Matthew 5:21-26 in detail, murder, anger, and judgment
- Parallel passages and textual variants
- The crime of murder
- The scope of the brother
- Anger, raca and you fool
- Judgement, the Council, and Gehenna
- Progressive or exemplary?
- Is the outcome absolute or conditional?
- Three steps with a biblical precedent
- Related new testament texts
- Some additional Christian perspectives
- The attitude of later Judaism
Jesus cites two traditional sayings in Matt 5:21. The first is the sixth of the Ten Commandments, found in Exod 20:13 and again in Deut 5:17. The second “is a free rendering of the legal order as it is laid down in Exod 21:12; Lev 24:17; cf. Num 35:16-18” (Luz 2007, 234).
Jesus’ comments concerning anger have no direct parallels in the other canonical gospels, though Matt 18:15-17 is clearly related (as discussed below).
The qualifying “without cause” is missing from the Codex Vaticanus, though present in a range of other manuscripts (Nestle et al. 1991, 10). This has led some to suggest that it is an later gloss, added to clarify the intent of Jesus’ words. However, one might equally see it as a passage that was latter omitted because it gave too much scope for people to invent their own causes.
Vermes (2004, 357) considers “the passage is entirely meaningful within the normal eschatological perspective of Jesus.” Moreover, Matt 5:22 appears to carry a subtext that is especially relevant to Jesus’ early ministry.
The reference to a brother does not, as Davies emphatically suggests (Davies 1964, 98), limit the saying to a Christian setting. For in the earliest period of Jesus ministry the rift between his followers and others within Judaism (notably the Pharisees and Sadducees) was still in its infancy. At that point it would be reasonable for Jesus to consider all within Judaism as his brothers and sisters, just as Peter later would (see below).
3.1 In the Hebrew Bible
Exodus provides not only the commandment cited by Jesus (Exod 20:13), but also some further clarification: “One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death, but not if it is unintentional, but God allows it to happen: then I will appoint you a place where he shall flee. If a man schemes and comes presumptuously on his neighbor to kill him, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die” (Ex 21:12-14 WEB).
The first account of murder in the bible was that of Cain and Abel, in which God intervened as judge. This was a passage that Jesus would go on to allude to. However, it is from the account of Noah comes a statement of the basic biblical stance, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6 WEB). Then in Numbers, from a section of the law that was especially focused on implementing the Noahic precepts (e.g. rules about blood and uncovering nakedness), comes the fullest exposition of the law on murder: clarifying what constitutes murder (Num 35:16-21), who is responsible for the execution (Num 35:21), arrangements for protecting the manslayer (Num 35:22-25), responsibility of the manslayer to abide by the constraints of his protection (Num 35:26-28) the need for multiple witnesses (Num 35:30), and the prohibition on ransoms (Num 35:31-32). It concludes with the stark warning : “‘So you shall not pollute the land in which you are: for blood, it pollutes the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him who shed it’” (Num 35:33 HNV).
3.2 In the centuries preceding Jesus
The wisdom teacher Jesus ben Sirach (second century B.C.E.) demonstrates a familiarity with the idea that one may become guilty of murder indirectly, by acting in a way that place others lives in jeopardy:
(Sir 34:20-22 [Box and Oesterley])
“20 (As) one that killeth the son before the father’s eyes
Is he that offereth a sacrifice from the goods of the poor.
21 A scanty bread is the life of the poor:
He that depriveth him thereof is a man of blood.
22 He slayeth his neighbour who taketh away his living,
And a blood-shedder is he that depriveth the hireling of his hire.”
In the Septuagint version “He slayeth his neighbour” (Sir 34:21 [Box and Oesterley]) is rendered as “(Like) one who murders” (Sir 34:21 Lexham LXX Interlinear).
4.1 The Biblical precedent
In the Septuagint, ἀδελφός, is widely used for natural brothers, but also translates wider groupings. For example David used it for those under his authority, e.g. in:
- “let us send abroad everywhere to our brothers who are left in all the land of Israel” (1 Chr 13:2 WEB);
- “Hear me, my brothers, and my people!” (1 Chr 28:2 WEB).
For Jesus to adopt the same pattern of use as his forefather would be natural.
God used the term “brother” in the broader sense of “all Israel” when he spoke
through the prophet Shemaiah, “You shall not go up, nor fight against your brothers, the children of Israel” (1
Kgs 12:24 WEB). It was also put on the lips of foreigners when speaking to their fellow nationals, as when the Lord caused the
Syrians to hear an approaching army and “they said one to another , Behold” (2 Kgs 7:6 WEB), or
according to the Septuagint they said “they said, man to his brother [ἀδελφὸν]” (2
Kgs 7:6 LXX [personal rendering]).
4.2 Amongst Jesus and his disciples
In Matt 5:21 the Greek ἀδελφός (adelphos) translates as brother. Davies argues that “Except where the term refers to brothers by blood, it seems to denote fellow members of a (religious) group” (Davies 1964, 249).
Jesus, when approached by his blood relatives, makes it clear that he considers his family a broader concept, defined by a person’s attitude to the will of God (Matt 12:46-50, Mark 3:32-35, Luke 8:19-21). The term “brother” is probably used in a similar vein when Jesus, after foretelling Peter’s denial, encourages him, after he turns back, to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). Jesus refers to his disciples as brothers in his Gethsemane post-resurrection appearance (Matt 28:9, John 20:17), and the disciples clearly went on to think of one another as brothers, for the book of Acts portrays Peter addressing them as such (Acts 1:15-16).
Whilst the use of ἀδελφός in Matthew may seem to fit the pattern suggested by Davies, the same is also true for Luke. However, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-27), whilst it involves two natural brothers, depicts them as symbols for the repentant followers of Jesus and the established religious order. Thus these two brothers encompass the entire of the divided cult, as they also appear to in Matt 5:23-26 (see notes on Matt 5:23-26). It is also clear from Acts that the disciples were happy to apply the designation to any Israelite in just this fashion. In Peter’s Pentecost speech, we find him addressing the audience at the beginning of each section of his argument, as follows:
- “You men of Judea, and all you who dwell at Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14 WEB);
- “Men of Israel, hear these words!” (Acts 2:14 WEB);
- “Brothers, I may tell you freely of the patriarch David” (Acts 2:14 WEB).
Then, cut to the heart, his audience respond to the disciples “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 WEB).
A similar thing happens in Peter’s speech at Solomon’s Portico:
- “You men of Israel, why do you marvel at this man?” (Acts 3:12 WEB);
- “Now, brothers, I know that you did this in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17 WEB).
5.1 Anger in the Hebrew Bible
The term ὀργίζω (orgizo=to become angry or fly into a rage) used in Matt 5:22 is fairly rare in the New Testament, being found in passages such as Matt 22:6, Luke 15:28, Eph 4:26, and Rev 11:18. Paul’s usage in Eph 4:26 provides a direct link between this word and the Hebrew Bible within an early Christian context, for he is quoting Ps 4:4, where the Septuagint uses the rather rarely used form ὀργίζεσθε (orgizesthe). The equivalent Hebrew word is from the root רגז (ragaz=to quake, often with fear or anger), a root whose first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible is when Joseph’s brothers are about to set off back to Palestine with their message of salvation. Joseph warn them “See that you don’t quarrel [תִּרְגְּזוּ] on the way” (Gen 45:24 WEB). Again, in that passage, the Septuagint translates the Hebrew with ὀργίζεσθε. Jesus will pick up on this verse in the next section of the Sermon (see notes on Matt 5:23-26 - once they are available).
Perhaps the closest that the Hebrew Bible comes to suggesting that anger toward a brother was generally wrong is in Lev 19:16-18, where the context is the just judgement that comes with loving your neighbour as yourself.
‘15“‘You shall do no injustice in judgment: you shall not be partial to the poor, nor show favoritism to the great; but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness. 16“‘You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people.“‘You shall not endanger the life of your neighbor. I am the LORD. 17“‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. 18“‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.’”’
(Lev 19:16-18 HNV)
The word rendered brother in Lev 19:17, in the Greek of the Septuagint is ἀδελφός (adelphon). The Septuagint also clarifies the meaning of verse 18a, providing the rendering “And thy hand shall not avenge thee; and thou shalt not be angry with the children of thy people” (Lev 19:18a LXX [Breton]).
5.2 Anger in the centuries preceding Jesus
A passage from Second Enoch is included here, with the important caveat that Charles’ theory that it dates from the first-century C.E. has its critics who suggest dates anywhere from the second tot he tenth centuries C.E. (Andersen 1996, 520-1).
“1 The Lord with his hands having created man, in the likeness of his own face, the Lord made him small and great.
He that brings into contempt the face of man, brings the Lord’s face into contempt.
2 Whoever reviles the ruler’s face, and abhors the Lord’s face, has despised the Lord’s face, and he who vents anger on any man without injury, the Lord’s great anger will cut him down, 3 he who spits on the face of man reproachfully, will be cut down at the Lord’s great judgement”
(2 Enoch 44:1-3 [Charles])
Within the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scroll community, expressing anger toward a respected member of the community or addressing a superior in a manner that disregarded his status.However, the penalties involved are always penance and exclusion rather than death.
(1QS ca. 6:26-27 [Vermes])
“Whoever has answered his companion with obstinacy, or has addressed him impatiently, going so far as to take no account of the dignity of his fellow by disobeying the order of a brother inscribed before him, he has taken the law into his own hand; therefore he shall do penance for one year [and be excluded].”
In another instance there the rule makes it abundantly clear that the penalties only applied to deliberate insults and unjust anger.
“If he has spoken in anger against one of the Priests inscribed in the Book, he shall do penance for one year and shall be excluded for his soul's sake from the pure Meal of the Congregation. But if he has spoken unwittingly he shall do penance for six months.” . . . “Whoever has deliberately insulted his companion unjustly shall do penance for one year and be excluded.” . . .“Whoever has borne malice against his companion unjustly shall do penance for six months/one year; and likewise, whoever has taken revenge in any matter whatever.”
(1QS ca. 7:2-9 [Vermes])
There is sufficient thematic similarity between the above passage and Matt 5:22b-c for Davies (1964, 238) to play with the idea that the latter were added by a former Qumran sectarian.
Another passage draws upon Lev 19:16-18 to clarify the way in which a rebuke is to be issued, and in the process provides a commentary on that earlier text. Here the prohibition on anger is clearly context specific, i.e. the context is the issuing of a rebuke, which is not to be done angrily. The passage is also interesting for its escalation procedure, which is similar to that later mandated by Jesus (Matt 18:15-17).
“They shall rebuke one another in truth, humility, and charity. Let no man address his companion with anger, or with ill-temper, or obdu[racy, or with envy prompted by] the spirit of wickedness. Let him not hate him [because of his uncircumcised] heart, but let him rebuke him on the very same day lest he incur guilt because of him. And furthermore, let no man accuse his companion before the Congregation without having admonished him in the presence of witnesses.”
(1QS ca. 5:25-6:1 [Vermes])
The Greek, ῥακά (raca), transliterates the Aramaic insult רֵיקָא (Jeramias 1964, 973). However, the pronunciation has been influenced by the Syrian raqa, a contemptuous call to a servant: “Hi there, you idiot” (Jeramias 1964, 973).
There appears to be alliteration here in the Hebrew (so probably in Aramaic also). In the sixth commandment (Exod 20:13) the word used for murder is from רָצַח (ratsah), then comes the word for anger, from רגז (ragaz=to quake, often with fear or anger), now raca.
The word is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but occurs in the Talmud, e.g. R. Hanina (first century C.E.) reports a teaching: “Once a man enticed a woman to commit an offence and she said to him: Vagabond [Raca], have you forty se'ahs to bathe in, and he at once desisted” (b. Ber. 22a [Simon]).
5.3 You fool!
The Greek is μωροὶ (mōros), which carries the sense of dull, dimwitted, or stupidly foolish. Jeremias (1964, 975), notes that the derivation of the Greek is disputed, whilst suggesting that Jesus, having used one of the two most commonly used Aramaic insult, “Raca,” here resorted to the other, שָׁטְיָא, for which mōros was the Greek equivalent. Stott (2003, 84) reports the suggestion that the Greek may directly transliterate a Hebrew word, מרה (marah= rebel, apostate, or outcast), allowing Tasker to propose the sentiment “The man who tells his brother that he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself” (Tasker 1961, 68).
The Septuagint casts a different light on the use of μωροὶ, for the word and its cognates are not common in its versions of the canonical books (though it is used more frequently in the Greek version of Sirach). It is used to translates a range of Hebrew words:
- נבל (nabal), foolish or stupid, with implications of “willful moral insolence” (Swanson 1997, 5572), in Deut 32:6, Isa 32:5-6;
- כסיל (kâciyl), insolent fool, implying rebellion (Swanson 1997, 4067), in Ps 94:8;
- בער (baʿar), to be senseless (Swanson 1997, 1279) or “brutish” (AV), in Isa 19:11b;
- אויל (ʾeviyl), foolish through lack of understanding (Swanson 1997, 211) in Isa 19:11a;
- סכל (sakal), fool (Swanson 1997, 6119), in Jer 5:21.
Of these, none related to שׁוֹטֶה, the Hebrew equivalent of שָׁטְיָא. However, בער (baʿar) certainly seems to suggest itself above the others. There are three reasons to suggest that this was the word Jesus used:
- It could be considered, after a fashion, to continue the alliteration already noted, hence ratsah, ragaz, raca, and baʿar;
- The word has two meanings, to be stupid and to burn, making the threat of Gehenna a clever play upon this secondary meaning;
- The word was already associated with the concept of anger through the expression “burn with anger” (cf. Est 1:12).
The Hebrew Bible only occasionally uses בער (baʿar) to express foolishness (though it is frequently used in connection with burning). The context is often the foolishness (= brutishness in WEB/HNV) of leaders. Here are the relevant passages:
- “8Consider, you senseless [בֹּעֲרִים] among the people; you fools, when will you be wise? 9He who implanted the ear, won’t he hear? He who formed the eye, won’t he see? 10He who disciplines the nations, won’t he punish? He who teaches man knows” (Ps 94:8-10 WEB);
- ‘11The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish. The counsel of the wisest counselors of Pharaoh has become stupid [נִבְעָרָה]. How do you say to Pharaoh, “I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings?” 12Where then are your wise men? Let them tell you now; and let them know what the Lord of Hosts has purposed concerning Egypt” (Isa 9:11-12 HNV);
- “8But they are together brutish [נִבְעַר] and foolish: the instruction of idols! it is but a stock [i.e. a piece of wood]” (Jer 10:8 WEB);
- “21For the shepherds are become brutish [נִבְעַר], and have not inquired of the LORD: therefore they have not prospered, and all their flocks are scattered. 22The voice of news, behold, it comes, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah a desolation, a dwelling place of jackals” (Jer 10:21-22 HNV);
- “14Every man has become brutish [נִבְעַר] and without knowledge; every goldsmith is disappointed by his engraved image; for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. 15They are vanity, a work of delusion: in the time of their visitation they shall perish” (Jer 10:14-15 WEB);
- Jeremiah 51:17-18 repeats Jer 10:14-15;
- “31I will pour out my indignation on you; I will blow on you with the fire of my wrath; and I will deliver you into the hand of brutish [בֹּעֲרִים] men, skillful to destroy. 32You shall be for fuel to the fire; your blood shall be in the midst of the land; you shall be remembered no more: for I, the LORD, have spoken it” (Ezek 21:31-32 HNV).
Ezekiel 21:31-32 is particularly interesting, for in it the so-called “foolish men” end up having the last word following precisely the outcome that Jesus anticipates. It is a reversal that suggests another way of viewing Jesus’ words, i.e. that they were a warning to those who were angry with him and felt that his mission was totally foolish.
The Greek word used in Matt 5:22 for judgement, κρίνω (krino). France (1995, 120) notes that, elsewhere in Matthew, the word is used of divine judgement. However, it is also widely used within the Septuagint, and there generally for the legal process, or its resultant judgements. Here the same word is used in v22 for trying anger as for trying murder in v21, a device that would suggest equivalence according to Judaism’s ‘equivalent regulation’ approach to legal interpretation (see notes on Judaism’s commentaries).
In the Mosaic law, locally appointed judges tried all homicide cases, except were they were too difficult for them, in which case they were referred to the Levitical priests at the sanctuary (Deut 16:18, 17:8-9, Ezek 44:24), hence their involvement in the case of an unsolved murder (Deut 21:5).
The same law of judgement that applied to murder also applied to strife or quarreling between members of the community, as can be seen from passages such as:
- “If an unrighteous witness rise up against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who shall be in those days” (Deut 19:16-17 HNV);
- “And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried” (Deut 21:5 KJV);
- “If there is a controversy between men, and they come to judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked” (Deut 25:1-2 WEB).
Jeremias observes that the phrase “shall be in danger of the judgment” (Mt. 5:21b WEB) ‘does not mean, as commonly thought, that “(the murderer) is subject to local justice” but that “(the murderer) comes under (capital) sentence,”’ (Jeremias 1964, 976). He goes on to argue that the same capital sentence is implied by the other instances of trial mentioned in Matt 5:22 (Jeremias 1964, 976).
6.2 The council
The Greek here speaks of the συνέδριον (sunedrion), a word which in the Septuagint is used for all manner of assemblies, including the legislative assembly that met in the gate (Pr 31:23), an assembled group of revellers (Jer 15:17), the assembled wise men in the court of a gentile king (2 Macc 14:5), or the assembly that tried cases (Pr 26:26). In Jesus’ day the ruling council of Judah was called the Sanhedrin, but it was not the only gathering to which that name was applied.
In Psalm 26, we find a parallelism which suggests that a sanhedrin and an assembly for a purpose were similar concepts:
“I have not sat with the council [συνεδρίου] of vanity,
and will in nowise enter in with transgressors.
I have hated the assembly [ἐκκλησίαν] of wicked-doers;
and will not sit with ungodly men.”
(Ps 25:4-5 LXX [Brenton])
Luz (2007, 235) notes that the Sanhedrin referred to in the New Testament is almost always the 71 member council that met in Jerusalem and that it should be considered as such here.
The topic of Gehenna in general is fully dealt with in the background on Gehenna. In this verse is fully dealt with in As both the other outcomes imply a trial, the outcome of which is death, Jesus audience would have naturally thought of the similar aspects of Gehenna. Under some circumstances the fire of Gehenna might be seen as functioning like a refiner’s fire (Isa 48:10; Jer 6:29, 9:7), burning up the unclean dross and leaving as its residue only that which was precious (cf. Zech 13:8-9). However, here it would seem that we are looking at a fire that consumed completely.
The history of the interpretation of Matt 5:22 is dominated by an interpretation of this passage as a series that becomes progressively more
intense (Luz 2007, 235). The presumed progression is often along the lines:
- Anger tried by the local court;
- Raca! Tried by the highest human court;
- You fool! Tried by the divine court .
Luz (2007, 235) suggests we must abandon the idea of any such progression, and suggests instead that “A description of the relationship based on the preliminary clauses would be better: v 22a is a general statement, while v. 22b and c sharpen it with concrete examples” (Luz 2007, 235-6). France (1995, 119-20) takes a similar line, suggesting that the three offences, anger, “Raca!”, and “You fool!”, are three equivalent examples of a single class of sin, each of which results in divine judgement.
In deciding which of these two approaches is the more likely the related teaching at Matt 18:15-17 would seem decisive. That passage gives the appearance of a very similar set of outcomes, but they are clearly a progression, with each step relating to the same sin. It is the level of judgement alone that escalates. The equivalence of the three outcomes in Matt 5:22 to the three classic steps in the progression toward divine judgement is apparent from both the well known murder at Gibeah (discussed below) and its relationship to anger against a brother is hinted at by the Qumran community’s application of Lev 19:17 within a correctional context where it had to precede appearance before the council (see note on 1QS 5:25-6:1 above). On balance there seems far more to commend the progressive series interpretation than the set of examples one.
Luz (2007, 238) notes that “Primarily, but not only, Western witnesses since Irenaeus limit the extent of the antitheses to unjustified anger.” However, he then concludes that “there is certainly no suggestion of a distinction between justified and unjustified anger, as Matthew indicates with the examples in vv. 23-24 and 25-26, where such a distinction is completely absent” (Luz 2007, 239). However, both Matt 23-24 and Matt 25-26 would seem to presuppose a genuine grievance, and therefore a justifiable anger, for a penalty to be reasonably applied.
Psalm 4:4 presents us with the injunction “Stand in awe, and don’t sin” (WEB), or as the Septuagint renders it (and Paul quoted it in Eph 4:25) “Be ye angry, and sin not” (Ps 4:4 LXX [Breton]). It demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible recognised an anger that was not sin. Should one need confirmation on that point, then any source-critical analysis that divorces Matt 5:22 from Matt 5:48 does the interpreter of this passage a disservice, for in Matt 5:48 Jesus clarifies that to be perfect in our attitude to others is to be like God. However, God, whose actions are by definition without sin, repeatedly expressed anger or warned that certain actions would provoke him to anger, e.g.: Deut 7:4, 31:16-17; Judg 2:20; 2 Kgs 13:2-3; Zech 1:14-15. Similarly, Jesus allowed himself to get angry (Mark 3:5), but clearly without sinning (Heb 4:15). Furthermore, Jesus told two parables in which a king becomes angry, and in both the implication is that he was right to do so. The first is in the parable of the unforgiving servant, when the king hears of the forgiven servant’s lack of mercy (Matt 18:34-35). The second is in the parable of the wedding feast, when the King’s invitation-bearing servants were abused and even murdered (Matt 22:5-7). From this it seems clear that Jesus could not have been saying that all anger was as reprehensible as murder.
Just as both God and Jesus get angry, so they both also refer to people as fools (Jer 5:21-22, Matt 23:17). Hence, it seems that it cannot be the simple act of getting angry or calling someone a fool (or, presumably, saying “Raca!”) that merits trial and punishment. It follows that there must be something about the context that is significant. A clue to this is found in the words found in some manuscripts, “without a cause” (Matt 5:22b AV). Again the Greek uses an unusual word, εἰκῇ (eikē). Found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Rom 13:4, 1 Cor 15:2, Gal 3:4, 4:11 and Col 2:18, the Septuagint uses it just once: “An unbelieving man judges rashly [εἰκῇ]: but he that trusts in the Lord will act carefully” (Pr 28:25 LXX [Brenton]). That solitary Septuagint reference strongly suggests that it is only misjudged anger, dismissiveness, and claims of folly, rather than all such behaviour, that forms the subject of this teaching. In view of the response that John the Baptist’s movement had received from the Jewish authorities, such a focus on rash judgement is only to be expected, as Jesus begins this corrective section of the Sermon.
Luz (2007, 236) astutely observes that no human council could deal with the workload if every case of simple abuse were brought before it. He resolves this dilemma by elevating the sayings into the realm of hyperbole, where they are intended to portray God’s perspective on the seriousness of even insignificant insult. However, if the need for referral to the council were dependent upon specific conditions, the problem of overloading quickly disappears.
Luz (2007, 237) considers that the views expressed by Jesus were not original, but that a section of Judaism would already have thought an insult worthy of the sort of punishment that Jesus lists. He therefore feels that one must look to something other than the outcomes of this sin to explain why Jesus set this as an antithesis. For Luz (2007, 237-8) the exhortation of Judaism goes beyond the law, whilst for Jesus the radically formulated admonition is the law. The antithesis arises through the contrast in what constitutes God’s will.
If, as Jeremias suggests (Jeremias 1964, 976), this passage is dealing with three offences worthy of death, then there was one pivotal murder in Israel’s history that ties together judgement by the sons of Levi, trial before a council, and punishment by fire. It is the incident of the Levite’s concubine and the fall of the Benjamite city of Gibeah (Judg 19:1-20:41). A closer look at this event, together with the implication of Matt 18:15-17 (see below), that this saying is dealing with a progression, suggests a quite different reading of Jesus’ words.
For a more detailed analysis of the events in Gibeah see Chapter 15 of The Emmaus View, but suffice it to say that the problem there was idolatry and the procedure followed was that set out by Moses for dealing with idolatry found in an Israelite city (Deut 13:12-16). The demise of Gibeah, and near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, was a three step process:
- The men of Gibeah scorned the warning of an old man (Judg 19:23-25), precipitating events that led to their murder of the Levite’s concubine, so the Levite judged them by convening a council of all Israel to determine what to do (Judg 19:29-20:1);
- The tribe of Benjamin spurned the assembly (Judg 2:3) and failed to hand over the men of Gibeah for punishment (Judg 20:12-13), so the council sent an army against them (Judg 20:9-10);
- The Benjamites scoffed at the two God-initiated warning forays (Judg 20:18,23), so God gave them over and their city was burned (Judg 2-:28,38).
Judgement by God’s representative, trial by council, and punishment by fire, here are the three outcomes describes by Jesus, in the order in which he described them. Gibeah’s idolatry brought the tribe of Benjamin under sentence of death, so was Jesus deliberately alluding to this event to remind his audience that murder was not the only offence punishable by death? It seems a real possibility, for Jerusalem was busily embracing Greco-Roman culture. According to the precedent of Gibeah, the the anger and scorn with which the Jerusalem establishment rejected John the Baptist and his movement, if not repented of, could lead in only one direction. Ultimately it would see them facing the prospect of destruction by fire (cf. Matt 3:11).
10.1 Matthew 18:15-17, if your brother sins against you
Matt 18:15-17 is a key passage for the interpretation of the current passage as it presents similar, though more generic, teaching, but
presented from the opposite perspective, i.e. as viewed by the one against whom the anger is directed.
“15If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother. 16But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector”
(Matt 18:15-17 WEB)
The progression is effectively the same as found in Matt 5:22: a local attempt at correction; corrective intervention by the assembly; treat as if they are inherently unclean.
10.2 Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the marriage feast
Matthew 22:1-14 (and its parallel in Luke 14:16-24) may provide some supporting evidence that Jesus understood his treatment in terms of the events at Gibeah (see above). In this parable, those invited to the wedding feast either ignored the king or seized his servants, abusing them or killed them (cf. Judg 19:15, 25-26). The king then responds by sending troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city (cf. Judg. 2:9-10, 38).
10.3 Ephesians 4:26
Paul, rather than forbid anger, reminds the Ephesians, “Be angry, and don’t sin.” Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph 4:26 WEB). The latter admonition is understandable as sunset was traditionally a time when God intervened to judge disputes between believers (see Chapter 19 of The Emmaus View), therefore justified anger should have translated itself into a rebuke before then, in order that the offender might have a chance to repent.
10.4 First John 2:7-11, 3:14-15
In an apparent reference to both the antithesis setting of Matt 5:21-22’s teaching, 1 John speaks of a new commandment that is actually an old commandment, a commandment to love rather than hate. The writer, addressing the same problem that the antithesis does, expresses his concern at those who say they are in Christ but do not adhere to his way (1 John 2:6), then goes on to say:
“7Brothers, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. 8Again, I write a new commandment to you, which is true in him and in you; because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shines. 9He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in the darkness even until now. 10He who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no occasion for stumbling in him. 11But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
(1 John 2:7-11 WEB)
First John goes on to use Jesus’ comparison of hatred to murder to press home the point.
“14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. He who doesn’t love his brother remains in death. 15Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.”
(1 John 3:14-15 WEB)
In James, an epistle which gives the appearance of leaning heavily upon the Sermon on the Mount, murder appears to be used figuratively in
the very way the Sermon suggests it might. James, addressing the whole church as his brothers, identifies the speed with which these brothers
get angry as a matter of not doing the word (Jas 1:19-20, 22). He makes the point that the royal law (i.e. the law given by his
king, Jesus) must be kept, it is no good shunning adultery if you then resort to murder (Jas 2:8–13), rather they should speak
and act as those judged under the law of liberty (Jas 1:25, cf Matt 7:24). He goes on to address quarreling and fighting amongst
them (Jas 4:1-2) incited by jealousy, and to accuse the rich amongst these Christians of murdering the righteous (Jas
5:6), before encouraging them not to grumble against one another so that they will not be judged (Jas 5:9). It is easy
to see how, within the multi-ethnic early church, quarrels could have arisen over limited resources, with various groups claiming the right to
them by virtue of the greater purity of their practice(i.e. their lack of adultery), whilst engaging in verbal castigation of those that did
not share their views (i.e. murder in the metaphorical sense suggested by the Sermon).
Vermes (2004, 204) considers that “the threat of hellfire for calling someone a fool is choice hyperbole,” and suggests that Jesus’ aim was to eliminate the underlying cause of murder (Vermes 2004, 204).
France (1995, 119), notes that the commandment is followed by a summary of the Hebrew Bible’s teaching on punishing murder (i.e. Matt 5:22b). He considers that “liable to judgement can therefore only imply the death penalty, but the term judgement is used perhaps to differentiate this judicial killing from the murder it punishes” (France 1995, 119) and suggests that “the continued validity of the sixth commandment is assumed, but a legalistic interpretation which restricts its application to the literal act alone is rejected” (France 1995, 119). Hence Jesus moves on to deal with transgressions that cannot be punished in human courtrooms, but still leave an individual guilty before God.
Within the ancient Rabbinic literature there are numerous sayings that come close to Jesus’ inference that the one who called his brother a fool was in danger of Gehenna. With the exception of a minority that cannot be at least roughly dated, these post-date Jesus by at least a generation, so one cannot with any certainty be sure that they are independent of his influence. In most cases it is clearly not the words that are used, but the shame that they bring, that is at issue. A selection of the more important texts are included below.
One of the earliest statements is attributed to Eleazar of Modin (late first century C.E.), as follows:
“One who profanes things sacred, one who slights the festivals, and one who causes his fellow-man’s face to blanch in public, and one who nullifies the covenant of our father Abraham, peace be upon him, and he who exhibits impudence toward the Torah, even though he has to his credit [knowledge of the] Torah and good deeds, he has not a share in the life of the world to come.”
(m. ’Abot 3.11 [Epstein, altered to mixed case])
Vermes (2004, 204) notes a rabbinic midrash, recorded in Sifre on Deuteronomy, that suggests that a person who ceases to love his fellow man may progress through hating him until finally they murder him (Sifre on Deut. 19:10-11). Sifre on Deuteronomy is typical of the output of the school of Rabbi Akiba (Bacher and Horovitz 1905, 11:332) and so probably from the early second century C.E.
Luz (2007, 237) attributes the statement “Whoever hates his brother, behold he belongs to those who shed blood,” to Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (a tannim prominent in the late first and early second centuries).
R. Johanan (died ca. 279 C.E.) said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai (second century C.E.): “Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong, because of the first it is written, ‘and thou shalt fear thy God,’ but not of the second. R. Eleazar said: The one affects his [the victim's] person, the other [only] his money. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For the former restoration is possible, but not for the latter” (b. B. Meș. 58b [Daiches and Freedman]).
R. Samuel b. Nahmani, said, in the name of his second-century mentor R. Jonathan: “He who loses his temper is exposed to all the torments of Gehenna” (m. Ned. 22a, Freedman).
An un-named tanna recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac (died 365 C.E.): “He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though
he shed blood. Whereupon he remarked to him, ‘You say well, because I have seen it [sc. such shaming], the ruddiness departing and paleness
supervening’” (b. B. Meș. 58b [Daiches and Freedman]).
Abaye (born about the end third century - died 339 C.E.) asked R. Dimi (dates unknown):
“What do people [most] carefully avoid in the West [sc. palestine]? — He replied: putting others to shame. For R. Hanina said: All descend into Gehenna, excepting three. ‘All’ — can you really think so! But say thus: All who descend into Gehenna [subsequently] reascend, excepting three, who descend but do not reascend, viz., He who commits adultery with a married woman, publicly shames his neighbour, or fastens an evil epithet [nickname] upon his neighbour. ‘Fastens an epithet’ — but that is putting to shame! — [It means], Even when he is accustomed to the name.”
(b. B. Meș. 58b [Daiches and Freedman])
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah (probably the second generation Bablylonian amora Rabbah bar bar Hana), speaking in the name of R. Johanan (an ambiguous designation), seems to share in the sentiments of m. ’Abot 3.11, when he said:
“Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman1 rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour,” and then defends this by quoting another tradition, that king David complained that his enemies, whilst deep in the most complex study, yet ‘jeer at me, saying, “David! what is the death penalty of him who seduces a married woman?” to which the king replied “He is executed by strangulation, yet has he a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbour to shame has no portion in the world to come.”’
(b. B. Meș. 59a [Daiches and Freedman])
Concerning an insult that offended someone who was not its intended target, Rabbi Simeon (second century) is reported to have held the opinion
“where the offender intended to insult one person and by an accident insulted another person he would be exempt, the reason being that this might be likened to murder, and just as in the case of murder there is no liability unless where the intention was for the particular person killed”
(b. B. Quam 86a [Kirzner])
[N.B. Luz (2007, 236) cites T. B. Quam 9l31 (366), on the authority of Str-B 1.278, with reference to shaming actions done in anger, I have been unable to identify this passage, the above being the nearest I have found. In the same footnote he also cites b. Hallah 18a on the authority of Str-B 1.282, another reference that I cannot track down.]
An unattributed saying in the Talmud states that groundless hate is as bad as shedding of blood:
“But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together”
(b. Yoma 9b [Epstein])
The third-century amora Simeon ben Lakish (born ca. 200 C.E.) reputedly said “As to every man who becomes angry, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him” (b. Pesah 66b [Epstein]). To another post-second-century amoraim, R. Mani b. Pattish (dates unknown), is attributed the statement “Whoever becomes angry, even if greatness has been decreed for him by Heaven, is cast down” (b. Pesah 66b [Epstein]).