As is sometimes the case, I would like to take a familiar biblical passage and make it a bit less familiar by discussing aspects of the passage that are not generally known. Before I begin this process, I would like to briefly introduce the scope of this particular short series. First, in this particular entry I would like to place Jesus Christ in the context of Jewish rabbinical arguments through his use of the kal vachomer technique of argumentation from the lesser to the greater. Although some writers have done a good job at placing Jesus’ own ministry within the context of Second Temple Judaism, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is important in understanding the context of appropriate interpretation of the New Testament. In the next part of this series, I would like to discuss Jesus’ strong contrast between valid mishnaic and invalid midrashic approaches to the law, which also have implications for the way the Bible speaks about the law in the New Testament that are not often understood by readers . Finally, this series will close with a discussion of the grounds for enmity between biblical Christianity and rabbinic Judaism that continue to this day. Fortunately, all of these issues spring from the same text that will be our basis for discussion, Matthew 23.
One of the most striking uses of the kal vachomer technique of reasoning can be found in Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” Understanding that the technique of argumentation that Jesus uses was (and is) a standard one in Jewish argumentation helps us to frame the discussion in a proper manner that puts the interpretation of this passage in its proper context. Here we see a division of issues into lesser and greater matters and argue that the fulfillment of the lesser implies an acceptance of the legitimacy of the greater requirement. Here we see Jesus comment on the contrast between the scrupulous adherence of the scribes and Pharisees to the tithing of small seed plants and their refusal to adhere to far more important aspects of justice, mercy, and faith.
There are a wide variety of conclusions that can be drawn from this. Perhaps the most obvious and prosaic is that Jesus Christ was affirming the continued validity of tithing practices. The kal vachomer technique can be contrasted with many contemporary arguments by virtue of the far different premises. Many contemporary arguments against biblical practice rely on trying to refute the practices or ideals people profess to support by pointing to imperfect conduct. In the case of the kal vachomer, neither the lesser nor the greater matters are to be neglected or denigrated, but the validity of the lesser itself establishes the validity of the greater. If small things are to be taken into account, how much more big things? If God cares about tithing–and He does–how much more does He care about justice, mercy and faith? It is our unfamiliarity with this technique as Christians that leads us to neglect its persistent presence in scripture, while books on the interpretation of the law that come from Jewish sources like the Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael regularly draw attention to the use of kal vachomer in scripture or in various midrashic texts.
It should be noted that understanding the Bible, in verses like these, requires some appreciation of rhetorical technique. In this case, Jesus’ argument is one that would be sound rhetoric regardless of whether one was looking at Jewish or classical rhetoric. The kal vachomer technique of arguing from the lighter to the heavier was the first rule of interpretation for the school of Hillel, which Paul learned at as he sat at the feet of Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel. Likewise, the technique is known in classical rhetoric as the argumentum a fortiori, specifically of the argumentum a majori ad minus variety. Unfortunately, this aspect of Jesus’ debates with the scribes and Pharisees is little known, largely because the art of rhetoric and proper rhetorical approaches are not well understood, which is straightforward enough because knowing proper (and improper) rhetoric would expose the poor rhetorical skills among many contemporary authors and communicators, and few people wish to advertise knowledge of their intellectual (and moral) bankruptcy.
Although our focus is on the material of Matthew 23, it is worthwhile to note that the use of the kal vachomer technique is by no means limited to this passage alone. It is, rather, a consistent aspect of Jesus’ rhetoric. Here, for example, is another example, which comes from Luke 18:1-8: “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”” Here, for example, Jesus Christ uses the kal vachomer to note that if a persistent widow can wear down an unjust judge who has no regard for God or man, then surely persistent prayer in faith can move a loving God who wants to do what is best for His people who believe in Him and follow His ways.
The kal vachomer argument of this nature was so essential to Jesus’ approach that an example of it can be found relating to the subject of faith from the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:7-12: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Again, this argument from the lesser to the greater makes note of the moral superiority of God to mankind (something many contemporary thinkers neglect to remember). By pointing out that even morally flawed earthly parents will not give their children unclean and potentially dangerous food when they ask to be fed, then surely God will provide what is needful to us if we ask Him. If we can be counted on to give good gifts to our children, surely God can be trusted to do the same, seeing how much greater and more good He is than we are.
Understanding the biblical use of this rhetorical technique is important in contrasting the way that human beings often argue as opposed to how God reasons with us. In our own critical tendencies we use the lesser not so much as a bridge to the greater but as a club that can be used to attack the greater. We point to the frailty of mankind not to contrast it with the strength and greatness of God, but as a way of denying anything good whatsoever. We point to the imperfection or the detail-orientation of some not as a way of urging adherence to greater standards but as a way of avoiding being held to any standards ourselves. We attack the flaws of authorities not so that those authorities may repent and become more godly, or so that we may replace corrupt authorities with less corrupt or non-corrupt authorities, but rather so we might be our own authorities and not be accountable to anyone else or their judgment. In this light, we would do well to remember the kal vachomer argument that the author of Hebrews makes in Hebrews 12:9-10: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.” If we are to chasten the scribes and Pharisees, it is not so that we may be greater hypocrites than they were, but so that our righteousness may exceed their own, as it is written in Matthew 5:20: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
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