“It Is Said to the Elders”: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount

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Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deserves endless study, and the more one studies ancient Jewish sources, the clearer the meaning of these words of Jesus becomes.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deserves endless study,[1] and the more one studies ancient Jewish sources, the clearer the meaning of these words of Jesus becomes.

Even at first glance, Matthew 5:17-48, the core of the Sermon on the Mount, has a distinctly Jewish feel. On the surface, however, this sermon can give the dangerous and deceiving impression that it sharply opposes the spirit of Judaism. Some time ago a critic sent me his thesis in which he concluded that the only original material in this exegetical homily was its antitheses where Jesus highlights his unique approach by introducing his comments with, “But I tell you.” One New Testament commentary suggests that in this pericope Jesus is not contrasting his ethic with the interpretation of Scripture in his day, but with the Torah itself.[2] In this article I will attempt to treat this matter more carefully and fairly than many exegetes do when they analyze Jesus’ words.

“But I say to you!”

There exists a paradoxical contrast between the Jewish contents of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and its antithetic form.[3] The main reason for this is the repeated use of the phrase ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (“But I say to you!”).[4] This phrase creates a sense of conflict between Jesus and Judaism because the pronoun ἐγὼ (“I”) at the opening of the phrase is unnecessary in Greek. It would have been sufficient simply to say λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν, since the speaker is already implied by the form of the verb. This is what we observe, for example, in Luke 6:27 where Jesus expresses the contrast between those addressed by his cries of woe (in vv. 24-26) and his listeners: Ἀλλὰ ὑμῖν λέγω τοῖς ἀκούουσιν (“But to you that listen, I say….”). Here we notice the personal pronoun is lacking. The presence of the first person pronoun in Matthew’s antithetical statements, therefore, must indicate emphasis. Matthew’s emphatic “But I say to you” gives the impression that Jesus’ message stands in contrast to the spirit of Judaism.

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  • [1] Cf. inter alia David Flusser, “Die Tora in der Bergpredigt,” in Juden und Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel (ed. Heinz Kremers; Duisburg: Braun, 1973), 102-113; idem, “A Rabbinic Parallel to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 494-508.
  • [2] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 505-509.
  • [3] By antithesis we mean an opposite or contradictory statement. We say that the Sermon on the Mount has an antithetical form because Jesus draws a contrast between his interpretations that ‘establish’ or correctly apply Torah, versus faulty interpretations that tend to weaken or ‘abolish’ Torah.
  • [4] Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44; 16:18; Luke 11:9; 16:9; as well as Matt. 21:27 (= Mark 11:33; Luke 20:8), have nothing to do with our subject.

Comments 1

  1. On the subject of not making vows, the teacher of Ecclesiastes has written, “When yo make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.” (Eccl.5: 4-7) We are studying the beatitudes in our small group in order to better understand God’s grace. This article will be a good resource. Thank you.

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  • David Flusser [1917-2000]

    David Flusser [1917-2000]

    Professor David Flusser died and was buried in Jerusalem on Friday, September 15, 2000, his 83rd birthday. A founding member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Flusser was one of the world's leading Jewish authorities on Early Christianity. His pioneering research on Jesus and…
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