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Two Figures of Speech in Matthew 15:1-9
-- Jeff, Friday 07-13-2007, 10:18 am CDT

The first nine verses of Matthew 15 record a confrontation between Jesus Christ and a group of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. As good a job as the KJV does rendering the translation, there are two figures of speech in the record that, when recognized, help to shed even more light on the incident.
Matthew 15:1-3
Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,

Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.

But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
Jesus Christ's answer reminds me of a story about a Jewish rabbi during the Middle Ages, who was resisting the repeated efforts of a monk to convert him to Roman Catholicism. One day, after hours of frustratingly fruitless discussion, the monk finally threw his hands into the air and exclaimed, "Rabbi, rabbi, why is it that you always answer a question with a question?"

The rabbi blinked his eyes and stroked his beard as he responded, "So, what's wrong with answering a question with a question?"

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If you look back at Verses 34 and 35 of Matthew 14, you'll see that Jesus Christ was in an area called Gennesaret, where the people had, "sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased." And -- no doubt because of the stir he was making -- a group of scribes and Pharisees had shown up too, and decided take it upon themselves to inspect the Lord's operation and interrogate him about a violation that they spotted.

Just because these dudes belonged to two of Jerusalem's top religious cliques doesn't mean that Jesus Christ owed them an explanation. The only-begotten Son of God wasn't obligated to play their game, nor when we minister the Word of God today as sons of God (see I John 3:2) are we obligated to play by the rules that our adversaries lay down.

The Jerusalem scribes and Pharisees wanted to play "answer our question" about the tradition of the elders. Jesus Christ turned the game into "here's question for you" about something vastly more important than hand washing, namely, the commandment of God.

Verse 4
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
On the surface, it seems like Jesus Christ would have been just as accurate if he had simply said "let him die" rather than "let him die the death." Doing so, however, he put the words into a figure of speech called Polyptoton.

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Polyptoton is a figure of speech which repeats the same word in a different form in order to specify. In this instance, when Jesus Christ said "let them die the death," he specified that he wasn't talking about just any old death, like when that grand piano falls out of the sky and sounds a perfect "F-flat Major" as it lands. Rather, via the figure Polyptoton, he left no doubt that he was citing the death penalty as specified in Law of Moses in Leviticus 20:9.

Verses 5-6
But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;

And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free...
In practice, the children of Israel were to honor their father and mother by doing their best to take care of them during their dotage. But the legalistic Judeans scooted out from God's commandment by claiming, "It's a gift! It's a gift!" -- in other words, "That money is dedicated to God."

Sound sincere? Sound religious? Sure. But don't think they didn't turn around and spend the cash on themselves, just as soon as they forked over a cut to the scribes and Pharisees in order to "sanctify it." What the tradition meant, in practice, was that the children of Israel -- so long as they greased the palms of the religous authorites -- didn't have to compromise their precious lifestyles on behalf of their elderly parents.

Nice teaching!

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The KJV italicizes the words "he shall be free" to show that they aren't in the Greek text, and that the translators added them for understanding. By adding them, however, they've obsured a second figure of speech that Jesus Christ used here, called Aposiopesis. Aposiopesis is a Figure of Rhetoric, which in English would be called "Sudden Silence." In Figures of Speech used in the Bible, on page 151, E.W. Bullinger ellaborates:
[Aposiopesis] is the sudden breaking off of what is being said (or written), so that the mind may be the more impressed by what is too wonderful, or solemn, or awful for words: or when a thing may be, as we somethimes say, "better imagined than described."
Leaving out what the KJV translators added, what Jesus Christ actually said in Verses 5 and 6 was:
Verses 5-6
But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;

And honour not his father or his mother ... [insert here A SUDDEN SILENCE -- a.k.a. A PREGNANT PAUSE -- during which I imagine you could hear sweat droplets off the Pharisees' foreheads hitting the dirt] ... Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

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The tradition didn't just say that the one dishonoring his parents "shall be free," like the KJV translators inserted. No. He'd be entered at the top of the ledger as "kosher," "right-on," "a member in good standing," "everything according to Hoyle," "a real giver," "as righteous as the day is long" -- fill in the blank with whatever -- in the religious authorities' book, that is, not in God's book.

Using this figure of speech Aposiopesis, Jesus Christ blew the doors off the whole scam. The scribes' and Pharisees' tradition was so self-evidently crooked that its claims didn't even merit mentioning -- except by silence -- followed by the conclusion to the matter: "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition."

Verses 7-9
Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias [Isaiah] prophesy of you [in Isaiah 29:13], saying,

This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.

But in vain they do worship me, teaching [didasko] for doctrines [didaskalia] the commandments of men.
The Greek word in Verse 9 translated "teaching" is didasko, while the word translated "doctrines" is didaskalia. Verse 9 could be rendered "teaching for teachings." When it is, we uncover a second instance of the first figure of speech we looked at.

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Again, it seems like Jesus Christ would have been just as accurate if he had simply said, "teaching the commandments of men," instead of "teaching for teachings the commandments of men." But for a second time in this record, he utilizes the figure of speech Polyptoton when he cites an Old Testament Scripture.

Although the dictionary definition of didaskalia may be simply "teachings," 1 it is noteworthy that Matthew 15:9 is the first use of the word didaskalia in the Bible. The word also occurs in II Timothy:

II Timothy 3:16
All scripture is given by inspiration of God [theopneustos, God-breathed], and is profitable for doctrine [didaskalia] ...
In Segment 8 of the Power for Abundant Living Class, Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille defines the word "doctrine" in II Timothy 3:16 as "right teaching" and "how to believe rightly" (see also the Power for Abundant Living book, page 81). The first use of didaskalia in the figure of speech Polyptoton shows Dr. Wierwille's definition to be absolutely accurate.

This is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ is specifying here in Matthew 15:9 via this figure of speech: that what the scribes and Pharisees were palming off as RIGHT teaching and how to believe RIGHTLY was nothing but "the doctrines and commandments of men."

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When Jesus Christ was on earth the "tradition of the elders" included rituals such as handwashing and strictures about the Sabaath. In the Apostle Paul's day the traditions concerned circumcision and requiring born-again believers to adhere to the Law.

In our day, people want to tell me that if I don't wave my hands at the ceiling I'm not worshipping the way God wants. Or that if I don't get dunked in water, depending on the denomination, I'm either not being obedient or not even saved. Or that if I don't receive extreme unction, I'll face God's judgement when I die.

But whatever the specifics, the effect of "the doctines and commandments of men" is always the same: to "make the commandment of God of none effect."

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1. See Thayer's Lexicon, c.f. didaskalia (Strong's Number 1319), page 144.

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