Matthew and Paul Agreements # 3 – The Torah?

Matthew and Paul Agreements # 3 – The Torah? September 27, 2020

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 antinomian 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 acknowledge the very fulfilling the Torah by Christ-followers (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. Similar, Matthew’s affirmation of the Torah, keeping old and new together, never transgresses the integrity of Gentile faith. The faith of Gentile supplicants is constantly 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 conflict to see here than many researchers imagine.


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