Is Paul at Odds with Matthew? By Dr Bart Ehrman

Published in Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog

In yesterday’s post I indicated that I really very much wish that we could have some of the writings produced by Paul’s opponents in Galatia.   They believed that in order to be a follower of Jesus, a person had to accept and follow the Law of Moses as laid out in the Jewish Scriptures.  Men were to be circumcised to join the people of God; men and women were, evidently, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.  Presumably that meant keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on.   Anyone who didn’t do this was not really a member of the people of God, since to be one of God’s people meant following the law that God had given.

Paul was incensed at this interpretation of the faith and insisted with extraordinary vehemence that it was completely wrong.  The gentile followers of Jesus were not, absolutely not, supposed to become Jewish.  Anyone who thought so rendered the death of Jesus worthless.  It was only that death, and the resurrection, that made a person right with God.  Nothing else.  Certainly not following the Torah.

I often wonder whether Paul and the author of the Gospel of Matthew would have gotten along.

Matthew’s Gospel was probably  written about thirty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians; Galatians is usually dated to the mid 50s, Matthew to around 80-85 CE.  We don’t know who the author of Matthew was, apart from the fact that he was obviously a highly educated Greek-speaking Christian living outside of Palestine.  His book is often located to Antioch Syria, but in my view that is simply a guess based on flimsy evidence.   Still, it certainly *may* have been written Antioch, a city with a large Jewish population and a burgeoning Christian church.

Matthew, like the other Gospel writers, did not produce his account simply out of antiquarian interests, to inform his readers what happened 55 years earlier in the days of Jesus.   His is not a disinterested biography or an objective history.   It is a “Gospel.”  In other words, it is intended to proclaim the “good news” about Jesus and the salvation that he brings.  When Jesus teaches something in this Gospel, Matthew expects that the teaching will be relevant to his readers, that they will want to do what Jesus says.

There is no doubt that Matthew would agree with Paul that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought salvation to the world.  The Gospel is not *entirely* about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But it is largely about that.  It is 28 chapters long, and the last 8 chapters are focused exclusively on what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem, including the crucifixion and resurrection.  This is clearly the climax of the story.  And for Matthew, as for his predecessor Mark, the death of Jesus is seen as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).  It is through his death that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

So Matthew would agree with Paul there.  But so would Paul’s opponents in Galatia.  The controversy with the Galatian opposition was not over whether Jesus’ death brings salvation.  It was over whether the followers of Jesus, who accept that death, need to keep the Jewish law.   And it does seem to me that this is where Paul and Matthew split company.   Again, remember that when Matthew decides what to present about Jesus’ life in the Gospel it is not simply so that people can know “what really happened” in the past.  It is so that the life and teachings of Jesus can direct the lives of his followers in the present.

And what does Jesus say about the Jewish law in Matthew?   He says that his followers have to keep it.   One of the key passages is something that you will NEVER find in the writings of Paul.

Do not suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets.  I came not to destroy but to fulfil.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away not one iota or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all is fulfilled.  And so, whoever looses one of the least of these commandments and teaches others in this way will be called least in the kingdom of God, but whoever does and teaches the law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that if your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

This is a really interesting passage.  Does it contradict Paul that the followers of Jesus were *not* to keep the law?  It seems to.

Now someone *could* say that here Jesus is saying simply that the entire law has to be in effect until he dies (“until all is fulfilled”).   But Jesus is saying more than that.  His followers must do and teach the law.   None of it will pass away until the world is destroyed (“till heaven and earth pass away”).  Again, Matthew is not saying this so his readers will have a good history lesson about the Savior of the world and what he taught his disciples.  He is including this passage for the same reason he includes all his passages, to teach his readers how they are to believe and live.   Jesus in this passage does *not* say, “Keep the law until I die.”  He says he did not come to destroy the law.  It is still in effect.  And will be as long as the earth lasts.  His followers have to keep it.

After this Jesus launches into his “antitheses,” where he indicates what the law says and explains its fuller, deeper meaning.  The law says don’t kill; to fulfill it you should not engage someone with wrath.  The law says not to take someone’s spouse; to fulfill it you should not want to do so.  The law says to make punishments fit the crimes (an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth; not a head for an eye or a body for a tooth); to fulfill it you should show extreme mercy and not punish another for harm done to you.  And so on.

I really don’t think that Matthew’s Jesus did not mean what he says.  He gives no hint that following the law this closely is impossible to do.  He seems to think it is possible.   God gave a law.  You should follow it. Scrupulously.  Even more scrupulously than the righteous scribes and Pharisees.  If you don’t, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

That’s a tall order.   And in my judgment it seems very much opposed to Paul’s views, who insists that *his* readers not think that they must follow the law.



Categories: New Testament scholarship

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13 replies

  1. So not only was Matthew making things up, but he was in conflict with Paul, another guy making things up with his overactive imagination.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Nope, you just need to look at the reason for the discussion (aggressive Judaizing), the law being discussed (Mosiac law) and the truth purpose of substitutionary atonement.

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      • ‘remember that when Matthew decides what to present about Jesus’ life in the Gospel it is not simply so that people can know “what really happened” in the past. It is so that the life and teachings of Jesus can direct the lives of his followers in the present.’

        ‘And what does Jesus say about the Jewish law in Matthew? He says that his followers have to keep it. One of the key passages is something that you will NEVER find in the writings of Paul.’ – see Matthew 5:17 onwards..

        Liked by 1 person

      • In Matthew 5:17 he refers to the law of the prophets, fulfilment and completion. What was prophesied had become complete. Who keeps preparing the way for someone who is actually now there? This is why it’s key to consider ALL scripture in the rteading of every verse. The entire OT is the preparation for the lamb, the understanding needed and foreshadowing all pointing to the tie they were now in. That word had become flesh and therefore was complete but did that mean forgetting all before? No, the NT and OT are actually rather useless alone. They are one single narrative so while the use of a good proportion of the ceremonial Mosaic law was no longer needed, the scriptures certainly were.

        In Matthew 5:18 Christ refers to the commandments, Gods law. The Mosaic law of ceremony had prepared the way and now salvation through grace alone (not ceremony or works) was to be offered, that example set from Genesis 3. The symbolism of the ark of the covenant comes into play here, the preservations of the laws given to Moses by God were to remain but the scriptures were not to be harmed or forgotten. The prophecy was complete but that didn’t mean destroying the scriptures. Just like Noah in the Ark, the commandments in the Ark were preserved as prophetic law became redundant.

        Paul is right, obedience to the Mosaic law wasn’t what God needed any longer, it was repentance, acceptance of the substitutionary atonement which meant conviction of sin and salvation through grace alone, not works and not preparation for a saviour already with them.

        Scripture always explains scripture but viewing single verse or even books without taking into account eveything does contradictions. I have a couple of chain reference Bibles for this. Thompson inparticular is excellent. These are far better than commentaries.

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      • So you’re basically arguing against the claim that Matthew and Paul were at odds by…arguing that they were merely “discussing” their differences?

        Liked by 2 people

      • No, I didn’t mean that at all. Surprising thing to draw from what I wrote.

        Law and commandment aren’t the same thing, the author and the ark explain why.

        Completion of the law and not to touch a “jot or tittle” was about discarding or changing the Tanakh, not continuing to prepare for a saviour who had arrived.

        They don’t contradict each other. You just have to understand the difference between what was placed in the Ark and the prophetic laws and then the significance of “jot and tittle”.

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  2. I can’t confirm as I am not home and able to check but is the Mosaic law referred to as commandment much? I think the criterion phrasology is that God gave the commandments and the prophets gave laws although I have seen crossover in doctrinal writing (which usually causes confusion trying to make the Bible easier).

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  3. D. A. Carson has a good explanation of the passage on the resurrected saints in his excellent commentary on Matthew. (and updated)

    https://www.amazon.com/Matthew-Mark-Expositors-Bible-Commentary/dp/0310268923/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_img_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=JR281QCK8PGKMCZ8H6EP

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  4. From “…what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem, including the crucifixion and resurrection. This is clearly the climax of the story. And for Matthew, as for his predecessor Mark, the death of Jesus is seen as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). It is through his death that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

    So Matthew would agree with Paul there. But so would Paul’s opponents in Galatia.”

    I know the object of this post was about the difference in stance about following the Jewish Law. I’ve a different question:

    So does Ehrman agree with (concede to) Matthew, Paul and Paul’s opponents that the death of Jesus at that time was seen by everyone as “sav[ing] …people from their sins”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • //So Matthew would agree with Paul there. But so would Paul’s opponents in Galatia.//
      I’m not sure about this statement made by dr. Ehrman.
      Given the fact that Paul was more than clear what the real gospel is in Romans (10:9), and it’s very clear that he was warning about those who preach a different gospel in Galatia (1 Gal 8-9), then why would we assume that both parties had the same notion about the salvation? It seems they were not in agreement.

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  5. //So Matthew would agree with Paul there. But so would Paul’s opponents in Galatia.//
    I’m not sure about this statement made by dr. Ehrman.
    Given the fact that Paul was more than clear what the real gospel is in Romans (10:9), and it’s very clear that he was warning about those who preach a different gospel in Galatia (1 Gal 8-9), then why would we assume that both parties had the same notion about the salvation? It seems they were not in agreement.

    What about Matthew?As dr Ehrman said that the law has to do with salvation //I really don’t think that Matthew’s Jesus did not mean what he says. He gives no hint that following the law this closely is impossible to do. He seems to think it is possible. God gave a law. You should follow it. Scrupulously. Even more scrupulously than the righteous scribes and Pharisees. If you don’t, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.//

    In fact, Matthew’s Jesus was more than clear that not doing the law will have bad consequences “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of ***lawlessness***!”

    So what’s the deal with Matthew? Was he trying to create a melange betweenPaul’s teachings, which seem they had already been used as a base for the author, and other sources(disciples’ teachings?) which contradict Paul’s, yet the author of Matthew failed?

    Liked by 1 person

    • @ Abdullah 1234

      That’s an interesting theory of synthesizing. Unfortunately, unless we find a cache at the DSS level of their writings we will never know and only get Paul and his student’s version of events.

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