Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Matthew 5:48: "Perfect?"

Michelangelo, God Creates Adam, Sistene Chapel
The Most Perfect Being Creating a Perfect Being?
(Image from Wikipedia)

On the Milton List yesterday, the ambiguous meaning of the word "perfect" was being discussed in the context of 17th-century English, and one scholar referred to Matthew 5:48 in the King James Version as possibly meaning "completeness" rather than to some extreme moral perfection:
Be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
I grew curious about this verse and posted a comment:
Incidentally, the Greek word in Mt. 5:48 is teleioi, which can be translated as either "complete" or "perfect" in contemporary English and thus has the same ambiguity that the word "perfect" still had for the KJV translators.

A possible word in Hebrew would be shalom, which can mean "completeness, soundness, welfare, peace."

Jesus, of course, would likely have been speaking Aramaic, so the question as to what word he actually used would be close to Hebrew. I cannot, however, recall a Tanakh passage calling upon Israelites to be "shalom" as God is. I do recall that Israelites are called to be holy, even as God is holy, and I wonder if the idea of holiness stands behind Mt. 5:48.

The word for "holy" is kadosh, which has the sense of being set apart. That might fit the context of Matthew, for Jesus is there calling upon those who follow him to strive to meet ethical standards higher than the ethics practiced by Gentiles -- in effect, to set themselves apart.
I was corrected by Professor Harold Skulsky, whose postings have always impressed me and who seems to combine the offices of philosopher, literary critic, and linguist:
Matt. 5:48 is an allusion to Gen. 17:1 (God's injunction to Abraham): "I am the Lord thy God; walk before me, and be thou perfect." The Hebrew answering to "perfect" is *tamim* (Aramaic *t'mim*). The Heb. adjective *shalem* (Aramaic *sh'lim* ) is a rough equivalent. (*Shalom* is not an adjective and rarely if ever means moral perfection in BH, though it sometimes means health, or bodily soundness.)
I stood corrected but not quite ready to relinquish my hunch about holiness:
Thanks to Professor Skulsky for the correction (shalom --> shalem) and additional information (Gen. 17:1 - tamim). My Hebrew is not very good, unfortunately.

Is either tamim or shalem ever used to describe God?

The structure of Mt. 5:48 reminds me of Lev. 11:44 and 45: "be holy for I am holy." Is it possible that both Gen. 17:1 and Lev. 11:44-45 are being alluded to?
I've not yet received a reply to this query, but I've done some more page-flipping through my Greek and Hebrew Bibles and have decided that the reference is not so directly to Genesis 17:1, for if the reference were directly to that verse, then we'd likely find the word "amemptos" (Greek for "blameless") in Matthew 5:48, for the Septuagint uses "amemptos" in Genesis 17:1.

A more likely reference in Matthew 5:48 would be Deuteronomy 18:13, for the Hebrew "tamim" is translated to the Greek "teleios"," which we also find in Matthew 5:48 and which can mean "perfect," as already noted, such that we could read Deuteronomy 18:13 as follows:
Be perfect before the Lord your God.
Moreover, the context to this verse clarifies that the intent here is to distinguish Israelites from the practices of the neighboring gentile nations, so there exists a structural and thematic parallel between Matthew 5:48 and Deuteronomy 18:13.

Nevertheless, I am still struck by Leviticus 11:44 and 45 ("Be holy for I am holy"), which reminds me in structure of Matthew 5:48 ("Be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect"), so I now wonder if it is possible that both Leviticus 11:44-45 and Deuteronomy 18:13 are being alluded to.

Biblical scholars, please weigh in on this.

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At 6:17 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Just a note, Matthew doesn't always quote from the Septuagint (i.e. the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Torah). Do note that there were several revisions. He knows a Greek version, but what it was has not survived.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Chris, for the reminder. I wasn't being especially rigorous, but having this pointed out about Matthew's Greek is important.

Does the internet have the various revisions of the Greek Tanakh?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:05 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Hello Horace,

Not that I'm aware of. Ralhf's is a great place to start. But you can see the fragments of the Hexapla here and here. My own little research on Matthew, in particular the genealogy, suggests something independent of what we have today. If Matthew deviates from the Greek in something so simple as names, how much more will he deviate in little passages here or there? In particular, many Semitic-primacy supporters point to the "out of egypt" quote as being closer to the Hebrew than to the Greek which survived. It's faulty, of course, but it does drive the point home about the plethora of text-types which existed in antiquity.

Chris Weimer

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Chris (but call me "Jeffery").

By the way, I just this morning encountered a fellow on the Milton List who argued for Matthew's Gospel having originally been in Hebrew.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Hello Jeffrey,

It's a lot of bunk. It primarily comes from early patristic citations (albeit faulty ones), but also supplemented by the impression that Matthew was the "Jewish" gospel (right...condemning the entire generation of Jews and their descendants is Jewish...), and the Medieval Hebrew translations of it.


At 6:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I was pretty skeptical and explained why to the fellow, who has yet to reply.

My name is a bugbear, unfortunately, but you've almost got it: "Jeffery."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:37 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Haha, very sorry Jeffery. That last one, I swear it, was a mistype from typing Jeffrey so often. My name has killed people too, with me receiving everything from Chris Weiner to Christ Weimar.

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've had repeated problems with my name, and I can't get back at my parents, so I've punished my own kids instead:

Sa-Rah Ahyoga Hwang

En-Uk Sequoya Hwang

Ha! Ha! Ha! And people think that I've suffered for my name. You'll all see true suffering now...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:53 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

황 사라 아요가?

황 엔윽 섹교야?

Sequoya I doubt as being at all right. Any particular reason for not using the tri-syllabic name?


At 6:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

그리스, I'll have to have my wife get back to you on the Hangul renderings. I only deal with their romanized identities.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:05 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Jeffery! How long have you lived in Korea and you don't know Hangeul?

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Although I can't speak Korean, I do know Hangul, but I don't use it to write my kids' names, so I don't quite recall how their name are written.

Oh, and we chose the 'extra' syllables because I wanted to add Cherokee middle names.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:40 PM, Blogger Keith Davenport said...

Thanks for the conversation here. I know this post is several years old, but it was helpful to me as I prepare to preach on this passage this week. I would recommend checking out Wholeness in Christ by William Greathouse. He agrees with your connection to holiness. This is actually a generally accepted position on this text in the Wesleyan tradition.

At 3:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Reverend Davenport, for the comment and the reference. I'm glad the post was of some assistance, though I'm sure you would have managed to preach even without my blog's input.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:59 AM, Blogger Rev Maur said...

I was preparing a meditation on the passage, "Be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect,Mathew 5:48. I, too, associated the perfect concept with holiness, set apart for God.

Thank you for your comments.

Rev Maur

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Glad to be of help.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:28 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The entire sermon on the mount seems to emphasize the potential of forming an alliance with the Lord, i.e. covenants. In John 15 He tells us He is the true vine and with out Him we can do nothing. The sermon seems to tell us what we can accomplish through our meager efforts through the power of His grace. Thus, Matthew 5:48 is an expression of our potential (through His grace), rather than a commandment of the impossible.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, KH, for your views. My first approach is to look at the specific wording in Greek and determine what lies behind in the LXX and/or the MT and what that meant. I then go from there.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:39 PM, Anonymous William Coles theheadhunters@hotmail.co.uk said...

The word perfect in Matthew 5 v 48 has the meaning of " inclussive ". The context of the word perfect is found when we read in Matthew 5 that God sends rain and sunshine on the good and the bad. In other words the meaning of perfect is to be inclusive. If we are to be Holy like God and PERFECT we are to be inclusive of all men. love all men have joy and peace toward all men. This is Gods heart.Jesus spoke Aramaic and the greek view of perfect was never in Gods mind. The greek view of perfect is to be 100% correct in regard to something , in Hebrew some say to be be perfect is to be mature.If we combine the above meanings with the Aramaic we arrive at to be perfect is to be 100% inclusive of all men in love.Then we are Holy and Mature like God who is Love.
my email is theheadhunters@hotmail.co.uk or see the author Rocco A Errico at amazon books

At 4:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the interesting remarks. I don't think the Greek can be so easily pushed aside, though. The New Testament is 99.9% Greek, after all.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:49 AM, Blogger MoBeth+ said...

Thank you for the provocative comments regarding the links between Greek telios and the Hebrew; very helpful for working preachers who do not have a lot of time to do this type of exegesis.

Beth Macke

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome!

Jeffery Hodges

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