Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



Matthew 5:38-48/Luke 6:27-36: Oral-Scribal Intertexture: Analysis 1

The Gospel of Matthew

For Citation Purposes: HCSB=Harper Collins Study Bible

When undertaking a study in sacred literature, it is remarkable and important to take note of where, within the text, there are statements which modify, clarify, reconfigure, and differ from other passages within the same set of literature. A study of the New Testament, particularly one concentrating around the Gospels will invariably result in the recognition that many of the wisdom sayings and teachings of Jesus are indeed such reconfigurations. They relate both directly and indirectly to other passages within the Gospels. Equally important, a direct tie can be established between these sayings and the Hebrew Bible. The comparison and recognition of the influences behind Jesus' teachings, and how they are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are a prime example of the type of intertexture with which scholars of the subject are concerned. How the teachings of Jesus relate to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the way the separate authors of Luke and Matthew portray the teachings, demonstrate the complex relationship of similarity and difference, of reconfiguration and reworking, that is to be found in New Testament text.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are varied in their portrayal of certain wisdom teachings of Christ, and we are able to observe this directly by reading the corresponding accounts of a certain portion of these sayings. They appear as the Sermon on the Plain in Luke and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The appropriate point of departure in the comparison and study of these two accounts is an in-depth look at how the sayings of Jesus draw upon and transform teachings of the Hebrew Bible and make them into working wisdom. The reworking of such teaching is also a way to (as we will discuss later) examine and understand the differences and similarities of the two accounts (the Matthean and Lukan), both of which draw from an identical source, the hypothetical Q document.

First, we must examine and document how the wisdom teachings of Christ in these two Gospels are related to the Hebrew Bible, which preceded Jesus' time and formed the basis of the society to which He preached. The pattern follows the concept of "cultural intertexture," in which references (made by Christ) "point to a personage, concept, or tradition [italics mine]" (Robbins 1996b 58-59). Jesus consistently takes such allusions, which draw on the Hebrew Scripture-borne concepts of the day, and goes a step further, to enact "recontextualization" and "reconfiguration" intertexture (Robbins 1996b 48, 50), to impart a different and enhanced understanding of the holy way.

The Lukan and Matthean accounts to be studied here deal with relationships with others, especially those who stand in opposition to a person, and encompass the verses Lk. 6:27-36, and Mt. 5:38-48. In the Lukan account, the first direct tie to Hebrew Scripture comes when Jesus states "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (31). The book of Leviticus states, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (18). The book of Tobit rings in similarly with "And what you hate, do not do to anyone" (4:15). It is apparent here that Jesus is evoking a precept found in the Law. This precept can and does stand on its own, but digging deeper behind the lines of this portion of the Lukan narration we note where this statement is placed. The verse, verse 31, in which Jesus says this, comes right in the middle of His discourse about how to relate to "enemies." Are we to therefore apply this "Golden Rule" differently and view it in a new light, due to its placement in this particular text? I would believe this does indeed put a new spin on the idea. Of course, Jesus wishes that people on good terms with each other (idea in the Hebrew Bible) follow this precept as well. However, it is also clear that He has given this idea new meaning by applying it (implicitly through its location in the discourse) to one's enemies as well. Perhaps, also, He is saying (not explicitly) that the state of enmity and hatred in the world could be alleviated by the practice of this Golden Rule. Thus, through all this, the meaning behind the time-old concept of friendly reciprocity between people has been expanded.

As we are told by a footnote within this segment of Luke, Jesus' calling of God's people as the "children of the Most High" (6:35) utilizes a term and concept from the Old Testament, especially seen in Psalms and Daniel (HCSB Footnote Mt. 6:35 p.1969). In Daniel, the definition of the people of the "Most High" as "servants" (Dan 3:26) who will "receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever" (Dan 7:18). In the Lukan narration, Jesus again makes use of the term "children [servants, etc.] of the Most High." But, as in the case illustrated before, He expands the definition. Being a Scripture-guided society, the notion is already culturally internalized that the kingdom will be inherited by such people and that they must act as servants. Jesus then takes this and uses it to encompass participation in the kingdom itself, by acting in the example of God, particularly in the case of showing mercy and kindness. When you do this, He says, "you will be children of the Most High; for [italics mine] He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as [Italics mine] your Father is merciful" (Lk. 6:35-36). According to Jesus, we are to act this way because God acts in this way to His "enemies." We are to actively participate in the kingdom by being like God, for the very reason that God is merciful and kind. This falls under the category of "thematic elaboration" intertexture, especially in the way in which it adds rationale to a pre-existing concept of being "children of the Most High" (Robbins 1996b 52).

Although, throughout all the Gospels, Jesus uses the rationale of God being a certain way as a justification for good action among the people, it is something that is not entirely new. Jesus, while indeed putting new spins on the Law and Prophets, echoes various places in the Old Testament where "human generosity [is measured] by the standards of God" (HCSB FootnoteMt.6:36 p.1969). For example, in Leviticus 19:2 (and at countless other locations in the Hebrew Bible) God states, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Jesus therefore, in many of His wisdom teachings, is taking a core belief of the Old Testament, and applying it in new and distinct ways.

The same kind of interaction between Jesus' teachings and the Hebrew Bible occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, in the section (verses 5:38-48 -- part of the Sermon on the Mount) which correspond to the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. The connection begins with the recitation (Robbins 1996b 41) of the Hebrew text. Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'" (Mt 5:38). Here He is transmitting a brief, legal statement by reciting a selected portion of Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Jesus then adds, "But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (5:39). The first statement, "Do not resist an evildoer," creates new Torah, unparalleled either in the Hebrew Bible or in Luke. The second statement presents a specific example. The observation of the Hebrew and New Testament texts side-by-side makes for an amazing example of how intertextural reconfiguration can sometimes result in a precept being turned completely on its side. Instead of the conventional wisdom, which states that evildoers and people who injure are to be avenged upon, Jesus introduces His own wisdom which reconfigures the old. In order to be holy, He claims, one must forgive and not avenge.

Jesus then says, "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" (Mt. 5:42). According to the HSCB footnote to this (p. 1867), wisdom about borrowing and lending is also found in the Hebrew Bible, namely in Proverbs 22:7, which states, "the borrower is the slave of the lender." Now, at face value (looking strictly at the Matthean text), there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship to draw between the Matthean verse and the Proverb. However, my attention was drawn by the same footnote (HCSB Footnote Mt. 5:42 p. 1867) to the Gospel of Thomas. Saying 95 reads, "If you have money, don't lend it at interest. Rather give [it] to someone from whom you won't get it back" (Thomas 95, as found in Miller, 320). In light of this similar statement, we are able to see the intertextural transformation that Jesus is making, in regard to the idea of lending and borrowing. The Thomas saying negates the idea in Proverbs of the borrower being a "slave," since, as Jesus says, the lender should not collect interest or expect the thing being borrow to be returned. The reconfiguration that Jesus makes here is indeed a departure from the older ideas into a new wisdom.

The next segment of Matthean text does have an intertextural relationship with various precepts and statements in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus starts off again, by saying "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'" (Mt. 5:43). Now, part of this is a repetition, a recitation of the Hebrew verse in Leviticus, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). As for "hating" the enemies, as the footnote (HCSB Footnote Mt. 5:43 p. 1867) states, this is "not scriptural," but the implications of hating enemies can be found throughout Hebrew text. Psalm 139 says "I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies" (22). There is also a cultural notion, drawn from Hebrew Scripture, within the community of the value in hating one's enemies; this is evidenced by the Rule of the Community found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (HSCB Footnote Mt. 5:43 p. 1867).

The intertexture in regard to dealing with enemies is taken further by Jesus, and reconfigured. He says that hating one's enemies is not the right path to take, that we must "love [show goodness towards: see class notes 16 Feb. 1999]�enemies, and pray for those who persecute [us]" (Mt. 5:44). This turns the implications in the Hebrew Bible (which have become conventional wisdom in Jesus' time) upside down, as Christ is introducing contrary wisdom here. He then offers rationale (see Robbins 1996b 53-55) for acting this way:

"so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Mt. 5:45-47,all italics mine)

The rationale and confirmation of the rationale offered here present a strong argument. First of all, Jesus makes clear that in "loving enemies," one is acting in the fashion of God, and participating in His kingdom (see above). Because God "makes the sun rise on the righteous and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous," (i.e. blesses both), we must act likewise. This is echoed later in the final verse of this chapter, when Christ says "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). Overall, therefore, Jesus has taken an Old Testament idea of wanting to hate one's enemies, turned it around, and offered rationale as to why. Jesus gives further confirmation of the rationale in saying that "For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?�Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Mt. 5:46-47). In this society, tax collectors and Gentiles are seen as being unholy and base. So it seems here that Jesus is saying (for the clarification of His audience) that only loving one's neighbors is also a base and unrefined way to live.

I will now shift my analysis to the intertexture between these portions of Matthew and Luke. The wisdom sayings of Jesus in each of these Gospels correspond, yet they possess notable and meaningful differences within the text. The authors of both Matthew and Luke drew from a common source, the hypothetical Q document, which contains various wisdom sayings of Christ. While the messages in each of these Gospels parallel each other and both come from the Q source, they possess unique styles and ideas which make for amazing observations of the intertexture that lies between.

While containing many of the same themes and ideas, the two series of statements fall under two genres of sacred New Testament literature. Matthew is a more direct reconfiguration of the Hebrew Bible, that is, it becomes "New Torah," whereas the statements in Luke take the form of "prophetic wisdom" (Class Notes 16 Feb. 1999). Now, this is certainly not to say that there are elements of each type of teaching in the other Gospel. The messages in Matthew could certainly be construed as prophetic wisdom, while (as I have endeavored to show earlier) Luke definitely has its ties back to the Hebrew Bible, in regard to both restatement and reconfiguration. However the distinction between the two genres to be found in each account must be recognized to gain a full understanding of the text.

In the Matthean account, Jesus begins His wisdom teachings with "You have heard it said" (Mt. 5:38, 43), and then reiterates an Old Testament statement or precept. These preambles to His teaching show definitively that the reconfiguration of the Law and Prophets (the making of the "New Torah) is occurring in His words. Therefore, as I have shown above in discussing Matthew, the conventional wisdom of the day, the ideas borne of the Hebrew Bible that have formed society's basis, are modified in His message. Again, while Luke's Sermon on the Plain has links to and reconfigures aspects of the Hebrew Bible, it contains no explicit recitation of the Law and Prophets. Jesus uses the parameters of the Hebrew Scriptures in Matthew to springboard His teaching, while in Luke, the teaching seems to stand on its own as wisdom imparted from God. One perfect example of this is the beginning of Jesus' teaching about loving one's enemies. The Matthew text begins with "You have heard it said," (setting up the reconfiguration) and then proceeds to the teaching with "But I say to you." The Lukan version starts off with "But I say to you" (Lk. 6:27), initiating the teaching without any explicit statement of reconfiguration (although the preexisting Hebrew ideas are certainly implied).

Notice here also, that in Luke, Jesus says "But I say to you that listen" (6:27), while the Matthean statement contains no notion of "listening." This again lends credence to the idea that the Lukan teaching is more of a prophetic wisdom statement, rather than a commandment (mimicking the style of the Law). It seems that the pattern of proverbial wisdom that is found in ancient Mediterranean wisdom literature (Proverbs, Pseudo-Phocylides, etc.) is again present in Luke. The prophetic wisdom genre contains the idea that wisdom is something that is a give-and-take revelation between God and humans. People must listen and willingly receive the wisdom (as in Luke 6:27). "Listen�and be attentive, that you may gain insight," Proverbs 4:1 states, showing us a perfect example of this idea in a wisdom statement. The wisdom is there, but only for those who elect to be attentive to it, and this notion is followed through in Luke. On the other hand, in Matthew, the teachings are imparted in the style of commandment, as found in Hebrew Scripture.

There are also differences between the two teachings with regard to various statements that are found in one but not in the other. In Luke, when Jesus is teaching about loving one's enemies, He includes the statement "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk. 6:31). As I stated earlier, the placement of this line is curious, in that it extends this Golden Rule beyond the scope of one's friends and companions (already established) but to one's enemies as well. However, this statement is not at all to be found in the Matthew's account of the Sermon. Why this is the case is open to interpretation, and I am not completely sure why the one author chose to use it while the other left it out. Perhaps the author of Matthew felt that this idea was implied in what was written. Or perhaps, for some reason, the author of Luke felt independently compelled to include it. Another such wording unique to Luke is Jesus' teaching is "if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again" (Lk. 7:30). This is not present in Matthew, for reasons probably not unlike the absence of the Golden Rule.

Matthew also contains its own wisdom statements that are unique. Much of the rationale that Matthew uses to prop up the teaching is not found in Luke. Rationale statements such as: "[F]or He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (5:44 -- note the wisdom tone this takes with its reference to the created order), "Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" (5:46) and "Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (5:47), are nowhere to be found in the Luke passages. This is a striking difference, and although Luke does contain some similar rationale (see Lk. 6:35), it is not as heavily emphasized as in Matthew. Again, maybe this is because the statements are meant to stand on their own in Luke, or maybe it is because of the independent authorship of each Gospel. However, the exact reason why this difference exists is quite puzzling.

One final difference to notice is in the last statements of each portion. The Lukan account reads "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Lk. 6:36), and the Matthean account reads "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). Are we to read these texts together to understand that mercy and perfection are somehow the same? Perhaps, although in the face of this difference, the meaning again seems to be that we as humans are to emulate the virtues of God.

Although these differences are important and worthy of note, it is equally crucial to recognize the similarity in the overall implication of the two series of teachings. They both point to an existence free of internal and external enmity, and are both concerned with humankind's participation in God's kingdom of mercy and giving of grace. Both similarly, as I have stated before, transform the Hebrew Bible into a living (and often conflicting) wisdom teaching. Overall, the underlying message is nearly identical, yet the method by which the teaching is conveyed and meant to be understood varies between the texts.

Through the intertextural reading of Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36, in relation to each other and to the Hebrew Bible, one is able to seize upon the very core of the message that Christ is teaching. Taking note of the similarities, differences, reconfigurations, and reiterations which occur in these sections illuminate the texts to the point of a higher understanding. Interactively, when taken together, these New Testament texts say much about each other and the Hebrew source from which Jesus was drawing.


Written by Michael D. Dallman, Emory College (freshman), for Religion 210: Classic Religious Texts, February 22, 1999. Minor editorial revisions by Vernon K. Robbins, Emory University.

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