This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Sermon on the Mount (1)

i've encountered handfuls of people who claim that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is contrasting the Old Testament with the New Testament.  Jesus is citing or discussing what is recorded in the Old Covenant, and He's claiming to change or abolish or bring a stop to that and establish His own new way--the way of Christianity.

i'm currently reading Christian Non-resistance by Adin Ballou.  He is quite insistent on making this same claim.  He believes, at least in Matthew 5 in the "you have heard that it was said" statements, that Jesus must be referring to the teachings of Moses, and thus, Jesus must be countermanding those teachings.  Ballou goes as far as to say that anyone trying to escape this interpretation is simply trying to evade Christ's teachings about non-violence.  

Well, i'm not.  i happen to agree with Ballou's basic presentation of Christ's teachings on non-violence.  However, i disagree that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is countermanding Moses. (For brevity's sake, i'll refer to this as the "OT vs. NT" view.)  Jesus cannot be pitting His teachings against that of Moses, and i can give 5 reasons why that is the case.  In this post, i'll present the first 2 reasons.

1. Jesus plainly states that His purpose was not to countermand Moses.

Do not think that I have come 
to abolish the Law or the Prophets; 
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, 
not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, 
will by any means disappear from the Law 
until everything is accomplished.  
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments 
and teaches others to do the same 
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, 
but whoever practices and teaches these commands 
will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matt 5:17-19)
This, i think, is the most condemning evidence against the OT vs. NT view.  If we view the Sermon on the Mount that way, we make Jesus out to contradict Himself. He clearly states that He doesn't want anyone to think He means to abolish (abrogate, countermand, revoke, nullify) any of the commands of Moses.  Yet if we take the view that Jesus is recounting Old Testament Law, then replacing it with His own teachings, we make Him out to be doing exactly that.  If the OT vs. NT view is true, Jesus starts by telling people they'd better keep all the commands in the Law, then in the very next section, tells them one by one all the commands in the Law they shouldn't keep and do what He teaches instead.  i don't think any interpretation that implies such blatant contradiction in Jesus' words can be considered an accurate one.

2. Jesus does not use His trademark phrase for quoting the Old Testament.

Matthew well-establishes a trademark phrase for Jesus when quoting the Old Testament.  When quoting the Old Testament, Jesus uses the phrase, "it is written." 
He does so immediately prior to the Sermon on the Mount
during His temptation by the devil (Matt 4:4, 6, 7, 10).

Jesus uses the phrase when speaking of OT
prophecy regarding John the Baptist (Matt 11:10). 

Jesus uses this phrase when
cleansing the temple (Matt 21:13).
He uses the phrase when quoting prophecy
and predicting that His disciples will abandon Him
just before His arrest (Matt 26:31).

In other words, the author of Matthew establishes a clear pattern or tell-tale-sign for Jesus' use of the OT scriptures.  Yet in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not say "it is written" when speaking of the ideas He criticizes.  Rather He says, "you have heard that it was said."  This is clear evidence that Matthew intends us not to interpret Jesus as quoting the OT scriptures.  If Jesus is not quoting the OT scriptures, then the OT vs. NT view is simply false.

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