“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
The Lord goes on in this passage to quote Micah chapter 7, which is a foreboding prophecy of apostasy and of sublime faith, as he describes his ministry (“setting a man against his father…”). This passage in the gospels, in Christian tradition, has always been analyzed independent of Jewish Oral Law, and is commonly interpreted as the Lord describing the division created by those who either accept or reject the gospel.
While this interpretation has merit on its own, what if the Lord is actually alluding to a famous incident in his nation’s recent history when he made this statement? How, then, would this change the way we envision how his audience would have heard him?
Consider this passage from the Talmud:
“Shammai said to him: If you provoke me and insist that there is no difference between gathering olives and grapes, then, in order not to contradict this, I will decree impurity on the the gathering of olives as well. They related that since the dispute was so intense, they stuck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who seeks to enter the study hall, let him enter, and one who seeks to leave may not leave, so that all of the Sages will be assembled to determine the halakha. That day Hillel was bowed and was sitting before Shammai like one of the students. The Gemara said: And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made, as Hillel, who was the Nasi, was forced to sit in submission before Shammai, and the opinion of Beit Shammai prevailed in the vote conducted that day. And Shammai and Hillel issued the decree, and the people did not accept it from them.” (Talmud, Shabbat 17a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
This incident detailed in the Gemara would have taken place in the generation just preceding Christ’s ministry, and would have been a fresh memory among the diverse and politically tense population that the Lord ministered to.
The Steinsaltz commentary goes on to explain, concerning this passage in the Gemara, that while it is not entirely clear what exactly happened in the study hall that day, it was by all accounts a harsh dispute which nearly reached bloodshed, and that the sword was placed in the dirt of the floor of the study hall, signifying the gravity of the occasion. Much debate in the Mishna and Gemara continues concerning the eighteen decrees issued that day.
For our purposes, the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, and their respective houses of study, should be of keen interest. The Master’s teachings almost invariably took on the flavor and aggadic style of Beit Hillel. And while Beit Shammai certainly was highly regarded, and is quoted in the Talmud extensively, in most cases the halakha is ruled in favor of Beit Hillel, whenever the two great sages are at odds.
Among the eighteen decrees that were issued in this famous incident recorded in the Talmud, many were centered on the issue of ritual purity, a topic over which the Master found himself at odds with his critics quite frequently.
It is entirely possible, if not probable, that when the Lord makes his statement “I came to bring a sword”, that this would have immediately brought his audience to focus in on this famous dispute in their recent national history. The question then becomes, “On which side does this teacher fall?”, and further, “What is the occasion that his teachings would be equated with this incident?”
Rabbinic Judaism was still in development at the time of Christ. The Pharisees were at odds with the Sadducees. After the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Sadducean sect died off, but the Pharisees flourished and their doctrine became the central worldview of Rabbinic Judaism. Interestingly, the doctrine of the Pharisees is both endorsed and taught by Yeshua (in spite of the halakhic disputes in the narrative of the scriptures which would lead a person unaware of the hidden subtlety to think otherwise), and further promoted by his followers, the apostles, in their subsequent writings.
One of the core distinctions of the Sadducees was their unwillingness to acknowledge the Oral Law. They lived only by the written Torah of Moses, and did not acknowledge the validity of the traditions. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did. It is from the Pharisees that many doctrines so core to Christian faith are preserved, such as the believe in angels and demons, the belief in the afterlife, and perhaps most importantly, in the resurrection of the dead. All of these doctrines developed and were preserved through the Oral Law, not the written Torah. But within the Pharisees were varying interpretations of that law, and the Lord was most aligned with Beit Hillel.
Replacement Theology presumes that Christ abolishes the Jewish system of religion and replaces it with a new, more lenient faith system based on grace and not law. This is a result of reading the gospels as though they were written in a vacuum, divorced from the historical and religious context from which they sprung. But when we remember that the Master was an observant religious Jew, and that he taught from within this context, his teachings take on a richer, and more realistic tone.
The Lord taught from within Judaism, and from within the framework of the Oral Law, not from outside of it. A careful evaluation of his teachings in light of Jewish Law reveals this clearly. This should give pause to us as we evaluate any teachings which suggest that rabbinic authority has no bearing upon a Christian. We should be suspicious of any systematic theology that teaches that Christ has superseded the Law or the traditions of Judaism.
The dispute the Lord references in this passage in Matthew may not, in fact, be a warning that his appearance on the scene represents the end of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity. It may simply be his giving notice that he had the authority to rule on halakha, and that, just like the incident we find above in the Gemara, his presence was going to cast a sword in the study hall. Perhaps he is calling the sages of his day to attention, and telling them that “no one leaves until they decide the matter”.
In this context, he is not soliciting violence against his native faith, but insisting that all parties stay present while he resolves the dispute. The sword is a sword of peace, after all.