You Have Heard Them Called Antitheses, But I Say To You…

You Have Heard Them Called Antitheses, But I Say To You… February 14, 2014

Doug Chaplin has posted about the extraordinary antitheses in Matthew’s Gospel. I disagree with his way of understanding them, and so thought I would write a post in response.

I regularly tell my students that it is unlikely that these sayings should be understood as meaning “You heard God say in the past, but I disagree with what God said and have something else to say.” Not only is that unlikely to begin with, but the relationship between the things is not one of stark contrast.

That is when I point out that Greek has different words for “but.”

The one used here is often translated as “and” – and I think that works best in this context.

For instance, “You have heard it said ‘Do not murder’…and I say, do not even get angry…”

The relationship is one of digging deeper to the root causes, getting beyond the negatives that one can legislate to underlying attitudes that can motivate positive action.

You have heard from those in the past that these are antitheses. But I say to you…

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • No_one_significant

    I tend to think “de” is intended as contrast, but Mat. 7:29 clarifies to whom the contrast is intended.

  • Michael Pahl

    Agreed that some of these seem not to be contrastive. But some clearly include at least some degree or element of contrast, Matt 5:38-39 and 5:43-44 in particular. Jesus is presented as not abolishing or setting aside the Law (5:17-20), but yet he is presented as at least pushing against certain interpretations of the Law, and the sermon as a whole presents him and his teaching as the “new norm” for his followers (7:21-27).

  • James,

    Overall I agree with your analysis, yet I don’t think “and” is the best choice here. (There’s my own antithesis!)

    At bottom, “de” is contrastive, though not strongly adversative. As a narrative conjunction, “de” is most often used to turn the hearer’s attention to the next event, and hence “and” is usually appropriate enough. In this expositional context, it’s still not properly adversative, but it’s probably best approximated by “yet”: it puts a new spin on something, but not aggressively contrasting it. Notice my first sentence above!

    You can in English say, “You think it’s too warm outside, yet you complained last week that you were ready for warm weather.” That statement isn’t meant to necessarily contradict that it is “too warm outside”, but it is intended to make the hearer give it a second look and put it in broader context. Jesus is not saying that “what God said before” wasn’t true or good, but that it didn’t go far enough. This is a careful rhetorical approach that can’t be read as direct refutation, but can be read in a way that makes the current proposition so much more suitable that the original proposition might be problematic. To say that you don’t like ObamaCare doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t like the legislation or tax-supported healthcare; it might mean that it’s not alone sufficient to accomplish its goals, and hence may have hindered those goals. That, I think, may be the point in this chapter. But then again, it’s a slippery tactic, because Jesus may have been just lightly contrasting. It’s a non-committal rhetorical contrast.

  • Doug

    I have responded with an update!

    • Thanks! I am not persuaded. If Jesus is disagreeing with what God was believed to have said, that is a claim to equal but competing authority. If he is saying something that is in keeping with what was previously said but making the standard more rigorous, then one can understand him as authoritative like a new Moses bringing divine commands – a theme that some have detected in the Gospel of Matthew – rather than as authoritative like God.

  • Doug

    Responding on two blogs at once is complicated! I don’t object to the intensifying interpretation. But if Matthew does present Jesus as in many ways a new Moses, I think it is as one greater than Moses. I think we have to read the aorist passive of “it was said” (ἐρρέθη) as a reverent circumlocution for “God said”, and whether intensive or adversative the “But / And I say to you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) is emphatic in its contrast of “I” and (implied) “God”. Your interpretation, I think, needs the implied subject of the passive to be Moses, and I’m not sure that works.

    • Unless you are going to suggest that there is a contrast between what God said and what Jesus says, which is problematic, it seems more likely that the contrast is between what God said in the past through Moses, and what God says in the present through Jesus, calling them to a higher standard in response to the approaching kingdom of God.

      Of course, it is always possible to read it in a Gnostic way – you heard from the demiurge, but I say to you… 😉

      • Doug

        I’m not aiming at a Gnostic way of reading but I do think that the contrast between (implied) God and (explicit) I, is one of speaking with an equal authority, and not, as Moses did, by saying “God said”

        • Matthew is quite explicit in the healing that follows shortly after. The people go away impressed that God had given such authority to humans.

          But if you do not read it that way, then the alternative, with the contrast reading you advocate, seems to be Gnostic, because Jesus is then claiming greater authority than the God who gave the laws that he is overturning.

          • Gary

            Or, perhaps, Jesus was smart enough to realize that the scriptures were not inerrant, and not actually written by Moses. The first guy to object to inerrancy, written or oral. The first guy to realize the scriptures were from man, not God. Not trying to be an ahole, but if we don’t believe in inerrancy of scripture now, and Jesus was a smart guy, why should we believe Jesus believed in inerrancy, oral or written?

          • ChristianDepression

            No, Jesus affirms OT scriptures again and again–he is simply laying down a higher standard. With the Holy Spirit now indwelling in believers in the age to come(post-Pentacost), they are now called to higher levels of conduct. He gave a reason why the OT did not go far enough, the people’s hearts were hard. With the Holy Spirit indwelling, hearts can be less hard.

          • Gary

            Many reasons to think Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. Listed in “Who Wrote the Bible”, Richard Elliott Friedman. If academics realize this, then Jesus, being closer to the times and politics, or being God, or being a smart guy, would also realize it. But a little common sense, sans academics…Father, Son, Holy Spirit, are one, unchanging, so think the same. So Jesus affirms God of OT, so Jesus supports God of OT, so Jesus says also, Num 31:2 “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites”, Num 31:17 “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls …,”
            Num 31:25 “The Lord said to Moses, “Take the count of the booty that was taken…””.

            Come on, do you really see Jesus supporting this sort of nonsense? It is easier to accept that Jesus recognized that the scriptures needed a major re-write, and the first writers got it terribly wrong. Or do you accept a monster God?

          • Doug

            I think this is going to be my last comment to try to correct your persistent misunderstanding of what I am saying. (Not least because I’m a bit annoyed that you hijacked a post on my humble low traffic blog to generate yet more conversation on your attempt at world (or at least biblioblog) domination, and did so in such a patronising manner e,g, “That is when I point out that Greek has different words for “but.”” ) Like I didn’t know.
            But my point is that Mathew’s Jesus is presented as claiming the same authority as the author of the words he intensifies or contrasts. The idea that that he is claiming greater authority exists solely in your polemical characterisation of my words as “Gnostic” – I’m fascinated to see that every evangelical Christian’s favourite term of historical abuse is also favoured by your progressive self.

          • OK, so either you are being sarcastic in that first section, or I have misunderstood you. I am not sure how much traffic you get per day, but since I linked to you before you updated and linked back to me, I am not sure how I am taking traffic away from your blog. If you had written a follow-up post rather than updating the original one, or kept all the discussion in comments, it would have been easier to keep the natural flow of back and forth. But no matter.

            I do not view Gnostics as negatively as you do. My point was simply that the combination of positing a sharp contrast/antitheses, and making the source of the command that is contrasted God, it seems to lead to a reading that contrasts Jesus’ authority with that of God. I actually hope that you will dislike that result and either temper your claims or show how they do not lead there.

            In mentioning the way I tackle this topic in class, I was not intending to imply that you did not know these things. What I intended to highlight was that you did not mention them and that they are crucial to consider as we interpret the so-called antitheses.

          • Doug

            Sorry for being snippy – totally stressed out moving house. But I did feel you were being patronising even if you didn’t intend it, and I do feel you are persistently misreading me. I’ve re-read my original post and my conclusion “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Matthew presents Jesus as making an explicit claim not only to teach with the same authority as Moses, but with the same authority as the God who delivered Torah to Moses.”
            You may well disagree, but I cannot for the life of me see why you characterise me as claiming Jesus is greater than God.

          • Sorry, perhaps I was not sufficiently clear. I was not trying to characterize you as saying that, but was rather suggesting that what I was saying was where the logic of your stance more naturally led. Let me try again.

            If Jesus is equal to God or is God, then there should not be a contrast with what was said before, if God was the one from whom they previously heard it said. For there to be a contrast with at least some slight at what was said previously, then the one offering the correction is at least implicitly superior to the one who said the earlier, less adequate things.

            If the contrast is with Moses, then the contrast could be either between him and one who speaks for God in a fuller way, or between Moses and God. One would have to make the case either way.

            If the relationship between what went before and what is said now is less of a contrast and more of a deepening with significant continuity, then the relationship between Jesus, Moses, and God can be a more positive one.

            It is not clear to me that speaking as though one has divine authority would have been understood by first century Jews to be a claim to divinity. I certainly do not think that one could speak this way and merely “imply” that one is a divine figure incarnate. If one was introducing a significant theological innovation, and placing oneself within the realm of the divine, then that seems like something that would have to be spelled out, and which would potentially detract from any claim to have come not to abolish the Law (which emphasizes divine oneness very clearly) but to fulfill it.

          • Doug

            I think I’m beginning to see why you’re saying what your saying, but I don’t think it was what I was saying or implying. I think that Matthew’s Greek, at least, has an emphatic “I” which leads me to read these as “God said (through Moses then), but I say (now)”. In that sense, it shares something of the odd idiom attributed to Jesus in every stratum of the canonical gospel tradition (and just possibly echoed in 2 Cor 1): “Amen, I tell you.”
            What we make of that datum is another question, but trying to frame it in terms of “claims of divinity”, which I didn’t do, seems to belong to a later way of asking the question.

          • I am glad that we are making progress! It indeed may be that “claims of divinity” reflects a later way of thinking about things. But it seems to me that there were two ways that one could claim divine authority in a Jewish context – as God’s appointed agent vested with such authority by God, or as someone setting oneself up without such authorization. I think that Matthew saw Jesus in the former category. Perhaps that was what you meant, and I saw anachronism where there was none. If so I apologize.

          • Doug

            That’s progress, for indeed that was what lay behind my comment! And why I was confused by your response.

      • Gary

        I like this. “what God said in the past through Moses, and what God says in the present through Jesus”. If God is unchanging, then there shouldn’t be any need for clarification. That’s the problem with trying to interprete verses based upon a database that was “pre-selected” by the orthodox wing of the party. It makes more sense to accept the gnostic viewpoint. 🙂
        Remember, it is Valentinus Day.

        • Gary

          Not directed at anyone in particular. But I have a positive view of Gnostics. At least they were asking difficult questions. The fact that they came up with alternatives that were rather strange, is beside the point… That some things didn’t seem to be quite as kosher as the establishment would have you believe.

  • Mere words are so often like trying to lift water with a butter knife.

    “Verbal communication is part of the movement away from a face-to-face social reality, making feasible physical separateness. The word always stands between people who wish to connect with each other, facilitating the diminution of what need not be spoken to be said.” ~John Zerzan, The Failure of Symbolic Thought