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Discourse on holiness

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The discourse on holiness forms the concluding part of the Sermon on the Mount, following immediately from the discourse on judgementalism. Like many other parts of the Sermon, it consists of a series of sayings followed by a brief explanation, and many of the sayings appear also in the Gospel of Luke.

Seeking answers

In Luke (at 11:9-13) and Matthew (at 7:7-11) is a monologue about asking, seeking, and knocking, which Luke presents as simply occurring in the day-to-day run of things, while Matthew presents it as part of discourse on holiness. The most common interpretation of this monologue, amongst modern Christianity, is that it refers to prayer. However, like most of the sayings attributed to the Q document, they can also be interpreted in a heavily gnostic way, which supporters of Gnostic primacy consider to be the meaning it was originally intended to have. Several Christian scholars such as Fowler, Hendriksen, Morris, and France, argue for the prayer-interpretation by suggesting that asking refers to humility, seeking refers to seeking answers to their needs in God, or to the effort and concentration required for prayer, and knocking as a metaphor of the time for gaining admittance to the Kingdom of Heaven. Other scholars, though, contend that the more obvious interpretation is the search for knowledge - Schwiezer argues that many Rabbis of the period placed important stress on religious study, while Luz argues that the Gnostics (a significant early form of Christianity) saw the pursuit of unteachable esoteric wisdom as their main goal.

The present imperative tense is used for the three verbs seeking, asking, and knocking, in these verses, implying that these actions are to be continuous. With the prayer interpretation this is usually seen as implying that prayer should be a continual habit, not just an occasional one, while with the wisdom interpretation this is seen as a statement of obvious fact - that the search for knowledge is one that is in some ways unending.

Between Luke and Matthew's version of the monologue three metaphors are given, presumably since they are relevant:

  • When a man asks for bread you are unlikely to give him a stone - given by Matthew
  • When a man asks for fish you are unlikely to give him a serpent - given by Matthew and Luke
  • When a man asks for an egg you are unlikely to give him a scorpion - given by Luke

Although the objects involved may seem at first to be quite unsuited to being pairs, this is not entirely the case, as the standard form of bread in the era were small round loaves resembling stones, and a common fish caught in the region was the Clarias lazera, a catfish that happens to resemble a snake. Scorpions on the other hand have little resemblance to eggs, though a few scholars have proposed that this refers to white scorpions, who have vaguely egg-shaped bodies, when the existence of their comparatively small legs, claws, and sting are ignored. Clearly each of these metaphors is pointing out that people are unlikely to respond to requests for food by providing inedible and worthless objects, or dangerous and inedible creatures, and the monologue concludes by stating that it applies to asking, seeking, and knocking - that these things would receive positive responses, even if people are evil, since many evil people still act kindly to their own children, and (according to Luke and Matthew) God isn't even evil.

A few scholars perceive this conclusion as inferring that all humans are evil, though Fowler argues that it is only in comparison to God, and other scholars argue that the text clearly refers only to some people who are evil - if you are evil and still ..., not you are evil but if you .... While Matthew portrays God giving good things for prayer, Luke instead has God giving the Holy Ghost, and so scholars disagree as to which form reflects the original quotation from Q - Luz for example arguing that Holy Ghost is original while Hill argues that good things is.

The essence of the teaching

The discourse summarises itself by deliberately presenting a formulation of the Ethic of reciprocity - do to others as you would have them do to you. This summary also appears in Luke, just after the instruction to love thine enemy, which many see as being the obvious implication of the ethic. Matthew adds that this ethic is the law and the prophets, which is near universally interpreted to mean that the ethic is the entire essence and being of other biblical teachings, and several scholars suspect that the presence of this ethic in Luke and Matthew is due to their usage of Hillel's earlier formulation of the ethic, which ends with a similar statement to Matthew.

At the time, the Ethic was usually presented as a negation - don't do to others what you wouldn't have them do to you -, and negative presentation of laws - don't .... - was the standard in Jewish literature, so there is some question as to why Matthew, supposedly Jewish (at least before following Jesus), would present the positive wording. Both the positive and negative presentations occurred in many cultures prior to Matthew and Luke's usage, though Christians often claim that the positive wording did not, and some Christians see the use of positive, rather than negative, wording as being highly significant - that one should actively carry out the ethic, not passively so. Early Christians, however, saw little difference between the wordings, often paraphrasing Matthew and Luke's usage of the Ethic by the negative form, and many modern scholars, like Luz, ascribe the effort to divide the positive and negative forms as being down to anti-Judaic prejudice.

Appreciation of the teachings

The discourse argues that one should not cast pearls before swine nor holy things to the dogs. In Jewish culture of the period, as well as middle eastern culture in general, both dogs and pigs (swine) were badly regarded, as they ate scraps and carrion, and could sometimes be dangerous, pigs in particular being the quintessential example of a ritually unclean animal. There is some question whether there is something significant about the mention of pearls, at the time seen as an extreme luxury, or if they are merely present as a token luxury. Pigs obviously would not appreciate the value of pearls and are likely to trample them underfoot, but this is true of many other luxuries as well, so several scholars think that the term pearls is actually an erroneous transcription, and that the original referred to a gold ring, since this would then imply that the phrase was derived from one of the proverbs of the Book of Proverbs (specifically 11:22). The phrase pearls before swine itself has since become a common expression for putting things in front of people who don't appreciate their value, and there have been numerous uses of the title in popular culture; there is a Pearls Before Swine comic strip, a Pearls Before Swine psychedelic American folk band, and Pearls Before Swine is an alternate title for Kurt Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Some scholars, including some aligned with Christian orthodoxy, have proposed that, since Jewish literature of the period frequently portrayed non-Jews as dogs and the Roman Empire as a pig, the phrase is a rebuke of Gentiles, and hence that Jesus' message was intended solely for Jews. Amongst mainstream Christians the phrase is sometimes interpreted as an instruction against continuing to evangelise people who are unsympathetic to Christianity, while some interpret the phrase as merely being an attack against unholy things - that special effort should be made to keep places of worship clean, religious meals respected, and holy days honoured.

The choice of following the teachings

Both in the discourse in Matthew, and more incidentally in Luke, is the instruction to enter by the narrow gate and to take the narrow path leading to life as the gate and path that lead to destruction are wide and broad (Luke mentions only the gates not the paths). The Christian orthodoxy generally interprets this as a metaphor about sin, and how it is easy to commit sin, but difficult, and a gruelling task, to avoid it; Gnostics interpreted it as being about esoteric knowledge and how it is easy to find misleading information, but difficult to find truth. Traditionally, the view arose that the verse was eschatological - as a reference to last judgement being meted out to those who took the wide path - though in more modern times the view has arisen that it simply describes how taking the easy option is often self destructive. More liberal eschatological views about the metaphor have also arisen in modern times; an interpretation, supported by J Duncan M Derrett amongst others, argues that the metaphor never portrays the gates as referring to different cities, and so it implies that both gates lead to the same place - that both sinners and pious will ultimately find God's grace.

The dualism of the statement was common in Jewish literature of the period, and also appears in Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah, books which many scholars date to the babylonian exile, and a period in which Jewish belief was heavily influenced by the Zoroastrianism of their captors, which was fundamentally dualistic. Davies and Allison have argued against Q as a source for the metaphor, claiming that the noticeable difference in phrasing between Luke and Matthew is an indicator that they are less likely to originate from the same source quote, while Luz has argued that the gate part of the metaphor is from the Q document but the paths part isn't.

That the passage describes the appropriate path as being narrow, and one which few find, would seem to superficially contradict other parts of Matthew, where Jesus is portrayed as arguing that many would be saved, not merely a few. Technically, the term translated as narrow could be taken simply to mean that the route is overcrowded, though this would contradict the clear statement that only a few find it, as well as being out of keeping with Jewish thought at the time, which saw the pious as a beleaguered minority.

See also Didache#The Two Ways, James 1:22.

False prophets

The discourse emphasises that there are those who falsely claim to teach the truth, by metaphorically portraying false prophets as wolves in sheep's clothing, a phrase which has since become a common expression for confidence trickery and for villainy hiding under a guise of innocence. Wolves have since ancient times been consistently portrayed as excessively malevolent, and so the phrase originally had much greater strength than it does today. Schweizer has argued that the metaphor is indirectly referring to the then traditional description of prophets being clad in animal skins.

It is an open question whether false prophets is a reference to any group in particular, rather than just a general warning. As most scholars argue that Matthew has drawn Jesus' quote from the Q document, the phrase doesn't even necessarily refer to someone that Matthew elsewhere has portrayed as an enemy. The main possibilities that have been suggested are:

  • specific individuals like Simon Magus and Bar Kokba
  • the Pharisees, whom Matthew consistently portrays as the main enemy of righteousness
  • the Essenes, a religious sect that had several strong similarities to the behaviour that Matthew attributes to Jesus
  • the Zealots, a radical Jewish group, later advocating violence
  • the Gnostics, a major form of Christianity in early times, though many scholars (usually Christian) believe Gnosticism not to have developed at the time Matthew was written
  • what became the Christian orthodoxy, which, according to those arguing for Gnostic primacy, wasn't the original form of Christianity.

Matthew also describes Jesus as making a statement, that one should identify false prophets by their fruits, since grapes don't come from thorn bushes. Most commentators view the metaphor as explaining that successful prophecy comes only from true prophets. Matthew asserts the conclusion by claiming that good trees bear only good fruit, and rotten trees only bad fruit.

See also


Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Discourse on holiness. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

  • Davies, W.D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 1988-1997.
  • Fowler, Harold. The Gospel of Matthew: Volume One. Joplin: College Press, 1968
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Hendriksen, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1-7: A Commentary. trans. Wilhlem C. Linss. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
  • Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
Discourse on holiness
Preceded by
Discourse on Judging
in the Sermon on the Mount
New Testament
Succeeded by
Test of a Person
in the Sermon on the Mount

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