Matthew vs. Paul on Gentiles and Torah

Matthew vs. Paul on Gentiles and Torah March 19, 2020

Would Matthew (the author of the Gospel of Matthew) and the apostle Paul (author of all those epistles) find themselves in basic agreement or something of intra-Christian rivals? Scholarship has been fascinated (or plagued!) by the question.

In my opinion, the dichotomy between an ostensibly “Jewish” Matthew and/or Matthean community against a seemingly “pro-Gentile” Paul with his Gentile communities is patently false. First, Paul’s self-identification, symbolic universe, religious habits, sacred texts and interpretation, and antagonism towards Hellenism remain indelibly Jewish. Paul affirms Israel’s God, Israel’s Torah, Israel’s Messiah, and Israel’s hopes. Even Paul’s argument that Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism via the rite of circumcision in order to be Christ-followers was not entirely unique since other Jews argued over the necessity of Gentile circumcision to worship the God of the Jews (see Josephus, Ant. 20.17-95; Philo, Queast. Gen. 2.2). Second, while it is strenuously debated, Matthew’s own social location is arguably extra muros and reflects a rupture within Jewish synagogue communities in Palestine post-70 CE. Although Matthew is very much trying to hold together the “old” and the “new” (see Matt 9:17; 13:52), the new revelation in Jesus grates against the norms and boundaries of Jewish communities. As a direct result, messianic faith creates a division within Jewish communities over Jesus’s identity and Christian eschatology to the point of fermenting intra-Jewish persecution against Christ-followers. Such experience is perhaps reflected in warnings about what certain synagogues will do to followers of Jesus (Matt 10:17; 23:34-35).

Thus, Paul is pro-Gentile in a Jewish way, while Matthew is Jewish in a way that appears anti-Jewish to some of his contemporaries. More pointedly, Matthew and Paul both reflect a type of “Jewish Christianity” or “apostolic Judaism” that all adherents are committed to: (1) Love for Israel’s God (Deut 6:4; Matt 22:37; Rom 8:28; 2 Thess 3:5); (2) confessing Jesus (Matt 10:32-33; 16:16, 24; Rom 10:9-11); (3) obeying Jesus (Matt 7:24-26; 13:20-23; 28:20; Rom 1:5; 16:26; 2 Thess 1:8); (4) Love for neighbour (Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43; 19:19; 23:39; Rom 13:9-10; Gal 5:14); (5) judgment according to deeds (Matt 16:24-27; Rom 2:6-11); and (6) A cosmic restoration of all things (Matt 19:28; 1 Cor 15:24-28; Rom 8:23). Matthew and Paul are articulating a pattern of life and modes of discipleship that are thoroughly Jewish and uncompromisingly Christ-centered.

That’s all well and good, but what about the Torah? It is no exaggeration to say that Matthew and Paul vis-à-vis the Torah is something of the main event in a comparison of these two figures. Commentators are quick to find in the Matthean Jesus’s words a denunciation of Paul’s so-called liberal or anti-nomian approach to the Torah:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-19 NRSV)

Such words, so it goes, are a stinging denunciation of Paul’s law-free gospel by the law-abiding Jew who penned Matthew’s Gospel. But I am not convinced. For a start, the Matthean Jesus still sets himself against the halakhah of the Pharisees and their precise way of obeying the Torah on multiple occasions throughout the Gospel. Jesus can override or overrule certain commands as a new David and a new Temple, resulting in a charge that what he does is unlawful or departs from legal norms (Matt 12:1-8). If Jewish contemporaries of either Jesus or Matthew did not neatly distinguish Torah from its interpretation, then Jesus and Matthew’s refusal to go along with the resident legal judgments of the day may have led them and their followers or networkers to be regarded as law-breakers. Added to that, Paul can also declare that faith upholds the Torah (Rom 3:30) and can affirm parts of the decalogue (13:9-10) and affirm the very fulfilling the Torah (Rom 8:4; Gal 6:2).

Concerning Gentiles, Paul certainly resists with the ferocity of a zealot that Gentile Christ-followers should be compelled to be circumcised or urged to embrace the Torah as their source of their salvation, identity, or grounds for belonging to the Messiah – those things are supplanted by Jesus the Messiah and the faith that is of, through, and in him! However, Paul does bring his Gentile converts into a Jewish constituency by migrating them from idolatry to monotheism, telling them not to intermarry pagans, urging them to respect Jewish customs and those persons sensitive to Jewish scruples, and he frequently uses the Torah as part of his moral reasoning. Thus, Paul’s Gentile converts do in a sense judaize, just not to the point of circumcision. Similarly, Matthew’s affirmation of the Torah, keeping old and new together, never transgressions the integrity of Gentile faith. The faith of Gentile supplicants is contantly affirmed and lauded. Besides that, none of the missionary commands imply imposing Jewish customs or obligations to keep the Torah upon Gentile persons.

In sum, perhaps the alleged disparity between Matthew and Paul on the Torah in Christ-following assemblies is more real than imagined. Matthew is far more liberal or flexible on the Torah with his priority to keeping Jesus’s words, while Paul is far more Jewish and conservative than commentators often realize. Less to see here than many researchers imagine.

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