Matthew vs. Paul: Bart Ehrman and the faith vs. works controversy revisited

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If Matthew, who wrote some twenty-five or thirty years after Paul, ever read any of Paul’s letters, he certainly did not find them inspiring, let alone inspired. Matthew has a different view of the law from Paul. Matthew thinks that the followers of Jesus need to keep the law. In fact, they need to keep it better even than the most religious Jews, the scribes, and the Pharisees…Paul thought that followers of Jesus who tried to keep the law were in danger of losing their salvation. Matthew thought that followers of Jesus who did not keep the law, and do so even better than the most religious Jews, would never attain salvation. Theologians and interpreters over the years have tried to reconcile these two views, which is perfectly understandable, since both of them are in the canon. But anyone who reads the Gospel of Matthew and then reads the letter to the Galatians would never suspect that there was a reason, or a way, to reconcile these two statements.

For Matthew, to be great in the kingdom requires keeping the very least of the commandments; just getting into the kingdom requires keeping them better than the scribes and Pharisees. For Paul, getting into the kingdom (a different way of saying being justified) is made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus; for Gentiles, keeping the Jewish law (for example, circumcision) is strictly forbidden.” [Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 89-90]

“One passage in Matthew suggests, in fact, that salvation is not just a matter of belief but also of action, an idea completely alien to the thinking of Paul” (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, page 90).

Surely, you’ve heard of the faith vs. works controversy, which says that the Scripture writers “appear” to make faith and works enemies. James and Paul have been said to divide over the issue, with some theologians and students of Scripture claiming that Paul argued “faith alone,” while James says that “faith [is] justified by works.” The faith vs. works controversy is, to be honest, a man-made, artificial debate of a non-existent issue because neither James nor Paul disagrees with the other: instead, James argues the necessity of works to confirm faith, as does Paul. James agrees with Paul (see James 1:22-25 and James 2:14-26), and Paul agrees with James (see Ephesians 2:8-10 and Ephesians 4:25-32).

Both James and Paul believed that faith is the foundation for a sincere walk with the Lord, for salvation, and that good works are to accompany salvation. No disagreement there.

But Bart Ehrman, my old university professor who’s been stirring up controversy with his books over the years, is saying that the faith vs. works controversy has taken a different turn: instead of James and Paul disagreeing with each other (they don’t), now Ehrman is saying that Matthew and Paul disagree with each other. Ehrman would say something like the following: “Matthew says that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and those following Him must keep the law.” Paul, in Ehrman’s claim, would say that “keeping the law is null and void and leads to one falling from grace,” as if to say that Paul believed grace and the Law were polar opposites and should be avoided altogether.

Well, Ehrman is wrong again. We’ll cover why in the following section.

Matthew and Paul: Spirit of the Law, not the letter

Moses and the Ten Commandments. Image Credit: Business Insider

Ehrman sets up a straw man argument by claiming that Matthew and Paul are polar opposites. The truth of the matter is that Paul argues the necessity of faith for salvation, but someone who is saved will do good works, will obey God’s Law. Remember, James and Paul make the case that faith is the foundation and must come before works, but faith does not deny works; rather, faith is the foundation for works, and someone who does good works before God is living a life of faith as long as he or she believes that Jesus is the One who died on the Cross for our sins and rose for our justification.

Now, on to Matthew. Matthew argues the importance of keeping the Law, true, but Ehrman overlooks passages that confirm Matthew’s emphasis on the heart of man. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reinterprets the Law in such a way that Jesus emphasizes the priority of the heart. What matters to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is the heart. Someone can fail to commit a bad deed but think about doing the deed and still be condemned. The Law of Moses emphasized the “doing” of the deed, while Jesus prioritizes “thinking” about the deed, thinking it in one’s heart irrespective of whether one does the deed in reality or not:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:21-30)

You can obey the Law of Moses, but if you think evil within, you’ve transgressed the Law. Doing the deed or not, the heart is what matters most. And in Matthew’s claim, Paul would nod “Amen.” In Paul’s own letters, he emphasized the Spirit of the Law above the letter thereof, particularly with regard to keeping the Law:

25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:25-29)

The words of Romans 2:25 settle the debate because, as can be seen, Paul agrees with Matthew. Paul and Matthew agree that circumcision is good, but “he is a Jew who is one inwardly,” Paul says in Romans 2:29. Matthew would say the same. Being a “believing Jew,” in Matthew’s Gospel, involved having a right spirit and willing heart. Matthew and Paul, together then, would say that having a right heart, a heart in a right condition with God, is the foundation for following the Law. Romans 2:25-29 and Matthew 5:21-30 are two passages from Paul and Matthew that show the two agreed on faith as the foundation for good works, and that good works come out of a believing and faithful heart.


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The evidence speaks for itself: Matthew and Paul, as is the case with James and Paul, agree with one another. Ehrman, of course, is writing as an apostate, someone who’s abandoned Christianity, and so he knows how to play on these rather artificial debates that have crept up into theological discussions. And in the end, we’ve used Matthew 5:21-30 and Roans 2:25-29 to show that Ehrman is wrong again.

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