by Doug Ward

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus instructs his disciples in how to settle disputes in a congregation:


"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."


It is well known1 that Matt 18:15 is based on a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviticus 19:17: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him." Comparing the two verses, it is easy to see the connection. Lev 19:17, which is known as the "law of reproach," seems to advocate confronting people who cause us offense, as does Matt 18:15.


In this article we will discover that the connections between Matt 18:15-17 and Lev 19:17 are even more extensive than is apparent at first glance. In fact, the details of Jesus' conflict resolution procedure draw heavily upon applications of the law of reproach as it was understood during the Second Temple Period. When we place this teaching of Jesus in its first-century context, its main messages will emerge with greater clarity.


Dealing with Inner Hatred

The law of reproach presents a high standard to live up to, and it has always raised questions for those seeking to follow it.2 In particular, what are the sins referred to in the law of reproach that can be incurred as a result of hidden hatred?


The book of Proverbs provides some basic answers. In Proverbs 10:18 we read, "The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool." If we hide the fact that someone has hurt us, then we may end up lying to the offender-pretending that everything is all right-and instead spread slander behind the person's back. This proverb seems to draw guidance from the context of Lev 19:17, since Lev. 19:16 warns against slander.


Two more passages in Proverbs assert the wisdom of following the law of reproach. Proverbs 25:9-10 says, "Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another's secret, lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end." Slandering people behind their backs is a dangerous game that will eventually come back to haunt us. Proverbs 26:24-26 expresses similar ideas: "Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbors deceit in his heart; when he speaks graciously, believe him not, for there are seven abominations in his heart; though his hatred be covered with deception, his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly."


Deceit and slander are two sins that can be avoided by "reasoning frankly" with one's neighbor. Anger is another one. A later wisdom book, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach (c. 200 B.C.), declares, "How much better it is to rebuke than to fume!" (Sirach 20:2) Ben Sira also points out that along with defusing anger, rebuke may persuade an offender not to repeat the offense. "Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it; or if he did, so that he may not do it again. Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it, or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it" (19:13-14). Often the offense can be a misunderstanding, one that can be resolved through open communication. "Question a friend, for often it is slander, so do not believe everything you hear. A person may make a slip without intending it. Who has not sinned with his tongue? Question your neighbor before you threaten him; and let the law of the Most High take its course" (vv. 15-17).


There is further insight into the meaning of the law of reproach in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a fictional work from the first or second century B.C. that imagines what deathbed advice the sons of Jacob would have wanted to pass along to their descendants. In this book, Gad is pictured expressing regret for the fact that he had violated the law of reproach in his treatment of his brother Joseph:


"And now, my children, each of you love his brother and remove hatred from your hearts, and love one another in deed and word and thought. For in my father's presence I would speak peaceably to Joseph, but when I went out from him, the spirit of hatred darkened my mind and aroused my soul to kill him. Love one another from the heart, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him peacefully, having banished the poison of hatred, and do not maintain treachery in your soul. And if he confesses and repents, forgive him. But if he denies, do not dispute with him, lest he swear and you thereby sin doubly" (Testament of Gad 6:1-4).


Here the author of the Testament of Gad lists two more sins that can be avoided by properly implementing the law of reproach. One is the failure to love one's neighbor (Lev 19:18), and the other is the additional offense that could be caused with a rebuke that is overly harsh.


Formal Rebuke at Qumran

So far we have looked at what James Kugel calls the "externalizing" approach to Lev 19:17, where the emphasis is on getting a grievance out in the open to avoid the sins that can result from a festering hatred. Another way to apply Lev 19:17 is to build a formal judicial procedure around it. This approach views Lev 19:15-18 in a judicial context, based on verse 15, where Israel is enjoined to "do no injustice in court."


Such a procedure was implemented by the Qumran sect (the group that collected the Dead Sea Scrolls) in the closing centuries B.C. This sect emphasized separation from the world and preservation of community holiness.  In the group's Manual of Discipline (IQS) 5:24-6:1, members are told "to approach each other in truth and humility and in loving consideration to a man. Let one not speak to him in anger or in contentiousness or stubbornly or in a mean spirit, and let him not hate him in ... his heart, but on that very day let him reproach him and not bear sin because of him. Moreover, let a man not bring against his fellow a matter before the assembly which had no reproach before witnesses."


Like the Testament of Gad, the Manual of Discipline emphasizes that rebuke be handled in a loving way. To ensure that hatred is not allowed to build up, the situation is to be resolved on the day of the offense (cf. Eph 4:26; Matt 5:23-25). In addition, the reproach is to be carried out before witnesses before any formal complaint is lodged.


The sect's Damascus Document (9:2-8) also speaks of judicial reproach:


"Any man from the members of the covenant who brings against his fellow a charge which has had no [prior] reproach before witnesses, but brings it out of anger, or tells of it to his Elders in order to shame him [i.e., his fellow], he is [guilty of] taking revenge and holding a grudge; ... . If he was silent toward him from day to day and [then] when he was angry at him spoke against him for some capital crime, his sin is upon him insofar as he did not carry out the commandment of God who said to him, `You shall surely reproach your fellow and shall bear no sin because of him.' "


Like the Manual of Discipline, the Damascus Document speaks of a reproach before witnesses that must precede a formal complaint. It explains that a community member who takes his brother to court without a preliminary reproach is out for revenge, in violation of Lev 19:18.


One additional thing to note is that there is no mention here of personal offense.  Apparently the reproach procedure at Qumran  was to be used when one community member witnessed another committing some sin, whether or not the sin involved personal offense.  So for example, if member A saw member B breaking the Sabbath, presumably A would confront B about it.


Matthew 18:15-17 in Context


There is much to learn from our brief survey of ancient interpretations of the law of reproach.  First, we see several points of  contact between Jesus' instruction in Matt 18:15-17 and intertestamental teachings on Lev. 19:17.  Jesus combines the externalizing and judicial approaches to the law of reproach.  Like the Testament of Gad and the Qumran Manual of Discipline, Jesus advocates that reproach be conducted in a manner that will lead to reconciliation; and like the Qumran sect, Jesus lays out a formal judicial procedure to be used if necessary.  Matthew 18:15-17 gives yet another example of the fact that Jesus’ teaching was part of a conversation within Jewish tradition rather than an outside voice in opposition to it.


Second, studying the deep reflections of people who sincerely sought to carry out Lev 19:17 leads to a greater appreciation for the rationale behind the procedures outlined in the Qumran documents and Matt 18:15-17.  Unresolved hatreds can lead to a multitude of sins, endangering the spiritual health of individuals and of entire communities of believers.


Third, the Qumran material also relates to an interesting textual question involving Matthew 18:15.  In many New Testament manuscripts, Matt 18:15 begins as in the ESV translation quoted at the beginning of this article:  “If your brother sins against you ….''  On the other hand, some early manuscripts simply say, ``If your brother sins ….'' (See, for example, the marginal notes in the NRSV or the NET Bible.)  If the latter version is the original one, this would be another point of agreement between Matt 18:15-17 and the Qumran documents.


Which version of Matthew 18:15 is the original one?  We do not know for sure.  In either case, we are accountable to others in our communities of faith, and the success of those communities depends on our exercising forgiveness and seeking reconciliation with our fellow disciples.  The teaching of Jesus emphasizes these qualities (see Matt 18:21-35; 5:23-25).


1See, for example, D. A. Carson's remarks on Matt 18:15-17 in Volume 8 of the Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984.


2James Kugel rehearses the history of interpretation of Lev 19:17 in Chapter 8 of his book In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990. His research is a main source for this article.

Issue 29


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