The lesson I was trying to teach by telling my class about the story in the Talmud involved the importance of intent in early Christian and early Rabbinic tradition. In the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, intent may seem tantamount to the act itself. In the Talmud, the act without the intent does not constitute a sin. In both instances intent is critical, however.

Much of the material in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is also found in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49), but Matthew arranges the material differently. He has a specific purpose in mind. In Matthew, Jesus, like Moses in the Old Testament, goes up onto a mountain; there Jesus teaches his disciples (Matthew 5:1). We know of Matthew’s special concern for Mosaic parallels, For example, in Matthew’s birth narrative (Matthew 1:18–2), the infant Jesus, like the infant Moses, is threatened by a ruler’s decree that all male children infant Moses, is threatened by a ruler’s decree that all male children should be killed. Jesus, with his family, flees to Egypt. This, Matthew tells us (quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea), was to fulfill the prophecy: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Once before Israel was saved by a leader out of Egypt.

It is clear that Matthew is portraying Jesus as the new Moses, a Moses who also gave the Law from a mountain (Exodus 19:20ff.).

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount begins with the famous beatitudes, a series of end-time (apocalyptic) reversals: The poor in spirit will find the kingdom of heaven; mourners will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth.

These apocalyptic reversals are followed by a statement that appears only in Matthew:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished, Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17–19).

Here, Matthew’s Jesus declares his fidelity to the Law, the Mosaic teaching of the Old Testament, just as one would expect of the new Moses, Yet, many scholars regard this passage, peculiar to Matthew, as an ossification of the Jesus tradition, as a backtracking from the freedom from the Law’s constraints that is thought to lie at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

But, in my opinion, these interpretations mistake Matthew’s purpose. Matthew wishes to portray Jesus as a prophet, a new Moses, who clarifies the Law and puts it into context. Matthew’s Jesus does not exaggerate or rigidify the Law, but reinterprets it for the time in which he lives. In the book of Deuteronomy, God promises Moses:

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’” (Deuteronomy 18:18).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats six statements from the Mosaic Law, and then offers his reinterpretation. The topics treated are murder, adultery, divorce, oathtaking, retribution and the extent of love. He says, for example, “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus understands that the Law of Moses (the Decalogue) did not so much define criminality as it described the proper boundaries that mark relationships between people. Jesus strongly affirms the descriptive nature of the Mosaic Law. But, in addition, he makes it clear that even the intent to commit adultery has the same deleterious effect.

The laws defined—or redefined—in the Sermon on the Mount stress the absolute importance of relationships. Divorce is impossible because the intimate relationship between two people, expressed in marriage, is irreversible and cannot be atomized. Married persons will carry their partnership into any future relationship (hence, adultery is involved in remarriage) (Matthew 5:31–32). One can murder simply by dismissing someone with an epithet (Matthew 5:21–22).

Retribution, even when limited by the lex talionis principle (“an eye for an eye”) cannot solve anything (Matthew 5:38–42). Only through reconciliation is it possible to heal a broken relationship. Finally, in a society based on relationships, one must love even one’s enemy because it is impossible to divide one’s self—to love some and hate others (Matthew 5:43–44).

Judaism at the time of Jesus took the same approach; it too dealt with context and intent. For example, suicide was very difficult to commit, according to Jewish convention. A post-Talmud tractate, Semahot, says that the potential self-killer must announce the intention to commit the act and then do it immediately; otherwise it is considered simply an accident:

“Not one who climbs to the top of a tree or the top of a roof, and falls to his death [is guilty of suicide]. Rather, it is one who says, ‘Behold, I am going to the top of the tree, or to the top of the roof, and then throw myself down to my death,’ and thereupon others see him climb to the top of the tree, or to the top of the roof, and fall to his death.” (Semahot 2:2).

In the case of adultery, the Jesus tradition says that a man who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:33). It is the intent that matters. In the Talmud we find the same distinction, but stated in reverse: The act without the intent does not result in sin.a

One particular talmudic story, found in tractate Baba Kamma, illustrates well the distinction between intent and act. In the rabbinic style, the situation described could never have happened, but because it is so extreme, it forcefully raises the issue and require us to follow to its limits the importance of intent. A man is fixing a roof in the hot sun. It becomes so warm that he takes off all his clothes. Meanwhile, a woman down below has done the same thing. A wind comes up and blows the man off the roof in such way that he accidentally has sexual intercourse with the woman. According to the rabbis, the man owes the woman compensation for any damage, but they have not been degraded—neither adultery nor illicit sexual intercourse has occurred. An unintended act does not constitute sin.

Theologically speaking, in both Judaism and Christianity, events take their meaning from their intent, or, explicitly in Judaic tradition, as intended and fulfilled.