A great big tip of the biretta to Mike Bird. But this is s great idea with some really clever touches.
Sometimes the familiarity of a biblical text can obscure its oddities. I’ve been pondering (in a bit of sidetrack from thinking about Matthew’s infancy narrative) the oddity of Matthew 5:17 (and following).
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.
There are a swirl of historical and interpretative questions around this, which have probably also helped obscure the oddity. Does the “I have come” saying point, as some critics think, to a later ecclesial invention or editing? (I’m not persuaded that that holds as a general argument). Does the following “Amen, I tell you” point to authenticity? Again, I don’t think its presence is an infallible guarantee of historicity, even if it is virtually certain Jesus characteristically began certain teachings with it.
One of the problems is that the Sermon on the Mount is such a thoroughgoing piece of Matthean literary construction (and this paragraph of it ends with a characteristically Matthean reference to “scribes and Pharisees”) that all these sayings are ripped from any narrative contexts which might help us understand and evaluate them. (This was always why form criticism was an essentially ahistorical waste of any questers time!) It is quite possible to invent plausible historical contexts for this saying in either controversies arising in the ministry of Jesus or the arguments of the early church about Torah observance.
The thing I’m puzzling about today, however, is not one of these bigger questions, it is about the language of “the law or the prophets”. I can understand someone abolishing or annulling laws, but really don’t know quite what that would mean in relation to prophecies, and I can understand someone fulfilling the prophets, but not really the idea of fulfilling laws. Each verb only correlates well with one of the nouns, but only metaphorically or by extension with the other.
Matthew, of course, in common with (as far as I can see) the rest of the early church also treats Torah as christological prophecy, and yet here Torah as commandment seems to be mainly in view. So I’m still a bit puzzled.
Of course, there’s a contemporary analogy. Christians are often heard discussing the authority of scripture. I know what an authoritative law is: one that must be obeyed. However, I’m a bit more hazy what an authoritative narrative is (something foundational?), and even more confused what an authoritative poem is (something that gets under the skin?). How do you obey a poem?
It seems (despite that slightly odd “or” where we might expect an “and”, the phrase “the Law or the prophets” is already a generic way of referring to the books taken to be Scriptures, and that Matthew’s (and possibly Jesus’) language reflects the way in that designation as Holy Scripture begins to override the normal linguistic precision we might have expected from the different types of book under discussion.