Matthew 7:6

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Matthew 7:6 is the sixth verse of the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This verse contains an ambiguous warning about placing "pearls before swine."

The original Koine Greek, according to Westcott and Hort, reads:

μη δωτε το αγιον τοις κυσιν μηδε βαλητε τους μαργαριτας
υμων εμπροσθεν των χοιρων μηποτε καταπατησουσιν αυτους
εν τοις ποσιν αυτων και στραφεντες ρηξωσιν υμας

In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast
ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them
under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

The World English Bible translates the passage as:

“Don’t give that which is holy to the dogs, neither throw
your pearls before the pigs, lest perhaps they trample
them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

For a collection of other versions see BibRef Matthew 7:6

This well known verse, which has no parallel elsewhere in the New Testament, is a difficult one to interpret. There is much debate over what is represented by the holy and what by the unclean animals. It also seems to contradict some basic Christian tenets. How it is linked to the previous and proceeding verses is also in question.

The phrase "pearls before swine" has become a common expression in English. There is a Pearls Before Swine comic strip, a Pearls Before Swine American psychedelic folk band, and Pearls Before Swine is an alternate title for Kurt Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Historical context[edit]

At the time both dogs and pigs were poorly regarded. Dogs were part of society, but were half wild and roamed the region in packs that were sometimes dangerous to humans. The word used here refers specifically to dogs without a human master.[1] They were unclean and would eat whatever scraps and carrion they came across. Pigs were the quintessential unclean animal and were closely associated with the Gentile communities in the region which kept them in large numbers. Pearls were a luxury of extreme value. What is holy perhaps refers to the sanctified meat from the Temple sacrifices.

Another question raised by this metaphor is what link there is between pearls and pigs. Hill notes that some scholars have argued that pearls is actually a mistranslation. One suggestion is that the actual word refers to a gold ring, and that this verse is linked to the metaphor found in Proverbs 11:22. Alternatively the word pearls can be seen as a reference to the food prepared on holy days, which would never have been given to swine. Alternatively the metaphor may be a reference to the immense appetites of pigs, and to how enraged they will be when they discover they cannot eat the pearls, and since they have no understanding of their greater value, will turn on the giver.[2]

Nolland notes the work of Von Lips that advocates for two separate meanings. Pigs and dogs were thought of very differently. Parables from the period portray such dogs as dangerous urban animals. Pigs, while unclean, were docile and nonthreatening. Similarly while what is holy is clearly something of God's, pearls were a sign of secular wealth with no religious connotations.[3]

Interpretations[edit]

The metaphor seems to be teaching against giving what is holy to those who do not appreciate it. Animals such as dogs and pigs cannot appreciate religion, and this verse implies that there is some class of humans who cannot either. What this class is is a difficult question, as one of the dominant ideas in Christian thought is universalism. This verse also seems to contradict what had just gone before. Jesus has just spent five verses attacking the judging and condemning of others, but in this verse states that some section of the populace can be judged and found equal to dogs and swine.

Historically the most common view was that this verse refers to the Eucharist. Only those in a pure state can take communion. Modern scholars reject this approach as the ritual of the Eucharist developed long after the gospel was written, and nowhere else does Matthew make reference to it.[4] Some early Christians believed that some parts of Christianity, such as the secrets of the Eucharist, should be kept secret from all but a chosen few. This followed the hierarchical patterns of the various mystery cults that were popular at the time in the Roman Empire.

One modern argument is that dogs and pigs represent Gentiles and heathens, and that this verse is rare relic demonstrating that Jesus' original message was intended only for the Jews. Harrington notes that such warnings are found in rabbinic works of the period.[5] In Jewish literature heathens were often compared to dogs, and the unclean pig was a Jewish symbol for the Roman Empire. In 2 Peter 2:22 dogs and swine quite clearly refers to heretics. According to Schweizer this verse was used by Jewish Christians to attack the Gentile churches, to argue that Gentile Christians would turn on the Jews by rejecting their laws and destroying Israel.[6]

The dominant reading is that the two expressions are both referring to the same thing and the same group of people. To Nolland this verse is not an attack on any particular group, but rather a continuation of the theme of God and Mammon begun at Matthew 6:24 and that verse is an attack on wasteful spending. We should put all of our resources to God, as everything is like dogs and pigs compared to Him.[7] Nolland also proposes that the verse might be to balance the other verses, that non-judgmentalism can only go so far and that there are some who should be excluded.[8]

As Morris points out, this verse can also be read as a reasonable limit on evangelism. If a population or individual is not open to Christianity, leave and find a more receptive audience. As Morris points out Jesus was silent before Herod and Peter abandoned the unsympathetic city of Corinth. Fowler links this to the earlier discussion of judgment. One should not judge severely, but there is a point at which any reasonable person will realize that those they are dealing with are dogs and swine.[9]

The alternate interpretation is that dogs and pigs are not metaphors for some group of people, but for the unholy in general. This verse is not about excluding some group from God's teaching, but rather ensuring that those things that are God's are kept holy. Thus the Temple is kept clean, religious meals treated with respect, and holy days honoured and kept separate from the turbulence and impiety of daily life.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew. Liturgical Press, 1991 pg. 322
  2. ^ Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  3. ^ Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005 pg. 198
  4. ^ Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew. Liturgical Press, 1991 pg. 322
  5. ^ Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew. Liturgical Press, 1991 pg. 103
  6. ^ Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
  7. ^ Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005 pg. 198
  8. ^ Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005 pg. 198
  9. ^ Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.


Preceded by
Matthew 7:5
Gospel of Matthew
Chapter 7
Succeeded by
Matthew 7:7