The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 3: “Building a fence about the Torah”

In Part 2 we explored the concentric circles of audience for the Sermon on the Mount. There are Jesus’ disciples and the surrounding crowds within the story, and next Matthew’s first readers.  Then, the Jewish and Christian traditions of interpretation which developed over the centuries.  And, finally, we who read the story.

We cannot possibly hear the story as those first Jewish listeners did as people living under Rome’s totalitarian rule.  However, we can free the story from it’s text.  We can work to give it back the organic, evocative character of oral storytelling by learning from these earlier audiences.

In Part 3, we will look at how first century Jews understood the Torah passages Jesus cites.  How, then, did Jesus give those passages fresh significance by putting them into the context of his own people’s suffering under Rome and its local collaborators?  And what guidance might reading the Sermon as story give us for living under today’s worldly powers?

Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a) from Qumran Cave 1
Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a)
from Qumran Cave 1

Jewish New Testament scholarship

Jewish New Testament scholarship has the potential to heal gapping wounds in the Judeo-Christian family.  After Rome’s destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Messianic Jews who followed Jesus were part of the Diaspora.  They were persecuted from two sides.  First, by those Pharisees who rejected them for their efforts to reform Judaism.  Second, by Rome, which saw them as part of the rebellious Jewish people.

In the later first century CE, Messianic writers debated with and sometimes accused those who had expelled them from the synagogues.  In the early second century, Rome carried out Empire-wide genocide against Jewish communities in response to two more violent rebellions (115-117 CE and 132-135 CE).  In fear, Christians struggled to convince Rome (and themselves) that they had nothing to do with Judaism.  That schism, fed by violence, has led to millennia of Christian antisemitism.

This violent division of the Jewish family is clearly the greater, living wound.  Yet there is a deep, hidden scriptural wound as well.  Both Christians and Jews have in large part lost the continuity of their collective covenant relationship.  What is more, Christians have frequently misunderstand the gospels, because we know so little of what Jesus, his followers, and the gospel writers took for granted about their own Torah-based traditions.

“You have heard that it was said…”

In Chapter 6 of The Bible with and without Jesus, Levine and Brettler challenge a common Christian misreading of Jesus’ own words about the Torah:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you. Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42)

The authors explain that this passage is often misread as showing a contrast between Old Testament “law” and New Testament “mercy and grace.”  However, Jesus’ statements are not in fact “antitheses” to the Torah’s teachings.  Instead, in interpreting “an eye for an eye” and the various Torah commandments,

Jesus is doing two things that Jews have always done: (1) interpreting the text-—for the biblical text…always needs interpretation; and (2) seeking to understand how the Torah functions in their own lives and the lives of their community….

His interpretation is not a replacement of one Torah by another: to the contrary…, he extends rather than abrogates the Torah. He makes the law more rigorous rather than less…[and] seeks to determine how best it might be understood and practiced. (182-83)

“I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”

Levine and Brettler challenge the traditional reading of Matthew 5:7.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

They argue that

“fulfill” does not mean “take care of what needs to be done so that you do not have to” or more simply, “end.” Instead, Jesus proclaims that the Torah and the Prophets, and the practices they teach, will remain for at least the lifetime of anyone hearing his words…..

“To fulfill” here means “to complete” in the sense of drawing out the full implications of the Torah and the Prophets…. (183)

When Jesus amplifies the challenges that the Torah passages pose, this is what rabbinic Judaism calls “building a fence around the Torah.”

The expression comes from the Mishnah.1 Avot 1:1 reads [in part]: “Be prudent in judgment, raise up many disciples, make a fence for the Torah.”  As a fence about a house protects what is inside, so the fence about the Torah protects the commandments by creating the circumstances that make violation more difficult. (188)

In other words, Jesus seeks to give his listeners a deeper understanding of the intent behind the Torah passages that he paraphrases.  What, he asks, are the moral boundaries of social behavior that these advices and commands aim for?

It is also important to understand that

Jesus is not reading from a text, and Matthew does not imagine Jesus teaching in a schoolhouse, with disciples arguing over words on a scroll. In fact, no source in antiquity presents Pharisees as arguing over a text; that is the role of the later rabbis.

The setting for Jesus is one of oral tradition and so of popular belief. Jesus need not quote the Torah word-for-word in order to convey, generally speaking, the text under discussion. The import is in how the teaching is to be interpreted, not the exact words. (185)

All of this underscores the importance of reading the text of the Sermon as if we shared the common knowledge both of Jesus’ audience “inside” the text and of Matthew’s audience “outside.”

This means understanding how those people heard and understood Torah, as well as how they experienced their own lives under Roman domination.  It also means understanding the experience of Matthew’s audience in exile, after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

Without those perspectives, all we may be doing as we read is imposing our own modern theological and societal expectations onto the story.

In Part 4 we will consider specific examples of how Jesus makes Torah “commandments” relevant to people of his time, as well as to us in the 21st century.  In particular, we will explore two key themes identified by Levine and Brettler.  This first is the challenge of practicing nonviolent resistance in the present.  The second is the challenge of retaining personal agency in the face of coercive power.


Image source & Note

Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a) from Qumran Cave 1,” from Qumran (Khirbet Qumran or Wadi Qumran), West Bank of the Jordan River, near the Dead Sea, modern-day State of Israel. The Jordan Museum, Amman, Jordan Hashimite Kingdom. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. See “What Is the Mishnah? A description of Judaism’s primary book of Jewish legal theory” in My Jewish Learning.

    Published at the end of the second century CE, the Mishnah is an edited record of the complex body of material known as oral Torah that was transmitted in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

    Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, also known as Rabbi Judah the Prince and Yehudah HaNasi, undertook to collect and edit a study edition of these halachot (laws) in order that the learning not vanish.

    Although the Temple had been destroyed 130 years prior to its publication, in the world described by the Mishnah the Temple still exists and the laws that governed it are expressed in the present tense….

    [The] Mishnah itself ignores the events of the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. In this way, the Mishnah is a document that describes a life of sanctification, in which the rituals of the Temple are adapted for communal participation in a world that has no Temple, which escapes the ups and downs of history.

2 comments On The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 3: “Building a fence about the Torah”

  • You’re killin’ me Mike. Just when it gets really good, up flashes “…to be continued….” I WANT THE BOOK. When will it be published?

    Seriously, this is important stuff. Please say more. LOTS more.

    • LOL. Thanks for the positive comments. I started working on this last August after George Amoss, Jr., shared his essay, “What Would Jesus Do? A Critique of Jesus’ Ethics,” in the QUF Facebook Group.

      Since I’m approaching the Sermon on the Mount from a totally different persective, it took me a while to research the sources I’ve used. Then months of writing and rewriting. All of that before I broke it into six parts, so that it wouldn’t overwhelm readers.

      I’m following the lead of Richard Beck on his excellent Substack blog, Experimental Theology. I have a long-term goal of moving some of my best stuff to Substack and publishing from there.

      I don’t have a book in mind just about this topic. However, historical Jesus research and related fields of study became central to my lifelong spiritual path after my one term in seminary in 1972 gave me the basic tools to understand the scholarly literature.

      Part of my explorations since then has been to reclaim the Jesus I have known since childhood from the Roman Empire’s colonization of Christianity.

      Coming to know the historical teacher and healer as a Jewish reformer of Temple- and priesthood-based Judaism has opened the horizon for me. Reading Levine and Brettler’s The Bible With and Without Jesus has been a real turning point.

      There is probably a book (or at least a Pendle Hill Pamphlet) in there somewhere. First, after I finish this series, I want to revisit older stuff from The Empty Path and rewrite it for a broader audience.

      Keep my and my project in your thoughts.

      Blessings, Mike

      P.S. After I posted Part 1, I was invited to join the Quaker Theology Group on Facebook. So, I’m posting the series there as well.

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