Matthew 7.6: a (brief) history of interpretation

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February 4, 2013 by jmar198013

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus turns immediately from his teaching on judging (7:1-5) to offer a brief proverb: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6).[1] It is not immediately clear what this proverb signifies, or how it connects with the surrounding context.

There are essentially two ways to approach this verse. Some, for various reasons, choose to treat it as a free-standing logion, and thus interpret it without regard to surrounding context.[2] Others wish to demonstrate a close connection between Matt. 7:6 and its surrounding context.[3] The reading strategy chosen by an interpreter, in terms of if or how the passage fits into the surrounding material, greatly impacts how it is interpreted. Therefore, in this survey of interpretations of Matt. 7:6 various proposals will be grouped according to how the interpreter chose to treat the passage in relation to its surrounding material.

The earliest documented interpretations of Matt. 7:6 are best described as proof-texts, and as such, interpret the verse as a free-standing logion. Matt. 7:6 was taken by some to mean that the unbaptized should be forbidden from sharing in the Lord’s Supper.[4] It was also used to inveigh against the frivolous conduct of heretics, who allowed the uninitiated to participate fully in the worship assembly, permitted women to teach, and chose unqualified men as elders.[5] Elsewhere, Matt. 7:6 is taken as a warning about apostasy, the dogs and swine representing those who turn their backs on the gospel and scorn its messengers.[6] The common conceptual thread running through these various options is the idea that what is holy—the Eucharist, or the preaching of the gospel—should be reserved for holy people.

John Calvin’s interpretation of Matt. 7:6 was based upon a similar line of reasoning to the ones noted above, namely that some degree of discrimination is in order when sharing sacred mysteries. He asserted that the holy item and the pearls represented the preaching of the gospel, and the dogs and pigs are “those who, by certain proofs, have displayed a determined contempt for God.”[7] There is nothing overly profound in Calvin’s interpretation itself. What is more interesting is that he arrived at it based on a sort of prototypical source or redactional critical method, for he begins his comments by explaining to his readers that the Sermon on the Mount is not a monolithic piece. He then goes on to state that Matt. 7:6 “does not attach to the last discourse, but is quite separate from it,” though he produces no evidence for this contention.[8]

T. W. Manson posited two different interpretations of Matt. 7:6. On one occasion, Manson adopted a rather psychoanalytical reading of the verse, offering that it speaks of a reticence to “lightly speak of the things that most profoundly move us.”[9] If this stance is adopted, then Matt. 7:6 warns against a level of self-disclosure inappropriate for a given situation. However, when Manson proposed to delve into the provenience of the verse in another setting, he concluded that it was constructed by an exclusivist sect of Jewish Christians as a polemic against the Gentile mission.[10]

Matthew Black thought he discerned an Aramaic back-reading that would explain Matt. 7:6. “What is holy” (tò hágion), he contended, was possibly a mistranslation of qĕdāšāʾ—a golden ring—as quddĕšāʾ, or, “holy.” Hence, he proposed that the original words of Jesus were something along the lines of: “Give not a (precious) ring to dogs, and cast not your pearls before swine.”[11] The “precious ring” of Matt. 7:6 would then function similarly to the device of the “gold ring in a swine’s snout” of Prov. 11:22.[12] Black further argued that since the rabbis often referred to the law as a “gold ring,” and individual statutes as its “pearls,” tò hágion may not have been a mistranslation after all, but an explanatory gloss.[13] Black, however, fails to develop the idea any further; how one may use this reconstruction to aid in interpretation is left to conjecture.[14]

Another treatment of Matt. 7:6 as a free-standing logion comes from the redaction critic Robert Gundry. Gundry argues that Matthew himself composed the saying, and that it “warns against easy conditions of entrance into the church,” as such a scenario would allow false disciples into community, who may turn against their brethren in times of persecution (Matt. 24:10).[15] The imagery of dogs in Matt. 7:6 comes perhaps from Ps. 22:16, where just such a scenario is pictured.[16] Thus, for Gundry, Matt. 7:6 is a warning to the disciples “not to allow into fellowship those who are recognizably undiscipled.”[17]

A final option for treating Matt. 7:6 as an independent logion is simply not to interpret it at all. This is the approach taken by Ulrich Luz. Luz has isolated the verse from its surrounding context, stating that both its origin and its meaning in the Matthean context are enigmatic.[18] He then offers a concise history of interpretations, but refuses to come down on any of them, leaving the reader to decide which one seems most plausible, or perhaps join him in a display of deliberate agnosticism concerning the meaning of Matt. 7:6.[19]

Several more recent studies have paid closer attention to how Matt. 7:6 functions within the broader structural scheme of Matt. 7:1-12. Matt. 7:6 has recently been treated at some length in a discussion between Dale Allison and Glen Stassen, each of whom proposes a triadic structure for the Sermon on the Mount.[20] Allison sees two corresponding triadic units in Matt. 6:19-7:12, and those are 6:19-24 and 7:1-6. The exact correspondence Allison suggests is as follows:

6:19-21: Prohibition     7:1-2: Prohibition

6:22-23: Eye and sight   7:3-5: Eye and sight

6:24: Incompatibles      7:6: Incompatibles

Allison further notes the linguistic similarities between Matt. 6.19 and 7:1 (both begin + second plural present imperative), and the play on the terms “the/your eye” in 6:22-23 and 7:3-5.[21] By this construal of the structure of Matt. 6:19-7:12, Allison concludes that 7:6 goes with 7:1‑5, because like its counterpart in 6:24 (God and mammon), it speaks of incongruity (holy things and dogs). It is also followed in 7:7-11 by an argument a minori ad maius concerning the Father’s concern, a feature also observed in 6:25-34.[22] What this means for Allison is that, just as those who suffer anxiety about physical needs in Matt. 6:24-35 trust God’s generosity, those who are told not to judge (7:1-5), but must still “discern and act on the difference between the unclean and the holy (7:6)” can depend on God to give them wisdom for this task (7:7-11).[23]

While Allison’s triadic proposal for the structure of the Sermon on the Mount is based on parallel themes and echoed phrases between units,[24] Glen Stassen’s proposed triadic structure is based on common linguistic features found throughout Matt. 5:21-7:12.[25] He defines the identifying characteristics of each triad as follows: (1) the first portion of each triad addresses a topic drawn from traditional Jewish piety. Its main verb is typically a future indicative or a subjunctive. (2) The second portion of the triad will present a vicious cycle, with an attending judgment. Its purpose is to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between behaviors and outcomes. Its main verb is typically a participle, an infinitive, a subjunctive, or an indicative. This section begins with de, oun, dia touto, mepotē, , or ouk, and may be modified with lego humin (“But I say to you”). (3) The final portion of the triad is an initiative for constructive behavior in place of the destructive behavior diagnosed in the previous section. Its main verb will be an imperative, and it often begins with de.[26]

When applied to Matt. 5:21-7:12, Stassen’s triadic structure leaves the reader with a series of self-contained literary units, neatly cordoned off from one another. On this model, Matt. 7:1-5 is a triad about judging, while 7:6‑12 is a triad about where believers should place their trust.[27] For Stassen, linking Matt. 7:6 with 7:1-5 is problematic because those who have just been told to renounce judging others would thereby be expected to judge who may be classified as “dogs” and “pigs.”[28] If, however, Matt. 7:6 begins a new triad, culminating in 7:12, casting sacred and valuable items before unclean animals may be seen as a presentation of traditional piety in a proverbial format. That the unclean animals would trample the items and maul the giver is the vicious cycle. Then, Matt. 7:7-11 is a detailed presentation of an initiative for change. Stassen reads it thus, and concludes that “dogs” and “pigs” are shorthand for Gentile culture and power structures.[29] Therefore, Matt. 7:6 is for Stassen a proverb about not giving loyalty and allegiance to the dominant culture of the day. According to this construal, the meaning of our passage is that if believers allow their ethics to be shaped by the force of culture that same force will turn on them.[30]

Finally, Thomas J. Bennett has offered yet another reading of Matt. 7:6, attaching its interpretation to 7:1‑5.[31] Bennett is troubled by interpretations, such as the one advocated by Allison above, wherein Matt. 7:6 functions as a qualifier for 7:1-5. The primary issue with reading the passage this way is that it undercuts the sort of ministry modeled by Jesus himself: if “dogs” and “pigs” stand for outsiders, sinners, or Gentiles, then Jesus, who ministered patiently to those very sorts of people, was not preaching what he practiced.[32]

Bennett sees a tidy linguistic parallel between the imperatives and consequences of Matt. 7:1 and 7:6, which may be illustrated as follows:

“Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6a)

= Do not judge (Matt. 7:1a)

“lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6b)

= lest you be judged (Matt. 7.1b).[33]

This linguistic parallel between Matt. 7:1 and 7:6, based upon a shared “do not . . . lest they/ you” formula, is strengthened when one considers Matt. 7:2, which explains the purpose of withholding judgment: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get”. The reader is conditioned to expect retaliation in kind by 7:2. Matt. 7:6, likewise, portrays a scenario in which miscalculated judgment is followed by retaliation.[34] Hence, Bennett proposes to stress the ironic character of this proverb, so that “what is holy” and “pearls,” along with their counterparts, “dogs” and “swine” represent the subject’s own estimations of what he is giving, and to whom he is giving it. This interpretation makes Matt. 7:6 a picturesque recapitulation of 7:1-2, and removes the seeming contradiction between Matt. 7:1-5 and 7:6.[35]

However, the final three options presented here—those presented by Allison, Stassen, and Bennett—probably offer the most fruitful results for use by the church. Their mutual strong point is a close reading of Matt. 7:6 in relation to its surrounding material. Of the three, Bennett’s case is the strongest, primarily because it removes the apparent contradiction between Matt. 7:1-5 and Matt. 7:6. All of the other interpretations surveyed in this study result in a formal contradiction between these materials, because while Matt. 7:1-5 assumes that the reader is incompetent to judge, Matt. 7:6, if taken at face value, assumes that the reader is competent to decide who should be considered dogs and pigs. On the other hand, the linguistic and structural analyses offered by Allison and Stassen are compelling, though perhaps too formal. A promising avenue for further study would be to discuss how Matt. 7:6 may serve as janus material between 7:1-5 and 7:7-12.[36]

[1] All biblical references in this paper are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

[2] So, e.g., Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, 418-19; Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993), 170-72.

[3] E.g., Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987):434-39; Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 (2003):288-94.

[4] Didache 9.5.

[5] Tertullian On Prescription Against Heretics 41.

[6] Origen First Principles 3.1.17.

[7] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke Volume 1, trans. A. W. Morrison, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1972; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 227-28.

[8] Ibid., 227.

[9] T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 108.

[10] T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM, 1950), 174. Hans Dieter Betz offers a similar interpretation, on the basis of Matt. 15:21‑28 (cf. Mark 7:24-30), where the Canaanite woman is addressed as a dog and told that it is not proper to give food meant for children (i.e., Israel) to dogs (Gentiles). See his Sermon on the Mount, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 499-500.

[11] Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 200.

[12] Ibid., 201.

[13] Ibid., 201.

[14] One may presume that this is yet another interpretation which would have Matt. 7:6, in its original setting, critiquing the Gentile mission.

[15] Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 122.

[16] Ibid., 122-23.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, 418.

[19] Ibid., 419. Similar is Rudolf Bultmann’s judgment that Matt. 7:6 is a profane proverb treated as if it were a dominical saying. If it is determined that Jesus did not, in fact, say what is recorded in Matt. 7:6, there is no burden placed upon the church to interpret it, or even acknowledge it beyond the descriptive realm. However, Bultmann weakens his own case by admitting that there will always be a subjective element in determining which of the sayings of Jesus is authentic. See his History of the Synoptic Tradition, rev. ed., trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n. d.), 102-03.

[20] Dale C. Allison, Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 173-216. This chapter is a revision of his previous article, “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” 423-45; Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” 267-308. Allison has updated his previous structural proposal, in part to address Stassen’s work.

[21] Allison, Studies in Matthew, 192-93.

[22] Ibid., 192.

[23] Ibid., 191.

[24] Ibid., 198-205.

[25] Glenn Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” 267-75.

[26] Ibid., 275.

[27] Ibid., 288-89.

[28] Ibid., 289.

[29] Ibid., 291-92. Here, Stassen is substantially dependent upon Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), 190-94.

[30] Ibid., 293-94.

[31] Thomas J. Bennett, “Matthew 7:6—A New Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 49 (Fall 1987): 371-86.

[32] Ibid., 386.

[33] Ibid., 384-85.

[34] Ibid., 384.

[35] Ibid., 384-85.

[36] This final suggestion is unwittingly anticipated in the exchange between Allison and Stassen. Allison, Studies in Matthew, 192, offers that Matt. 7:7-11 parallels Matt. 6:25-34. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” 286, places 6:24 with 6:25-34. It strikes this author that Matt. 6:24 functions as a janus between the material on storing up treasures (Matt. 6:19-23) and seeking the kingdom of God (6:25-34). Matt. 7:6 could fulfill a similar role in providing a thematic link between the material in 7:1-5 and 7:7-12.


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