IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 27, August 30 to September 5, 1999

Matthew 15:1-20

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    For light on this phrase, we turn to Pirke Aboth ("Chapters of the Fathers"), one of 63 tractates in the Mishnah. P.A. is mostly "a selection of maxims on conduct and sayings in praise of the Law handed down in the names of 60 teachers of the Law who lived between 300 B.C. and A.D. 200 from the time of Simeon the Just to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the editor of the Mishnah" (H. Danby, The Mishnah, 446, n. 1). Says P.A. 1:1, "Moses received the Law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Law."

    1. The Concept of Torah in P.A. 1:1.

      "The Law (Torah) throughout post-biblical Jewish religious literature has the threefold connotation of (a) the Pentateuch, the 'Written Law'; (b) the 'traditions of the elders' - rules of Jewish life and religion which in the course of centuries had come to possess a validity and sanctity equal to that of the Written Law and which, as the 'Oral Law,' were deemed, equally with the Written Law, to be of divine origin and therefore consonant with and, for the most part, deducible from the Written Law; and (c) the study of the Law in its twofold aspect [of Oral and Written Law]" (Danby, Mishnah, 446, n. 2).

    2. The Oral Law as Revelation.

      According to P.A. 1:1, the oral law is not an addition to God's Law, but as an integral part of that Law. The oral law is considered to be revelation from God. (The same point was made by Rabbi Stephen Engel in one of Knox Chamblin's classes at RTS, May 1993.) Cf. H. L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, 10: "It is maintained by orthodox Jewish scholars that from the very beginning, i.e. from the time of the giving of the Law on mount Sinai, there had been in existence an oral law, carried on traditionally." Write G. H. C. Macgregor and A.C. Purdy: "What might have seemed new in the succeeding centuries was only apparently so, when viewed in the light of the written code, but actually it was as old as the Pentateuch itself. For the revelation was embodied in part in writing, and in part it was transmitted orally from generation to generation in unbroken succession down to the schools of the Law in which Tradition was defined, formulated, and systematized" (Jew and Greek, 75).

    3. The Oral Law as Application.

      For the orthodox rabbis the Oral Law was a necessary application of the written law. This is (so they argued) precisely what the OT prophets did - they "repeated, explained, emphasized, and applied (the) revelation, but they added nothing new" (ibid.).

    4. Allegiance to the Law.

      The "fence around the law" (P.A. 1:1) consisted of safeguards against infringements of the Law. "The famous Rabbinic 'fence around the Law' was intended to block you at the furthest possible distance from any overt transgression" (R. A. Stewart, Rabbinic Theology, 5). "Things which by the letter of the law must be completed before morning, by rabbinical rule must be done before midnight, 'to keep a man far removed from transgression' (G. F. Moore, Judaism, 1:33, quoting from the Mishnah). Cf. Berakoth 1:1 (in the Mishnah): "Why then have the Sages said: Until midnight? To keep a man from transgression." Such enactments were viewed not as new rulings, but as stricter applications of existing rulings.

    5. Preservation of the Law.

      Mishnah, from the Hebrew shanah ("to repeat") "means 'that which is to be learned by repetition,' therefore by memory. The further implication is that the Mishnah [early 3rd c. A.D.] contains materials which had been memorized and not written down for a very long time" (Jacob Neusner, Invitation to the Talmud (1st ed., 35).

    6. The Weight of the Tradition.

      Recurring in P.A. 1 are the words "received [the Law] from [him or] them." "The primary purpose of this collection of maxims is to demonstrate the continuity and hence the weight of tradition" (Strack, Introduction, 53). Such a view of the tradition was vital for maintaining Jewish life and thought. This chain of tradition comes right down to Gamaliel, grandson (or son) of Hillel (P.A. 1:16), teacher of Saul of Tarsus. In this light, cf. Gal 1:14, "I was...extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers [ton patrikon mou paradoseon]."

    7. "The Great Synagogue." P.A. 1:1.

      This was a general assembly of Jewish leaders, "a body of 120 elders, including many prophets, who came up from exile with Ezra" (Danby, Mishnah, 446, n. 5). Cf. Ezra 6:14; 10:14. It was naturally Ezra who presided over the body (Moore, Judaism, 1: 31). Their purpose was not innovation but preservation; they were viewed not as creators of law but as restorers of law. The G. S. was modelled on what Neh 8 records about Ezra's reading of the Law, together with the accompanying explanation and applications. "They saw that prophecy had come to an end and that restraint was lacking; therefore they made many new rules and restrictions for the better observance of the Law" (Danby, 446, n. 5). The work of Ezra and the G. S. proved to be a base in its own right, different from the base at Sinai but nonetheless a vitally important watershed so far as the hallowing and the preserving of the tradition were concerned. Cf. the function of the Westminster Assembly in Presbyterian history: Westminster was itself based on Scripture, but itself came to be treated as a base for developing tradition.


    1. "The Pharisees and the Scribes."

      The names are here joined for the third time (cf. 5:20; 12:38). See Appendix A.

    2. The Regulation. 15:2.

      Law-abiding Jews should "wash their hands before they eat." Cf. the benediction, "Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the universe, who sanctified us by thy laws and commanded us to wash the hands" (Berakoth 60b, quoted in W. Lane, Mark, 245). The washing "did not have to do with physical hygiene so much as with ceremonial purity" (Gundry, 303). On the procedure, see Lane, 246-47; cf. Jn 2:6, and especially the lengthier explanation in Mk 7:3-4a.

    3. The Rationale.

      That regulation is founded on the OT's prescribed ritual washings for priests (Ex 30:17-21; 40:13) and elders (Deut 21:6). "The Pharisees surpassed the priests in their zeal to safeguard themselves from ritual defilement and were strong proponents of 'the priesthood of all believers' in the sense that they considered the priestly regulations to be obligatory for all men [cf. Mk 7:3a, "The Pharisees and all the Jews"]. It is important to appreciate the concern to sanctify ordinary acts...which lay behind this extension of priestly regulations to the laity" (Lane, Mark, 246). The Pharisees thus opposed the Sadducees, who in strict reliance on the written law, continued to limit such laws to the priests and the cultus (see Appendix A; Jeremias, Jerusalem, 265-66).

  3. THE POSITION OF JESUS. 15:3-20.

    1. Revelation and Tradition. 15:3-9.

      1. The revelation. "The command of God" (v. 3) is spelled out in v. 4: "For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' [Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16] and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death' [Ex 21:17; Lev 20:9]." Ex 21:17 represents a particular application of the Fifth Commandment (hence the order of the quotations), in that it spells out one way of disobeying the commandment, and the consequences for doing so (contrast "so that you may live long in the land," 20:12, with "must be put to death," 21:17). But it is an application originating in the written Mosaic Law itself, and not in oral tradition. The words "For God said" (v. 4a) apply to both of the following quotations.

      2. The tradition. "But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God [for Greek doron = "offering, gift," the meaning of the Hebrew korban, used in Mk 7:11],' he is not to 'honor his father' with it" (15:5-6a).

      3. The conflict. Far from expounding or applying or being the command of God, the tradition contributes to the breaking of God's command (v. 3) and the nullifying of his word (v. 6).

        1. Opposition from children. The korban tradition, while ostensibly honoring the First Commandment above the Fifth, actually fosters human selfishness. "Behind the declaration [vv. 5-6a] stands the purpose of retaining one's own use of the item, i.e., of avoiding the obligation to give it to meet the need of someone else" (Gundry, 304). "In the hypothetical situation proposed by Jesus, if the son declared his property qorban to his parents, he neither promised it to the Temple nor prohibited its use to himself, but he legally excluded his parents from the right of benefit" (Lane, 251). Thus, this tradition "puts casuistry above love" (Jeremias, NT Theology, 1: 210) - love both for one's closest neighbors (his parents) and for God (whose commandment is being rejected); cf. Mt 22:37-40. Moreover, "Jesus categorically rejects the practice of using one biblical commandment to negate another" (Lane, 252). Lk 2:41-52 teaches both that Jesus' principal allegiance belongs not to his parents but to his heavenly Father (v. 49), and that Jesus obeys God by obeying his parents (v. 51); he grew in favor with both God and men (including his parents), v. 52b. The fact remains that the demands of the Kingdom take precedence over the most binding earthly obligations. Cf. Mt 10:34-39; 12:46-50.

        2. Opposition from teachers. The main objects of Jesus' judgment are not those who employ the tradition (a.), but those who have devised it, and those who promote and defend it - namely the "Pharisees and teachers of the law" (v. 1). "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?" (v. 3). "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (v. 6b). In vv. 4-6a, what "you say" opposes what "God said." The rabbinic tradition actually instructs the son "not 'to honor his father'" (v. 6a), and binds him to the korban vow. "Matthew makes the Pharisees and scribes issue a commandment ... contrary to God's commandment" (Gundry, 304). The rabbis do not stop with supplementing revelation with tradition, or even with elevating tradition above revelation; they are guilty of supplanting the revelation with the tradition.

      4. The explanation. In 15:7-9 Jesus explains the theologians' opposition. He calls them "hypocrites," a term he explains by quoting Isa 29:13. There is a contradiction between the appearance ("These people honor me with their lips") and the reality ("but their hearts are far from me"). Their desire to enthrone man both requires and results in distance from God. They do not merely neglect God's word; determined to enthrone themselves in place of God, they must replace God's word with "rules taught by men." In quoting Isa, Jesus not only appeals (as in v. 4) to divine revelation in face of human tradition; he associates the alleged bearers of OT tradition not with the prophet of judgment but with the objects of judgment! Cf. Carson, 349.

      5. The persistent danger. The Jews' belief that the oral law was given by divine revelation at Sinai, is (in Strack's fine understatement) "untenable" (Introduction, 11). And we have just considered Jesus' devastating attack upon his contemporaries' practice of allowing human tradition to overrule divine revelation. Lest we relegate that danger to ancient times, let us be aware of our own tendency as Protestants within the Reformed Tradition, to grant to our interpretation of Scripture, an authority that is hardly less than that of Scripture itself. Cf. F.F. Bruce, Tradition Old and New, 14: "Of an 'Irish clergyman' (actually John Nelson Darby) under whose powerful influence he came at a formative period of his youth, Francis William Newman says: 'He only wanted men "to submit their understanding to God," that is, to the Bible, that is, to his interpretation!'"

    2. Moral Law and Ceremonial Law. 15:10-20.

      1. The change of audience. Jesus now turns from the Pharisees and scribes to the crowd (15:10) and then to the disciples (vv. 12 et seq.). The parable of v. 11 is overheard by the Pharisees (v. 12); but Jesus' pronouncement of judgment, vv. 8-9, was his final word to them. He continues to speak to the crowd in parables, reserving the explanation for the disciples (vv. 15-20; cf. 13:10-17, 34-35). Nonetheless, there is still hope for the crowd ("Listen and understand," Jesus implores them, v. 10; cf. comments on 13:10-17). Not so in the case of the Pharisees. Their problem is not that they stand further removed from understanding than the crowds, but that they have received and rejected understanding. A parable might "offend" a member of the crowd because its meaning stays hidden; the parable of v. 12 "offends" (or more literally "scandalizes") the Pharisees precisely because its meaning (together with the implications for their view of the Law) is all too clear. Cf. comments on 12:30-37. Such is the hardness of the Pharisees' opposition, and such is their blasphemy, that they stand under irreversible judgment (v. 13; the "plants to be uprooted" are the Pharisees themselves; apud Carson, 350).

      2. Cleanness and Uncleanness under the Old Covenant. The laws concerning unclean animals, Lev 11, served a twofold purpose.

        1. Reminders of redemption. The distinction between "clean" and "unclean" animals, served constantly to remind Israel that God had distinguished her from other peoples and set her apart to be his "holy people." Cf. Ex 19:5; Deut 7:6; and G. J. Wenham, Leviticus, 165-71, 180-84. Such reminders called for another kind.

        2. Reminders of morality. These ceremonial laws, like the others, were based upon and expressive of God's moral law; they were "symbols of a moral order" and "reminders ... of moral values" (Wenham, 184). "Only the normal members of each sphere of creation, e.g., fishes with fins, counted as clean. This definition, which identified 'perfect' members of the animal kingdom with purity, was a reminder that God looked for moral perfection in his people. Carrion-eating birds and carnivorous animals were unclean because they also typified a man's sinful, destructive, and murderous instincts" (ibid.).

      3. Cleanness and Uncleanness under the New Covenant.

        1. Evidence of continuity. Jesus upholds the principle of 2.b. "What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean'" (v. 11a). For Jesus, as for his opponents, the washing in question has to do not so much with physical hygiene as with ceremonial purity. (With respect to the former, "eating with unwashed hands" might indeed make a person "unclean," cf. v. 20.) The source of real uncleanness is to be found not in food which passes through the body (v. 17), but in those qualities which lodge, so to speak, in the heart (15:18-19). Ceremonial laws find their raison d'être precisely in moral laws. Divorced from the latter, they lose their significance and become empty rituals. NB that Jesus, having just quoted the Fifth Commandment (v. 4) proceeds to refer to the next four commandments of the Decalogue in order: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (v. 19). He focuses upon the "second table" of the Law, i.e., upon attitudes and actions affecting personal relationships. (Is the phrase "evil thoughts" a reference to the Tenth Commandment? Does the placement of this term before the others, reflect the idea - found in the Tenth Commandment itself - that the other violations spring from covetousness?) Jesus does not attack ritual as such. Rather - like the OT documents themselves (such as Lev, Isa, and Amos) - he points up the threefold danger of severing ceremonial law from moral law; of striving for ritual cleanness rather than (or more than) for moral purity; and of allowing ritual correctness to conceal or to divert attention away from great moral evil (as in the application of the korban tradition). Jesus concentrates upon the heart (15:18-19), i.e., upon what a person is (cf. 7:15-20; 12:33-37) - which inevitably expresses itself in what he says (15:18-19; "the things that come out of the mouth," v. 18, provides a parallel with v. 17, "whatever enters the mouth"; cf. 12:34-37; Prov 10:20) and in what he does (15:19). As the evil progresses from thoughts to words to actions, the uncleanness is intensified.

        2. Evidence of discontinuity. This is the case with respect to the principle set forth in 2. a. With the dawn of the Kingdom, the OT distinction between Israel and other nations ceases to be valid. As an integral part of his mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, Jesus re-constitutes the people of God around himself. Perhaps more clearly and emphatically than any other Evangelist, Matthew declares that this is a people inclusive of Gentiles as well as Jews (3:9; 8:11, et passim). Therefore the distinctions in Lev 11 no longer serve a redemptive-historical purpose. "The distinction between clean and unclean foods is as obsolete as the distinction between Jew and Gentile" (Wenham, Leviticus, 184). This point is made explicit in the Markan parallel: "In saying this [the statement of Mt 15:16-17], Jesus declared all foods 'clean'" (Mk 7:19). It would take years for this principle to establish itself in Christian practice: cf. Acts 10 (NB the link between unclean foods, vv. 11-16, and unclean men, v. 28); Gal 2:11-14; Wenham, 181-84. What better preparation could there be, for the story of the Canaanite woman?

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