March 27, 2011

Matthew 5:17 and Its Historical Importance (Part 1)

I’m going to take my time with this posting—maybe offer it in several installments.  What I hope to show is that due to historical developments shaped by socio-political forces, the prevailing view of Christ’s gospel was corrupted and rendered inconsistent with His teachings.  I’ll attempt to do so by summarizing worldviews that were prevalent up until a time shortly after the First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325.  Furthermore, I’ll focus on a specific verse of scripture that, at one time, was a kind of ground zero with respect to a religious tumult that was a precursor to the Inquisition.  As a result of that religious upheaval, people were killed, properties were confiscated and a flourishing religious tradition was labeled heretical. 

That scripture, Matthew 5:17, is part of an introduction to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the most salient description of the gospel found anywhere.  Despite its importance, however, few mainstream Christians ever consider its meaning.  The King James account of the verse reads:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

The first part of the scripture isn’t subject to debate.  The message is clear: Christ didn’t come to destroy the Mosaic Law (which on this and multiple other occasions He refers to as, “the law and the prophets”).  What’s less clear, however, is the meaning of the word fulfil (sic) that closes out His declaration. 

In the earliest history of the church (which I again define as the period leading up to and shortly after the First Council of Nicaea) the meaning of the scripture was reduced to two possible interpretations, neither of which captures the varied nuances of the word.  I’ll embellish on this point later, but it’s important to note that the reason the debate focused on only two alternative interpretations is because there were two opposing Christian groups that each required acceptance of a specific reading of the scripture to insure their survival.  

The two interpretations of the scripture were:
1.   Jesus didn’t come to destroy the Mosaic Law, but to affirm it.
2.   Jesus didn’t come to destroy the Mosaic Law, but to abrogate it.  

Both interpretations are problematic.  While the notion that Christ affirms the Mosaic Law appears consistent with His assertion that He didn’t come to destroy it, the view conflicts with the central idea behind five telling passages that come later in the chapter.  (For a treatment of this, see one of my earlier blogs at  However, to say Christ abrogated the Mosaic Law begs the question: How does one abrogate a law without destroying an essential part of it?  To assume the second interpretation is correct is to believe that Christ was open to semantic nit-picking, which is counter to everything we hold dear about His gospel.  Therefore, the only conclusion a reasonable person might conclude is that neither explanation is correct.  This begs the question: Why did the early historical debate reduce to an argument between two highly improbable interpretations?

To answer that question, it’s important to note that there was once a number of flourishing religious traditions that today we refer to as Gnostic Christianity.  The Gnostics, contrary to common belief, didn’t belong to a single monolithic faith with a singular worldview.  In fact, it has often been said there were as many Gnostic factions as there were Gnostics.  The reason for this can be explained by the term gnosis, the Greek root word from which the people derived their label.  To the Greeks, there are two types of knowledge.  The first, logos, is knowledge gained through learning—life experience and study.  Its alternative, gnosis, is very different.  A receiver of gnosis—aside from having an open mind receptive to it—doesn’t obtain its variety of knowledge through personal effort.  Rather, gnosis is acquired through sudden and dramatic flashes of what might be called inspiration.  Therefore, the common thread among Gnostic belief was the idea that people could come to an understanding of the mind of God through communion leading to personal revelation.  The end result of this belief was that the Gnostics began to personalize the gospel in a way that resulted in the development of a wide range of traditions.

To those who supported a more orthodox view of Christianity, which included the need for a single faith and an indisputable doctrine, the proliferation of new factions was disconcerting.  While searching for a way to restrict the number of divergent worldviews, the followers who sought orthodoxy quickly realized two things:
1.   Christ’s gospel—aside from His directive to love God and our neighbors—was only suggestive of appropriate behavior and tradition.
2.   Leviticus, on the other hand, with its 613 specific and separate laws, was a highly prescriptive summary of what one could argue was correct doctrine.

As one might suspect, an emphasis on conformity to the Mosaic Law became a key aspect of Christian orthodoxy’s war on Gnosticism.  The followers of the orthodox view supported the idea that Christ affirmed the tenants of the Old Testament and wished His followers to abide by them.  Notice that this had as much to do with political control as it did with the true meaning of Christ’s gospel.  Gnostics, on the other hand, rebelled against the stricture of the Mosaic Law, because it limited their ability to abide by revealed interpretations of Christ’s word. 

In the end the followers of orthodoxy—who were far better organized than their factionalized opponents—won.  The Gnostics were labeled as heretics.  Many were imprisoned or killed, and their various traditions were eliminated.  Except for some highly charged accusations found in the writings of orthodox writers (such as Irenaeus, who lived in the 2nd century) Gnostic doctrines were lost until the Nag Hamadi library was discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. 

If, therefore, the idea that we’re to follow the Mosaic Law is based upon political spin from a control-seeking orthodoxy, what is the true meaning of Christ’s assertion that He came to fulfill the law and prophets?  That will be the subject of my next posting.

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