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Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Matthew's Jesus

F. Scott Spencer Interpretation 2010 64: 368 DOI: 10.1177/002096431006400404 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Matthews Jesus

F. SCOTT SPENCER Professor of New Testament and Preaching Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond
Eschewing a truncated focus on single proof-texts, Matthews Jesus interprets Scripture by Scripture across the canon in creative and provocative ways. His hermeneutical methods and aims resist narrow profiling. Above all, Matthews Jesus emerges as the churchs authoritative biblical exegete and teacher.

ave you not read [the Scriptures]?a query posed several times by Jesus to various groups of religious leaders in Matthews Gospel (12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31) cuts two ways rhetorically, both as pat on the back and slap in the face. On the one hand, supported by the grammatical construction,1 Jesus affirms a common ground with his interlocutors: Of course youve read the Scriptures, havent you? Jesus appeals to the high degree of biblical literacy and scholarship attained by the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests whom he addresses. But on the other hand, the polemical context suggests a critical challenge: While Im sure youve read the Scriptures, you dont act like youve really understood them or grasped their full significance. Jesus questions the religious leaders hermeneutical competency to interpret Scripture rightly. The argument is entirely in-house, in-faith, and intra-canonical. It is a battle for the Biblethe Jewish Scriptures, what Christians came to call the OTamong devout Jews who care deeply about this sacred book. At every turn, Matthew enhances his portrait with a rich scriptural repertoire of fulfillment citations, intertextual allusions, and typological models (like Moses).2 Put another way, the Matthean Jesus teachings and actions are thoroughly rooted in OT faith and practice (5:1720). But so, too, are the convictions and instructions of Jesus principal disputants among the Jewish religious leaders. Although, according to Jesus standard, their interpretation of written Torah does not always measure up (unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [5:20; cf. 5:2148]), their oral traditions occasionally contravene Gods explicit commandments (15:19), and their actions sometimes fall short of their teachings (23:13), their commitment to biblical study and authority is unassailable. Even in one of the sharpest polemical sections in the book, where Jesus piles on woes against the hypocritical practices of the scribes/Pharisees who sit on Moses seat, he still begins with a blanket endorsement of their agenda: Do whatever they teach you and

1 The interrogative construction, Have you not (ou/ouk)/never (oudepote)? plus an indicative verb, typically expects a Yes answer. 2 See, e.g., Robert Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthews Gospel with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope (NovTSup 18; Leiden: Brill, 1967); Dale Allison, Jr., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); and Graham Stanton, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox: 1993), 34653.

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follow it (23:23a). The problem, in Jesus view, is their poor follow-through (they do not practice what they teach [23:3b]), not their biblical foundation. Precisely because Jesus and the religious leaders agree on the Bibles venerable place as the prime source of divine revelation, their debates over its proper interpretation (hermeneutics) and demonstration (ethics) often rage with hot and heavy intensity. A lot is at stake herenothing less than learning and living the very word of God. In the modern Christian era, we know all too well how passionately, even bitterly, battles for the Bible are fought within most denominations. So what light does Matthews Jesus generate in the heat of biblical-interpretive conflict? In this essay, I consider two test cases where Jesus buttresses his Have you not read? challenge with particular appeal to the basic hermeneutical principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture, that is, reading one passage not in isolation, but in conversation with other passages, indeed, the entire canon. In both cases, Jesus objects to the Pharisees preoccupation with applying a single biblical text (or set of texts) to the neglect of other texts that balance or complicate ethical practice in some fashion. But how does Jesus negotiate this tightrope? How does he juxtapose and prioritize texts and traditions? What train of thought does he follow? Is he aiming to expand or constrict the hermeneutical horizon of his Pharisaic interlocutors? In todays political lingo, does Jesus advocate a more liberal or conservative intertextual reading of Scripture? These questions guide the analysis below. That does not mean, however, that they will admit to easy, definitive answers. At its best, biblical hermeneutics is as much art as sciencea dynamic, Spirit-imbued enterprise as much as a formulaic, technical procedure. And Matthews Jesus, the Head Teacher, granted full and final authority to mediate Gods word (7:2829; 28:1820), will not be facilely pigeonholed into any pre-set interpretive program.

T H E L I B E R A L J E S U S : I N T E R P R E T I N G S C R I P T U R E O N S A B B AT H A N D W O R K ( M AT T 1 2 : 1 8 ) Our first case takes us to the fields of Galilee, where Jesus disciples pluck off ripe heads of grain, eat them, and thereby offend the legal sensibilities of some Pharisees who observe this odd outdoor dining scene. To what exactly do the Pharisees object? The problem is not, as we might assume in our capitalist preoccupation with private property, that the disciples appear guilty of both trespassing and stealing. To be sure, they do not own these fields (they had left everything to follow Jesus [4:1822; 19:2729]) and do not pay the owner for what they take and eat (they carried no money [10:9]). But neither the landowner (absent from the story) nor the Pharisees dispute the disciples right to avail themselves of free walk-through food service, likely because of the Torahs

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charitable gleaning legislation, allowing poor itinerants to pick and eat what they need from the edges of others fields (Lev 19:910; 23:22; Deut 24:1922; cf. Ruth 2). Matthew punctuates the propriety of the disciples action with the significant little note (added to Mark) that Jesusdisciples were hungry (Matt 12:1). This was more than an extra snack to tide them over until dinner; in all likelihood, this was dinner or maybe all they would eat that day.3 However, while what the disciples do in the fields conforms to Torah regulations, when they do it is another matter. Here is the rub: it is the Sabbath, the holy day of rest and worship, with deep scriptural roots in the creation and exodus traditions (Gen 2:13; Exod 20:811; Deut 5:1215). Daily workconducting business as usualis thus generally prohibited on the Sabbath. Beyond that, however, the OT provides few guidelines regarding specific permissible and proscribed Sabbath activities. But it does make clear that plowing and reaping of fields are not allowed, even during harvest seasons (Exod 34:21). It may be that Matthews Pharisees subsume the disciples gleaning under this broad fieldwork category as labor not lawful to do on the Sabbath (12:2). But hand plucking and nibbling a few heads of grain hardly compare with plowing and harvesting a whole crop, normally with the aid of yoked animals. (Jesus and the disciples do not travel with a caravan!) So perhaps the Pharisees have one of their oral interpretations in mind, later codified in the Mishnah. But while one tractate delineates thirty-nine Sabbath work prohibitions, plowing/reaping again prove most relevant to the present case, taking us no further than the written Torah (m. Shab. 7:2).4 Another line of scriptural-legal reasoning might focus on the disciples handling and consuming food on the Sabbath. During their wandering period in the wilderness, the ancient Israelites gathered a double portion of manna on the sixth day in order to eat on the Sabbath without having to gather or prepare food (in fact, the Lord provided no manna on the seventh day; Exod 16:5, 22 30).5 A sectarian Jewish group of Essenes applied this biblical precedent to their community: No man shall eat on the Sabbath day except that which is already prepared. He shall eat nothing lying in the fields (CD 10:2021).6 In Matthews story, Jesus disciples had evidently not stored up grain the day before. This is hardly surprising, though, since they lived from day to day (Give us this day our daily bread [Matt 6:11]), and since gleaning allowed for satisfying immediate needs, not stockpiling leftovers. The disciples would be left then with two alternatives: either fasting or being hosted by a generous household on the Sabbath. But the former option was undesirable and the latter impracticable from time to time. Despite the prejudicial pagan stereotype that Jews regularly fasted on the Sabbath,7 it was in fact a time of celebrating the Creator Gods goodness, with some sources close to Jesus time even forbidding fasting on this holy day (Jdt 8:6; Jub. 50:12).8 And in

3 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 26364; M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in General Articles on the New Testament, Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mark (NIB; 12 vols.; ed. Leander Keck; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 8:278. 4 See also lists of proscribed Sabbath activities in Jub. 2:29; 50:613; CD 10:1411:18. 5 Likewise, the wilderness community also strictly opposed (on pain of death) gathering sticks, presumably for building a cooking fire, on the Sabbath (Num 15:3236). 6 Citation from Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (4th ed; London: Penguin, 1995), 109. 7 See the discussion in Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 16167. 8 See D. M. Cohn-Sherbok, An Analysis of Jesus Arguments Concerning the Plucking of Grain on the Sabbath, JSNT 2 (1979): 35; W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 19881997), 2:312, n. 35; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (3 vols.; trans. Wilhelm Linss and James Crouch; ed. Helmut Koester; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 19892005), 180.

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any case, while the disciples enjoy the blessedness of Jesus life and ministry, they have no cause for fasting (Matt 9:1415). As for eating in others homes, Jesus and his followers gladly accept hospitality when offered, but do not impose themselves on unwelcoming hosts (10:1115). Considerable ambiguity thus surrounds the Pharisees legal case against Jesus disciples in Matt 12. We are not told, beyond general respect for Sabbath observance, what specific written or oral Sabbath traditions the Pharisees have in mind, or precisely how they judge the disciples plucking and eating as unlawful. In the absence of supporting arguments, we should not jump to conclusions about the principled or picayune nature of their case. All we know is that Matthews Pharisees regard the disciples Sabbath activity as illicit, and that such judgment reflects how seriously most first-century Jews took Sabbath-keeping as a distinctive mark of their religious-ethnic identity and covenant relationship with God.9 But such critical significance guarantees wide-ranging debate about the proper parameters of Sabbath activity, which only intensifies in the face of the Bibles relative disinterest in micromanaging Sabbath behavior. As the Mishnah acknowledges, The rules about the Sabbath . . . are like mountains hanging on a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many (m. Hag. 1:8).10 So, when Matthews Jesus responds to the accusation of Sabbath misconduct, he ventures into a hermeneutical minefield. Although not personally charged with violating Sabbath law, Jesus is no doubt held responsible for his disciples behavior,11 and he does not leave them hanging by a hair. Whereas the Pharisees cite no specific scriptural support in prosecuting the disciples, Jesus mounts a broad-based, three-pronged biblical defense, comprising a) an historical example (1 Sam 21:16); b) a legal requirement (Num 28:910); and c) a prophetic principle (Hos 6:6). As with the Pharisees, Jesus simply assumes the foundational Decalogue injunction, Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy (Exod 20:8; Deut 5:12). By no means does Jesus (or Matthew) abrogate the Sabbath;12 the point is clarifying the boundaries of acceptable activity on this sacred day. While on the face of it, Jesus might seem to win the case by a superior range and number of scriptural precedents, thoughtful hermeneutical-ethical reasoning is far from a statistical enterprise. The quality and applicability of the arguments matter most. And even here Jesus case remains open to question. First, the appeal to David and his soldiers exceptional (unlawful) eating in Gods sanctuary of consecrated loavesreserved only for priestly consumptionwhile on an expedition (1 Sam 21:5) connects well with the itinerant disciples dubious dining while on a mission with Jesus. These are extraordinary times calling for extraordinary measures: both Davids and Jesus (the son of David) special forces are hungry while carrying out their duties and thus merit being fed, if need be, by unconventional means. But the analogy breaks down at key points: Jesus

See, e.g., Philo, Mos. 2:20919; Josephus, Life 159; Ant. 16:4244; J.W. 2:147; CD 10:1411:18. Translation from Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 212. 11 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 112 (Waco: Word, 1987), 547. 12 In the next scene (12:914), Jesus follows standard Jewish practice by attending the synagogue on the Sabbath. Although Matthew, no doubt reflecting his own post-70 C.E. context, distances Jesus somewhat from their synagogue (12:9) and describes an ensuing conflict over healing a disabled man, he also still portrays Jesus arguing his case within the bounds of Jewish law and acting with explicit purpose to do good on the Sabbath (12:1112). See also 24:20.

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disciples are in the grain fields, not Gods house, eating generic heads of grain, not cultic loaves of bread; and most critically, their plucking and eating on the Sabbaththe crux of the Pharisees objectionhas no clear counterpart in the David story, set on no particular day.13 Of course, by nature analogies offer broad comparisons; they do not have to score at every point. But it is useful if they address the main point, which the David example really does not. But in the second plank of his defense, Jesus cites legal precedent from the Torah regarding Sabbath practice. Direct reference to biblical law would represent the highest court of appeal in Jewish ethics, outweighing idiosyncratic narrative cases like that from Davids adventures.14 But again, Jesus use of Scripture confuses as much as convinces. He does not quote a specific text, but rather offers a loose paraphrasewith double reference to the Sabbathemphasizing that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath with impunity (Matt 12:5). Most scholars agree that Jesus has in mind the Torah passage from Numbers, which stipulates the required burnt offering for every Sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering (Num 28:9 10). Though priests are not specifically mentioned, their involvement, as the authorized mediators of sacrifice, would be assumed. In short, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that priests work on the Sabbath and yet are guiltless (Matt 12:5). But he actually goes much further to suggest that priests break or desecrate (bebe3loo3) the Sabbath15 by performing their duties, a viewpoint not remotely intimated in the Torah and hardly designed to persuade his Pharisaic accusers. One suspects Matthews Jesus of rhetorical hyperbole here, since, as noted above, he otherwise affirms the law; but the use of Sabbath-breaking language seems deliberately provocative, if not profane. Little wonder that, by the end of this Sabbath, the Pharisees conspire against him (12:14). Moreover, emotions aside, Jesus logic leaves something to be desired. However he (mis)characterizes priestly Sabbath service in the Torah, it is not at all obvious how this allusion relates to his disciples activity. Apart from their not being in the right place (grain field, not sanctuary) to fit the Numbers template, they are not the right persons (disciples, not priests) executing the right practices (plucking/munching grain, not preparing/offering sacrifices) on the Sabbath. Of course, we might summon a doctrine like the priesthood of all believers to get Jesus off the hook, thereby anointing Jesus faithful followers as priests in Gods service. But neither Jesus nor Matthew thinks in such terms (they were not good Protestants), and the Torahs striking designation of Israel as a priestly kingdom at Sinai (Exod 19:5) never authorized anyone but legitimate priests to present holy sacrifices to God on the Sabbath or any other day. At best, Jesus draws another loose analogy: since some persons (priests) can legitimately engage in some activities (sacrificing) on the Sabbath, so can his disciples.
13 Leviticus 24:59 stipulates the placement of fresh loaves before the Lord by Aaron and his priestly descendants every Sabbath day, but it is not clear if they consumed all this bread on that day. While some later rabbinic traditions set 1 Sam 21:16 on the Sabbath, Matthews Jesus does not make the Sabbath connection. He stresses what David unlawfully ate (priestly fare), not when he ate it. See Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:3089; Cohn-Sherbok, Analysis, 3536. 14 This reflects the distinction in Jewish hermeneutics between prescriptive, legal halakah (Num 28:910) and interpretive, narrative haggadah (1 Sam 21:16). See David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: University of London Press, 1956), 6771; Cohn-Sherbok, Analysis, 36; John Mark Hicks, The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:114, RestQ 27 (1984): 8387. 15 As Vernon Robbins (Plucking Grain on the Sabbath, in Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels [ed. Burton Mack and Vernon Robbins; Sonoma: Polebridge, 1989], 135) observes, Jesus markedly ups the ante of the Pharisees initial accusation: whereas they charge the disciples with doing or performing an act (poieo3) contrary to Sabbath law (Matt 12:2), Jesus appeals to the priests desecrating or performing an act that violates the sanctity of a custom or place (bebe3loo3, 12:5).

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Jesus must be given his full say, however. As a good defense attorney, he builds up to his last and strongest point. Picking up some key threads from the previous two analogiesparticularly related to sanctuary and sacrificeJesus applies a lesser to greater rhetorical strategy, adds a direct scriptural citation from the prophetic canon, and punctuates his closing argument with the solemn introductory formula,But I tell you (Matt 12:6; cf. 5:1844). As if addressing our objection that the disciples grain field behavior on the Sabbath has nothing to do with sacred place or cultic practice featured in 1 Samuel and Numbers, Jesus boldly subordinates temple and sacrifice in his double statement: something greater than the temple is here; I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the latter quoted from Hos 6:6 (Matt 12:67; cf. 9:13). Following lesser to greater reasoning,16 his disciples lack of engagement in temple-sacrificial duty, far from being problematic to his case, actually cements it. For in truth, through their plucking and eating on the Sabbath, Jesus followers participate in something greater than David and his cohorts and the temple priests. But what exactly is that mysterious something greaterwhich must really be something to be greater than Gods holy place and worship rites, of all (some)things? Most interpreters think that Jesus invokes his own personal, God-given authority here, as elsewhere in Matthew and, indeed, in his final statement that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath (12:8).17 Jesus himself personifies the something greater, and if he has no problem with his disciples Sabbath behavior, then there is no problem. But while not denying that Matthews Jesus strongly asserts his personal sovereignty, he does not appear to be the primary referent for the neuter comparative pronoun properly translated, something greater, rather than someone greater.18 As Ulrich Luz urges, we should not skip too quickly over the neuter term here en route to an exclusively Christological conclusion.19 The proper path is clearly marked: Something greater (meizon) than the temple is here ? But if you had known what (ti) this means ? Mercy (eleos) I desire, and not sacrifice (my translation). All the italicized words are neuter in Greek and suggest the equivalence: something greater = what = mercy. And the final focus on mercy is strengthened by its emphatic, first position in the sentence, not to mention its authoritative source from the prophet Hosea. On this mercy principle, closely associated with loving concern for others as a covenantal extension of faithful love toward God, hangs all the law and prophets (cf. 7:12; 22:3440).20 Jesus thus ultimately calls upon his Pharisaic judges to treat his grain plucking/eating disciples with mercy.21 They are not cavalierly breaking Sabbath law, but rather working on this sacred day as poor, hungry nomads (like David and companions) to meet basic needs for survival. Jesus does
16 Or light to heavy (qal wahomer) deduction in rabbinic interpretation; see the discussion in Cohn-Sherbok, Analysis, 3640; Hicks, Sabbath Controversy, 8687. 17 E.g., Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 314; Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 266; Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel of Matthew (trans. Robert Barr; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 112; Daniel Harrington (The Gospel of Matthew [Sacra Pagina 1; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1991], 172) identifies three possible referents of something greater than the temple: 1) Jesus himself; 2) the kingdom of God initiated by Jesus; and 3) the community of Jesus followers. Harrington grants the plausibility of all three options, but leans toward the last one. 18 Something/someone greater are distinguished in Greek by a single letter: either omicron (o) or omega (o3) meizon (neut.) or meizo3n (masc.). Such morphological precision seems particularly apt in analyzing the words of Matthews Jesus who stresses that not one letter (iota), not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (5:18). 19 Luz, Matthew, 18183; see also Boring, Gospel of Matthew, 278. 20 In the LXX, the Greek eleos routinely translates the Hebrew h9esed with its rich theological-ethical associations of Gods covenant faithfulness and steadfast love toward Gods needy people. See David Hill, On the Use and Meaning of Hosea VI.6 in Matthews Gospel, NTS 24 (1977): 10719; Mary Hinkle Eden, Learning What Righteousness Means: Hosea 6:6 and the Ethic of Mercy in Matthews Gospel, Word & World 18 (1998): 35563. 21 Luz, Matthew, 182.

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not argue for some special dispensation for an elite corps of deputies. His disciples do not function as priests laboring in Gods house (like those in Numbers) and do not receive exceptional permission in the sanctuary for their unlawful eating (like David). But so what? All of that is trumped by something greater than the temple. In this and all cases, mercyalong with justice and love shines as the weightier matter (Matt 23:23), greater than the sanctuary, its priestly attendants, and even the Sabbath. Such a judgment need not denigrate the law in general or Sabbath observance in particular: on the contrary, what better day to demonstrate the merciful heartbeat of Gods creational/covenantal law than Gods restorative Sabbath?

T H E C O N S E R VAT I V E J E S U S : I N T E R P R E T I N G S C R I P T U R E O N M A R R I A G E A N D D I V O R C E ( M AT T 1 9 : 1 9 ) Before we leap to judgment, on the basis of one case, that Matthews Jesus consistently advocates a more liberal interpretation of Scripture than his Pharisaic interlocutors, we must test another similar Have you not read? exchange surrounding a different, but equally fundamental, issue. And, as we shall see, in the family law case dealing with marriage and divorce (19:19), while many questions remain on interpretive fine points, Jesus scarcely advances a freewheeling, freeloving situational ethic. The present debate shifts from Galilee to Judea and follows on the heels of Jesus mass healings rather than his disciples dining habits (19:12). Again the Pharisees initiate the dispute with a point about legality, only framed this time as an open question to Jesus rather than a negative accusation: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? (19:3). Even with this more inviting approach, however, Matthews Pharisees still aim to test or try (peirazo3) Jesus response, that is, put him on trial in a confrontational, prosecutorial manner (cf. 4:1, 3; 12:14; 16:1; 22:18, 35). The key issue now concerns the range of right reasons for which a man may divorce his wife: can he do it for any/every (pasan) cause? As presented, the question assumes a mans basic right to divorce his wife (it does not, regrettably, guarantee the womans reciprocal prerogative).22 Controversy swirls not around whether a man may divorce his wife, but whyon any grounds he chooses or a more restricted list? At this stage, the Pharisees cite no contested scriptural-legal tradition underlying their query, but soon they will raise the Deuteronomy 24 commandment (as they call it) of divorce for something objectionable (24:1), which had become a locus of considerable discussion among Jewish scholars and teachers. Early (proto-)rabbinic disputes around the time of Jesus spanned the more lenient-liberal and stringent-conservative spectrum: the house of Hillel tended toward a loose interpretation of objectionable wifely behavior (including poor culinary skills), while the house of Shammai narrowed it to more serious sexual transgressions (including but not

22 Likewise, in Matt 5:3132, Jesus only considers the option of a man divorcing his wife (cf. Josephus, Ant. 15:25960). Some contemporary Jewish sources, however, also acknowledge womens reciprocal rights and duties in matters of marriage, divorce, and sexuality: see Philo, Spec. Laws 3:8082; CD 5:910; 1 Cor 7:25, 1016, and the discussion in Phillip Sigal, The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew (SBL 18; Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 12743.

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necessarily limited to adultery).23 But in any case, such debate operated within a broad family value systemshared by Ben Sira, Philo, Josephus and other Jewish thinkersthat accorded husbands a God-given, Scripture-based right, if not responsibility, to divorce their wives for some legitimate cause(s).24 In response, Jesus cuts to the chase and through the thicket of divorce options to affirm an overriding marital principle. Rather than escalating to his clinching argument, as with the prophetic mercy principle in the Sabbath case, this time Jesus begins at the beginning with a dual Genesis mandate establishing Gods original will for the permanent,one-flesh union between husband and wife (Matt 19:46; Gen 1:27; 2:24). In other words,from the beginning (ap)arche3s) the God who joined male and female in marriage envisioned no viable reason for divorce.25 Fine and good for the Bibles first chapters, featuring humanitys primordial, innocent age involving only the first man and woman (no one to leave each other for yet!); but what about the Deuteronomic regulation for Israel at the end of the Pentateuch where, as the Pharisees remind Jesus, Moses command[ed] us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her (Matt 19:7)? Whereas before, Jesus qualified the creational/covenantal principle of Sabbath rest with extenuating circumstantial evidence from Numbers and 1 Samuel, here the Pharisaic teachers qualify creations marital principle with Deuteronomys allowance for divorce under certain, albeit debatable, conditions. On this occasion, Jesus seems to have little use for exceptions, save one that he will soon announce. But before he broaches the any cause matter, he reiterates the primacy of the Genesis marriage principle in relation to the Deuteronomy divorce provision. The crux of his response turns on the language of commandment vs. concession, prescription vs. permission. Matthews Jesus corrects the Pharisees assessment of the moral force of Deuteronomys divorce rulings.26 Where they speak of Moses mandating (entellomai) divorce under certain circumstances, Jesus speaks of Moses permitting (epitrepo4) such action because of the Israelites hardheartedness (Jesus actually refers to your hardheartedness, pointedly collapsing the identities of the ancient Israelites and present Pharisees; 19:78).27 Conceding the status quo regarding common divorce practice resulting from human selfishness and stubbornness scarcely reflects righteous behavior in Jesus book, since, to repeat his starting point: from the beginning (ap)arche3s) it has not been so (19:8).28 First principles, rooted in creation, trump secondary provisions, resulting from humanitys fall. But does Matthews Jesus thereby effectively annul Deut 24 on the basis of Gen 12 or, in other words, abrogate a later stipulation of the Torah in favor of an earlier precept? If so, this would mark a drastic hermeneutical move, compromising Jesus prior claim not to abolish even one iota of the Law (Matt 5:1718), not to mention bowling over tensions in the Torah by striking out or ex-canon-

23 See m. Git. 9:10, which also includes the infamous statement of R. Akiba allowing a man to divorce his wife for the indecency that she was not pretty enough. On the whole issue, Sigal (Halakhah of Jesus, 142) aptly states: In sum, then, the halakhah of divorce practiced by the diverse communities of a many-faceted Judaism was in no way monolithic. There was no orthodoxy and no orthopraxy. 24 Sir 7:26; 25:2426; 42:910; Philo, Spec. Laws 3:3031, 8082; Josephus, Life 42627; Ant. 4:253; 15:25960. 25 For other anti-divorce sources rooted in Gods created purpose for marriage in Genesis, see Mal 2:1016; CD 4:205:2; and the discussion in Sigal, Halakhah of Jesus, 11217, 125, 13540. 26 See Anthony Harvey, Genesis versus Deuteronomy?: Jesus on Marriage and Divorce, in The Gospels and the Scriptures of Israel (ed. Craig Evans and Richard Stegner; JSNTSup 104; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 5565. 27 Matthew also reverses Marks language, where Jesus asks about what Moses commanded (entellomai) regarding divorce and the Pharisees respond concerning what Moses allowed (epitrepo4, Mark 10:35). 28 My translation of the perfect tense of gegonen, conveying: divorce was not so from the beginning and still is not!

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izing one passage in the debate rather than seeking some dynamic resolution.29 On closer analysis, however, at least two factors mitigate such a sweeping, simplistic strategy on Jesus part. First, Jesus harbors no nave illusions about the pristine condition of Gods people. They continue to be as hardhearted as they were in Moses era, inveterate heirs of Adam and Eves fall from Edenic holiness and bliss, marital and otherwise. As such there will be marital pain and strife, hardship, and hierarchy (Gen 3:1219), which will tragically lead to divorce from time to time. The law then steps in, as it does in so many other cases of human brokenness and alienation, to offer restraining as well as restorative guidance. Specifically, Deut 24:14 steps in a) to protect the divorced wifes right to remarriage by way of a certificate declaring her legitimately released from her former husband; and b) to prohibit the ex-husband, who dismissed his wife, from taking her back again should her second marriage fail. For Jesus part, though clarifying that the Torahs allowance of divorce does not reflect Gods created ideal for marriage, he never disavows that divorce is, in fact, still allowable under the lamentable, but undeniable, condition of human sinfulness and hardheartedness regulated in Deuteronomy. Second, when Matthews Jesus takes up (finally) the Pharisees original query about acceptable causes for divorce, he respectfully responds within the boundaries of Deuteronomys framework. To be sure, refusing to take his interrogators bait of any cause, Jesus strictly delimits the range of something objectionable to porneia, related to gross sexual misconduct (19:9). But strict interpretation, far from throwing Deut 24 overboard, demonstrates serious intent to rightly divide the text, to ascertain its true meaning. Though not a long laundry list of petty husbandly gripes, one critical thingnamely, a wifes immoral sexual behavior (porneia)is objectionable enough to warrant a divorce certificate. While porneia may designate various types of sexual impropriety (e.g., incest [Lev 18:623; 1 Cor 5:1] or prostitution [1 Cor 6:1320]), both the wider and immediate Matthean contexts target the core problem of adultery or sexual intercourse outside the bond of legal marriage (or betrothal). Prior to his angelic enlightenment, the righteous Joseph wrestles with this very issue of divorcing his (apparently) adulterous fiance, who had become pregnant, but not by him (Matt 1:1820).30 Jesus brief discussion about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, echoing the single porneia exception in our focal text, follows on the heels of warnings against committing adultery (5:2732); and his final word on divorce explicitly brings adultery into the picture: And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (porneia), and marries another commits adultery (moichatai) (Matt 19:9).31 Though Jesus ultimately pinpoints remarriage after an illicit (nonporneia-based) divorce as adultery (moicheia), he implies an overarching porneia/moicheia connection that strains the marital union to the breaking point: 1) if a woman sexually joins with a man

See Harvey, Genesis versus Deuteronomy?, 5556. Dale Allison, Divorce, Celibacy, and Joseph (Matthew 1:1825 and 19:112), JSNT 49 (1993): 310. The catalogue of evil intentions in Matt 15:19 lists adultery (moicheia) and fornication (porneia) adjacently, but separately, prompting Joseph Fitzmyer to posit a strict semantic distinction, where porneia denotes not adulterous liaisons per se, but illicit marital unions within the degrees of kinship proscribed by Lev 18:1618 (The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence, TS 37 [1976]: 20811). But virtue/vice lists routinely collocate a variety of synonymous and similar items. Hence, juxtaposing moicheia and porneia may suggest their close affinity, with the former term (adultery) representing a prime example of the latters broader category (fornication).
30 31


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who is not her husband, she effectively severs her original conjugal bond and becomes liable to divorce proceedings; conversely, 2) if a man dismisses his wife for any reason other than her sexual infidelity (which would break the marital bond), he still remains one with her, regardless what any divorce certificate might say, and thereby himself commits adultery if he remarries another woman. The salient point that emerges stresses the sanctity and inviolability of the one-flesh sexualmarital union between one man and one woman. And with this pointif we are correct that Jesus strictly interprets Deuteronomys objectionable cause for divorce as adultery (porneia = moicheia) the beginning and end of the Pentateuch, creation prototype and wilderness proviso, come even closer together. What God has sutured, sealed by the husband and wifes one-flesh sexual consummation, let no one sunder (Matt 19:6). Indeed, no one can sunder, except by inserting another intimate, alien flesh partner into the sacred equation. There is no such thing as casual sex in this arrangement. By definition, sexual intercourse melds two body-persons into one (they are no longer two, but one flesh [19:6a]). As a result, if a spouse commits adultery with a third party, he/she automatically disengages from his/her spouse and becomes one with this other person. Adultery is so objectionable because it strikes at the heartor rather, fleshof the divine-marital creational covenant, ripping it apart. As a tragic consequence, divorce enters human society along with Deuteronomic instruction to guide its practice and curb its damage as much as possible.

D O N O T T R Y T H I S O N YO U R O W N : C O N C L U D I N G O B S E R VAT I O N S Even this brief study of two cases, where Jesus interprets Scripture by Scripture in debates with the Pharisees, sets ones head spinning. Hermeneutics is not for the faint of heart or feeble of mind. Jesus deft selection of and maneuvering among relevant texts to support his positionfirst, serving the more liberal aim of relaxing Sabbath observance in certain circumstances, and second, the more conservative interest of restraining divorce practicedefies systematic collation into a neat set of hermeneutical (or ethical) rules. And one suspects that investigating the three other Have you not read? cases (21:16, 42; 22:31) would only complicate the matter further. For all the talk that Matthews Gospel provides something like a teaching manual for the early church,32 in the area of hermeneutics at least, Matthew presents lively debates that stir the imagination and serve much food for thought, but hardly a step-by-step, connect-the-dots guidebook. Yet, with this important caveat in mind, we may list (for conveniences sake) some concluding observations from our sampling of the Matthean Jesus interpretation of Scripture to stimulate and challenge our own hermeneutical practice.
First, Jesus intertextual approach, interpreting Scripture by Scripture across the canon (law

32 E.g., see two works by Paul Minear, Matthew: The Teachers Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984); andThe Good News According to Matthew: A Training Manual for Prophets (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000).

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[Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy] and prophets [1 Samuel, Hosea]) resists truncated arguments and applications from single proof-texts.
Second, what we might call Jesus principled approach, stressing the biblical mercy principle

in the Sabbath case and the creation principle in the divorce dispute, seeks to ground theological and ethical reasoning in the foundational character (mercy) and work (creation) of God revealed in Scripture. Human responses to particular situations must ultimately answer to the overarching will of our merciful Creator in whose image we live and move and have our being.
Third, adopting a more accommodating than procrustean approach to tensions in Scripture,

Jesus leaves in and qualifies rather than lops off and nullifies problematic texts.33 Put another way, he lets canonical tensions stand: a) allowing for certain merciful Sabbath eating practices within, not against, the creational/covenantal law of Sabbath rest; and b) affirming Gods original design of permanent,one flesh marital union above, but not abolishing, permission for divorce in the limited case of adultery, which breaks the one flesh bond. While Jesus does not hesitate to negotiate the tensions in support of his position (hes no relativist), he does not bowdlerize the diverse biblical canon to push his narrow agenda (hes no fundamentalist).
Finally, Jesus authoritative But I say to you (12:6; 19:9) approach mounts a strong personal

claim to interpret Gods word rightly and definitively. Such bold exercise of hermeneutical authority was not unusual for leading rabbinic and other Jewish teachers in Jesus and Matthews days, though of course, from Matthews and his Christian heirs perspectives, Jesus authority ranks highest and truest. As Jesus is Lord of Sabbathindeed, of all heaven and earth (28:18)he is also Lord of Scripture and the Supreme Teacher of his church. Jesus knows how best to navigate the rapids of biblical instruction, at some points with a more liberal aim, at others a more conservative one, but in all occasions with a sovereignty and ingenuity that defies rigid labeling and reductionism. So where does this study leave us as Jesus followers today, still seeking to interpret Scripture rightly and practice it faithfully? While Matthew encourages us to take up [Jesus] yoke . . . and learn from [him] (11:29), we remain severely limited in our individual hermeneutical competencies, not least because of our own persisting hardhearted propensities. But more than that, our main vocation as Christian disciples remains to hear and heed Jesus unique lordly voice, his Godbreathed I say unto you, regarding not only Sabbath and marital conduct, but also a swath of other contemporary issues Matthew never addressed or imagined. Though providing no neat formula or program for replicating Jesus hermeneutics, Matthew does leave us a vital clue to discerning Jesus voice: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (18:20); and remember, I am with you [all] always, to the end of the age (28:20). Do not try this on your own! With open Bibles and hearts in the community of Gods people now and through ages past, we may encounter the living Emmanuel afresh, continuing to guide us through Gods word into the fullness of Gods truth.

33 See Ellen Davis, Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic, in The Art of Reading Scripture (ed. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 16380.

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