civilized world. The Davidic descent is by and for Jews.

That being so, the conception by the Holy Spirit must be Gentile; for how can Joseph transmit a descent from David if he is, emphatically, not Jesus' father but only the husband of his mother? In 22: 41-46 there is a would-be proof from Scripture (Ps. 110: 1) that the Messiah is not the scion of David. The proof is feeble, being obviously ignorant of the Hebrew. (Again RSV is shifty, translating the Hebrew as “The LORD says to my lord: Sit at my right hand . . .” but translating the Greek of Matthew as “The Lord said to my Lord. . . .”) In any event, these verses have to come from a source other than the early one that gave Jesus a Davidic lineage.


* * * *

Law and Spirit

Not until I read Matthew closely did I see how literally Jesus is to be understood when he says, in the Sermon on the Mount (5: 18-19):

. . . till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot [KJV: one jot or one tittle] will pass away from the law. . . . Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

And in fact, Jesus is stricter than the Rabbis—except about tithes and levitical purity.

Do these verses give us the words of Jesus himself? If not his words, then his thought. They do not represent the ideology of a church that was becoming unobservant of the Torah (“law”). Such a church would have preferred to delete them. If it retained them, that could only be because they were universally known and universally attributed to Jesus.

Jesus is represented as not acting in accordance with his affirmation of the Torah in Chapter 12, where he justifies to the complaining Pharisees his disciples' plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath:

. . . if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” [Hosea 6: 61, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.

But this does not sound like Jesus. It sounds like Jewish followers of Jesus after his death, who are attributing the justification for their practice—a sectarian halakhah—to their master (but who do not dare to go so far as to say Jesus himself plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath). Later in the same chapter Jesus' defense of healing on the Sabbath, in opposition to the Pharisees, is also improbable.

We can be most sure of Jesus' conviction about something when he speaks in passing, by the way. Then the author or editor of Matthew, his attention concentrated on the main point, may fail to bring the incidental reference into line with his own purpose. Such a passage is 24: 15-21:

When you see the desolating sacrilege . . . in the holy place . . . let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. . . . Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation. . . .

He is saying, by the way and as a matter of course, that you should keep the Sabbath even at the cost of impeding a flight for your life. Holding that you might not violate the Sabbath to save your life, he could not have held that you might violate the Sabbath, by plucking grain, to allay your hunger at once; and he is unlikely to have held that you might violate the Sabbath by initiating a cure for a chronic illness (as opposed to a sudden or acute one).

In contrast, a midrash (Tanhuma on Mas'e) teaches:

One who is attacked by robbers may break the Sabbath in order to save his life. Once letters from the Roman government, containing evil tidings for the Jews, reached the elders of Sepphoris. They asked R. Eleazar ben Perata [about 90-135 C. E.] what to do. It was the Sabbath, and they said: “Shall we flee?” He . . . said: “Danger to life annuls the Sabbath, for man is to live by doing God's commandments, and not to die by them. . . .”

During the Maccabean wars, Jews had died unresisting on the Sabbath, until the Rabbis' predecessors ruled in the spirit of R. Eleazar three hundred years later. If this leniency had sunk into the people's consciousness, the elders of Sepphoris would not have had to ask him for a ruling. Jesus was closer to the conservative folk than to the Rabbis.

On the question of oaths Jesus seems to have a position midway between them. He agrees with the folk that an oath is an oath and that if a man means his utterance to be one, he should be bound by it, without regard to technicalities about oath-formulas. The Rabbis, who disapproved of oaths, sought by technicalities to narrow the range of utterances that were legally binding as such. In doing so, they left themselves open to Jesus' sarcasms (23: 16-22), with which the folk probably agreed:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?. . .”

He disagrees with the folk in reproving oaths: “. . . you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely. . . .’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all. . . . Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ . . .” (5: 33-37). “I” was saying this in agreement with the Rabbis, not in opposition to them. To this day a traditionally pious Jew has at least one thing in common with a pious Quaker: he will not take an oath. The late S. Z. Cheshin of the Israeli Supreme Court—he was once my teacher in a Talmud Torah here—tells in Tears and Laughter in an Israel Courtroom about plaintiffs and defendants who, rather than testify under oath, choose to lose lawsuits in which they are in the right.


* * * *

Jesus is Said to defend his disciples failure to wash their hands before eating (15: 1-20). The defense has two parts, of which the better-remembered is this:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciple;; transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” . . . he called the people to him and said to them, “. . . not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” [And to the disciples,] “Do you not see that what goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

This part by itself is complex enough. As with plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus himself is not represented as doing what the Pharisees complain of, only as justifying his disciples' doing it. Again, this sounds like a rationalization of a sectarian halakhah of the early church, and we may doubt whether Jesus ever said it, at least in this form.

What is more, the argument shows an antinomian tendency, a contempt for law in the name of spirituality and morality, which must be even later. Note how cleverly it is done. Hand and mouth belong together: the hand brings food to the mouth. But here the mouth is made secondary, a mere entrance to the stomach—which is promptly forgotten—and an agent for the heart, and the relation between hand and mouth is transformed into a distinction between heart and mouth. That this is illegitimate we may see from the kinds of immorality that are made to issue from the mouth: not only false witness and slander, which are indeed oral, but also evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, and theft, which are not. (Nor need the stomach have been forgotten, since Jewish law condemns gluttony.) The inference is that people who worry about their ritual obligations are unconcerned about murder, etc. The argument is so massively disproportionate to the occasion—which is after all only a reproach that a tradition of the elders, not the Torah itself, is being ignored—that I can understand why I thought I remembered it as justifying something like eating forbidden meats. If Jesus had accepted the argument, he could never have said what he did about observing every jot and tittle of the law.

In actuality, those who are careful about the ritual washing of hands before meals sin less than others, not more, in murder, adultery, fornication, and theft, and perhaps in evil thoughts, too; while the logic of antinomianism—Paul himself later discovered this, to his dismay, and we learn it from the history of spiritualizing enthusiasms of all kinds—is that immorality tends to become as trivial as not washing the hands. Or rather, immorality tends to become either a higher good in itself or a necessary means to a higher good. Shabbethai Zevi's followers, for instance, had a doctrine of the good deed that comes by way of transgression.

What we can retain of this part of the story is that Jesus said to the Pharisees, more or less: “Why are you concerned about conveying ritual impurity to the mouth through neglect of washing the hands? Why are you not concerned about the moral impurities that issue from the mouth: false witness and slander?” Jesus could very well have said this—though in saying even so little he would have been rather less than fair. Perhaps because the Jews are a verbal people, and therefore particularly exposed to the temptation of sinful speech, the classical rabbinical literature and our liturgy—composed by men who took very seriously the washing of hands and the purity of what goes into the mouth—incessantly, and often in a most exaggerated fashion, denounce leshon ha-ra‘, evil speech. So do medieval ethical wills, and a saintly rabbi who died as recently as 1933 was known not by his own name but, in accordance with the tradition, by the name of his great work the Hafez Hayyim (“Who Desires Life”), subtitled “Laws Prohibiting Evil Speech [leshon ha-ra‘] and Slander [or gossip; rekhilut] or Any Suggestion [avaq: dust] of Them.” (Ps. 34: 13,14 [12,13]: “What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days,/that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil,/and thy lips from speaking guile.”) Other works of his, with similar titles, taught the same lesson. The Hafez Hayyim was ritually punctilious in a measure beyond our understanding, but his great life's work was against evil speech, gossip, and slander; while we anti-ritualists are not conspicuously free of those things. As a friend of mine puts it, we just call them character analysis.


* * * *

The Second part of Jesus' argument about washing the hands (15: 3-5) has to do with the primacy of commandment over tradition:

He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ . . . But you say, ‘If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father [or his mother—Nestle].’ So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! . . .”

In the New Testament the Pharisees are straw men, easily knocked down. If they had had a fair hearing, they would have answered that to honor father and mother is not an absolute commandment. To honor God is a greater commandment, and clearly father and mother should not be honored by obedience if they order their children not to honor God, as by worshipping idols. Abraham did not, in this sense, honor his father, and the Psalmist had said (27: 10); “For my father and my mother have forsaken me,/but the LORD will take me up.” The decision the Pharisees had made in the case Jesus cited was open to discussion, but the principle underlying it was one that he himself must accept. And, relying on the evidence of Matthew (8: 18-22, 10: 34-37, 12: 46-50), the Pharisees could have gone farther and turned Jesus' “hypocrite” against him:

  1. Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And . . . [one] of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
  2. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother. . . . He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. . . .”
  3. While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? . . . whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

These hard sayings show something less than devotion to the commandment of honoring father and mother. Elijah, who in Christian typology is a forerunner of Jesus, was patient with a disciple whose filial duty was less urgent than burying a father (I Kings 19: 20-21): “. . . ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ . . . Then he arose and went after Elijah. . . .” And Mary's son snubbing her and his brothers, letting them stand waiting outside while he discourses on the superiority of spiritual to fleshly kinship, is hardly edifying. Abraham is not shown behaving toward his idolatrous father Terah as Jesus behaves toward his mother Mary.

Any zealotry brings not peace but a sword, setting sons against fathers and daughters against mothers. We have seen politics do it, and Hasidism did it. But even for a zealot Jesus' behavior is unlovely.


Jesus' Annoyance with the Pharisees over their insistence on washing hands is real. On either side, hygiene had nothing to do with the question. The Pharisees taught that since a man's hands inevitably touch impure things or things that have touched impure things, he must wash before meals so as not to transfer impurity from his hands to his food. For the Jewish peasantry, the ‘am ha-arez, tilling the soil and tending the flocks, it was hard to meet the Pharisees' elaborate requirements for avoiding transferred impurity, and they resented the Pharisees' refusal for that reason to eat with them or associate with them. They also resented the Pharisees' finickiness about produce: had it been certainly tithed properly?; was it fit to be eaten by a pious man? Just as Jesus expresses the ‘am ha-arez's impatience with having to wash the hands of transferred impurity, so he expresses their impatience with a burdensome tithing code (23: 23):

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin [=you worry whether even small herbs have had a tithe properly set aside], and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the other.

The last clause, so unsubversive of the Torah, recalls not only the jot-and-tittle injunction but also 23: 3: “. . . practice and observe whatever they [the Pharisees] tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”

As distinguished from the Sadducees, the Pharisees were the popular party. The people supported them and accepted their leadership. This having been said, it must also be said that the Pharisees—and the Rabbis after them—alienated the peasant ‘am ha-arez by distance and contempt: for one disgusting expression of that contempt, see Pesahim 49b. That the am ha-arez responded appropriately we learn from R. Akiba himself, who remembered the murderous hatred he had felt, when an unlettered young shepherd, for talmide hakhamim. As a champion of the 'am ha-arez against their contemners the Pharisees, Jesus is attractive.

(In our time, when the first religious kibbutzim were being established, the founders had to ask a rabbinical authority about some difficult points of law: for instance, are cows to be milked on the Sabbath?; and if so, what is to be done with the milk? [Yes, because though milking is work, and Sabbath work is forbidden, yet a cow would suffer pain if not milked, and we are explicitly commanded to succor a distressed creature on the Sabbath. But the milk is to be poured out, because though we are forbidden to waste or destroy wantonly, the prohibition against profiting from Sabbath work removes the pouring from the category of wanton destruction.] Point after unusual point was raised with the rabbi, until finally he demanded: “You're good Jewish boys. Why can't you be storekeepers, like your fathers?”)


* * * *

To Sum Up, the conflict between law and spirit, as we know it in Christianity from Paul to Luther, is not Jesus'. For him, as for Judaism always, the law was the protection of the spirit. Two final examples under this head:

  1. “. . . when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do . . . that they may be praised by men. . . . But . . . let . . . your alms . . . be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6: 2-4). He is talking about mattan ba-seter, “a gift in secret” (elevated in Jewish practice from its meaning in Proverbs 21: 14). Some Jews still practice it, in spite of the tax code and the ways of modern philanthropy, for the reason Jesus gave—so that their Father who sees in secret will reward them. After my grandfather's death, the family discovered he had been a secret giver.
  2. As RSV's note suggests, “our daily bread” in the Lord's Prayer is rather “our bread for the morrow”: ton arton hëmön ton epiousion. The adjective epiousios comes from epiousa, “morrow,” formerly the participle in he epiousa hē-mera, “the coming day, the following day.” So the prayer is “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow.” (Note the Jewish plurals: “our” Father, not “my” Father; give “us,” not “me.”) But R. Eliezer the Great said: “Anyone who has bread in his basket and asks, ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?,’, is but of the men of little faith.” Jesus is closer to R. Eliezer in saying (6: 31), “. . . do not be anxious, saying ‘What shall we eat,’ or ‘What shall we drink,’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” than in instructing his followers to pray for the morrow's bread.

Was R. Eliezer, then, a man who exalted spirit over law? Not at all. Although of the school of Hillel, by temperament and outlook he seems closer to the school of Shammai. He was so inflexible and opposed to innovation, so insistent that nothing should be taught or instituted which had not been formally handed down from master to disciple, that his colleagues had to put him under the ban. They continued to respect him—he remains “the Great”—but in the crisis after the destruction of the Temple his ultra-conservatism was a danger. Nor was R. Eliezer a lover of the minim, the heretics, the Jewish Christians. Since he was the traditionalist he was, the doctrine he taught must have come to him from his masters, and from their masters before them—Pharisees of Jesus's time and earlier.


* * * *

The Gentle Carpenter

It was from elements of Renan's Vie de Jésus that the secularized, sentimental picture of a tender and “progressive” Jesus was drawn. Of all the strange pictures of him over the centuries, this is the strangest. In reality he is often violent in speech or action. And either he is unworldly—since the end is near, very near—or he is basically satisfied with things as they are.

Not once does he hold God to His justice—unlike Abraham (Genesis 18: 25: “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing . . . shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”) and Job and Jeremiah (12: 1: “Righteous art Thou, O LORD, when I complain to Thee; /yet would I plead my case before Thee”) and Levi Isaac of Berdichev. Jesus likens God to a king or to a householder (oikodespēts; perhaps better “owner of an estate”) who behaves in an arbitrary, cruel, or grasping way; and then it is not the arbitrariness, cruelty, and greed that Jesus condemns, but their victims, cautioning us to avoid their fate. Four examples:

1. The parable of the king who wished to settle accounts with his servants (18: 23-35) ends as follows:

“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have mercy on your fellow servants, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers [basanistai; RSV's note: “Greek torturers”; KJV, less euphemistic than RSV's text: tormentors], till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Agreed; each of us should forgive his brother. But if we do not, should a just and merciful God hand us over to the torturers? And if Jesus were indeed gentle and compassionate, would he approve?

2. “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22: 14): first a king commands his servants to waylay travelers and to make them go as wedding guests to his palace, and then he casts one such guest into outer darkness for not wearing a wedding garment.

3. The wise maidens (NEB's prudent girls) are commended for a piece of selfishness like the morality of La Fontaine's ant—prudential, but hard to admire—and the bridegroom's rejection of the foolish girls, eager to be guests at the wedding, is not questioned (25: 1-13):

. . . the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” . . . Afterward the . . . [foolish] maidens came . . . saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

4. In the parable of the talents (25: 14-30) the so-called slothful servant says: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow.” Which the master confirms by his reply: “. . . you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” The moral is equally noble: “. . . to every one who has will more be given . . . but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The prophet Nathan was less complaisant, denouncing King David in the parable (II Samuel 12: 1-6) of the rich man who could not bring himself to butcher one of his many sheep, and instead took the poor man's one ewe lamb (Bathsheba) .


Blessed are the poor; but there is no need to get excited about them (26: 6-11):

Now when Jesus was at Bethany . . . a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus . . . said to them, “. . . you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

His “you always have the poor with you” is quite different from its source, Deut. 15: 11: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” Similarly, when Jesus counsels the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor (19: 21), he is concerned not with the poor but with the rich man's chances of going to heaven.

Christianity is never less able to rely on the New Testament, never more in need of the Old, than when it tries to do something about justice and mercy.


* * * *

There is much that is arbitrary and willful in Jesus himself. We have the enigmatic 21: 18-19:

. . . he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

This may be another attempt to show that prophecy has been fulfilled, since tree, fruit, and leaves of the fig point to Jeremiah 8: 8-13:

How can you say, “We are wise/and the law of the LORD is with us?”/. . . from the least to the greatest/every one is greedy for unjust gain; /from prophet to priest/every one deals falsely./They have healed the wound of my people lightly,/saying, “Peace, peace,”/when there is no peace./Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?/No, they were not at all ashamed;/they did not know how to blush. . . ./when I would gather them, says the LORD,/ there are no grapes on the vine,/nor figs on the fig tree;/even the leaves are withered. . . .

(This last verse, about grapes on the vine and figs on the tree, begins the ominous Prophetical lesson for the morning of the fast of the Ninth of Av.)

The author of Matthew seems puzzled about the meaning of the story he tells. He has the disciples asking, not why Jesus did what he did, but “How did the fig tree wither at once?”, and he has Jesus answering that if they have undoubting faith they will be able to do more than wither fig trees, they will be able to command mountains to be cast into the sea. Whatever the meaning that has escaped Matthew, this story is small and peevish, especially when read beside the Jeremiah it echoes.

In general, the miracles in Matthew are frivolous. The things Moses does at the parting of the sea, Joshua at Jericho and Gibeon, Elijah at Mount Carmel—these are large and public, decisively affecting the people of Israel at crucial turning-points in their history, and mankind through them. But when Matthew has Jesus walking on the sea and encouraging Peter to walk on the sea, in Chapter 14, is that necessary? What would be different in the working out of God's plans for men if the miracle did not happen? What is Matthew's Jesus doing if not showing off? And so with the story told twice (in Chapters 14 and 15), with some statistical variations, about feeding the multitudes. As the disciples say, the crowds will not starve in the absence of a miracle; they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves. But he sees to it that the 5,000 (or 4,000) men, besides women and children, are amply fed with 5 (or 7) loaves and 2 (or a few small) fishes, and that 12 (or 7) baskets full of broken pieces are left over. A miracle unnecessary for the multitudes, unnecessary for the disciples, unnecessary for hallowing the Name and establishing the kingdom.

Finally, Jesus' character as a faith-healer and expeller of demons must be taken seriously. Much later Israel Ba'al Shem Tov was also a faith-healer, and exorcizing a dybbuk was no laughing matter for him and his contemporaries. How large and central a place the casting out of demons and healing occupy in Matthew—this I did not realize, again, until I read slowly.


* * * *


A friend once told me that if I wanted to get an idea of Jesus and his disciples, and what they were with each other, I should observe Hasidim in Jerusalem or Brooklyn and try to reconstruct what Hasidism had been in its glory. And indeed there are many similarities between early Christianity and Hasidism: faith-healing and exorcism; the momentary expectation of wondrous things; tales of the master's miracles; the elevation of the master's logia and behavior to the rank of Torah; superiority of master to father; vying for place among the disciples; the sacred meal of master and (male) disciples, with the master giving them bread; appeal to a folk accustomed to suffering the scorn of the learned; observing the law, but in a manner irritating to the authorities (as in the Hasidim's way with the time of prayer and with sectarian slaughtering)—and more. There is even the possibility, in some branches of Hasidism, of an esoteric doctrine of the master as Messiah.

I do not believe in a timeless mentality or character, but it is hard not to believe that something immanent in Judaism brings forth such movements and enthusiasms from time to time. Besides Hasidism as a parallel to early Jewish Christianity (or Christian Judaism), we have had Shabbethai Zevi and his teachings and followers; and who knows how many other sectarianisms of like nature remain buried under the sand of the Jewish past.

Matthew is not all of the New Testament, as the New Testament is not all of Christianity, but Matthew by itself is enough to persuade me that speaking of a Judeo-Christian tradition is different from speaking of a Slavic-Patagonian tradition. Christianity grew away from Judaism, and no Jew can believe that that was for the best. But it did not grow away altogether, and a desire on the Christian side to speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition must mean, among other things, a desire rather to return closer than to depart farther.

Why, then, is the talk about the tradition so recent? When men perceived only Christians and Jews (so many of them, so few of us), they saw the differences. Now we live in a perceived world that is mostly neither Christian nor Jewish—not so much that it is secular as that it is non-Western. Becoming aware, in that world, of a nearness formerly not thought of, we begin to speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

There is nothing unusual about social realities influencing the way men think about religion. Because Byzantium had its kind of emperor, it thought of Jesus as Pantocrator; and the Jews' vision of hell, as Saul Lieberman has demonstrated, reproduced the particular kinds of torture they experienced at the hands of their Gentile rulers. The distance between Judaism and Christianity led to distance between Jews and Christians, but it is also true that the distance between Jews and Christians led them to want to believe that Judaism and Christianity were distant. Now, naturally, men ask themselves whether the religions are truly alien from each other totally. Social circumstance suggests the question, it does not provide the answer. Theology and historical scholarship can alone do that. But that raising this religious and historical question is due to the situation of Jews and Christians in the Western world today, or even in America primarily—what is so sinister or discreditable about that?

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