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‘Who Thinks I Have Come to Abolish the Law?’ Matthew 5:17–19: A Response to Pharisaic Libel?

Emily Fero[1], School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University


Scholars have been unable to agree upon whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew was familiar with, or critical of, the writings of the Apostle Paul. At the core of many of these scholarly arguments lies Matt. 5:17–19 (‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law’) – a key passage which some scholars read as being directed against Paul, while others believe it to be aimed towards Pharisaic Jews. Those who believe Matt. 5:17–19 to be directed against the Pharisees do so on the basis that the Evangelist was engaged in a fierce legal debate with them over the correct interpretation of Mosaic Law.

This article turns to the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls – a body of literature left behind by another group of roughly contemporaneous Jews, the yaḥad – in order to provide insight into understanding Matt. 5:17–19. An examination of the polemical language used by the yaḥad shows that the specific accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’, as found in Matt. 5:17–19, is not extant in the sectarian documents of the Scrolls. The Scrolls, therefore, cannot be drawn upon as evidence to support the hypothesis that the accusation ‘abolishing the Law’ was typical of legal debate.

Keywords: Dead Sea Scrolls, Gospel of Matthew, Pharisees, Jewish Law, the Apostle Paul, First-Century Christianity, Judaism.


Whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew was familiar with the writings, or the churches, of the Apostle Paul, and if so, what the Evangelist thought of him (or them), is an intricately complex question.[2] Their canonisation testifies to the fact that the writings of the Evangelist and Paul have traditionally been viewed as complementary rather than contradictory. However, due to their opposition on matters of the Law, some scholars have questioned whether the Gospel of Matthew is intentionally refuting Pauline thought. A decisive answer to this question, however, has yet to be agreed upon among scholars.[3]

Matthew 5:17–19, Paul and the Pharisees

At the heart of many of the scholarly arguments lies Jesus’ exhortation at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not think that I have come to abolish (καταλῦσαι/katalūsai) the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all has been accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[4]
(Matt. 5:17–19)

It is almost universally agreed that Matthew has an overall positive view of Jewish Law and portrays Jesus as operating completely within the bounds of Torah observance, albeit Jesus’ interpretation of Torah (Brandon, 1957: 230–34; Goulder, 1974: 153; Meier, 1983: 3–4; Mohrlang, 1984: 7–26; Scroggs, 1989: 133–41; Luz, 1995: 144–46; Sim, 1996: 186; 1998: 207; 2009b: 55–61; 2011: 181; Harrington, 2008: 17; Keener, 2009: 175–76; Willitts, 2009: 4; Runesson, 2011: 141; Runesson, 2016: 320 and 379–80; White, 2014: 355–58 and 374). Matthew has Jesus explicitly say so himself – he has come not to abolish (katalūsai) the Law (which in Matt. 5:17–19 appears to have the figurative meaning of annulling, or rendering it void (Green, 1912: 454; Keener, 2009: 177)) – but to fulfil it.

From this, some scholars therefore see in Matt. 5:17–19 a direct polemic against Paul (Brandon, 1957: 233–4; Sim, 2007: 325) who claims in his letter to the Romans ‘for Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’ (Rom. 10:4). Others, however, remain unconvinced that Matthew is addressing fellow Christ-believers at all, choosing rather to see in Matt. 5:17–19 a defence against Jewish,[5] or more specifically, Pharisaic accusations that the Gospel writer and his church were themselves the ones who were lawless (France, 1989: 110; Keener, 2009: 176–77; White, 2014: 356 and 366).

Matthew 5:17–19: A response to Pharisaic libel?

Those who see in Matt. 5:17–19 a defence against Jewish, or more specifically, Pharisaic accusations do so on the basis that Matthew was engaged in a fierce legal debate with them over the correct interpretation of Mosaic Law, and this is compelling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it makes sense if the Gospel was written in the wake of 70 CE, a time in which ‘sibling Jewish communities’ were arguing over how best to deal with the changes brought by the destruction of the Temple, the existence of messianic faith in Jesus, and the rise of rabbinic authority (White, 2014: 356). Not surprisingly, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is often found to be engaged in disputes with the Pharisees over the correct interpretation of Torah (Matt. 12:9–14; 15:1–20; 19:3–9; 23:23).[6]

Secondly, the placement of Matt. 5:17–19 at the beginning of the antitheses (5:21–48) would also make sense if Matthew wanted to ensure that Jesus’ rulings in this section (‘You have heard that it was said […] but I say to you […]’) were not misconstrued by other Jews as a deliberate dismissal of the Law. They are, on the contrary, to be understood as intensifications of the Law, or as ‘building fences around the Law’ in order to prevent unintentional transgression of these commandments (White, 2014: 357).[7] Furthermore, Craig S. Keener notes that some Jews did in fact accuse the early Christians of antinomianism, and therefore Matt 5:17–19 was likely intended to provide reassurance for Jewish followers of Jesus ‘locked in polemic with synagogue leaders’ (2009: 176–79).

Those scholars who view Matt. 5:17–19 as directed against the Pharisees, therefore, understand this passage to be representative of a historical situation (albeit a hypothetical historical situation) in which the Pharisees, who vehemently disagreed with Matthew’s interpretation of the Law, accused Matthew and his community, following Jesus’ lead, of ‘abolishing the Law’. Matthew’s rebuttal, placed into the mouth of Jesus himself – ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law’ – is therefore a Matthean defence against Pharisaic accusations in the context of a legal debate.

If we accept the above hypothetical scenario, as posed by France, Keener and White, then we may reasonably expect ‘abolishing the Law’ to be a possible accusation which first-century Jews might level against their contemporaries when they did not agree with each other’s interpretation of the Law. In order to assess the plausibility of this scenario, this paper will turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls – a body of literature left behind by another group of roughly contemporaneous Jews, the yaḥad, who were also engaged in intense legal debate with their Jewish contemporaries – in order to determine whether they can provide us with some insight into better understanding Matt. 5:17–19.

An examination of the polemical language used by the yaḥad in the Scrolls to describe its Jewish enemies with whom it was engaged in halakhic dispute shows that, while an array of polemics can be found, the specific accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’ itself, as found in Matt. 5:17–19, is not extant anywhere in the sectarian documents of the Scrolls. While other sources would need to be drawn upon in order to gain a full understanding of what was, and was not, typical language of first-century Jewish legal debate, what can be said is that the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves cannot be drawn upon as evidence to support the hypothesis that the accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’ was typical of such legal debate.

The yaḥad and its Jewish enemies

The existence of differing opinions concerning life after death, the immortality of the soul, fate versus free will, religious practice and legal interpretation manifested in the formation of the three major philosophical schools extant in first-century Judaism, including the Pharisees and Sadducees. The third school, the Essenes, embracing the ascetic lifestyle, were renowned for their extreme piety towards God, and for exceeding ‘all other men in virtue’ (see Josephus, Antiquities, 18.18–22; Jewish War, 2.119–61; Pliny, Natural History, 5.15.73; Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 12.75–87 in Schiffman, 1998: 275–84). In 1947, an initial discovery of seven scrolls in a cave west of the Dead Sea sparked the discovery of over 900 manuscripts in 11 caves which most scholars now identify as having been left behind by a particular community of Essenes, self-designated the yaḥad (community),[8] who occupied the nearby settlement of Qumran.[9]

Found among the manuscripts were biblical, apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works, as well as sectarian texts showcasing the distinctive views of the Qumran community, including biblical commentaries, legal texts, writings used for worship, and eschatological works dating to the last centuries BCE and first-century CE (VanderKam, 2010: 33–41 and 47–94).[10] Believing that the current Jerusalem leadership had defiled the Temple, this community removed themselves from mainstream society to reside in the wilderness of the Judaean desert (Regev, 2003). Occupying the Qumran settlement during the first-century BCE up until the first Jewish revolt against Rome, the yaḥad, motivated by a dualistic worldview in which the individual’s fate was predetermined (Leonhardt-Balzer, 2010: 121–47; Stauber, 2011: 345–58), lived a communal, ascetic lifestyle committed to the study of Torah (VanderKam, 2010: 102–12 and 127–39).

These Qumran sectarians, like all Jews, including the Pharisees and the Matthean community (Keener, 2009: 175–76), were also committed to the proper observance of Mosaic Law. Those who willingly enter the ‘New Covenant’ (CD 6:19; 8:21; 19:33) of their community are advised ‘to act according to the exact interpretation of the Law during the age of wickedness’ (CD 6:14), and to ‘stray neither to the right nor to the left’ of God’s commands and true precepts (ḥoqei) (1QS 1:13–15). However, again, like Matthew and the Pharisees, they developed their own interpretative exegesis of the Law which guided their daily observance of it, and heavily criticised other Jews whose interpretations of the Law diverged from their own (Schiffman, 2007: 246). So while members of the community were expected to walk ‘perfectly in all the ways commanded by God’ (1QS 3:9–10), it is God’s commandments as interpreted by the sect which must be followed – the yaḥad is to act ‘according to that interpretation of the Law in which the first (men) [i.e. the founding members of the community] were instructed’ (CD 4:7–8). And so we will now turn to the language which the yaḥad used to describe those non-sectarian Jews whose halakhah it opposed, and the accusations it levelled against them.[11]

The sons of darkness who despise the Law and reject the commandments

There is no shortage of descriptions used in the Scrolls to denote those Jews outside of the community (past and present), as well as previous members of the yaḥad who have since reverted back to their old ways. Non-sectarian Jews are described as ‘workers of iniquity’ and ‘men of deceit’ (1QH 6:14) who ‘walk in the way of wickedness’ (1QS 5:11) and commit ‘evil deeds’ (4QpNah 1–2 iii 3). They are ‘men of injustice’ (1QS 5:2), a ‘horde of Belial’ (1QH 10:22) and a ‘congregation of traitors’ (CD 1:12) and vanity (1QH 14:5). ‘Men of the Pit’ (1QS 9:16) who are ‘ruled by the Angel of Darkness’ (1QS 3:20–21), they are the ‘sons of darkness’ (1QS 1:10), spirits and seekers of falsehood (1QH 4:23; 10:34), ‘men of violence’ (1QpHab 2:6) and ‘guilty men of uncleanness’ (4Q414 2 ii 3–4). A number of reasons are also provided in the Scrolls for why they merit such descriptions.

Multiple examples can be found in which certain individuals, specific groups, or non-sectarians Jews as a whole are described as either abandoning the Law of Moses and the Prophets, or as fostering an overall contempt towards God’s ordinances. In the Pesher commentary on Hosea, an unidentified group of Jews are described as casting God’s commandments ‘which He had sent [by the hand of] His servants the Prophets’ behind them (4QpHosa 2:1–5) and as having ‘[rejected the ruling of the Law]’ (4QpHosa 2:14–16). The ‘bases of the statues’ in Amos 5:26–7 (‘I will exile the tabernacle of your king and the bases of your statutes from my tent to Damascus’) are interpreted by the community as referring to ‘the Books of the Prophets whose sayings Israel has despised’ (CD 7:14–18) (Vermes, 2011: 135) – ‘Israel’ in this instance being non-sectarian Jews. Contrastingly, the ‘tabernacle’ in Amos 5:26–7 is interpreted as referring to the Books of the Law, and the ‘king’ as referring to the congregation (i.e. the yaḥad), who presumably do not despise the Books of the Law or the Prophets.

Another fragmentary section of the Pesher Habakkuk interprets Habakkuk 1:4a-b (‘So the law is weak and justice never goes forth’) as referring to ‘those who have despised the Law of God’ in the community’s present day (1QpHab 1:10–11). Similarly, a group referred to as ‘those who seek smooth things’ (dorshe ḥalaqot) in the commentary on Isaiah, an epithet for the Pharisees in the pesharim (Schiffman, 2007: 250; VanderKam, 2010: 68–69), are also described as despising the words of the Law (see lines 10–14 of 4Q163 in Vermes, 2011: 499), while a mid first-century BCE eschatological midrash featuring the angelic figure Melchizedek claims of Psalms 82:2 (‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’) that its meaning concerns those under Belial who ‘rebelled by turning away from the precepts of God’ (11Q13 1–4 ii 11–12; see Vermes, 2011: 532–33).

In addition to their disregard for the Law, those Jews not belonging to the community are also at times portrayed as having an estranged or even hostile relationship with God. Those outside the community are accused of despising God and His words (CD 1:2; 1QS 5:19), of forgetting God (4QpHosa 2:3), forsaking Him for the sake of riches (this accusation being made of the Wicked Priest, the mortal enemy of the yaḥad’s founder and authoritative interpreter of the Law, the Teacher of Righteousness) (1QpHab 8:10–11), and of having ‘staggered aside from the way of Thy [i.e. God’s] heart’ (1QH 14:21). Not surprisingly, they are also portrayed as either neglecting, maliciously betraying or as standing outside of God’s Covenant (brit):

But Thou, O God, wilt reply to them, chastising them […] that they who have turned aside from Thy Covenant may be caught in their own designs.
(1QH 12:18–19)
Cursed be those who practi[se their wicked designs] and [es]tablish in their heart your[12] (evil) devices, plotting against the Covenant of God.
(4Q280 ii 5–6)
And he [i.e. a new member of the sect] shall undertake by the Covenant to separate from all the men of injustice who walk in the ways of wickedness. For they are not reckoned in his Covenant.
(1QS 5:10–11)

Hymn five of the Hodayot provides an appropriate summary of all the above characteristics of the non-sectarian Jew:

They have despised [Thy Covenant] and their souls have loathed Thy [truth]; they have taken no delight in all Thy commandments and have chosen that which Thou hatest.
(Vermes, 2011: 256)

We must stop at this point to emphasise the highly polemical nature of these accusations. The non-sectarian Jews had not literally rejected the Law, forsaken God or plotted against the Covenant, and would by no means have ever made such claims of themselves. The Scrolls themselves hint to the fact that these accusations are not literal representations of their fellow Jews. Of those who refuse to join the community, the yaḥad declares ‘He shall not be justified by that which his stubborn heart declares lawful, for seeking the ways of light, he looks towards darkness’ (1QS 3:3), implying the very opposite of the accusations listed above. Non-sectarian Jews themselves did in fact actively observe the Law – the problem, however, as we shall now see, is that they did not adhere to the yaḥad’s interpretation of the Law.

The teachers of lies who depart from the way and abhor the precept

According to the yaḥad, all Jews outside of their community were not considered to be members of God’s Covenant. This is not because the yaḥad possessed a new Covenant which preceded or made obsolete the one made by God with the Israelites at Sinai. Rather, it is because they believed that the true meaning of the Covenant and the true meaning of the Law of Moses, which had previously been concealed, had now been revealed to them by God (Sanders, 1977: 240–69; VanderKam, 2010: 139–42), either directly or through the mediation of the sect’s founder and authoritative expounder of the Law, the Teacher of Righteousness:

But with the remnant which held fast to the commandments of God He made His Covenant (brit) with Israel for ever, revealing to them the hidden things (nistarot) in which all Israel had gone astray. He unfolded before them His holy Sabbaths and his glorious feasts, the testimonies of His righteousness and the ways of His truth, and the desires of His will which a man must do in order to live.
(CD 3:12–16)
And as for that which He said, ‘That he who reads may read it speedily’: interpreted this concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets.
(1QpHab 7:1–5)

The sect therefore differentiated between two categories of the Law – the nigleh/niglot, or ‘revealed’ laws known to all Israel through the plain reading of Scripture, and the nistar/nistarot, or ‘hidden’ laws known only to the sect and revealed solely through sectarian exegesis of Scripture (see Schiffman, 1975: 22–32).

What mainstream Israel fail to do, therefore, is[listen to the word received by] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God’ (1QpHab 2:2) and adhere to those hidden laws as revealed by God to the yaḥad – it is this failing for which they are most often chastised. Consequently the wrath of the Angels of Destruction are what can be expected for ‘those who depart from the way and abhor the Precept (ḥoq)’ (CD 2:4–7), ‘the way’ being the way of the yaḥad as guided by the Teacher of Righteousness, and the ‘Precept’ being its sectarian law. In the eyes of the community, their interpretation of the Law is analogous to the Law itself, and whomsoever rejects the rules of the community ‘which follow all the precepts found in the Law of Moses, shall not be counted with all the sons of His truth, for his soul has detested the righteous corrections’ (4Q266 11 ii 5–7). From the perspective of the yaḥad, individuals and groups who do not observe the Law as per their instruction are not only accused of rejecting and despising the Law as a whole, but are also guilty of false prophecy, false teachings, and being ‘interpreters of error’ (1QH 10:14) who lead the people of Israel astray:[13]

Teachers of lies [have smoothed] Thy people [with words], and [false prophets] have led them astray; they perish without understanding for their works are in folly.
(1QH 12:6–8)
[Interpreting Nah. 3:4] Interpreted, this concerns those who lead Ephraim astray, who lead many astray through their false teaching, their lying tongue, and deceitful lips […] Cities and families shall perish through their counsel.
(4QpNah 1–2 ii 8–9)

Similarly, the term dorshe ḥalaqot, used to denote the Pharisees, while literally meaning ‘seekers of smooth things’, could be better translated as ‘interpreters of false laws’, the term itself being based on the biblical expression ‘smooth things’ from Isaiah 30:10, which refers to false prophecy (Schiffman, 2007: 250).

We thus find a situation which in many ways parallels the hypothetical scenario between Matthew and the Pharisees as portrayed in Matt. 5:17–19. In this scenario, put forth by France, Keener and White, the Pharisees accuse Matthew and his community of ‘abolishing the Law’ simply because Matthew did not adhere to their Pharisaic interpretation of the Law. In much the same fashion, the yaḥad accuses mainstream Israel of rejecting the Law, despising God and turning aside from the Covenant, not because they had literally done so, but because they did not observe the Law as interpreted by the yaḥad. On the surface, the evidence from the Scrolls appears to support the case of Matt. 5:17–19 being representative of a halakhic dispute with the Pharisees. The problem with this, however, is that nowhere in the Scrolls is the specific accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’ found. To solidify this point, however, we will now take a closer look at a passage which in Vermes’ translation appears to come quite close to doing so.

‘Abolishing the ways of righteousness’ and ‘removing the boundary’: CD 1:15–16

The opening column to the Damascus Document narrates the story of the community’s beginnings (CD 1:1–2:1), in which God caused a ‘plant root to spring’ from the remnant of Israel 390 years after the Babylonian exile. Following a further 20 years of blindly ‘groping for the way’, God raised up for this remnant a Teacher of Righteousness to ‘guide them in the way of His heart’, who made known to them ‘that which God had done to the latter generation, the congregation of traitors’ who had ‘departed from the way’. The following passage, which in Vermes’ translation sounds quite similar to Matt. 5:17–19, deserves to be quoted in full:

13 This was the time of which it is written, ‘Like a stubborn heifer
14 thus was Israel stubborn’, when the Scoffer arose who shed over Israel
15 the waters of lies. He caused them to wander in a pathless wilderness, laying low the everlasting heights, abolishing (ulasur)
16 the ways (netivot) of righteousness (tsedeq) and removing (ve-lassiaʿ) the boundary (gevul) with which the forefathers had marked out their inheritance, that he
17 might call down on them the curses of His Covenant (brit) and deliver them up to the avenging sword of the Covenant.

The Scoffer (ish ha-lashon) (otherwise translated as ‘the man of mockery’ by James Charlesworth – 1995, vol. 2: 13) appears to be the same individual identified elsewhere in the Damascus Document and Pesher Habakkuk as ‘the Liar’ (ish ha-kazav) and the ‘the Spouter of the Lie’ (maṭṭif ha-kazav), and is widely held by scholars to be a rival interpreter of the Law to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab 5:11; CD 8:13 – see Lim, 2000: 493–94). The question is, then, whether the two accusations of ‘abolishing the ways of righteousness’ (ulasur me-netivot tsedeq) and ‘removing the boundary’ (ve-lassiaʿ gevul) made against the Scoffer in CD 1:15–16 are equivalent to the accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’. A closer inspection of these terms indicates that they are not.

Beginning with the phrase ‘abolishing the ways of righteousness’, what must first be determined is whether ‘ways of righteousness’ (netivot tsedeq) is a term intended to denote the Mosaic Law. A similar term is also used elsewhere in the Damascus Document, where salvation is promised to those ‘who have listened to the voice of the Teacher of Righteousness and have not despised the precepts of righteousness (ḥoqei ha-tsedeq) when they heard them’ (CD-B 2:33). In this context, the ‘precepts of righteousness’ refer specifically to the sectarian interpretation of the Law, and so while the term ḥoqei (‘precepts’) is not the equivalent of the term netivot (‘ways’ or ‘paths’), the use of the word tsedeq in CD-B 2:33 to denote the yaḥad’s sectarian law may support a similar reading of tsedeq in CD 1:16. Reading netivot tsedeq as a term denoting sectarian law may further be supported by the context of CD 1:1–2:1, in which the Scoffer is also accused of shedding ‘waters of lies’ over Israel (that is, false teachings),[14] of departing from the way (‘the way’ being obedience to the laws of the movement), and of seeking smooth things and preferring illusions (1:18) – all of which we have seen are typical descriptions in the Scrolls of those whose halakhah differed from the yaḥad’s (Knibb, 1987: 23–24).

Turning then to ‘ulasur’, we might also be wary of Vermes’ translation of this word as ‘abolishing’. Chaim Rabin (1958: 4), Michael Wise (Wise et al., 2005: 52) and Ben Wacholder (2007: 29) have alternatively translated ‘ulasur as ‘turning aside’ or ‘away’, while James Charlesworth (1995, vol. 2: 13) and Eibert Tigchelaar (Martínez and Tigchelaar, 1997, vol. 1: 551) prefer ‘departing from’ and ‘diverging from’ respectively. The term abolishing’ in the Vermes translation, therefore, does not appear to have the same connotation as it does in Matt 5:17, in which ‘abolishing’ implies an intentional annulment, or rendering void of the institution of the Law itself (Green, 1912: 454; Keener, 2009: 177). ‘Abolishing (ulasur) the ways of righteousness’ is therefore not synonymous to ‘abolishing (katalūsai) the Law’ – it denotes rather a departure from the yaḥad’s interpretation of the Law.

Moving now to the second accusation, what must again be determined is whether ‘removing the boundary (ve-lassiaʿ gevul) with which the forefathers had marked out their inheritance’, an allusion to Deuteronomy 19:14, is intended to be understood as equivalent to ‘abolishing the Law’. A number of other passages in the Damascus Document do support a possible reading of the ‘boundary’ (gevul)[15] as referring to Law itself. In one such passage, the gevul imagery is used when referring to the exile:

And at the time of the desolation of the land there arose removers of the bound (mesigei ha-gevul) who led Israel astray. And the land was ravaged because they preached rebellion against the commandments of God given by the hand of Moses and of His holy anointed ones
(CD 5:20–6:1)

Whilst in the context of a warning to the apostates of the community of their impending judgement (Knibb, 1987: 75–76), CD-B 2:25 uses the term specifically in relation to the Torah itself – ‘But when the glory of God is made manifest to Israel, all those members of the Covenant who have breached the bound of the Law (partsu et gevul ha-Torah) shall be cut off from the midst of the camp’. Similarly, a cave 4 fragment of the Damascus Document, which appears to treat the law of the sect as analogous to the Law itself (‘And whoever rejects these rules which follow all the precepts found in the Law of Moses, shall not be counted with all the sons of His truth’ (4Q266 11 ii 5–6)), declares of God that ‘Thou has established boundaries (gevulot) for us and cursed those who transgress them’ (4Q266 11 ii 12–13). In light of these passages, the use of ‘gevul in CD 1:16 could indeed be read as a reference to the Law. However, the preceding ve-lassiaʿ – translated most commonly as ‘removing’, but also by Charlesworth as ‘moving’ (1995, vol. 2: 13) or Wise as ‘shifted’ (2005: 52) – does not seem to imply a rendering of the Law as void, as does katalūsai. Rather, line 16 as a whole presents an interpretation of Deuteronomy 19:14 (‘You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks (gevulot), set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess’) as prohibiting the removal of unwritten laws established by ancient authorities – in this case, by the forefathers of the community.[16] This same interpretation of Deuteronomy 19:14 is also made by Philo of Alexandria (Knibb, 1987: 24):

Now this law, we may consider, applies not merely to allotments and boundaries of land in order to eliminate covetousness but also to the safeguarding of ancient customs.
(Philo, Spec. Leg., IV.149)

A similar injunction against the removal of established laws of old can also be found in a passage which interprets Hosea 5:10 as referring to the eschatological destruction of those who join the yaḥad but fail to uphold the community’s statutes (Knibb, 1987: 67):

And thus is the judgement for all who enter his covenant (brit) (and) who will not hold firmly to these statutes: They will be visited unto destruction by the hand of Belial. That is the day when God will visit, as he said, ‘the princes of Judah were like those who move borders (ke-mesigei gevul). I will pour out rage upon them like water (Hosea 5:10).’
(CD 19:13–16)[17]

The accusation of ‘removing the boundary’, therefore, like that of ‘abolishing the ways of righteousness’, does not appear to be an equivalent accusation to ‘abolishing the Law’, as found in Matthew. Neither ‘removing the boundary’ nor ‘abolishing the ways of righteousness’ are designations for those who have intentionally declared the Law itself to be void (as is the case in Matt. 5:17). Rather, they are descriptions for those who dismiss or neglect those statues which, grounded in the interpretation of the Law, had been established by the forefathers of the community.

Abolishing the Law: an anti-Pharisaic polemic?

It is very tempting to see in Matt. 5:17–19 a defence against Pharisaic libel. We have seen from the Scrolls that the yaḥad accused its Jewish contemporaries, the ‘sons of darkness’ and ‘horde of Belial’, of rejecting, despising, and casting aside the Law, of despising and forsaking God, of false teachings, false prophecy and of plotting against the Covenant – not because they had literally done so, but simply because they refused to accept the yaḥad’s interpretation of the Law. The possibility then, as suggested by France, Keener and White, that the Pharisees accused Matthew’s community of abolishing the Law, not because Matthew had in fact literally done so, but because they diverged from the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law, therefore appears to be supported by the evidence found in the Scrolls.

The problem, however, is that from what has been presented above, we can conclude that the specific accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’, as it is presented in Matthew, does not appear in any of the sectarian documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whether this accusation is therefore unique to the Gospel of Matthew, or whether it is still possible for the Pharisees to have made such an accusation (regardless of its absence in the yaḥad’s sectarian documents) is something that cannot be determined from examining the Scrolls alone. The language used by the yaḥad is by no means representative of what was typical of Judaism at this time in its entirety, and a thorough exploration into the polemical language of legal debate used by first-century Jews would need to take into consideration all relevant texts extant during the period in question – biblical, apocryphal, pseudepigraphal or other.

What can be said, however, is that there is no solid evidence from the Scrolls which can be drawn upon to support the view that the specific accusation of ‘abolishing the Law’ was one which existed within the language of legal dispute between first-century Jews. ‘Rejecting’, ‘despising’, and ‘turning’ from the Law, from God and the Covenant, yes – accusations of ‘false teachings’, ‘false prophecy’ and ‘leading Israel astray’, certainly – but ‘abolishing the Law’, no. Consequently, there is therefore no evidence from the Scrolls themselves to support the hypothesis that Matt. 5:17–19 is a defence against Pharisaic libel, generated in the context of a legal debate.


I would like to extend an enormous amount of thanks to Dr Nathan Wolski for all of his guidance and support over the course of my Honours project, from which this article has been drawn. I am also extremely grateful for his help with navigating the original Hebrew texts, and for the English transliterations provided in the CD 1:13–17 excerpt cited above and elsewhere.


[1] I completed my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in History with first class honours at Monash University in 2016 (graduating in early 2017). I am currently in the process of applying for postgraduate studies, and I aim to pursue a career in academia in the field of New Testament studies.

[2] Paul wrote his letters in the fifth and sixth decades of the first century (Horrell, 2006: 6–8) to provide guidance to his predominantly Gentile churches, assuring them time and again that one is justified not by works of the Law, but through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:22, 26, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:22, 24; Phil. 3:9). Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, written sometime after the destruction of the Temple in the 80s or 90s CE (Gale, 2011: 1), narrates the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, reminding its audience repeatedly that in order to attain eternal life, one must keep the commandments (Matt. 5:19; 19:16–19; 22:34–40).

[3] For arguments that the Gospel of Matthew is hostile towards Pauline thought, see Brandon, 1957: 231–37; Catchpole, 2000: 38–85; Segal, 1991: 22–21; Sim, 2002: 767–83; 2008: 377–92; 2009a: 401–22; Shin and van Aarde, 2005: 1353–72. For arguments that the Gospel writer and Paul actually shared much in common, including Christology, eschatology, ethics and a universal Gentile mission, see Davies, 1964: 316–66; Goulder, 1974: 153–70; Meier, 1983: 12–86; Hagner, 1997: 20–22. For arguments that Matthew simply did not use his Gospel as a means of responding to Paul’s writings, see Stanton, 1993: 310–18; Luz, 1995: 146–53; Foster, 2011: 86–114; White, 2014: 353–82.

[4] All English translations of the Tanakh in this paper are those of the JPS translation (1985), while those of the New Testament are from the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV) (taken from Levine and Brettler, 2011). All translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls are those of Geza Vermes (2011) unless otherwise stated. In Vermes’ translation, reconstructions of fragmentary phrases are noted by square brackets [ ] and words added for fluency are placed between parentheses ( ).

[5] That is, Jews who were not followers of Jesus. The term ‘Non-Christian Jew’ is used by R. T. France (1989) for this designation, however I have avoided the use of this term in this article, firstly due to the term ‘Christian’ being anachronistic for this period, and secondly as I recognise that the term ‘non-Christian Jew’ can be problematic for Jewish readers, as it can be taken as defining Jewish identity in relation to Christianity. Keener uses the phrase ‘other Jewish people’. Only White nominates the Pharisees specifically.

[6] Anders Runesson argues, however, that the hostility towards the Pharisees in the Gospel cannot be due to halakhic disagreement, as they also have much in common in the way of halakhah (see Runesson, 2016: 317–25).

[7] That is, not only should you not murder, but do not even be angry at your brother or sister (Matt. 5:21–26); not only should you not commit adultery, but do not even look at a woman with lust (5:27–30); you should not swear falsely, but better that you do not swear at all (5:33–37). For ‘building fences around the law’, see also m. Avot. 1.1.

[8]Yaḥad’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘community’ and is used by the author/s of the Scrolls to refer to themselves (the Hebrew title of 1QS is ‘Serekh ha-yaḥad’ – i.e. the ‘rule of the community’). Throughout this article, I will interchangeably refer to this group as the yaḥad, the community, or the Qumran sectarians. The term ‘non-sectarians’ will be used to refer to all other Jews outside the yaḥad.

[9] The identification of the yaḥad as an Essene group is based on the description of the beliefs (e.g. predeterminism), practices (e.g. shared wealth) and location of the Essenes by the ancient sources of Josephus, Philo and Pliny matching those found in the scrolls and the location of the Qumran settlement (see VanderKam, 2010: 97–125). Not all scholars, however, adhere to the Essene hypothesis. A minority view, for example, identifies the yaḥad as Sadducean (see VanderKam, 2010: 119–21).

[10] Methods of dating include palaeography, accelerator mass spectrometry, and internal textual allusions.

[11] The arguments to follow will predominantly (but not solely) rely on the principal sectarian documents found in caves one and four which describe the sect’s Jewish enemies – that is, the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the Thanksgivings Hymns (or Hodayot), and the pesher commentaries.

[12] ‘Your’ here refers to Melkiresha (the name of Satan).

[13] We may compare this to the warning against false prophecy and false teachings in Matt. 7:13–27.

[14] The Hebrew word which Vermes translates as ‘shedding’ can also be translated as ‘preaching’, as in Amos 7:16.

[15] Charlesworth (1995, vol. 2: 13) and Rabin (1958: 4) translate gevul as ‘border’ or ‘landmark’ respectively.

[16] ‘Forefathers’ in line 16 is translated by Charlesworth as ‘the first ones’ (1995, vol. 2: 13).

[17] The numbering of this passage has been taken from Charlesworth, 1995, vol. 2: 31–32. In Vermes (2011) this passage is numbered CD 8:2–3.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Fero, E. (2017), ''Who Thinks I Have Come to Abolish the Law?' Matthew 5:17–19: A Response to Pharisaic Libel?', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this paper or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.