ἰῶτα in Matt 5:18: Which “Law”?

It’s interesting that Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that not a ἰῶτα will pass away/fall away/disappear from the law. That’s a Greek letter. Could this mean Matthew/Jesus are referring to the Septuagint translation of the Torah, specifically? Or at least had the Greek translation in mind, alongside the Hebrew Torah?

More questions, maybe unanswerable: Was Jesus speaking Aramaic here? Or Greek? Or Aramaic and then said ἰῶτα in Greek?

Here’s John Nolland, from his NIGTC commentary:

“To what does Matthew intend ἰῶτα to refer? While ἰῶτα is the simplest of the Greek letters (a vertical line), it does not make a particularly striking image for a tiny detail of the wording of the Law. The synagogue practice of giving the reading from the Law in Hebrew, followed by translation, may suggest that Matthew has the Hebrew text in mind. In that case ἰῶτα could represent yod (as frequently claimed), the smallest of the Hebrew consonants, and one which sometimes contributes nothing to the meaning.”

I find this less than compelling. If Matthew had the Hebrew Law in mind, couldn’t he have put a Greek transliteration of yod (or some other Hebrew letter) on Jesus’s lips?

Or is Nolland right, and Matthew simply translated Jesus’s “yod” into Greek, much as he would already be translating Jesus’s Aramaic speech into Greek (assuming Jesus did, in fact, primarily speak Aramaic)?

The larger interpretive question of what Jesus means theologically doesn’t seem to hinge on these language-specific questions, but I find them interesting all the same.

4 thoughts on “ἰῶτα in Matt 5:18: Which “Law”?

  1. I’ve wondered whether Jesus is pointing to himself and particularly somehow to the yod that is implied in his name:

    In the Hebrew version of Joshua, there’s plenty of wordplay before translation. By “wordplay,” I mean both playfulness with words and wiggleroom in their interpretation. For example, the name Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ) is playful and is ambiguous. According to bəmidbar Sinai (aka Numbers 13:16), Moses nicknamed or renamed his assistant who had been named Hosea; and the former renamed the later the name Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ), and he did so by mixing the younger person’s name (הוֺשֵׁעַ) with a contraction of the unspeakable Name (יהוה). But the observed wordplay does not stop there.

    According to a later Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ), perhaps, this littlest letter י — in the name and in the Name — is declared to be significant when he says (through the Greek translator Matthew): “ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου” (i.e., Mt 5:18, “neither the littlest letter י nor some serif stroke will go away from Torah”).

    But the observed wordplay does not stop there. According to midrash after Torah, there comes more interpretation of the name Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ); it is a name born of G-d from the name of the woman Sarai (שָׂרַי) who, as a mother, gives up her letter (י) which becomes his “letter yud.” But the observed wordplay does not stop there. According to the freshest of rabbinic teachings of 2009, we should be able to see something: can’t we see it, whether Moses writing Torah intended it or not, that “one’s two eyes are the two yuds”? There is Hebrew wordplay in the name Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ), the name of certain people and the name of the first post-Pentateuch parchment.

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2009/12/prostitute.html

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