Does Matthew’s Structure Parallel the Torah?

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Over the last few months I have been writing curriculum on the Sermon on the Mount for our men’s and women’s classes. I have heard several other people begin to study this as well in recent weeks and months and everyone who I have talked to keeps saying they are doing so because it is so relevant for our day and age. I agree. In studying the wise and foolish builders (the conclusion of the sermon) I ran across something pretty obscure but potentially very relevant in N.T. Wright’s book Matthew for Everyone. He notes that Matthew uses a similar phrase five times to section off Jesus’ teaching into five blocks and concludes each section with a phrase like “when Jesus had finished teaching…” Here are the five occurrences of that phrase (or one very similar)

  1. 7:28 – concludes the sermon on the mount
  2. 11:1 – concludes teaching his disciples
  3. 13:53 – concludes a section of parables
  4. 19:1 – concluding a chapter of parables/teachings
  5. 26:1 – concluding a section of teachings from 23-25 but also seems to serve as the close of the final section “when Jesus had finished all these words…”

What else had five sections? The Torah. Where was the Torah delivered? On a mountain. He makes a good case that Jesus is teaching with more power and authority than Moses (See Deut 18:14-21). You do see that in the sermon on the mount especially…”you have heard it said but I tell you…” Where had they heard most of that said? The Torah. I had never heard anyone make that point before but it is kind of fascinating.

12 Responses

  1. Matt,

    This is the way Matthew was presented to me when i took a Christian Origins class at OU (taught by the classics department). –that it’s being structured this way is meant to convey its contents as a sort of “new law.” (Although, actually the narratives on the front about the birth and the back about the death/resurrection don’t conform to this structure.) i think that’s interesting, and surely the structure is intentional. But i’m iffy about how much we should take that to mean.

    Does NT Wright take the view that Jesus meant to be criticizing the Law of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount? i’ve heard Jon Harris from Oklahoma Christian teach something close to that view. Personally, i’m of the view that Jesus was actually defending the Law of Moses against Pharisaical teaching and interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount. (Harris also told me that O.P. Sanders (i think it’s OP) has written that Matthew actually doesn’t mean to present the Pharisees as the bad guys as we might tend to think. i haven’t chased down Sanders work on this, but at first glance that sounds absolutely crazy to me.)


    1. Wright doesn’t do that. He says that Jesus is even more so calling them to “be Israel”. He thinks people focus on one of two extremes and don’t find the balance – either Jesus was a revolutionary who cared little for the law or Jesus was a “great Jewish teacher without much of a revolution” (p.39). He says Jesus held the two together/was both.

      As far as E.P. Sanders goes that would probably be found in his book Jesus and Judaism. I can’t find anything like that in his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism but that book focuses on Paul and not on Jesus. I don’t have a copy of J & J or else I would check that for you. My guess is Harris is probably right on that but I can’t tell you for sure.

  2. E.P.!!! That’s it. So you’ve got a book by him, eh? i’ve only read an article or two by Sanders years ago and don’t remember much. Do you find his work helpful? Is it worth shelling out the bucks for his books?


    1. Paul and Palestinian Judaism is a beast of a book and is extremely influential. Really you can get all you need to know by just googling “The New Perspective on Paul” to get the gist of his view and how landmark it was without shelling out all the money.

  3. God abandoned Israel to worship the starry host: they were blinded and could not read the Word or understand the Word until they turned (converted meaning baptized). The Law of Moses was given after the fall at Mount Sinai to regulate a lawless people.

    Deuteronomy 18:14 For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times,
    and unto diviners: but as for thee, the LORD thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

    This is what happens in most christianism called “worship”

    Dt 18:15 The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren,
    …… unto me; unto him ye shall hearken;
    …… [A primitive root; to hear intelligently (often with implication of attention, obedience,)]
    Dt 18:16 According to all that thou desiredst of the LORD thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly,
    ………saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God,
    ……..neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.
    Dt 18:17 And the LORD said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken.
    Dt 18:18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee,
    ………and will put my words in his mouth;
    ………and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.
    Dt 18:19 And it shall come to pass,
    ………that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name,
    ………I will require it of him.
    Deuteronomy 18:20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name,
    ………which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.

    Christ spoke through the Prophets and Apostles to the spiritual world whereas the Law of Moses regulated the civil life and none of the rituals had any effect on the conscience (1 Peter 3:21) or spirit (Acts 2:38).

    Christ spoke to the spiritual people in the Qahal, synagogue or church in the wilderness while the not-commanded monarchy engaged in those activities which God had not commanded (Isa 1; Jer 7)

  4. Matt, I just finished a sermon series from Matthew, and had our Growth Groups study the sermon on the mount over the same period. The Sermon just contains too much great teaching to cover it in a one off sermon as I skim through Matthew.
    My sermon series followed the structure of Matthew based on 5 teaching discources, accompanied by 5 illustrative narratives. So 5 pairs. I described the outline on my blog.
    Even though I followed this outline for my sermon series, I’m reluctant to give it the significance of “new Torah”. Although the number 5 is the same, the nature of the teaching is pretty different. Eg. the block of parables challenges people to consider whether they’re inside or outside the kingdom of heaven. That’s certainly not really a match for Leviticus etc. And as pointed out by “guy” above it seems to minimise the importance of chapters 1-4 and 26-28.
    Maybe Matthew used the number 5 to catch the attention of a Jewish audience, but I’m reluctant to give it much more significance than that.
    However, I really did enjoy preaching the 5 pairs. Whether Matthew intended it that way or commentators have just paraphrased it that way, I think it was helpful to focus people’s attention on the bigger picture. Just be aware that there’s considerable academic disagreement on how to divide and pair the fourth and fifth discourses.
    Keep up the great work!!!!

  5. Matt, the book of Psalms is also a five part book. Don’t know if that means anything or not. I doubt that Matthew intended (I don’t think you hinted at this) that each of his blocks is a parallel to a particular book in the Pentateuch. But I don’t see how anyone (scholars included) can doubt that Matthew intends the five blocks to have reference to the superior authority of Jesus.

    I think it is also interesting that Moses received the commandments in the mountain and then brought them down to the people. Jesus sat down in the mountain and delivered his authority directly to the people.

    I’m teaching Matthew right now in our auditorium class. I contend that Matthew is the “gateway’ book to the NT. I think his intention is to orient us to what we will find in the NT. I agree that Matthew isn’t teaching the absolute severance of the OT and NT but rather a “yes it’s fulfilled, but no it’s not irrelevant” approach. I also think that Matthew is answering the question for Christians in his day about the nation of Israel and its relationship to God (Matt.23-25).

    There is a debate among scholars about the overall nature and structure of Matthew. Kingsbury believes Matthew is a narrative and divides the book at 4:17 and 16:20 with the phrase “from that time . . .” Others like Kingsbury suggest that dividing Matthew by the five blocks makes the birth and crucifixion narratives nothing more than a prologue and epilogue, thus robbing the two of their place in Jesus’ life. I don’t see how anyone can avoid seeing Matthew’s five blocks as intentional and part of his scheme. Especially since the narratives just prior to each block do an excellent job of focusing attention on the teaching of the block. But I guess the debate will go on until Jesus’ returns.

    1. How will the debate go on when you have laid it out so nicely? Sounds pretty good to me! Don’t you wish it was that easy? 🙂

  6. Jesus wasn’t comparing his teachings to the Torah when he said: “You have heard it said…” otherwise he would have stated: “You have heard it written…” He was contrasting the authority of his teachings with that of the oral tradition.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment Edith. Here are the verses you are referencing:
      Matt 5:21 – “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” The first part is Exodus 20:13 and notice he says “to the people long ago”
      Matt 5:27 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” That is from Exodus 20:14
      Matt 5:33 – ““Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’” which is based on Deut 23:21
      Matt 5:38 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” from Lev 24:20, Exo 21:24 and Deut 19:21
      Matt 5:43 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.” – the first part is from Lev 19:18…the second part could be more to your point on oral tradition.

      So the weight of the evidence points to the Torah. They did hear the Torah spoken all the time. Scripture wasn’t even read silently at that time…it was read aloud so it makes perfect sense that they had heard it said. What is more, a lot of that crowd was probably illiterate, depending on someone else to read it aloud for them presumably in the synagogue. Hope that helps make sense out of this!

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