Authentic Sayings of Jesus

Matthew 5:17-20


Why do I consider Matthew 5:17-20 inauthentic?

(Mat 5:17-20 NRSV) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. {18} 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. {19} 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. {20} For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There’s a short answer, and a long answer. The long answer deals with why I might think any saying of Jesus in the Gospels is inauthentic. Let me deal with the long question first, and then with the particular verses.

The first question is whether the New Testament Gospels are “supernaturally accurate”. That is, do they record events and words to a degree impossible for normal humans to have remembered them?

In the introduction to Luke’s Gospel, the author states that he got his information from interviews. These interviews, according to most scholarly sources, took place more than 30 years after the fact. For normal people, 30 years is a long time and memory fades; but not only does memory fade, it changes. Indeed, all of the Gospels were written more than 30 years after the fact. So, this is why I say that for the Gospels to accurately contain nothing but authentic sayings of Jesus, it must be “supernaturally accurate”.

However, the Gospel accounts contain some inaccuracies and self-contradictions, just as one would expect. There are a number of areas where the Gospels show differing viewpoints and details. A simple example is Mark vs John: Mark depicts Jesus trying to keep his divinity a secret–forbidding anyone to talk about it or his miracles; John has Jesus proclaiming his divinity openly and requiring that it be spread. It couldn’t have historically been both ways; either Jesus wanted himself proclaimed openly as messiah and miracle-worker, or he did not. It seems obvious to me that two different viewpoints are at work here, viewpoints which color the narrative.

Just as the documentary hypothesis (which says that the first 5 books of the Old Testament have multiple authors and multiple versions of the stories edited together) opens up new and exciting views of the text, and greatly increases understanding, so too, the hypothesis that the Gospels are a combination of the authentic sayings of Jesus with the understanding of the early Christian community is also exciting and enlightening.

Rather than trying to reconcile many Gods and many Jesuses, it’s much more fruitful to have one God and one Jesus, but several recorded viewpoints.

Another important idea is “conventional wisdom”. Conventional wisdom is what “everybody naturally knows” or what society knows passed down from our parents. Surely Jesus must have taught something more than conventional wisdom (else why bother to teach). But conventional wisdom is all around us and I think that just as faulty memory is a universal human trait, so is the bias of the viewpoint of conventional wisdom. We can see this in our own day by the number of people who think (erroneously) that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is in the book of Proverbs. That is, a hearer of Jesus would have some tendency to attribute to him the sayings of conventional wisdom and to soften the rough edges where Jesus comes up against convention, interpreting Jesus as more conventional than he was.

The parables are the core example. These stories have many valuable interpretations, and at their center they are pretty radical. Nevertheless, at the end of the story in the Gospels, you will often find a sentence which undoes the radical element of the story, or you will find a more-or-less conventional explanation of what the story means. I think that these endings and explanations are not authentic–and from this viewpoint the stories are more powerful without the explanations. Indeed, Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c. 130) in Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord, is quoted by in Euseb. H.E. III. 39 as saying:

Now concerning Matthew it is stated: ‘So then Matthew recorded the oracles [prophetic discourses] in the Hebrew tongue, and each interpreted them to the best of his ability’

and about Mark:

“Mark became the interpreter of Peter and he wrote down accurately, but not in order, as much as he remembered [as Peter related] of the sayings and doings of Christ. For he [Mark] was not a hearer or a follower of the Lord, but afterwards, as I said, of Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of the moment and did not make an ordered exposition of the sayings of the Lord.”

[Both these are taken from Documents of the Christian Church 2nd Edition, Henry Bettenson, ed, Oxford University Press.]

Armed with this [multi-source] hypothesis and a little practice, it is easy to pick out the radical, re-born, spiritual thinking of Jesus from the torpid understanding of his followers. I personally find the degree to which the authentic Jesus has been kept the Gospels to be remarkable, if not miraculous! And this is one reason I feel that the Gospels are inspired.

At this point, some readers will take the curve too fast and end up in the ditch. They will say “aha! the Gospels are nothing more than lies and distortions”. This is not what I think and neither is it what I think the reasonable conclusion is. I rather agree with Hans Kung who said, in On Being a Christian:

This [kergymatic] orientation and peculiar character of the Gospels do not merely make impossible a biography of Jesus. They make any dispassionate, historical interpretation of the texts more difficult. Of course no serious scholar assumes today, as people did at the beginning of Gospel criticism, that the disciples deliberately falsified the story of Jesus. They did not arbitrarily invent his deeds and words. They were simply convinced that they now knew better than in Jesus’ lifetime who he really was and what he really signified. Hence they had no hesitation in following the custom of the time and placing everything that had to be said in regard to him under his personal authority: both by putting certain sayings into his mouth and by shaping certain stories in the light of his image as a whole. [p 154]


Short Answer

Before going back to Matthew 5, let me give a simpler example:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” [Matthew 23:23a NRSV]

This is a powerful statement, and a radical one. As I see it, however, Matthew (or come Christian apologist) came along and wanted to be sure that Jesus was not “misunderstood” to be doing away with the tithe on herbs, so he inserted this “clarification”:

“but these things are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” [Matthew 23:23b]

Can you see the difference in force? Can you see how the 2nd blunts the effect of the first? It doesn’t fit!

[The Jesus Seminar finds all of verse 23 inauthentic and they may be right, but I’m not convinced. This is a good time to point out that none of these inauthenticity arguments is conclusive.]

OK, finally back to Matthew 5:17-20:

“Don’t imagine that I have come to annul the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to annul but to fulfill. I swear to you, before the world disappears, not one iota, not one serif, will disappear from the Law, until it’s all over. Whoever ignores one of the most trivial of these regulations, and teaches others to do so, will be called trivial in Heaven’s domain. But whoever acts on <these regulations> and teaches <others to do so>, will be called great in Heaven’s domain. Let me tell you: unless your religion goes beyond that of the scholars and the Pharisees, you won’t set foot in Heaven’s domain.” [SV]

I cannot hear Jesus saying this. Not the Jesus who declared “all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b which is missing from the KJV but appears in the Greek and the NASB, or NRSV). Is this the same Jesus who said that Moses gave a commandment because of the “hardness of their hearts” and not because it was the way God intended (teaching on divorce)? Is this same Jesus that said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Is this the same Jesus who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors; who didn’t fast; who rejected the scripture that said “an eye for an eye”? The Jesus preaching a changed heart and the mercy of God says “obey the law in trivial detail”?

And indeed, if Jesus actually said what appears in Matthew 5:17-20, how is it possible that the disciples of Jesus, with the real Jesus still fresh in their memories (and many years before Matthew) had a meeting in which they decided that new Christian converts did NOT have to follow the detailed law of Moses? Acts 15:28-29 is inconceivable if Matthew 5:17-20 is authentic.

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