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Jot and tittle

What did Jesus not come to abolish?

Jesus was no ordinary teacher, or Rabbi. He spoke with confidence and with an authority that amazed some and antagonized others. Yet a lot of his teaching, in its original context and sense, has been lost to us. This is not our fault, neither is it the fault of those who teach us. It is simply a consequence of history, the sad fact of a decision made by the Christian Church in its formative years. It was the loosening of the bonds that tied it to its roots, the felling of the great Olive tree of Romans 9-11. Outwardly it manifested itself as the horrific persecutions of the Jews, but inwardly it suffocated itself by removing all traces of the Hebraic origins of its faith. Not quite self-destruction, but the self-denial of so many blessings. Just as a smoker feeds toxins into his system to feed his destructive habit, so the Gentile Christian Church had taken on pagan worldviews that, ultimately, were not going to do it any favours at all.

It could have been so different. To give you a flavour of what has been lost, we will look  at some of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7, and see how first century Jews would have understood the words.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. (Matthew 5:17)

Interestingly this verse is the only saying of Jesus that appears in the Talmud, though with extreme penalties attached. It quotes, “the one who destroys even the smallest letter of the Law, the sin is so great, that if it could be done, the whole world would be destroyed”. To abolish the Torah is a concept of total horror to the religious Jewish mind, but to fulfil it is to interpret it properly. This is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”. (Matthew 5:18)

Why the translators couldn’t just state the actual words used, tickles me. Some translations use the words “jot” and “tittle” for what is described here as “the smallest letter” and “the least stroke of a pen”. Why not call a spade a spade and tell it how it is – the “jot” is in fact the Hebrew letter, “yod”. And, yes it is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The Talmud says, "If all the world gathered to destroy the yod, the smallest letter in the Law, they would not succeed." The "tittle" is the part of the Hebrew letter that distinguishes certain letters that look alike, so I suppose “the least stroke of the pen” describes it well.

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell”. (Matthew 5:22)

This word “Raca” means “empty-headed” or incompetent and its use was a serious matter indeed in those days. This explains the extreme reaction and we find more enlightenment when we read what it says in the Talmud. Baba Mezia 58b declares that everyone who descends into hell will be eventually released, except for adulterers and those who shame neighbours in public. Baba Mezia 59b goes further by stating that a man would be better off jumping into a furnace than shaming a neighbour.

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