More than ever, I believe we need a better translation of the Bible. I say that about the New Testament because I’m focused on Christian teachings. The Jews can do whatever they want with their holy writings. They know Hebrew better than anyone. But the Christian writings were written in Greek. They are the “new” witness for a new faith tradition. Even though I believe the wisdom of the ages lies hidden deep within the Torah and wisdom teachings of the Old Testament, that doesn’t mean I think the whole of Jewish law is what Jesus wanted us to follow.
Clearly Jesus disagreed with many Hebrew scriptures. Just read the Sermon on the Mount and you’ll get a list of “you have heard it said…but I tell you…”s.
When I was doing my research and retranslation of the texts about divorce and remarriage for my newest book, specifically the text in Luke 16, I dropped my jaw when I interpreted verse 17. You can find my explanation of Luke’s text on divorce in chapter six. I knew there was a comparable text in Matthew. If the two didn’t agree, I knew I would be treading on thin ice. So I jumped over to Matthew to see if the two passages agreed with each other. They do. And it confirms my angst about how a thousand years of conditioning made King James translators unable to correct a possible error of Jerome. If it wasn’t Jerome’s error, then the Englishmen get all the blame.
What surprises me more is that the biblical scholarship of the 20th and 21st centuries has not corrected this mistake. The blind continue to lead the blind. I’m not sure that I’m going to make a difference, but at least, I’m not keeping it to myself.
Jesus was killed because he was teaching contrary to tradition and because he placed people above religious law and ritual. Why then would he, in his most influential Sermon on the Mount, say that not a stroke of the law will end?
Because he didn’t say it. King James’ translators said he said it.
Let me show you what I think Matthew really wanted to convey about what Jesus taught.
First, I’m going to let you read what traditional translations have carried on from the KJV. Keep in mind that after Jesus spoke the words in verses 17-20 (of the fifth chapter of Matthew), he went on to declare six “laws” or practices that had been passed down by the tradition as teachings he did not endorse. You’ll have to determine whether or not it makes sense to say ‘nothing will pass from the law until it is fulfilled’ and then turn around and say, “I don’t agree with this law(21)…or with this law(27)…or with this law(31)…or with this law(33)…or with this law(38)…or with this law(43).”
So read what has been the traditional understanding:
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (NKJV)
Because of my research, preaching, and writing about the kingdom of heaven for the last fifteen years, and combining it with this new information, I’m coming to the conclusion that the kingdom of heaven is a colloquial term that refers to a fine tuned way of doing things where things are working together for the people who are in charge. Some kingdoms of the heavens might be good and some kingdoms of the heavens might not be good for everyone. (My book about the good kingdom of the heavens was written before retranslating these corresponding verses in Matthew and Luke and coming to this conclusion.)
When God is in charge of the kingdom, then all is done as it should be done, with liberty and justice for all. However, when humanity is in charge of the kingdom (the way of governing), watch out.
In my retranslating, I use definitions for Greek words that have been used by others, according to Greek lexicons . Therefore, I feel justified in offering this new perspective of Matthew 5:17-20 that I believe is true to what Jesus says after them.
17 “Do not think that I came to deprive the customary teachingsc nor the writings of the prophets of their influence. I did not come to subvert them but to accomplish their purpose. 18 But I’m telling you the truth, the sky and the earth would sooner pass away before the smallest jot or tittle would be omitted from all the regulations that were handed down from of old;c and until then, you will be required to fulfill all of it. 19 Therefore whoever eliminates the unimportant commandments and teaches others in this manner is going to be called (by the Pharisees and Saduccees) a disruptor of harmony and order; as for anyone who follows the unimportant laws and teaches them will be praised for maintaining harmony and order [in the system that’s currently in place]. 20 For I tell you that if your sense of what is right does not surpass what the scribes and Pharisees consider to be important, you will in no way be of use in the advancement of harmony and order [for all people].
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c nomos. Widely translated “law” but often limited to implying rules having punitive consequences. Thayer defines nomos as anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, usage, law. If something is being followed because “it’s the way it has always been done,” then it is part of the nomos – the way things have been done. Jesus wasn’t just speaking exclusively about the laws of Moses. He was talking about all Jewish law (Halakhah – Torah, Mitzvot D’Rabbanan [laws instituted by the Rabbis], and Minhag [the customs]).
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Jesus was not endorsing the whole of Jewish tradition. He was saying that things need to be changed from ancient Jewish tradition. People are being treated unfairly. Women. Children. The poor. The sick. The handicapped. The outcasts. The prisoners. They are being treated unfairly by the rich, the powerful, the privileged, the religious.
Things have to change in our world today to bring justice to all people despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth that happens when it does.
Even our translation of the Bible has to change so that it reflects Jesus’s compassion and his radical calls for justice rather than endorsing law, ritual, tradition, and male domination.