Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stephen Neill Emends the Sermon on the Mount

Appreciating the Sermon on the Mount is challenging enough as it is, but there is one part of the sermon that always puzzled and disconcerted me. It's Matthew 5:21-22.There was an understandable teaching in there, but something about it seemed somehow twisted.

Jesus says this:
Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Now this saying always left me squeamish; it was not in the same vein as Jesus's other 'You-have-heard-but-I say-to-you-teachings. The other sayings of similar form first set out teachings of the Pharisees, always teachings that are some combination of the true Law and their own human traditions.. These pharisaical statements concern outward behaviour. Jesus tells them something else. The Pharisees are concerned only with the sinfulness of the outward behaviour; Jesus tells them that God is concerned also with the inward attitudes that motivate that behaviour. Not just adultery is sinful, but also the lust that begets it. God looks at not just the letter of the spirit. His standards for our inward conduct are in one sense even tougher than the jot-and-tittle rules that the Pharisees enforce -- Jesus's rejoinder to His critics who say he is a loose teacher, a subverter of the Law. But Christian conduct is not a matter of dutiful grudging adherence to a set of burdensome rules, but of God-pleasing conduct resulting from regeneration and spiritual growth as we become more and more like Jesus.
Bishop Stephen Neill put it better than I can in his book The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961:
This is not at all the kind of thing that we should expect Jesus to say; this legal logic-chopping is not in the least in the style either of his utterance or his thoughts

Bishop Neill thought he had the solution. He was one of the great orthodox Anglican figures of the 20th century. He maintained a clear attitude of reverence for Scripture with a comprehensive knowledge of modern Biblical criticism. Now the doctrine of inspiration says only that the Biblical books as written by their authors in their original manuscripts were inspired by God. There is no guarantee that these manuscripts have been copied correctly and transmitted to us without error. The huge number of textual variants discovered over the centuries make such a guarantee impossible, indeed confirm there was no such guarantee. Most modern textual emendation results from new discoveries, a correction of a word owing to recognition of some ancient error in copying or to some discovery of a more likely meaning of some word whose meaning in New Testament Greek has always been unclear. In Matthew 5, Neill suggests, there was a slightly different type of error. The ancient copyists transposed the order of the phrases. The words after "judgment" should be moved up, ahead of "But I say unto you". Now the Sanhedrin and Hellfire teachings so much in the style of the Pharisees are in the right place. To the typical Pharisaical condemnation of outward behaviour, the warning that anyone guilty of murder, or insulting or abusing a brother is condemned, "[t]he answer of Jesus then stands in its brief and lapidary splendour -- 'everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the judgment of God".
I should very much like to circulate this interpretation among every orthodox to be found and see how many of them reject it on the grounds that the rearrangement of verses constitutes a sinful tampering of Scripture. Those who do so would be like the Pharisees, burdening the people with a teaching that is an unwholesome mixture of the Law and human teaching and tradition, one often maintained bot for its truthfulness but for its use in condemning others and showing them to be less serious and devout than they are.. Sometimes we must be reminded that we need to do more than just boast of the doctrine of the reliability of Scripture in order to contrast ourselves with the lowly liberals. We need to know what it actually holds, that we might be free to pursue a better understanding of Scripture, and thereby grow in our knowledge of God.

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