Matthew 5:17-18,  not one jot or tittle

1. Parallel passages

1.1 Luke 16:17

16:16 “The law and the prophets were until John. From that time the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tiny stroke of a pen in the law to fall.”

(Luke 16:16-17 WEB)

The setting here is rather odd, for this is preceded by a critique of those who serve Mammon and followed by a comment on the relationship between divorce and adultery (perhaps reflecting upon service of Mammon as spiritual adultery).

1.2 Matthew 24:35

Whilst speaking about the apocalypse, Jesus uses a variant of Matt 5:18 to attribute the permanence of divine law to his own words, declaring “Most certainly I tell you, this generation will not pass away, until all these things are accomplished.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:34-35 WEB).

2. Provenance of the passage

Vermes (2004, 355) notes a widespread view amongst scholars that these statements did not originate with Jesus, but were contrived by the Jewish church in Palestine to support their struggle against Paul and his gentile church. Yet, as Vermes points out (2004, 356), sayings that arose out of such a struggle were unlikely to survive unscathed through the transition to a gentile dominated church. Furthermore, the inclusion of a similar declaration of the Law’s permanence in Luke’s gentile-oriented Gospel (Luke 16:17) argues strongly against such an origin. Nor, he suggests, is it likely that a writer from such a church “would have freely invented it, and have produced a teaching which was so plainly embarrassing to their communities” (Vermes 2004, 379). Such statements, which are typical of the early Jewish exclusivity found in the church, are therefore certainly attributable to Jesus (Vermes 2004, 379).

3. The law and the prophets

On a few select occasions, such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, the word of God came directly, but more normally it was mediated through prophets. Thus, the law and the prophets” was Judaism’s shorthand for the totality of God’s revelation through the pages of the Hebrew Bible (France 1995, 114, cf. Acts 13:15). Rabbinically-trained Paul uses it as such in his defense, “that after the Way, which they call a sect, so I serve the God of our fathers, believing all things which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets” (Acts 24:14 WEB).

Matthew’s Gospel places the phrase “law and prophets” on Jesus’ lips three further times:

Thus wherever else Matthew portrays Jesus using the phrase “Law and the Prophets”, it appears to be in the typical manner of his peers, i.e. to represent the entire corpus of legally binding statements made by God. 

4. The scope of the law that Jesus fulfilled

For Stott (2003, 71-2), the law and prophets contain three sub-sets that needed to be fulfilled: Torah, predictive prophecy and ethical precepts. However, debate has surrounded the precise scope the Law and the prophets as intended by Jesus in this passage (France 1995, 113). France, sees the argument pivoting on whether Jesus was referring to the validity of the the Hebrew Bible’s regulations, upon which the antitheses (Matt 5:21-7:12) were about to focus, or whether he was more generally affirming the Hebrew Bible without assuming its applicability to the new situation created by his coming. Vermes (2004, 406-7), seeing Jesus as “deeply convinced of the centrality and permanent validity of the Mosaic heritage” (2004, 406), argues strongly for the former. He notes that elsewhere (in Mark 10:19, Matt 19:17, Luke 18:20) Jesus claimed that “the divine gift of life in the Kingdom would depend on the fulfillment of the precepts of the Decalogue” (Vermes 2004, 407). Paradoxically, the two-source theory that Vermes espouses (2004, 219) when dealing with the Sermon on the Mount excludes the possibility (as proposed here) that Jesus delivered the Sermon as a single discourse intended to advocate proper compliance with precisely those Ten Commandments

5. The indestructible law

Tom Wright correctly observes, that the kingdom could hardly overrule Moses and the prophets “without the covenant God contradicting himself” (Wright 2001, 289). Thus, Jesus did not do away with the Law in the sense that it ceased to exist, and, long after Jesus resurrection, Paul could still argue against accepting circumcision on the grounds that it bound the individual to keeping the whole Mosaic law (Gal 5:3). For Paul, the law had not been destroyed, in the sense of becoming irrelevant, but he could nevertheless cite ‘the law and the Prophets’ as witnesses to the possibility of righteousness apart from the Mosaic law, a righteousness appropriated through faith in Jesus Messiah (Rom 3:21). In other words, as a result of Jesus sacrifice, the pre-existing legal framework had been harnessed to usurp itself and provide faith in Jesus as a better route to salvation (the nature of that framework and how Jesus worked within it is explored in The Emmaus View). 

Jesus’ reference to destroying the law should, as Craig Keener notes (1993, 57),  be understood in its Jewish context. Jewish teachers considered that by disobeying the law one rejected its authority and thereby ‘abolished’ it. Significant rebellion against the law carried strict penalties in First Century Judaism and it would have been an even worse crime to persuade others that the law was no longer in force (Keener 1993, 57). Jesus was therefore defending himself against the charge that he was disobeying the law or encouraging others to do so, or, as Vermes puts it, “the polemical edge to these sayings is due to frequent small-minded criticism voiced by narrow-minded country lawyers and leaders of village synagogues, incapable of grasping that the peculiar interpretation given by Jesus to certain commandments did not contradict, but deepened their meaning” (Vermes 2004, 407).

The Ten Commandments, and the prophetic utterances that upheld them, were direct words from God. Therefore the words of the ‘law and the prophets’ provided a dual witness to the revealed will of God. The rabbis might have spoken of disobedience abolishing the law, but as Isaiah makes quite plain, the word of God transcends the transient activities of men.  ‘The voice of one who calls out, “Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God”’ (Isa 40:3 HNV) , as John the Baptist did (Matt 3:3), is followed, soon after, by 

6 ‘The voice of one saying, “Cry!”
One said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is like grass,  and all its glory is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers,  the flower fades,  because the LORD’s breath blows on it.
 Surely the people are like grass.
8 The grass withers,  the flower fades;  but the word of our God stands forever.”
9 You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength.
Lift it up. Don’t be afraid.  Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold, your God!”’

(Isa 40:6-9 HNV)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, continuing John’s Isaiah 40-based Way-preparing agenda, went up a high mountain and raised his voice to declare good news to Zion in the form of the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10). Then, adopting the familiar emphases of Isaiah 40, he stressed the permanence of God’s word (Matt 5:17-18) and contrasted it with the fading lilies of the field (Matt 6:28-30).

6. To fulfill the law

Christ’s claim to ‘fulfill’ the law has been widely interpreted. The Greek word itself (πληρόω) has a breadth of meaning, that includes:

  1. To be completely filled, as when the fishermen saw their net was full (Matt 13:48) or the full number of martyrs had fallen (Rev 6:11);
  2. To completely finish an activity, as when Paul and Barnabas finished their journey (Acts 12:25);
  3. To accomplish something fully, like summing up the whole law in a single phrase (Gal 5:14);
  4. To do something without any omission, as in Paul fully preaching the Gospel (Rom 15:19);
  5. To meet a requirement completely, as when Paul received the Philippians’ gift (Php 4:18) or he argued that Christians meet the full requirements of the Law (Rom 8:4).

Such is the diversity of opinion amongst commentators concerning these shades of meaning that it is worth considering them separately.

6.1 To be completely filled 

Chrysostom saw “fulfill” as referring to drawing out and filling up the meaning of the Law, as if our picture of the Law was incomplete until we could see the part that Jesus had to play within it. As regards the Torah, or revealed instruction, Stott concurs with Chrysostom’s conclusion (Stott 2003, 71-2).

6.2 To complete or bring to an end

Jesus’ final words “It is finished” (John 19:30 WEB) would seem to suggest an agenda that had some sense of finite end. However, whether he had this in mind when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount is uncertain. Paul would later claim “Christ is the fulfillment of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4 WEB), in the sense that Jesus was the goal of the law and with him it reached its completion. The word Paul used is τέλος, which implies finality.

6.3 To accomplish fully

Stott (2003, 71-2) suggests that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the prophets by satisfying the expectations of the the extensive body of predictive prophecy and typology that related to the Messiah. Certainly, at the outset of his discipleship, John has Philip refer to the law and the prophets as shorthand for the body of material containing such Messianic predictions (John 1:45). Luke reports the resurrected Jesus referring to the law and the prophets in a similar way, when he informed his disciples “this is what I told you, while I was still with you, that all things which are written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44 WEB). Jesus subsequent needed to open the disciples minds to understand how this worked, implies that the implications of fulfilling the Law and the prophets were as obvious as first-century Judaism generally might have thought. 

6.4 To do without any omission

As far as the law is concerned, this equates to 4.5 below, for failure to comply with any aspect of the law also represented a failure to meet its requirements.

6.5 To completely meet a requirement

Jesus, having been born under the Law (Gal 4:4) was therefore bound by its requirements. 

Stott, having identified the requirement for Jesus to obey the scriptures ethical law, concludes that Jesus fulfilled it by keeping it (Stott 2003, 71-2). Like so many others, he passes over the not insignificant issue that the ethical law was bound up with cultic and sacrificial law. Yet he could, with confidence, have pointed to Hebrews’ discussion of the relationship between the cross and the temple sacrifices (Heb 10:11-12). Jesus’ role within the priesthood of Melchizedek and the nature of the sacrifices of the day of atonement, once properly understood, hold the key to the legal efficacy of the cross. 

France, rejecting absolutely the idea of that fulfill related to obedience, highlights that the usual usage of fulfill (πληρόω) in Matthew, as in the LXX, relates to ‘bringing into being that which was promised’ (France 1995, 114).

Bonhoeffer, pointing out that Jesus himself instructed others to obey the Law, suggests that Jesus intended to fulfill Israel’s divinely ordained law by keeping it (Bonhoeffer 2001, 74-6). His intention was, suggests Bonhoeffer, to become a bridge between his disciples and the requirements of the Law. Of the Law, he writes “God is the giver and its Lord, and only in personal communion with God is the Law fulfilled,” thus “Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lives in perfect communion with him, vindicates the law of the old covenant by coming to fulfil it” (Bonhoeffer 2001, 75). Thus, in following Jesus, his disciples obey the law as certainly as Jesus himself did.

Jesus not only complied with the law, but actively encouraged others to obey it. For example:

Paul’s radically different approach arises from the seismic changes that Jesus’ death wrought upon the legal scene, but it is still thoroughly grounded in the law and obedience of it.

Vermes (2004, 355-56) observes that, if Matthew’s Gospel is seen as a Palestinian Christian response to Paul’s approach to the law, then gospel suggestions that John the Baptist marked an end to the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18; Luke 16:17) appear as later glosses, whose primary aim was to diminish the force of the current passage. Personally I would prefer to interpret such passages as Jesus’ observation that John and his ministry were the outcome of the legal and prophetic precedents that preceded him.

7. Not one jot or tittle

Jesus’ sense was probably that nothing of the text itself would be removed, nor would it become any less certain in its proclamation.

The KJV’s jot and tittle refer to the smallest details of the English language, where a jot is an anglicism of the Greek iota, and a tittle is the tiny dot on an i.

The Greek refers to an ἰῶτα (iota) and κεραία (keraia), where the iota was the ninth letter of the alphabet, a single upright stroke, and the keraia refers to both an apostrophe, used to distinguish numerals from letters, and to ‘little horns’, which are generally embellishments intended to assist the reading of the text, as they do in a serif font.

As the iota (ι) was the smallest Greek letter, but the law was written in Hebrew, Jesus was presumably referring to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Hebrew yod (י) (Keener 1993, 57). The removal of a yod was possibly of particular significance to Jesus, for, thanks to Neh 8:17, he shares the Hebrew version of his name with Joshua. Joshua had originally been called Hoshea, a name without a yod, but Moses called him Joshua (Numbers 13:16), with a yod and meaning saviour. The rabbis of later periods preserved a tradition that when God renamed Sarai,שָׂרַי, to be Sarah, שָׂרָה, (Gen 17:15), which involved removing the name's yod, Sarah then complained for generations until God inserted the yod into the name of Joshua, יְהֹושֻׁעַ (Keener 1993, 57-8). Joshua, with yod in place, led Israel into their promised land, but remove the yod and you have Hoshea again, a name now infamous for its associations with the loss of Isreal (the Northern Kingdom, 2 Kings 17:6).

Where the text uses keraia, it is likely that Jesus was referring to tagin, תגין(Eisenstein and Toy 2008, 666-7). These textual decorations, known as crowns, were reserved only for use on the Torah scrolls, in other words the definitive copies of the law. The the law was not dependent upon them, however the crowns probably served as ornamental diacritical points, highlighting the differences between various similar letters. This would have served to make the public proclamation of the Torah less prone to error.

8. All is accomplished

The passage appears in some respects to be a typical parallel poetic construct, of the type that abounds in the Hebrew Bible, each passage containing a reference to destruction, a reference to persistence and a reference to completion. Hence -

  • “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. 
    • I didn’t come to destroy
      • but to fulfill
  • For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away
    • not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, 
      • until all things are accomplished.” 
(Matt 5:17-18 WEB, format mine)

From this it is apparent that what was to be accomplished (γίνομαι) was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The sense is thus that the law will stand until it brings all things into compliance with the will of God. Such a concept is entirely consistent with the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, that God’s word  transcends and outlives all human wisdom (e.g. see Isa 40:7-8, Ps 119:89, 96, 160).

France notes that the word translated “accomplished” is used in connection with events (France 1995, 115) and calls attention to the occurrence of a very similar phrase in Matthew 24, where one finds “Most certainly I tell you, this generation will not pass away, until all these things are accomplished.” (Matt 24:34 WEB).

Paul points out, in Galatians, that just as the Law of Moses did not nullify the earlier covenant with Abraham, so the promise to the patriarch’s seed still held firm. Therefore, the law “was added because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise has been made” (Gal 3:19 WEB). He thus identifies the law as a device for keeping charge until the establishment of the Messianic kingdom and provides a target event for Matthew’s “accomplished”.