A Christian “Mishna”

The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount.
by W. D. Davies.
Cambridge University Press. 547 pp. $12.50.

Whatever else might be said about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, one thing is certain—the latter grew out of the former. Thus, according to Paul's Letter to the Romans, the Jews are the natural branches of the tree of redemption, whose “root” is Israel's history; the Gentiles are “grafted in among them.” As time went on, however, it became customary for students of Christian history to ignore the Jewish roots of the sayings of Jesus, the teachings of Paul and the apostles, and the institutions of the Church. If they considered the Judaism of Jesus's time at all, it was either to dismiss it as Spaetjudentum (late Judaism)—that is, as an irritating superfluity—or to use it as a foil for the celebration of Christian “advances” in ethics and religion. This annoying tendentiousness of Christian scholarship was partly a consequence of the fact that translations of 1st- and 2nd-century Jewish sources were relatively scarce, while the intricacies of a talmudic argument were difficult enough even for students who had grown up with Hebrew. But what was even more important, much of modern biblical scholarship had its roots in Germany, where the Lutheran heritage stressed the absolute dichotomy between Law (or Torah) and Gospel. In the Augastinian-Lutheran view, the religion of Jesus came in order to break the chains of the Law that had been forged by Judaism. How, then, could Christianity be anything other than a radical departure from its Jewish antecedent?

It has taken a long time for Christian scholars to overcome such prejudice, which even today survives in some quarters. However, most Christian schools of historical study and biblical exegesis now take it for granted that rabbinic Judaism provided the background, and in some cases the content, of Christian teachings and institutions. Among those most influential in creating this positive reassessment of rabbinic Judaism has been Professor W. D. Davies of Union Theological Seminary. The present volume, “part of a wider attempt to understand the interaction of Christianity and Judaism in the first century,” represents a continuation of his earlier researches, especially his highly esteemed Paul and Rabbinic Judaism.

In point of scholarship and objectivity, Professor Davies's new book compares favorably with the best products of German Religions-wissenschaft (science of religion). He has read the rabbinic texts in the original, and he has painstakingly studied all the secondary material bearing on the subject. Yet the results of his research are not limited in interest to the specialist alone; they have wide implications for the understanding of the general relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

Professor Davies sets out to examine the influences both within and outside the Church “which led to the concentrated presentation of moral teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount.” Actually, the Sermon is one in name only. We do not know how much of it was actually spoken by Jesus, and how much resulted from contributions by transmitters of the tradition. (Modern scholarship attributes the relevant chapters in Matthew to three different sources—a post-65 C.E. Roman one; another dating about 50 C.E.; and a third one derived from the early Church in Jerusalem.) In any case, when Matthew composed his gospel he did not simply paste together the materials available to him. He not only refashioned and carefully rephrased them, he also added to them in accordance with his understanding of the mission of Jesus, and in response to the needs of the Church in his time—the end of the 1st century. In tracing the setting of the Sermon on the Mount, Professor Davies therefore focuses on the intellectual and ecclesiastical currents of thought that influenced Matthew as he composed it.


According to Professor Davies, two elements in rabbinic Judaism were particularly important in shaping the writings of Matthew: the Halakhah, or the Law, and the idea of Messianic fulfillment. Now, as Professor Davies demonstrates, the relationship between the Law, or Torah, and the Messiah was not completely explained by the Judaism of Matthew's time. Thus it was not clear what the Messiah would do with the Torah when he appeared; the only thing that was certain was that he would not abrogate it entirely. The Messiah might settle disputed points of interpretation of the Torah; he might prune away some unnecessary elements; he might modify some regulations. But the Torah would continue to be in force even in the Messianic era. Matthew, of course, believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and the Sermon on the Mount, Professor Davies says, embodies his belief that the Messianic era had not destroyed the Halakhah, but rather had created a new Halakhah—a Messianic Law. In the words of Professor Davies, “Not antithesis but completion expresses the relationship between the Law of Moses and the teaching of Jesus.”

But the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity can also be seen in more concrete historical terms. Matthew wrote his gospel some time after 70 C.E.—when the second Temple was destroyed—and during the period when Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai was rebuilding rabbinic Judaism in Jamnia. It was there that a revitalized Pharisaism produced the codification of the Law in the Mishna, and fixed the important elements of the liturgy. Professor Davies maintains that the Sermon on the Mount is a “Christian answer to Jamnia.” He shows that the Lord's Prayer bears structural similarities to the Jewish Shemoneh-Esre and that the sayings of Jesus seem to be related to the form of expression in the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. Moreover, he refers to Dr. Louis Finkelstein's intriguing hypothesis that when Matthew counts fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian captivity, and fourteen generations from the captivity to the birth of Jesus, his procedure should be understood in the light of the beginning of the Ethics of the Fathers, where fourteen generations are counted from Moses to the schools of the Pharisees. It is no accident that the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the beginning of the Pirke Avot and the Avot of Rabbi Nathan all refer to fourteen generations, for this procedure, according to Rabbi Finkelstein, is a way of arguing about the locus of the authentic tradition. Whereas the Pharisees see their own school as the true heir of Moses, Matthew points to the Christian Church as the legitimate interpreter of the Scriptures. Though today we may think this a strange way to authenticate a claim to legitimacy, it appears that antiquity was impressed by it.

Since Matthew looked upon the teaching of Jesus as Halakhah, he was faced with the task of making its extravagant demands viable to the community. For example, Mark and Luke, both of whom precede Matthew, quote Jesus as saying: “Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another commits adultery.” Matthew, however, has Jesus say: “Whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity and marries commits adultery.” The additional clause, in the opinion of Professor Davies, is a kind of Gemara, an interpretation of the original words. Such modifications were necessary because the final end of history, which earlier Christian writers had felt to be imminent, had not come about. The words of Jesus had therefore to be applied to real historical situations, and this is what Matthew intended to do when he constructed the Messianic Law.


Everyone, of course, has always agreed that the Sermon on the Mount was messianic, but it is Professor Davies's great achievement to have demonstrated that it was also meant to be understood as Law. The Sermon on the Mount is not an attack on legalism, but rather an example of what could be called a Christian Mishna, or even a Shulchan Aruch. The implications of this fact are crucial for the understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. Jewish legalism has repeatedly been ridiculed and denounced; Judaism's preoccupation with minutiae and its establishment of specific norms have frequently been contrasted with the freedom and humanism of Christianity. Now, however, it turns out that this legalism is the very paradigm followed by the originators of Christian teaching.

Jewish Halakhah represented an attempt to make the prophetic ethic relevant. As a real society faced with real problems, the Jews could not regulate conduct and establish norms merely by referring to general principles. Rather, they had to develop a patient and sometimes annoying “casuistry” so that these general maxims could be applied to specific situations. The same process is evident in the early history of Christianity. At first Jesus was regarded as the teacher who proclaimed the end of the world, and with it the end of realistic ethical norms; but when that end did not come, Halakhah—as embodied in the Sermon on the Mount—became necessary. (Professor Davies cites a fascinating parallel. In the beginning, revolutionary Communism was violently antinomian. Since the new classless society was to be without property relationships, the law and the state which had served the interests of private property would also vanish. “Communism,” said a Soviet jurist in 1927, “means not the victory of socialist law, but the victory of socialism over any law.”)

No one can deny that there are crucial differences between Judaism and Christianity. In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr, arguing with the Jew Trypho, put it very clearly: “Those who have followed and will follow Christ are the true Israel, the children of the Promise, the true successors of those Jews who found justification in times past.” On the theological level at least, the real issue between the two communities continues to be whether the Jews or the Christians are the true heirs to the Promise of the Covenant. But Professor Davies's remarkable book shows that whatever differences may stand between Judaism and Christianity, both agree as to the necessity of Law in religion.

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