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True and False Christians: Orthopraxy

Matthew's criticism is not against charismatics generally but against those who legitimate their anomia by referring to exorcisms, miracles and prophesy while ignoring the Torah. Lawlessness means being handed over to the anti-divine that leads humankind to ruin.

On Matthew's Perspective

By Stephanie von Dobbeler, Saint Augustine

[This treatise is translated abridged from the German in: Biblische Zeitschrift 50/2006, pp.174-195.]


The warning about false prophets is found in Mt 7,15-23 at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It stands in connection with paraneses intent on showing the community the way to salvation. An actual endangerment prompted Matthew to warn of false prophets in great detail. What was this danger? "Beware of pseudo-prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (7,15). This picture of sheep and wolves summarizes the problem. 1. The pseudo-prophets are in the Mt community but cannot be easily recognized. 2. They appear like sheep among sheep or equals among equals in the discipleship of Jesus like the members of the Mt community. Filtering them out is difficult. 3. Their appearance is regarded as a danger since their true nature is that of wolves. The endangerment of the flock is connected with the picture of the wolf.

While there have been many attempts at defining the pseudo-prophets more exactly, the abundance of interpretations point to the difficulty of a clear definition.

Two basic positions can be distilled. Either the false prophets are classified in the line of Jewish adversaries (1) or they are counted as Christian adversaries. (2)

A. Schlatter interprets the false prophets as zealots and C. Daniel as Essenes. D. Hill sees in them Pharisees who penetrate the community from the outside. Since v. 21-23 clearly refers to inner-Christian rivals, D. Hill assumes a break between v. 15-20 and v.21-23 and refers the last three verses to Christian charismatics. Thus Matthew's reproaches of false prophesy focused on two different groups... Mt 7,13-23 and the whole Gospel of Matthew imply that only pseudo-prophets are rejected, not prophets and miracle workers generally... The warning about false prophets in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes persons in leadership positions since the picture of good and bad fruits is applied in the judgment against Pharisees as the Jewish leadership class (3,8-10; 12,33-36; 21,19). Since the explicit warning is found after the saying about the two ways (7,13f), Mt seems to turn against a teaching different from his own, of rival Jewish teachers similar to Mt 12.

G. Barth and U. Luz following him add Hellenistic antinomists spreading libertinian slogans to the false prophets... Mt understands the antinomist thesis as "lawlessness" or non-fulfillment of the divine will. Mt assailed their conduct to protect important norms and values for his community. "The false prophets represented a form of anti-structure which posed a great threat to the existing structure of the Matthaean community." [D.E. Anne, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, 1983]

Mt argues with Christian prophets who stood near the theology of the Markan gospel. Since the Markans lived in a different relation with the Torah than the Mt position, their practice was an obvious differentiating feature in the eyes of Matthew.

In examining this thesis, the main focus of the following analysis will be illuminating the Matthaean intention. The traditional tested steps of methodical exegetical work are helpful.

The picture of the sheep and wolves and the tree-fruit metaphor should be emphasized. A glance at the inner Christian application of the theme of false prophets can set the Mt position in the context of early Christian ways of looking at things and illumine its specific quality.

An analysis of the anomia term (Mt 7,23) is revealing and can be pursued in two directions. The norms recurring in the Gospel of Matthew point to efforts to counteract unlawfulness and stress the observance of the Torah. This terminology leads into the question of the confrontation with inner-Christian, pre-Matthaean positions criticized for anomia. Two can be named, one marked by Pauline theology in which the Torah had lost its authority as a way of salvation. The other is a position of Markan origin whose relation to the law reflects the Gentile-Christian orientation of Markan communities.

2. THE TEXT MT 7,15-23

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says tome: `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me:`Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name; and cast out demons in your name; and do many mighty works in your name?" And then shall I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers."

Mt hearkens back to "established" early Christian tradition when he joins together three Q-fragments in 7,15-23 and develops them redactionally under the theme "warning against pseudo-prophets."...

From Mk 13,22 par Mt 24,24, we know the appearance of false prophets is a characteristic of the imminent Last Judgment. The evangelist pursues the end time theme starting with v.15 through the following verses. In v.19, Matthew literally repeats a passage from the Baptist's preaching (Mt 3,10) and changes the context. The Pharisees and scribes were the focus of the Baptist's judgment preaching. According to John, readiness for metanoia makes possible deliverance in the Last Judgment, not the appeal to being children of Abraham. In Mt 7,15-23, the community is addressed. The warning against the false prophets makes clear who will ultimately survive the Last Judgment, those who do the will of the Father (7,21). In both Mt 3,7-10 and 7,15-20, deeds are the standard for surviving the judgment. Neither appealing to being children of Abraham (3.9) nor mighty works in Jesus' name (7,22) are legitimations or bases for deliverance. To the community, Mt emphasizes observance of the divine will and the "new beginning" (v.21). V.21 is reformulated compared with Luke 6,46... Appeal to the Kyrios alone is not enough. Rather human conduct must be oriented in God's will as revealed in the teaching of Kyrios Jesus.

Let us consider the key word "good fruit" from v. 17 in connection with v.21. Whoever follows the Torah as interpreted in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount yields good fruit. The appeal to charismatic activities of prophesy, expulsion of demons and miracles are not criteria for surviving the Last Judgment. The appeal to the Kyrios must go along with an orientation in the will of the Father formulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Whoever refuses is described by Mt as an evildoer (v.23). The keyword anomia is in sharp contrast to the demand raised in v.21. Those who do lawlessness are godless. There cannot be a sharper antithesis. The formulation ephigraphenoi ton anomia comes from Ps 6,9. By adopting it together with the expulsion formula, Mt underlines the obligatory nature of his declaration. The false prophets are abandoned to destruction. This is a warning to the community.

Why does Mt couple the warning about false prophets in v.15-20 to the question about the entrance condition to the Basileia?

Mt knew that some prophets in his community represented a massive threat. Therefore he described them as pseudo-prophets and ravenous wolves.

1. For him, their appearance was a sign of the last days.

2. The pseudo-prophets are hard to recognize because like others they invoke an unquestioned authority, the Kyrios Jesus.

3. Their activity - prophecy, exorcism and miracles - reveal them to be representatives of a charismatic variant of early Christianity. Mt's criticism is not against charismatics generally but against those who legitimate their anomia with reference to exorcisms, miracles and prophecy while ignoring observance of the Torah.

4. Mt stresses the necessary basic prerequisite, following the divine will as manifest in Jesus' interpretation of the Torah. The essential concern of the gospel is the survival of the community in the Last Judgment. Therefore the section is framed by the saying about the narrow gate and the broad way, v.13 and the parable on building a house, v.24-27.

5. Whoever does not fulfill the basic prerequisite is regarded as a culprit of anomia and falls in the final destruction.

6. Since the deed refers back to the culprit, the deed serves as a criterion of perception. According to Mt, it is the only characteristic of the pseudo-prophets. Three verses are devoted to the tree-fruit metaphor.


A full-blown conflict among Jesus' disciples is hidden behind Mt's warning about false prophets. Mt 7,15-23 offers several clues.


Sheep and wolves are irreconcilably opposed to each other. In the Old Testament, this is attested in Sir 13,17. The abolition of this opposition is first expected in the messianic time (cf. Isa 11,6; 65,25). The picture of the intense indwelling contrast applied by the evangelist is clear in 7,15. On the surface, false prophets were not different from the members of the Mt community. They move like equals among equals by disguising themselves as sheep. The Old Testament idea of the sheep herd as God's community is also very widespread. Both integration and confrontation are possible. Their true nature is described alongside the true nature of wolves. Mt sets clear signals with his recourse to the wolf metaphor. Attested in the Old Testament, early Judaism and rabbinic literature, the idea is that demonic forces indwell wolves. The term "wolf" (similar to dog) was a characterization of non-Jews and bystanders. In Ez 22,27f, false prophets were described as wolves. By choosing this metaphor, Mt seemingly aims at stylizing a refractory group of prophets as standing outside his community. This approach of the evangelist recalls methods of Old Testament and early Christian heretic polemics.

In Mt 10,16 in the context of the sending address, Mt takes up again the picture of the sheep and wolves. The disciples sent out amidst wolves are described as sheep. On the other hand, "wolves" symbolize the non-disciples, those who are not Jesus' disciples.


The pictorial word of the tree and its fruit serves Mt as a way of unmasking pseudo-prophets... With the keyword "fruits," the evangelist hearkens back to an Old Testament metaphor that points to the consequences of deeds and to the deeds themselves [cf. Ps 1,3; 58,12; Isa 3,10]. In Mt 7,16-20, the act is underlined. False prophets are identified by their fruits or their deeds. "One is what one does; the deeds are the man." Deeds reveal the nature of the actors. Whoever is evil - like the false prophets - can be recognized by their evil deeds. The radical punishment described in v.19 is the consequence.

Mt 7,15-23 may be a defensive tendency against other Christian positions different from Mt's position.

1. The tree-fruit metaphor is also encountered in the Gospel of Matthew apart from chapter 7: in the Baptist's preaching, Mt 13,7-12 and in Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees on the question of the exousia in his exorcisms, 12,22-37. In both texts, the metaphor is in the context of judgment and helps to qualitatively judge the behavior of the Pharisees. Conversion (3,8) is the decisive mark, not the appeal to the children of Abraham and acknowledgment of Jesus' full power (12,30.33). Because the Pharisees are not marked by either, believers according to Mt should rigorously distance themselves This defensive position toward the Pharisees (look at the fruits and decide how to judge) is taken up in 7,15-23 and transferred to the inner-Christian conflict.

2. For members of Mt's community, the pseudo-prophets described by Mt are hard to recognize (keyword: wolves in sheep's clothing) because they show characteristics of early Christian missionaries: proclamation, miracle works and exorcisms. A glance at the sending addresses of the synoptists (Mt 10,1-5-16; Mk 6,7-11; Lk 9,1-5) seems to confirm this. While Mt 10,1 and Lk 9,1-Mk 6,7 report that Jesus gave full power to the twelve to drive out demons, Mt and Lk go beyond the Mk text and specify the disciples' commission. Alongside the full power for demon exorcism, they are to heal sicknesses (Mt 10,1-8 par Lk 9,11), awaken the dead and cleanse lepers (Mt 10,8). Besides the commission to proclaim God's rule, the disciples receive the command from Jesus to make gentiles into disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to keep Jesus' commands. With his terminology, the evangelist described and ultimately excluded a certain group of Christian prophets.


In addition to Mt 7,23, there are three other passages in which anomia is thematicized: in the context of the interpretation of the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Mt 13,36-43. In Mt 24,12, anomia is directly connected with the appearance of the false prophets in the last days. Since neither Lk nor Mk use the term anomia, we can assume Mt gives a special meaning to this word.

Firstly, Mt speaks of anomia in the eschatological context. Lawless behavior is interpreted in terms of judgment. Two groups are reproached for anomia. In Mt 23, they are the Pharisees and scribes. In Mt 7 and 24, the pseudo-prophets are named by the evangelist as inner-Christian adversaries. According to D. Trunk, Mt 13,36-43 must be understood as an actualized interpretation of the parable of the weeds among the wheat to the situation of the community afflicted by the "workers of injustice."

What activities are included in the anomia reproach? In the context of the 23rd chapter, particularly in the connection of the seven woes against the Pharisees and scribes (23,13-33), anomia means contempt of the baretara tou nomos (v.23). With the reproach of anomia (v. 28), Mt accuses the Pharisees and scribes of not fulfilling the divine will revealed in the law and the prophets which they taught and pretended to fulfill (23,3c.4). The discrepancy between appearance and true existence as crassly uncovered in v.27f is important in following the divine will. Since the Mt intention in his invective against the Pharisees and scribes is a consistent distancing of his community members from the religious leaders of the Jews not believing in Christ, the reproach of anomia helps differentiate the praxis of the Pharisees from that of the Mt community and counteracts the contradiction between appearance and true existence...

While fulfillment of the divine will is regarded as a condition for admission in the Basileia, the doers of lawlessness are banished from nearness to the Kyrios. Anomia means contempt of God's law as interpreted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount... Evangelion and anomia are terms relevant to judgment because the Son of man who holds judgment through his angels is at the point of definitively destroying evil.

In Mt 24,12, we encounter the term anomia in the context of the Last Judgment. As in Mt 7,15-23, anomia and pseudo-prophets are immediately connected. Lawlessness is the result of their conduct which Mt concretizes with anomia in v.12b. "Love... grows cold." This corresponds to the understanding of the law in which the love command is the most important command to which all other commands are subordinated. In the last days which Mt describes as a horror scenario, seductions and apostasy will occur. The drastic descriptions of the evangelist are apocalyptic conceptions and reflect the community's concrete experiences of distress. The verb skandalien (v.10) points to this. The immediate nearness to the anomia in v.12 refers back to the parallelism of skandalein and anomia in Mt 13,41 and characterizes the situation of the community described by the parable of the weeds among the wheat as endangered by inner enemies. While the term skandalein emphasizes tensions at the borders of the community, an inner separation against those endangering the unity of the Mt community is underlined, not only an outward separation toward the Pharisees.

Those termed doers of lawlessness represent a danger for the Mt community on account of their different praxis. Mt 24 describes this impressively. A corruption of the ethos will occur in the last days (keywords: seduction of many, lawlessness and love growing cold among many). Therefore the "fruits of actions" are stressed. Only rejection of anomia and orientation in God's laws reinterpreted in the Sermon on the Mount make possible deliverance in the Last Judgment and sharing in the Basileia. The battle of words of anomia, skandalein and pseudopropheta reveals the relation of false prophets and the Mt community. Their deeds aim at apostasy and endanger the unity of the community.


The inner-Christian adversaries of the Mt community described by Mt as pseudo prophets are portrayed as "lawless." The decisive criterion for their judgment is their deeds. Because they do not orient themselves in the ethic of Jesus presented in detail in chapters 5-7 and proclaimed in Jesus' interpretation of the Torah culminating in the love command, they are excluded from the community of Jesus' disciples and meet destruction. Jesus' ethic serves as the foundation for the community ethos. Membership in the community and hope for deliverance in the Last Judgment are decided in the question of true praxis.

If orthopraxis is the standard, community membership is not only defined by confession to the Kyrios since the inner-Christian adversaries of Mt also make that confession. However the demarcation over against their (false) conduct is difficult where common behavior patterns exist. The proclamation- and miracle activities named in 7,22 and 10,1.7f whose legitimation foundation is the appeal to Jesus are examples.

In the sending address (Mt 10), Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to proclaim the Basileia message only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and gives them full power (exsusia, v.1) to work miracles... From the macro-structure of the Gospel of Matthew, the proclamation of the disciples can only be understood in that it essentially agrees with Jesus' interpretation of the Torah as presented in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount does not presuppose the gospel of the kingdom but is the gospel of the kingdom. Consequently the disciples stand in continuity to Jesus' proclamation. This is also true for the healing works since they continue Jesus' miracle reported in detail in chapters 8 and 9. The full power to heal conferred in 10,1 hearkens back literally to the summaries of Jesus' works at the start of his activities in Galilea (4,23) and at the end of the "healing chapter" 8f (9,35)... What appears in 11,5 as an answer to the Baptist's question about Jesus' activity - the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the gospel is proclaimed to the poor - is bundled redactionally by Mt in 11,2 as the "deeds of the Christ." A glance at 10,7f attests this proclamation of the Good News, cleansing from leprosy and raising of the dead belong together with the commission. Thus the mission of the disciples is the consistent continuation of Jesus' mission. The goal of their sending to Israel is the restitution of the chosen people...

Without the strict observance of the divine will, proclamation, miracles and exorcisms even with the appeal to the name of Jesus are ineffective. By coupling the authority of charismatic activities and the appeal to Jesus to observance of God's laws, Mt shows up the praxis of his Christian adversary and sharpens his community's consciousness by emphasizing true praxis.


Although the term pseudoprophetais pervades the New Testament alongside the term prophetais, distinguishing true from false prophets is not easy. Therefore there are references in the New Testament for identifying pseudo-prophets. While a generally accepted catalogue of criteria is not offered, two distinctions are clear. According to 1 Joh 4,1-4 and 2 Petr 2,1-13, they can be recognized in their teaching (cf. 1 Joh 4,2). Thus the criterion of distinction is set here in the question of confession. If we take seriously Mt 7,22, confession is not sufficient as a distinction for pseudo-prophecy since false prophets also appeal to Kyrios Jesus and prophesy in his name. Their total conduct is crucial. According to Mk 13,22 par Mt 24,24, the pseudo-messiahs and pseudo-prophets will appear at the beginning of the eschaton. Their special characteristics are the signs (semion) and miracles (terata) performed to mislead the elect. However signs and wonders in the New Testament can also be evidence of genuine revelation (cf. A. Oepke, Art. Apokalyptai apokalusas in: ThWNT III, 565-597, 594). In themselves, they are not a sufficient distinguishing criterion. Therefore Matthew in 7,15-23; 24,11f emphasizes that the pseudo-prophets can be known by their deeds. Mt 7,23 summarizes these deeds with the keyword anomia... Orientation in conduct serves as the inner-Christian distinguishing criterion.

The warning about pseudo-prophets occurs throughout the New Testament though the term is not firmly defined...

What are the tried and tested means of inner-Christian differentiation? They are identified in the Gospel of Matthew. Orientation in Jesus' interpretation of the Torah is the criterion for judging Jesus' disciples. Only the one who orients his or her conduct in that interpretation brings good fruit and belongs to the community of Christ's disciples with the soteriological consequences. In Mt's perspective, the others are doers of anomia (7,23) - even if they appeal to the name Jesus Christ (7,22).


Let us take up the keyword anomia and ask who is reproached for lawlessness. Are they Pauline Christians with their clearly antinomian position? Are they Christians influenced by Mk theology criticized for a lax relation to the Torah?


Influenced by the interpretations of the older Tubingen school, Mt and Paul were long distinguished in their conception of the law. An opposition of Mt to Pauline theology resulted.

Understanding the Matthew-Paul relation in the sense of antithesis is no longer tenable. This is clear in the term anomia, a frequent term in Matthew and Paul (Mt 7,23; 13,41; 23,28; 24,12; 2 Thess 2.3,7; 2 Cor 6,14; Rom 4,7; 6,19). Despite their different understanding of the law, both New Testament authors see an endangerment of salvation in "lawlessness." The polemic of Mt against anomia is supported by the conviction that only observance of the law and fulfillment of the divine will as proclaimed by Jesus lead to salvation. For Paul, the nomos has lost its authority as a salvation-creating reality but the struggle against anomia is not superfluous. In 2 Thess 2.3,7; 2 Cor 16,14 - corresponding entirely to the apocalyptic tradition - "lawlessness" means being handed over to the anti-divine that leads humankind to ruin. In Pauline Christology, "lawlessness" is ultimately understood as a consequence of sin, law and death.

Matthew and Paul grapple with practical community problems. The polemic against anomia, exclusion of sinful community members who were seen as sources of disturbance and therefore identified as pseudoprophetas or pseudoapostolos involves delimitation and identity. The backdrop for these points of contact could be a shared milieu. Anchoring oneself in an environment marked by Judaism and simultaneously pervaded by Gentile elements is not crucial. For the sake of the identity and consolation of their community, Paula and Matthew saw themselves forced to separate themselves from rival groups of Jesus' disciples. That the answers to this milieu question turn out different is due to the different theological conceptions of Matthew and Paul.

In describing false prophets as lawless, Mt hardly agrees with Paul. Mt attacks those who refused Jesus' interpretation of the Torah. He does not argue with those for whom the law had no authority any more as a salvation-creating reality, that is with Pauline communities.


U. Luz suggested the false prophets assailed by Mt could have been Markan Christians. In this connection, he refers to Mk 9,38-41. A foreign exorcist is described there who drove out demons in Jesus' name. The attitude of the Markan Jesus to this practice is tolerant: "He that is not against us is for us" (Mk 9,40). Thus Mk openly faced a free charismatic movement. Mt was very different. He left out the Mk periscope and only took up its skeleton in 12,30. Mk 9,40 has the opposite sequence. A miracle worker who was not a disciple of Jesus drove out demons in his name. Mt was suspect. The miracle worker was similar to the "many" in 7,22. Here and there the appeal to Jesus' name served as a legitimating ground for the exorcisms. The Mk text implies exorcism in Jesus' name was regarded as a formality since it was practiced by anyone not belonging to the circle of disciples (cf. also the parallel texts Lk 9,49f and Lk 10,17). Mt subordinates the appeal to Christ to orientation in God's will. That is the reason for the firm statement in Mt 12,30. A clear position is demanded here. "Since the foreign exorcist did not follow Jesus, he stood near the `many' who drove out demons in or through Jesus' name without doing the `will of the Father.'" In other words, Mt sees the praxis of his adversary in the praxis of the foreign exorcist who could have been a Markan Christian.

Another passage within the Gospel of Matthew could be cited to establish the Markan hypothesis. The periscope on hand-washing in Mt 15,1-20 reflects an inner-Jewish conflict. It concerns the determination of true purity and the relation of Torah and Halacha. This Mt conflict with the Pharisees is different from the Mk position. Mt uses Mk 7,1-23 as a source but delimits himself from the Mk text. They both held to an ethos established by Jesus, the praxis of not washing hands. While Mk allows Jesus to entirely abolish the purity command because remaining in Judaism was not necessary for his Gentile-Christian community, the Mt Jesus holds fast to the purity command without switching to the line of the Pharisee position. Different from the Pharisees, the Mt Jesus did not concentrate on a literal understanding of the purity-Halachi. Instead he interpreted the purity command on the ground of the authority bestowed on him by God. Purity is not the result of avoiding impurity by observing the commandments (= the Pharisaic position).

True purity is an affair of the heart (cf. Mt 15,18f) that presses from inside to outside and is proclaimed to the environment. Unlike Mk, Mt is still captive to the self-image in Judaism. Bringing his community near to Jesus' interpretation of the purity commands and withdrawing them from the Pharisaic interpretation was central to him. He does not abolish Judaism like Mark. Still the common foundation, orientation in the life and teaching of the Resurrected, remains untouched. What is different is only the situatively-adjusted interpretation of the Jesuan tradition that can also lead to a clear differentiation within the groups of Jesus' disciples. Although the connection to the Resurrected existed as a common bond, a "Christian" movement did not exist in the last third of the 1st century A.D. The Gospel of Mk may have enjoyed authority in wide areas of spreading Christianity. Returning to our analyzed text, Mt 7,15-23, the reproach of false prophecy formulated by Mt was more than merely theological banter. Here we have to take up a term from politics and factional disputes. Defining and defending one's own position in relation to the adversary without abandoning one's underlying foundation was uppermost.

Under this aspect, a delimitation tendency to a form of early Christianity occurs in the strict orientation in the law propagated by Mt that does not live that way and keeps itself open for tendencies as reflected in a free charismatic school. From Mt's perspective, the standard for differentiation is true praxis because only the fulfillment of the will of the Father enables one to share in the Basileia. The lawless are excluded and abandoned to destruction.

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