Matthew, Jewish Sources, and Vows, Part I

Whether or not a Jewish author wrote the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament scholars generally agree that Matthew interacts with the Judaism of his time. And one issue on which Matthew makes his differences from Judaism known is that of vows.

In Matthew 15:3-5, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father” (NRSV). In Mark’s parallel, we find the technical term that Judaism used for such an offering to God: Corban (Mark 7:11).

Here, Jesus asserts that Pharisaic tradition contradicts God’s command to honor one’s parents.

Is this an accurate depiction of Judaism? I’m not an expert on the religion, but I have attended two Jewish institutions of higher learning: Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. In that experience, I’ve encountered beautiful stories about honoring parents in Jewish literature.

I doubt that Matthew was pulling his portrayal of Judaism out of the clear blue sky. He very well may have identified Jewish a rule of his day that lent itself to abuse. But I have a hard time believing that Judaism as a whole was anti-parents.

To clear up some of my concerns, I decided to read through Tractate Nedarim (“Vows”) in the Mishnah, a Jewish legal document that was compiled in the second century C.E.

Immediately, I can hear some gasps. The reason is that influential scholars on Judaism (particularly Jacob Neusner) do not believe that we should look to the Mishnah to see what the Pharisees believed. The Pharisees lived in the first century C.E., while the Mishnah was compiled later. Consequently, the Mishnah has traditions that may have developed after the time of the Pharisees.

Fair enough. I’m won’t dispute that. But my goal here is to compare Matthew’s version of Pharisaic Judaism with writings that were left by the Pharisees’ successors, the rabbis. In the Mishnah, we see laws that are somewhat similar to the ones that Matthew critiques. And so I’m interested in getting a flavor of the type of Judaism that produced such laws–from its own perspective. My understanding of the Jewish sources may be flawed, since I don’t have immediate access right now to commentaries. Thus, I advise my readers to read the sources themselves, if they have access to them.

My translation of the Mishnah will be that of Herbert Danby, and the brackets in the Mishnah quotes are his.

Back to the Corban issue! In the Mishnah, Corban could entail the dedication of something to God, or prohibiting oneself to receive benefit from a person or object. Through this practice, a man could also prohibit others to derive benefit from him. Mishnah Nedarim 5:4 says: “[If a man said to his fellow,] ‘May I be to thee as a thing that is banned!’ he against whom the vow is made is forbidden [to have any benefit from him]; [if he said,] ‘Be thou to me as a thing that is banned!’ he that made the vow is forbidden [to have any benefit from the other]; [if he said,] ‘May I be to thee and thou to me [as a thing that is banned], then each is forbidden [to have any benefit from the other.]”

How’s this relate to the family, which is Jesus’ primary concern in Matthew 15:3-5? Let’s look at five discussions:

1. M. Nedarim 2:1 says: “These [vows] are not binding…If he said to his wife, ‘Be thou to me as my mother!’ they open to him a door [to repentance] from another side, that he behave not lightly in such a matter.”

Danby has a note on this: “…he may not have his vow revoked because of his regret at making it, but another cause must be forthcoming, justifying its revocation by a Sage; e.g. in this case the honour due to his mother.”

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here. Is the Mishnah leery about a man likening his wife to his mother, as if that’s an act of disrespect to the lady who bore him? Is it saying that a man should be able to nullify his vow for the benefit of his wife, especially after he made her into a mother-like figure who deserves respect? I don’t know. But honoring mom seems to be important here.

2. M. Nedarim 3:2: “If a man saw others eating [his] figs and said, ‘May they be Korban to you!’ and they were found to be his father and brothers and others with them, the School of Shammai say: For them the vow is not binding, but for the others with them it is binding. And the School of Hillel say: The vow is binding for neither of them.”

This chapter is about vows that one can nullify. Vows can be rendered null and void if the person made them without knowing all the facts. In 3:2, he sees a bunch of people eating his figs, and he assumes they’re a bunch of strangers and vagrants leeching off of his property. Thus, he declares the figs “Corban“–consecrated and prohibited. But he then notices that his family is among them, and he regrets making that vow. According to Hillel and Shammai, the vow is no longer binding, at least not completely. So there seems to be in this passage a regard for the family.

Incidentally, this is a passage that Neusner may attribute to the first century Pharisees. Hillel and Shammai were first century figures, and Neusner tends to date the Mishnah passages that pair them together to the first century C.E. The reason is that they look like sayings the Schools would’ve passed down for memorization.

3. M. Nedarim 3:4: “Thus, if they had said to him, ‘Say, Konam be any benefit my wife has of me!’ and he said, ‘Konam be any benefit my wife and children have of me!’ the School of Shammai say: His wife is permitted to him and his children are forbidden. And the School of Hillel say: Both are forbidden.”

I’m not sure what the “benefit” is. Elsewhere in this tractate, it can include receiving food from a person (4:5; 5:6). Is 3:4 saying that a man can get out of supporting his wife and children? Scholar Jeffrey Tigay states in his JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy that “[h]alakhic sources recognize a number of cases in which a wife may petition the court to compel her husband to grant a divorce, such as nonsupport, beating, and fornication” (221; he cites M. Ket. 7:1-5, 10). Judaism seems to believe that a man should support his family, so I’m not exactly sure what happens when he declares himself Konam.

4. M. Nedarim 5:6: “If a man was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from his fellow, and he had naught to eat, his fellow may give [the food] to another as a gift, and the first is permitted to use it. It once happened that a man at Beth Horon, whose father was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from him, was giving his son in marriage, and he said to his fellow, ‘The courtyard and the banquet are given to thee as a gift, but they are thine only that my father may come and eat with us at the banquet.’ The fellow said, ‘If they are mine, they are dedicated to Heaven.’ The other answered, ‘I did not give thee what is mine so that thou shouldest dedicate it to Heaven.’ His fellow said, ‘Thou didst give me what is thine only that thou and thy father might eat and drink and be reconciled one with the other, and that the sin should rest on his head!’ When the case came before the Sages, they said: Any gift which, if a man should dedicate it, is not accounted dedicated, is not a [valid] gift.”

What seems to be going on here is this: Because of a vow, a man cannot receive benefit from his son. But the guy wants to go to his grandson’s wedding, which his son is putting on! And so the son tries to pursue a legal loophole: If he gives food to someone else as a gift, the father will be able to eat it, since, in that case, the father would not be deriving benefit from his son, but from another person. When the son approaches this person to give him the food, he says, “Look, I’ll give you this food as a gift only if you use it to make a banquet for me and my father.” But the potential recipient doesn’t want to do that. He wants to donate the food to God. I don’t understand the part about sin resting on the father’s head, since the dad’s allowed to eat from the gift once his son gives it to a third party. But I think I grasp the Sages’ ruling: “Look, son, if you give a gift, the recipient should be able to do what he wants with it. Otherwise, it’s not a true gift! And it needs to be a true gift for your dad to eat from it. And so the recipient has a right to give the gift to God, if he so chooses.”

This passage seems to overlap with Matthew 15:3-5 more than any we’ve read. A son has to go through legal gymnastics to feed his own father, all because of a vow that one of them made! As far as I can see, “Honor your father” is not a sufficient reason to nullify it. And the gift route may not even work, since the recipient can donate the food to heaven, not the father.

But there may be another way to read the sages’ ruling. Perhaps they’re saying: “Look, recipient, you want to donate this food gift to God. But that gift is not ‘accounted dedicated.’ The giver doesn’t want you to give it to God, and so God will not accept it! Give it to the father!” This would made Judaism look better, but I think that my first interpretation is preferable. The Talmud discussion B.T. Nedarim 48b) treats it as the son’s gift to the third party, not as the third party’s gift to God (though it records a difference of opinion on the validity of the son’s gift). And that makes sense, since the Mishnah’s topic here is a gift that can circumvent a vow.

5. M. Nedarim 9:1: “R. Eliezer says: They may open for men the way [to repentance] by reason of the honour due to father and mother. But the Sages forbid it. R. Zadok said: Rather than open the way for a man by reason of the honour due to father and mother, they should open the way for him by reason of the honour due to God; but if so, there could be no vows. But the Sages agree with R. Eliezer that in a matter between a man and his father and mother, the way may be opened for him by reason of the honour due to his father and mother.”

This passage says that a man can nullify a vow to honor his parents, but what’s that mean? The eighteenth century Protestant commentator John Gill presented Rabbi Eliezer as someone who took Christ’s concern about Corban to heart and made an escape clause so a man could honor his parents. But, in a note, Danby says, “e.g. they say to him, ‘If thou hadst known that thy parents would be despised for bringing up a son so light-minded in his vows, wouldst thou have made thy vow?'”

Again, the Mishnah is dealing with jumping into a vow before knowing all the facts. Suppose you make a vow, and it turns out to be hard, and your failure to keep it makes your parents look bad to their neighbors. Would you have made the vow if you realized it would bring dishonor to your parents? No, so you should be able to nullify it.

The Sages seem to have been reluctant at first to adopt Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, since couldn’t you use that excuse to nullify any vow (assuming you have parents; the “I need to nullify this so God doesn’t look bad” would be even worse!)? But they came to agree with it.

I’ve not read every piece of Jewish literature on this subject, but these passages demonstrate to me some key points: The rabbis really valued vows. They thought that family was important too, and they sometimes permitted people to nullify their vows for the sake of their family; but they sometimes did not allow it. Moreover, a person who could nullify his vow actually had to exercise that right for it to be effective. If he chose not to do so, then the parents were in bad shape. And the people Jesus criticizes in Matthew 15 probably chose not to do so. They just declared their stuff “Corban” and left it off limits to their parents.

Maybe the Pharisees’ rationale was that God is more important than family. But Jesus didn’t teach that, did he?

Matthew 8:21-22: “Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'”

Luke 10:61-62: “Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'” (Elijah at least allowed Elisha to kiss his family good bye before he embarked on his new prophetic commission; I Kings 19:20.)

Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Maybe there’s a way to put God ahead of family, and a way not to do so.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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